The great 14th-century Arab scholar and historian Ibn Khaldun wrote that the Black Death, which swept through Europe and the Middle East in his lifetime, “devastated nations and . . . swallowed up many of the good things of civilization,” leaving “the entire inhabited world changed.” It’s unlikely, writes Reuel Marc Gerecht, that the current pandemic will have anywhere near so great an effect. Indeed, the impact of COVID-19 on the Middle East will be less marked than in other places:
The big Middle Eastern countries have a distinct medical advantage over their Western counterparts: the median age is much lower. In Iran, the epicenter of the disease in the Middle East, it’s 29.5 years. In Italy, the hardest hit of European countries by COVID-19, the median age is 47.3. In Algeria and Egypt, the two Arab states whose political tumult inevitably reverberates throughout the Mediterranean littoral, the median age is even younger than Iran’s. The median age in Saudi Arabia, the newest coronavirus hotspot among the Arabs, is 30. The damage wrought by this malady on youth is vastly less than on the old.
Still, Gerecht sees some potential that the coronavirus might bring renewed potential for political change:
Muslim families, though smaller and less tightknit than yesteryear, are still bigger and more cohesive than in the West. It’s possible that if large numbers die from the contagion, the young men who watched their grandparents and parents perish will hold their rulers responsible and seek revenge—still a hallmark of Muslim ethics even in thoroughly detribalized metropolises.
Returning to the Black Death, Gerecht notes that its effects on European and Middle Eastern societies differed because of the different theological lenses through which each saw it. As one historian writes: “For the Muslim, the Black Death was part of a God-ordered, natural universe; for the Christian, it was an irruption of the profane world of sin and excruciating punishment.”
After the Black Death in Europe, Christians got rowdy. Peasant revolts occurred for years after. Old habits and institutions, first and foremost the Church, took a big hit as individuals started to reevaluate their lives and worth and how they communed with God. Intellectuals became more questioning, if not downright disrespectful. . . . By comparison, the Islamic world remained conservative, if not quiescent.