Ibn Abi Usaybia in 13th-century Damascus status economy

In 1242, Ibn Abi Usaybia dedicated his book, Essential Information Concerning the Classes of Physicians, to Amīn al-Dawlah, the vizier of the Ayyubid sultanate based in Damascus.[1]  Ibn Abi Usaybia’s book is a trans-historical, biographical membership directory for the elite medical profession.  It documented the social capital of prominent physicians.  Because thirteenth-century Damascus did not have well-established institutions of social distinction, e.g. titles of nobility or degrees from prestigious universities, books documenting diverse and fluid social credentials were relatively important.[2]  Ibn Abi Usaybia’s book and other similar ones were valuable products in the highly developed status economy of thirteenth-century Damascus.

Ibn Abi Usaybia rang high notes of praise in the dedication for his book.  He described his book as a service to a worthy lord:

With it I am rendering a contribution to the library of my lord and master, the learned and righteous vizier, the accomplished chief, the lord of viziers, the king of savants, the leader of scholars, the sun of religion, Amīn al-Dawlah Kamāl al-Dīn Shārāf al-Milla Abū al-Hasān ibn Ghazal ibn Abī Sa`id — may Allāh perpetuate his happiness and grant him his desires in this world and in the hereafter. [3]

The book was not meant just for Vizier Amīn al-Dawlah’s library.  A professional membership directory is meant to be distributed throughout the profession.  Being written for the vizier and in his library, however, gave Ibn Abi Usaybia’s Essential Information Concerning the Classes of Physicians authoritative significance.

Ibn Abi Usaybia’s book, which drew upon his status assets and furthered others’ status claims, quickly returned material goods.  Ibn Abi Usaybia explained:

When he {Amīn al-Dawlah}, may God bless him, was still in Damascus, enjoying full powers as a vizier, in the days of {Sultan} al-Malik al-Salih Isma`īl, he was an intimate friend of my father’s.  One day he said to him: “O, Sadīd al-Dīn, I have heard that your son has composed an unrivaled book about the classes of physicians, for which highly important work many of my own physicians praise him greatly in my presence.  I have in my library more than twenty thousand volumes, but none in his special branch, and so I would like you to write to him, asking for a copy of this book.”  I was at the time in Sarkhad, staying with its governor, the Emir `Izz al-Dīn Aibak al-Mu`azzamī and taking his orders.  Upon receiving my father’s letter, I went to Damascus, carrying with me the rough copies of my book.  There I called for the illustrious copyist Shams al-Dīn Muhammad al-Hussaini, who used to do a great deal of work for us and whose handwriting was perfectly proportioned and his mastery of Arabic excellent.  I gave him a room in our house, where he copied the book quickly, putting it into four parts, according to the division of Rubu` the Bagdadian.  Having had them bound, I composed a panegyric poem to the master Amīn al-Dawlah and sent him all this with the Chief Justice of Damascus, Rafī` al-Dīn al-Jīlī, who was one of my professors with whom I was on good terms and with whom I studied a part of Ibn Sīnā’s “Book of Notes and Remarks.”  When Amīn al -Dawlah received my book and poem through the judge he was greatly surprised and extremely happy.  He sent me back with the judge a large sum of money, honorary robes and many thanks, saying: “I should like you to notify me of every new book you write.” [4]

The size of the sultan’s library, and the absence of any similar work, underscored both the importance of books and the need for this book.  The sultan’s physicians, who surely were included in Ibn Abi Usaybia’s book, praised not that book, but Ibn Abi Usaybia for writing it.  The professional positions of the sultan’s physicians were social facts.  Documenting them with prestigious calligraphy and an international brand-name book division helped to give those social facts a tangible, enduring form.

Ibn Abi Usaybia appreciated the value of social status.  He himself was an elite physician.  His father’s intimate friendship with the sultan facilitated the demand for Ibn Abi Usaybia’s book.  His book was supplied through an elite official, the Chief Justice of Damascus, with whom Ibn Abi Usaybia had studied the work of another elite physician, Ibn Sīnā.  In return for his book, Ibn Abi Usaybia received “a large sum of money, honorary robes and many thanks.”  Money and robes were material currencies.  Honors and thanks were status currencies.  All these currencies had broad exchange value.

Ibn Abi Usaybai continued to augment his book after it was dedicated and presented to the vizier.  The Chief Justice of Damascus, Rafī` al-Dīn al-Jīlī, presented Ibn Abi Usaybia’s book to the Vizier Amīn al-Dawlah.  Rafī` al-Dīn had previously been a lecturer in law at `Adrāwīyya University in Damascus.  Ibn Abi Usaybia had studied philosophy under him there.  Ibn Abi Usaybia’s former philosophy professor expressed some minor criticism of Ibn Abi Usaybia’s book on physicians:

Judge Rafī` al-Dīn went over a copy of this book in my presence, in which I did not mention him. He read as far as the passage concerning Shihāb al-Dīn al-Suhrawardī {a philosopher} and was much impressed by it.  He said, “You have mentioned him, but omitted others better than he,” meaning himself. [5]

Ibn Abi Usaybia subsequently added an entry for Rafī` al-Dīn.  In that entry, Ibn Abi Usaybia declared:

He {Rafī` al-Dīn} was preeminent in the philosophical sciences, the principles of religion, religious jurisprudence, the natural sciences and medicine. … He held seminars for his students in the different branches of sciences and medicine.  I studied some philosophy with him.  He was eloquent, very wise, and read abundantly.

Rafī` al-Dīn gained prestige and wealth from becoming Chief Justice of Damascus.  Eventually, however, he succumbed to a status reversal:

His prestige increased, he became wealthy, and continued in this condition for some time.  But many people complained of ways he had committed and vehemently denounced his conduct.  Things came to such a pass that he was seized and done to death — may God have mercy upon him — during the reign of al-Malik al-Sālih Isma`īl.  Following a quarrel between him and the Vizier Amīn al-Dawlah, he was sent with an escort of vizierial officers to a place near Ba`albekk, where there was a yawning abyss known as the Cave of Afqa.  There people were told to pinion his arms behind his back and after doing so push him into the abyss.  One of those present told me that when he was pushed, he was smashed by the fall, but it seems that his clothes caught on the side of the cave’s lower part.  The people stayed there for about three days, listening to his groaning, which became weaker and weaker, until it stopped and they were sure that he was dead; then they went away. [6]

Rafī` al-Dīn may well have been learned, eloquent, and wise.  Evidently, however, at some point he misjudged popular opinion and his relationship with the vizier.  The result was fatal.  Rafī` al-Dīn’s death illustrates that even those with highly elite status were not able to establish strong institutional protection to tenure their positions within the complicated socio-political currents of thirteenth-century Damascus.  With some prompting, Rafī` al-Dīn did achieve an enduring position in Ibn Abi Usaybia’s book.

Ibn Abi Usaybia incorporated in his book other evidence of the status economy.  He reported that Rashīd al-Dīn Abū Hulaiqa, who was a physician to Egyptian sultans, knew of his book.  He noted:

When I met Rashīd al-Dīn Abū Hulaiqa, he had already heard that the famous physicians in his family were mentioned and their learning and achievements described by me.  He thanked me and was most kind.  I thereupon recited to him the following impromptu poem:
How shall I not praise those whose merits
Are known in both East and West?
There shine on their account, in the sky of nobility,
Stars of good luck that never set.
They are men whose rank in learning among the people
You see transcending the high station of the planets.
How many books on medicine they have written, containing
Everything that arouses wonder and admiration.
My praise to the Banū Shākir has not ceased, whether far or near.
I perpetuate their generosity by writing these glowing lines. [7]

By “perpetuate their generosity,” Ibn Abi Usaybia probably also meant to perpetuate their patronage.  In 1270, Ibn Abu Usaybia heard from Abū Hulaiqa’s son:

I received a letter from him, which revealed his utmost refinement, wide knowledge, penetrating insight, great affection and abundant goodwill.  In that letter he informed me that he had found in Cairo, a copy of the book which I had written on the classes of physicians and that he had bought it and incorporated it in his library.  He spoke of the book in glowing terms, which shows his generous character and noble disposition.

Ibn Abi Usaybia’s book described physician’s characters.  Ibn Abi Usaybia also recognized good character in persons positive responses to his book.  That’s a propitious authorial strategy for gaining acclaim.  Abū Hulaiqa’s son apparently had not met Ibn Abi Usaybia in person, for his letter to Ibn Abi Usaybia began thus:

I am a man who loves you for your notable achievements,
Of which I have heard, the ear being able to love no less than the eye.

Ibn Abi Usaybia responded reciprocally:

I answered him in writing, with a poem which I composed in the same meter and rhyme:
Your letter has reached me, beautifully written
And filled with thoughts which shine like the sun,
The letter of a man noble, generous and praiseworthy,
With a benign countenance, which radiates light.
He is the lord and master through whom East and West flourish in wisdom,
A savant encompassing all the sciences,
To whom no gate of noble action is closed,
A generous man, accumulating all kinds of accomplishments,
But scattering his money with an open hand.

No wonder that, with regard to the sons of Hulaiqa,
I am bound by the ties of true friendship.
To their father I am obliged for many favors of long ago.
So my gratitude is due to them for ever —
To them, who all aspire to lofty aims, but especially
To him who said to me, while experiencing a great longing:
“I am a man who loves you for your notable achievements,
Of which I have heard, the ear being able to love no less than the eye.”
May they continue to enjoy well-being and never-failing health,
As long as the great and lofty trees put forth leaves. [8]

This image of a ruling family as a great and lofty tree doesn’t correspond to the rapidly shifting, treacherous, brutal politics of thirteenth-century Baghdad-Damascus-Cairo political circles.  Extravagant praise seems to have been a counterpart to intense fear of betrayal.

Ibn Abi Usaybia explicitly used his book to seek a position serving Badr al-Dīn, the leading physician in Damascus. Badr al-Dīn, the son of the Judge of Ba`albekk, was appointed  in 1239 chief of Sultan al-Jawad Yunis’ physicians, oculists, and surgeons.  In 1247, Badr al-Dīn became head physician of the Great Hospital in Damascus.  Badr al-Dīn and Ibn Abi Usaybia  had studied medicine together in Damascus under a notable physician-teacher.  In addition, Ibn Abi Usaybia’s grandfather and uncle lived many years in Ba`albekk.[9]  Ibn Abi Usaybia thus had useful ties to Badr al-Dīn.   In his book, Ibn Abi Usaybia lavishly praised the highly successful Badr al-Dīn:

An indescribable amount of precious knowledge, extreme intelligence and manly valor was imbued into his {Badr al-Dīn’s} soul by God the Omnipotent. … within the shortest possible time {he} reached to perfection in both {medicine’s} theoretical and practical aspects.  He was highly ambitious in his work and his soul contained all virtues.  I found him to study with a conscientiousness unmatched by any of the other students, for he never ceased to increase his knowledge, improve his scholarship and deepen his understanding.  He knew many medical books and philosophical works by heart.

Ibn Abi Usaybia offered no pretense of objectivity or disinterestedness.  He included in his book poetry that he noted he had sent to Badr al-Dīn in a personal letter:

The rising sun was almost eclipsed by the radiance of Badr al-Dīn,
A virtuous physician, a noble scholar, both in heart and soul.
The most learned of men in the medical art, the science of feeling the pulse,
An expert in curing, not by guesswork, but by sound knowledge;
From Hippocrates and “the old master,” from the Greeks and Persians {he got his art};
How many are those whom he has restored to health, saving them from the contrary!

Ibn Abi Usaybia described himself as a mamluk to Badr al-Dīn and floridly evoked blessings for him:

The mamluk kisses the hand of the illustrious master and scholarly physician, the noble chief and unrivaled leader, the hand of Badr al-Dīn, may God prolong its strength and generosity, may he double its favors to the good folk who deserve them and prostrate its grudging enemies by the duration of its happiness.  May it remain in grace and perpetual favor, as long as the days pass into years, as long as the heart pulsates in the arteries.  May God accord the master our best wishes as long as he still feels the breath of life in him; may he well reward him as long as his noble roots still expand and branch out; may he make his praise a continuously fragrant perfume in the gardens of praise; may he adorn his countenance with the perpetually shining and brilliant fame of his benevolence; may he fulfill all our master’s passions and desires, which cannot be fathomed by words or put down on paper.

Ibn Abi Usaybia obscurely refers to a “separation” and urgently seeks a reconciliation in which he is completely subordinate to Badr al-Dīn:

The mamluk ends by expressing his great longing to serve Badr al-Dīn.  Had he the eloquence of the master shaikh together with Galen’s prose style, he still would have been unable to describe the depth of his yearnings and the magnitude of his suffering because of the separation.  He prays to God the Omnipotent to facilitate their prompt meeting and make it good and beneficial. [10]

Such urgent, personal concern for a relationship would be completely incongruous in a modern biographical reference work.  Ibn Abi Usaybia’s Essential Information Concerning the Classes of Physicians, in contrast, is all about social status and personal relations.

Ibn Abi Usaybia’s keen interest in serving Badr al-Dīn may be related to developments in another of Ibn Abi Usaybia’s relationships.  Amīn al-Dawlah, to whom Ibn Abi Usaybia dedicated his book in 1242, was arrested and imprisoned in 1245.   In 1250, Amīn al-Dawlah was executed by hanging.  In a subsequent edition of his book, Ibn Abi Usaybia described details of his former patron’s hanging and the general lesson:

A witness to the hanging told me that the Vizier was clad in a green prisoner’s gown, and his feet shod in boots of a type which he had never before seen on a hanged man. … Amīn al-Dawlah did not suspect what was awaiting him, for Allāh, the glorious and omnipotent, was already engineering his predestined fate, written in the hidden Book. [11]

In the turbulent sociopolitical circumstances of thirteenth-century Damascus, biographical directories of elites gained extra significance as enduring symbolic goods.  Gaining a good place in such a book was the most secure social status achievable.

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Read more:


[1] For the book and an online English translation, see HP.  The Library of Congress’ transliteration of the author’s name is Ibn Abī Uṣaybiʻah.  Various other transliterations also exists.  Previously I’ve used Ibn Abi Usaibia.  Here I use Ibn Abi Usaybia, which seems closer to the most popular transliteration.

[2] Chamberlain (1994) provides an overview of the status economy in thirteenth-century Damascus.  The Bakhtīshū` family of physicians served Abbasid caliphs for three centuries.  Their marginal ethnic and religious position may have fostered strong intra-familial ties.  Religious-ethnic outsider solidarity probably helped the Bakhtīshū` family to achieve an enduring social position among Abbasid elites.

[3] HP p. 3.  Ibn Abi Usaybia describes Amīn al-Dawlah as a “Samaritan who converted to Islam under the name Kamal al-Dīn.”  HP p. 895.

[4] HP p. 899.  Ibn Abi Usaybia evidently allowed sections of his text to circulate before he transformed his rough draft into a luxurious, bound book.

[5] HP p. 814.

[6] HP p. 813.  Also previous quote.

[7] HP p. 760.  Members of Rashīd al-Dīn Abū Hulaiqa’s family were known as Banū Shākir (sons of Shākir) in honor of the physician Abu Shākir, a celebrated forebear.  HP p. 759.

[8] HP pp. 763-4.  Also previous three quotes.

[9] The Great Hospital in Damascus, founded in 1154 by Nur al-Din Zangi, was also known as the al-Nuri Hospital. Al-Jawad Yunus conquered Damascus in 1237. Ibn Abi Usaybia reports his name as al-Malik al-Gawwād Muzaffar al-Dīn Yūnus ibn Shams al-Dīn Mamdūd ibn al-Malik al-`Ādil.  HP p. 931. The master physician who taught both Ibn Abi Usaybia and Badr al-Dīn was Muhadhdhab al-Dīn `Abd al-Rahīm ibn Al.  On Ibn Abi Usaybia’s personal history, see HP. pp. 549, 749, 879, 880, 899, 907, 908-15.   Ibn Abi Usaybia reports accompanying his father, who was also an elite physician, on various trips.  His father died in 1251.  See HP p. 914.  Ibn Abi Usaybia has a separate entry for his uncle, Rashid al-Dīn `Ālī ibn Khalīfa, and quotes extensively his sayings.  In contrast, Ibn Abi Usaybia didn’t add a separate entry for his father and wrote relatively little about him.

[10] HP pp. 930-4.  Also previous three quotes.

[11] HP p. 898.


Chamberlain, Michael. 1994. Knowledge and social practice in medieval Damascus, 1190-1350. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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.

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