ancient public gestures of compassion for the sick and prisoners

Early in the tenth century, brutality and fear were common in Baghdad.  That city was then the capital of the Abbasid caliph and probably the largest city in the world.  When Caliph al-Muktafi died in 908, his thirteen-year-old son became the caliph, taking the name al-Muqtadir.[1]  Political turmoil and intrigue was intense across al-Muqtadir’s caliphate.  Across al-Muqtadir’s 25-year reign, the leading governing position of wazir changed person fourteen times.[2]

External threats contributed to a civic climate of paranoia.  The Fatimid al-Mahdi attacked Abbasid Egypt from his base in Ifriqiya, an area along the coasts of present day Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya.  The Carmathians, Muslim rebels based in Bahrain, pillaged Basra in 924, threatened Baghdad in 927, and sacked Mecca in 930.  The Carmathians killed Hajj pilgrims and took the revered Black Stone away from Mecca.  The Black Stone was returned to Mecca only in 952, after the Abbasids paid a huge ransom.[3]

Within this unstable and fearful political climate, the celebrated Persian mystic Mansur al-Hallaj was imprisoned for eleven years and then executed.  The execution occurred in Baghdad in 922 after a long and contentious public trial.  Alī ibn `Isā, a leading government official, allowed the execution of al-Hallaj to proceed.  Alī ibn `Isā apparently took this course of action to avoid angering the wazir Hāmid ibn al-`Abbās.  Alī ibn `Isā served as wazir himself several times during al-Muqtadir’s caliphate.[4]  Alī ibn `Isā thus undoubtedly was a shrewd political operator enmeshed in high politics.  The execution of al-Hallaj most probably was politically expedient.

Particular acts of public compassion had value even within this political climate.  Al-Muqtadir’s physician’s son, who himself was also a high-ranking physician, wrote a “Book of History” that describes Alī ibn `Isā’s actions.[5]  According to that book, Alī ibn `Isā directed the caliph’s physician (the author’s father) to arrange for physicians to go to an area lacking medical services and care for residents there.  Alī ibn `Isā directed that once the needs of Muslims had been met, the physicians should also treat Jews, as well as other non-Muslims, in other areas that lacked medical services.  Alī ibn `Isā also intervened to ensure that revenue from a religious endowment was not diverted from supporting a hospital.  He ordered the endowment administrator:

Do everything to pay out what is due, and see that the physically and mentally sick inmates are kept warm with blankets, clothing and fuel, supplied with food and given constant treatment and care.

Another of Alī ibn `Isā official missives to the caliph’s physician concerned prisoners:

I have been pondering on the situation of those in prison and on the fact that owing to their number and uncomfortable accommodation, they will inevitably become affected with disease. They cannot look after themselves and consult doctors about their condition. It is fitting therefore, that you assign special physicians to them who should visit them every day, carrying drugs and medicines. The should make the rounds of all the prisons in order to attend the sick inmates and cure their diseases. An order should also be issued that those who are in need of muzawwarāt should be given it.[6]

The author of the “Book of History” was deeply involved in high Abbasid politics.  That book plausibly was a literary means for buttressing the reputation of the author’s father (the caliph’s physician), Alī ibn `Isā, and other politicians that the author favored.  Across millennia and across many different political circumstances, care for those sick and in prison has been a sign of personal merit.

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[1] The boy’s name was originally Ja’far b. al-Mu’tadid.  Al-Muqtadir  means “mighty by the help of the Lord.”

[2] Sourdel (1977) p. 135.  Wikipedia says thirteen times.  Some persons had multiple turns in the office of wazir.

[3] Sourdel (1977) p. 136.

[4] Sourdel (1977) pp. 135-37, HP p. 422.  Alī ibn `Isā’s full name was Abū al-Hasan Alī ibn `Isā ibn al-Jarrāh.

[5] HP pp. 422, 429, 433.  The physician’s name was Abū Sa`īd Sinan ibn Thābit ibn Qurra.  His son’s name was Abū al-Hasan Thābit ibn Sinān ibn Thābit ibn Qurrah.

[6] Previous two quotes are from HP pp.  422-6.


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 294Online transcription.

Sourdel, Dominique. 1977.  “The ‘Abbasid caliphate.”  Ch. 4 in Holt, Peter Malcolm, Ann K. S. Lambton, and Bernard Lewis, eds. The Cambridge history of Islam. Vol. 1A, The central Islamic lands from pre-Islamic times to the First World War. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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