Lives of 600 Jewish doctors in Islamic Middle Ages revealed - book review

An innovative work penetrates fascinating interactions to reveal new details about Jewish medical professionals in the medieval Islamic world.

FRAGMENT OF the Cairo Genizah – The Passover Haggadah. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
FRAGMENT OF the Cairo Genizah – The Passover Haggadah.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
This new publication has been many years in the making and marks the completion of a monumental study of Jewish medical practitioners and the remedies they used in the medieval Islamic world. The author is Professor of Land of Israel Studies at Haifa University and is a foremost authority on medicine in the Cairo Geniza. He has examined thousands of documents covering many centuries that were retrieved more than a century ago from the Geniza (document repository) of Cairo’s Ben Ezra Synagogue. Lev’s Geniza scholarship and his extensive knowledge of ethno-pharmacology have already given rise to the magisterial Practical Materia Medica of the Medieval Eastern Mediterranean According to the Cairo Genizah, co-authored with Zohar Amar.
Using Geniza records and fragments along with extant medieval Muslim Arabic sources Lev has been able to present information on the lives of more than 600 Jewish physicians and pharmacists in the Islamic world of the Middle Ages. He employs the technique of “prosopography,” a study that identifies and relates a group of persons or characters within a particular historical context, to create “a collective biography.” This shows how these practitioners functioned as they cared for Jewish, Christian and Muslim patients in the Islamic world, which stretched from Morocco and Andalusia to Iraq and Iran. Jewish physicians and pharmacists had mainly good relations with Christian and Muslim colleagues, and medical students of the three faiths learned together in the eastern Muslim lands, often in hospitals and at other times within family networks. 
Jews were attracted to the medical profession. Medicine carried prestige and offered opportunity where other scholarly options were closed to them. These physicians were literate in Arabic and Hebrew and had access to medical libraries. Even during times of restrictions on Jewish doctors, Muslim rulers and the public still consulted them. This work brought Jewish physicians close to the center of power and some Jewish court physicians were killed in court intrigues.
One biography built on both Geniza and Arabic sources is that of the 12th century Abu al-Asha’ir Hibat-Allah b. Zayn Ibn Jumay al-Isra’ili (Nethanel b. Samuel), who practiced medicine in Cairo and was the physician of the legendary Saladin. Mainly Arabic sources provide basic information of names and places, colleagues and students though sometimes more details, such as medical salaries and libraries, are included. The Jewish sources from the Cairo Geniza have information about their families and the context of their lives and work. Some biography entries are more detailed while others contain only minimal information. Some physicians were part of medical dynasties and 49 family trees have been created and displayed in the book. Many examples can be quoted. We know of Maafuz al-Tabib, a physician in Egypt, only from a mention in a document from 1185, reporting that his granddaughter was getting married. Kamal b. Musa was a 16th century ophthalmologist in Jerusalem where he was a dayan (Jewish religious judge). 
He had a clinic in a rented store in the Suq al-Attarin and, as “Head of the Physicians” of Jerusalem, he received his salary from the public treasury. 
Some physicians have a more detailed biography. Masarjawayh was an Aramaic Jewish physician from Basra, Iraq in the 7th and 8th centuries. He was the physician of the Umayyad caliph Umar b. Abd al-Aziz and was an early translator of texts from Syriac into Arabic. He wrote books on foods and drugs, which the author describes. Meir b. Isaac Aldabi was born in Toledo around 1310. After settling in Jerusalem in 1348, he authored Shevilei Emunah (Paths of Faith) aiming to show that Plato and Aristotle derived the essentials of their knowledge from Jewish sources. The book also has sections dealing with many scientific topics as well as anatomy and human physiology. Isaac Israeli (Ishaq b. Sulayman al-Isra’ili) (c. 832-932) was born in Egypt and was a neoplatonist philosopher and physician. In Qayrawan, in modern Tunisia, he served as a court physician and wrote influential books on fevers and urine. These were studied for many centuries in the medical schools of Christian Europe. 
The physicians also include well-known figures like Moses Maimonides (Musa b. Abd Allah al-Isra’ili al-Qurtubi,  1138-1204), who remains a major figure in Jewish religious law, philosophy and medicine. Born in Cordoba in 1138, he settled in Fez during the Almohadic period in Spain, reaching Fostat (old Cairo) in 1166. He was the leading Jewish religious figure in Egypt with authority stretching beyond the country, while serving as court physician during Ayyubic rule. Maimonides wrote 10 works on medical topics, including treatises on asthma, hemorrhoids, poisons and books of his medical aphorisms and commentaries on the Aphorisms of Hippocrates. 
By combining the experiences of hundreds of doctors the author has been able to draw many conclusions that could not have been done from the individual stories. This large work is commended for its comprehensive coverage of the topic and for shedding light on a world that has disappeared but has left clues in ancient manuscripts and fragments which Lev continues to scour.
By Efraim Lev
Edinburgh University Press
513 pages; £95.00