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

The Project: Significance and Scope

In the mid-13th century a practising physician in Syria by the name of Ibn Abī Uṣaybiʿah (d. 1270) set himself a most ambitious task: to record the origins and history of medicine throughout the known world. No one before him had attempted anything on this scale. He set out to record the training, practice, and medical compositions of 442 physicians and illustrated the life and character of the major ancient and medieval practitioners to his own day with amusing poetry and anecdotes. The title of the book - The Best Accounts of the Classes of Physicians - expresses his confidence in the uniqueness and thoroughness of his enterprise. Yet despite its unquestioned importance to the history of medicine and to the history of world literature, there is no complete modern translation of this extraordinary book and no reliable and available edition of the Arabic text.

Best Accounts offers a lively and detailed narrative of doctors, patients, and patrons over 1700 yeaMortar and pestle octagonal Sothebys 18 Oct2001rs, written in 15 chapters, totalling around 250,000 words of Arabic. It is pitched at the interface of the serious medical practice the author himself represented and the intense interest of the chattering classes in biography and gossip. The complex literary texture of the treatise explains the lack of any in-depth study or complete authoritative translation. Ibn Abī Uṣaybiʿah was not interested in dry history but was determined to write something stylish and appealing. The most characteristic feature of his work is its inclusion of over 3600 lines of verse, sometimes humorous or risqué. This poetry about or by physicians is not only integral to many of the accounts but reflects the importance of poetry within the medical community of the day.

A readable, faithful, complete translation that is fully accessible to scholars and nonscholars alike is long overdue. It will provide a new perspective to the context in which medical science was practised in the Islamic world and result in a step-change in our knowledge of ancient and medieval medical history. The resulting publications and accompanying public engagement activity will inform today's audience of the central role that physicians played in Islamic culture over 800 years ago.

Emilie Savage-Smith (Professor of the History of Islamic Science, The Oriental Institute, University of Oxford) and Simon Swain (Professor of Classics at the University of Warwick) have assembled a team of scholars to make this remarkable historical source fully available in a reliable and readable form. The recently retired Laudian Professor of Arabic at the University of Oxford, Geert Jan van Gelder, is a crucial part of this team, for he will be responsible for editing and translating all the poetry. All previous efforts at translation of Ibn Abī Uṣaybiʿah’s history of physicians have either greatly truncated the poetry or omitted it altogether.

The Oxford team also includes Franak Hilloowala, whose doctoral dissertation (PhD, University of Arizona, 2000) focussed upon one chapter of the treatise, and Alasdair Watson (Curator of Middle Eastern & Islamic Manuscripts at the Bodleian Library). The IT support for the project is being supplied by Dan Burt (IT Support Officer at the Khalili Research Centre for the Art and Material Culture of the Middle East).

The Warwick Team currently includes N. Peter Joosse (Amsterdam/Warwick; current research on ʿAbd al-Laṭīf al-Baghdādī and his milieu), Bruce Inksetter (professional translator with UNESCO), and Ignacio Sánchez (Berlin/Warwick; PhD, University of Cambridge).August Mueller 2nd vol 1882-1August Müller's edition, Cairo 1882

 There are four aspects to the project: (1) The preparation of a reliable Arabic text is necessary. An edition by August Müller, based on fifteen European copies and published in Cairo in 1882, is routinely used by western scholars but is notorious for its extensive typesetting errors. Müller himself later published 82 pages of corrections. The subsequent ‘editions’ by Nizār Riḍā (Beirut, 1965) and Qāsim Muḥammad Wahb (Damascus, 1997) are essentially versions of Müller with added indexes and a biographical study in Arabic.

More recently ʿĀmir al-Najjār published in Cairo between 1996 and 2004 an edition bNajjar title pageʿĀmir al-Najjār's edition, Cairo 1996ased on that of Müller, supplemented by readings from six copies in Cairo and Istanbul.  Şehid Ali Paşa MS 1923 fol 1aŞehid Ali Paşa MS 1923 fol 1a

None of these editions, however, make use of the best and oldest complete copy of the text, Istanbul manuscript Şehid Ali Paşa MS 1923.  It was completed in 1372 (773 H) and is a highly annotated copy. The carefully recorded copy was made from one written in the handwriting of the author. Subsequently the copyist found a draft copy in the author's handwriting that contained additional material and he collated it again. In so doing, the copyist provided a wealth of information regarding the various versions of the treatise that the author himself prepared.

We shall employ this earliest complete copy (not available to any of these editors), as well as at least three other manuscript copies selected because of the importance of their annotations, to form a new edition that brings to light the development of the treatise by the author over a thirty-year period.

On the basis of a properly constituted text, we shall (2) translate the entire treatise, including the poetry, into English, with all the necessary historical and literary annotations.

In addition we shall (3) prepare extensive introductory essays discussing what sources the author used, how he set about the task of writing and preparing different versions, and how and why he integrated medicine and literature.

Finally we intend (4) to prepare a separate version of our English translation and make it available to the general public through a widely distributed paperback edition.

 MS Shehid Ali Pasa fol 133bsample page (fol. 133b) from Şehid Ali Paşa MS 1923