The Greatest Physician of Islam and the Medieval Ages: Muhammad Ibn Zakariya Al-Razi (Rhazes)

MAGAZINE: EDITION JULY 2021
Musa Sattar – UKSCIENCE, MEDICINE AND TECHNOLOGY

4th November 2021 THE REVIEW OF RELIGIONS

Musa Sattar, London, UK

‘The doctor’s aim is to do well, even to our enemies, so much more to our friends, and my profession forbids us to do harm to our kindred, as it is instituted for the benefit and welfare of the human race, and God imposed on physicians the oath not to compose mortiferous remedies.’ [1]

Al-Razi, CE 865-925

More than 1,400 years ago, the Holy Prophet of Islam, Muhammad (sa),laid great emphasis upon seeking knowledge, encouraging humankind to take full advantage of every available opportunity to learn. The Holy Prophet (sa) once said, ‘whoever treads a path to obtain knowledge, Allah makes the path to paradise easy for him.’ [2]

Similarly, seeking knowledge is greatly emphasised in the Holy Qur’an, where Allah Almighty has taught believers to supplicate, ‘O my Lord, increase me in knowledge.’ [3] Furthermore, Allah the Almighty has mentioned several times in the Holy Qur’an that human beings are the ‘best of creation’ for they have been granted intelligence and understanding. For example, in one passage of the Holy Qur’an, God Almighty states, ‘Indeed, We have honoured the children of Adam…and exalted them far above many of those whom We have created.’ [4] Then, in another verse Allah the Almighty says, ‘Surely, We have created man in the best make.’[5]

Thus, Islamic teachings have shaped the ways in which religion, philosophy, and science have interacted with one another, leading to a holistic understanding and study of the world of nature, as well as the human sphere. Muslims were known to be the cultural and scientific leaders of their time, when nature was studied and researched as a subject matter for both philosophy and science. Phenomenal work was carried out in the fields of philosophy, chemistry, astronomy, mathematics and medicine. They translated the Greek original medical and scientific texts (such as the Corpus of Hippocrates, the writings of Galen, the works of Aristotle, Euclid, Ptolemy, etc.) into Arabic, which paved the way for the Latin translation to be used throughout all of Europe.

After the rise of Islam in the 7th century CE and the establishment of the Abbassid Caliphate in the 8th century CE in Baghdad, [6] the city became the learning hub and the leading medical centre of the time. Physicians, scholars and philosophers started migrating from the Persian Academy of Gondishapur to Baghdad [7], initiating the ‘golden age of Islam’. Amongst the scholars of the golden age of Islam was a Persian man by the name Abu Bakr Muhammad Ibn Zakariya Al-Razi, who was considered to be one of the greatest scholars of this era. [8]

Early Life, Education and Training

Al-Razi (also known as Rhazes in the western world) was a Muslim Persian scholar, researcher, physician and alchemist. He was born in 865 CE in the ancient city of Rey near modern Tehran, the present capital of Iran. [9] [10] When he was a child he had a great passion for music and became the author of an encyclopaedia of music. [11] Later, he started studying alchemy and chemistry, under the supervision of his father who was a well-known goldsmith. [12] It is said that due to an eye irritation caused by the chemicals used in his experiments, he had to stop his practical examination in the field of alchemy at the age of 30. However, by then he became famous for the discovery of sulphuric acid and ethanol. [13] He combined mathematics and physics to his experiments, giving a philosophical and logical viewpoint to his understandings. [14][15] He studied thoroughly and developed a good understanding of the medicinal systems of ancient Greece, Persia and India. Medicine thus became his main subject of interest and so he spent most of his life pursuing this work. He wrote over 200 scientific treatises, many of which have had a major impact on European medicine. [16] He soon became the most renowned physician and medical scholar of his time with his remarkable contributions in theoretical and clinical medicine. [17] He is best known for his empirical approach to knowledge rather than on theoretical reflections, with his most important contributions being in the fields of alchemy and medicine.

His Works in the Field of Chemistry

Al-Razi studied chemistry in his youth and wrote several books on the subject. He followed Jabir ibn Hayyan and Al-Kindi, however, his approach to the subject was remarkably distinctive, for it was based on careful and accurate experimental observations. He classified the materials used in chemistry into three main categories: bodies, souls and spirits. He subdivided the substances into animals (hayawanat), plants (nabatat) and minerals (jamadat).[18][19]

Al-Razi had an atypical approach to practical chemistry, for he was more interested in experiments and production, rather than theory. He made hundreds of discoveries in his chemical laboratory and recorded his findings. His most important work was establishing practical alchemy through the book entitled ‘Sirr al-Asrar’ (The Book of the Secrets of Secret) which Donald Hill described as a laboratory manual divided into three sections, with the first on drug components and origins, the second on equipment, and the third on techniques. [20][21][22] Some of the techniques mentioned in this book are distillation, purification, assation and amalgamation. [23] Putting aside many other accomplishments of Al-Razi, one of the most significant was to transform alchemy from a mysterious practice into a rational and empirical science of chemistry. He wrote several books and treatises of extensive research in chemistry that became the basis for scientific chemistry to replace alchemy. [24][25]

His Contributions to Medicine

In the 2nd century, the ancient Greek physician Galen wrote extensively on medicine and the anatomy of the human body. Galen was considered among the leading thinkers of medicine and remained the best known physician for hundreds of years after his demise. [26] Despite his ideas being revolutionary in his time, many were later proven seriously flawed. Al-Razi, while acknowledging and expressing his admiration of Galen’s contributions, became the first person to critically challenge his concepts. [27][28] In his book Doubts about Galen, he writes ‘…In medicine and philosophy blind obedience and surrender to authority is unacceptable and imitation is not wisdom but that reason and logic must guide one’s thoughts, and Galen himself had chastised those who attempt to impose their opinions on their students without reason or logic.’ [29][30]

Al-Razi began his study of medicine at the age of 30 after his first visit to Baghdad, where he studied under the supervision of the well-known physician Ali Ibn Sahl Rabban al-Tabari. [31][32] However, he soon surpassed all his teachers and became the most respected medic in the world at the time. He combined Galenic texts and Hippocratic wisdom and values with his comprehensive knowledge as a skilled clinician and teacher. [33] Although he spent most of his life in Persia, [34] it is said that he travelled to Africa, Spain and Jerusalem [35] to study and practise medicine.

With the ever-increasing reputation and respect, he soon became a renowned physician, advocating experimental medicine [36] and was appointed as chief physician at the Royal Hospital in Ray. [37] Subsequently, he was consulted for the foundation of a major hospital in Baghdad. To select the most suitable site he hung up fresh pieces of raw meat in various parts of the city and selected the place where pieces of meat were observed decomposing at a slower rate where there was fresher or cleaner air. His use of such practical methods further illustrates his empirical approach to medical practice. He became the physician-in-chief to the great hospital in Baghdad. [38][39]

His most extensive medical work, consisting of 22 volumes, which is also the longest known medieval medical text, is the medical encyclopaedia Kitab al-Hawi fi al-Tibb (The Comprehensive Book of Medicine; and in Latin The Liber Continens)In this he illustrates the opinions, diagnosis and method of treatment of all medieval and Greek predecessor physicians, authenticated by his own experiments and observations, thus providing the reader access to a number of discussions. [40][41] Likewise, Al-Mansuri fi al-Tibb (The Book on Medicine for Mansur) was another famous medical treatise dedicated to a ruler and later used widely as a medical teaching curriculum for medical students. [42]

He greatly emphasised the importance of commitment to the field of medicine and applauded constant improvement and learning in his book The Virtuous Life. He had firm faith that doctors are entrusted by God Who had blessed them with the sacred endeavour to provide the best treatment to all who require it, without discrimination against enemies or deprived ones who couldn’t afford medical attention.[43] He therefore treated the poor patients free of charge and many patients came from afar to seek his expertise. [44] Being so generous and charitable, he wrote a book entitled Kitab man la Yahduruhu al-Tabib (The Manual: A Medical Advisor for the General Public) [45] providing medical care to ordinary citizens, travellers, and the poor who were unable to afford a physician.

Medical Achievements and Discoveries

Al-Razi pioneered many areas of medicine. His achievements include:

1. Al-Razi was the first to introduce animal trial studies to examine the effects and toxicity of drugs prior to human administration. [46]

2. He established the methodology of clinical medicine by having a rational approach to the care of patients based on recording, interpreting and classifying his clinical and experimental observations. He also pioneered practising case control experimentation in clinical medicine. [47]

3. He set high levels of professional standards for physicians by maintaining the respect and confidence of the patients with a high level of integrity. [48]

4. To encounter the mental health illnesses of his patients, he considered treating patient’s behavioural disorders as medical conditions and presented the very first concept of psychiatric wards. He is known to have practised an early form of cognitive therapy for obsessive behaviour and depression. [49]

5. He was a pioneer in the fields of paediatrics and infectious diseases. His book Kitab al-Judari wa al-Husbah (The Book of Smallpox and Measles) became the first scientific description for the recognition and differentiation of smallpox and measles. In 1970, the World Health Organisation credited his work by stating, ‘His writings on smallpox and measles show originality and accuracy, and his    essay on infectious diseases was the first scientific treatise on the subject.’ [50][51]

Conclusion

The historic contributions of Muslim scholars to the field of science and medicine are undisputed. Abu Bakr Muhammad Ibn Zakariya Al-Razi is considered among the pillars of the golden age of Islam. He was extremely generous and ever-ready to treat and help the poor. He was known as the most appealing healer of his age. He was an independent thinker. For centuries his treatise, together with those of Avicenna’s Canon of Medicine were used as primary texts for major medical schools in Europe. Commemorative stamps were issued by many countries in honour of his work and his portrait hangs in the hall of the School of Medicine in Paris. There is no doubt that Al-Razi was therefore one of the greatest physicians of Islam and of the Medieval ages.

About the Author: Musa Sattar has an MSc in Pharmaceutical Analysis from Kingston University and is also serving as the Assistant Manager of The Review of Religions and the Deputy Editor of the Science & Religion section.


ENDNOTES

1. S Zarrintan, A Shahnaee, S Aslanabadi, “Rhazes (Ad 865–925) And His Early Contributions To The Field Of Pediatrics,” Child’s Nervous System 34, 8 (2017): 1435-1438.

2. Jami‘ al-Tirmidhi, Abu Khaliyl, Abu Tahir Zubair, English “Translation Of Jāmiʻ At-Tirmidhi,” (Riyadh: Darussalam, 2007) 39: 50-51.

3. The Holy Qur’an, 20:115.

4. The Holy Qur’an, 17:71.

5.The Holy Qur’an, 95:5.

6.“How Early Islamic Science Advanced Medicine,” 2019. Nationalgeographic.com. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/history/magazine/2016/11-12/muslim-medicine-scientific-discovery-islam/.

7. M H Azizi, “Gondishapur School of Medicine: The Most Important Medical Center in Antiquity,” Archives of Iranian Medicine 11, 1 (2008): 116-119.

8. B L Ligon, “Biography: Rhazes: His Career And His Writings,” Seminars In Pediatric Infectious Diseases 12, 3 (2001): 266-272.

9. R S Tubbs, M M Shoja, M Loukas, W J Oakes, “Abubakr Muhammad Ibn Zakaria Razi, Rhazes (865–925 Ad),” Child’s Nervous System 23, 11 (2007): 1225-1226.

10. S Zarrintan, F Najjarian, S Tahmasebzadeh, et.al., “Abu Bakr Muhammad Ibn Zakariya Razi (AD 865–925) And Early Description Of Clinical Trials,” International Journal Of Cardiology 174, 3 (2014): 758-759.

11. H D Modanlou, “A Tribute to Zakariya Razi (865-925 AD), An Iranian Pioneer Scholar,” Archives of Iranian Medicine 6, 11 (2008): 673-677.

12. B L Ligon, “Biography: Rhazes: His Career And His Writings,” Seminars In Pediatric Infectious Diseases 12, 3 (2001): 266-272.

13. S C Ashtiyani, “Rhazes, a Genius Physician in Diagnosis and Treatment of Kidney Calculi in Medical History,” Iranian Journal of Kidney Diseases 4, 2 (2010): 106-110.

14. P E Walker, “Al-Razi, Abu Bakr Muhammad ibn Zakariyya’ (d 925),” 1998. [Online]. [accessed 5 December 2019]. Available from: http://www.muslimphilosophy.com/ip/rep/H043.htm

15. R S Tubbs, M M Shoja, M Loukas, W J Oakes, “Abu Bakr Muhammad Ibn Zakaria Razi, Rhazes (865–925 Ad),” Child’s Nervous System 23, 11 (2007): 1225-1226.

16. B L Ligon, “Biography: Rhazes: His Career And His Writings,” Seminars In Pediatric Infectious Diseases 12, 3 (2001): 266-272.

17. S Zarrintan, A Shahnaee, S Aslanabadi, “Rhazes (Ad 865–925) And His Early Contributions To The Field Of Pediatrics,” Child’s Nervous System 34, 8 (2018): 1435-1438.

18. E J Holmyard, “Some Chemists of Islam,” Science Progress in the Twentieth Century (1919-1933) 18, 69 (1923): 66-75. http://www.jstor.org/stable/43431171.

19. Ansari A S Bazmee, “Abu Bakr Muhammad Ibn Yahya Al-Razi: Universal Scholar and Scientist,” Islamic Studies 15, 3 (1976): 155-166. http://www.jstor.org/stable/20847003.

20. Salim T S Al-Hassani, 1001 Inventions, 3rd ed. (Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society), 90-185.

21. I Kalin, The Oxford Encyclopedia Of Philosophy, Science, and Technology In Islam. Vol 1. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 133-140.

22. I Kalin, The Oxford Encyclopedia Of PhilosophyScience, and Technology In Islam. Vol 2. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 180-181.

23. I Kalin, The Oxford Encyclopedia Of Philosophy, Science, and Technology In Islam. Vol 1. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 133-140.

24. H D Modanlou, “A Tribute to Zakariya Razi (865-925 AD), An Iranian Pioneer Scholar,” Archives of Iranian Medicine 6, 11 (2008): 673-677.

25. T Nayernouri, “A Brief History of Ancient Iranian Medicine,” Archives of Iranian Medicine 18, 8 (2015): 549 – 551.

26. R Ajita. “Galen and His Contribution to Anatomy: A Review,” Journal of Evolution of Medical and Dental Sciences 4, 26 (2015): 4509-4516, DOI: 10.14260/jemds/2015/651

27. M M Shoja, P S Agutter, R S Tubbs, “Rhazes Doubting Galen: Ancient and Medieval Theories of Vision,” International Journal of History and Philosophy of Medicine 5(2015): 10510. doi: 10.18550/ijhpm.011515.0510

28. R Hajar, “The Air of History (Part IV): Great Muslim Physicians Al Rhazes.” Heart Views 14, 2 (2013): 93-5. doi:10.4103/1995-705X.115499

29. F Alkhateeb, Lost Islamic History, (London: C Hurst & Co Pub Ltd, 2016), 85-90.

30. T Nayernouri, “Zakariya Razi the Iranian Physician and Scholar,” Archives of Iranian Medicine 11, 2 (2008): 229-234.

31. J Al-Khalili, Pathfinders (London: Penguin, 2012), 143.

32. M H Morgan, Lost History: The Enduring Legacy of Muslim ScientistsThinkers and Artists (Washington, D.C.: National Geographic, 2008).

33. J Al-Khalili, 2012. Pathfinders (London: Penguin, 2012), 143.

34. E G Browne, Arabian Medicine: The Fitzpatrick Lectures Delivered at The College of ‘Physicians in November 1919 and November 1920. Ebook. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1962), 45.

35. R Hajar, “The Air of History (Part IV): Great Muslim Physicians Al Rhazes.” Heart Views 14, 2 (2013): 93-5. doi:10.4103/1995-705X.115499

36. M Zarvandi, R Sadeghi, “Exploring the roots of clinical trial methodology in medieval Islamic medicine,” Clinical Trials 16, 3 (2019): 316–321. https://doi.org/10.1177/1740774519830396

37. M M Shoja, P S Agutter, R S Tubbs, “Rhazes Doubting Galen: Ancient and Medieval Theories of Vision,” International Journal of History and Philosophy of Medicine 5(2015): 10510. doi: 10.18550/ijhpm.011515.0510

38. M H Morgan, Lost History: The Enduring Legacy of Muslim Scientists, Thinkers and Artists (Washington, D.C.: National Geographic, 2008).

39. E G Browne, Arabian Medicine: The Fitzpatrick Lectures Delivered at The College of ‘Physicians in November 1919 and November 1920. Ebook. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1962), 45.

40. I Kalin, The Oxford Encyclopedia Of Philosophy, Science, and Technology In Islam. Vol 2. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 180.

41. W Ahmad, K Rabee, M Zulkifle, “Arab and Muslim contributions to Medicine and Research – A Review,” Bangladesh Journal of Medical Science 16, 3 (2017): 339-345.

42. F Ghaffari, M Naseri, R J Hajati, A Zargaran “Rhazes, A Pioneer In Contribution To Trials In Medical Practice,” Acta medico-historica Adriatica 15, 2 (2017): 261-270.

43. F Alkhateeb, Lost Islamic History, (London: C Hurst & Co Pub Ltd, 2016), 85-90.

44. S Y Tan, “Rhazes (835-925 A.D.): Medical Scholar of Islam,” Singapore Medical Journal 43, 7 (2002): 331-332.

45. H Edriss, B N Rosales, et.al., “Islamic Medicine in the Middle Ages,” The American Journal of Medical Sciences 354, 7 (2017): 223-229.

46. S Tibi, “Al-Razi and Islamic Medicine in the 9th Century,” Journal of The Royal Society of Medicine 99, (2006): 206-207.

47. R E Abdel-Halim, “Experimental Medicine 1000 Years Ago,” Urology Annals 3, 2(2011): 55-61 doi:10.4103/0974-7796.82168.

48. A N Daghestani, “Al-Razi (Rhazes), 865–925,” American Journal Of Psychiatry 154, 11(1997): 1602-1602. doi:10.1176/ajp.154.11.1602.

49. M Yilanli, “Muhammad Ibn Zakariya Al-Razi And The First Psychiatric Ward,” American Journal Of Psychiatry Residents’ Journal 13, 9 (2018): 11. doi:10.1176/appi.ajp-rj.2018.130905.

50. H D Modanlou, “A Tribte to Zakariya Razi (865-925 AD), An Iranian Pioneer Scholar,” Archives of Iranian Medicine 6, 11 (2008): 673-677.

51. S C Ashtiyani, A Amoozandeh, “Rhazes Diagnostic Differentiation of Smallpox and Measles,” Archives of Iranian Medicine 6, 11 (2008): 673-677.

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