Hunayn ibn Ishaq, Baghdad physician and polymath

Illustration of man inside a large letter "D" seated with a book and appearing to inspect or teach about a vase in his hand Arabic text accompanied by 2D diagrams of pentagons within circles and 3D diagrams of cubes and a rectangular prism An almond-shaped outline of the eye with a large circle at its center. The circle appears to contain an inner red lining and white nerve at its center, and half of the circle seems to be filled with fluid, which itself contains spheres that look to represent the pupil and other features of the eye. The large central circle also has two red lines trailing off of it that go outside of the almond-shaped outline. The diagram is labeled in Arabic.

Iluminure from the Hunayn ibn-Ishaq al-‘Ibadi manuscript of the Isagoge. Via Wikimedia.

Arabic translation of Euclid’s Elements, 1270, by Ishaq Ibn Hunayn, a translator like his father before him. Google Arts and Culture. Via Wikimedia.

Diagram of the eye by Hunayn ibn Ishaq. Cheshm manuscript, c. AD 1200. Cairo National Library. Via Wikimedia.


Hunayn ibn Ishaq (809–873), the “sheik of the translators,” was an influential Christian translator, scholar, physician, and scientist who lived in Baghdad at the height of the Abbasid civilization. He was very learned and spoke four languages: Arabic, Syriac, Greek, and Persian. Traveling to the Greek Byzantine Empire in search of manuscripts, he translated works on agriculture, stones, religion, and the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle, as well as 129 Galenic treatises.

His major medical work was a treatise on the eye, covering its anatomy, diseases, and treatments. He also translated many medicinal texts and summaries, notably Galen’s “On Sects” and “On the Anatomy of the Veins and Arteries.” He worked for the Caliph al-Mutawakkil as chief physician at the court, a position he held for the rest of his life. Despite threats and promises of rewards, he once refused the request of the caliph to prepare a poison to kill an enemy.

Hunayn’s success gave rise to jealousy among his colleagues and even among his friends and students. At one time his enemies conspired to turn the caliph against him and slandered him, whereupon the caliph dismissed Hunayn from his post, confiscated his library, and had him imprisoned. But six months later the caliph fell ill and had to recall Hunayn from prison. He again granted him favors, and fully rehabilitated him.



  1. “Hunayn ibn Ishaq.” Wikipedia.
  2. “Hunayn Ibn Ishaq Al-‘Ibadi, Abu Zayd.”



GEORGE DUNEA, MD, Editor-in-Chief


Fall 2022 |  Sections  |  Antiquity