Tuesday Keynote: Ignacio Sánchez, A Ladder of Heresy? Religion, Dhimmīs and Medicine in the Light and Shadow of Ibn Abī Uṣaybiʿa

Nathan Gibson's picture
October 20, 2020
Subject Fields: 
Intellectual History, Islamic History / Studies, Middle East History / Studies, Jewish History / Studies, Medieval and Byzantine History / Studies

Dear All,

Registration is now open for the October 20th keynote session by Ignacio Sánchez for the virtual forum Jews, Christians, and Muslims as Colleagues and Collaborators in the Abbasid Near East (https://usaybia.net/forum2020). Responses will be from Gregor Schwarb and Robert Alessi. This will be preceded by a project demo of the host project, Communities of Knowledge (usaybia.net). Please see https://usaybia.net/forum2020 for the full program of the virtual forum (October–December).

Tuesday, October 20, 2020 Register for live Zoom session

16:00 CET Project Demo

Communities of Knowledge (Usaybia.net): Tagging, Prosopography, and Networks

Nathan P. Gibson, Nadine Löhr, Robin Schmahl
University of Munich (LMU)

The project “Communities of Knowledge: Interreligious Networks of Scholars in Ibn Abī Uṣaybiʿa’s History of the Physicians” aims to examine the social encounters of Christian, Muslim, and Jewish scholars in the Abbasid Near East, broadly defined as 750–1258. While the fact of exchange between scholars of many different communities during this period is well established, and their accomplishments are well known, the ways in which this exchange occurred are not as well researched. Ibn Abī Uṣaybiʿa’s (1203–1270 AD) biographical dictionary provides rich information about such interactions, which sometimes occurred directly between scholars, but other times involved much larger networks of people, including patrons, patients, family members, rulers, and slaves.

The project asks, in general, how Ibn Abī Uṣaybiʿa depicts these networks, as well as, more specifically, which people, places, and types of communication were involved in them. This project demo will explain the different stages of this analysis. First, we identify and “tag” people and places in the source text. Next, we use these tags to create prosopographical nuggets called “factoids,” which encapsulate many different assertions throughout the text about the people involved and form the basis for mapping their relationships as a network. Finally, we analyze these networks, using quantitative metrics to focus our attention on the persons, places, or features in the network that call for in-depth qualitative study. We anticipate—and our preliminary results suggest—that this process will bring to light specific but underappreciated aspects of interreligious exchange.

The “Communities of Knowledge” project is funded by the “Kleine Fächer – Große Potentiale” program of the German Federal Ministry of Research and Education, 2018–2021.

16:30 CET Keynote

A Ladder of Heresy? Religion, Dhimmīs and Medicine in the Light and Shadow of Ibn Abī Uṣaybiʿa

Ignacio Sánchez
University of Warwick

The Buyid Muʿtazilite vizier Ibn ʿAbbād (d. 385/995) famously referred to medicine as ‘a ladder of heresy’ (sullam al-ilḥād). This statement reflects the opinions of a number of Muʿtazilite theologians who, already since the 9th century, polemicised against medicine. These critiques were focused on the epistemological status of a discipline mainly concerned with particulars (juzʾiyyāt), and on the challenge that the Hippocratic-Galenic theories posed for the debates on creation, causation and God’s omnipotence. These theologians did not target a particular religious group but rather those scholars who departed from the consensus about God’s design, Muslims and non-Muslims alike, most especially the group referred to as Dahriyya (Eternalists).

The suspicion of unbelief –and the shadow of the Dahriyya– never abandoned physicians, but the critique against medicine eventually become a critique of dhimmīs. Medicine had been almost monopolised by Sabians and Christians under the early Abbasids and the Ayyubids, and was largely practiced by Jews in the Fatimid and Mamluk periods. From the 12th/13th century onwards, however, we witness an increasing concern about the confession of physicians that led to the islamisation of this field with the promotion of Muslim medical practitioners and the emergence of the so-called prophetic medicine (ṭibb nabawī).

Regretfully, Ibn Abī Uṣaybʿia is almost completely silent about all these questions. This ‘Islamisation of medicine’ is perceivable in the increase of Muslim physicians and the references to conversions that appear in the 13th c. biographies of the ʿUyūn al-anbāʾ, but the physician portrayed by this author is a rather idealised image, untainted by these petty polemics.

In this paper I will survey a number of sources that offer a rather different glimpse of the role of medicine and dhimmī physicians in pre-Modern Islam. I shall be looking at the way theologians attacked medicine and how it was defended by both Muslim and non-Muslim physicians, sometimes with very similar arguments. I will argue that these polemics cannot be simply subsumed into the dichotomy Islamic/non-Islamic sciences, nor reduced to a clash between Muslim and non-Muslims.

How it works

The virtual forum is conceived as an opportunity to discuss the state of research on interreligious knowledge exchange. Half-hour project demos will showcase ongoing projects in the area, while one-hour research paper discussions are a chance to interact on a deeper level with researchers who are in the process of formulating approaches to the subject.

  • Students, academics, and anyone else interested may register by clicking on any of the registration links. This will take you to a Zoom page, where you can select any or all of the nine sessions to attend virtually. The number of Zoom participants for each session is limited to 100.
  • Registered participants will be sent drafts of research papers to read and comment on ahead of time. We'll use the web tool Hypothes.is to do this collaboratively. You can get a free Hypothes.is account here, and you'll receive an email ahead of the session containing a link to read the paper and another link to join the private Hypothes.is group where you can comment or ask questions.
  • During the live Zoom sessions, you'll hear two presentations and, for research paper discussions, 1–2 responses from invited participants. The remainder of the time will be open for you to interact with the speaker, so come with questions!
  • Proceedings: Revised papers from the forum will be submitted to a special issue of medieval worlds: comparative & interdisciplinary studies, a peer-reviewed, open-access journal published by the Austrian Academy of Sciences (ISSN 2412-3196).

All times are Central European Time (CET). Logistical support has been provided by Usaybia.net team members Vanessa Birkhahn and Malinda Tolay.


From the eighth century to the thirteenth century and beyond, scholars in the Abbasid and neighboring realms pioneered study in medicine, mathematics, the astral arts, and many other disciplines. Scholarly treatises from that era together with biographical sources such as Ibn Abī Uṣaybiʿa's History of Physicians and documentary texts from the Cairo Genizah show that this scholarly activity was not isolated to a single community. Instead, it emerged from a rich exchange between scholars affiliated with many different communities: Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Zoroastrian, Hindu, Samaritan, and others. Sometimes this exchange occurred through books or letters while at other times it was face-to-face in formal, institutional settings, side-by-side in the workplace, or even mediated through patrons, servants, or family members.

In the framework of the project "Communities of Knowledge" (funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research), we invite contributions to a series of discussions on the topic of person-to-person knowledge exchange among Near Eastern communities during Abbasid rule.

The keynote session will feature Dr. Ignacio Sánchez (University of Warwick), whose recent contributions to the field include helping to prepare a brand new edition and translation of Ibn Abī Uṣaybiʿa, The Best Accounts of the Classes of Physicians (Leiden: Brill, 2020).

Contact Info: 
Nathan P. Gibson, Ph.D.

Principal Investigator, Communities of Knowledge/Wissensgemeinschaften (usaybia.net)
Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München
Institut für den Nahen und Mittleren Osten

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