did Hunayn author his autobiographical epistle?

Did Hunayn author his autobiographical epistle?  That’s not a nonsensical question.  Autobiography could be merely a literary form that a different author adopted in writing the epistle.  Acting, speaking, and writing in another’s name are as old as drama, spirit possession, and oracles.  An epistle having an autobiographical form is quite weak evidence that its subject actually wrote it.  The weight of all the available evidence, however, favors more strongly Hunayn’s authorship of his autobiographical epistle.

Ibn Abi Usaibia emphatically attributed to Hunayn the epistle’s authorship.   After recounting two sources that conflicted both in the circumstances and date of Hunayn’s death, ibn Abi Usaibia stated:

The truth about what is reported of Hunayn in this connection became apparent to me from a missive by Hunayn himself … These are Hunayn’s words: {… a lengthy transcription of the autobiographical epistle follows, concluding with …} The foregoing is a literal rendering of Hunayn ibn Ishaq’s account.[1]

In response to the epistle’s mention of book production, ibn Abi Usaibia interjected a first-hand physical description of codices that Hunayn produced.  Ibn Abi Usaibia named Hunayn’s scribe, described his script in detail, and described the weight of the codices’ paper.  Calligraphic qualities were of great importance to ibn Abi Usaibia.  Ibn Abi Usaibia seeing the epistle’s script and the weight of its paper can account for his emphatic attribution and for his use of the epistle to determine the truth about Hunayn. [2]

Hunayn’s account is by far the longest transcription that ibn Abi Usaibia included in his History of Physicians.  The transcription includes opening and closing summaries.  It thus probably encompasses the full epistle.   The full epistle isn’t needed to establish the truth that Hunayn died in courtly favor and prosperity.   While ibn Abi Usaibia commonly included interesting stories in his biographies, he easily could have abbreviated the epistle to Hunayn’s latest tribulation.  Including the whole epistle suggests that ibn Abi Usaibia considered the epistle to be a document distinctively worth preserving.  That’s consistent with it being a rare, original document that Hunayn himself authored nearly four centuries earlier.[3]

Within its formal structure, the epistle’s expressively resentful and self-praising ego also weighs in favor of personal autobiography.  The epistle’s prefatory summary begins:

Through my enemies and persecutors and those unmindful of my benefactions, who denied my rights and wronged me, I suffered so many afflictions, hardships and injuries that I was neither able to sleep nor to attend to my duties. Their motive was sheer envy of the knowledge and exalted position with which God, the Mighty and most High, had favored me.[4]

The epistle doesn’t assume knowledge of Hunayn’s credits, not does it describe them as a setting.  Recalled aggrievements lead to asserted credits as if driven by contemporaneous emotional response.   The asserted credits are not limited to general honors; they also detail items of professional pride:

How should I not hate when I am envied by so many and defamed so often in the presence of high-ranking persons, when large sums were spent to have me killed, when those who disparaged me were respected and those who honor me reviled?  And all this without my having harmed any of my adversaries.  The only reason was that they saw that I bettered them in knowledge and skill, translated important scientific works from languages they had neither mastered nor even had the slightest inkling of and turned out work unsurpassed as to elegance and clarity of language, free from faults and slips, of inclination to a specific sect, obscurities and solecisms, meeting the standards set by the Arab masters of style, who are authorities on everything pertaining to grammar and lexicology.  They could find no fault with my work, every concept and meaning rendered by the most suitable and most easily intelligible expression.[5]

The epistle formally has an opening summary, body, and closing summary, and it seems to use autobiography according to the model of a Pauline epistle.  At lower levels of organization, the epistle is mimetic.  That combination suggests the authoring ego being absorbed into closely felt reality.[6]

If courtly etiquette, rather than ontological beliefs, governed behavior toward icons in Abbasid Caliph al-Mutawakkil‘s court, the epistle’s icon story is a plausible representation of reality.  Following the behavioral counsel of a fellow court physician, Hunayn spit on a Hodegetria-type icon in al-Mutawakkil’s presence.  Hunayn subsequently realized he had been fooled.  Nonetheless, he asserted that he had committed no crime.  Hunayn seems not to have been fooled about the ontological status of the icon.  In the epistle’s account, Hunayn didn’t consider carefully the ontological status of the icon.  Hunayn was plausibly fooled about proper courtly behavior toward the icon.  Similarly, the Caliph declaring Hunayn’s behavior a crime makes sense in terms of a serious violation of courtly etiquette.  The seriousness of courtly etiquette is underscored in the Caliph recalling in his dream imploring Christ: “Forgive me for being unable to get up and welcome you, I begged.”  Theodosius’s agent-conditional analysis of the significance of spitting on the icon similarly backgrounded ontology and emphasized responsibility to behavioral protocol.  The Caliph’s punishment of Hunayn for spitting on an icon is not unrealistically harsh if that action is interpreted as an insult to the honor of the Caliph’s court.  The icon story in Hunayn’s autobiography concerns courtly intrigue and courtly etiquette, not the ontological status of icons.[7]

Weighing most heavily against Hunayn’s authorship is the market for the epistle.  With its doubled witness to the teaching of Christ and the wisdom of Galen, the epistle would be most directly relevant to a community of Christian physicians.  It surely would not have had an propitious reception among the Christian physicians closely associated with Hunayn.  Later generations of Christian physician might have been eager for an autobiographical epistle offering Hunayn’s inspiring witness to Christ and Galen.  Perhaps Hunayn wrote the epistle for generations of Christian physicians to come, or for Christian physicians in distant cities.  But the epistle’s survival nearly four centuries to ibn Abi Usaibia’s day can be most simply understood if the epistle had a propitious position in a contemporaneous, local textual market.

Hunayn may have intended the epistle for broader readership than Christian physicians.  The epistle noted:

Every reader, even if not a physician and quite ignorant of the methods of philosophy, and whether a Christian or an adherent of another religion, was bound to recognize the merit of my work. … I may also rightly say that all other men of learning {other than the Christian physicians who were Hunayn’s kin and close colleagues}, whatever was their religion, loved and respected me.

If Hunayn authored his autobiographical epistle, he would have hoped to appeal to this broader market.

A Hunayn follower might have authored Hunayn’s autobiographical epistle more than a generation after Hunayn’s death.  But the overall weight of currently available evidence seems to me to favor Hunayn’s authorship.

More study could bring additional evidence to the authorship question.  Some matters for further study:

  1. In Kopf’s translation, Hunayn introduces the icon story thus: “Here is the story of my latest trial, which took place quite recently.”  Cooperson translates the relevant text as “Here then, is the story of my last tribulation:”  The former translation, particularly with its parenthetical temporal reference, more strongly indicates an author with a specific temporal sense for the events recounted.    The differences in translations may reflect different Arabic source texts, or a subtle issue of Arabic language.[8]  More study of this sentence in manuscripts of ibn Abi Usaibia’s History of Physicians might identify the most accurate translation and contribute some small additional insight into the authorship question.
  2. The significance of ibn Abi Usaibia’s authorship attribution depends on whether he identified the epistle’s script and paper as directly associated with Hunayn.  Did other letters that Hunayn authored survive to ibn Abi Usaibia’s time?  Did Hunayn’s scribe write Hunayn’s letters?  If not, would ibn Abi Usaibia be able to identify the script of Hunayn himself?
  3. The Hunayn epistle uses a Pauline model of autobiographical witness.  Being able to situate the epistle within a history of such authorship would bear on the plausibility of its internal dating (recently relative to 853-858).[9]  The epistle doesn’t indicate a self-conscious intention to be formally innovative within its contemporary literary circumstances.  The form of the epistle is treated as if it’s a well-established literary convention.  Further study might find other evidence of that literary convention in the Islamic world between the ninth and thirteenth centuries.

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[1] HP pp. 365, 378.

[2] HP pp. 377.  Ibn Abi Usaibia recognized and distinguished pseudepigrapha.  See, e.g., HP pp. 61, 187, 190-2.

[3] The epistle takes up 12.3 pages in HP.  The next longest transcription in HP is the autobiography of Muwaffak al-Din Abd al-Latif.  That’s 11.3 pages in HP (HP pp. 851-862).  Muwaffak al-Din Abd al-Latif, who was a close friend of ibn Abi Usaibia’s family, described ibn Abi Usaibia as “dearer to me than any other man.”  Ibn Abi Usaibia extravagantly flattered friends and patrons. Including long excerpts of Muwaffak al-Din Abd al-Latif’s writing seems to have been an aspect of such flatterery.  For comparison, ibn Abi Usaibia’s transcription of ibn Sina’s autobiography runs about 5 pages.

[4] HP p. 365.

[5] HP pp. 366-7.

[6] Cooperson (1997) p. 243 notes that the narrator describes in vivid detail events and dialogue that Hunayn himself could not have experienced.  Such passages can be understood as Hunayn’s enacted knowledge of the circumstances and events.

[7] The icon story is at HP pp. 369-76.  Hunayn asserted his innocence when he was informed that the Caliph had ordered him to be killed.  HP p. 373.   In the Caliph’s dream, Christ declared Hunayn’s action a crime in the course of forgiving Hunayn.  Christ’s declaration need not be interpreted as an assertion of Christian truth about icons.  The Caliph had previously publicly declared Hunayn’s action a crime.  Within the Caliph’s dream, Christ’s declaration is plausible as a ratification of the Caliph’s courtly authority.

[8] HP p. 369; Cooperson (2001) p. 111.  Cooperson’s translation is based on the Arabic text of Nizar Rida (Beirut: Dar Maktabat al-Hayat, 1965).  Lothar Kopf, who headed the Oriental Department of the University Library at Jerusalem, died in 1964.  See Ullendorff (1978).  Hence Kopf’s translation was not based on Cooperson’s published source.

[9] The epistle describes Theodosius the Catholicos extravagantly venerating the icon.  HP p. 371.  Theodosius held the office of Catholicos from 853-858.  Cooperson (1997) p. 248, n. 5.  On recently, see translation issue above.


Cooperson, Michael, trans.  2001. “Epistle on the Trials and Tribulations Which Befell Hunayn ibn Ishaq (‘Uyun, pp. 257-74).”  In Reynolds, Dwight F., ed,, coauthored by 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.

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.

Ullendorff, Edward. 1978.  Review of Lothar Kopf, Studies in Arabic and Hebrew Lexicography.  Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, Vol. 41, No. 3 (1978), pp. 586-587.

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