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!