Hunayn Ibn Ishaq

(809-873 AD)

A physician of the early Abbasid period, a time of active translation from Greek and Roman to Arabic.


Hunayn, known also as Joannitius was Nestorian by faith. He studied medicine at Baghdad, traveled in Asia Minor in quest of manuscripts, and mastered Greek, Syriac and Arabic. He studied under Ibn Masaweh, and followed him as dean of Bayt al-Hikma, the center for translation and writing in Baghdad. It is said that one day, Hunayn irritated his master who, bursting out in rage, told his pupil that he was not worthy of the medical profession but that he had better follow his father’s trade, and become a money exchanger. Hunayn took this to heart and vowed that he will never return to Baghdad until he became a renowned physician; and he did, writing among other contributions, the first textbook of ophthalmology.

He was imprisoned for one year for refusing to prepare a poison for one of the Caliph al- Mutawakkil’s enemies. When he was brought before the Caliph and threatened with death for his disobedience, he answered: “I have skill only in what is beneficial and have studied naught else.” He added that he awaited with tranquility the supreme judgment of the Lord. The Caliph then pardoned him.


He wrote a book on neurology in which he discussed pediatric epilepsy, muscle, and nerve. Among his best contributions is a book about the eye, “Ten Articles about the Eye” considered the earliest existing systemic textbook of ophthalmology.

Two manuscripts of his “Treatise on the Eye” are available. The first was in the possession of the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch, Gregory I, who presented it to the late Tsar of Russia in 1911. This copy is now in the Leningrad Library. The second is in the Timur Pasha Library in Cairo.


The Caliph is said to have paid Hunayn in gold, according to the weight of the books he rendered into Arabic. Helped by his son and a nephew, Hunayn revised earlier translations and prepared new ones of Galen, Hippocrates, and Dioscorides in medicine, and works by Plato and Aristotle in philosophy.

References: Hitti, P.K., “Capital Cities of Arab Islam”, University of Minnesota, 1973; Al-Mahi,T, “History of Arab Medicine”,1959 Al-Kurdi,A,et al.Neuroscience 9:1,2004; Haddad,S.I., History of Arab Medicine,1975; Max Meyerhoef, The Ten Treatises on the Eye, 1989