Six hundred years ago, Ibn Hajar al-Asqalani —an esteemed judge, poet, and scholar in Cairo— wrote “Merits of the Plague,” a landmark work of history and religious thought that looked at accounts of centuries worth of plague outbreak and their possible origins, along with explanations of why God would allow such devastation to take place. This work wasn’t only theoretical but also based on experience. He survived the bubonic plague, which took the lives of three of his children, not to mention tens of millions of others throughout the medieval world. Holding up an eerie mirror to our own time, Ibn Hajar al-Asqalani reflects on the origins of plagues—from those of Muhammad’s era to the Black Death of his own—and what it means that such catastrophes could have been willed by God, while also chronicling the fear, isolation, scapegoating, economic tumult, political failures, and crises of faith that he lived through. But in considering the meaning of suffering and mass death, he also offers a message of radical hope. Today’s guests are Joel Blecher and Mairaj Syed, editors and translators of the book into modern English. We discuss the book and how it weaves together accounts of evil jinn, religious stories, medical manuals, death-count registers, poetry, and the author’s personal anecdotes. “Merits of the Plague” is a profound reminder that with tragedy comes one of the noblest expressions of our humanity: the practice of compassion, patience, and care for those around us.
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