Translations and scholarship

Medical translations had great impact on medical scholarship in the classical Islamic world. Through the translation efforts that started in Baghdad, all of the Alexandrian curriculum was made available in Arabic and became required reading for medical students (Iskandar 1976). Not only did Islamic physicians follow Alexandrian educational practices, they also adopted late-antique genres such as the medical commentary, and adhered theoretically to what has been described as Galenism’ more broadly (Temkin 1973). Greek works had competed in the beginning with translated Persian and Sanskrit texts, some of which had themselves adopted the central premises of Greek medical thought. The physician All Rabbân al-Tabari (838-870), for instance, draws from Persian texts and translations of Sanskrit texts in his medical encyclopaedia Paradise of Wisdom. We also find quotes from Persian and Sanskrit texts in al-RazI’s Comprehensive Book of Medicine, the Kitab al-Hâwî(Kahl 2015). Generally, however, interest in medical texts was very much directed at the Greek physicians Hippocrates and Galen. For example, the largest part of Hunayn’s translations consisted of Galen’s texts, and he lists over 100 of Galen’s works that he translated in his Epistle.

One way to study the impact of the translations on medical scholarship in the classical Islamic world is to analyse Arabic commentaries on Greek works. A good example of such commentaries are those on the Aphorisms, one of Hippocrates’ most influential medical works. It is a collection originally written in Greek consisting of seven books of short medical verses, the first of which opens with the well-known phrase ‘life is short, art is long’.4 The Aphorisms was first translated into Syriac and Arabic, and later into Latin and Hebrew. Its popularity in teaching and research is evidenced by the large amount of surviving manuscripts, which number over 70 in Arabic (Magdelaine 1994: 87), in addition to their transmission in the numerous commentaries on the Aphorisms in which they are quoted. These commentaries illustrate the importance of the text for teaching and research. Over 20 Arabic commentaries on the Aphorisms written over six centuries are known, at least 15 of which have survived to this day.5 The commentators, all of them physicians, did not only rely on Hunayn’s translation of the text, but also on his translation of Galen’s commentary of it. Even if direct quotations from that text decrease over centuries (Karimullah 2017), Galen’s exegetical format was constitutive of the tradition and his theoretical framework remained influential throughout each commentary. Adopting and occasionally rejecting Galenic theory allowed Islamic physicians to make numerous innovations in the exegesis of the Hippocratic source text (Van Dalen 2020). At the same time, one should keep in mind that the Greco-Arabic scholarship only represents the theoretical medicine at the time. Medical practices were probably not always aligned with what has come down to us in the written traditions (Alvarez-Millan 2010,2000; Pormann and Savage-Smith 2007; 144 162).

For contemporary scholars, the Arabic translations are valuable witnesses of the Greek texts. For example, Galen’s commentary on the Hippocratic Epidemics, the largest commentary on a Hippocratic work, is only extant in its Arabic translation (Vagelpohl 2011). In other cases, the Arabic translations offer comparative material to Greek texts which are extant in later or sometimes deficient Greek versions.

Translations from Arabic into Hebrew

After the 'Abbasids took over from the Umayyads, the Umayyads founded an emirate in Andalusia in 756. After this, Arabic scholarship began to diffuse into Islamic Spain, where medical scholarship continued in conversation with research done in the Islamic East over the following centuries. From here, Arabic texts also made their way to Southern France and Italy in the 12th century, where they were translated into Latin and Hebrew. The Arabic-Hebrew translation period lasted approximately 300 years between 1100-1400, with its peak in the 13th century. Although these efforts took place on a much smaller scale than the Greco-Arabic translations in Baghdad, they had a large impact on Hebrew scholarship. Translators first focused on Jewish Arabic works in the fields of grammar and theology, and then moved on to philosophy and medicine, where they translated original Arabic works such as Ibn Sînâ’s (c.980-1037, known in Latin Europe as Avicenna) Canon of Medicine (hereafter Canon), and Arabic translations of Greek works, such as Hippocrates’ Aphorisms and Galen’s Microtegni. Moritz Steinschneider listed most of these works in his monumental Die Hebräischen Übersetzungen des Mittelalters und die Juden als Dolmetscher (The Hebrew Translations of the Middle Ages and the Jews as Interpreters, Steinschneider 1893). Most of these translation activities took place in Southern Europe, especially in Toledo and Barcelona (Christian Spain), cities in Southern France such as Marseille, Lunel and Montpellier, and in Naples (present-day Italy).

In the 12th century, Andalusian Jews fled to Southern France from persecution by the Almohad Caliphate, bringing with them knowledge of Arabic language and scholarship. One of these emigrants was Judah ibn Tibbon (1120-1190), a physician born in Andalusia (Granada), who settled in the French city of Lunel. His descendants, known as the Tibbonides, became a famous family of physician-translators who lived and worked in Southern France and began the Arabic-Hebrew translation movement. They based their translations directly on Arabic sources, including many Arabic translations of Greek medical texts. Judah Ibn Tibbon’s son Samuel ibn Tibbon (1150-1232) translated Galen’s Microtegni in 1199. Gad Freudenthal has confirmed that he also translated the popular commentary on this text by 'All ibn Ridwan (Freudenthal 2016: 38 41). His son Moses ibn Tibbon, who was active between the years 1240 and 1283, translated medical works by Hunayn ibn Ishaq, al-RazI and Ibn Slna (Lindberg 1980: 69).

There were multiple reasons for these prolific Arabic-Hebrew and Latin-Hebrew translation activities in Southern Europe, and especially in Southern France. According to scholars such as Friedenwald and Steinschneider, the movement indicates the scientific interest of Jewish physicians who wanted to increase their medical knowledge (Friedenwald 1934: 88). At the end of the 12th century, there were almost no Hebrew medical books in Southern France, as the medical scholarship available at the time was either in Arabic or in Latin translations of Arabic texts. The Jewish communities in Southern France were not proficient in Arabic or Latin, the language of the elite, and aspiring Jewish physicians were generally not allowed into Latin medical schools. The translator Salomon b. Abraham ben Daud (c. 1110-1180), quoted by Steinschneider, noted that this shortage led him to translate two ‘splendid ones’, one text by Averroes and one by Ibn Slna (Steinschneider 1893: 672; also in Friedenwald 1934: 88; and compare with Ferre 1998). The fact that Jewish scholars did not have access to libraries and books while their Christian colleagues did, gave Christian physicians considerable advantage. The anonymous translator who used the pen name Doeg the Edomite (12th century), as well as Shem Tov of Tartosa (born 1196) explain that they translate in order to give Jewish physicians the opportunity to compete with Christian physicians (see Barkai 1998: 18-22). Both translators observe a tendency among Jewish people to consult Christian doctors, who were ahead of their Jewish counterparts, and therefore ended up taking non-kosher prescriptions (Barkai 1998: 18-22 and Bos 1998: 102-103). Aside from the risk of non-kosher treatment, another motivation was the desire to demonstrate that Hebrew scholarship was not inferior to Latin or Arabic, as the Jewish community was frequently scorned for its lack of literature (Steinschneider 1893: xvi; Friedenwald 1934: 88; Bos 1998: 102; Barkai 1998: 18-22). The translator Nathan ha-Me’ati for instance explains that ‘[in response to] the contempt in which learnt Christians hold the Jews because the medical works of Solomon and their later writers have been lost, he wished to follow the example of the Tibbonides who had drawn up the books from the marsh and the well of the Arabic language’ (Friedenwald 1934: 88).

The translation activities also spread to Italy. Nathan Ben Eliezer ha-Me’ati was a translator who worked in Rome in the last decades of the 13th century, best known for his translation of Ibn Slna’s Canon. He translated medical works from Arabic to Hebrew, but unlike the Tibbonides who were native Arabic speakers, Nathan ha-Me’ati learnt Arabic during his travels in Arab-speaking lands, as he says in his translation of the Canon (cf. Bos 2013: 307). He also translated the Hippocratic Aphorisms as part of his translation of Maimonides’ commentary on this text, and Hippocrates’ On Acute Diseases and Airs, Waters, Places, including Galen’s commentary on the latter. This commentary had been translated into Arabic by Hubaysh ibn al-Hasan.

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