|Hunayn ibn Ishaq (809-873)|
Christians Who Changed Their World
Christianity in the Muslim World: Middle Ages
Similarly, we often hear that Islam was an advanced, sophisticated civilization, far ahead of the barbaric Christians in areas such as medicine, science, and philosophy. This idea results not only from a caricature of Western Europe in the Middle Ages, but also from a myopic view of the Christian world that ignores Christianity in the East. In point of fact, much of the advanced learning of the Muslim world came to them through Christian sources.
When Arab armies exploded out of the Arabian peninsula to conquer the Persian Empire and much of the Eastern Roman (a.k.a. the Byzantine) Empire, they came as a largely illiterate tribal people with no experience governing extended territories. Like other conquerors in this situation, they relied on the local peoples to provide administrators and educated professionals to help them run their empire.
Some even became viziers, high ranking political advisors to sultans and caliphs. Since Christians also dominated the medical field, they also were frequently appointed personal physicians to the caliphs. In particular, the Nestorian Bakhtishu family held that post nearly continuously for 250 years.
Not surprisingly, Greek learning passed into the Arabic speaking world through Christian scholars, primarily Nestorians. The process began in the middle of the eighth century, roughly a hundred years after the Muslim conquest of Syria, with the translation of Greek works into Syriac. From there, Arab scholars gradually became aware of the Greek works.
Along with practicing medicine, Yuhanna was the director of the Baghdad hospital and had written a number of medical treatises covering subjects such as ophthalmology, fevers, dietetics, depression, testing physicians, and medical aphorisms. He also held public discussions on medical issues and was famous for his repartee. For example, at one point he is reported to have responded to a taunt by a courtier, “If the folly with which you are afflicted were turned into intelligence and divided among a hundred beetles, each would then become more intelligent than Aristotle.”
Hunayn put his language skills to work translating Greek works into Syriac and Arabic. This attracted the attention of Caliph al-Manun, who put him in charge of the Bayt al Hikmah (the House of Wisdom), an institution dedicated to translating Greek texts and making them available to Arab scholars. The caliph even sent Hunayn into the Byzantine Empire to obtain works by Aristotle and other authors that were unavailable in the caliphate. Hunayn’s work was considered so valuable that al-Manun was reported to have paid him the weight of the books he translated in gold.
Hunayn’s translation method was unusual. He translated the books from Greek into Syriac, and his son Ishaq translated them from Syriac into Arabic, with Hunayn checking the translation. Hunayn is credited with translating the works of Hippocrates, Dioscorides, Galen, and Plato’s Republic, several works by Aristotle, the Old Testament from the Septuagint, along with works on agriculture, chemistry, stones, and religion. His son Ishaq became the principal translator of Aristotle into Arabic.
Along with his translations, Hunayn composed original works dealing with philosophy, religion, and medicine. His contributions to ophthalmology were particularly important. His “Ten Treatises on Ophthalmology” discusses the anatomy of the eye in surprising detail and describes diseases of the eye and their treatments, including surgical remedies for corneal ulcers and therapy for cataracts.
Hunayn developed a close relationship with the Caliph al-Mutawakkil. Recognizing Hunayn’s skills as a scholar and translator, the caliph appointed him as his personal physician instead of a member of the Bakhtishu family. A rift developed between al-Mutawakkil and Hunayn, however, when the caliph asked Hunayn to make a poison to kill one of his enemies. Despite offers of generous payment, Hunayn kept putting the caliph off, saying it would take time to prepare such a poison. In the end, the caliph got angry and had Hunayn thrown in prison for a year.
Hunayn was then brought before the caliph and threatened with death, to which he replied “I have skill only in what is beneficial, and have studied nothing else.” The caliph, claiming that he was only testing Hunayn’s personal integrity, asked him what kept him from complying with the order. Hunayn responded, “Two things: my religion and my profession. My religion decrees that we should do good even to our enemies, how much more to our friends. And my profession is instituted for the benefit of humanity and limited to their relief and cure. Besides, every physician is under oath never to give anyone a deadly medicine.”
Hunayn was therefore released.
Despite his support for translation, al-Mutawakkil was concerned about foreign ideas influencing Islam and about Muslim scholars who advocated a less literal interpretation of the Quran. As a result, he enforced a rigid Sunni orthodoxy on the state and began persecuting more liberal Muslim thinkers as well as increasing the pressure on Christians in the caliphate. This would be a harbinger of things to come both in the Muslim world and for the Christians in the Middle East.
After al-Mutawakkil was murdered by one of his sons, Hunayn enjoyed the support of his successors and continued his work of translation until his death.
Nonetheless, it is an important if largely unrecognized fact that Nestorian Christians played a far more central role in developing the medieval Muslim intellectual and medical tradition. Western Europe would eventually benefit from this, as works of Aristotle translated by Hunayn and his son would pass to scholars from the Latin world via Islamic Spain.
Ironically enough, in the long run, the Latins would make far more extensive use of Aristotle than the Muslims. Al-Mutawakkil’s distrust of foreign ideas would become increasingly the norm in the Muslim world, and so speculative learning from foreign sources would be banned while practical learning (e.g. medicine) would be embraced as long as it did not contradict the Quran.
Hunayn himself played the role of a Daniel in many ways, serving in the court of non-Christian rulers who were at times openly hostile to his faith. His scholarship, medical skills, and personal integrity born of his faith enabled him to survive and serve there, leaving an enormous and wide-ranging legacy in his own era and beyond.[i] Samuel Hugh Moffett, A History of Christianity in Asia Vol. I: Beginnings to 1500 (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1998), 338.
[ii] Harun was the caliph whose story was fictionalized in the 1,001 Nights.
Share this article with a friend. Then meet to discuss the implications of Hunayn’s example for Christians today in the workplace, the professional world, and in government. Re-read the last paragraph, and let that be the guiding idea for your conversation.