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 someone raised a question, it was passed on to students of the ‘first circle’; if they did not know the answer, it was passed on to those of the ‘second circle’, and so on. If all students failed to answer, Razi himself would consider the question. Razi was a generous person by nature, with a considerate attitude towards his patients. He was charitable to the poor, treated them without payment in any form. One former pupil from Tabaristan came to look after him, but as al-Biruni wrote, Razi rewarded him for his intentions and sent him back home, proclaiming that his final days were approaching. According to Biruni, Razi died in Rey in 925 at 60 years of age. Biruni, who considered Razi as his mentor, wrote a short biography of Razi including a bibliography of his numerous works. (also see https://www.bookofdaystales.com/al-biruni/ )
After his death, his fame spread beyond the Middle East to Medieval Europe, and lived on. In an undated catalog of the library at Peterborough Abbey, most likely from the 14th century, Razi is listed as a part author of ten books on medicine.
If you are interested in Razi you’ll have to look up his works. There are plenty of resources online. This would be a good place to start: http://www.thelivingmoon.com/44cosmic_wisdom/02files/Muhammad_ibn_Zakariya_al-Razi.html Razi wrote way too much for me to summarize even in the most superficial way. It would take pages for me simply to list his major writings. All I can do is point you in the right direction. The two most obvious qualities about Razi that are admirable are, first, that he did not rely slavishly on ancient authorities, such as Hippocrates, Galen or Aristotle, but read them critically and wrote about their errors as well as their good qualities; and, second, that he was a very keen observer, making extensive and detailed notes on diseases, chemicals, and the like. These qualities made him a first-rate experimental scientist in many spheres.
As an example, Razi’s book al-Judari wa al-Hasbah (On Smallpox and Measles) was the first book describing smallpox and measles as distinct diseases. It was translated more than a dozen times into Latin and other European languages. Its lack of dogmatism and its reliance on clinical observation show Razi’s medical methods. A small passage:
The eruption of smallpox is preceded by a continued fever, pain in the back, itching in the nose and nightmares during sleep. These are the more acute symptoms of its approach together with a noticeable pain in the back accompanied by fever and an itching felt by the patient all over his body. A swelling of the face appears, which comes and goes, and one notices an overall inflammatory color noticeable as a strong redness on both cheeks and around both eyes. One experiences a heaviness of the whole body and great restlessness, which expresses itself as a lot of stretching and yawning. There is a pain in the throat and chest and one finds it difficult to breathe and cough. Additional symptoms are: dryness of breath, thick spittle, hoarseness of the voice, pain and heaviness of the head, restlessness, nausea and anxiety. Note the difference: restlessness, nausea and anxiety occur more frequently with measles than with smallpox. On the other hand, pain in the back is more apparent with smallpox than with measles. Altogether one experiences heat over the whole body, one has an inflamed colon and one shows an overall shining redness, with a very pronounced redness of the gums.
Razi contributed in many ways to the early practice of pharmacy by compiling texts, in which he introduces the use of “mercurial ointments” and his development of apparatus such as mortars, flasks, spatulas and phials, which were used in pharmacies until the early twentieth century.
On a professional level, Razi introduced many practical, progressive, medical and psychological ideas. He attacked charlatans and fake doctors who roamed the cities and countryside selling their nostrums and “cures”. At the same time, he warned that even highly educated doctors did not have the answers to all medical problems and could not cure all sicknesses or heal every disease. To become more useful in their services and truer to their calling, Razi advised practitioners to keep up with advanced knowledge by continually studying medical books and constantly seeking new information. He made a distinction between curable and incurable diseases. Pertaining to the latter, he commented that in the case of advanced cases of cancer and leprosy the physician should not be blamed when he could not cure them. Razi also remarked that he felt great pity for physicians who took care of princes and nobles because they did not obey the doctor’s orders to restrict their diet or get medical treatment, thus making it difficult to be their physician.
Razi also wrote a medical text for the general public: For One Who Has No Physician to Attend Him (Man la Yahduruhu Al-Tabib) (من لا يحضره الطبيب). Razi was possibly the first Persian doctor to write a home medical manual. He dedicated it to the poor, the traveler, and the ordinary citizen who could consult it for treatment of common ailments when a doctor was not available. Some of the illnesses treated were headaches, colds, coughing, melancholy and diseases of the eye, ear, and stomach.
Razi’s interest in alchemy and his strong belief in the possibility of transmutation of lesser metals to silver and gold was attested half a century after his death by Ibn an-Nadim’s The Philosopher’s Stone. Nadim attributed a series of 12 books to Razi, plus an additional 7, including his refutation of al-Kindi’s denial of the validity of alchemy. Al-Kindi (801–873 CE) had been appointed by the Abbasid Caliph Ma’mum founder of Baghdad, to ‘the House of Wisdom’ in that city. He was a philosopher and an opponent of alchemy. Razi’s two best-known alchemical texts, al-Asrar (الاسرار “The Secrets”), and Sirr al-Asrar (سر الاسرار “The Secret of Secrets”), incorporate his major work in the field.
Apparently Razi’s contemporaries believed that he had obtained the secret of turning iron and copper into gold. Biographer Khosro Moetazed reports in Mohammad Zakaria Razi that a certain General Simjur confronted Razi in public, and asked whether that was the underlying reason for his willingness to treat patients without a fee. “It appeared to those present that Razi was reluctant to answer; he looked sideways at the general and replied:
I understand alchemy and I have been working on the characteristic properties of metals for an extended time. However, it still has not turned out to be evident to me how one can transmute gold from copper. Despite the research from the ancient scientists done over the past centuries, there has been no answer. I very much doubt if it is possible.
Razi developed several chemical instruments that remain in use to this day. He is known to have perfected methods of the distillation of alcohol (which the Arabs used for perfume making, not for drinking). Razi dismissed magic as useless, but he did not reject the idea that miracles were possible (in the sense that some phenomena could not be explained by natural science). He also rejected the idea of four elements – earth, water, fire, and air – as explanations for the physical properties of materials.
Razi’s works present the first systematic classification of carefully observed and verified facts regarding chemical substances, reactions and apparatus, described in a language almost entirely free from mysticism and ambiguity. By modern standards Razi’s taxonomy of matter is a bit strange, but he was attempting to develop a rational, rather than mystical, natural science. Whether or not we should thank him for this is another matter entirely. He did have a metaphysical doctrine, however. Razi’s theory of the “five eternals” suggests that the world is produced out of an interaction between God and four other eternal principles (soul, matter, time, and place).
Toward the end of his life he wrote:
In short, while I am writing the present book, I have written so far around 200 books and articles on different aspects of science, philosophy, theology, and hekmat (wisdom). I never entered the service of any king as a military man or a man of office, and if I ever did have a conversation with a king, it never went beyond my medical responsibility and advice. Those who have seen me know, that I did not into excess with eating, drinking or acting the wrong way. As to my interest in science, people know perfectly well and must have witnessed how I have devoted all my life to science since my youth. My patience and diligence in the pursuit of science has been such that on one special issue specifically I have written 20,000 pages (in small print), moreover I spent fifteen years of my life -night and day- writing the big collection entitled Al Hawi. It was during this time that I lost my eyesight, my hand became paralyzed, with the result that I am now deprived of reading and writing. Nonetheless, I’ve never given up, but kept on reading and writing with the help of others. I could make concessions with my opponents and admit some shortcomings, but I am most curious what they have to say about my scientific achievement. If they consider my approach incorrect, they could present their views and state their points clearly, so that I may study them, and if I determined their views to be right, I would admit it. However, if I disagreed, I would discuss the matter to prove my standpoint. If this is not the case, and they merely disagree with my approach and way of life, I would appreciate they only use my written knowledge and stop interfering with my behavior.
A little over a thousand years ago, an Arab scribe, Abu Muhammad al-Muzaffar ibn Sayyar, wrote Kitab al-Tabikh (The Book of Recipes). It was a collection of recipes from the court of 9th-century Baghdad, produced for the scribe’s unnamed patron—probably Saif al-Dawlah Al-Hamdani, prince of 10th-century Aleppo— who asked him for the recipes of “kings and caliphs and lords and leaders.” The book is extant in three manuscripts and fragments of a fourth. These are the dishes actually eaten by the elite of Baghdad when it was the richest city in the world. There are recipes from the personal collections of every caliph from al-Mahdi (d.785) to al-Mutawakkil (d.861), including 20 from Harun al-Rashid’s son al-Ma’mun. 35 of the recipes—nearly one-tenth of the non-medicinal dishes in the book—come from Harun’s brother, the famous poet and gourmet Ibrahim ibn al-Mahdi. This was a golden age of medieval Persian cookery. The centerpiece of 9th-century Baghdadi cuisine was rich and complex stews, often cooked in the tandoor oven, which are prominent in the collection. But there are smaller dishes too. This is a modern interpretation of a recipe for an appetizer, bazmaawurd: chicken and flavorings rolled in flatbread and baked. Bazmaawurd a traditional first course at a banquet in Abbasid Baghdad. The name comes from the Persian bazm, “banquet,” and awurd, “bringing.” The recipe given here is from the collection of the Caliph al-Ma’mun. It calls for the flesh of citron, but fresh citrons are hard to come by in the West, and there is little flesh anyway. They are grown for their peels mostly. Lemon can substitute.
1 fresh thin flour flatbread about 12″ diameter
1 whole chicken breast, boned, roasted, and chopped
2 tbspn chopped walnuts
flesh of 3-4 citrons, chopped
1 tbspn chopped fresh tarragon
1 tbspn chopped mint
2 tbspn chopped basil
Preheat the oven to 300˚F/150˚C
Place the flatbread on a lightly greased baking sheet. Spread the chicken evenly over the bread. Sprinkle with citron, walnuts, tarragon, mint and basil. Roll up the bread, and warm in the oven for about 15 minutes.
Remove from the oven, cut into 4 pieces and serve immediately.