Muslim Scientists and Thinkers–Ahmad Ibn al- Baitar

By Syed Aslam,

Al-baitar Ahmad ibn al-Baitar was born in the Andalusian city of Malaga in the year 1197 CE.  He received his education in Seville under the guidance of Abul Abbas Ahmad as a physician. He had a great interest in botany, which he learned from his teacher who was also a botanist.

He first start collecting plants in and around Andalusia. In 1219 CE he left Spain on a plant-collecting expedition and traveled along the northern coast of Africa and some part of Asia Minor. In the year 1224 CE he entered the service of Malik al-Kamil, the Egyptian ruler, and was appointed chief herbalist.  Al-Kamil extended his kingdom to Damascus, and Ibn al-Baitar accompanied him there, which provided him an opportunity to collect plants in Syria, Palestine, and  a good part of Iraq.

Malik al-Kamil’s regime brought a peaceful atmosphere for a long time in Egypt and Syria. Schools of learning were prospering and the atmosphere was very conducive for research and learning. Learned people were given due recognition by the king. Malik al-Kamil himself was a learned man who participated in scholarly discourses and took active part in the propagation of knowledge. Ibn al-Baitar lived in Damascus in a very congenial atmosphere and did his research on plants and medicine till he died in 1248 CE.

Ibn al-Baitar was the great  botanist, pharmacist and physician of the Middle Ages. He is credited for introducing early scientific method in experiments. Ibn al- Baitar’s major contribution, Kitab al-Jami fi al-Adwiya al- Mufrada,(Book of Simple Drugs and Food) is one of the greatest treatises of botany dealing with medicinal plants. It enjoyed a high status among botanists up to the 18th century. The treatise comprises some 1,400 different items, largely medicinal plants and vegetables, of which about 300 plants were new, not known earlier. The book refers to the work of some 150 authors, mostly Arabs, and it also quotes some early Greek scientists.

Ibn al-Baitar’s second monumental work, Kitab al-Mlughni fi al-Adwiya al-Mufrada (Comprehensive Book of Drug and Nutrition)  is an encyclopedia of medicine.

He critically studied medicinal plants and relevant literature from Greece, Spain, North Africa and Turkey, as a result of which he prepared more than 150 manuscripts. He has enumerated the properties of more than thousand items like plants,  minerals and animals. The drugs are listed in accordance with their therapeutical value.  The  different chapters deal with the plants bearing significance to diseases of different parts of the body. On surgical issues he has frequently quoted the famous Andalusian surgeon, Abul Qasim Zahrawi. Besides Arabic, he has given Greek,  Latin, Spanish and Berber names of the plants, thus facilitating transfer of knowledge to Europeans and other readers.

Hindiba is a herb and its medicinal properties were known to the Arabs, but Ibn al-Baitar was the first physician to compound it and use it for the treatment of cancer and tumors.

Ibn al-Baitar took great care in selecting the plants to be used as medicine or as food.  He even indicated the  timing of the medicines, which one to be taken during the night and which were to be taken during the day.

He had full confidence in observations, inferences and deductions, and did not write something without first having observed it. He prescribed only those items which he considered suitable as medicine or as food. Whereever he collected the sample he always tried to ask relevant information from the local experts. 

According to Sarton,the author of the Introduction to the History of Science,  Ibn al-Baitar was  the greatest herbalist  of the Middle Ages.  No one excelled or equaled him in bulk and quality till the 17th century.

Professor M.M. Sharif, the author of ‘Muslim Thought, its Origin and Achievements’  states that Ibn al-Baitar book  held the position of a standard materia medica for centuries in Europe. Its translation into Latin  was printed many many times during and after the 15th century. Some parts of its Latin version were printed as late as 1758 CE.  Ibn al-Baitar is credited for transforming pharmacy to the modern age and for the introduction of hundreds of new medicines to medical science.


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