Muslim Scientists and Thinkers–Ala’al-Din Ibn al-Nafis

Muslim Matters

Muslim Scientists and Thinkers–Ala’al-Din Ibn al-Nafis

By Syed Aslam


Ala’al-Din Ibn al-Nafis, also known al-Quarashi, was born in 1213 CE in a small town near Damascus called Kersh. He learned medicine, Islamic philosophy, Jurisprudence and Arabic literature  in Damascus, Syria.  Besides medicine, he became an expert on the Shafii school of Jurisprudence. In 1236 he moved to Cairo, and worked at various hospitals and finally became the personal physician of Sultan Baibars.

Ibn al-Nafis lived during a very critical period of Islamic history, when Jerusalem was under attack by the Christian crusaders, and Baghdad was sacked and destroyed by the barbaric Mongols in 1258 CE. A part of Syria  was also  temporarily occupied by the Mangols. Ibn al-Nafis must have felt a sigh of relief when Sultan  Baibars of Egypt finally defeated the Mongols at the battle of Ain Jalut in 1260 CE. Ibn al-Nafis and many other  Muslim scholars intensified the scientific activity in Damascus and Cairo, to preserve the scientific legeasy of Islamic civilization after the colossal destruction of all the valuable  books in Baghdad. Ibn al-Nafis lived in peace in Cairo, writing large number of books till he died in 1288 CE. Being a good physician, he became wealthy, donating most of his belongings to charity. 

Ibn al-Nafis was a great physician and surgeon, who also  made contributions in astronomy, Islamic theology and philosophy, history and scientific fiction writing. He was the first  physician to discover how blood circulates in the human body, and worked out the correct anatomy of the heart. In his writing he clearly states; “The blood from the right chamber of the heart must arrive at the left chamber, but there is no direct pathway between them. The thick septum of the heart is not perforated and does not have visible pores as some people thought or invisible pores as Galen thought. The blood from the right chamber must flow through the pulmonary artery to the lungs, spread through its substance, be mingled with air, pass through the pulmonary vein to reach the left chamber of the heart. The nourishment of the heart is from the blood that goes through the vessels that permeate the body of the heart.” It is amazing that his discovery about the working of the heart and its nourishment from blood was so wonderfully close to the modern cardiac knowledge.

Galen, the Greek physician, believed that every part of of an artery pulsates at the same time and the pulse is caused by the natural motion of the blood. Ibn al-Nafis rejected this idea and explained that the pulsation is caused by the contraction and expansion of the heart. The heart expands while the arteries contract, and visa versa, and the pulse, he said, helps to disperse the blood from the heart to the different parts of the body. He was the first physician to give the idea of capillary circulation of the blood, a fact which was not known to the European physicians till 1661 CE.

Ibn al-Nafis’s work was based on extensive reading and study of the anatomy of the human body. But the significance of his work was not clearly understood even in his own time, and was probably unknown by the physicians of Europe. 300 years after his original writing, some of Ibn al-Nafis’s work was translated into Latin  in 1547 CE. His important observations then became available to European physicians. It was only in the 20th century that his work was brought to light again, and people became aware of how early he had reached his conclusions on the workings of the heart and circulation of blood. Because of his work he is considered the father of circulatory physiology.

Ibn al-Nafis was an early proponent of human dissection, and developed his own system of anatomy and physiology. He wrote 20 volumes of commentary on Ibn Sina’s Canon of Medicine and corrected the concept of almost all part of the human body with diagrams to illustrate its function and working. He made the earliest known dissection on the human brain, and discovered how blood circulates through it. Similarly, he was the only pre-modern physician to correctly present the anatomy of the bile duct and gall bladder, which physicians in Europe learned in 16th century.

After completing the commentary on Ibn Sina’s book, Ibn al-Nafis authored voluminous medical encyclopedia; Al-Shamil fi al-Tibb  (The Comprehensive Book on Medicine). He is believed to have written some 300 volumes, but could publish only 80 of them. Even in  this incomplete state, his encyclopedia is considered the largest collection of work in the history of medicine, larger even than the Canon of Medicine by Ibn Sina. Out of 80 volumes, only 28 have survived. The manuscript, which has been studied, deals in great detail with surgery and surgical instruments. Some section of the book have detailed discussion on urological problems including the issues of sexual dysfunction and its treatment by tested drugs.

Ibn al-Nafis’s 500 page book A Summary of Medicine has survived. This book’s subjects  include the theory of medicine, the practice of medicine, diets and diseases of organs, and more. A section of the book also deals with the diseases of the ear and their treatments. He authored a voluminous book on Ophthalmology, in which he made a number of original contributions, like a new treatment of glaucoma.

He placed a much greater emphasis on food and nutrition to maintain a healthy life, and wrote a book on this subject.   

Ibn al-Nafis made the first attempt to write a theological science fiction novel. In his novel Risalat Fadil Ibn Natiq he used the plot to express his own philosophical, scientific and religious themes, in other words he tried to explain religious teachings in terms of science and philosophy by using the fictional narrative. 

Ibn al-Nafis’s treatise on Hadith; A Short Account of the Methodology of Hadith, in which he attempted to classify the ahadith.

He wrote several books on Sharia law  in which the most famous one is Mujazal Qanun. It seems he left no subject untouched, writing two books on Arabic linguistics, two books on logic in Islamic philosophy, commentary on Ibn Sina’s philosophy and on the work of Hippocrates. He even wrote a treatise on environmental science, covering air and water pollution and soil contamination.

No doubt, Ibn al-Nafis was a legendary physician and the greatest physiologist of the middle age, who was far ahead of his time. Muslim biographers of the 14th century onward considered him greater than all the physicians who preceded him.


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