Jewish Doctors in Medieval Islam – Book Review

Jewish doctors in medieval Islam

An innovative work penetrates fascinating interactions to reveal a new color


This new publication has been in the works for many years and marks the completion of a monumental study of Jewish physicians and the remedies they used in the medieval Islamic world. The author is Professor of Land of Israel Studies at the University of Haifa and is a leading medical authority at Geniza in Cairo. He has examined thousands of documents spanning several centuries and recovered over a century ago from the Geniza (repository of documents) of the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Cairo. The Lev’s Geniza Fellowship and his in-depth knowledge of ethno-pharmacology have already given rise to the masterful Practical Medical Matter of the Medieval Eastern Mediterranean according to the Cairo Genizah, co-authored with Zohar Amar.

Using archives and fragments from Geniza as well as existing medieval Muslim Arab sources, Lev was able to present information about the lives of more than 600 Jewish doctors and pharmacists in the Islamic world of the Middle Ages. He uses the technique of “prosopography”, a study that identifies and connects a group of people or characters in a particular historical context, to create “a collective biography”. It shows how these practitioners operated when they treated Jewish, Christian and Muslim patients in the Islamic world, which stretched from Morocco and Andalusia to Iraq and Iran. Jewish doctors and pharmacists mostly enjoyed good relations with their Christian and Muslim colleagues, and medical students of the three faiths learned together in Eastern Muslim countries, often in hospitals and sometimes within family networks.

Jews were drawn to the medical profession. Medicine had prestige and offered opportunities where other scholarly options were closed to them. These doctors were fluent in Arabic and Hebrew and had access to medical libraries. Even during times of restrictions on Jewish doctors, Muslim leaders and the public still consulted them. This work brought Jewish doctors closer to the center of power, and some Jewish court doctors were killed in court intrigues.

A biography constructed both on Geniza and on Arabic sources is that of Abu al-Asha’ir Hibat-Allah b. Zayn Ibn Jumay al-Isra’ili (Nethanel b. Samuel), who practiced medicine in Cairo and was the doctor of the legendary Saladin. The predominantly Arabic sources provide basic information on names and places, colleagues and students although sometimes more details, such as doctors’ salaries and libraries, are included. Jewish sources from the Cairo Geniza have information about their families and the background to their life and work. Some biography entries are more detailed while others contain only minimal information. Some doctors were part of medical dynasties and 49 family trees were created and displayed in the book. Many examples can be cited. We only know Maafuz al-Tabib, a physician in Egypt, through a mention in a document from 1185, reporting that his granddaughter was going to marry. 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 Suq al-Attarin and, as Jerusalem’s “chief of doctors”, he received his salary from the public treasury.

Some doctors 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 one of the first translators of texts from Syriac into Arabic. He has written 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 wrote Shevilei Emunah (The Paths of Faith) aimed at showing that Plato and Aristotle drew most of their knowledge from Jewish sources. The book also contains sections dealing with many scientific topics as well as human anatomy and 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 have been studied for many centuries in the medical schools of Christian Europe.

Physicians also include well-known figures such as 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 Almohad period in Spain, reaching Fostat (old Cairo) in 1166. He was the main Jewish religious figure in Egypt with an authority that extended beyond the country, while serving as court physician during Ayyubic rule. . Maimonides has written 10 books on medical subjects, including treatises on asthma, hemorrhoids, poisons, and books of his medical aphorisms and commentaries on Hippocratic aphorisms.

By combining the experiences of hundreds of doctors, the author was able to draw many conclusions that could not have been drawn from the individual stories. This great work is commended for its comprehensive coverage of the subject and for shedding light on a world that has disappeared but left clues in ancient manuscripts and fragments that Lev continues to browse.



By Efraim Lev

Edinburgh University Press

513 pages; £ 95.00

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