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The Paediatric Treatise of a Fatimid Physician: Ibn al-Jazzar's Kitab Siyasat al-Sibyan

From: Journal of Shi'a Islamic Studies
Volume 5, Issue 2, Spring 2012
pp. 173-186 | 10.1353/isl.2012.0000

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

This book is, in essence, a translation into Italian from Ibn al-Jazzar's text Kitab Siyasat al-Sibyan wa Tadbirihim, one of the oldest paediatric treaties in the history of medicine. Its author, Ibn al-Jazzar (c.898-c.979) was a native of Kairouan, a splendid intellectual centre under the Aghlabid dynasty (9th-11th c.) whose sultans particularly sponsored the study of medicine. Ibn al-Jazzar was a famous physician and a prolific author who can be considered a true hakim in the Islamic tradition, that is, an intellectual who was conversant with many disciplines in addition to medicine – disciplines such as literature, philosophy, history, and geography.

Ibn al-Jazzar is mostly celebrated for his comprehensive general medical handbook titled Zad al-Musafir wa Qut al-Hadir (Provisions for the Traveller and the Nourishment of the Settled), a work which became very influential in Europe thanks to several Latin translations written in medieval times. In particular, the 1124 version by Constantine the African under the title Viaticum peregrinantis (though it is not a guide for the traveller, but rather a concise reference book completed with treatments for each ailment) was in the syllabus of the Faculty of Medicine in Paris in the late thirteenth century.

In addition, Ibn al-Jazzar is renowned for his Kitab al I'timad al-Adwiyyat al-Mufradah (Treatise on Simple Drugs), also translated in many languages: once more, the Latin version by Constantine the African, under the title Liber de gradibus, became one of the most popular pharmacopeias in the Latin West.

The third most known among Ibn al-Jazzar's treatises is the Risalah fi al-Nisyan wa 'Ilajihi, an essay on the treatment of forgetfulness, also rendered into Latin by Constantine the African as Liber de Oblivione.

Despite al-Jazzar's popularity and the dissemination of some of his treatises, it seems that his Kitab Siyasat al-Sibyan has attracted little interest from the scholarly community, both in the past and in the present time. This Italian rendition of the text is, therefore, most welcome. The translator and editor, Francesca Lucchetta, has worked on the Kitab Siyasat al-Sibyan edited by Muhammad al-Habib al-Hillah, that was apparently based on a manuscript held in the National Library Marciana in Venice. Lucchetta, who is interested in the transmission of Islamic medicine to the West via Italian physicians, spends a great deal of time in her rendition of Kitab Siyasat al-Sibyan inquiring about the possible importer of the Arabic manuscript to Italy, eventually identifying him as Andrea Alpago. In the seventeenth century Alpago was a physician at the Venetian consulate in Damascus; when he later returned to Italy with a wealth of Arabic scientific manuscripts he devoted the rest of his life to translate them into Latin.

Besides discussing the origins of Ibn al-Jazzar's text, Lucchetta also deals with some other interesting questions, most of which remain unanswered, concerning Ibn al-Jazzar and the Kitab Siyasat al-Sibyan. Although the present notice does not claim to have a solution to all these questions it does, nevertheless, aim to raise more discussion about some crucial issues, such as some of the ambiguities in the profile of Ibn al-Jazzar presented by Lucchetta. The lack of scholarly familiarity with the Kitab Siyasat al-Sibyan is also something to be addressed.

Questions About Ibn al-Jazzar

Abu Ja'far Ahmad ibn Ibrahim ibn Abi Khalid al-Jazzar belonged to a family of physicians who practiced in Kairouan. His contemporary historians agree on portraying him as a reserved man, almost an ascetic who would attend the ribats in the Sahel rather than the palaces of possible rich patrons. As with the majority of Muslim physicians of the time, Ibn al-Jazzar received his medical education at home; but suddenly things in North Africa had to change in a short space of time due to the Fatimid conquest of Western Ifriqya. Tunisia, and, in particular, Kairouan had already become a cultural centre under the Aghlabids whose interest in medicine is attested, among other enterprises, by their summoning at court of two doctors of the calibre of Ishaq ibn 'Imran and Ishaq...


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