Hunayn ibn Ishaq

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Hunayn ibn Ishaq
Hunayn ibn-Ishaq al-'Ibadi Isagoge.jpg
Iluminure from the Hunayn ibn-Ishaq al-'Ibadi manuscript of the Isagoge
Born809 AD
Died873 AD
Academic background
Academic work
EraIslamic Golden Age
Main interestsTranslation, Ophthalmology, Philosophy, Religion, Arabic grammar
Notable worksBook of the Ten Treatises of the Eye
InfluencedIshaq ibn Hunayn

Hunayn ibn Ishaq al-Ibadi (also Hunain or Hunein) ( Arabic: أبو زيد حنين بن إسحاق العبادي‎; ʾAbū Zayd Ḥunayn ibn ʾIsḥāq al-ʿIbādī, Latin: Iohannitius, Syriac: ܚܢܝܢ ܒܪ ܐܝܣܚܩ‎) (809–873) was an influential Arab Nestorian Christian translator, scholar, physician, and scientist. During the apex of the Islamic Abbasid era, he worked with a group of translators, among whom were Abū 'Uthmān al-Dimashqi, Ibn Mūsā al-Nawbakhti, and Thābit ibn Qurra, to translate books of philosophy and classical Greek and Persian texts into Arabic and Syriac.[1] Ḥunayn ibn Isḥaq was the most productive translator of Greek medical and scientific treatises in his day. He studied Greek and became known among the Arabs as the "Sheikh of the translators". He is the father of Arab translations. He mastered four languages: Arabic, Syriac, Greek and Persian. His translations did not require corrections; Hunayn's method was widely followed by later translators. He was originally from al-Hira, the capital of a pre-Islamic cultured Arab kingdom, but he spent his working life in Baghdad, the center of the great ninth-century Greek-into-Arabic/Syriac translation movement. His fame went far beyond his own community.[2]


In the Abbasid era, a new interest in extending the study of Greek science had arisen. At that time, there was a vast amount of untranslated ancient Greek literature pertaining to philosophy, mathematics, natural science, and medicine.[3][4] This valuable information was only accessible to a very small minority of Middle Eastern scholars who knew the Greek language; the need for an organized translation movement was urgent.

In time, Hunayn ibn Ishaq became arguably the chief translator of the era, and laid the foundations of Islamic medicine.[3] In his lifetime, ibn Ishaq translated 116 works, including Plato's Timaeus, Aristotle's Metaphysics, and the Old Testament, into Syriac and Arabic.[4][5] Ibn Ishaq also produced 36 of his own books, 21 of which covered the field of medicine.[5] His son Ishaq, and his nephew Hubaysh, worked together with him at times to help translate. Hunayn ibn Ishaq is known for his translations, his method of translation, and his contributions to medicine.[4] He has also been suggested by François Viré to be the true identity of the Arabic falconer Moamyn, author of De Scientia Venandi per Aves.[6]

Early life[edit]

Hunayn ibn Ishaq was an Arab Nestorian Christian, born in 809, during the Abbasid period, in al-Hirah, to an ethnic Arab family.[7][8][9][10][11][12] Hunayn in classical sources is said to have belonged to the ʿIbad, thus his nisba "al-Ibadi.[13][14] The ʿIbad was an Arab community composed of different Arab tribes that had once converted to Nestorian Christianity and lived in al-Hira.[15][16] They were known for their high-literacy and multilingualism being fluent in Syriac, their liturgical and cultural language, besides their native-Arabic.[17][18][19]

As a child, he learned the Syriac and Arabic languages. Although al-Hira was known for commerce and banking, and his father was a pharmacist, Hunayn went to Baghdad in order to study medicine. In Baghdad, Hunayn had the privilege to study under renowned physician Yuhanna ibn Masawayh; however, Hunayn's countless questions irritated Yuhanna, causing him to scold Hunayn and forcing him to leave. Hunayn promised himself to return to Baghdad when he became a physician. He went abroad to master the Latin language. On his return to Baghdad, Hunayn displayed his newly acquired skills by reciting the works of Homer and Galen. In awe, ibn Masawayh reconciled with Hunayn, and the two started to work cooperatively.[20]

Hunayn was extremely motivated in his work to master Greek studies, which enabled him to translate Greek texts into Syriac and Arabic. The Abbasid Caliph al-Mamun noticed Hunayn's talents and placed him in charge of the House of Wisdom, the Bayt al Hikmah. The House of Wisdom was an institution where Greek works were translated and made available to scholars.[21] (Sylvain Gougenheim argued, though, that there is no evidence of Hunayn being in charge of the Bayt al Hikmah[22]) The caliph also gave Hunayn the opportunity to travel to Byzantium in search of additional manuscripts, such as those of Aristotle and other prominent authors.[20]


In Hunayn ibn Ishaq's lifetime, he devoted himself to working on a multitude of writings; both translations and original works.[20]

As a writer of original work[edit]

Hunayn wrote on a variety of subjects that included philosophy, religion and medicine. In "How to Grasp Religion", Hunayn explains the truths of religion that include miracles not possibly made by humans and humans' incapacity to explain facts about some phenomena, and false notions of religion that include depression and an inclination for glory. He worked on Arabic grammar and lexicography.[20]


The eye according to Hunain ibn Ishaq. From a manuscript dated circa 1200.

Hunayn ibn Ishaq enriched the field of ophthalmology. His developments in the study of the human eye can be traced through his innovative book, "Book of the Ten Treatises of the Eye". This textbook is the first known systematic treatment of this field and was most likely used in medical schools at the time. Throughout the book, Hunayn explains the eye and its anatomy in minute detail; its diseases, their symptoms, their treatments. Hunain repeatedly emphasized that he believed the crystalline lens to be in the center of the eye. Hunain may have been the originator of this idea. The idea of the central crystalline lens was widely believed from Hunain's period through the late 1500s.[23] He discusses the nature of cysts and tumors, and the swelling they cause. He discusses how to treat various corneal ulcers through surgery, and the therapy involved in repairing cataracts. "Ten Treatises on Ophthalmology" demonstrates the skills Hunayn ibn Ishaq had not just as a translator and a physician, but also as a surgeon.[5]

As a physician[edit]

Hunayn ibn Ishaq's reputation as a scholar and translator, and his close relationship with Caliph al-Mutawakkil, led the caliph to name Hunayn as his personal physician, ending the exclusive use of physicians from the Bukhtishu family.[20] Despite their relationship, the caliph became distrustful; at the time, there were fears of death from poisoning, and physicians were well aware of its synthesis procedure. The caliph tested Hunayn's ethics as a physician by asking him to formulate a poison, to be used against a foe, in exchange for a large sum. Hunayn ibn Ishaq repeatedly rejected the Caliph's generous offers, saying he would need time to develop a poison. Disappointed, the caliph imprisoned his physician for a year. When asked why he would rather be killed than make the drug, Hunayn explained the physician's oath required him to help, and not harm, his patients.[21]

As a translator[edit]

Some of Hunayn's most notable translations were his translation of "De materia Medica," which was technically a pharmaceutical handbook, and his most popular selection, "Questions on Medicine".[4] "Questions on Medicine" was extremely beneficial to medical students because it was a good guide for beginners to become familiar with the fundamental aspects of medicine in order to understand the more difficult materials. Information was presented in the form of question and answer. The questions were taken from Galen's "Art of Physic", and the answers were based on "Summaria Alexandrinorum". For instance, Hunayn answers what the four elements and four humors are and also explains that medicine is divided into therapy and practice. He goes on later to define health, disease, neutrality, and also natural and contranatural, which associates with the six necessary causes to live healthy.[20]

Hunayn translated writings on agriculture, stones, and religion. He translated some of Plato's and Aristotle's works, and the commentaries of ancient Greeks. Additionally, Hunayn translated many medicinal texts and summaries, mainly those of Galen. He translated a countless number of Galen's works including "On Sects" and "On Anatomy of the Veins and Arteries".[20]

Many published works of R. Duval in Chemistry represent translations of Hunayn's work.[24] Also in Chemistry a book titled ['An Al-Asma'] meaning "About the Names", did not reach researchers but was used in "Dictionary of Ibn Bahlool" of the 10th century.

Translation techniques[edit]

In his efforts to translate as much Greek material as possible, Hunayn ibn Ishaq was accompanied by his son Ishaq ibn Hunayn and his nephew Hubaysh. It was quite normal at times for Hunayn to translate Greek material into Syriac, and have his nephew finish by translating the text from Syriac to Arabic. Ishaq corrected his partners' errors while translating writings in Greek and Syriac into Arabic.[4]

Unlike other translators in the Abbasid period, Hunayn opposed translating texts word for word. Instead, he would attempt to attain the meaning of the subject and the sentences, and then in a new manuscript, rewrite the piece of knowledge in Syriac or Arabic.[4] He also corrected texts by collecting different set of books revolving around a subject and by finalizing the meaning of the subject.[20] The method helped gather, in just 100 years, nearly all the knowledge from Greek medicine.[4]

A selected series of the translated treatises of Galen by Hunayn ibn Ishaq[edit]

  • "Kitab ila Aglooqan fi Shifa al Amraz" – This Arabic translation, related to Galen's Commentary, by Hunayn ibn Ishaq, is extant in the Library of Ibn Sina Academy of Medieval Medicine and Sciences. It is a masterpiece of all the literary works of Galen. It is part of the Alexandrian compendium of Galen's work. This manuscript from the 10th century is in two volumes that include details regarding various types of fevers (Humyat) and different inflammatory conditions of the body. More importantly, it includes details of more than 150 single and compound formulations of both herbal and animal origin. The book also provides an insight into understanding the traditions and methods of treatment in the Greek (Unani) and Roman eras.
  • De sectis
  • Ars medica
  • De pulsibus ad tirones
  • Ad Glauconem de medendi methodo
  • De ossibus ad tirones
  • De musculorum dissectione
  • De nervorum dissectione
  • De venarum arteriumque dissectione
  • De elementis secundum Hippocratem
  • De temperamentis
  • De facultibus naturalibus
  • De causis et symptomatibus
  • De locis affectis De pulsibus (four treatises)
  • De typis (febrium)
  • De crisibus
  • De diebus decretoriis
  • Methodus medendi
  • Hippocrates and Dioscorides.


  • Kitab Adab al-Falasifa, original Arabic lost, known in medieval translation
  • Libro de Los Buenos Proverbio (Castilian Spanish)
  • Sefer Musré ha-Filosofim (Book of the Morals of the Philosophers), Hebrew translation of the Judeo-Andalusian poet, Juda ben Shlomo Al-Jarisi (1170–1235).[25]

Fragments from Various Books Interpolated or Adapted[edit]

  • General History of Alfonso el Sabio (Castilian Spanish)
  • Llibre de Saviesa of James of Aragon. (Castilian Spanish)
  • The Pseudo Seneca(Castilian Spanish)
  • La Floresta de Philosophos (Castilian Spanish)
  • El Victorial (Castilian Spanish)
  • Bocados de Oro, taken directly from Adab al-Falasifa.(Spanish)

Other translated works[edit]

  • Plato's Republic (Siyasah).
  • Aristotle's Categories (Maqulas), Physics (Tabi'iyat) and Magna Moralia (Khulqiyat).
  • Seven books of Galen's anatomy, lost in the original Greek, preserved in Arabic.
  • Arabic version of the Old Testament from the Greek Septuagint did not survive.
  • "Kitab Al-Ahjar" or the "Book of Stones".

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Nadim (al-), Abū al-Faraj Muḥammad ibn Isḥāq (1970). Dodge, Bayard (ed.). The Fihrist of al-Nadim; a Tenth-Century Survey of Muslim Culture. Translated by Bayard Dodge. New York & London: Columbia University Press. pp. 440, 589, 1071.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  2. ^ Seleznyov, N. "Ḥunayn ibn Isḥāq in the Summa of al-Muʾtaman ibn al-ʿAssāl" in VG 16 (2012) 38–45 [In Russian].
  3. ^ a b Strohmaier 1993.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g Lindberg, David C. The Beginnings of Western Science: Islamic Science. Chicago: The University of Chicago, 2007. Print.
  5. ^ a b c Opth: Azmi, Khurshid. "Hunain bin Ishaq on Ophthalmic Surgery. "Bulletin of the Indian Institute of History of Medicine 26 (1996): 69–74. Web. 29 October 2009
  6. ^ François Viré, Sur l'identité de Moamin le fauconnier. Communication à l'Académie des inscriptions et belles lettres, avril-juin 1967, Parigi, 1967, pp. 172–176
  7. ^ G., Strohmaier (24 April 2012). "Ḥunayn b. Isḥāḳ al-ʿIbādī". Encyclopaedia of Islam.
  8. ^ "Ḥunayn ibn Isḥāq | Arab scholar". Encyclopedia Britannica.
  9. ^ Esposito, John L. (2000). The Oxford History of Islam. Oxford University Press. p. 160.:"The most famous of these translators was a Nestorian (Christian) Arab by the name of Hunayn ibn Ishaq al-Ibadi (808–73)."
  10. ^ Porter, Roy (2001). The Cambridge Illustrated History of Medicine. Cambridge University Press. p. 67."The major ninth-century medical figure in Baghdad was a Christian Arab, Hunain ibn Ishaq, an amazingly accurate and productive scholar, who traveled to the Greek Byzantine empire in search of rare Galenic treatises."
  11. ^ Corbin, Henry (2014). History of Islamic Philosophy. Routledge. p. 16.:"The latter was succeeded by one of his students, the famous and prolific Hunayn ibn Ishaq (194/ 809—260/ 873), who was born at al-Hirah into a family belonging to the Christian Arab tribe of the 'Ibad."
  12. ^ Grmek, Mirko D.; Fantini, Bernardino (1998). Western Medical Thought from Antiquity to the Middle Ages. Harvard University Press. p. 145.:"Hunayn ibn Ishaq was able to satisfy their needs. Of Christian Arab descent, he had spent many years of his life in Byzantine territory, in pursuit of his studies, most probably in Constantinople."
  13. ^ Selin, Helaine (2013). Encyclopaedia of the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine in Non-Westen Cultures. Springer Science & Business Media. p. 399.:"The family nickname, al-'Ibadi, is derived from "al-'Ibad," a Christian Arab tribe."
  14. ^ Sarton, George (1927). Introduction to the History of Science. Carnegie Institution of Washington. p. 611:"The nisba is derived from 'Ibad, the name of a Christian tribe of Arabs, established near Hira"
  15. ^ Ohlig, Karl-Heinz; Puin, Gerd-R. (2010). The hidden origins of Islam: new research into its early history. Prometheus Books. p. 32. :"The 'Ibad are tribes made up of different Arabian families that became connected with Christianity in al-Hira."
  16. ^ "ḤIRA – Encyclopaedia Iranica".:"Ḥira became renowned for its literate population of Arab Christians, or ʿEbād [al-Masiḥ] "devotees [of Christ]". "
  17. ^ Yarshater, E. (1983). The Cambridge History of Iran. Cambridge University Press. p. 598."The population of Hira comprised its townspeople, the 'Ibad "devotees", who were Nestorian Christians using Syriac as their liturgical and cultural language, though Arabic was probably the language of daily intercourse."
  18. ^ Milani, Milad (2014). Sufism in the Secret History of Persia. Routledge. p. 150."Hira was also home to the 'Ibad ("devotees"), who were Nestorian Christians using Syriac as their liturgical and cultural language, but Arabic for common daily use."
  19. ^ Angelelli, Claudia V. (2014). The Sociological Turn in Translation and Interpreting Studies. John Benjamins Publishing Company. p. 45."Hunayn was most likely trilingual from his youth; Arabic was the vernacular of his native town, Persian a frequently-used tongue in his region, and Syriac the language of the liturgy and of higher Christian education."
  20. ^ a b c d e f g h "Hunayn Ibn Ishaq". The Dictionary of Scientific Biography. Vol. XV. 1978. Print.
  21. ^ a b Tschanz 2003.
  22. ^ S. Gougenheim: Aristote au Mont-Saint-Michel, 136–137 Nemira Publishing House, Bucharest 2011, (Romanian edition)
  23. ^ Leffler CT, Hadi TM, Udupa A, Schwartz SG, Schwartz D (2016). "A medieval fallacy: the crystalline lens in the center of the eye". Clinical Ophthalmology. 2016 (10): 649–662. doi:10.2147/OPTH.S100708. PMC 4833360. PMID 27114699.
  24. ^ Wright. Catalogue, pp. 1190–1191, MV Coll' orient, 1593
  25. ^ "Testimonios Árabes de Adab Al-Falásifa".


Further reading[edit]

  • Brock, Sebastian P., Changing Fashions in Syriac Translation Technique: The Background to Syriac Translations under the Abbasids, Journal of the Canadian Society for Syriac Studies 4 (2004): 3–14.
  • Brock, Sebastian P., The Syriac Background to Hunayn’s Translation Techniques, ARAM 3 (1991 [1993]): 139–162.
  • Cooper, Glen M., Ḥunayn ibn Isḥāq’s Galen Translations and Greco-Arabic Philology: Some Observations from the Crises (De crisibus) and the Critical Days (De diebus decretoriis), Oriens 44 (2016): 1–43.
  • Cooperson, Michael (1997). "The Purported Autobiography of Ḥunayn ibn Isḥāq" (PDF). Edebiyât. Harwood Academic. 7: 235–249. Retrieved 7 September 2017.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  • Eksell, Kerstin, Pragmatic Markers from Greek into Arabic: A Case Study on Translations by Isḥāq ibn Ḥunayn, Studia graeco-arabica 5 (2015): 321–344.
  • Faiq, Said. "Medieval Arabic translation: A cultural consideration." Mediaevalia 26.2 (2005): 99–110.
  • Gorini, Rosanna; Shabat, Mohammed (2005). "The Process of Origin and Growth of the Islamic Medicine: The Role of the Translators. A Glimpse on the Figure of Hunayn bin Ishaq". Journal of the International Society for the History of Islamic Medicine. 4 (8): 1–7.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  • Haddad, Rachid (1974). "Hunayn ibn Ishaq apologiste chrétien". Arabica (in French). 21: 292–302. doi:10.1163/157005874x00445.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  • Healy, J. "The Syriac-Speaking Christians and the Translation of Greek Science into Arabic." Muslim Heritage (2006).
  • Johna, Samir. "Marginalisation of ethnic and religious minorities in Middle East history of medicine: the forgotten contributions to Arabian and Islamic medicine and science." Acta Medico-Historica Adriatica 8.2 (2010): 203–210.
  • Lin, Daren (2008). "A foundation of western ophthalmology in medieval Islamic medicine" (PDF). University of Western Ontario Medical Journal. 78 (1): 41–45. Retrieved 7 September 2017.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  • Millar, Marcia Inhorn; Lane, Sandra D. (1988). "Ethno-ophthalmology in the Egyptian delta: An historical systems approach to ethnomedicine in the middle east" (PDF). Social Science & Medicine. 26 (6): 651–657. doi:10.1016/0277-9536(88)90030-5. PMID 3283948.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  • Osman, Ghada. "The sheikh of the translators." The Sociological Turn in Translation and Interpreting Studies 66 (2014): 41.
  • Rashed, Roshdi. "Problems of the transmission of Greek scientific thought into Arabic: Examples from mathematics and optics." History of science 27.2 (1989): 199–209.
  • Sa'di, Lutfi M. (1934). "A Bio-Bibliographical Study of Hunayn Ibn is-Haq Al-Ibadi". Bulletin of the Institute of the History of Medicine. 2: 409–446. ProQuest 1296241043.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  • Schrier, Omert J. (1995). "Hunayn Ibn Isḥaq on Tragedy and Comedy: A New Fragment of Galen". Mnemosyne. 48 (3): 344–348. JSTOR 4432506.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  • Sezgin, Fuat; Amawi, Mazin; Ehrig-Eggert, Carl; Neubauer, E. (1999). Ḥunain Ibn Isḥāq (d. 260/873): texts and studies. Frankfurt am Main: Institute for the History of Arabic-Islamic Science at the Johann Wolfgang Goethe University. ISBN 3-8298-6018-8.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  • Tamcke, Martin (2007). Christlich-muslimische Gespräche im Mittelalter [Christians and Muslims in dialogue in the Islamic Orient of the Middle Ages] (in German). Beirut Würzburg: Orient-Institut Ergon Verlag in Kommission. ISBN 978-3-89913-611-1.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  • Watt, John W. (2014). "The Syriac Translations of Ḥunayn ibn Isḥāq and their Precursors". In Tamcke, Martin; Grebenstein, Sven (eds.). Geschichte, Theologie und Kultur des syrischen Christentums: Beiträge zum 7. Deutschen Syrologie-Symposium in Göttingen, Dezember 2011. Göttinger Orientforschungen, I. Reihe: Syriaca 46. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag. p. 423–445.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  • Watt, John W. (2014). "Why Did Ḥunayn, the Master Translator into Arabic, Make Translations into Syriac? On the Purpose of the Syriac Translations of Ḥunayn and his Circle". In Scheiner, Jens J.; Janos, Damien (eds.). The Place to Go: Contexts of Learning in Baghdād, 750–1000 C.E. Studies in Late Antiquity and Early Islam. 26. Princeton, New Jersey: Darwin Press. p. 363–388.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)

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