R. Haddad wrote an interesting article Hunayn ibn Ishaq, apologiste chrétien (1974), which I was reading this evening, thanks to the kind gift of a bunch of articles over the weekend.
On p.293-4 he gives details of the appalling treatment of the great translator by the Caliph al-Mamun, which apparently come from a History of medical writers by a certain Ibn Abi Useibia. The Arabic text was published in Cairo in 1882 by A. Müller. I won’t attempt to give the Arabic title, but Muller, Cairo, 1882 was enough for me to find the book in COPAC. This contains, on p.190-197, a long extract from On his own misfortunes.
I can’t find any sign of an English translation of Useibia’s work. The nearest I can come is an extract from it, from 1834, by William Cureton, on physicians from India. It’s here. I don’t know how we could get access to the Arabic text; and what other version exists?
Here is what Haddad says:
When he returned to Baghdad after a long period in the country of the Rums, Hunayn ibn Ishaq quickly became famous. Al-Mamun, learning of his ability as a doctor, wanted to make use of him. But, afraid, in case Ibn Ishaq had been bribed by the Byzantine emperor to kill him, he decided to put him to the test. After giving him many gifts, he asked him to supply a violent poison, good enough to kill an enemy. Hunayn put him off by saying that he only concerned himself with useful medicaments, to the exclusion of lethal poisons. Threats having no effect, the Caliph threw him in prison. A year later, he was brought out and the demand repeated with strong threats and promises. But faced with the obstinate refusal of Hunayn, al-Mamun then revealed what he was really thinking, and reassured him, and then he asked to know what were the reasons for such behaviour. Hunayn replied:
“Religion and medicine. Religion, in fact, commands us to do good to our enemies, still more to our friends. And medicine forbids us to do harm to men… That is why I could not disobey these two noble obligations, and am resigned to die, believing in the God who will not abandon anyone who risks his life to obey him.”
The words quoted are from Ibn Abi Useibia’s work, apparently, pp.187-8 of the Cairo edition.
Arabic literature is so unknown in the west. I’m interested; yet the only guide I can hear of is Brockelmann’s Geschichte der arabischen Literatur, which is multi-volume and, worse, in German. Why isn’t there an English translation? Why aren’t all these texts online in English?
UPDATE: It seems that something does exist in English, in Dwight F. Reynolds, Interpreting the self: autobiography in the Arabic literary tradition. 2001, p.107-118. This covers the episode when he was entangled by his enemies in a palace intrigue under the Caliph Mutawakkil, and once again ended up in prison.