Searching for Ibn Abi Useibia’s work on medical writers

Using the form of the name “Ibn-e-Abi Useibia”, I was able to find a bunch of matches for “ibn abi usaybiah” in Worldcat.  We’re looking, of course, for his ʻUyūn al-anbāʼ fī ṭabaqāt al-ʼaṭibbāʼ.  It has things to say about Hippocrates and Galen, and also about Hunain ibn Ishaq.

There are several publications listed in Worldcat.  The catalogues indicate that he lived between 1203-1270.

First, there is “Abdollatiphi bagdadensis vita”, 1808, Oxford, ed. J. Mousley, here.  This is a Life of `Abd al-Latif al-Baghdadi, by our man.  The latter also wrote, I find, a Historiae Aegyptiae Compendium, which I think we came across when looking at Bar Hebraeus and exists in Latin in the same sorts of places.

There is a German publication Geschichte der Aertze, published “Königsberg : Selbstverlag, 1884” — is that “self-published?” — by  August Muller, who turned up yesterday as the editor of the Arabic text in Cairo in 1882.  This sounds very like a translation; but the record says “principally in Arabic”.  There are no UK locations for it, nor US, nor even German!  The latter, I think, probably reflects a lack of upload from German libraries, rather than lack of holdings.  There is a copy in Paris, tho.

There also seems to be a 1995 publication at Frankfurt-am-Main, in two volumes — I would guess this is a reprint of the 1882 edition.

The 1882 edition exists in the British Library — so useless to us — and in three US libraries, including California and Chicago  universities.

There is a curious publication Oyūn-al-anbā fi tabaqat-al-attebba, Ahmad ibn al-Qasim Ibn Abi Usaybi`ah; trad. et commenté par Seyed Dja’far Ghazban et Mahmoud Nadjmabadi, Publisher: Tehran : Imprimerie Organization de l’Universite de Tehran, 1970-.  Language is French.  The only copy seems to be in “Radboud Universiteit Nijmegen” in the Netherlands.

But then … I find a mysterious item, with no copies held.  “English translations of History of Physicians (4 v.), and The Book of Medicine of Asaph the Physician (2 v.). 1971.”  What can this be?  A web search quickly turns up a source — in manuscript! — here.  It’s MS C 294, a manuscript at the US National Library of Medicine!  There’s no indication of any further information.

It is a pity that WorldCat is so slow.  But it has given several leads to the material we want.

I shall now compose an email enquiring about that manuscript!

UPDATE (5th August 2011): I was able to get PDF’s of the Muller publication, which is entirely in Arabic.  No response ever appeared on the US item.


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. 


The Vlatadon library in Thessalonika

I have had an email back from Veronique Boudon-Millot today, giving the story of how the lost text by Galen, Peri Alupias (On consolation for grief) was found.  It’s very interesting, and I have asked for permission to translate it and place it here. 

She also mentions that Vlatadon 14, the manuscript that contained the new work, also contains the first complete copies of Galen’s On my own books and On the order of my own books, the two works most interesting to non-medical specialists, as evidence for the transmission of texts in the 2nd century AD.  The only previously known copy of the Greek was the Ambrosianus Q 3 sup. in Milan, which has many gaps in the text.  Those gaps previously had, perforce, to be filled from Hunain ibn Ishaq’s Arabic translation, itself extant only in a single forgotten manuscript in the obscure library of Mashhad in Iran.

A key factor in the discovery is that the Vlatadon collection catalogue is itself very obscure and little known.  It was published by S. Eustratiades in 1918.  There is no copy in the United Kingdom, but there is a copy in the French National Library in Paris.  It’s about 136 pages, but ms. 14 is the only medical text.  The remainder are patristic.  And that is exciting!  For if the collection is that little known, who knows what it might contain?!


The library at Meshed / Mashhad in Iran — unknown classical texts!

Let me direct you all to the comments on my earlier post about the discovery of some lost portions of Galen’s On my own books here.  The material is in Arabic translation, and found in a manuscript in Iran, at the library of Meshed.  I’d never heard of it!

A commenter has dug into the question and produced gold!  It seems that there are other unpublished texts there, including a mathematical commentary by Hypatia on Diophantus.  The library is now in a brand new building as well and has a website.

If you know Arabic and want to discover new classical texts, you need to visit Meshed / Mashhad.


Greek non-technical works in Arabic

An interesting comment on my last post deserves further examination.  It read, in part:

Okasha El Daly’s Egyptology: the missing millennium: ancient Egypt in medieval Arabic writings mentioned a number of unexpected Arabic translations of Greek writings, including poets like Homer.

The link to the Google Books preview allows us to investigate a bit.  The book, indeed, looks interesting and I wish I could access it in full.

On page 26:

The other major sources used by Arab writers were the extant Greek and Latin sources on Ancient Egypt which were widely available in their original languages and also in translations in either Arabic or Syriac and perhaps also Aramaic and Persian.

A glance at the index of Al-Nadim (Al-Fihrist) shows that many classical sources were already known and quoted in Arabic writings in the 10th century and we have the Arabic versions of many of the classical sources, for example Josephus (Pines 1971), who was quoted extensively by Arab writers such as Al-Shahrastani.

Herodotus, Manetho, Plutarch, Plato and Plotinus among others were known and it was perhaps these sources which were being referred to by Al-Biruni (Al-Athar. 84) when he said that he acquired ‘Books which had die periods of reigns of the kings of Ashur of Mosul, and the periods of the kings of the Copts who were in Egypt and the Ptolemaic kings …’

This seems a little dodgy.  Pines in 1971 does not refer to a translation into Arabic of Josephus as far as I know, but to the possible presence of a version of the Testimonium Flavianum in the Arabic Christian history of Agapius, who is working from Byzantine chronicles of various sorts.

On page 62 we read:

Knowledge of ancient Egyptian also came from Arabic translations of many of the classical writers, whose works included references to ancient Egyptian language and scripts. These included Homer, Herodotus, Plutarch, Chaeremon, Plotinus, Porphyry and Iamblichus (Budge 1929: 179ff; Iversen 1993: 38ff). These classical writers were widely quoted by Al-Nadim (Al-Fihrist: 315), Ibn Fatik (Mukhtar. 54), and Ibn Abi Usaybi`ah (Tabaqat: 50).

Now this is not very satisfactory, because the Arabic works in question cannot easily be consulted by anyone else.  Budge in The Rosetta Stone (1929) merely lists Greek writers on hieroglyphics, and says nothing about Arabic use of them, as far as I can tell.

On p.109-110:

It was common for long passages to be quoted from classical writers such as Homer, Herodotus, Iamblichus, Plato, and Plotinus even in Arab literary works, for example in the writings of Al-Sajistani and of Ibn Fatik.

Surprise at these early Arabic translations on the part of highly respected modern scholars seems to stem from a misleading presumption that Arabs translated only what was of direct practical use to them, such as medical books. For example, the eminent orientalist CH Becker (1931: 14-15) specifically commented on the enthusiasm of the Caliph Al-Ma’moun (early 9th century) whom he refers to as an ‘enlightened despot’, questioning his motives for translating a large number of works by Greek philosophers. Becker found such enthusiasm ‘unknown and abnormal in the Orientals’, suggesting that the Arab translations were not:

“as a result of an abstract desire to acquire science and knowledge, because if this had been the case then Homer or the Tragedies would have been translated as well, but the reality was that people did not take any interest in nor feel any need for them.” (Becker 1931:14-15, translated from German)

Becker’s assertion that the Arabs did not translate Homer is easily disproved by looking at the long quotations from Homer by Al-Sajistani (Siwan: 68ff) who referred to an Arabic translation of Homer produced by Stephanus the Elder (Ostanes). This is likely to be the Greek/Byzantine Alexandrian Ostanes, the philosopher and alchemist who, according to Al-Nadim (Al-Fihrist: 303f), also translated alchemical works for Prince Khalid Ibn Yazid (d. 704) in the first century of Islam.

But once again, we have a bunch of references to sources that we cannot check.  It is unfortunate that we cannot see the bibliography which expands these cryptic references.

The Fihrist of al-Nadīm is the title of a 1970 translation by Bayard Dodge.  A table of contents is here.  It looks as if the page numbers refer to this translation, from a non-accessible page in the preview.  The book is in print at, for a ridiculous sum.

I think, since I can’t get to a library, we’ll have to leave it here.  But it would be most interesting to know what each of these references says!


Translating from Arabic into Latin in Medieval Spain

A really important blog post at Quodlibeta on a very neglected subject: how did Arabic scientific knowledge get into circulation in Latin in the Middle Ages?  Read it for yourself.  I have asked for a bibliography, as I certainly want to know more!

Readers of this blog will recall my posts on Galen and Hunain ibn Ishaq; how Greek scientific knowledge got into Arabic, by means of Christian translators, first into Syriac by people like Sergius of Reshaina and Job of Edessa, and then in the 10th century across into Arabic by people like Hunain ibn Ishaq.  But the Quodlibeta post continues this, in asking what happened next!


The lost libraries of Timbuktu

One evening last week I happened to see part of a BBC4 TV programme, The lost libraries of Timbuktu:

Aminatta Forna tells the story of legendary Timbuktu and its long hidden legacy of hundreds of thousands of ancient manuscripts. With its university founded around the same time as Oxford, Timbuktu is proof that the reading and writing of books have long been as important to Africans as to Europeans.

I couldn’t watch this programme for long — too much left-wing or “blacks are wonderful” propaganda, and not much hard information at all.

However I did learn from it that there is a trove of hand-written books in Timbuktu.  They all stem from the Moslem invasion of West Africa in the middle ages.   The oldest are 13th century.  The older books were in Arabic; the more recent ones in tribal languages, written in Arabic script.  The latter were naturally preferred by the modern holders of the books.  During the French period — the only period of civilised rule it has ever known — an unspecified number were rescued and carried off to an unspecified destination (we are invited to consider this as an “indignity”!).  Doubtless they are in the French National Library, and probably properly catalogued too, although this was not said.  Wild estimates of the number of such books were tossed around; anything up to 700,000 was mentioned, although this seems unlikely.  We saw a desktop scanner being used to digitise a page.

There was lots of talk about “riches” of books.  But… what precisely do these texts contain?  How many are of what age?  This I could not learn.

I found online a Moslem Timbuktu Educational Foundation — based in California, as it seems the “riches of African culture” don’t extend to adequate internet connections.  They claim to own the manuscripts.  The site solicits a donation of $100 to preserve and translate each manuscript — although the contact form doesn’t work, and the one and only newsletter is dated to 2003.  The site also is infuriating vague, but gives a little more:

The manuscripts cover diverse subjects: mathematics, chemistry, physics, optics, astronomy, medicine, history, geography, Islamic sciences and traditions of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), government legislation and treaties, jurisprudence and much more.

Yes?  So, which authors?  Which texts?  Is there a catalogue?  And… can’t they get some money off the oil-rich states, being good Moslems and all?  (I certainly would, in their shoes).

The BBC is to be commended for commissioning a programme on manuscripts.  Someone there should be shot for making a piece of political agitprop instead.  A wasted opportunity, then; but still good to see manuscripts on the box.  More please.

PS: The Washington Post has a much better article on all this here.  Manuscripts are 16-18th century.  Some of the mss are online at the Library of Congress here.  See also this article.