book saves ape?

An eminent teacher of wisdom declared that those who increase knowledge, increase sorrow. Decide for yourself:

Jurjah ibn Zakariyā, a chief from Nubia, arrived at Samarra in Ramadan of the year 221/836 and brought al-Mu`tasim many gifts, among which there was a she-ape. I was visiting Yūhannā on the second day of Shawwāl of the same year and blaming him for delaying his presence at the court at that time, when I saw that Salmawayhi, Bakhtīshū` and al-Juraysh the physicians were already there. While we were talking, there came one of the special Turkish slaves with one of those apes sent by the King of Nubia, the biggest I have ever seen, and said to Yūhannā: ‘The Emir of the Faithful orders you to mate this ape with your Hamāhim.’ Now, Yūhannā had a she-ape named Hamāhim without which he could not bear to be for a moment. He fell silent, grieved by this message, and then said to the youth: ‘Tell the Caliph that I have adopted this ape for a different reason than that which he has in mind. My plan is to dissect it and write a book about the dissection like the one Galen wrote, and dedicate it to the Emir of the Faithful. This ape has a rarity in its body, for its arteries, veins and nerves are quite small, and I would not like to sacrifice its specialty by diluting its nature with something so huge that it will become big and rough. If the Caliph takes this ape away, let him know that I shall write him a book which would have no equal in the whole Islamic world.’ The ape was taken away, and Yūhannā wrote a very fine book, which won the approval of his enemies and friends alike. [1]

By increasing knowledge with his book did Yūhannā alleviate potential sorrow and save his beloved ape?

Some of the historical facts in this story can be verified.  Zacharias was the name of several rulers of Makuria, a Nubian kingdom. One Zacharias plausibly ruled Makuria about 836.  That was during the reign of Caliph al-Mu`tasim.  Al-Mu`tasim moved his capital from Baghdad to Samarra in 836, hence his place in the story is historically accurate.  The reference to “special Turkish slaves” is a historically appropriate reference to ghilman.  Exchanges of extraordinary gifts among rulers was a common practice for establishing and maintaining friendly relations.

Writing a medical book based on the dissection of an ape is plausible.  Galen dissected and studied Barbary apes (Barbary Macaques) and used the resulting knowledge in writing books about anatomy.  Yūhannā in the above account is the physician Yūhannā ibn Māsawayhi.  He served al-Mu`tasim.  Yūhannā wrote a medical book dedicated to al-Ma’mūn, the caliph preceding al-Mu`tasim.[2]  Yūhannā also wrote another book that Ibn Abi Usaibia describes as “‘The Demonstration,’ in thirty chapters.”  Demonstration to Galen meant, among other subjects, a dissection-based discussion of anatomy.

Despite these historical realities, Yūhannā writing a book to save his beloved she-ape almost surely was a courtly fable.  According to this story, writing the book required Yūhannā to dissect his beloved ape.  Why would Yūhannā have offered to do that?  Other aspects of the story are also peculiar.  The King of Nubia’s gift was a she-ape.  Yūhannā’s beloved ape was also a she-ape.  Why did the Caliph seek to have a she-ape mate another she-ape?  Yūhannā’s she-ape had the name Hamāhim.  That means in Arabic mumbling, muttering, and inarticulate utterances.[3]  Hamāhim is thus an onomatopoeic name.  According to Ibn Abi Usaibia’s account, Yūhannā was on occasions cantankerous and crude.[4]  Some of his enemies may well have figured him as a person who was like an ape and would love an ape.  The story of the ape and Yūhannā’s book makes most sense as a humorous, denigrating explanation of Yūhannā’s motivation to write a book about dissection and anatomy.[5]

If that explanation causes you sorrow, I’m sorry.  But I think it’s true.

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[1] HP p. 341.  Ibn Abi Usaibia presents this story as a quotation prefaced by “Said Yūsuf:”.  Yūsuf refers to Yūsuf ibn Ibrāhīm ibn al-Dayā (“son of the wet nurse”), who was one of Yūhannā’s contemporaries and a servant of Ibrāhīm ibn al-Mahdī (HP p. 351).  Al-Mahdi was caliph from 817-819 and then spent the rest of his life as a court poet and musician.  Yūsuf ibn Ibrāhīm was thus well-positioned to record courtly anecdotes.  He apparently recorded such stories in his book Akhbar al-Atibba.

[2] HP p. 351 lists among Yūhannā ibn Māsawayhi’s books one entitled, “The Composition of Man, his Members, the Number of his Major and Minor Bones, Joints, Arteries; How to Know the Causes of Pain: A Book Dedicated to al-Ma’mūn.”

[3] See entry for “hamhama” in Wehr (1976) p. 1035.

[4] Ibn Abi Usaibia records stories and is not judgmental.  His harshest personal criticism in History of Physicians is directed at Yūhannā:

he was a man without manliness and had neither faith nor belief. He was not a Muslim, but did not have any respect even for his own {Christian} religion … no sensible man should approach and no resolute person rely upon a man who has no faith to cling to.

HP p. 349.  In Ibn Abi Usaibia’s account of Yūhannā, Yūhannā’s vexing lack of piety seems to have been more failing to adhere to decorum, than a lack of theistic belief.

[5] For an insightful account of courtly verbal entertainment in the early Islamic world, see Swain (2006) pp. 408-10.


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.

Swain, Simon. 2006. “Beyond the Limits of Greek Biography: Galen from Alexandria to the Arabs,” in Brian McGing and Judith Mossman (eds.), The limits of ancient biography. Swansea: Classical Press of Wales.

Wehr, Hans. 1976.  Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic, 3rd ed.

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