Islam in History: Ideas, People, and Events in the Middle East

By Bernard Lewis | Go to book overview

14
The Sultan, the King, and
the Jewish Doctor

One of the most popular motifs in the saga of Maimonides as a Jewish culture hero is the story of how he was invited to go and treat the King of England, Richard Lionheart, who had gone to Palestine with the Third Crusade—and refused the invitation. This story, which appears in almost every biography of Maimonides and in most popular histories of the Jews, assumes several forms. The simplest version merely states that on some occasion King Richard sought the services of Maimonides as a physician. Others develop this into an offer of employment as bodyphysician, sometimes with the further suggestion that Maimonides accompany the King back to London. The reason given for his refusal is, usually, his satisfaction with his court post in Cairo, sometimes also disquiet about conditions in London.1

The birth, growth, and luxuriance of this story provide a curious and instructive example of the methods and validity of popular historiography. It derives from a single source—the Ta’rīkh al-ukamā’, or History of Physicians, of the Egyptian Muslim writer Jamāl al-Dīn Abu’l-Ḥasan ‘Alī ibn Yūsuf al-Qifṭī (1172–1248). He was born in Qifṭ, in upper Egypt, to a family of scholars and officials. When he was fifteen years old his father was appointed first assistant to the chief minister al-Qāḍī al-Fāḍil, the patron and benefactor of Maimonides. Later his family moved to Palestine and after many travels al-Qifṭī eventually settled in Aleppo, where he remained until his death. Among his closest friends there was the Jewish physician Joseph ibn Yaḥyā ibn Shim‘ōn, a pupil of Maimonides, who may possibly be identical with the famous Joseph ibn ‘Aqnīn. Al-Qifṭī thus had the opportunity of collecting information for the biography of Maimonides which he included in his book. This work,

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