Ibn Abi Useibia and his history of medical writers

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. 

9 Responses to “Ibn Abi Useibia and his history of medical writers”


  1. JS

    I am in a bit of a rush to find you specifics now but google oriental studies – there are a number of initiatives by European unis to edit/publish Arabic texts (which present their own text-critical difficulties as well)

  2. Maureen

    Here’s a citation of a single chapter translation in an Indian medical journal; the translator has apparently done other articles on medical history in that neck of the woods.

  3. Maureen

    This organization (formerly Indian Institute of History of Medicine, now National Institute of Indian Medical Heritage) includes editing, translating, and publishing historical medical texts as part of their raison d’etre. Under the “Medico Historical Library” tag, there’s a page listing some of their mss and rare books (and the list continues onto another page). The same thing is true of the microfilm list under the “Photography/Reprography” tag. Under the “Museum” tag, there’s a 2 page complete outline of all the exhibits in the entire museum, which also includes Western medical history.

    Under the “Bulletin” tab, there’s a big list of article categories, under which are lists of articles. They seem to have gotten quite a lot done or surveyed (lists of medical mss in Indian libraries, etc.) Among the biographies of famous Unani medicine hakims (doctors), you also get the Unani-tradition bios of Bukhrats (Hippocrates) and Jalinoos (Galen).

    Mostly, they seem to be interested in summarizing useful-to-doctors information, although they do translate certain passages and chapters in their Bulletin.

  4. Roger Pearse

    @JS: thank you — will look at this.

    @Maureen: The first comment is interesting, in that it refers to a translation of a single chapter (out of 15), on the Indian doctors. I think this is the same stuff that Cureton attacked. The abstract gives the name as ” Ibn-e-Abi Useibia”.

    The Indian Institute page is interesting, but doesn’t make anything actually available as far as I could tell?

  5. Maureen

    Nope, doesn’t look like it, does it… But I suppose one could look around for premed university/med school libraries that subscribe to their journal. Given all the weird stuff our local medical profs wrote and persuaded the librarians to buy, I bet you can find some near you that have runs of it.

    On the bright side, Wikipedia’s Useibia entry has the Arabic for the guy’s book title. But the book itself doesn’t seem to be linked directly, even on the Arabic and Urdu(?) Wikipedia versions. Bah.

  6. Roger Pearse

    It wouldn’t be that surprising if it was online somewhere in the Arabic internet. But how would any of us ever know?

  7. David Wilmshurst

    Thank you for printing that interesting story about Hunain. While I do not disagree with your comments about the caliph al-Mamun, we should perhaps remember that Hunain was not an angel himself, at least if Bar Hebraeus is to believed. The following anecdote from the Chronicon Ecclesiasticum (iii. 198-200) is not at all to Hunain’s credit:

    There flourished at that time the doctor Hunain, son of Isaac, the translator of books of medicine. He quarrelled with Israel, the doctor of Tifur, and accused him to the caliph al-Mutawakkil, saying, ‘This Israel worships an image or an idol in his house, and is a Christian in name only.’ The caliph then sent agents to search Israel’s house, and they found an image of the Mother of God which they brought to the caliph. Hunain swore that this was the image he had referred to. Then Israel said, ‘If it is an idol, spit on it.’ But Hunain did not dare to spit on the image. The caliph thereupon summoned the catholicus to him, and asked him about the image. He asked whether the catholicus recognised it or not; and if he did, what punishment was fitting for a man who spat on it. The catholicus replied, ‘It is not an idol, but the image of our Lord’s mother. Any Christian who despises it deserves to be excommunicated.’ And so, at the order of the caliph, the catholicus anathematised Hunain and deprived him of ecclesiastical communion.

  8. Roger Pearse

    Interesting – thank you very much for giving us that! What is the reference in Bar Hebraeus?

    Another version of the story is given by Hunain himself in the letter on his misfortunes that we are discussing. I must dig it out — this all deserves a post of its own, I think.

  9. Roger Pearse

    Oops: you give the reference above! Sorry!