Jewish Court Physicians in the Mamluk Sultanate during the First Half of the 8th/14th Century

in Medieval Encounters
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It is usually accepted among modern scholars that the Mamluk period marked a drastic decline in the position of non-Muslims. Jews and Christians were exposed to increasing persecutions and, inter alia, could not serve as great physicians unless they converted to Islam. Against these assumptions, the article discusses new data regarding three Jewish court physicians from the first half of the 8th/14th century. Despite being under a strong pressure to convert, these doctors gained honorable positions and a high social status in the Mamluk sultanate. As erudite physicians and skillful practitioners, they were integrated with the highest circles of the political, military and especially intellectual Muslim elite of their time.

Jewish Court Physicians in the Mamluk Sultanate during the First Half of the 8th/14th Century

in Medieval Encounters




Moshe Perlmann“Notes on the position of Jewish physicians in Medieval Muslim Countries” Israel Oriental Studies 2 (1972) 315-316; Eliyahu Ashtor “Prolegomena to the Medieval History of Oriental Jewry” Jewish Quarterly Review n.s. 50 no. 2 (1959) 148. There were several prominent Jewish physicians in the first centuries of Islam such as Māsarjawaīh (2nd/8th century) Yizhāq ha-Isrāeli in Tunisia (d. ca. 340/950) and Ḥasdāy b. Shaprūṭ in Cordova (d. ca. 364/975). However these Jewish physicians seem to be very few compared to the Christian ones especially in the Egypt and Syria see: Meyerhof “Physicians” 435-441.


Meyerhof“Physicians” 441; Salo Wittmayer Baron A Social and Religious History of the Jews (New York ny: Columbia University Press 1980) 17:174; Perlmann “Notes” 316.


Ashtor“Prolegomena” 153.




E. Ashtor“Mamluks,” EJ (Jerusalem: Keter 1971) 11:834-837; N.A. Stillman The Jews of Arab Lands: A History and Source Book (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America 1979) 68-72; Meyerhof “Physicians” 457.


Perlmann“Notes” 316-319; Ashtor “Prolegomena” 154-155; Baron History 175; D. Behrens-Abouseif Fatḥ Allāh and Abū Zakariyya: Physicians Under the Mamluks Suppléments aux Annales Islamologiques 10 (Cairo: Institut français d’archéologie orientale 1987) 14; Stillman Jews 72.


D. Behrens-Abouseif“The Image of the Physician in Arab Biographies of the Post-Classical Age,” Der Islam 66 (1989) 335-356; 342-343; Behrens-Abouseif Fatḥ Allāh 14-19.


GoiteinSociety1:18-19; M.R. Cohen Poverty and Charity in the Jewish Community of Medieval Egypt (Princeton nj: Princeton University Press 2005) 30.


Behrens-Abouseif Fatḥ Allāh14; Behrens-Abouseif “Image” 336.


Behrens-AbouseifFatḥ Allāh12. See for example the distinguished Jewish physician and the “judge of the Jews” who converted together with all of his family after the persecutions of 700/1301: al-Ṣafadī Aʿyān al-ʿAṣr fi Aʿwān al-Naṣr (Beirut: Dār al-Fikr 1418/1998) 3:65; L. Guo Early Mamluk Syrian Historiography: Al-Yūnīnī’s Dhayl Mirʾāt al-Zamān (Leiden: Brill 1998) 2:255 and the English translation: Guo Early Mamluk 1:206-207 See also the Jewish and Christian “heads of the physicians” during the first half of the 8th/14th century who converted to Islam below.


Behrens-AbouseifFatḥ Allāh8 10; Behrens-Abouseif “Image” 334 341; on the terms ḥakīm and ṭabīb see: Goitein Society 2:246.


D.P. Little“Historiography of the Ayyubid and Mamluk Epochs,” in The Cambridge History of EgyptI: Islamic Egypt 640-1517 ed. Carl Petry (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press1998) 431-433.


Little“Historiography” 430-431; D.P. Little An Introduction to Mamlūk Historiography: An Analysis of Arabic Annalistic and Biographical Sources for the Reign of an-Malik al-Nāṣir Muḥammad ibn Qalāʾūn (Wiesbaden: Franz Steiner 1970) 40.


GoiteinSociety3:11; see on Abū al-Munajjā: Goitein Society 2:356. Tamir El-Leithy following Goitein asserts too that there were two different Karaite families at that time Ibn Saghīr and Ibn Kūjik. See: Coptic Culture and Conversion in Medieval Cairo 1293-1524 (Ph.D. diss. Princeton University Princeton nj 2005) 56.


See: GoiteinSociety3:12; Abū al-Maḥāsin Yūsuf Ibn Taghrībirdī al-Nujūm al-Zāhira fī Mulūk Miṣr wa’l-Qāhira ed. W. Popper (Berkeley ca: University of California Press 1926-1929) 5:174; al-Maqrīzī Sulūk 3:56; Ibn Ḥajar Durar 4:380. Ashtor’s assumption that the Muslim authors usually used to mention the Karaite affiliation of a Jew (Toledot 1:281-282) might be relevant only to the pre-Mamluk period. Al-Sadīd and Faraj Allāh are not mentioned as Karaites by al-ʿUmarī nor by al-Ṣafadī. Similarly Mūsā ibn Kūjik is not mentioned as a Karaite by al-Maqrīzī.


Behrens-AbouseifFatḥ Allāh12.


Linda S. NorthrupFrom Slave to Sultan: The Career of al-Manṣūr Qalāwūn and the Consolidation of Mamluk Rule in Egypt and Syria (678-689 A.H./1279-1290 A.D.) (Stuttgart: Franz Steiner1998) 36-37.


See: A. Mazor and K. Abbou Hershkovitz“Spectacles in the Muslim World: New Evidence from the Mid-Fourteenth Century,” Early Science and Medicine 18 no. 3 (2013) 299-300. See the tarjama of Asad as mentioned by al-Ṣafadī: Wāfī 9:8-10; Aʿyān 1:488-490.


See on this rank: D. Ayalon“Studies on the Structure of the Mamluk Army II,” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 15 (1953) 467-469.


Behrens-AbouseifFatḥ Allāh20-21; nn. 79 80 above.


M. Meyerhof“Sultan Saladin’s physician on the transmission of Greek Medicine to the Arabs,” Bulletin of the History of Medicine 18 (1945) 169.


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