Ibn Shaprut was one of the most prominent diplomats and physicians in Andalusia.
Rabat – Andalusian physician Hisdai Ibn Shaprut is perhaps best known for curing Sancho I of Leon from obesity, ultimately allowing the ruler to regain control of his kingdom. Also known as “Sancho the Fat,” the monarch ruled Leon in the north of modern-day Spain from 960-966, when Umayyad caliph Abd al-Rahman III reigned over Andalus.
Ibn Shaprut (915-970) was a prominent Jewish physician, translator, and political figure in Andalusia during the Islamic rule of what is now southern Spain. The court physician helped to advance science in the golden age of Andalusia.
The scholar was born into a Jewish family in Cordoba, and began to attract the Muslim royal palace’s attention at an early age. His unusual intellectual abilities allowed him to serve as a royal courtier by 935. Umayyad caliph Abd al-Rahman III appointed him as major-domo over state affairs.
Ibn Shaprut served the powerful Umayyad caliph as a close confidant and assumed an important role in diplomatic negotiations between Muslim and Christian rulers.
The scholar was also renowned for his medical knowledge. Shaprut helped to translate a pharmacological text titled “Materia Medica” by the Greek physician Dioscorides into Arabic, bringing the text into circulation in medieval Europe.
Shaprut later proved his medical knowledge and skills by curing northern Spain’s King Sancho I’s obesity at the request of Caliph Abd al-Rahman III.
Rebel nobles had overthrown Sancho in A.D. 958, claiming he was too fat to perform a ruler’s duties. The king’s grandmother, Queen Toda Aznar of the Christian Kingdom of Navarre, approached the Muslim caliphate in Cordoba for help in both curing her grandson’s obesity and in providing military support for his return to the throne.
Al-Rahman III assigned Shaprut to cure the Leonese king, and the caliph’s faithful advisor put Sancho I on a strict diet. After slowly returning to a functional weight, the king reclaimed his lost throne with the help of Islamic troops.
“It was Hasdai alone who was able to cure Sancho, of the royal house of Leon, of his dangerous obesity,” wrote Professor of Jewish History and Civilization at the University of Chicago Norman Golb.
Ibn Shaprut maintained Umayyad power in the Andalus, modern Spain. He showed an ability to solve major dynastic conflicts, and played a major role in negotiating peace treaties. One prominent example concerns Ramiro, the Christian ruler of Leonese Galicia.
Ramiro imprisoned Muhammad ibn Hashim al-Tujibi, a dear friend of the caliph, in 939, after capturing him during a series of border-wars between the two kingdoms.
Ibn Shaprut was the chief diplomat responsible for the peace treaty with Ramiro. He befriended Ramiro, gaining his trust. Ibn Shaprut eventually enchanted Ramiro with his mastery of humane arts, and the king extended Hasdai’s stay to seven months. “In the end Hasdai, having learned how to penetrate to the depths of Ramiro’s thought, succeeded in arriving at the very brink of al-Tujibi’s freedom,” wrote Golb.
Abd al-Rahman III sent ibn Shaprut to Ramiro because he was, quoting 11th century Andalusian historian Ibn Hayyan, “that unique man of his generation the likes of whom could not be found amongst the servants of any other emperor in the world, because of his high culture, the depth of his cunning, his sharp discernment, and his exceptional cleverness.”
The Jewish scholar’s legacy preceded scientists and physicians who earned high regard during the Islamic Middle Ages, such as Ibn Sina (Avicenna), Abu Al Qasim Al Zahrawi (Albucasis), and Ibn Rushd (Averroes). All of these scholars made contributions to science and medicine that shaped their fields today.