Hunain ibn Ishaq on the perils of jealousy at the Abbasid court

Thanks to the generosity of David Wilmshurst here, we have this passage from Bar Hebraeus, Chronicon Ecclesiasticum, iii.198-200, which does not show the great translator from Greek to Arabic, Hunain ibn Ishaq, in a very favourable light:

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.

But Hunain gives his own account of it in the Letter on his misfortunes, which is quoted by Ibn Abi Useibia, as I mentioned in previous posts.  An English translation of a substantial chunk is in Dwight F. Reynolds, Interpreting the self(2001), p.107-118.  After describing the envy of his co-religionists, all Nestorians employed as doctors by the Abbasid caliph, he writes:

Bakhtishu` the physician 3succeeded in setting in motion a plot against me by which he was able to place me in his power. This he did by means of an icon depicting the Madonna holding Our Lord in her lap and surrounded by angels. It was beautifully worked and most accurately painted, and had cost Bakhtishu` a great deal of money. He had it carried to the court of the caliph al-Mulawakkil,4 where he positioned himself to receive the icon as it was brought in. and to present it personally to the caliph, who was extremely impressed with it. Bakhtishu`, still in the caliph’s presence, began kissing the icon repeatedly.

“Why are you kissing it?” asked Mutawakkil.

“If I do not kiss the image of the Mistress of Heaven and Earth, your Majesty, then whose image should I kiss?”

“Do all the Christians do this?” asked Mutawakkil.

“Yes, your Majesty,” replied Bakhtishu`, “and more properly than I do now. because I am restraining myself in your presence. But in spite of the preferential treatment granted the Christians. I know of one Christian in your service who enjoys your bounty and your favors, but who has no regard for this image and spits on it He is a heretic and an atheist who believes neither in the oneness of God nor in the Afterlife. He hides behind a mask of Christianity, but in fact denies God’s attributes and repudiates the prophets.”

“Who is this person you are describing?”

“Hunayn the translator,” said Bakhtishu`.

“I’ll have him sent for,” said Mutawakkil. “and if what you say turns out to be true. I’ll make an example of him. I’ll drop him in a dungeon and throw away the key; but not before I’ve made his life miserable and ordered him tortured over and over until he repents.”

Bakhtishu` said. “With your Majesty’s permission, might his summons be delayed until such time as I return?” Mutawakkil assented to his request.

Bakhtishu` left the palace and came to see me.

“My dear Hunayn,” he said, “you should know that someone has presented the caliph with an icon. He’s quite taken with it and thinks it’s of Syrian origin. He keeps saying how marvelous it is. If we let him keep it. and praise it in his presence, he’ll never stop dangling it in front of us and saying, ‘Look! It’s a picture of your god and his mother!’ He has already said to me, ‘Look at this wonderful image! What do you think of it?’ I told him, ‘It’s a picture like the ones they paint on the walls of bathhouses and churches or use in decorations; it is not the kind of thing we are concerned about or pay any attention to at all.’ He said. So it means nothing to you?’ ‘That’s right,’ I said. ‘Spit on it, then, and we shall see if you are telling the truth.’ he said. So I spat on it and left him there laughing up a storm. Of course I did this just so he would get rid of it and stop provoking us with it and making us feel different from everyone else. If someone gives him the idea of using it against us, the situation can only get worse. So. if he calls for you and asks you questions like the ones he asked me. the best thing to do is to do what 1 did. I have spread the word among the rest of our friends who might see him, and told them to do the same.”

I fell for this stupid trick and agreed to follow his advice. Barely an hour after he left, the caliph’s messenger arrived to summon me. When I entered the caliph’s presence, I saw the icon before him.

“Isn’t this a wonderful picture. Hunayn?”

‘Just as you say. your Majesty.”

“What do you think of it? Isn’t it the image of your god and his mother?”

“God forbid, your Majesty! Is God Almighty an image, can He be depicted? This is a picture like any other.”

“So this image has no power at all, either to help or to harm?”

“That’s right, your Majesty.”

“If it’s as you say, spit on it.”

I spat on it, and he immediately ordered me thrown in prison.

Then he sent for Theodosius, the head of the Nestorian church.5 The moment he saw the icon, he fell upon it without even saluting the caliph and held it close, kissing it and weeping at length. A retainer moved to stop him, but the caliph ordered him away. Finally. Theodosius—after much weeping—look the icon in his hand, stood up. and pronounced a long benediction on the caliph. The caliph answered the greeting and ordered him to take his seat. Theodosius sat down holding the icon in his lap.

Mutawakkil said. “What do you think you are doing taking something from in front of me and putting it in your lap without permission?”

“Your Majesty ,” said Theodosius, “I have more right to it. Of course the caliph—may God grant him long life!—has precedence over us all, but my faith does not allow me to leave an image of the Holy Family lying on the ground, in a place where its sanctity is unrecognized, or even in a place where its sanctity might not be recognized. It deserves to be placed where it will he treated as it deserves, with the finest of oils and most fragrant incense bunting before it continually.”

The caliph said. “Then you may leave it in your lap for now.”

“I ask your Majesty to bestow it as a gift to me, and to deem it equivalent to an annual income of a hundred thousand dinars, until I can discharge the debt I owe your Majesty. Your Majesty will find me ready to grant any request he may make of me in the future.”

“I give you the image.” said the caliph. “But I want you to tell me how you deal with someone who spits on it.”

Theodosius replied, “If he is a Muslim, then there is no punishment, since he does not recognize its sanctity. Nevertheless, he should be made aware of it, reprimanded, and reproached—in accordance with the severity of the offense—so that he never does it again. If he is a Christian and ignorant, people are to reproach and rebuke him, and threaten him with awful punishments, and condemn him. until he repents. At any rate, only someone totally ignorant of religion would commit such an act. But should someone in full command of his own mind spit on this image, he spits on Mary the Mother of God and on Our Lord Jesus Christ.”

“And how must you deal with such a person?”

“I, your Majesty, can do nothing, having no authority to punish with whip or rod, nor do I have a deep dungeon to imprison him in. But I can excommunicate him and forbid him to enter the church and to partake in Communion, and I can prohibit Christians from intercourse or conversation with him, and I can make life a severe trial for him. He would remain an outcast among us until he repents and recants. Then he must move through the community and disburse a part of his wealth in alms to the poor and the downtrodden, and observe all the prayers and fasts. At that point we invoke our Scripture—’If ye forgive not the sinners, your own sins will not be forgiven you’—and lift the ban of excommunication on the offender, and all would be as it was before.”

Then the caliph ordered Theodosius to take the icon, and told him to do as he liked with it. and gave him a hundred dirhams, telling him to spend it on his icon. After he had left the caliph sat a while marveling at him and his lose and adoration for his god.

“This is a truly amazing thing,” said the caliph, and then ordered me brought in. He called for the ropes and the whip, and ordered me stripped and spread before him. I was struck a hundred lashes. Then the caliph ordered that I be confined and tortured, and that all my furnishings, riding animals, books, and the like be carried off. My houses were destroyed and the wreckage was dumped in the river. I remained confined in the palace for six months under conditions so appalling that I was transformed into an object of pity for those who saw me. The beatings and the tortures were repeated every few days.

I remained thus until the fifth day of the fourth month of my imprisonment, when the caliph fell ill. He became so ill that he was unable to move or stand: everyone, including him. gave up any hope of his recovery. Nevertheless, my enemies the physicians were at his bedside day and night to attend to him and administer his medicines. All the while, they would continue to bring up my case to him: “If your Majesty would only rid us of that heretical atheist he would be ridding the world of a great menace to religion.”

They continued pressing him to do something about me, accusing me of all sorts of vile things in his presence, until finally he said, “So what would you have me do with him?” “Get rid of him once and for all,” they replied. In the meantime, whenever one of my friends came to ask about me or tried to intercede for me, Bakhtishu` would say. “That, your Majesty, is one of Hunayn’s disciples; he holds the same opinions as his master.” Thus, the number of people who could help me diminished whereas the number of people plotting against me increased, and I despaired of my life. At last, in the face of their persistent demands, the caliph said. “I’ll kill him first thing tomorrow morning and spare you any more trouble on his account.” The whole lot of them were greatly relieved and returned cheerfully to their own affairs.

A palace functionary informed me that I had been condemned. With distraught mind and aching heart, in terror of what was to befall me on the morrow, innocent, having done nothing to deserve such a punishment, nor committed any offense other than falling victim to a plot and playing into the hands of mv enemies, I beseeched God Almighty to vouchsafe me such providence as He had shown me in the past. I prayed: “Dear God. You know I am innocent, and You are the one to save me.” At last my anxiety gave way to sleep.

Then I felt someone shaking me. and heard a voice say. “Rise and praise God, for He has delivered you from the power of your enemies. He will cure the caliph at your hands so put your heart at rest.”

I awoke terrified. “Since I invoked Him while awake,” I thought, “why deny having seen Him in my sleep?” And so I prayed continuously until the break of day.

When the eunuch arrived and opened my door earlier than usual, I thought, “The time is all wrong—they are going ahead with it after all. My enemies’ triumph is at hand.” I begged God for His help.

The eunuch had been sitting only a moment when his page arrived accompanied by a barber, “Come, fortunate one,” said the eunuch, “and have your hair cut.” After the haircut, he took me to the bath and had me washed and cleaned and perfumed on the caliph’s orders. When I emerged from the bath the eunuch put splendid clothes on me and left me in his booth, where I waited until the rest of the physicians arrived. Each took his appointed place. The caliph called out, “Bring in Hunayn!”

Those assembled had no doubt that he was calling me in to have me executed. Seeing me, he had me approach closer and closer until I at last sat directly before him. He said, “I have gratified a well-wisher of yours and forgiven you your crimes. Give thanks to God for your life, then treat me as you see fit, for I have been ill too long.”

I look his pulse and prescribed cassia pods, handpicked off the stalk, and manna, which were the obvious things to prescribe for his constipation.6

“God help you, your Majesty, if you take his medicine,” clamored my rivals, “it can only make your condition much worse.”

“Do not try and argue with me—I have been commanded to take whatever he prescribes,” said the caliph. He ordered the drug prepared and took it at once.

Then he said. “Hunayn, acquit me of all I have done to you. The one who interceded for you is powerful indeed.”

“His Majesty is blameless in his power over me. But how is it that he spared my life?”

The caliph spoke up: “Everyone must hear what I am about to say.” They gave him their full attention and he said:

“As all of you know, you left last night under the impression that I was going to execute Hunayn this morning, as I had promised, last night. I was in too much pain to fall asleep. About midnight. I dropped off. and dreamed that I was trapped in a narrow place, and you my physicians, along with my entire retinue, were far off in the distance. I kept saying, ‘Damn you, why are you staring at me? Where am I? Is this a place fit for me?!’ But you sat silent, ignoring my cries. Suddenly a great light shone upon me as I lay there, a light that terrified me. And there stood before me a man with a radiant face, and behind him another man dressed in sumptuous clothes. The man before me said. ‘Peace be with you,’ and I answered his greeting. ‘Do you recognize me?’ he asked.

‘No,’ I said.

‘I am Jesus Christ,’ he said.

I trembled and shuddered in terror and asked, ‘Who is that with you?’

‘Hunayn ibn Ishaq.’

I said, ‘Forgive me—I cannot rise to greet you.’

He said. ‘Pardon Hunayn. and absolve him of his crime, for God has forgiven him. Take what he prescribes for you and you will recover.’

“I awoke unable to stop thinking about what Hunayn had suffered at my hands, and marveling at the power of his intercessor. Now it is my duty to restore to him what was rightfully his. You are all dismissed: it is he who shall attend me. Every one of you who asked me to take his life shall bring me ten thousand dirhams as blood-price. Those who were not present need pay nothing. Whoever fails to bring this amount will lose his head.”

Then he spoke to me: “You may take your appointed seat.”

The group dispersed and each member returned with the ten thousand dirhams. When all they had brought had been collected, the caliph ordered that a like amount be added from his own treasury, for a total of more than two hundred thousand dirhams. and ordered it handed over to me.

By the end of the day, the medicine had moved his bowels three times, and he fell the onset of recovery. “All you wish. Hunayn, is yours,” he said, “for your standing is much enhanced in my eyes, and you are far more important to me than ever before. I shall restore your losses many times over, reduce your rivals to abject dependence upon you, and elevate you above all of your colleagues.”

Then he commanded that three houses belonging to him personally be renovated. They were houses the likes of which I had never occupied in all my days, nor known any of my fellow physicians to own. Everything I needed—furniture, bedding, utensils, books, and the like—was delivered as soon as the houses were made over to me. This was confirmed in the presence of notaries in view of the substantial value of the houses—a figure in the thousands of dinars. In this way. the caliph, out of concern and affection for me, wanted to ensure that the houses would belong to me and my children without anyone being able to contest our right to them.

When all his instructions regarding the transport of the property to the houses had been carried out, including the installation of curtains and hangings, and there remained only the matter of actually moving in, the caliph ordered the money due me, multiplied many times over, brought before me. He then had me conveyed in a train of five of his best mules, with all their trappings. He also gave me three Greek retainers, and granted me a monthly stipend of fifteen thousand dirhams, which, in addition to my accumulated back pay from my time in prison, added up to a substantial sum. Furthermore, his servants, the women of the harem, and the rest of his family and retainers, contributed countless moneys, robes of honor, and parcels of land. In addition, the services I used to perform outside the caliphal residence were transferred, in my case, to the interior of the residence. I became the leading representative of the physicians—my allies as well as the others. This crowned my good fortune: this is what the enmity of evildoers wrought. As Galen said, The best of people are those who can turn the animosity of evil men to advantage.”

It is certainly true that Galen suffered great tribulations, but they were never as bad as mine.7

I can indeed tell you that, time and again, the first people to scurry to mv door and to ask me to intercede for them with the caliph, or to consult me on an illness that had baffled them, were the same rivals who had inflicted upon me the miseries I have already described to you. And I swear by the God I worship, the First Cause, that I would show them goodwill, and hasten to do favors for them. I bore no grudges against them, nor did I ever avenge myself on them for what they did to me. Everyone marveled at the goodwill with which I performed services for my rivals, especially when people heard what my rivals were saving about me behind my back, and in the presence of my master, the caliph. I would also translate books for them on request, without profit or reward, whereas in the old days I used to earn the weight of the translated work in gold dirhams.8

I have recounted all this for no other reason than to remind the wise man that trials may befall the wise and the foolish, the strong and the weak, the great and the small. Those trials, although they respect no differences of degree, must never give him cause to despair of that Divine Providence which shall deliver him from his affliction. Rather, he must trust, and trust well, in his Creator, praising and glorifying Him all the more. Praise the Lord, then. Who granted me a new life, and victory over my oppressors, and Who raised me above them in rank and prosperity. Praise Him ever anew and always.

This is Hunayn’s entire statement as given in his own words.

This is rather a splendid translation, isn’t it?  I don’t know if it is by Dr Reynolds himself, but if so I wish he would do more!  The notes are also rather interesting:

3.Bakhtishu` ibn Jibra`il, like Hunayn, was a Nestorian Christian court physician. He was known for his enormous wealth and his “erudition, loyalty, integrity, charity and perfect adherence to manly conduct” (Ibn Abi Usaybi`a. `Uyun al-anba, 201- 9). Ironically, he is said to have had his own difficulties with the caliphs: both al- Wathiq and al-Mutawakkil dismissed him and confiscated his property, in both cases because of plots hatched by jealous or suspicious rivals.
4.The tenth `Abbasid caliph, reigned 847-61.
5.The head of the Nestorian ecclesiastical hierarchy was called thecatholicos. Theodosius held this office from 853 to 858 C.E.
6. Cassia pods (Ar.khiyar shanbar) are produced by the “Pudding Pipe tree” (Cassia fistula) and pulped for medicinal use; “manna” (Ar.taranjubin) is the sugary exudate of the flowering ash(Fraxinus ornis), collected from cuts in the bark. Cassia and manna were used as purgatives or laxatives.
7. Galen is said to have lost his library in a fire.
8.Ibn Abi Usaybi`a (d. 1270) notes: “I have come across many of these books, and acquired a good number of them for myself. They are written in Muwallad Kufi script, in the hand of al-Azraq, Hunayn’s scribe. They are written in a broad hand, with a thick stroke, and in widely separated lines, on sheets twice and three times as thick as today’s paper, and cut to a size one-third of standard Baghdadi paper. Hunayn produced his books in this way to increase the size and weight of the volumes because he was paid their weight in gold dirhams. Since the paper he used was so thick, it is little wonder that his works have survived all these many years.” Ibn Abi Usaybi`a, `Uyun, 270-71.

The last note is very interesting indeed!  Who would have thought that this motive would exist, or create conditions for improved preservation?  The books had survived from ca.850 AD to the 1250’s — 400 years.

I remember a colleague at university, who found his research results rather thin.  So he arranged for his thesis to be typed up on thick, good quality paper, in order to give it more bulk.  In his viva voce, the examiners complimented him on the quality of his … paper!

Galen, “On my own books” — the translation of Hunain ibn Ishaq

The second century medical writer Galen left behind such a vast array of works that it has been estimated that around 20% of the surviving volume of ancient Greek was written by him!  I’m not sure where this estimate comes from, but it is a remarkable amount.

Ancient medical texts are a specialised interest.  Our interest here is more with what Galen has to say about ancient books, libraries, manuscripts, the book trade and the process of copying.  He does, in fact, have a great deal to say on these subjects.

One of the most revealing works is On my own works (De libris propriis).  I gave some extracts from this here

But today I gained access to a rather interesting volume: Vivian Nutton (ed.) The unknown Galen (2002) — a collection of papers from a colloquium on texts of Galen not in the massive 20 volume 19th century edition by Kuhn.  Nutton writes engagingly, and I shall have things to say about the book on Monday, I suspect.

But what I wanted to see was a paper by Veronique Boudon, Galen’s “On my own books”: new material from Meshed, Rida, tibb. 5223, on p.9-18.

De libris propriis reaches us only in a single Greek manuscript, Milan Ambrosianus graecus 659 (=A).  This is a paper manuscript of the 14th century, some 272 folios long.  It contains 14 works by Galen, and De libris propriis occupies f. 187r-197r.  An equally interesting work, bibliographically, follows: On the order of my own works, f.197r-200r.  But examination of the gatherings in the manuscript reveals that a bi-folium has been lost at some point.  The manuscript was written on quaternions.  The outermost bifolium of quaternion 24 is lost.  Quaternion 24 currently includes folios 193-198.  So there should be an extra folio before f.193, and another after 198.  In short, we have lost two pages from each of these useful works, or the equivalent of about 4 pages of Kuhn’s edition.

But it seems that the great translator of Galen into Arabic made a translation of De libris propriis.  He says so, indeed, in the Risala which Bergstrasser published (I uploaded this to and which John Lamoreaux has translated into English.

A single manuscript containing the translation exists.  It’s in what Boudon calls “a religious library in North-Eastern Iran, at Meshed”.   The manuscript has been unknown to science, and was first mentioned only in 1970 by F. Sezgin in Geschichte des arabischen Schriftums, III (Leiden, 1970), p.78, no.1.  The work is on f.22v to 40v of the manuscript.

Boudon adds an interesting note for the rest of us: that it was unknown to M. Steinschneider, Die arabischen Ubersetzungen aus dem griechischen (Leipzig, 1897) (online here) and M. Ullmann, Die Medizin in Islam (Leiden, Cologne 1970), which are “the standard repertories of information on such manuscripts.”  The former should be out of copyright and worth a bit of investigation!  But back to the Meshed ms.

Boudon was able to get a set of “photocopies”, evidently monochrome, by means of a “complex series of exchange deals”.  These revealed that the folios had become disarranged.  The script suggests an 11th century AD date.  It is so very similar to another Meshed ms, Rida, tibb. 5214/1 which contains On the order of my own books and gives Hunain ibn Ishaq as the translator, that the two were probably once part of the same ms.  Once the folios are rearranged, we find that the opening leaf of De libris propriis is lost.

But the translation gives us much.  The lacunose Greek neverthless has chapter titles.  The Arabic agrees, and restores three more from points where there are lacunas in the Greek.  Still more, it gives us a massive extra chunk of text from chapter 3, where Galen is summarising the contents of 20 books of anatomy written by one Marinus, who wrote ca. 129 AD.  Boudon gives a translation, also.  Nothing in it relates specially to our interests, however, but it is very good to have. 

The translation by Hunain also corrects various numerals appearing in the text, for the numbers of books in particular works.  Naturally at some points this leaves a question as to what the right number is — the Greek or the Arabic both giving a different number!

I had never heard of the library at Meshed, or its contents.  But if such libraries can give us back portions of ancient literature, we need to know more of them.

UPDATE: Please note the comments on this article by Maureen which contain a vast amount of information about the Meshed site.  Thank you so much for that!

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).


I would like to go to bed tonight…

… but clearly everyone is busy, and just as I think I’ve done another email arrives! 

I’ve just had delivery of the first draft of the English translation of Origen’s Homily 7 on Ezechiel.  Great news, actually, and I am really looking forward to letting everyone loose on that.

 And that arrived just as I finished replying to the chap who has done another chunk of the treatise by Hunain ibn Ishaq. It’s a pretty interesting text, actually, which I’ll probably post here; stuff on how you tell a true religion from a false one, by an Arabic Christian working for the Abbassid Caliphs in the high old days of Haroun al-Raschid and the Arabian Nights.

Nice to get the stuff coming in so fast! 

Hunain ibn Ishaq translation now underway

I’ve found a translator and commissioned a translation of the work of Hunain ibn Ishaq, the 10th century Christian translator of scientific works who worked for the Abbassid caliphs, plus a commentary on it by a Coptic author.  The two make up 20 pages in Paul Sbath’s Vingt traites, although for the Hunain work there is a critical text by Samir Khalil Samir which we’ll use instead.  It’s about valid and invalid ways to prove your religion is true.  The result will be public domain and posted on the web so we can all access it.

Bergstrasser’s edition and German translation of Hunain ibn Ishaq, on translations of Galen

Greek science was translated into Arabic in the 10th century, mostly by Nestorian Christians such as Hunain ibn Ishaq.  The Moslem Caliphs of that period were the Abbassids, who came from Persia, and so knew the Nestorians as their “home” Christians.  With their access to the Greek medical tradition, including the works of the 2nd century doctor Galen, they were consequently in demand as doctors.  Of course being the personal physician of an oriental despot is not without risk, and Hunain himself was imprisoned, invited to act as a poisoner, and had his library confiscated. 

But with all this, he managed to translate most of the vast output of Galen from Greek into Arabic.  He also wrote a letter to one of his patrons, discussing this process.  This is a very valuable guide to how Greek literature made it into Arabic.

A manuscript of the work was discovered at in the library of Greek texts at Agia Sophia and was printed by G. Bergstrasser, with a German translation, in 1925.  Today I received a copy of the book by InterLibrary Loan, and I have scanned and uploaded the book to, here.  I have also added a Word document of the German text, also a .txt file and a .htm file.

An English translation and critical edition by John Lamoreaux is ready for publication.  This is based on better manuscripts than Bergstrasser had.  For this we shall have to wait.  But if you can’t wait, and have some German, then you now can access Bergstrasser.

Bergstrasser himself vanished while climbing in the Alps in 1933, so his book is out of copyright in Germany, the EU and the UK.  The US copyright status is unknown to me.