Pages within an open case, showing handwritten notes in Arabic, red circles, and library stamps..

Islamic Medical Manuscripts in the National Library of Israel Collections

Samuel Thrope, PhD will speak on Thursday, July 14, 2022 at 11:00 AM ET. This talk will be live-streamed globally, and archived, by NIH VideoCasting. Dr. Thrope is Curator of the Islam and Middle East Collection at the National Library of Israel. Circulating Now interviewed him about his research and upcoming talk.

Circulating Now: Please tell us a little about yourself. Where are you from? What do you do? What is your typical workday like?

Informal portrait of a white man in a library.
Photo credit Yorai Liberman

Samuel Thrope: I was born and raised in Arlington, Massachusetts, and am still a proud New Englander! I moved to Israel in 2009 and began my career at the National Library of Israel in 2012 as a cataloger for Persian books. Over the years, I’ve also worked as a journalist, a translator, and a researcher. I’ve been the Curator of the Islam and Middle East Collection at the National Library of Israel since 2021. As curator, my main responsibility is collection development, so I spend my days working to expand the Library’s holdings of books, periodicals, photographs, and other materials from and about the Middle East.

CN: As Curator you oversee nearly 2500 Arabic, Persian, and Turkish manuscripts at the National Library of Israel, some of these are medical texts. Tell us a little about the collection.

ST: The Library holds the largest and most important Islamic manuscript collection in Israel. The collection includes items that date from the ninth to the twentieth centuries, and spans all major Islamic disciplines and literary traditions. Highlights include illuminated items from royal Mamluk, Mughal, and Ottoman libraries; scholarly works copied during or near the lifetimes of their authors; and later autograph copies. Other collection treasures include gorgeous Qur’ans and a range of literary works decorated with gold leaf and lapis lazuli from across the Muslim world. Thanks to the generous support of Arcadia, a charitable fund of Lisbet Rausing and Peter Baldwin, we are now in the midst of a multi-year project to digitize the manuscripts, improve metadata, and open access to students and scholars around the world. We have already scanned and uploaded 95% of the Islamic manuscript collection; these manuscripts are now available for free download, sharing, and unrestricted use. We are also building a dedicated online portal, called Warraq, for researching the collection.

Pages within an open case, showing handwritten notes in Arabic, red circles, and library stamps..
Opening page of the manuscript of Ibn Taymiyya’s Three Epistles, copied in Damascus, 1328. Ownership notes and stamps show that manuscript was passed on by generations of scholars in Ibn Taymiyya’s legal school up tothe 18th century. The sticker with the ELS number was used by collector Abraham Shalom Yahuda.
From the Collections of the National Library of Israel, Ms. Yah. Ar. 57

CN: Are there any recent acquisitions to your collection you’re particularly excited about?

ST: Sure! Just over a year ago, we acquired the Clinton Bailey Archive of Bedouin Culture, a unique and unparalleled collection of over 350 hours of recorded interviews with members of the Bedouin community in southern Israel, the Sinai Desert, and in Jordan. The interviews were recorded over the course of forty years by Clinton Bailey, an Israeli-American scholar of Arabic and Bedouin society. The collection is especially important as Bedouin society—including Bedouin dialects of Arabic, lifestyle, and traditions—has changed so much in recent decades. The Library has digitized and cataloged the recordings and hundreds of accompanying photos, in Arabic and in English.

CN: Both your collection and the National Library of Medicine’s Islamic manuscript collection were acquired in part through twentieth century scholar and manuscript dealer Abraham Shalom Yahuda. Tell us a little about him?

ST: Yahuda, born in Jerusalem in 1877, was one of the great Jewish intellectuals of the twentieth century. Raised in a family of mixed European and Middle Eastern heritage, Yahuda was fluent in Arabic, Hebrew, French, German, Spanish, and English. This linguistic versatility, as well as his precocious and prodigious intellect, led him to earn a doctorate from the University of Strasbourg in Islamic Studies and then to secure the first ever university chair in Jewish Studies at the University of Madrid. At the same time, Yahuda was an active and vocal member of the Zionist movement, involved in the highest levels of organization and diplomacy. However, despite these achievements, and in part because of his cantankerous personality, he was denied a promised position at the Hebrew University when it first opened in 1925. In the following decades, Yahuda focused his energy on the Islamic manuscript trade. Because of his scholarly training, he was able to identify particularly rare and precious manuscripts, which he sold to the Irish-American collector Chester Beatty, the University of Michigan, Princeton University, and of course to the National Library of Medicine. Yahuda bequeathed his remaining collection, including 1,184 Islamic manuscripts as well as Isaac Newton’s theological writings and documents from the Napoleonic occupation of Egypt along with his personal archive, to the National Library of Israel following his death in 1952.

CN: Do you have a favorite individual among those represented in the National Library of Israel’s Islam and Middle East Collection?

ST: I have lots of favorites, but one of the characters who most fascinates me these days is Taqi al-Din ibn Maruf. Born in 1526 in Damasus, he was a leading Ottoman scientist and a pioneer in the fields of astronomy, engineering, and mathematics. However, his contribution to medicine is not as well known. Among Taqi al-Din’s many works is a pharmaceutical text called Tarjuman al-atibba’ wa-lisan al-alibba (The Interpreter of Physicians and the Language of the Wise concerning Simple Medicaments). Ayman Yasin Atat, a scholar who has studied the book, notes that it is a pharmaceutical dictionary listing the various names (Greek, Persian, as well as Arabic) for numerous medicinal plants and drugs. Yasin has identified three extant manuscripts of this unpublished work: one in the Suleymaniye Library in Istanbul, one in the Staatsbibliothek in Berlin, and one in the National Library of Medicine (Ms A 75). However, another copy exists in the National Library of Israel’s collection, Ms Ar 183. Interestingly, this manuscript, copied in Jerusalem in 1869, was not donated by Yahuda; its provenance is unknown.

Two open pages of hadwrittern Arabic in black and red ink.
Tarjuman al-atibba’ wa-lisan al-alibba (The Interpreter of Physicians and the Language of the Wise Concerning Simple Medicaments) by Taqi al-Din, 1869.
Pictured is the final folio of the manuscript, containing the colophon that states it was copied in Jerusalem.
From the Collections of the National Library of Israel, Ms. Ar. 183

CN: Can you share a little about why Islamic manuscripts are important to the history of medicine?

ST: Medicine was one of the areas in which Islamic thinkers were most inspired by the earlier classical and Hellenistic traditions. This inspiration, largely the result of the massive project of translating Greek heritage into Arabic in the ninth and tenth centuries, impacted the development of numerous health related disciplines.

Galen (129-200 CE) was the unquestioned Greek authority in Islamic medical literature, the physician par excellence; while Galen’s own writings were sometimes contradictory, Islamic thinkers systematized and developed his thought. The Galenic theory of the four humors served as the theoretical basis for these later works. The most famous formulation of the Galenic system was the Canon of Medicine, written by the philosopher and physician Avicenna (Ibn Sina, 980-1034). Itself widely translated and studied, the Canon became the principal medical textbook in Europe as well as the Middle East up until modernity.

A page of handwritten arabic.
The second folio in a copy of a pharmaco-botanical dictionary by a writer better known for his astronomical writings, Taqi al-Din ibn Ma‘ruf (d. 1585/993)
National Library of Medicine #9409091

The Islamic region was also, of course, bordered by the civilizations of India and China, which had their own well-developed medical traditions. In fact, in the eighth and ninth centuries, Indian medical traditions were translated from Sanskrit into Arabic, just like Greek works. It seems that these Indian traditions failed to take hold not on their own account but for reasons of court politics: the main patrons of Indian medicine lost favor with the Abbasid rulers just as the translation movement was at its height.

The encounter with Chinese methods in the thirteenth century came too late to influence the theoretical underpinning of Islamic medicine, which at that point had already solidified. However, rhubarb from China, sugarcane from India, nutmeg from Indonesia, and other materia medica, encountered as the Islamic world expanded to the east, were used and incorporated as new drugs within the existing Galenic medical system.

Samuel Thrope’s presentation is part of our NLM History Talks, which promote awareness and use of the National Library of Medicine and other historical collections for research, education, and public service in biomedicine, the social sciences, and the humanities. All talks are live-streamed globally, and subsequently archived, by NIH VideoCasting. Stay informed about the lecture series on Twitter at #NLMHistTalk.

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