Hunain ibn Ishaq from the Encyclopedia of Islam

Yesterday I mentioned that the PDF’s of the Encyclopedia of Islam 2nd edition had appeared online.  I downloaded them last night, and then went to look at the article on Hunayn ibn Ishaq, the 9th century Christian who translated the Greek scientific works into Arabic.  It was rather good; so much so, in fact, that I will post it here. 

HUNAYN B. ISHAK AL-`IBADI, the most important mediator of ancient Greek science to the Arabs. It was mainly due to his reliable and clearly written translations of Hippocrates [see BUKRAT, in Suppl.] and Galen [see DJALINUS], that the Arab physicians of the Middle Ages became worthy successors of the Greek. 

Life: Hunayn was born in 192/808 in al-Hira [q.v.], where his father was a pharmacist. The nisba indicates that he was a descendant of the so-called `ibad, i.e. Arab tribesmen who had once embraced Christianity and who after the rise of Islam remained faithful to the Syrian Nestorian church, refusing to adopt the new religion. Hunayn may be assumed to have been bilingual from his youth, for Arabic was the vernacular of his native town, and Syriac was the language of the liturgy and of higher Christian education. Later in life, when settled in  Baghdad, he translated far more books into Syriac than into Arabic, in accordance with the wishes of his clients. He himself showed a certain predilection for the Syriac language at the expense of Arabic, which he blamed for its lack of an adequate nomenclature as compared with either Syriac or Greek or Persian (see a fragment of his Kitdb al-Nukap, ed. L. Cheikho, in Mashrik, xx (1922), 373). But in their Arabic translations he and his school avoided mere transcriptions as far as possible, and thus helped to forge the Arabic scientific terminology. He was also at pains to acquire a sound knowledge of Arabic grammar; he is even said to have studied it at Basra and to have brought from there al-Khalili’s Kitab al-`Ayn. That he had the advantage of meeting the famous grammarian personally, as Ibn Djuldjul and others point out, is impossible for chronological reasons (see M. Plessner, in RSO, xxxi (1956), 244 f.). The Arab bibliographers unanimously attest that Hunayn was fasih.

How Hunayn acquired his astonishing knowledge of Greek is told by the eyewitness report of a certain Yusuf b. Ibrahim (see Ibn Abi Usaybi`a, ed. Müller, i, 185 f.), which does indeed sound very trustworthy. It relates that Hunayn began his study of medicine at Baghdad under Yuhanna b. Masawayh, the famous court-physician and director of the bayt al-hikma [q.v.]. But as Hunayn used to ask too many troublesome questions, he incurred the anger of his master, who eventually ordered him to leave his school. Hunayn then disappeared from the capital for more than two years. The narrator himself is silent upon his whereabouts, but some sources contend that he went to Alexandria, others that he was staying in bilad al-Rum. When he came back, he was so thoroughly versed in the Greek language that he could even recite from Homer. Afterwards he was reconciled with Ibn Masawayh, who also encouraged him further to translate from the Greek (cf. Les axiomes medicaux de Yohanna Ben Massawaih, ed. P. Sbath, Cairo 1934, 8, 33 f.).

Under the caliph al-Mutawakkil Hunayn was appointed chief physician to the court, but he had to suffer great hardships through the capricious behaviour of this Commander of the Faithful. One day he fell a victim to an intrigue of his Christian colleagues. As he was an enemy of image-worship, they induced him to spit on an icon during an audience. This provoked the indignation not only of the Nestorian katholikos, but also of the caliph. Hunayn was flogged, put in jail and deprived of his whole estate, including his library (for the historicity of this account see B. Hemmerdinger, in Actes du XIIe Congr. Int. d’Etud. Byzant., ii, Belgrade 1964, 467-9, and G. Strohmaier, in Klio, xliii-v (1965), 525-33). After six months he was set free and reinstated in his office, which he held until his death in 260/873. He had two sons, Dawud and Ishak [q.v.]. Both of them became medical practitioners; the latter, following in his father’s footsteps, excelled in translating from the Greek, but concentrated more on philosophical works.

Translations: Hunayn is credited with an immense number of translations, ranging from medicine, philosophy, astronomy, mathematics to magic and oneiromancy. His Arabic translation of the Old Testament [see TAWRAT], made after the Septuagint, was regarded as the best among other renderings (see al-Mas`udi, al-Tanbih, 112). So far as his versions are conserved, they can help in establishing the Greek text, for Hunayn had Greek manuscripts at his disposal which were several centuries older than ours. They also represent a valuable substitute for some writings that are otherwise lost.

Thanks to the important edition of Hunayn’s Risala . . . ila `Ali b. Yahya fi dhikr ma turdjima min kutub Djalinus bi-`ilmih wa-ba`d ma lam yutardjam by G. Bergstrasser (Hunain Ibn Ishaq über die syrischen und arabischen Galen-Übersetzungen, Leipzig 1925, Abh. K. M. xvii/2), we possess a detailed report on the various translations of Galen that were available at his time. There exists a different recension of this Risala, which was found some time later (see G. Bergstrasser, Neue Materialien zu Hunain Ibn Ishaq’s Galen-Bibliographie, Leipzig 1932, Abh.K.M. xix/2). Hunayn enumerates 129 titles, of which he himself translated about 100 into Syriac or Arabic or into both. The list is not exhaustive, however, for al-Razi [q.v.] wrote a special treatise Fi ‘stidrak ma bakiya min kutub Djalinus mimma lam yadhkurhu Hunayn wa-la Djalinus fi Fihristih (see Fihrist, i, 300, cf. P. Kraus, Epitre de Beruni, Paris 1936, no. 175). One must bear in mind that Hunayn wrote the Risala after the complete loss of his library (see above), a fact to which he repeatedly refers in it (p. 1.11 f., 3.5-10, no. 95, cf. nos. 42 and 118). In the Risala as well as in another tract Fi dhikr at-kutub allati lam yadhkurha Djalinus fi Fihrist kutubih (ed. G. Bergstrasser, in Neue Materialien, 84-98) he makes some statements about the spuriousness of several writings ascribed to Galen, and it is remarkable to see how his judgement coincides with the results of modern scholarship (see M. Meyerhof, in SBPr. Ak. W., phil.-hist. Kl., 1928, 531-48 and F. Kudlien, in Rheinisches Museum, cviii (1965), 295-9). Only the question of the commentary on the Hippocratic oath remains doubtful: Hunayn regarded it as genuine, but we have nowadays to rely on a few Arabic fragments (collected by F. Rosen that, in Bulletin of the History of Medicine, xxx (1956), 52-87), whereas Hunayn had the full text before him.

In the Risala he also gives some occasional remarks on his philological methods. They are not different from ours: he used to collect as many Greek manuscripts as possible and to collate them in order to get a sound textual basis for the translation (cf. nos. 3, 20, 74, 84). In search of manuscripts he travelled to Syria, Palestine and even to Egypt (cf. no. 115). But in one respect his philological principles deviate from the modern. Like other Christian translators he felt the obligation to eliminate all traces of paganism from the works of the ancients, e.g., to replace the pagan gods by the one God and His angels, etc. Usually this did not impair the scientific value of his translations, but it did some harm to the rich mythological material found in the dream-book of Artemidorus (see G. Strohmaier, in F. Altheim and R. Stiehl, Die Araber in der Alten Welt, v, Berlin, forthcoming).

The Risala also contains valuable data on the translations of Galen made by Hunayn’s predecessors and contemporaries. He does not spare them harsh criticism, if necessary, and he often had to revise their Syriac or Arabic versions. He himself translated either into Syriac for his Christian colleagues or into Arabic for the Muslim sponsors of his work [see BANU MUSA]. It is remarkable that there is no word about the famous bayt al-hikma; the whole activity seems to have been based on a kind of private enterprise. He engaged two members of his family, his son Ishak, his nephew Hubaysh b. al-Hasan al-A`sam, and another pupil, `Isa b. Yahya, who also took part in translating Galen. Since Hubaysh and `Isa did not

understand Greek well enough, they made Syriac translations after Hunayn’s Arabic (nos. 36, 38, 119) or, much more often, Arabic translations after Hunayn’s Syriac. This could lead to some deterioration (cf. Galeni Compendium Timaei Platonis, ed. P. Kraus and R. Walzer, London 1951, 22-4), if Hunayn or Ishak did not have the opportunity to compare these new versions with the Greek original (cf. nos. 20,49,69,86,113,126). Usually the colophons in the manuscripts of these second-hand versions mention Hunayn as the only translator, a fact which is already stated in the Fihrist (i, 128 and 289). The reason for this is not clear. Perhaps it is due to the modesty of the pupils themselves, or else they wanted to conceal the circumstance of the double translation, as Muslim intellectuals had been well aware of its shortcomings.

Unfortunately, there exists no corresponding risala for the non-Galenic writings, and it remains to be proved by an analysis of the language and by possible mistakes resulting from ambiguities of Syriac words, whether the present Arabic versions were made by Hunayn directly from the Greek or by someone else after his Syriac translation. Nearly all of these Syriac versions are now lost (for the possible ascription of some fragments to Hunayn see G. Furlani, in ZS, iii (1924), 28 and J. Schleifer, in RSO, xviii (1940), 348).

Hunayn’s own works: Besides his translations Hunayn composed numerous original works, mainly on medical, but also on philosophical, geophysical, meteorological, zoological, linguistic, and religious subjects. He is even credited with a history of the world from Adam down to al-Mutawakkil. His medical treatises are mainly epitomes and rearrangements of classical material. Many of them are written in the form of questions and answers, this curious kind of literature being very common also in the biblical exegesis of the Nestorian church at this time (cf. E. G. Clarke, The selected questions of Isho bar Nun on the Pentateuch, Leiden 1962, 10-3). His main work in this field is al-Masa’il fi ‘l-tibb (numerous mss.), later translated into Hebrew and Latin. There also exists a so-called Isagoge Johannitii ad parvam artem Galeni (many Latin mss. and early printed texts). According to M. Steinschneider (Die hebräischen Übersetzungen, 710) this is another recension of the same work.—The following titles show Hunayn’s special interest in ophthalmology: al-`Ashr makalat fi ‘l-`ayn (ed. M. Meyerhof, The book of the ten treatises on the eye ascribed to Hunain ibn Ishaq, Cairo 1928). This work appears in two different Latin versions, as the Liber de oculis Constantini Africani and Galeni de oculis liber a Demetrio translatus (see J. Hirschberg, in SBPr. Ak. W., 1903, 1080-94).—For his sons Dawud and Ishak he wrote al-Masa’il fi ‘l-`ayn (ed. P. Sbath and M. Meyerhof, Le livre des questions sur l’œil de Honain ibn Ishaq, Cairo 1938, MIE 36). —A little tract about the incorporeal nature of light Fi ‘l-daw’ wa-hakikatih shows Aristotle as his main authority in the field of physics (ed. L. Cheikho, in Mashrik, ii (1899), 1105-13 and with French translation in Actes du XIe Congr. Int. des Orient., Paris 1897, IIIe sect., Paris 1899, 125-42, German translation by C. Prüfer and M. Meyerhof, in Isl., ii (1911), 117-28). 

The often quoted Nawadir al-falasifa are extant in later Arabic extracts, a mediaeval Hebrew translation of which has been edited by A. Loewenthal (Sefer Musre ha-Pilosofim, Frankfurt a.M. 1896, German translation by the same, Berlin 1896). The Arabic text remains to be edited (see K. Merkle, Die Sittensprüche der Philosophen “Kitab adab al-falasifa” von Honein ibn Ishaq in der Überarbeitung des Muhammed ibn `Ali al-Ansari, Leipzig 1921; M. Plessner, in Tarbiz, xxiv (1954-5), 60-72, VI f.; J. Kraemer, in ZDMG, cvi (1956), 292-302). The book is mainly a collection of stories, letters, and sayings ascribed to the ancient Greek philosophers, mingled with Hunayn’s own reflections. It is based on similar Byzantine florilegia and contains very old material (see G. Strohmaier, in Hermes, xcv (1967)). Part 3 deals with the death of Alexander the Great: its connexion with the Alexander Romance remains to be investigated.—A little apologetic tract Fi kayfiyyat idrak hakikat al-diyana is conserved in an abridged form (ed. L Cheikho, in Nöldeke-Festschrift, i, Giessen 1906, 283-91, and P. Sbath, in Vingt traite”s philosophiques et apologetiques, Cairo 1929, 181-5). Some points in this treatise may be understood as an intelligent and cautious polemic against Islam.—Hunayn’s bibliographical Risala to `Ali b. Yahya has been mentioned above; there also exists a short letter to his sponsor Salmawayh b. Bunan as an introduction to the translation of Galen’s De consuetudinibus (German translation by F. Pfaff, Corpus Medicorum Graecorum Suppl. iii, p. XLI f.) [see AFLATUN].

Bibliography: in addition to the works mentioned in the text: Fihrist, i, 294 f.; Ibn Djuldjul, Tabakdt al-atibba’ wa’l-hukama’, ed. F. Sayyid, Cairo 1955, 68-72; Ibn Sa`id al-Andalusi, Kitab Tabakat al-umam, ed. L. Cheikho, Beirut 1912, 36 f., French translation by R. Blachere, Paris 1935, 80 f.; `Ali b. Zayd al-Bayhaki, Tatimma siwan al-hikma, ed. M. Shafic, Lahore 1935, i, 3 f.; Ibn al-Kifti, Ta’rikh al-hukama’, ed. J. Lippert, Leipzig 1903, 171-7; Ibn Abi Usaybi`a, `Uyun al-anba’ fi tabakat al-atibba’, ed. A. Müller, Cairo 1882, i, 184-200; Ibn Khallikan, no. 208; Barhebraeus, Chronicon ecclesiasticum, ed. J. B. Abbeloos and Th. J. Lamy, Louvain 1872-7, iii 197-200; idem, Chronicon syriacum, ed. P. Bedjan, Paris 1890, 162 f., Latin translation by P. J. Bruns and G. Kirsch, Leipzig 1789, i, 173f.; idem, Ta’rikh mukhtasar al-duwal, ed. A. Salihani, Beirut 1890, 250-3; J. S. Assemanus, Bibliotheca  orientalis, iii/i, Rome 1725, 164 f.; F. Wüstenfeld, Geschichte der arabischen Arzte und Naturforscherr Gottingen 1840 (repr. Hildesheim 1963), 26-9; L. Leclerc, Histoire de la medecine arabe i, Paris 1876 (repr. New York n.d.), 139-52 (uncritical); M. Steinschneider, Die hebraischen Übersetzungen des Mittelalters, Berlin 1893 (repr. Graz 1956), 1055 (index); idem, Die arabischen Übersetzungen aus dem Griechischen, in ZDMG, 1 (1896) (repr. Graz 1960), 390 (index); Suter, 21-3; J. Hirschberg, Geschichte der Augenheilkunde, ii/2, Leipzig 1905, 34-7; M. Steinschneider, Die europaischen Übersetzungen aus dem Arabischen, in SBAk. Wien, phil.-hist. kl., 1905 (repr. Graz 1956), 98 (index); G. Bergstrasser, Hunain Ibn Ishak und seine Schule, Leiden 1913 (still important); A. Baumstark, Geschichte der syrischen Literatur, Bonn 1922, 227-30; G. Gabrieli, Hunayn Ibn Ishaq, in Isis, vi (1924), 282-92; M. Meyerhof, New light on Hunain Ibn Ishaq and his period, in Isis, viii (1926), 685-724; idem, Les versions syriaques et arabes des écrits galeniques, in Byzantion, iii (1926), 33-51; G. Sarton, Introduction to the history of science, i, Baltimore 1927 (repr. 1950), 611-3; J. Tkatsch, Die arabische Übersetzung der Poetik des Aristoteles, i, Vienna 1928, 80-4; H. Ritter and R. Walzer, Arabische Übersetzungen griechischer Arzte in Stambuler Bibliotheken, in SBPr. Ak. W., phil.-hist. kl., 1934, 801-46; Lutfi M. Sa’di, A biobibliographical study of Hunayn ibn Ishaq al-Ibadi, in Bulletin of the Institute of the History of Medicine, ii (1934), 409-46 (useful, but uncritical); Brockelmann, I, 224-7, S I, 366-9; F. Rosenthal, Die arabische Autobiographie, in Studia Arabica, i (1937),  15-19; idem, review of Galen: On medical experience, ed. R. Walzer, in Isis, xxxvi (1945-6), 253 f.; idem, The technique and approach of Muslim scholarship, Rome 1947, passim; G.  Graf, Geschichte der christlichen arabischen Literatur, ii, Vatican City 1947 (Studi e testi 133), 122-9 (important); Salah al-Din al-Munadjdjid, Masadir djadida `an ta’rikh al-tibb `inda ‘l-`arab, in Revue de l’institut des Manuscrits Arabes, v (1959), 229-348; Ibrahim Shabbuh, Fihris al-makhtutat al-musawwara, iii/2: al-tibb, Cairo 1959.

Translations: Artemidorus: Artemidore d’Éphèse, Le livre des songes traduit du grec en arabe par Hunayn b. Ishaq, ed. T. Fahd, Damascus 1964. Galen [see DJALINUS]: P. Bachmann, Galens Abhandlung darüber, dass der vorzügliche Arzt Philosoph sein muss, in Nachrichten der Akad. d. Wissensch. in Gottingen, phil.-hist. kl., 1965, no. 1; Galen, On the parts of medicine, On cohesive causes,On regimen in acute diseases in accordance with the theories of Hippocrates, ed. M. C. Lyons (Corpus Medicorum Graecorum, Suppl. Orient, ii), Berlin (forthcoming); Galen, Über die Verschiedenheit der homoiomeren Korperteile, ed. G. Strohmaier (Corpus Medicorum Graecorum, Suppl. Orient, iii) (in preparation). Hippocrates: The aphorisms of Hippocrates, translated into Arabic by Honain Ben Ischak, ed. J. Tytler, Calcutta 1832; Prognosticon, in M. Klamroth, Uber die Auszüge aus griechischen Schriftstellern bei al-Ja`qubi, in ZDMG, xl (1886), 204-33, for new collations see B. Alexanderson, Die hippokratische Schrift Prognostikon, Göteborg 1963, 156-73; De diaeta in morbis acutis, ed. M. C. Lyons, Cambridge 1966. Proclus: a fragment of the commentary on the Timaeus, in Galeni De consuetudinibus, ed. J. M. Schmutte and F. Pfaff, Leipzig, Berlin 1941 (Corpus Medicorum Graecorum, Suppl. iii), 55-60 (German translation).


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