Who Was Hunayn Ibn Ishaq?
A physician of the early Abbasid period, a time of active translation from Greek and Roman to Arabic.
He studied under Ibn Masaweh, and followed him as rector of Dar al-Hikma, a center for translation, writing in Baghdad. It is said that one day, Hunayn irritated his master who, bursting out in rage, told his pupil that he was not worthy of the medical profession but that he had better follow his father’s trade, and become a money exchanger. Hunayn took this to heart and vowed that he will never return to Baghdad until he became a renowned physician; and he did, writing among other contributions, the first textbook of ophthalmology.
He was imprisoned for one year for refusing to prepare a poison for one of the Caliph al- Mutawakkil’s enemies. When he was again brought before the Caliph and threatened with death for his disobedience, he answered: “I have skill only in what is beneficial and have studied naught else.” He added that he awaited with tranquility the supreme judgment of the Lord. The Caliph then pardoned him. When asked what prevented him from fulfilling the Caliph’s demand even under the menace of death, Hunayn replied, “Two things, my religion, and my profession. My religion commands us to do good, even to our enemies, and my profession forbids us to do harm.”
What Did Ibn Ishaq Write?
He wrote a book on neurology in which he discussed pediatric epilepsy, muscle, and nerve. Among his best contributions is a book about the eye, “Ten Articles about the Eye” considered the earliest existing systemic textbook of ophthalmology.
Two manuscripts of his “Treatise on the Eye” are available. The first was in the possession of the late Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch, Gregory I, who presented it to the late Tsar of Russia in 1911 This copy is now in the Leningrad Library. The second is in the Timur Pasha Library in Cairo. The two manuscripts were edited and translated into English by M.Meyerhoff as “The Earliest Systematic Textbook on Ophthalmology”.
One of the most important manuscripts of Ibn Ishaq was found in St. Sophia in Istanbul. In it he gives a record of all the books of Galen and tells us which were translated, by whom, and into what languages. The list includes 129 works. Ibn Ishaq says that one of them is spurious (not the work of Galen), twenty of them he could not find in the Greek original. One was not translated. Of the remaining 107, eleven were translated into Syriac, and 96 into both Syriac and Arabic. Ibn Ishaq translated 93 books.
Dar al-Hikma (House of Wisdom), which was established in Baghdad in 832 AD by the Caliph al-Mamoun, was the repository of Greek, Syriac, and Byzantine books of philosophy and medicine. It was also a center for translation, writing, and study. Translators were compensated by the weight of their manuscripts in gold, and Hunayn Ibn Ishaq reportedly used large letters and triple or quadruple spacing on heavy weight paper to increase the weight of the manuscript.
References: Al-Mahi,T.History of Arab Medicine,1959 Al-Kurdi,A,et al.Neuroscience 9:1,2004; Haddad,S.I.History of Arab Medicine,1975; Max Meyerhoef.The Ten Treatises on the Eye, 1989