This from Roi Ben Yehuda, written for marcgopin.com

Dear Professor Gopin,

I am reading about the Jerusalem Initiative in your book Holy War, Holy Peace, and I was reminded of a gem I once found researching for a paper on the impact that the black plague (1348-1351) had on the Jews. It comes from the pen of Ibn Batutta, the 14th century Muslim scholar and traveler.

In his book, entitled “Ibn Battuta Travels in Asia and Africa 1325-1354”, the author provides an account of the Middle East during the plague. For those of us interested in the “Black Death”, Ibn Batutta’s account is a precious primary source. But there is one passage that really blew my mind. After documenting all the horrible destruction of the plague, Ibn Battuta describes how the community (i.e. Muslims, Christians, and Jews) responded to the disaster.

He writes:

“I saw a remarkable instance of the veneration in which the Damascenes hold this mosque during the great pestilence, on my return journey through Damascus in the latter part of July 1348. The viceroy Arghun Shah ordered a crier to proclaim through Damascus that all the people should fast for three days….So the people fasted for three successive days, the last of which was a Thursday, they then assembled in the great Mosque, amirs, sharifs, qadis, theologians, and all the other classes of the people, until the place was filled to overflowing, and there they spent Thursday night in prayer and litanies.

After the dawn prayer next morning they all went out together on foot, holding Korans in their hands, and the amirs barefooted. The procession was joined by the entire population of the town, men and women, small and large; the Jews came with their Book of the Law and the Christians with their Gospel, all of them with their women and children. The whole concourse, weeping and supplicating and seeking the favor of God through His Books and His Prophets, made their way to the Mosque of the Footprints, and there they remained in supplication and invocation until near midday. They then returned to the city and held the Friday service, and God lightened their affliction; for the numbers of deaths in a single day at Damascus did not attain two thousand, while in Cairo and the Old Cairo it reached the figure of twenty-four thousand a day.”

Ibn Batutta’s account is an arresting example of Jews, Muslims, and Christians engaged in public prayer together. While in general, the plague tended to exacerbate divisions and tensions that were already inherit in the structure of the society, we have here an extraordinary example of the plague bringing different people together. It seems that faced with a common and universal problem, a shared understanding of both its origin and solution, the citizens of Damascus sought to collectively elevate their suffering.

It is worth noting that the interfaith prayer takes place inside a mosque! And the latter is not just any mosque, in an example of inter-mythic architecture, Ibn Batutta tells us that it is the Mosque of the footprint of Musa (Moses).

The event in question gets additional significance when we compare it to what was happening to the Jews in Christendom during the time of the plague – as you recall, under Christian rule the Jews were being blamed and persecuted for precipitating the Black Death by poisoning the wells. Historians estimate that hundreds of Jewish communities were destroyed as a result.

Of course this text is also important in light of the fraught relationships between the children of Abraham today. What a text like this shows us is that the inimical relationship between Jews and Arabs is not built in into the DNA of the cultures or the religions. Rather, we see that our traditions are much more plastic than we give them credit for. Moreover, with this historical precedent in mind, one can see that it is not impossible for religion to be leading the way towards unity and peace. After all, the true meaning of the word religion, derived from the Latin ligare, is to bind and connect us together. And in that sense of the word, and that sense only, we can say that the Middle east can use a little more religion.
All the best,

Roi Ben-Yehuda

Mosque of the Footprints in Damascus, footprints of Moses
Mosque of the Footprints in Damascus
© Marc Gopin