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"The Best Accounts of the Classes of Physicians" by Ibn Abī Uṣaybiʿah (d. 1270)

A Dangerous Book

[from the biography of another physician from the Ibn Zuhr family of al-Andalus, al-Ḥafīd Abū Bakr ibn Zuhr, who died in 1199]

Al-Ḥafīd Abū Bakr ibn Zuhr had taken two pupils to study medicine with him; they worked together and were affiliated with him for some time, and they read with him some medical works. One day when they met with him, one of them happened to have a small book on logic and Abū l-Ḥusayn, known as al-Maṣdūm, had joined them because he wanted to study this book. When al-Ḥafīd Abū Bakr saw the book, he exclaimed: ‘What is this?’. Then he took and inspected it, and when he realized that it was a book on logic, he threw it away. Even though he was barefoot, he stormed towards the students to beat them. They fled away, but al-Ḥafīd Abū Bakr rushed behind them despite his state, not sparing any insult while they were running off before him – and they certainly ran a long distance. Afterwards, they kept away from him for some time, not daring to approach him at all. Eventually they made an attempt to visit him and excused their earlier behaviour by claiming that that book was not theirs and that they did not have any reason to have it. They claimed they had simply seen a young man in the street with that book and they wanted to take it in order to scorn and ridicule him. They took the book off his hands, but then they forgot that they had it with them went they went to meet their teacher. Al-Ḥafīd Abū Bakr pretended to be deceived by this story, but before forgiving them and allowing them to carry on their studies of medicine with him, he ordered them to memorise the Qur’an, to study Qur’anic commentary, Hadith, and law, and to commit themselves to abide by the rulings of the Sharia and live according to them without making any exception. They obeyed his orders, mastered the knowledge he demanded from them, and respected the rules of the Sharia on their own accord and making them their habit, as they had been instructed. However, one day when they were with al-Ḥafīd Abū Bakr, he presented to them that book on logic they had brought, and he told them: ‘Now you are free to read this book and others of this kind with me, and to study them’. They were very surprised by that, but this demonstrates al-Ḥafīd Abū Bakr’s great intelligence and the greatness of his humanity.

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A diagnostic coup

[The physician Bukhtīshūʿ ibn Jūrjis has been summoned to the court of the caliph Hārūn al-Rashīd (of The 1001 Nights fame). The caliph determines to put him to the test before offering him a post as personal physician.]

Hārūn al-Rashīd ordered one of the servants to bring a phial of urine from the stables. No sooner had Bukhtīshūʿ set eyes on it than he exclaimed, ‘O Commander of the Faithful, this is no human urine.’ ‘Wrong!’ cried the chief physician at the court, Abū Quraysh, ‘this is urine from one of the ladies of the harem.’ ‘O venerable sheikh,’ said Bukhtīshūʿ, ‘as I stand here, I declare that this is no urine ever excreted by any human being. If the matter is as you say, it would appear that the lady in question has been turned into an animal.’ ‘What makes you so sure that it is not human urine?’ asked the caliph. ‘Its consistency, colour and odour are not those of human urine,’ replied Bukhtīshūʿ. ‘Who taught you your art?’ enquired Hārūn. ‘My father, Jūrjis,’ said the physician. ‘It is true, his father’s name was Jūrjis,’ chorused the others, ‘and he had no peer in his time; the caliph al-Manṣūr (who ruled Iraq from 754 to 775) had the utmost respect for him.’ The caliph Hārūn al-Rashīd then turned to Bukhtīshūʿ and asked him, ‘What sort of diet would you recommend for the patient who produced this urine?’ ‘Some of your best barley,’ said the physician. This sally caused Hārūn al-Rashīd to roar with laughter. He then ordered that Bukhtīshūʿ should be given a fine, costly robe of honour and a well-filled purse. ‘Bukhtīshūʿ,’ he said, ‘shall henceforth be chief among my physicians; the others shall be under his orders and shall obey him in all matters.’

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An Original Purgative

[from the biography of Abū Marwān ibn Abī l-ʿAlā ibn Zuhr, known to Europe as Avenzoar, who died in 1162]

Abū l-Qāsim al-Maʿājīnī (the ‘salve-maker’) of al-Andalus told me – Ibn Abī Uṣaybiʿah – that the caliph ʿAbd al-Muʾmin (the Almohad ruler of Spain and North Africa from 1130 to 1163) needed to take purgatives, but that he hated to drink this kind of medicine. But Abū Marwān ibn Zuhr was very considerate to him: he went to his garden and watered a vine with water which had acquired the potency of the purgative drug through its infusion in it and or having been boiled in it. This way, the vine absorbed the potency of the needed purgative, and grapes grew from it having the power of the medicine. This is how Abū Marwān helped the caliph: he gave him a bunch of those grapes and told him to eat them, and the caliph trusted him and ate. Abū Marwān observed the caliph while eating and then said: ‘O Caliph, that is enough; you have eaten ten grapes and they will help you to have bowel movements ten times.’ Abū Marwān then explained to him the reason behind this, and the caliph went to the toilet the said number of times, finding relief and getting better. In this way Abū Marwān ibn Zuhr’s standing with the caliph greatly improved.

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A Tale of Revenge

The following story is related by the eunuch Faraj, known as Abū Khurāsān, who was a manumitted slave of Ṣāliḥ ibn al-Rashīd and also his agent. In his own words:

My patron, Ṣāliḥ ibn al-Rashīd, was the governor of Basra, and his prefect there was Abū l-Rāzī. When the physician Jibrīl ibn Bukhtīshūʿ was having his house built on the esplanade, he asked my patron to give him five hundred teak logs. Now a teak log costs thirteen dinars, and to my patron, that seemed like a pretty costly gift, so he refused. Instead, he offered to write to Abū l-Rāzī and have him ship two hundred teak logs to Jibrīl. ‘Pray don’t trouble yourself,’ said Jibrīl, ‘I don’t need them.’

Faraj’s account continues:

I said to my patron, ‘I suspect Jibrīl is planning to do you a bad turn, out of resentment.’ ‘Jibrīl is no threat to me,’ he replied, ‘for I never ask him to prescribe medicine for me or to treat me.’ Subsequently, my patron decided to visit the Commander of the Faithful, the caliph al-Ma’mūn (ruling in Baghdad from 813 to 833). When my patron was seated in the caliph’s presence, Jibrīl said to al-Maʾmūn, ‘You do not look well, Sire,’ and he went up to him and felt his pulse. Then he said, ‘The Commander of the Faithful should take a drink of oxymel and postpone his noon meal until we know what is going on.’ The caliph did as Jibrīl had advised. The physician took his pulse over and over again, but said nothing. Finally, some of his servants came in with a loaf of bread and some squash, beans and a few more such things. Jibrīl said to the caliph, ‘I do not think the Commander of the Faithful should eat any meat today; he should eat only foods like these.’ The caliph ate them, and then took his siesta. When he awoke, Jibrīl said to him, ‘O Commander of the Faithful, the aroma of date wine causes increased heat. It would be best for you to retire,’ whereupon al-Maʾmūn retired. All the expense my patron had incurred (bring the caliph gifts of fine food and wine) had gone for naught! Then Jibrīl remarked to me, ‘You know, Faraj Abū Khurāsān, the saving on the difference between two hundred and five hundred teak logs hardly outweighs the cost of a visit to the caliph.’

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Attention to detail

[A man from Egypt related to Ibn Abī Uṣaybiʿah the following story about the 12th-century Jewish physician Ibn Jumayʿ, who was court physician to Saladin]

One day Ibn Jumayʿ was sitting in his shop near the candle-market in Old Cairo as a funeral procession passed by him. When he saw the procession, he called out to mourners, telling them that their beloved was not dead and that if they interred him, they would bury him alive. They stood looking at him in surprise at his words and could not believe what he had said. Then one of them said to another, ‘What harm will it do us to test what he says. If it is true, then it is what we want. If it is not true, then it makes no difference to us.’ They summoned him over and said, ‘Prove what you just said to us.’ He instructed them to return home and remove the shroud from the ‘deceased.’ Then Ibn Jumayʿ said to them, ‘Carry him to the bath house.’ He then poured hot water on the body to warm it up, bathed it with warm compresses and immersed it in the water until they perceived a small amount of sensation and he moved slightly. Ibn Jumayʿ declared, ‘Rejoice at his return to life!’ He then continued treating him until the person regained consciousness and felt well.

This was the beginning of Ibn Jumayʿ’s fame for excellence in the medical art and learning, for it seemed that he had performed a miracle. Afterward, he was asked how he knew that the body being carried covered in shrouds was still alive. He replied, ‘I looked at his feet and saw they were upright. The feet of those who have died are splayed out. So I surmised that he was alive, and my guess was correct.’

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