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Hunayn Bin Ishaq: The Great Scientific Translator

Hunayn Bin Ishaq: The Great Scientific Translator

Abu Zayd Hunayn bin Ishaq al Ibadi ranks as the finest medical and scientific mind of the early Abassid era. Born in 809 to an apothecary in Al Hirah, Hunayn went to Baghdad to study medicine as a young man. There he enrolled in the earliest known private medical school in Islam under the direction of Yuhanna bin Masawayh.

Desiring greater access to the classical world’s knowledge of the healing arts, Hunayn intensified his study of Greek. After mastering the available Greek medical texts, Hunayn undertook a program of the translation of these works into Arabic.

At the same time, the Abassid caliphs, in particular al Ma’mun, initiated a policy of rendering Greek classics on science, engineering and medicine into Arabic, in order to make them available to a wider audience. When word of Hunayn’s personal efforts reached al Ma’mun in 830, the physician was placed in charge of Bayt al Hikmah, the Abassid supported institution for the translation, promotion and dissemination of classical writings.

Hunayn quickly established himself as a careful, reliable and scholarly translator. Traveling widely, Hunayn gathered a collection of the best-preserved Greek manuscripts. Prior to undertaking translations, he would compare these manuscripts in order to obtain the best reconstruction of the original text. Once he had what he felt was an authentic version, Hunayn’s translations were precise but not overly literal.

The quality of these translations was such that Hunayn was paid for them with their weight in gold. Within fifty years Hunayn and his students completed the monumental task of rendering all of the most important Greek medical texts written over a millennium into Arabic and Syriac — including all of the works of Hippocrates, Aristotle, Galen, Discorides; and their important commentators…from Oribasius to Paul of Aeginata.

The importance of these translations cannot be overemphasized. Hunayn and his associates provided the medical review of the Muslim world, from Spain to Samarkand, with the knowledge of the ancients thus forming the foundation of the Muslim intellectual ferment of the next century.

It would be a mistake to think of Hunayn as merely a sterile translator. A prolific writer, Hunayn penned twenty-nine original books on a variety of medical topics and also prepared a valuable index of the Galenic writings available in Arabic and Syriac. Hunayn made significant original contributions and improved and modified existing medical theories and teaching procedures.

His Al Masa’il fi at-Tibb (Introduction to the Healing Arts) was quickly adopted as the principal manual used by examiners in testing physicians seeking licenses. In addition, Al Masa’il was commented on, summarized and interpreted by authors from the tenth through the fourteenth centuries. Translated into Latin, it was a widely consulted medical reference work for Western physicians throughout the Renaissance period.

Hunayn also wrote ten treatises on the physiology, anatomy and treatment of the eye. These volumes were the first systematic and organized texts on the subject in Arabic and are the earliest works to include anatomical charts of the eye. The influence of these treatises on the development of ophthalmology was profound, not only in the Islamic world, but in Europe as well. Oculists quoted and consulted them through the fifteenth century.

Hunayn was also cited by contemporaries and succeeding generations as the quintessential ethical physician. During the ninth century, rulers in both Europe and the East were fearful of being poisoned. Hence they exercised great care in choosing their attendants and in particular, their physicians.

The latter, after all, possessed knowledge of both drugs and their effect on the human body, thus making them highly qualified potential assassins. While Hunayn had an excellent reputation for integrity, the Caliph al Mutawakil (846-861), according to an often-told story, decided to test him.

Al Mutawakil offered Hunayn enormous riches if he would create a poison the Caliph needed to exterminate an enemy. Hunayn replied that he had spent his life learning about the healing aspects of drugs but would need to spend several years in study to master those with a deleterious effect. Insisting that he needed it immediately, the Caliph doubled his original offer.

Hunayn restated his original position. The harder the Caliph demanded and the higher he raised the price, the more Hunayn stood by his conscience. In a tone of moral indignation, Hunayn lectured the Caliph, explaining that a physician is sworn never to give injurious or deadly medicine and that professional ethics demand that practitioners do all they can to help their clients, not harm them.

The Caliph, he said, would do better to look elsewhere for his poison. Thrown into prison and threatened with execution for defiance, Hunayn stated that he would rather accept death than violate the ethics of a medical doctor. Al Mutawakil Hunayn died in Bahdad in 873 at the age of 64. Not only did he leave behind a rich legacy of translations and original works, but his exemplary life helped establish the ethical standards of behavior that exist to this day in the medical profession.

 

This article was first published in 2009 and is currently republished for its uniqueness.


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