Ibn Abi Usaybia's historical-biographical book enterprise

Ibn Abi Usaybia’s interest in writing books extended beyond his History of Physicians. He also wrote a book entitled The Successful Astronomers.[1]  Medicine and astronomy were closely related in practice. Ibn Abi Usaybia’s book on astronomers probably was quite similar to his historical-biographical reference work on physicians.  His book on astronomers apparently has not survived.  In Ibn Abi Usaybia’s time, astronomers were not clearly distinguished from astrologers.  His book on astronomers/astrologers probably has not survived because Islamic teachers subsequently condemned astrology more strongly and more uniformly.

Ibn Abi Usaybia wrote another book that he referred to simply as Experiences and Morals.[2]  His biographical works provided experiences and morals through biography. Experiences and Morals probably was a more directly didactic work that drew upon the material from the biographical works.

Ibn Abi Usaybia planned to write additional books.  Ibn Abi Usaybia included in his History of Physicians a lengthy section (54 pages) on Galen. But Ibn Abi Usaybia had much more to write about Galen:

To sum up, there are many stories and anecdotes which will benefit him who studies them, witticisms and examples scattered in Galen’s books and included in reports about him.  There are also many tales of his treatment of the sick which cannot all be mentioned here, that prove his medical skill.  I intend, with God’s help, to compose a separate book which will include all the relevant details reported in Galen’s works and elsewhere.[3]

Galen lived in the second century.  More than a millennium later,  Galen was by far the leading figure among physicians in thirteenth-century Damascus. In planning to write a book about Galen, Ibn Abi Usaybia was choosing a popular subject.

While Ibn Abi Usaybia practiced as a physician, he apparently sought to write historical-biographical reference works for all intellectual fields.  In the introduction to his book on physicians, Ibn Abi Usaybi declared:

The philosophers, mathematicians and students of the other sciences will be treated by me exhaustively, if Allāh the Exalted wills, in the book Outstanding Milestones among the Nations and Reports on the Masters of Wisdom.[4]

The order of Ibn Abi Usaybia’s biographical enterprise probably was astronomers, physicians, and others (philosophers, mathematicians, and others).  That probably was the status ranking of intellectual fields in thirteenth-century Damascus.

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[1] HP p. 507.  Because HP is an edition from 1270, the year of Ibn Abi Usaybia’s death, references to other of his works in it don’t necessarily mean that those work were written before the original edition of History of Physicians (1242).  History of Physicians is a conventional title for Ibn Abi Usaybia’s book.  In Arabic, its title is Uyūn ul-Anbāʾ fī Ṭabaqāt ul-Aṭibbāʾ (Essential Information Concerning the Classes of Physicians).  Biographical dictionaries (tabaqāt) that grouped biographies into “classes” of persons were a common form of literature in the Islamic world from the ninth through the sixteenth centuries.  The individual entries (tarjama) commonly included, in addition to a life history, a bibliography of works authored and a list of notable sayings. The more extensive entries in Ibn Abi Usaybia’s Ṭabaqāt ul-Aṭibbāʾ, like tarjama, typically include both a bibliography and a list of sayings.

[2] HP p. 879.

[3] HP p. 164.  Anecdotes (nawādir) were a common element in the tarjama genre.

[4] HP p. 3.  Kopf interprets “milestones” as “personalities” and notes: “Literally: sign-posts, milestones; Sang: monuments.  As the book was never written, the author’s intention remains uncertain as to his pointing to persons or works.”


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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