understanding the autobiographical epistle attributed to Hunayn

In thirteenth-century Damascus, Ibn Abi Usaibia preserved an autobiographical epistle attributed to Hunayn ibn Ishaq.  Hunayn was a Christian scholar who served Islamic Abbasid caliphs in the vibrant intellectual world of ninth-century Baghdad.  The epistle attributed to Hunayn, which may be the earliest prose autobiographical work existing in Arabic, is far from a simple factual chronicle.[1]  Its main rhetorical structure is autobiography witnessing to Galen’s wisdom and Christ’s teaching.  It’s thus formally similar to Pauline epistles in the Christian New Testament.[2]  The Hunaynine epistle is best understood as a Pauline epistle with Hunayn as the famous and faithful Galenic-Christian disciple.

The Hunaynine epistle begins with a personalized summary of its ethical teaching on persecution and response.  Hunayn suffered persecution from kinsmen and friends that eventually resulted in his imprisonment.[3]  Hunayn responded only by praising God.  The prefatory summary concludes:

At last, the Almighty cast the eye of mercy upon me, restored His grace and renewed His favor which I had been wont to enjoy.  The immediate cause of my reinstatement was a man who had been one of my sworn enemies.  This bears out Galen’s remark that the best of men may sometimes benefit by their worst enemies.  Upon my life, that man was the best of enemies.[4]

The prefatory summary refers to the greatness of God (“the Mighty and Most High”) and the dependence of all on God’s will.  The prefatory summary also draws upon the ethical guidance of Galen, a historical leader of the medical profession.[5]  Another story about Hunayn’s ethical behavior similarly describes coinciding teachings of religion and professional ethics, specified as Christian teaching on behavior towards enemies and the Hippocratic precept to abstain from doing harm.[6]  Moral teaching, doubled through the teaching of Christ and historical leaders in the medical profession, provides the macro-structure of Hunayn’s autobiographical epistle.

The main body of the epistle witnesses in more detail to moral behavior toward enemies.  The Gospel of Luke declares:

Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To him who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from him who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to every one who begs from you; and of him who takes away your goods do not ask them again. … love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great [7]

The Anti-Marcionite Prologue to the Gospel of Luke, dated to before the fifth century, describes Luke as a physician by profession and a native of Antioch, a Greek-speaking city in ancient Syria.  As an Assyrian Christian and a well-traveled and learned scholar, Hunayn may have been aware of this Lucan biographical tradition.[8]  The Hunaynine epistle is a personal witness to the Lucan teaching:

I never complained to anyone about my condition, however bad it might be, and even praised my enemies at public meetings and in the presence of dignitaries.  When it was mentioned to me that they defamed and disparaged me at these meetings, I pretended not to believe what I was told. On the contrary, I said: We are one single entity, united by a common religion, place of residence and profession. I therefore cannot believe that such people would say anything bad about anyone, let alone me. …  I always endeavored to fulfill their {his enemies} wishes and be their faithful friend, and I never repaid them for what they had done to me, not a single one of them.  After hearing what was said about me in public, and especially in the presence of my lord, the Emir of the Faithful, people kept wondering why I was so anxious to be at their service.  I even made it a habit to translate books for them without getting any compensation or reward [9]

Hunayn’s reward ultimately was great.  After the Caliph had confiscated all Hunayn’s goods, destroyed his house, and imprisoned him, the Caliph had a dream in which Christ instructed him to pardon Hunayn and follow Hunayn’s medical advice.[10]  The Caliph did so and recovered from his illness.  The Caliph declared to Hunayn:

I shall compensate you many times over for all you have lost and make your enemies dependent upon you and place you high above all the other members of your profession.[11]

Hunayn’s loss was not merely reversed; he was made much better off.  Moreover, he received a blessing from his civic lord much like “sit at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool.”[12]  In its conclusion, the epistle again invokes Galen, with Hunayn adding his own claim of authority:

All this had come to pass through the agency of malicious enemies; as Galen says: The best of men sometimes benefit by their worst enemies.  I swear by my life, Galen had to undergo severe trials, but they did not affect him as much as mine did me. [13]

The epistle concludes:

Praise be to God for granting me new life, making me prevail over the enemies who wronged me, and placing me in a position surpassing them in honor and prosperity! [14]

Thus Hunayn’s life gives witness to both Galen’s wisdom and Lucan teaching.

While the treatment of an icon figures in Hunayn’s autobiography, the interpretive status of icons was probably unimportant for the intended reading of the Hunaynine epistle.  Icons became a matter of high political and religious controversy in the Byzantine Empire in the eight and ninth centuries, just as they did in sixteenth-century England.  Through the intrigues of his enemies, Hunayn was prompted to spit on an icon of Mary and the child Jesus.[15]  Hunayn didn’t require a highly compelling motivation to spit on the icon.  At the same time, both the Caliph and Christ declared spitting on the icon to have been a sin.  A story from a different transmitting source has Hunayn refusing to spit on an image of the men who crucified Christ.  Hunayn refused to spit because an image of the men is not really the men.[16]  But spitting on an image that is only an image should not be a concern.  A plausible interpretation of these apparent tensions is that iconoclasm, while a contentious issue in the ninth-century Byzantine Empire, mattered little in the ninth-century Abbasid Empire.

In the Abbasid Empire, spitting on icons seems to have been a matter of rivalry in courtly learning and etiquette.  The challenge to Hunayn to spit on the image of the men who crucified Christ is prompted by Hunayn besting a rival in advising the Caliph.  The rival declared to the drunk Caliph, “The sun is injurious to intoxication.”  Hunayn declared that it was not.  Asked to explain that medical opinion, Hunayn declared: “intoxication is the condition of the intoxicated, and the sun is not injurious to intoxication but to the intoxicated.”[17]  That response defeated and infuriated Hunayn’s rival physician.  Improper behavior toward icons seems to have similarly been a matter of rivalry in courtly behavior both within the Abbasid court and for the intended readers of the Hunaynine epistle.[18]

The intended readers of the Hunaynine epistle seem to have been elite professional Christians like Hunayn.  If Hunayn himself composed the epistle, it probably wasn’t written for his fellow Christian physicians.  It might have been intended for Christian professionals in other fields such as law, astronomy, or the military.  If the epistle was written in Hunayn’s name sometime after his death, it’s intended readers may well have been Christian physicians.[19]  In any case, the Hunaynine epistle appears to be an exemplar of a continuing tradition of Pauline epistles among Christians in the Islamic world.[20]

*  *  *  *  *

Related posts:

Text: Cooperson (2001) pp. 109-11 provides an English translation of the full text of the autobiographical epistle attributed to Hunayn. HP of course also includes a translation.


[1] Reynolds et al. (2001) p. 108 calls the epistle “one of the earliest prose works in Arabic in the autobiographical mode.”  The currently prevailing scholarly view seems to be that Hunayn didn’t actually write it.  Hunayn died in 877.  Ibn Abi Usaibia, writing in 1245, described the epistle as a “missive by Hunayn himself” and emphasized “these are Hunayn’s words.”  HP. p. 365.  Hunayn employed the scribe al-Azraq to write for him.  Many original Hunayn manuscripts survived the three centuries to ibn Abi Usaibia’s time.  HP p. 377.  Ibn Abi Usaibia may have identified Hunayn’s words paleographically via the script of Hunayn’s scribe.  If the epistle was written in the ninth century, it is the earliest prose autobiographical working existing in Arabic.  If it was written in the tenth century or later, then it’s not. The epistle has been preserved only in ibn Abi Usiabia’s History of Physicians.

[2] Paul’s epistles are inextricably connected to his autobiography.  For examples of Paul’s explicit use of autobiography, see 1 Cor. 9:9-12, 2 Cor. 1:3-11, and Gal. 1:13-2:21.

[3] Kopf’s translation of the prefatory summary doesn’t explicitly mention imprisonment.  The relevant lines (HP p. 366):

Indeed, things went so far that for some time I was so distressed and enfeebled that my hand touched no gold or silver coin nor a book or even a sheet of paper to read from.

The relevant lines in the Cooperson (2001) translation (p. 109):

The situation eventually reached the point where I found myself utterly ruined and heartbroken, in prison, and reduced to the narrowest of circumstances.  During that time I was unable to obtain even the smallest amount of gold or silver, a book, or even a single sheet of paper to peruse.

The subsequent text in the elaborated story clearly describes Hunayn being imprisoned.

[4] HP p. 366.  Cooperson (2001) translates Galen’s remark as “the best people are those who can turn the animosity of evil men to advantage” and identifies that remark as the title of one of Galen’s texts.  Cooperson (2001) p. 109 and p. 118, ft. 1.  Galen complained bitterly about the actions of his rivals.  Mattern (2008) Ch. 3.

[5] The greatness of God and the dependence of all on God’s will is a pervasive understanding in the Islamic world.  The lives of leaders of a profession also generally transmitted ethical guidance in the Abbasid-era Islamic world.  Cooperson (2000) p. xii.

[6] Testing Hunayn, the Caliph asked Hunayn for a medicine to kill an enemy.  Hunayn responded that he had no knowledge of such medicine and explained that religious and professional teaching opposed such medicine.  HP pp. 360-1.

[7] Luke 6:27-31, 35 (RSV).

[8] Nestorius, an important figure in Assyrian Christianity, studied at the School of Antioch and remained closely connected to Antioch.  On Luke as a physician, see also Colossians 4:14.

[9] HP pp. 369, 377.   The story of Hunayn’s lack of knowledge of deadly poisons has Hunayn declaring, “Religion enjoins us to be good and kind even to our enemies.”  HP pp. 359-61.  This is evidence, from a different transmitting source, of Hunayn’s embrace of the Lucan teaching.

[10] HP p. 375.  Instructive dreams are a common feature of autobiography in the Arabic literary tradition.  Reynolds et al. (2001) pp. 88-93.  Visions are a key part of Paul’s autobiography.  Acts 9:1-19.

[11] HP p. 376.

[12] Psalm 110:1 (which is quoted in Luke 20:42-3).

[13] HP p. 376.

[14] HP p. 377.

[15] HP pp. 370-1.  The icon, described as a Syrian painting, was of the hodegetria type.  That icon type is associated in Christian tradition with Luke the Evangelist, who was thought to have been a painter as well as a physician.

[16] HP pp. 364-5.

[17] HP p. 364.

[18] Cf. Cooperson (1997) p. 247.  The court physician Bakhtishu ibn Jibra’il kissed the icon several times in the Caliph’s presence.  In the presence of the Caliph, Theodosius the Catholicos displayed even greater devotion to the icon:

on seeing the icon on the ground in front of the Caliph, {he} threw himself upon it even before saluting him, embraced it, and kissed it again and again weeping all the time.

After arising, delivering a long speech to the Caliph, and then sitting down with the icon in his lap, the Catholicos stated:

{The icon} should be kept in a place where it is duly honored, illuminated by lamps burning the finest oil, which will never go out, and constantly perfumed with the most fragrant incense.

The Catholicos distinguished the significance of spitting on the icon by different classes of persons.  Muslims and ignorant Christians would not be punished, but only rebuked and instructed in proper behavior. Only when an educated Christian spat on the icon did that action signify an alternate reality.  According to the Catholicos:

if he who spat upon the icon is an educated person, he may be said to have actually spat upon Mary, the mother of our Lord, and on our Lord Christ.

This conditional interpretation underscores the concern for practical ethics (courtly and religious etiquette) rather than for correspondence to reality.

[19] Cooperson (1997), pp. 239-43, reviews the scholarly debate on whether Hunayn actually wrote the epistle and provides additional arguments weighing against Hunayn authorship.  The truth is not clear.  Kopf (HP p. 369) translated the sentence introducing the icon story thus: “Here is the story of my latest trial, which took place quite recently.”  Cooperson (2001) (p. 111) translated that sentence: “Here then, is the story of my last tribulation.”  The first translation has a much stronger sense of contemporaneous narration.

[20] Reynolds et al. (2001) p. 108 observes:

Hunayn’s epistle on his trials and tribulations resembles, to some degree, the Greek genre of apologetic autobiography, but it is also highly reminiscent of the biblical / Qur’anic story of Joseph. … The epistle thus presents a fascinating amalgam of Greek and biblical elements in an Arabic literary form.

In its macro-structure, the epistle seems to me to be quite different from the story of Joseph.  Pauline epistles draw upon the Greek genre of apologetic autobiography, but differ significantly in their witness to a specific ethical framework.


Cooperson, Michael, trans.  2001. “Epistle on the Trials and Tribulations Which Befell Hunayn ibn Ishaq (‘Uyun, pp. 257-74).” In Reynolds et al. (2001) pp. 109-117.

Cooperson, Michael. 2000. Classical Arabic biography the heirs of the prophets in the age of al-Maʼmūn. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Cooperson, Michael.  1997. “The Purported Autobiography of Hunayn ibn Ishaq.” Edebiyat, v. 7, pp. 235-249.

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.

Mattern, Susan P. 2008. Galen and the rhetoric of healing. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Reynolds, Dwight F., ed,, with coauthors Kristen E. Brustad, Michael Cooperson, Jamal J. Elias, Nuha N. N. Khoury, Joseph E. Lowry, Nasser Rabbat, Devin J. Stewart and Shawkat M. Toorawa. 2001. Interpreting the self: autobiography in the Arabic literary tradition. Berkeley: University of California Press.

One thought on “understanding the autobiographical epistle attributed to Hunayn”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Current month [email protected] day *