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Ibn Wahshiyya, Abu Bakr Ahmad Ibn ?Sali Ibn Al-Mukhtar


(b. Qussīn,near JanbalāIraq, ca. 860; d Baghdas, ca. 935), agronomy,botany, alchemy, astrology, mysticism, medicine, toxicology, sorcery.

Little is known about Ibn Wahshiyya’s life except that he was descended from the Nabataeans, the ancient inhabitants of Iraq (known in Arabic as the Nabatī). He was skilled and eloquent in their language, one of the West skilled and eloquent in their language , one of the West Aramaic group, and very proud of their culture and intellectual contributions. In view of their accomplishements in agriculture, commerce, arts, and applied sciences, Ibn Wahshiyya said, the Nabataeans for centuries enjoyed a high degree of prestige.

He also practiced astrology in Baghdad during the period when it was a great cosmopolitan city that was a center of both intellectual and economic activity. He used tailsmans, charms, and incantations to tell fortunes and to heal the sick, and he wrote several books in this field.

Ibn Wahshiyya was a contemporary of al-Rāzī, who, like him, upheld the art of the alchemist. They make no mention of each other in their writings, however. This is understandable because al-Rāzī was of a different class and a much more skillful physician, alchemist, an philosopher. As is evident from the titles of his books, Ibn Wahshiyya’s alchemical writings were full of sorcery, magic, symbolism, and talismans: while al-Rāzī’s books, such as Sirr al-asrār and al-Asrār, were objective and free from magic and jugglery. Some doubt on Ibn Wahshiyya’s veracity and integrity is cast by his practice of legerdemain, expulsion of devils, and humbug—in addition to his exaggerated statements about the accomplishements of his forebears, the nickname he included in his family tree (ibn Galatia, ibn Britania, and so on), and his contempt for other civiliations, even the Islamic. Ibn al-Nadīm listed his biobiliography under the section devoted to sorcerers who practiced “bad methods.”

Ibn Wahshiyya’s best-known works are al-Fil-āha al-nabatiyya, on agriculture (allegedly claimed to be a translation from ancient Nabataean writings), and al-Sumūem wa’l-tiryāqāt, on poisons and their antidotes. The Filāha supposedly was completed in 904: but it was not dictated or copied until 930 by a student and associate, Ahmed ibn al-llusayn ibn ͑Alī ibn Ahmad ibn Muhammad ibn ͑Abd al-Malik al-Zayyāt (, who also diseminated it. It is not clear whether al-Zayyāt contributed to the final copy of the Filāha as well as to al-Sumūm.

Both works supposedly were translations from ancient Aramaic texts, the author of which seems to have known similar, earlier writings in Sanskrit, Greek, and Persian. These two works contained significant ideas on agricultural practice and toxicology, and influenced later works on these topics in medieval Islam. The reference by Thomas Aquinas to the works of Ibn Wahshiyya suggests that one or more of his writings, translated into Latin in the late twelfth or early thirteenth century, were influential in the West as well.


I. Original Works. Ibn Wahshiyya’s two best known works, al-Filāha and al-Sumūm, exist in several MSS, some incomplete; at the national libraries in Algiers, Berlin, Cairo, and Paris, the Süleymaniye Library at Istanbul, the Bodleian Library at Oxford, and the British Museum library. Ernest Renan, in An Essay on the Age and Antiquity of the Book of Nabathaean Agriculture (London, 1862), explained that Thomas Aquinas referred to Ibn Wahshiyya’s work in a Latin trans. (poosibly al-Filāha). of which abstracted copies wer known in Arabic.

His other important work, al-Sumūm wa’l-tiryāqāt, was translated into English with useful introduction and indexes by Martin Levey as “Medieval Arabic Toxicology, the Book on Poisons of Ibn Wahshiyya and Its Relation to Early Indian and Greek Texts,” which is Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, 56 , pt. 7 (Nov. 1966). I personally examined MSS of the Sumūm in Br. Museum, Add. 23, 604—see Charles Rieu, Catalogus codicum manuscriptorum Orientalium qui in Museo Britannico asservantur. II. codices arabicos amplectens, II (London, 1871), 461–462, 630–631—and in Zahiriyah Library, Damascus, gen. no. 9575, containing chs. 2–17.

The first to list Ibn Wahshiyya’s works was Ibn al-Nadīm of Baghdad, in his Fihrist, completed in 987 (Cairo, 1929), 447, 518–519. He mentioned some nine books on sorcery, talismans, and idol worship, most of which are lost (one is preserved in the Bodleian Library). Ibn Wahshiyya’s treatise al-Asmā, or al-Shawq al mustahām fī ma’rifat rumūz al-aqliām, was edited by J. Hammer as Ancient Alphabets and Hieroglyphic Characters Explained (London, 1806) and reprinted by Sylvestre de Sacy in Millins et al.eds., Magasin Encyclopédique XVI(1810), 145-175. Most of Ibn Wahshiyya’s approximately five books on alchemy and symbolism are extant in rare MSS and await evaluation.

His book on mysteries of planets and the firmament, attributed to Tankalūshā the Chaldean (Babylonian), is described in D. Chwolson, “Über die Überreste der altbabylonischen Literature,” in Mémoires de l’Académie impériale des sciences de St.-Pétersbourg, 6th ser., 8 (1859), 329-524; and Carlo Nallino, Arabian Astronomy, Its History During the Medieval Times (Rome. 1911), 198–210. The “Nabataean Agriculture” is discussed in A. von Gutschmid, “Die nabatäische Landwirtschft und ihre Geschwister,” in Zeitschrift der Deutchen morgenländischen Gesellschaft, 15 (1861), 82–89, and his Kleine Schriften. II (Leipzig, 1890), 677–678, 686–688. Three other works by Ibn Wahshiyya on medical therapy, natural histroy, and theology are mentioned; but no extent MSS are known.

II. Secondary Literature. Ibn Abī Usaybi͑a alludes to Ibn Wahshiyya’s works on sorcery, specifically the al-Adwār, and on alchemy, in his ͑Uyūbar;n al-Anbā͑, Būlāq ed., II (Cairo, 1882), 181, 203–204. Much later Hājjī Khalīfa, in his kashf al-zunūn. II (Cairo, 1893), 101, 203, referred to Ibn Wahshiyya’s work on agriculture and on sorcery. Interest was renewed in Ibn Wahshiyya’s writings in the nineteenth century. See Lucien Leclerc, Histoire de la médecine arabe, I (Paris, 1876), 307–315; Ernst Meyer, Geschichte der Botanik, III (königsberg, 1856), 43–88; and T. Nöldeke, “Noch Einiges über die nabatäische Landwirthschaft,” in Zeitschrift der Deutschen morgenländische Gesellschaft,” 30 (1875), 445–455.

Later biobibliographies besides Levey’s “Medieval Arabic Toxicology” (see above) are Carl Brockelmann, Geschichte der arabischen Letteratur, I (Leiden, 1943), 279–281, and Supplement, I. 430–431; and George Sarton, Introduction to the History of Science, I (Baltimore, 1927), 634–635.

On mathematics see L.C. Karpinski, “Hindu Numerals Among the Arabs,” in Bibliotheca mathematica, n.s. 13 (1913), 97–98; and on his alleged translation of the “Nbataean Agriculture,” see E. Wiedemann, “Zurnabatäischen Landwirtschaft,” in Zeitschrift für Semitistik, 1 (1922), 201–202; and Encyclopaedia of Islam, II (Leiden. 1913), 427. Regarding his influence on medical botany and pharmacy see Sami Hamarneh, Catalogue of Arabic Manuscripts on Medicine and Pharmacy at the British Library (Cairo, 1975), 60–64.

Sami K. Hamarneh

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