The Great Christian Physician of Islam’s Golden Age (Part 3)

In the previous part of this article, I have covered much on the works translated and written by Hunayn ibn Ishaq during his lifetime, both in the fields of science and religion. As I’ve mentioned in the previous part of this article, I will now be covering on a special chapter taken from the story of the life of Hunayn ibn Ishaq, the great physician of the Golden Age of Islam.

In mentioning this special chapter, I’m actually referring to a special incident that occurred at a certain point in Hunayn’s life. Information about this incident is sourced from a biography of Hunayn found in a work entitled ‘Lives of the Physicians’ (Uyun al-anba’ fi tabaqat al-atibba) by Ibn Abi Usaibi’a (1203 – 1270), an Arab physician and historian from Damascus. This biography was written in the first person point of view, that is, from Hunayn’s own perspective. Nevertheless, some modern-day scholars doubt the authenticity of this source due to the fact that conversations which Hunayn could not have possibly overheard were also written down in it. Hence, such scholars assert that it was probably one of Hunayn’s students who wrote it in defense of his teacher.

Regardless of whether this biography was actually authored by Hunayn himself or one of his students, it still remains a rather interesting account for us to consider. Due to copyright reasons, I’m unable to display the full text of this source in this article. However, for those of you who are interested to read the full text, click here to read it. For the rest of this article, I will only provide you with a summary of the narration found in the actual text.

Culture and life during the era of the Abbasid Caliphate

It all began when utter jealousy aroused in the hearts of some of Hunayn’s family members, colleagues and students, who were envious of his great learning and excellent capabilities in translating works as well as in practicing medicine. They resented the fact that Hunayn was revered in the Abbasid Caliphate as an extraordinary translator and a great physician who was a mark above many of his contemporaries. In spite of all the kindness, assistance and good treatment that he had offered to them, they mistreated him and made life difficult for him in every way possible.

In all the days of his misery and anguish, Hunayn never voiced his frustrations out to anyone else. He kept it all to himself, feeling very upset and looking unto Almighty God to judge between him and them. He neither slandered nor accused his adversaries, but instead kept on praising them in public. Whenever he was told that his adversaries were insulting him, he merely shrugged off such notions and said that he could not imagine them insulting him, since he and they were all tied by a similar birthplace, faith and profession. (Most of his adversaries who disliked him were Nestorian Christians from Al-Hira themselves.)

Many a times did other physicians come to him in their times of need, particularly when they needed his help to confirm diagnoses and prescribe medicines in difficult cases. Ironically, these physicians who required him the most in their times of need were, at the same time, his most malicious enemies. Hunayn never voiced out his anguish to them, but kept quiet all the time and willingly helped them as they requested, leaving it to God to judge between him and them. There were in total 56 Nestorian Christian physicians in the service of the caliph who wielded much influence in the caliph’s court, all of whom resented Hunayn for who he was.

A depiction of an Abbasid caliph's court

Finally, Hunayn’s sufferings and misery culminated in perhaps the most terrible experience in his entire lifetime. This was brought about by a court physician who was a Nestorian Christian just like Hunayn himself. He was none other than Bukhtishu ibn Jibril, who had plotted against Hunayn to trap him in the presence of the caliph.

In this plot, Bukhtishu had obtained a beautiful icon magnificently portraying Mary, Mother of Jesus holding the infant Jesus in her lap, being surrounded by angels. Bukhtishu arranged for the icon to be brought into the court of Caliph Al-Mutawakkil, where he then received it and presented it to the caliph, who was impressed with it. Bukhtishu then kissed the icon and, after explaining to the caliph that the former was obliged to kiss it as a Christian, started accusing Hunayn of being an atheist who had no respect for the icon, but would rather spit on it upon seeing it. Caliph Al-Mutawakkil subsequently agreed to summon Hunayn at a later time suggested by Bukhtishu in order to investigate the truth behind this accusation.

An artist's impression of a surgery carried out in medieval Islamic times

After leaving the caliph’s presence, Bukhtishu went to meet Hunayn with the intention of tricking him to spit on the icon that had just been presented to the caliph. The wicked physician told a different story altogether to Hunayn.

Bukhtishu told Hunayn that someone else had presented such an icon to the caliph, and that the caliph was most impressed with it. When asked of his opinion on the icon, Bukhtishu replied the caliph by saying that it meant nothing to him and that it was just an ordinary picture. Upon hearing such a reply, the caliph asked Bukhtishu to prove his words by spitting on the icon. Bukhtishu did as what the caliph said, spitting on the icon in front of the caliph. The physician asserted that he had done so in front of the caliph in order to prevent the latter from making use of the icon to provoke and humiliate other Christians.

In telling this false story to Hunayn, Bukhtishu advised him to do as what he “had done” in front of the caliph if the caliph were to ask the same questions to Hunayn. Bukhtishu also said that he had advised some of their friends to do the same if the caliph were to ask those questions to them.

Of course, not knowing the truth behind this matter, Hunayn fell into the wicked physician’s trap. Shortly after Bukhtishu left, Hunayn was summoned to the caliph’s court and was shown the icon. Caliph Al-Mutawakkil asked for Hunayn’s opinions pertaining to the icon. The great physician did as what he was told by Bukhtishu, saying that the icon meant nothing special and then spat on it. Immediately after doing that, Caliph Al-Mutawakkil ordered Hunayn to be thrown into prison.

A depiction of Virgin Mary and the infant Jesus in her lap

The caliph then summoned Mar Theodosius I (in office 853 – 858), the catholicos or the head of the Nestorian Christian church in Baghdad at that time. When he saw the icon of Mary and the infant Jesus in the court of the caliph, Mar Theodosius I requested the caliph to present it to him as a gift. After consenting to the request, the caliph enquired the catholicos as to how someone who has spat on the icon should be dealt with. The catholicos replied that if the offender was a Muslim, then he should merely be reprimanded for it so that he would not repeat the offense. However, if the offender was a Christian, which would be unlikely in any case since only an absolutely ignorant Christian would commit such an act, he should be severely condemned and ostracized by his fellow Christians until he repents. After repenting, he should observe all prayers and fasts, besides distributing a portion of his riches in alms before he could be forgiven.

Once Mar Theodosius I left, Caliph Al-Mutawakkil ordered Hunayn to be brought before him. Hunayn was then given a hundred whippings before the caliph ordered for the great physician to be imprisoned and tortured. Moreover, the caliph sent men to destroy Hunayn’s houses and confiscate all his belongings.

A depiction of physicians and drugs used during medieval Islamic times

Hunayn’s torment under the hands of the caliph and his men lasted for a bitter six months. After four months of imprisonment, Caliph Al-Mutawakkil fell very ill up to the point when all his physicians gave up any hope of recovery. Hunayn’s adversaries, who were all the other court physicians, attended to the caliph everyday, persuading him from day to day to eliminate Hunayn. At last, on one day, the caliph bowed down to their persistent pressures and agreed to condemn Hunayn to death the next morning.

The night before the execution, a court official came to Hunayn to inform him of his predicament. The great physician was so distressed that he prayed to God the whole night for deliverance from his adversaries, knowing that he was innocent and had been wronged by Bukhtishu and his accomplices.

The next morning, when a eunuch came to open the door of Hunayn’s prison earlier than usual, Hunayn was devastated, thinking that the caliph was going to proceed with the execution after all. He begged God even more earnestly for mercy and deliverance. The great physician was then tidied up and dressed properly before being taken to the caliph’s court. By the time he arrived at the court, all his adversaries and the other officials were already gathered there, waiting for the execution. The caliph invited Hunayn to sit directly in front of him before addressing the entire audience.

Much to the surprise of Hunayn and all present there, Caliph Al-Mutawakkil announced that he had pardoned the great physician and had thus released him from all charges. The caliph subsequently requested Hunayn to examine him and prescribe the suitable medications for his condition. Ignoring all that the other wicked physicians were saying to him, the caliph followed Hunayn’s prescription and took the drug without further ado.

Cassia pods (left) and exudate from the manna ash bark (right) - medicines prescribed by Hunayn to Caliph Al-Mutawakkil

Caliph Al-Mutawakkil then explained to all who were present in the court as to why he had pardoned Hunayn, despite vowing on the day before to execute the great physician. Apparently, the caliph had a most amazing dream the night before. In his dream, the Lord Jesus Christ had appeared to him with Hunayn, commanding him to pardon Hunayn and to take the great physician’s prescription in order to get well. When he woke up in the morning, he was amazed at the power of Hunayn’s intercessor, at the same time mulling over Hunayn’s sufferings and torment under his hands.

After explaining all these, the caliph ordered all the wicked physicians who opposed Hunayn to bring ten thousand dirhams each to the court, or else they would be executed. The caliph added another ten thousand dirhams from his own treasury to the total that has been collected from all the wicked physicians and gave all the money to Hunayn. The caliph also ordered renovation works on three of his personal residences and handed them over to the great physician. All that Hunayn needed, such as utensils, furniture and books, were supplied to him by the caliph.

A dirham coin from the Abbasid era

Besides obtaining all these riches from the caliph, Hunayn also obtained substantial amounts of money as compensation for his time in prison, as well as an enormous monthly salary. All that Hunayn had lost before this were restored to him a hundredfold. He was subsequently placed in a very high position – higher than all his allies and adversaries. Despite all that he had gone through, Hunayn never held any grudges against his adversaries, but instead willingly helped them whenever they sought his assistance in difficult matters.

All in all, it is undoubtedly true that the Golden Age of Islam of the medieval Abbasid Caliphate marked the era when the Islamic World was at its peak in terms of culture, civilization, scientific advancements and propagation of knowledge. It is also undoubtedly true that, as the name suggests, the Golden Age of Islam witnessed the contributions of numerous Muslim scholars, scientists, philosophers and artists in developing the predominantly Islamic society of the Abbasid Caliphate.

Nonetheless, it is worth noting as well that a significant body of Nestorian Christian scholars, philosophers, scientists and physicians has made invaluable contributions in the Abbasid Caliphate, thus enabling the Golden Age of Islam to flourish even further – a fact that many don’t actually know. Of course, amongst these prominent Nestorian Christians was Abu Zayd Hunayn ibn Ishaq al-Ibadi.

A Nestorian Christian church in modern-day Baghdad, Iraq

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