Hunayn ibn Ishaq (809-873)


Christians Who Changed Their World

Christianity in the Muslim World: Middle Ages
A fair amount of misinformation about the status of Christians in the Muslim world in the Middle Ages. We frequently hear it treated as a Golden Age of religious toleration on the one hand, or as a period of extreme oppression on the other. The fact is, both sides contain an element of truth, depending on the time period and region.

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.

In the earliest period of the Caliphate, some respected occupations were for years dominated by Christians and Jews. As late as several generations after Muhammad, Christian and Jewish communities of physicians, musicians, and merchants could be found even in Mecca. The caliph ‘Uthman is said to have been so impressed with the Christian poet Abu Zubaid that he asked him to come up and sit in honor next to him. Their superior education made Christians much in demand as administrative secretaries and teachers, as philosophers, architects, scientists, and artists, and some rose to high but extremely vulnerable positions in national and provincial government.[i]

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.

Hunayn ibn Ishaq was born in al-Hira, Iraq, in 809, the year of Caliph Harun al-Rashid’s death.[ii] A Nestorian Christian, he grew up speaking Syriac and Arabic. As a young man, he went to Baghdad to study medicine under the famous physician and fellow Nestorian Yuhanna ibn Masawayh.

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.”

Unfortunately Hunayn had a lively curiosity and asked so many questions that the exasperated Yuhanna kicked him out of the school. Hunayn promised himself he would return to Baghdad, but in the meantime he went abroad to learn Greek. When he returned, he was able to recite Homer and Galen in their original languages, which so impressed Yuhanna that he reconciled with Hunayn and the two began to work together.

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.

Growing intolerance
So in the first dynasties of the caliphate, Christians played important roles in government and scholarship in the Muslim world. That is not to say, however, that they were generally treated well. There were periodic outbreaks of violent persecution, including widespread destruction of churches, and they were clearly second-class citizens subject to ever-increasing oppression as the decades moved forward. Al-Mutawakkil’s caliphate marked the beginning of the slow decline of Christianity in the Muslim world from a combination of persecution and external pressures, the loss of the missionary zeal that drove the Nestorians in earlier centuries, and internal decay within the churches.

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.

Next Steps

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.

Glenn’s book, Portals, would provide an excellent source for an ongoing conversation about how to live out our faith among unbelieving neighbors and friends. Order your copy from our online store.

(1 Pet. 3:15).</p>
<p><em>Republished from March 5, 2010</em></p>
<p class="callout_header">Next Steps</p>
<p><em>Make it your mission to re-enchant the world, at least that part of it that you occupy week-in and week-out. You may be surprised to find that your enchanted lifestyle has begun to enchant some of your disenchanted neighbors and friends. </em></p>
You must be logged in to comment on Christian Worldview Journal articles.