Hunayn ibn Ishaq

Full name: 
’Abū Zayd Ḥunayn ibn ’Isḥāq al-‘Ibādī
Arabic name: 
أبو زيد حنين بن إسحاق العبادي
Latin name: 
Date of birth: 
Date of death: 

Hunayn was the son of a Nestorian pharmacist in Al-Antrah in southern Iraq. He must have been brought up speaking Arabic, but using Syriac for educational purposes and in church. He studied medicine in Jundishapur and Baghdad, and improved his Arabic by studying Arabic grammar in Basra. He also spent two years in Anatolia (or Alexandria) learning Greek and collecting manuscripts. He then returned to Iraq and in 857 he was appointed personal physician to the Caliph al-Mutawakkil (847-61). There are accounts of the difficulties he experienced while holding this post, arising largely from the jealousy of his Christian rivals.

A remarkable product of Hunayn's pen is his Risâlah, a text in letter-form addressed to Ali ibn Yahyâ, a member of a prominent Zoroastrian family in Baghdad, which lists the translations of Galen, the pillar of the Greek medical tradition, which Hunayn and his associates made and it gives details about manuscripts and the procedures employed. It records that with his son Ishaq (who died in 910) and his nephew Hubaysh, he translated almost 130 medical treatises from Greek into Syriac and from Syriac into Arabic. He also revised older translations. The particular Greek author covered in the Risalah is Galen, but we know Hunayn's translations also included Hippocrates, Rufus of Ephesus, Oribasius, Dioscorides and Paul of Aegina.

Hunayn conducted a kind of cottage industry in translation, with Christian and Muslim patrons commissioning translations into Syriac and Arabic. The family translation business was not, however, limited to medical texts. Hunayn's son translated mathematical and geometrical works of Euclid and other translators of this age translated many other scientific works.

The medical historian Withington (1894: 141) described Hunayn very aptly as "one of the greatest men of the ninth century, the Erasmus of the Arabic Renaissance", and echoes of the European Renaissance are strong.

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