Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2019.11.04 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2019.11.04

Lucia Raggetti, ʿĪsā ibn ʿAlī’s Book on the Useful Properties of Animal Parts: Edition, Translation and Study of a Fluid Tradition. Science, technology, and medicine in ancient cultures, 6.   Berlin; Boston:  De Gruyter, 2018.  Pp. xxxvi, 591.  ISBN 9783110549867.  $218.99.  

Reviewed by Geoffrey Moseley, Deerfield Academy (


Prof. Raggetti (University of Bologna) has produced an editio princeps with facing English translation of a pharmacological text, On the Useful Properties of Animal Parts, attributed to ʿĪsā ibn ʿĀlī, reportedly a student of the great translator and physician Ḥunayn ibn Isḥāq (807/8-873 C.E.) and a prominent physician himself. Thousands of Arabic medical works remain in manuscript, unedited and mostly unread; Raggetti has ventured into one corner of this vast, largely uncharted territory and returned with findings.

Raggetti’s introduction surveys the sparse Arabic evidence for the author’s biography (XI-XIII) and offers reflections on the meanings of the technical terms منافع manāfiʿ ‘uses, benefits,’ خواصّ ḫawāṣṣ ‘properties, peculiarities,’ and مجرّبات muǧarrabāt ‘tried-and-true (remedies)’ (XIV-XVI); a survey and structural analysis of the text, which she argues marks a significant formal innovation within the genre in its organization by thematic chapter (e.g. ‘badger,’ a chapter under which are collected all the pharmacological uses of badgers and their body parts) (XVI-XXVI); a discussion of her editorial principles and the manuscript tradition (XXVI-XXXVI); and a brief bibliography (XXXV-XXXVI). According to Raggetti, the textual tradition of the work is "fluid" in that copyists took the liberty of adding, omitting, transposing, or otherwise altering textual material, sometimes in dealing with ambiguous Arabic consonantal skeletons (e.g. زىبق z-x-b-q could be rewritten as زنبق znbq = zanbaq ‘lily, iris’ or as زيبق zybq = zaybaq ‘quicksilver, mercury’). Amidst so much "fluidity," Raggetti argues, three distinct branches of transmission nonetheless emerge. Each of these branches she has edited separately and printed in a parallel column with facing English translation, sometimes rearranging the chapters for ease of comparison (pp. 1-557). Following the editions and facing English translations are a 'synoptic table of the manuscript tradition' that enables the reader to determine where in each of Raggetti’s seven primary manuscript witnesses a given chapter appears (559-572), a thematic index (573-575), and a pair of thematic glossaries, Arabic-English and English-Arabic (576-591).

Classicists and Arabists alike may wish that Raggetti had assembled a preliminary list of parallels that might shed light on ʿĪsā's influences and sources (ostensibly, according to the work’s introduction, such ancient authorities as Hermes, Democritus, Euclid, and Hippocrates!). Raggetti herself notes in the preface that such 'annotation...with the loci similes in Arabic literature as well as in other traditions, would have occupied several other volumes and years’ (V). Nonetheless, comparing the work’s remedies with those found in at least one other pharmacological collection (e.g. the Ḥāwī/Liber Continens of Rāzī/Rhazes, the Kitāb al-ṣaydana of Bīrūnī, or the Graeco-Arabic Dioscorides) would have enriched Raggetti’s introduction, edition, and translation and enabled her to contextualize ʿĪsā ibn ʿAlī’s work with greater specificity. In Manfred Ullmann’s dictionary of the Graeco-Arabic translation literature (WGAÜ), for instance, I came across one very close Graeco-Arabic parallel: in a Galenic work, eating goose tongue (duck tongue in ʿĪsā ibn ʿAlī) is said to be useful for preventing involuntary urination. 1

Further study of On the Useful Properties of Animal Parts, including the collection and analysis of parallels and analysis of its reception, will require a reliable edition and translation of the work. Unfortunately, the edition and translation printed here are unreliable; at times, typographical errors even make the Arabic text difficult to read. Below is a selection of the significant errors I have noted in the introduction and first chapter, approximately 4% of the work in Raggetti’s edition.

l. 3: for وصبحه read وصحبه
l. 4: for شيخ الإمام read الشيخ الإمام
l. 5: for عسى read عيسى

Translation: for 'may God be pleased with him' (conventional as a translation of the honorific formula رضي الله عنه) read 'may God have mercy on him,' i.e. 'may he rest in peace,' translating رحمه الله.

l. 3: for عنى يجمعه read عُنِيَ بجمعه

l. 2: for الحمد الله read الحمد لله
l. 4: for الظهره read أظهره
l. 9: for اصاحبه read أصحابه
l. 13: for المطبب read المتطبّب; for فرائد القوائد read فرائد الفوائد
l. 15: for العلاماء read العلماء
l. 16: for بحسنة read probably بحسنه
l.17: for عنا هذا الشأن read probably عُنِيَ بهذا الشأن

Translation (3c): Raggetti translates قلائب as 'hearts,' i.e. قلوب; I have not found قلائب attested in any lexicon as a plural of قلب 'heart.' Raggetti translates قيمته من المال انفس as ‘its value comes from the wealth of the spirits, vocalizing the consonantal skeleton ʾ-n-f-s as anfus, plural of nafs ‘soul’); as printed, the sentence must mean ‘its value is more precious (anfas, elative of nafīs ‘precious’) than physical possessions/money.' Ragetti does not translate the verb انتخبه: [sc. Democritus, Hermes, and others] selected it (i.e. as choice material).

l. 4: for الرقاء read الرقى
l. 7: delete و in وعلى

l. 1-2: for مرتبة برتبها read probably مرتبة ترتيبها

l. 1 & l. 4: for both يؤخد and يؤجد read يؤخذ

Translation: إن شاء الله تعالى (at l.12-13) ‘if God, the Exalted, (so) wills’ is not translated.

l. 4: forالذي في الناسور 'which is in the fistula' read الذي <فيه> الناسور ‘in which the fistula is,’ i.e. ‘which contains the fistula' (Raggetti: ‘(the nose) affected by a fistula’)

l. 1: for لبن read لمن (Raggetti: ‘to whomever’)
Translation: عسل النحل 'bee’s honey' is not translated.

Translation: القروح التي يسيل منها الماء (l. 10) ‘ulcers from which water flows’ is not translated

l. 5: for والامر او read والأمرا(ء) و
Translation: عتيق (‘old,’ ‘aged’) (l. 4) is not translated.

l. 5: for الجيع read الجميع

Translation: شربا (‘as a drink’) at 12c l. 2 is not translated; in parallel passages, the phraseعند النفاس is translated in three different ways, one inaccurate: (1) ‘at the moment of delivery,' (2) 'when she breathes’ (sic, as if the text read عند التنفّس) and (3) 'at the moment of the labour'. In segment 1.18, 'then this will be useful' does not correspond to the Arabic printed.

l. 12: لحم الدواب, perhaps to be read as لحمرة الدواب (‘for the erysipelas of beasts’), is translated as ‘against the suffering of beasts,' which does not correspond to the Arabic printed.

l. 3 : ويكرمك ‘and [he] will honor you’ is not translated.

Translation: في) بعض الأوقات) 'sometimes, at times, on some occasions' is twice mistranslated - at least as printed (at 1.33 and 1.34) - as 'a few ounces' ('a few ounces' would be بعض الأواقي)

The translation of 1.38 (column c) is mistakenly reprinted under 1.39 (column c).

وهذا أعلى ما يكون ‘this is the most exalted thing that exists’ (?) is omitted in the translation of 1.43 (column a).

Raggetti’s analysis of the work's structure and its manuscript tradition is the first step towards a critical edition and annotated translation of the text, which promises to illuminate both the reception of (late) ancient pharmacological material in Arabic and the later Arabic tradition of 'magical' remedies (Raggetti argues on the basis of marginalia that once obsolete as a pharmacological work, the text began to be read as a collection of wonders) (XII). Unfortunately, Raggetti’s edition and translation as here printed are not reliable for scholarly purposes and should be consulted with caution until a new edition appears.


1.   See M. Ullmann, Wörterbuch zu den griechisch-arabischen Übersetzungen des 9. Jahrhunderts (Wiesbaden, 2002) s.v. χήνειος [764.16-19], on the basis of Galen De remediis parabilibus II 25: πρὸς ἐνουροῦντας ἀπροαιρέτως...χηνείας γλώσσας ἑφθὰς δὸς φαγεῖν = al-iwazzu....wa-aklu lisānihī yanfaʿu min taqṭīri l-bawli (Ar.: Goose: eating its tongue is useful against urine dripping). Cf. Raggetti 409b6: lisānuhū (sc. lisānu l-baṭṭi) iḏā ukila nafaʿa min taqṭīri l-bawli (Raggetti: "Its [sc. duck’s] tongue: if it is eaten, this will be useful against urine dripping.")

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