the intellectual heritage of the Islamic world

The thirteenth-century Islamic world celebrated vigorous, cosmopolitan intellectual life.  Ibn Abi Usaibia, a Muslim physician who lived near Damascus in the thirteenth century, enthusiastically recounted the efforts of scholars from the earliest known to his present, from Greece to North Africa to India.  His History of Physicians encompasses:

  • the origins of the medical art
  • the first physicians
  • Greek physicians who were Asclepius’ familial descendants
  • Greek physicians who studied under Hippocrates
  • Greek physicians about Galen’s time
  • physicians in Alexandria, mainly Christian, who studied Galen before Islam
  • physicians, mainly Arab, at the dawn of Islam
  • Syrian physicians in the Abbasid Dynasty’s early days
  • Islamic-era physicians who translated Greek scholarly books into Arabic
  • physicians of Iraq, the Arabian peninsula and southeastern Turkey
  • physicians of India
  • physicians of the Maghreb
  • famous Egyptian physicians
  • famous Syrian physicians [1]

In Ibn Abi Usaibia’s history, physician from different times, places, cultures and religions all participated in a common enterprise of developing knowledge.  He described Jewish and Christian physicians who, through their trusted service to Muslim rulers, became influential, wealthy, and famous.  What mattered was knowledge.

Ibn Abi Usaibia described scholars’ extraordinary efforts to acquire and disseminate knowledge.  Consider ninth-century Baghdad-based Christian scholar Hunayn ibn Ishaq’s effort to acquire Aristotle’s Fourth Book on Logic.  Hunayn stated:

No contemporary of ours has been able to obtain the whole of this book in Greek, although Jibra’il endeavored to find it; I also tried hard, combing all of Mesopotamia, Syria, Palestine and Egypt, as far as Alexandria, but to no avail.  In Damascus I found about half of it, but in inconsecutive and incomplete chapters.  Jibra’il unearthed a few chapters, but they are not all identical with mine. [2]

In addition to his many translations of Galen, Hippocrates and Aristotle, Hunayn also authored many books himself.  These included books on illnesses, diet, astrology, religion, agriculture, world history, and other topics:

  • a commentary on Aristotle’s Book of Physiognomy
  • a treatise on why seawater is saline
  • a book on the water of baths, in the form of questions and answers
  • a letter to Ali ibn Yahya in reply to the latter’s epistle calling upon him to embrace Islam
  • a book on cosmetics
  • a missive on the trials and tribulations experience by the author [3]

Hunanyn suffered from the intense jealousy of his fellow Christian physicians.  They hated him, defamed him, and sought to have him killed.  Modern scholars may partially understand Hunayn’s situation.

While some scholars were remarkably selfish and vicious, others were astonishingly broad-minded.  Consider Abu al-Faraj Abd Allah ibn al-Tayyib, a prominent member of the early eleventh-century Christian community in Baghdad.  Abu al-Faraj wrote commentaries on Aristotle, Hippocrates and Galen.  He was famous for his medical knowledge and vast philosophical learning.  Ibn Abi Usaibia recounts that two men traveled from Persia to Baghdad to study under Abu al-Faraj:

Upon their arrival in Baghdad, they asked where Abu al-Faraj lived and were told that he was at the moment in church.  They went there and stepped inside.  On that occasion, Abu al-Faraj was wearing a woolen garment and his head was uncovered.  Holding by some chains a censer containing burning frankincense, he walked round the church, spreading the fragrant fumes.  When the two men were told that this was the Shaikh, they watched him intently, talking to each other in Persian.  Keeping their gaze fixed upon him, they wondered why one of the most eminent sages, whose fame as a philosopher and physician had spread to the remotest parts of the country, appeared in such attire and behaved in such a manner.

The Persians nonetheless followed Abu al-Faraj back to his house and requested to join his circle of pupils.  The Persians were Muslims.  The story continues:

{Abu al-Faraj} asked them whether they had ever had made the pilgrimage {to Mecca}.  When they said they had not, he deferred admitting them to regular study until the time of the pilgrimage, which was close at hand.  When the pilgrimage was proclaimed, he said to them: “If you wish to study under me, make the pilgrimage, and if, God willing, you return safe and sound, you will find me ready to be your teacher.”  They accepted his advice and set out on their pilgrimage.  When the caravan returned, they immediately went to see him.  They were bald-headed and emaciated from the heat of the sun and the long journey.  He questioned them about the rituals they had performed during the pilgrimage.  After they had described them, he asked: “When you saw the Gimar {the pillar of stones in Mina}, were you naked except for a loose garment, holding in your hand stones which, running fast, you threw away?”  On receiving an affirmative reply, he said: “This is as it should be.  Everything pertaining to religion is a matter of tradition, and not of rationalism.” [4]

Abu al-Faraj did not pit tradition against rationalism or modernity.  Abu al-Faraj’s life encompassed both rationalism and tradition, practiced with respect for other traditions.

This culture of respect for diverse traditions included sharp-tongued, critical characters.  Yuhanna ibn Masawayhi, who died in 857 GC, was a Syriac Christian physican to Abbasid caliphs.  He authored 44 books and became wealthy and famous.  He was renowned for his wit and colorful humor. Ibn Abi Usaibia recounted:

The Christians blamed Yuhanna for taking maidens, saying: ‘Although you are a deacon, you have transgressed our faith. Either stick to our ways, restrict yourself to one woman, and remain one of our deacons, or given up your office and take any maiden you desire.’ He replied: “Indeed, we were told in our scripture not to take more than one woman or one robe {robes were units of wealth and status}, but who was it that made the Catholicos, who bites his mother’s clitoris, more worthy to take twenty robes than the wretched Yuhanna to take four maidens? Go tell your Catholicos to fulfill his religious duties, so that we shall fulfill them also, for if he breaks them, we shall do the same.’ [5]

Yuhanna ibn Masawayhi used resources of both rationalism and tradition to justify his lifestyle and to amuse those with whom he interacted.

Within our modern worlds of intellectual fundamentalism, Ibn Abi Usaibia’s History of Physicians, which he called “essential information,” witnesses to broader possibilities.  Ibn Abi Usaibia began his book thus:

In the name of Allah, the Merciful, the Compassionate.  Praise is due to Allah, Who has dispersed the nations throughout the world and Who will revive the dead; the creator of the spirit of life and healer of sickness … And I bear sincere witness, accepting full responsibility for the truth of my words and eschewing the sins of idle talk and peroration, that there is no God but Allah; and I also bear witness that Muhammad is His servant and messenger [6]

This introduction and the subsequent historical account of heroic physicians’ cosmopolitan quests for knowledge comprise a book from a largely lost intellectual culture.  The loss of that intellectual culture is a great loss for humanity.

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Read more:


[1] These are the successive chapters in HP.  I have condensed the chapter titles.

[2] HP p. 189. Ibn Abi Usaibia got this quote from Hunayn’s Risalat Hunayn ibn Ishaq ila ‘Ali ibn Yahya.  In that book, Hunayn described which books of Galen had been translated into Arabic.

[3] These are a selection from the 111 books that Ibn Abi Usaibia listed as authored by Hunayn.  HP pp. 378-85.

[4] HP pp. 460-1.  I have made some non-substantive edits to the translation.

[5] HP p. 338.  See also HP p. 339.

[6] HP p. 1.  Ibn Abi Usaibia’s stated the title of his book as Essential Information Concerning the Classes of Physicians.  It is conventionally known as History of Physicians in European-oriented intellectual work.


HP: Ibn Abi Usaybi’ah, Ahmad ibn al-Qasim. English translation of History of Physicians (4 v.) Translated by Lothar Kopf. 1971. Located in: Modern Manuscripts Collection, History of Medicine Division, National Library of Medicine, Bethesda, MD; MS C 294.

COB-64: defending bureaucratic news

With entrepreneurial threats emerging across the Internet, formulating strategic plans to establish working groups to improve organizational security must be considered imperative by all essential bureaucracies. Fortunately, Google is here to help.  An organization totally lacking any managerial hierarchy recently attempted to infiltrate Google News.  With the help of a form letter, Google tentatively rejected the intrusion.  That letter noted:

We don’t include sites that are written and maintained by one individual. We currently only include articles from sources that could be considered organizations, generally characterized by multiple writers and editors, availability of organizational information, and accessible contact information.

This letter also noted that this policy applies only at this time and is subject to future reconsideration.  That’s good bureaucratic practice.  We suggest that Google reconsider and strength its tripartite organizational threshold criteria (TOTC).  A respectable news organizations needs more than multiple writers and editors.  It needs many, many editors, including sub-editors, section editors, division editors, and managing editors.  Writers should be separated at least into headline writers, opinion writers, feature writers, news writers, and beaten writers.  A meeting to establish a committee to redraft the TOTC should be scheduled immediately.

In other bureaucratic news this month, winterspeak has declared, “Accountants don’t notice that macroeconomics is wrong because they are imaginationless grinds.”  Persons who are always imagining things belong in mental hospitals.  Grinding out work, day in and day out, has built this world into what it is today.

YouTube is launching more than 100 new channels of exclusive video content.  Not one of them is squarely addressed to bureaucrats and bureaucratic interests.  Merely claiming that these new channels are “original” is no excuse for this inexcusable exclusion.  Without a stream of programming like Desk Set, Office Space, La Meurte de un Burócrata, and Groundhog Day, YouTube will never be able to absorb a huge amount of viewers’ time.

Eric Schmidt, a Google high-level manager, is criticizing government bureaucrats.  This is a clever strategic faint.  But the careful reader can see through it.  Consider Schmidt’s statement:

Mr. Schmidt recounted a dinner in 1995 featuring a talk by Andy Grove, a founder of Intel: “He says, ‘This is easy to understand. High tech runs three times faster than normal businesses. And the government runs three times slower than normal businesses. So we have a nine-times gap.’ All of my experiences are consistent with Andy Grove’s observation.”

In other words, Schmidt recognizes the value of a policy calculation that Andy Grove made about 16 years ago.  That’s called enduring value.  For those lost in the day-trading mentality without any sense of enduring value, realize that bureaucracy is forever.  Bureaucracy will continue to exist long after Intel has produced the last x86 microprocessor chip for a desktop computer.  Google is betting that the tortoise will win the race.  You should be, too.

That’s all for this month’s Carnival of Bureaucrats.  Enjoy previous bureaucratic carnivals here.  Nominations of posts to be considered for inclusion in next month’s carnival should be submitted using Form 376: Application for Bureaucratic Recognition.

think of the children in book history

Along with sensational crime, concern about children has been a major theme in popular print.  The U.S. Government Printing Office (GPO) recently stated:

Perhaps the all-time bestseller was the pamphlet Infant Care, first published in 1914 by the newly established Children’s Bureau. A GPO press release in November 1942 announced the 25,000,000th copy of Infant Care, and captured the significance of this type of Government document, “…in 1914 few mothers had access to authoritative information in low-cost form on the care of their babies.” Infant Care remained an active best-seller through many more editions, the last in 1984. It was translated into eight languages and published in Braille. [1]

Human beings have been caring successfully for infants for at least 100,000 years.  All types of primates have been successfully doing it for millions of years.  Only rather peculiar intellectual history could develop millions of humans who read a book about how to care for infants.

Infant Care “by Mrs. Max West” offers useful, no-nonsense advice while at the same time supporting authority.  Here’s Mrs. West on breastfeeding:

The majority of mothers can nurse their babies, at least in part, if they have suitable care and advice. What is chiefly required is that this conviction should enter the mind of the mother and abide there; for the fear that she will not be able to perform this function, or that the milk will not or does not agree with her child, has more to do with the supposed inability to nurse than any other one factor. The gland which secretes milk is a wonderful and delicate mechanism. So intimate is the connection of the mammary nerves with the mind that the mental states of the mother are readily reflected in their function. Fear, anger, or worry may serve to check the secretion of the milk, or to change its quality so much that, for the time being, it is unfit for use, while, on the other hand, a calm mind, joy, laughter, and delight in life, coupled with the desire and intention to nurse the baby, will make it possible to do so. Failing this spirit, all other measures may prove futile. [2]

This represents the problem it addresses.  Why would many mothers come to believe that they cannot nurse their babies?  Perhaps because they grew up in an intellectual culture where stating “the majority of mothers can nurse their babies” is unremarkable, but qualified with “at least in part, if they have suitable care and advice.”

Commercial institutions of public communication eventually engaged with the advice in Infant Care.  GPO first printed that publication in 1914. Responding to the demand for baby books evident in the demand for Infant Care, a publisher convinced Dr. Benjamin Spock to author The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care, first published in 1946.  Dr. Spock, writing with the authority of a certified pediatrician, advised parents to trust their instincts and common sense. The book began: “Trust yourself. You know more than you think you do.”  Parents could trust the authority of Dr. Spock for that view.  Dr. Spock’s baby book became one of the best-selling books of all time.  An astonishing 50 million copies were sold.  Sadly, rather than prompting laughter, Dr. Spock’s advice became a matter of bitter public controversy.

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[1] GPO (2011) p. 100.  Second only to Infant Care in popularity among GPO publications was a Special Report on Diseases of the Horse, first published in 1890. By 1903, GPO had printed 700,000 copies of this book.  It had a printing lifetime of seven editions and 52 years.

[2] West (1914) pp. 32-33.


GPO, United States. 2011. Keeping America informed: the U.S. Government Printing Office : 150 years of service to the nation. [Washington, D.C.]: U.S. G.P.O.

West, Mary (Mills). 1914. Infant care. Care of Children Series No. 2. U.S. Dept. of Labor, Children’s Bureau. Washington: Government Printing Office.

transforming medicine into a non-hereditary profession

In his thirteenth-century History of Physicians, Ibn Abi Usaibia describes Hippocrates as transforming medicine into a non-hereditary profession.  According to Ibn Abi Usaibia’s history, Asclepius, the first physician, taught medical knowledge orally only to members of his family. That professional structure was not sufficient to preserve medical knowledge.  Hippocrates thus changed the transmission of medical knowledge:

Hippocrates, on seeing that medicine was on the verge of extinction, that its mark was being erased from the descendants of Asclepius (among whom he himself was included), sought to revive it by disclosing it to and propagating it among strangers and also by setting it down in books in order to establish it and make it widely known. [1]

The Hippocratic Oath supported a non-hereditary medical profession. A person who recited the Hippocratic Oath declared:

I swear by Apollo Physician and Asclepius and Health {Hygieia} and Panacea and all the gods and goddesses, making them witnesses, that I will make complete this oath and this written covenant according to my ability and discernment .. {I swear to} make an imparting of the set of rules and lecture and all the rest of instruction to my sons and those of my teacher, and to those pupils who have been indentured and who have taken an oath according to the medical law, but to no one else. … [2]

Most of the Hippocratic Oath addresses proper practice of medicine.  Yet the oath itself, and a minor proviso within it, opened the medical profession to persons other than physicians’ sons. In ancient regulations, as well as in modern ones, important changes are often buried in the details.

Ibn Abi Usaibia recognized the relationship between the Hippocratic Oath and the opening of the medical profession.  He listed under Hippocrates’ books:

“The Covenant,” also known as “The Book of Oaths.”  Hippocrates wrote this for his pupils and also for those they would treat, in order that they might be guided by it and not offend against the stipulation he therein imposed on them and in order to dispel by his statements the odium he incurred for transferring this art from hereditary transmission to free dissemination. [3]

Incumbents typically don’t favor entry into their field.  The Hippocratic Oath provided alternative regulation of entry in a way that was both open to more persons and that promoted proper professional practice.

The Hippocratic Oath probably didn’t govern access to medical books.  Writing is not necessarily associated with an open-access regime for knowledge.  Means other than the Hippocratic oath could have restricted access to medical books.  However, according to Ibn Abi Usaibia, Hippocrates wrote medical books to make medical knowledge widely known. As a cosmopolitan physician, scholar, and writer in the thirteenth-century Islamic world, Ibn Abi Usaibia apparently regarded the preservation and dissemination of medical knowledge as an activity that did not just concern medical practitioners.  Throughout his History of Physicians, Ibn Abi Usaibia celebrates the development and dissemination of knowledge.  He understood that activity as an open, heroic human profession in which everyone should have an interest.

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[1]  HP p. 27.  Roger Pearse discovered this translation in the U.S. National Library of Medicine.  He is doing painstaking work to create a digital version. Ibn Abi Usaibia’s work shows a vibrant intellectual culture spanning Europe, North Africa, and southwest Asia and encompassing knowledge from ancient Egypt, classical Greece, Rome, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.  The U.S. government commissioned Kopf’s translation, which subsequently and sadly attracted no attention.  Advancing study and public discussion of Ibn Abi Usaibia’s work surely is an important contribution to the public interest.

[2] From Howard Herrell’s “literal translation” of the Hippocratic Oath from an early Greek manuscript.  Ibn Abi Usaibia preserves a version of the Hippocratic Oath edited to lessen its association with polytheism.  Ibn Abi Usaibia’s version of the Hippocratic Oath begins:

I swear by God, the master of life and death, the giver of health and the creator of healing and every cure, and I swear by Asclepius and by all those close to God, both men and women, making them all my witnesses, that I will keep this oath and pledge…

HP p. 49.  The Testament of Hippocrates, which Ibn Abi Usaibia includes, HP p. 51-2, restricts students of medicine to persons of “free birth, good nature, young age, medium stature, and well-proportioned limbs,” as well as describing other character requirements.  The Testament of Hippocrates probably dates to no earlier than the first century.  It does exist in ancient Greek and Latin manuscripts.  See Temkin (1991) p. 142, ft. 84.

[3] HP p. 65.


HP: Ibn Abi Usaybi’ah, Ahmad ibn al-Qasim. English translation of History of Physicians (4 v.) Translated by Lothar Kopf. 1971. Located in: Modern Manuscripts Collection, History of Medicine Division, National Library of Medicine, Bethesda, MD; MS C 294.

Temkin, Owsei. 1991. Hippocrates in a world of pagans and Christians. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.