Mediaeval monks and medics

David Tresilian , Wednesday 13 Dec 2023

Mediaeval monks and medics are the subjects of two welcome new additions to New York University’s Library of Arabic Literature, writes David Tresilian

Mediaeval monks and medics
Mediaeval monks and medics


New York University’s Library of Arabic Literature has been continuing its campaign to make works of classical Arabic literature better known in English translation, most recently with new versions of the Doctors’ Dinner Party by the 11th-century medic Ibn Butlan and the Book of Monasteries by the 10th-century scholar Al-Shabushti, for a time court librarian to the Fatimid Caliph Al-Aziz in Cairo.

Both translations have a facing Arabic text that has been newly edited for the series, and both take readers back to the Abbasid caliphate in mediaeval Baghdad. This is perhaps best known to English-speaking readers as the backdrop to the stories of the Thousand and One Nights or Arabian Nights, and the two new translations, of books long known to specialists but not always accessible to ordinary readers, will undoubtedly fill out what otherwise might have been a severely incomplete picture of Abbasid society.

Sinbad, as every reader knows, was a sailor, in other words a merchant dealing in the commodities that flowed into mediaeval Baghdad from all parts of the Islamic Empire as well as from many places beyond. Many of the stories in the Arabian Nights feature the city’s overflowing markets and the people who worked in them, though the palaces of the great are never far away, including that of the Abbasid Caliph Harun Al-Rashid.

However, society was of course also made up of many other jobs and professions, and these two new translations give valuable details of at least two of them. They provide a not always flattering portrait of its doctors in Ibn Butlan’s Doctors’ Dinner Party (Da’wat Al-Atibba in Arabic) and of some of its monks and monastic hangers-on in Al-Shabushti’s Book of Monasteries (Kitab Al-Diyarat), a survey of institutions located in what are now Iraq and Syria as well as in Egypt.

Table talk, as translator (with Jeremy Farrell) of the Doctors’ Dinner Party Philip Kennedy notes in the introduction to his translation, has a distinguished pedigree, with some of the ancient Greek philosopher Plato’s dialogues featuring discussion that supposedly took place either during or after meals. His Symposium is the record of a sort of philosophers’ dinner party, for example, and so Ibn Butlan’s decision to write about dinner party conversation is not so very different from the use of the device by writers in other literary traditions.

Moreover, dinner parties, and food and drink more generally, played an important role in Abbasid culture, particularly that of the upper classes, and Kennedy points to the drinking parties recorded in the poems of the mediaeval Arab poet Abu Nuwas. No one paid much attention to the food at these events, but they do bear witness to a tradition of evening entertainment that featured issuing and receiving invitations to occasions on which food and drink were served and that formed a background to literary discussion.

People invited to an Abbasid dinner party might have gone expecting something like a French soirée where those present all seem to have sparkling things to say. They were a far cry from the meals shown on British or American TV cooking shows, where the emphasis is on winning a competition. The dinner party described in Ibn Butlan’s book is peculiar in that at least at first there is no food, and the single guest, possibly a portrait of Ibn Butlan himself, is unkindly treated by the host and his friends in what Kennedy says can easily appear to be a “travesty of a dinner party invitation.”

Ibn Butlan was born in Baghdad sometime in the first quarter of the 11th century and moved to Cairo in 1049 in the hope of meeting senior physician Ibn Ridwan who had established a practice in the city. He was already the author of medical books written within the tradition of ancient Greek humoral medicine, particularly deriving from the summaries provided by the ancient Greek writer Galen, and it may have been that he supposed he would be meeting Ibn Ridwan as an equally important person.

However, in the event he was sorely disappointed as the meeting between the two men did not go well and even gave rise to a celebrated schism. Kennedy thinks that Ibn Butlan’s unflattering depiction of the Abbasid medical profession, and particularly its senior members, in the Doctors’ Dinner Party may have had an autobiographical element and that he may have been trying to get his own back on Ibn Ridwan. However, he also vents his animus more broadly since few medical specialisms escape his satirical examination.

The book begins with the arrival of a young man in western Anatolia, somewhere in the border region between Turkey and Syria today, where he hopes to find a job as a physician. A senior member of the profession, encountered in a local market, soon disabuses him of any such hopes, claiming that the standards of health in the region are such that there is no longer any need for physicians.

Perhaps sensing the young man’s disappointment, the older doctor invites him to dinner at his house, though the food, no sooner introduced, is swiftly whisked away to give way to quizzes on the young man’s medical knowledge by other guests and much learned disputation.

Kennedy describes the work as a “relatively protracted work of fiction,” coming across as “facetious, satirical, and parodistic, with elements of burlesque and farce.” It is “an exhibition of the intricacy of the Arabic language,” using rhetorical techniques such as “wordplay, masking, and reversal.” But it would be a mistake to confuse such linguistic virtuosity with “variety for its own sake,” he says, as such “literary assemblages establish the conceptual and structural dimensions of the text, in which the depths of the most abstract subjects can be sounded.”

All this can be hard to render in modern English, the broad aim of the Library of Arabic Literature, and Kennedy invests great efforts in making his translation intelligible to first-time readers. These “may encounter a number of vernacular phrases, proverbs, aphorisms attributed to ancient authorities, passages of rhymed and cadenced prose or quoted or original poetry” on every page, making considerable demands on them as well as on the translator.

Ibn Butlan drew on ancient Greek materials, notably the works of Galen, and Kennedy describes his book as a “hybrid literary-scientific work” that “masterfully unites a variety of cross-cultural inspirations.” Among these was also the Deipnosophistae, the “learned banqueters” or “dinner-table philosophers,” a work in 15 books by the ancient Greek author Athenaeus who wrote this enormous and unclassifiable work in Egypt in the 2nd century CE.

Athenaeus’s book must have been still circulating in the Abbasid Empire at the time Ibn Butlan was writing nine centuries later, given its influence on him, and it would be nice to think that he came across it in its native Egypt.


SURVEY OF MONASTERIES: Al-Shabushti’s Book of Monasteries is another hard-to-classify work from the Abbasid period that also exhibits a number of cross-cultural inspirations. It has been translated for the Library of Arabic Literature by veteran translator Hilary Kilpatrick.

In the introduction to her translation, Kilpatrick says that 21st-century readers may be “taken aback” by Al-Shabushti’s work and not only because of its length and possibly confusing organisation.

Anyone supposing a monastery to be a place for religious observance – for “withdrawal from the world, prayer, and asceticism” – will be surprised to find that for Al-Shabushti monasteries instead provide opportunities for “enjoying wine and having fun, innocent and not so innocent,” she says, so much so that his descriptions of them say little or nothing about their religious life and instead present them as leisure-time destinations.

Most of the monasteries in Al-Shabushti’s survey are in what are now Iraq and Syria, very often close to the centre of Abbasid power in Baghdad, though he also includes a handful that are further afield, including some in Egypt. In each case, he describes the physical setting of the monastery, usually praising the beauty of its surroundings, before going on to add miscellaneous materials – poems, anecdotes, scraps of history, and quotations from the works of others – that may or may be not be related to the monastery in question.

This means that while readers of the Book of Monasteries can enjoy a rich selection of “types of prose text, such as a letter of condolence, jokes and witty retorts, tales of battles, accounts of court intrigues and extravagant festivities, and rhetorical jousts,” not to mention anecdotes about Abbasid Caliphs like Harun Al-Rashid, Al-Ma’mun, Al-Mu’tasim, and Al-Mutawakkil, they will not find much about the monasteries that are the book’s ostensible subject.

They will find a great deal of poetry in Al-Shabushti’s survey, almost all of it quoted from the works of others and including examples of “panegyric, elegy, satire, poems exchanged between friends, reflections on the transience of power, and contentment with one’s lot,” not to mention the pleasures of wine and the vicissitudes of love, Kilpatrick says.

This makes the book a kind of “pocket anthology” of the Arabic literature of Al-Shabushti’s time – though perhaps only for readers with capacious pockets.

Al-Shabushti himself was born in Baghdad in the early to mid-10th century and died in Cairo between 998 and 1000. Kilpatrick describes him as a “state scribe of Persian [Shia] origin,” who on the evidence of the Book of Monasteries travelled widely in the region before moving, “like many other cultivated scribes and administrators in this period,” to Cairo where he enjoyed the patronage of the newly installed Fatimid Caliphate and became a court companion to the Caliph Al-Aziz.

Cairo’s “Fatimid Palace Library came to be known as one of the most splendid in the Muslim world” of the time, Kilpatrick comments, “and Al-Shabushti no doubt played a part in developing it.”

While Al-Shabushti sometimes mentions people or events referred to in the Christian Bible, he shows no interest in the religion or the theological differences between the Christian Churches of the period, among them the Syrian Orthodox Church, the Melkites, most of whom were in Syria and Palestine, or the Egyptian Coptic Orthodox Church.

At a time when Christianity of one form or another was probably still the majority religion across the Middle East, Kilpatrick says, and almost certainly the majority religion in the countryside outside the larger cities, his book provides intriguing evidence of the relations between the Muslim ruling classes and their Christian subjects and the ways in which they might have mixed on visits to the region’s monasteries.

Kilpatrick says in her introduction that translating Al-Shabushti’s Book of Monasteries took her four years, and reading through the finished product, impeccably produced by the Library of Arabic Literature, one can quite see why. Not only has she rendered what one suspects is rather challenging Arabic in readable and often stylish English prose, but she has also provided a great many helpful notes and a useful introduction and bibliography.


Al-Shabushti, The Book of Monasteries, trans. Hilary Kilpatrick, New York: New York University Press, 2023, pp552; Ibn Butlan, The Doctors’ Dinner Party, trans. Philip Kennedy & Jeremy Farrell, New York: New York University Press, 2023, pp161.    

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