Aug 272017

Today is the birthday (854 CE) of Abū Bakr Muhammad ibn Zakariyyā al-Rāzī (ابوبكر محمّد زکرياى رازى) usually known in the West by his Latinized name Razi (also Rhazes or Rasis), a Persian polymath, physician, alchemist, and philosopher who was a key figure in the history of medicine – now mostly forgotten by the history books, as are scores of classical Muslim scholars. To acknowledge them too much would be to dent the fable of the West climbing to dominance all by itself (and with almost no recognition that Muslim scholars preserved the writings of the likes of Plato and Aristotle when the West had no use for them).

Razi made fundamental and enduring contributions to various fields, which he recorded in over 200 manuscripts, and is particularly remembered for numerous advances in medicine through his observations and discoveries. He was an early proponent of experimental medicine, became a successful doctor, and served as chief physician of Baghdad and Ray hospitals. As a teacher of medicine, he attracted students of all backgrounds and interests and was said to be compassionate and devoted to the service of his patients, whether rich or poor. Through translation, his medical works and ideas became known among medieval European practitioners and profoundly influenced medical education in the Latin West.

Razi was born in the city of Ray (modern Rey) situated on the Great Silk Road that for centuries facilitated trade and cultural exchanges between East and West. His nisba (locational surname, like “da Vinci”), Râzī (رازی), means “from the city of Ray” in Persian. It is located on the southern slopes of the Alborz mountain range near Tehran.

In his youth, Razi moved to Baghdad where he studied and practiced at the local bimaristan (hospital). Later, he was invited back to Rey by Mansur ibn Ishaq, then the governor of Rey, and became a bimaristan’s head. He dedicated two books on medicine to Mansur ibn Ishaq, The Spiritual Physic and Al-Mansūrī on Medicine. Because of his newly acquired popularity as physician, Razi was invited to Baghdad where he assumed the responsibilities of a director in a new hospital named after its founder al-Muʿtaḍid (d. 902 CE). Under the reign of Al-Mutadid’s son, Al-Muktafi (r. 902-908) Razi was commissioned to build a new hospital, which would be the largest of the Abbasid Caliphate. To pick the future hospital’s location, Razi adopted what is nowadays known as an evidence-based approach — having fresh meat hung in various places throughout the city and to build the hospital where meat took longest to rot.

He spent the last years of his life in his native Rey suffering from glaucoma. His eye affliction started with cataracts and ended in total blindness. The cause of his blindness is uncertain. One account mentioned by Ibn Juljul attributed the cause to a blow to his head by his patron, Mansur ibn Ishaq, for failing to provide proof for his alchemical theories; while Abulfaraj and Casiri claimed that the cause was a diet of beans only. Allegedly, he was approached by a physician offering an ointment to cure his blindness. Razi then asked him how many layers the eye contained and when he was unable to receive an answer, he declined the treatment saying “my eyes will not be treated by one who does not know the basics of its anatomy”.

Razi’s lectures attracted many students. He was considered a shaikh, an honorary title given to one entitled to teach and be surrounded by several circles of students. When some