Awhad al-Zamān’s rise: status dynamics in 12th-century Baghdad

In twelfth-century Mesopotamia, Awhad al-Zamān moved from his small town to Baghdad.  He sought to study there with a prominent physician-teacher who had many students.  Those choices signal high ambition.  Since Awhad al-Zamān was a Jew, he lived in the Jewish quarter of Baghdad and faced anti-Jewish prejudice among the Islamic elite who ruled Baghdad.  In particular, the distinguished teacher of medicine with whom Awhad al-Zamān sought to study refused to accept Jewish students.  Awhad al-Zamān sought through all possible means to gain a place under the teacher.  The teacher refused to accept him.[1]  Prejudice against Jews in twelfth-century Baghdad thus formally blocked Awhad al-Zamān’s personal advancement.

Following the fabulistic plot of a humble student earnestly seeking knowledge, Awhad al-Zamān got a position with the teacher’s doorman. During the teacher’s lessons, Awhad al-Zamān sat in the antechamber.  He carefully listened and memorized the teacher’s lessons.  After about a year, Awhad al-Zamān heard the teacher’s students struggling unsuccessfully to solve a problem that the teacher had presented to them.  That was Awhad al-Zamān’s opportunity:

he entered and humbled himself in front of the Shaikh {teacher}, saying: “O my master, with your permission I shall speak on this problem.” The Shaikh replied: “Speak, if you have anything to say.” He answered the question with Galen’s words, adding: “O my master, this question arose on such and such a day, of such a month, in such a year, and has stayed in my mind ever since.” The Shaikh was astonished by his intelligence and memory, and asked where he was studying. Abū al-Barakāt {another name for Awhad al-Zamān} told him, and he said: “We cannot refuse knowledge to one in his situation.” From then on he became more and more closely attached to him until he became one of his preferred students. [2]

This story teaches that earnest desire for knowledge trumps low social status.

Awhad al-Zamān sought social status as well as knowledge.  His learning won for him many students and access to the Caliph.  However, one day when he visited the Caliph, the Chief Justice did not stand for him as he entered, as others did.  The Chief Justice did not stand because he was a Muslim, and Awhad al-Zamān, a Jew, was legally inferior to him.  Awhad al-Zamān declared to the Caliph:

O Emir of the Faithful, if the reason for the Chief Justice’s behavior is the fact that I am not of the same faith as he is, let me convert to Islam in front of my master, in order not to give him the chance of underestimating me for being a Jew.[3]

Thus Awhad al-Zamān became a Muslim.  This story teaches that knowledge isn’t sufficient for high social status.

While Awhad al-Zamān strove to capitalize on his conversion from Jew to Muslim, it wasn’t sufficient to secure him against the wits of his rivals.  One of those rivals was Amīn al-Dawlah ibn al-Tilmīdh, an elite physician and a Christian.  The rivalry of Awhad al-Zamān and Amīn al-Dawlah played across religious identifications:

After his conversion to Islam, Awhad al-Zamān used to shun the Jews and curse and slander them vehemently. One day, the matter of the Jews was mentioned in the council of one of the high notables which was attended by a group including Amīn al-Dawlah.  Awhad al-Zamān said: “May God curse the Jews!” and Amīn al-Dawlah retorted: “Yes indeed, and their sons too!” Hearing this, Awhad al-Zamān fell silent, knowing that this remark was directed at him. [4]

Status insecurity manifesting in shunning and attacking one’s former group is psychologically and historically plausible.  So too is refusing to accept a rival’s shift to a higher status group.

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[1] In twelfth-century Damascus, the eminent physician Shaikh Radiyy al-Dīn al-Rahbī behaved similarly:

He made it a rule never to teach any medical principle to Christians or Jews or to persons who were not worthy of it, for he held the profession in high honor and esteem.  He told me that all his life he had never taught Jews or Christians, except two — `Imran al-`Isrā’īlī and Ibrāhīm ibn Khalaf the Samaritan — and these only out of compassion after they had begged and pleaded with him, giving reasons that he could not disregard. Indeed, both became distinguished physicians.

HP pp. 843-4.

[2]  HP p. 503.  A similar structure of secret learning appears in the fable of Aristotle’s entrance into the King’s court as a poor orphan who had surreptitiously studied under Plato (HP pp. 120-4). The distinguished teacher of medicine was Abū al-Hasan Sa`īd ibn Hibat Allāh ibn al-Husayn.  Galen was by far the leading intellectual authority for physicians.

[3] HP p. 506.  For clarity in the translation, I’ve changed “for it” to “for being a Jew”.  Awhad al-Zamān served Caliph al-Mustanjid bi-Allāh.

[4] HP p. 506.  In another incident of rivalry, Awhad al-Zamān secretly wrote a note falsely implicating Amīn al-Dawlah in crimes. When that ploy was uncovered, the Caliph gave Amīn al-Dawlah the rights to Awhad al-Zamān’s “life, property and books.”  Amīn al-Dawlah nobly declined to exercise those rights and thus gained prestige.  Awhad al-Zamān was banned from the Caliph’s presence and lost prestige.  HP p. 489.


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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