Zakariya Al-Razi, better known as Rhazes in the West, is universally recognized as the most outstanding scientist of the medieval times, who influenced the course of thought in diverse branches of knowledge. “Rhazes,” says Max Meyerhof, “was undoubtedly the greatest physician of the Islamic world and one of the greatest physicians of all times.” He wrote several remarkable manuals of medicine which are characterized by striking originality and brilliance. A number of his works were translated into several European languages and According to Encyclopaedia of Islam, “Down to the Seventeenth Century A.C., the authority of Razi was undisputed. . . . . . . In the field of medical practice, he surpasses the knowledge of the ancients.” Writing in his well-known book Arabian Medicine, Edward G. Browne recognizes Razi as “the greatest and most original of all the Muslim Physicians and one of the most prolific as an author. He was the most eminent thinker of the ninth century A.C., which is known as the golden period of Islamic learning.” “The Persian Al-Razi,” admits George Sarton, “was not simply the greatest Clinicians of Islam and of the whole of Middle Age; he was also a Chemist and Physicist. . . . . . He may be considered one of the forerunners of the iatrochemists of the Renaissance ….. Galenic in theory, he combined with his immense learning true Hippocratic wisdom.” Together with Ibn Sina (Avicenna), Razi forms the two most brilliant luminaries on the firmament of Islamic Medicine. While Razi excelled in the clinical side of medicine, Ibn Sina surpassed in the theoretical side. “Influence of Rhazes and Avicenna upon Western Thought was equally great,” writes Cyril Elgood in the Medical History of Persia and the Eastern Caliphate.
Abu Bakr Muhammad ibn Zakariya Al-Razi (865–925 A.C.) was a Persian Muslim who was born at Rayy near modern Tehran. He studied mathematics, philosophy, astronomy, and alchemy at Baghdad under a disciple of Humayun ibn Ishaq who was well versed in Greek, Persian and Indian medicines. He had had a chance of visiting the famous Muqtadari hospital, whose intimate practical experience prepared the ground for his medical expression. He practiced as an alchemist in his youth and very soon he earned a high reputation which attracted patients and pupils from distant parts of Western Asia. He entered the service of the Ruler and was appointed the Administrator of the newly built hospital at Rayy. Soon after he shifted to Baghdad in the same capacity and worked for a considerable period as the Administrator of the well-known Muqtadari hospital of Baghdad. His high reputation as a Physician took him from one court to another. His unsettled life was due to his constant demand even in distant cities and was also the result of the fickle-mindedness of the Rulers and the uncertainties of political situations. He returned several times to Rayy where he died in 925 A.C.
Razi practiced medicine for not more than 35 years. During this period he traveled widely and was entrusted with duties both clinical and administrative.
Razi was a prolific writer who left behind him immortal works on medical science, chemistry, physics, music, philosophy, mathematics, astronomy, and ethics. “His erudition was all-embracing,” says Max Meyerhof, “and his scientific output remarkable, amounting to more than 200 books, half of which are medical.” In spite of his enormous practice as the greatest practicing physician of his time, he could find time to write such monumental and gigantic medical works as Al Hawi, Kitab Al Mansuri, and Al Judari Wal Hasbah. His excessive devotion to studies impaired his eye-sight. In his young age, he practiced as an alchemist and later on he devoted himself exclusively to the development of medical science both in theory and practice. He wrote a monumental work Kitab Al-Mansuri (called Liber Almansoris in Latin) dedicated to his patron Mansoor ibn Ishaq al Salmani, the Governor of Rayy, which ran into 10 volumes and dealt with Greek medicines. Its first Latin translation was published in Milan in the last quarter of the 15 century. It was later on published into several European languages, including German and French. His writings on medicine included many short treatises on lighter topics like, ‘On the fact that even skillful physicians cannot heal all diseases. ; ‘Why frightened patients easily forsake even the skilled physician;’ ‘Why people prefer quacks and charlatans to skilled physicians,’ ‘Why ignorant physicians, laymen, and women have more success than learned medical men.’ He also contributed to gynecology, obstetrics, ophthalmology. His other valuable works deal with some of the common diseases in the East including stone in bladder and kidneys.
His treatise ‘Barr-ul-Saat,’ or “cure within an hour,” was widely read and was translated into Persian and French languages. He wrote a pamphlet entitled ‘Of Habit which becomes Natural’, and thus was the forerunner of Sherrington’s “conditioned Reflex Theory.” His monograph on ‘Diseases in Children, earned him the title of the Father of Paediatrics. A number of his treatises on medicine were translated into Latin and printed together under the title of ‘Opera Parva Abubetri.’
His outstanding work, ‘Al Judari Wal Hasbah,’ a book dealing with smallpox and measles, is the earliest and one of the most authentic books on the subject even up to the present times. It was translated into Latin and other European languages and was published for more than forty times between 1498–1866 A.C. It was translated into Latin and printed in Venice in 1489; in Basle in 1549; in London, in 1747 and in Gottingen in 1781 A.C. This invaluable work provides the first description of smallpox as a clinical entity, hence according to Neuburger, “In every land and with justice it is regarded as an ornament to the medical tradition of the Arabs.” It contains detailed information regarding treatment of pustules after full development of smallpox. This remarkable work is reputed for its originality and until the 18th century was prescribed as a text-book in most of the universities, both in the East and the West. “This treatise,” writes Phillip K. Hitti in his History of the Arabs, “served to establish Al-Razi’s reputation as one of the keenest original thinkers and the greatest clinicians not only of Islam but of the middle ages.” The symptoms and treatment of smallpox as detailed by the celebrated physician provide ample testimony of his medical abilities. He says; “The outbreak of smallpox is preceded by continuous fever, aching in the back, itching in the nose and shivering during sleep. The main symptoms of its presence are backache with fever, stinging pain in the whole body, congestion of the face, sometimes shrinkage, violent redness of the cheeks and eyes, a sense of pressure in the body, creeping of the flesh, pain in the throat and breast accompanied by difficulty of respiration and coughing, dryness of the mouth, thick salivation, hoarseness of the voice, headache and pressure in the head, excitement, anxiety, nausea, and unrest. Excitement, nausea, and unrest are more pronounced in measles than in smallpox, whilst the aching in the back is more severe in smallpox than in measles.” The modern medical science could hardly add to these symptoms.
The greatest achievement of Al-Razi in the realm of medical science is his monumental work, Al-Hawi (Latin-Continents) the most comprehensive Encyclopaedia of Medicine ever written by a medical man which runs into 20 volumes. According to historical records, Al-Razi could not finish this work during his lifetime and actual form was given to it by his disciples after his death. This book was translated into Latin by the Sicilian Jewish physician, Faraj ibn Salim in 1279 A.C. under the orders of Charles I, King of Sicily, and was named as Continens. It was repeatedly printed from 1486 onwards. Al-Hawi is the largest medical encyclopedia in Arabic, which Razi took 15 years to complete. He compiled it in the light of personal experience and knowledge. For every disease, he furnished Greek, Syrian, Arabic, Persian, and Indian sources and at the end, he gave his own opinion. “Printed when printing was still in infancy,” writes a Western Orientalist, “these medical works of Al-Razi exercised for centuries a remarkable influence over the minds of the Latin West.” “Its (Hawi’s) influence on European medicine was very considerable,” says Max Meyerhof. “The work was gigantic and not many copies were made.” Only fifty years later, Haly Abbas could find only two copies of this book and, according to him, “As to his (Razis’) book which is known as ‘Al-Hawi.’ I found that he mentions in it everything the knowledge of which is necessary to the medical man, concerning hygiene and medical and dietetical treatment of diseases and symptoms. He did not neglect the smallest thing required by the student of this art concerning treatment of diseases and illness.”
Al-Razi, being a versatile genius left behind him invaluable works on medicine, natural science, mathematics, astronomy, ethics, philosophy, theology, and music. His contribution to natural sciences is lasting. It includes alchemy, optics, matter, time, space, motion, nutrition, putrefaction, growth, and meteorology. He wrote Kitab al-Asrar in chemistry (Book on the art of Alchemy) dealing with preparation of chemical substances and its appliances. His great work on the art of Alchemy was recently found in the library of an Indian Prince. This book was translated into Latin as ‘Liber Experimentorum’ by Constantine. Razi proved himself to be a greater expert than all his predecessors including Jabir in the exact classification of substances. His description of chemical experiments as well as their apparatus are distinguished by their clarity which is not visible in the writings of his predecessors. Jabir and other Arabian chemists have divided mineral substances into bodies (gold, silver, etc.); souls (sulphur, arsenic, etc.) and spirits (mercury and sal-ammoniac), while Razi has classified his mineral substances as vegetables, animals and minerals. The class of minerals he divided into spirits, bodies, stones, vitriols, boraxes, and salts. “In chemistry Razi rejecting all occultist and symbolic explanations of natural phenomena, confined himself exclusively to the classification of substances and processes as well as to the exact description of his experiments. Pseudo Majriti in his ‘Kitab Rutbat Al-Hakim,’ endeavored to reconcile the Alchemy of Razi with that of Jabir.”
Razi investigated the determination of specific gravity by means of hydro. static balance, called by him Mizan-al-Tabii. Most of his works on physics, mathematics, astronomy, and optics have perished. In physics, his writings deal with matter, time, space and motion. In his opinion, the matter in this primitive state before the creation of the world was composed of scattered atoms, which possessed extent. Mixed in various proportions with the articles of void, these atoms produced these elements which are five in number, namely earth, air, water, fire, and celestial element. Fire is created by striking iron on the stone.
During his early life, he was much interested in practical as well as theoretical music. He was an artist of repute and was a skilled vocal and instrumental musician. He was an expert in playing on the lute. He wrote Fi Jamal il Musuyi, an encyclopedia of music, but in later years he lost interest in music. Most of his metaphysical, philosophical, and ethical works have perished and only a few fragments are available. Al-Biruni who wrote a complete Risala (treatise) on the life and works of Al-Razi frequently quoted him in his writings. Al-Razi professes the existence of five eternal principles in metaphysics namely
The eternity of the world is, according to Razi, the necessary corollary to the concept of God, the unique and immutable principle …….When the human souls have obtained liberation (from body) the world will dissolve and matter deprived of forms will return to primitive state. He is against excessive asceticism in spite of his pessimistic metaphysics and like Socrates, he believes in taking active part in life and in working for the welfare of the people. Following the maxim of Aristotle, he does not blame the human passion but its excessive indulgence. His theory of pleasure and pain dominates his ethical teaching. Pleasure is not something positive but the simple result of a return to normal conditions, the disturbances of which causes pain.
He believed in the evolution of scientific and philosophical knowledge and in this respect he was much ahead of ancient philosophers. The high reputation of Al-Razi as a teacher of medicine attracted students from distant parts of the Islamic world. So great was the attendance of students in his lectures that he was inaudible to those sitting far away. So the near one passed on his words to the outer circle of students. He was the greatest practising physician of his time and had the distinction of being the head (Director or Mutawalli) of two of the biggest hospitals of his time situated at Rayy and Baghdad. According to Ibn Abi Usabiyah, “he selected a new site for the great hospital of Baghdad by hanging pieces of raw meat in various localities, preferring the place where it showed least symptoms of putrefaction. He was an eminent surgeon of his time and was the inventor of Seton. He also introduced the use of animal gut as a ligature for surgical operations and was the first to recognize the reaction of the pupil to light.”
The influence of Al-Razi and Ibn Sina (Avicenna) on Western as well as Eastern medicine was overwhelming. Razi’s book on Alchemy, ‘Kitab Al-Asrar’ (the Book of Secrets) translated and edited by Gerard of Cremona was the principal source of medical knowledge in the West till 14th century. It has been profusely quoted by Roger Bacon, one of the principal figures, of Western Renaissance. “In Vienna in 1520 and in Frankfurt on the Oder in 1588,” writes Max Meyerhof, “the medical curriculum was still largely based on Avicenna’s Canon and on the ninth book ‘Ad Almansorem’ of Rhazes. The two universities of Europe, Montepellier and Bologna specialised in the teaching of Arab learning. “From these two centres,” writes Cyril Elgood, in A Medical History of Persia and the Eastern Caliphate, “the teaching and influence of the Arabs spread to every medical school of Europe. From the 12th to the 17th century Rhazes and Avicenna were held superior even to Hippocrates and Galen… The popularity of the Arabs was thus established and among them, Rhazes and Avicenna were considered prominent. So great was their popularity and so long did it endure that we find Montagna, Gentile da Fabriano and other artists decorating the edge of the Madonna’s robe with Arabic letterings and two Arab doctors, Cosmas and Damian, raised to the altars of the Church.”