early Islamic stories shift heroes from deeds to ideals

Ancient Greek stories make heroes known by their deeds.  Structurally similar early Islamic stories shift narrative weight from deeds to ideals.  Stories about an honored physician saving a person dying from lovesickness illustrate this shift.

By no later than the first century in the Greco-Roman world, a story was circulating about a physician who saved a royal dying from lovesickness.  The royal fell silently in love with a forbidden other and was subsequently wasting away.  Only an eminent physician was able to identify the disease as lovesickness.  Granting the royal the forbidden beloved cured the lovesickness.

The most prominent version of this story involves Prince Antiochus, son of King Seleucus.  King Seleucus ruled the third-century BGC Seleucid Empire.  In one telling of the story, Antiochus fell deeply in love with his stepmother, Seleucus’s wife.  Antiochus silently suffered nearly to death from that forbidden love.  His father, his friends, and the whole court were in despair.  A physician or astrologer, variously named as Erasistratus, Leptines, and Cleombrotus, correctly diagnosed Antiochus’ lovesickness.  Informed of the nature of the disease, Seleucus gave his wife to his son, and his son’s sickness was cured.[1]

A structurally similar Islamic story was circulating in the Islamic world by no later than the tenth century.  The Islamic story takes place in the seventh century, the early years of Islam.  The story participants apparently were high-status figures in the relatively egalitarian tribal structure of early Islam.  Their circumstances paralleled those of the father and son in the Greek story:

there were two brothers of the Banū Kinna, a subtribe of Thaqīf, who loved each other dearly — indeed, greater affection than shown by those two had never been seen.  When the elder once went on a journey, he left his wife in the care of the younger, and the latter, looking at her one day, inadvertently, fell in love with her and became ill as a consequence.[2]

Several physicians could not diagnose the cause of this illness.  The eminent physician al-Hārith ibn Kalada, however, devised a diagnostic experiment.[3]  Although Muslims were forbidden to drink wine, ibn Kalada ordered that the ill younger brother be given wine to drink.  The ill younger brother became intoxicated and recited a love poem.  This effect prompted the people to declare to ibn Kalada, “You are the best physician among the Arabs.”  Ibn Kalada ordered that the brother be given more wine.  The brother then recited a poem obscurely revealing his love for his older brother’s wife.[4]  The older brother hence divorced his wife and told the younger brother to marry her.  The story ends not with the Greek unification of lovers, but with death:

the younger brother replied: “By God, I shall never wed her.”  And he died true to his word. [5]

In contrast to the Greek story, the heart of this early Islamic story is not the physician’s shrewd diagnosis, nor the curative act of making a forbidden love available.  The heart of this story is the ideal — “true to his word.”[6]

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[1]  Pinault (1992), Ch. 2, review sources for the Greek story.  These sources include Valerius Maximus, Memorable Deeds and Sayings, 5.7.3; Plutarch, Life of Demetrius 38; Appian, Roman History 11.10; Lucian, The Syrian Goddess 17-18, and How to Write History 35; Julian, Misopogon 347; and Suda, s.v. Erasistratus.

[2] HP, pp. 214-5, transmits this early Islamic story and provides the above quotations.  The physician who subsequently figures in the story, ibn Kalada, is also from the tribe of Thaqīf.

[3] Some versions of the Greek story of lovesickness describe the physician conducting an experiment to determine the cause of the sicknesses.  The experiment consists of having young women of the court (and in some versions, also young men) appearing to the patient to test his response.

[4] The poetic translation seems to lose the key to the revelation.  The key apparently depends on details of Islamic family law and familial terms.

[5] The ending is consistent with a sobriety-sensitive interpretation of the hadith:

He who loves and remains chaste, conceals his love, and dies, dies a martyr.

Here’s some scholarly analysis and interpretation of this hadith.

[6] A tenth-century Arabic text by as-Sijistani tells of Hippocrates diagnosing a prince’s lovesickness for his father’s concubine.  Compared to the Greek versions, this early Islamic story also highlights ideals, in this case the ethical wisdom of Hippocrates.  See Pinault (1992) Ch. 6 (analysis) and App. B (English translation of source text).


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.

Pinault, Jody Rubin. 1992. Hippocratic lives and legends. Leiden: E.J. Brill.

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