The editing and publication of the Islamic Medicine series: ‘ilm al-kīḥālah

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Muhammad Ẓāfir al-Wafā’ī

An Arabic manuscript, dated 1200CE, titled Anatomy of the Eye, authored by al-Mutadibih

In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate.

Allow me to express my deep gratitude to al-Furqān Islamic Heritage Foundation, its founder and patron, His Excellency Sheikh Ahmed Zaki Yamani, and its pioneering staff for organising this conference and giving scholars and researchers the opportunity to meet, get acquainted, and exchange views and experiences within their specialisations and fields of activity- Pray God that He may grant the honourable sponsor of this conference many years of fruitful service to learning and Islam, the two inseparables.

I have been asked to put before you my experience of editing Arabic manuscripts. I must say that my experience is modest, no more than a brick laid in the great edifice of Islamic Heritage. May the Almighty look favourably on my works as my jihad in His Name.

Since I started publishing the series on Islamic Medical Heritage, The Science of Kīḥālah1 (ophthalmology) (1982) in collaboration with my mentor and foster brother Dr. M. R. Qal’ajī, I have often been asked one question by colleagues, friends, or simply curious people:  Why should you, a prominent ophthalmic surgeon of long experience and fame in eye surgery, who can perform minute operations on the retina using laser technology, waste your time and spend your energy researching a book written about a thousand years ago – you who have conducted training courses at the American Academy of Ophthalmology and been warded the Prize of Honour and Merit from the same Academy? A misguided colleague went so far as to comment on a paper I read in Riyadh on The Arab and Muslim Contribution to the Science of Kīḥālah (ophthalmology), saying "Have we come to this lecture to go back a thousand years?”

I could not help replying, "My dear fellow, I'll forgive your ignorance or, rather, your ignoring the past. I can only repeat the saying of the Prophet Mohammed (God's Blessing and Prayers Upon Him): ‘God forgive my people's ignorance for they do not know that a tree with no roots will never produce fruit or seed.’ Civilisation is the cumulative product of one generation after another, raised stone by stone until the edifice occupies its place in history. There are nations whose civilizations collapsed with the passage of time; their language is now too foreign for people of the same culture, producing mixed vernaculars. However, they are still proud of what they call their culture and civilisation even though they only presented humanity with successive tragedies. Should we not take pride in our Arab and Muslim Heritage of Medicine that served the world from the 9th century AD/3rd century AH, with the foundation in Baghdad of Beit al-Hikma (Institute of Wisdom), up to the 15th century AD/9th century AH when the Renaissance began in Europe? Should we not cherish our heritage, which has preserved the achievements of earlier civilisations – Greek, Persian, Indian, and Assyrian – and creatively added to them? Should we not be proud of this heritage that served as a launching pad for the Renaissance in Europe? It is a serious fault if you are aware of all this and ignore it, and even more serious if you are not aware. May God forgive your ignorance or your disdain, my friend."

Strangely enough, this same gentleman has been appointed to a high post in the university and will be responsible for the education of future generations.

Our medical Islamic Heritage remained scattered on the shelves of numerous libraries after Baghdad, and later Damascus, fell to the Moguls. Then came the greatest of setbacks, that plunged the nation of Islam into a deep sleep – the fall of Granada in 1492 AD. The outcome of these successive defeats was the loss of libraries, the burning of their treasures and the destruction of their premises. We all know what happened in Baghdad at the hands of the Moguls. It breaks our hearts to think of what befell the boats carrying the treasured collection of Abu Abdalla after surrendered the keys of Granada. We must not weep today over the ruins of the past; it would be mere weakness. A number of orientalists have been working on this Heritage: some of them, as we know, were affiliated to colonial offices in imperialist states, but some worked on their own initiative. Some of them, Brockelmann, Leclerc and Ullman for example, set out to classify MSS, whilst others like Hirschberg and George Sarton treated our Heritage in huge compendiums. Others still, Liberith, Mittwoch, and Meyerhof for example, edited some important works. We should recognise that some orientalists have been fair in their work, others less so. We Arabs used to depend completely on what those orientalists presented us with, not distinguishing the wheat from the chaff. It was an intellectual hazard to object or reply to any of their sayings, almost suicidal to a scientific career, for what right has a Muslim to react negatively or to correct an orientalist, a scholar who knows everything!

The wheels of change, however, are always turning in history; this world will never stand still. With the lifting of the heavy shadow of imperialism and intellectual domination, a new awakening was born in the Islamic World, with attempts at the study of MSS. Early credit goes to the Uthman University in Hyderabad, Deccan, India, and also to the University of Lucknow in India. The printing press in Bulaq, Egypt, printed the Qānūn in Medicine by Ibn Sīnā (Avicenna) and The Garden of Wisdom by al-Tabarī. These are just a few examples. There is also the Humdard Institute in Karachi where al-Hakim Muhammed Said works tirelessly.

There must be a number of individual attempts about which we have no information. They cannot be of great importance but they show a worthwhile initiative, providing a seed of hope that will no doubt grow. I believe it is the duty of every able-bodied Muslim man or woman, properly qualified to edit or contribute to editing a book or a MS, to start now and continue religiously. This would partly correct the distorted image unjustly propagated by our detractors. I would contend that editing our Heritage is jihad, no less.

Let me turn to the basics of my subject: the feasibility of editing MSS and associated problems: the exact methods of dealing with different versions of the same text: guaranteeing accuracy of terms and defining their meaning, and putting on record obstacles and personal experience.

I was fortunate to start working in this field in congenial circumstances with my professor and brother, Dr. M. R. Qalʻajī. I was living at the time in Boston, a place of major attraction to science and scholars. We started by editing the series Islamic Medical Heritage, The Science of Kīḥālah (ophthalomology). My objective was to edit and publish all that was written on ophthalmology in the Islamic era. We have so far accomplished the following (God be thanked):

1. Nūr al-‘Uyūn wa Jāmiʻ al-Funūn (Light of the Eyes and Compendium of Arts), by Salāḥ al-Dīn al-Kaḥāl al-Hamawī (d. 696 AH/1296 AD). Published by the King Feisal Centre for Islamic Studies & Research, Riyadh (KFCISR): 1407 AH/1987 AD.

2. al-Muhadhdhab fī al-Kuḥl al-Mujarrab (A Selection of Well-Tried Eye Treatments) by Ali ibn abi al-Hazm al-Qurashi  (i.e. Ibn al-Nafis) (d. 687 AH/1288 AD). Published by the Islamic Organization for Education, Science and Culture (Isisco), Rabat: 1409 AH/1989 AD, to celebrate the 700th Anniversary of Ibn al-Nafīs.

A conference held on that occasion was attended by specialists on Ibn al-Nafis, who discussed the work fully.

3- al-Kāfī fī al-Kuḥl (A Resumé of Eye Medicine),by  Khalifa Ibn Abu al-Mahāsin al-Ḥalabī (d.707 AH/1256 AD). Published by Isisco, Rabat: 1410 AH/1990 AD

4. al-Murshid fī Tib al-‘Ain (A Guide to Eye Treatment), by Muhammad ibn Aslam ibn Qasūm al-Ghāfiqī al-Andalusī (d. 595 AH/1197 AD). Published by King Abdel Aziz City for Science & Technology, Riyadh: 1410 AH/1990 AD.

5. al-Baṣar wa al-Basīraḥ (Eyesight & Insight), by Thābit ibn Qurra al-Harranī (d. 288 AH/901 AD). Published by Abikan Bookshop, Riyadh: 1411 AH/1991 AD

6- al-Muntakhab fī ‘Ilm al-‘Ain wa ʻIlājātuhā (Selections on Eye Medicine and Treatment), by Ammār ibn ‘Alī al-Mūsilī (d. 400 AH/1010 AD). Published by Abikan Bookshop, Riyadh: 1411 AH/1991 AD.

7. Tashrīh al-‘Ain wa Ashkāluhā wa Mudāwāt Aʻlālihā (The Anatomy of the Eye, its Forms and Treatment), by Ali ibn Bakhtayshʻu al-Kafrtābī (d. 460 AH/1070 AD). Published by Abikan Bookshop, Riyadh: 1411 AH/1991 AD.

8. Kashf al-Ra’yain fī Ahwāl al-‘Ain (Discussing Different Opinions on Eye Changes), by Muḥammad ibn Ibrahim Said al-Anṣarī al-Sinjārī (ibn al Akfānī) (d. 747 AH/1348 AD). Published by KFCISR, Riyadh: 1413 AH/1993 AD.

9. Amrāḍ al-‘Ain wa ‘Ilājātuhā (Eye Diseases and Their Treatment) by Ibn Sīnā (Avicenna) (d. 428 AH/1037 AD). Published by Dār al-Nafīs, Beirut: 1415 AH/1995 AD.

10. Amrād al-‘Ain wa Ilājātuhā min Kitāb Kāmil al-Ṣināʻa al-Tibbiyyah (Eye Diseases and Their Treatment, taken from the Complete Book of Medical Craft), by ‘Alī ibn Abbās al-Ahwāzī (d. c384 AH/974 AD). Published by the Ministry of Culture, Syria: 1417 AH/1997 AD.

11. I am happy to say that Al-Furqān Foundation is publishing Natījat al-Fikr fī ‘Ilāj Amrāḍ al-Baṣar (Final Thoughts on the Treatment of Eye Diseases), by Abī al-Abbās Ahmad ibn Uthmān al-Qaysī (d. after 647 AH /1249 AD).

They are also publishing in one volume:

Amrāḍ al-‘Ain wa ‘Ilājātuhā min Kitāb al-Muʻālājāt al-Buqrāṭia (Eye Diseases and Their Treatments according to Hippocrates) by Abū al-Hassan ibn Muḥammad al-Ṭabarī (d. 366 AH/976 AD). This includes a Short Appendix on Eye Diseases and Their Treatment in Firdaws al-Hikmah (the Garden of Wisdom), by ‘Alī ibn Sahl ibn al-Ṭabarī (d. 236 AH/850 AD)2.

In this way I have covered practically all the rest of the literature on eye diseases and treatments in Islamic history. Max Meirhof has already edited Hunein ibn Ishaq's Ten Essays on the Eye (ʻAshr Maqālāt fī al-‘Ain), Published in Cairo in 1928, Hirschburgh published Selections from some Arabic MSS in 1925 (Nūr al-‘Uyūn wa Jāmiʻ al-Funūn, al-Kāfī fī al-Kuḥl, al-Mukhtārāt fī ‘Ilm al-‘Ain), and our colleagues Dr. al-Kahhāl Musṭafā Sharīf al-‘Anī and Dr. Hazim al-Bakrī have edited the work Nihāyat al-Afkār wa Nuzhat al-Absār (Ultimate Thoughts and Pleasures of the Eye), by Abdalla ibn Qāsim al-Harīrī al-Ishbili al-Baghdādī, Published in Baghdad in 1979.

We have thus accomplished what was started by our great ancestors.

Editing: Problems and Feasibility

The reason for editing these MSS is to out things right, as I have already said. We have to show the magnitude of our grandfathers' contribution to the science of ophthalmology. However, there are more problems than can be counted. I shall summarise briefly some of the obstacles that stand in the way and frustrate the research from the start:

  1. Finding the MS.
  2. Getting a microfilm or a photocopy of the MS.
  3. Reading the text.
  4. Collating and comparing different texts.
  5. Updating the information.
  6. Finding honest publishers who will not put money above all other considerations.
  7. Distributing the edited work after publication so that readers interested in Heritage works can have a chance to read them.
  8. The most serious problem facing workers in the field is the financing of these projects which cost a lot of money and effort.

Let me now explain each of the above points in more detail:

1. Finding the MS

Unfortunately, as you all know, we have no work of general reference on MSS on medicine in international libraries. Brocklemann's book (Geschichte der Arabischen Litteratur) is one of the best works of reference, but unfortunately it was written some time ago. Since its publication a considerable number of MSS have been located, some previously unknown MSS have been discovered, and those in another group that was mis-classified have been assigned correctly to their authors. Professor Fuad Sezgin has updated Brocklemann's work and written a great encyclopaedia of Islamic history published, I believe, by the University of Imam Muḥammad ibn Saud in Riyadh. Unfortunately, we cannot get a copy of this encyclopaedia or even purchase it, as it is a limited publication, not available to ordinary researchers! The King Feisal Centre for Islamic Studies & Research (KFCISR) Riyadh, under its enterprising young General Director, Dr. Zayed Abdel Muhsin al-Hussein, has done great pioneering work indeed by collecting the largest possible number of catalogues, both old and new, in addition to collecting and microfilms. He is personally visiting libraries in the Arab and Islamic world, collecting information, feeding it elegantly into the computer and making it easily available. What is more, the Centre is open to all researchers and provides every possible service almost gratis.

2. Getting a microfilm or a photocopy:

Here there are obstacles which must not be discounted. The researcher has two options: he may have to deal with foreign libraries (European or others), such as the National Library in Paris, the Goethe Library in Germany, the British Museum Library in London, the Library of Congress in Washington, the Library of the Vatican, the Wellcome Institute for Medical History and recently the KFCISR. From all these libraries he can get whatever he needs. But God help him if he has to deal with a library in an Arab state, or with Turkish libraries, which are repositories of wonderful treasures. He’ll find himself in a maze with no way out. They do not have a system of replying to letters of enquiry. If by good fortune he receives a reply, it is often mined with pitfalls and forbidding conditions. It will persuade him to nip his project in the bud. I heard recently that a respectable library in a venerable Arab capital requests a copy of a MS in the applicant’s possession in exchange for a copy of the MS he asks for. Where would a researcher at the beginning of his career get a copy of a rare MS? Supposing he had one to exchange, would they accept it, or would they return it to him with further illogical pretexts to put spokes in his wheel? I wonder.

3. Dealing with the text:  

A beginner in this field may well be surprised at the variety of scripts in MSS: the writing may be Naskh or Farsi (Persian). The variety of calligraphy is a boon, really, but God help him who finds a MS written in old Moroccan script, because of the great difference in writing and punctuation. Usually the source or mother MS was written in the hand of the author. If it is not that MS, then it is the MS read to him and authorised by him. In the absence of such authorisation, it should be the one nearest to his age, on condition that it shows no omissions at the beginning or the end.

4. Collating Different Texts:

This stage takes a great deal of work and time, as all who have laboured at editing MSS can testify. The text is carefully collated (since it is sacred to us). Every difference is noted down – words, letters, prepositions and so on. When the editor has more than one copy of the same MS, he usually marks each version with a letter or symbol to make it easier for him and his future readers go back to a specific copy if necessary. One would, for instance, mark a copy acquired from Paris (P), one from Cairo (C) or Damascus (D).

5. Updating Information:

This covers three operations:

  1. Updating and interpreting information.
  2. Translating terminology.
  3.  Correcting previous mistakes.

a) The editor has to interpret for the benefit of 20th century readers material written in the 10th century or before, which they may misunderstand because of a difference in terminology or usage, as in the case of old Arabic terms for cornea, pupil, water, ointments, or powder. The editor is often at a loss when using a modern Arabic term because of differences between various Arab regions. I depended on the Medical Dictionary published by the World Health Organisation (WHO), and approved by the Board of Arabic Health Ministers and by the Union of Arab physicians.

Any complaints or reservations should be addressed to WHO.

b) Translating terms into the standard English currently used. This is a simple step in the process of editing as far as the translation of terms of anatomy and pathology are concerned. It is the names of simple medicines and complex recipes that pose difficulties: where can I find the name of a medicine or powder used as far back as a thousand years ago? I have to consult many works of reference, notably Pharmacy by Bayruni and edited by al-Hakeem Muḥammad-Said, The Dictionary of Medicinal Plants by General Mustafa Ṭlās and al-Muʻtamad (The Authority), in Simple Medication by al-Malik al-Muzaffar Yūsuf ibn Omar ibn ‘Alī ibn Rasūl al-Ghasānī al-Turkumānī, and many other works on my bookshelves. I first find the name of the medicine, try to understand its pharmacology, and insert it in the notes of the book. I finally classify it alphabetically in the appendix or glossary, together with its names in Latin, English and French, noting the work of reference where I got the information.

c) Correcting previous misreading and misconceptions. The most common example is the term tashabuh meaning vision, which was often read as tashanug, that is, convulsions. There are also the terms meaning Nectalopia and Amblyopia on which I have some interesting anecdotes.

6. Finding a truthful, honest publisher, not primarily interested in financial profit:

The editor will therefore strike off his list all commercial publishers who are naturally interested in making large profits. He will start by writing to academic institutions. After prolonged negotiation he will finally have to accept several conditions and forgo any rights to his work: he will have to beg for extra copies when he needs them and wait for his fee which hardly covers the expense getting the MS on to microfilm.

7. Distribution of the book after publication, making it available to research workers and all interested readers:

This is another problem which almost destroys the edited work and the labours of the editor. Many institutions are interested only in sending copies as presents. They usually send copies to ministers, royalty, and important state officials. Other copies may be sent to the national libraries of neighbouring or friendly states. The editor often wonders how many of those ministers, princes, or officials have the time, let alone the interest, to open the book, read it and comment on it! This mal-distribution of the book destroys it and destroys its editor. A gentleman who honoured me by publishing some of my books (of which he was proud), once told me that he had sent copies of my book as presents to a prince on an official visit to the town and all his entourage, about two hundred copies, which I believe were simply lost. When I asked him if he had sent copies to such and such universities, his reply was,''This will be our next step''. I could not help protesting, ''By God, Sir, you have taken the book out of an old grave and buried it in a new one! You have destroyed the book and destroyed as well!''

8. Financing an editing project:

Neither charities, scientific institutions nor commercial publishers find it feasible to finance a project still in the making. The editor generally has to choose whether to put the MS aside, or to dip into his limited personal savings to finance the microfilming, the word processing, the reprinting after correction and so on. I can assure you that that costs a great deal of money.

This is an example of what stands in the way of the enterprising young editor, full of enthusiasm for his native language and heritage. Is there a way out? Can we find one? I believe so, though with some pessimistic reservations. First things first: our preliminary step should be to recruit young candidates, graduate students, and students in Institutes of Science Heritage (wherever they are, if they do indeed exist), infuse them with pride in their Heritage and interest them in joining this field of work. They should be encouraged to continue working in spite of the difficulties, by providing them with copies of MSS and with printing and computer facilities, and by giving them incentives both material and academic to help improve their conduct and positions.

Who will do all this? There are numerous possibilities. For instance, individuals who have the means could easily finance the process of finding the MSS and putting them on microfilm. Other sponsors could finance the word processing or the printing or the publishing. (How many of our rich men spend on one lunch or Dinner party much more than is needed to put a MS on microfilm or finance a stage of the editing process!) What is wrong with publishing an edited work as a charity for the salvation of the soul of a deceased parent or child? Consider what the Prophet (God's blessings upon him) said: ''When a Man dies, his deeds in the world come to an end except for three that continue after his death – learning of benefit to humanity, a functioning charity or a good son who prays for him.'' Is not this editing and printing a learning of benefit to humanity? Can we not consider this kind of work a charity? Did not God Almighty command us to do good works (salihat)? Is not publishing a valuable MS of great scholarly interest an instance of good works? Should we not follow the directives of God's true Messenger and submit to the commands of Almighty God?

I do not wish to sound too pessimistic. There are always glimpses of hope, for there will remain an element of good in the nation of Islam until the day of reckoning. Our hopes now hang on al-Furqān Islamic Heritage Foundation, for it is our resort in times of need. May God endow its founder and his staff with health and perseverance to continue the good work of collecting, classifying and preserving our distinguished Islamic Heritage.

Source note:

This was published in:
Editing Islamic Manuscripts on Science: Proceedings of the Fourth Conference of Al-Furqān Islamic Heritage Foundation - 29th-30th November 1997 - English version, Al-Furqan Islamic Heritage Foundation, London, UK, p 223-234.

Please note that some of the images used in this online version of this article might not be part of the published version of this article within the respective book.
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