A complete Ibn Abi Usaibia “History of Medicine” now online in Arabic and English

Something that passed me by, and which I only became aware of today, is that in 2020 a modern scholarly text and translation appeared of Ibn Abi Usaibia’s History of Medicine, from Brill. The author – often known in online forums as IAU – wrote in the 13th century, so it’s basically a bunch of anecdotes about past and present famous physicians.  It’s very readable, and quite fun.  Indeed I uploaded a public domain translation long ago.  But it has never previously been published in English.  Indeed no complete English translation has existed.  But… no longer.

The book is E. Savage-Smith, S. Swain, G.J. van Gelder eds., A Literary History of Medicine, Leiden: Brill (2020), ISBN: 978-90-04-41031-2, in 5 volumes.  The price is massive.  I’ve not seen the book.  Indeed I only heard about it by accident.  Thankfully nobody asked me to review it.  But thankfully it is accessible online, embedded in a online viewer at the Brill site at: https://scholarlyeditions.brill.com/lhom/.  The viewer is indeed a bit baffling to use, but get’s easier as you work with it.  You can plunge straight into the English translation here, where the title is “Ibn Abī Uṣaybiʿah, The Best Accounts of the Classes of Physicians.”  Footnotes are like Wikipedia, and pop-up when you click on them.

The Arabic text is also there, as is prefatory material and “essays” – the sort of stuff about manuscripts etc that we find in any modern edition – which is rather good stuff.  The book is divided online into four chunks:

Read the “table of contents” section first, to get an idea of what’s where.  Oddly this is not hyperlinked to the contents.  Nor was I able to find the sections 4-11 of the “Extra” anywhere online.  The “downloads” – including a PDF? – appear to be only available to people with a subscription.  But… a PDF should be made available.

All these sorts of awkwardnesses arise from the difficulties in the general transition in our time to open access, and are not the fault of Brill as such.

According to the website, the team behind this monster was:

The edition is the result of a joint University of Oxford/University of Warwick project, led by Emilie Savage-Smith, Simon Swain, and Geert Jan van Gelder. The team also included Franak Hilloowala, Alasdair Watson, Dan Burt, N. Peter Joosse, Bruce Inksetter, and Ignacio Sánchez.

Well done chaps.

The site states:

Generously funded by the Wellcome Trust, this is an open access title distributed under the terms of the CC-BY-NC 4.0 License, which permits any non-commercial use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author(s) and source are credited.

Which is how it should be.  Well done, everyone.

I no longer recall how I came to be interested in Ibn Abi Usaibia.  But back in 2011 I became aware of an unpublished translation of this work by Lothar Kopf.  It had been made in the late 60s for the US government, and the typescript was then filed and forgotten at the National Library of Medicine.   But the translation was public domain, and nobody was doing anything, so I made the time and put it online here, with the hope that it would spur interest.

Unfortunately the Kopf translation was incomplete, it turned out.  I have always hoped that somebody would be motivated to go and do the thing properly.  And now they have!

It would be daft to end without giving a story from Ibn Abi Usaibia, who is an interesting and amusing writer, ideal to dip into.  This one, chosen at random, came from here [10.1.7]  I have paragraphed it for readability online, and removed the footnotes.  The translator was Alasdair Watson.  The story belongs to the time of the Caliph al-Mutawakkil, who died in 861 AD.

During the time of the Caliph al-Mutawakkil, Muḥammad and Aḥmad, the sons of Mūsā ibn Shākir, used to plot against all those who had a reputation for advanced learning. They had already caused Sind ibn ʿAlī to be sent to Baghdad after having estranged him from al-Mutawakkil, and had plotted against al-Kindī so that al-Mutawakkil had had him flogged. They had also sent people to al-Kindī’s house to confiscate all his books and had placed them in a repository which was given the name ‘Kindiyyah’.

They had been able to do this because of al-Mutawakkil’s passion for automata. The Caliph approached them concerning the excavation of the canal known as the Jaʿfarī canal. The Banū Mūsā delegated the project to Aḥmad ibn Kathīr al-Farghānī who had built the new Nilometer in Egypt. Al-Farghānī’s knowledge, however, was greater than his good fortune since he could never complete a work and he made an error in the mouth of the canal causing it to be dug deeper than the rest of it so that a supply of water which filled the mouth would not fill the rest of the canal.

Muḥammad and Aḥmad, the two Banū Mūsā protected him, but al-Mutawakkil demanded that they be brought before him and had Sind ibn ʿAlī summoned from Baghdad. When Muḥammad and Aḥmad realized that Sind ibn ʿAlī had come they felt sure they were doomed and feared for their lives. Al-Mutawakkil summoned Sind and said to him, ‘Those two miscreants have left no foul words unsaid to me concerning you, and they have squandered a great deal of my money on this canal. Go there and examine it and inform me whether it has a defect, for I have promised myself that if what I have been told is true, I will crucify them on its banks.’

All of this was seen and heard by Muḥammad and Aḥmad. As Sind left with the two Banū Mūsā, Muḥammad ibn Mūsā said to him, ‘O Abū l-Ṭayyib, the power of the freeman dispels his grudges. We resort to you for the sake of our lives which are our most valuable possessions. We do not deny that we have done wrong, but confession effaces the commission, so save us as you see fit.’

‘I swear by God,’ Sind replied, ‘you well know my enmity and aversion for al-Kindī, but what is right is right. Do you think it was good what you did to him by taking away his books? I swear I will not speak in your favour until you return his books to him.’ Thereupon, Muḥammad ibn Mūsā had al-Kindī’s books returned to him and obtained his signature that this had been done. When a note from al-Kindī arrived confirming that he had received them to the last, Sind said, ‘I am obliged to you both for returning the man’s books to him. Accordingly I will inform you of something that has escaped your notice: the fault in the canal will remain hidden for four months due to the rising of the Tigris. Now the Astrologers (ḥussāb) agree that the Commander of the Faithful will not live that long. I will tell him immediately that there was no error in the canal on your part so as to save your lives, and if the Astrologers are correct, the three of us will have escaped. But if they are wrong, and he lives longer until the Tigris subsides and the water disperses, then all three of us are doomed.’

Muḥammad and Aḥmad were grateful and mightily relieved to hear these words. Sind ibn ʿAlī then went to see al-Mutawakkil and said to him, ‘They did not err.’ The Tigris indeed rose, the water flowed into the canal, and the matter was concealed. Al-Mutawakkil was killed two months later, and Muḥammad and Aḥmad were saved after having greatly feared what might befall them.

Most of these names will be unfamiliar to most people; but it hardly matters, and anyway Brill provide footnotes.  What a rich picture we get of life at the court of the Abbasids!  This sort of stuff should not be only for Arabic speakers.

This is frankly a treasure.  I’ve long wished that someone would grab hold of this fascinating book and do the necessary scholarly work.  Now, at last, they have.


2 thoughts on “A complete Ibn Abi Usaibia “History of Medicine” now online in Arabic and English

  1. Great information Roger. Just FYI, the link in the 2nd paragraph needs to have the period removed.


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