Hunayn ibn Ishaq (Johannitius)

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Hunayn ibn Ishaq (Johannitius)


Arab Scholar and Physician

Hunayn ibn Ishaq, known in the West as Johannitius, is important primarily for his work as a translator: it was through his efforts that numerous writings from ancient Greece, which he translated into Arabic, were preserved. In this he played a role similar to that of his Western counterpart Gerard of Cremona (1114-1187), who three centuries later translated many of Hunayn's works back into a European language, Latin. Unlike Gerard, however, Hunayn wrote original works; furthermore, because he came earlier, his importance as a preserver of ancient knowledge is perhaps even more significant.

Though he was an Arab, the fact that Hunayn's family subscribed to Nestorianism, an Eastern variety of Christianity, perhaps gave him a closer psychological connection to Europe than he might have had otherwise. He studied at Baghdad, cultural center of the Arabic world, and later at Alexandria. In time he came under the employment of the Caliph al-Ma'mun (786-833), who established the House of Wisdom as a center for the translation of Greek texts.

One of the principal challenges facing the scholars at the House of Wisdom was the acquisition of manuscripts for translating. At one point al-Ma'mun sent a team to Byzantium to obtain texts, and it is likely that Hunayn, as the most knowledgeable scholar of Greek, took part in this expedition. Hunayn wrote about traveling throughout Mesopotamia, Syria, Palestine, and Egypt in search of a single manuscript—which he finally located in Damascus, though half was missing. This degree of determination would be notable even today, but in view of the difficulties associated with travel in the pre-modern era, it is almost beyond belief.

The works Hunayn did locate and render into Arabic were pieces of inestimable value: writings by Hippocrates (c. 460-c. 377 b.c.), Plato (428-348 b.c.), Aristotle (384-322 b.c.), Galen (c. 130-c. 200), and other ancient masters. Since many of the Greek originals have since been lost, the importance of Hunayn's translation work is hard to overestimate. In the short run, he influenced a revival of interest in the Greeks that helped to spark the prodigious scientific advancements of the medieval Arab world. Later these ideas would make their way to the West, in part through Gerard's translation of texts from Arabic to Latin, and this would facilitate the rebirth of scientific curiosity in Europe.

After al-Ma'mun's death, Hunayn continued to work for a series of caliphs at the House of Wisdom; then in 847, al-Mutawakkil appointed him chief court physician, a position he would hold for the remainder of his life. Hunayn also wrote works on ophthalmology, as well as an original introduction to Galen's Ars parva.