Muslim Scientists and Thinkers–Muhammad bin Zakaria Razi

By Syed Aslam

Muhammad bin Zakaria Razi also known in Europe as “Rhazes” was born at Rayy, Iran close to the city of Tehran, in the year 841 CE. He mastered a wide range of subjects, including science, philosophy, music, poetry, and logic. His interest in medicine started in his thirties when he stopped the study of alchemy. He received his education in medicine from a well known physician Ali ibn Rabban al Tabari. He mastered the skill of medicine and quickly surpassed his teacher. Served as a chief physician in the city hospital of Rayy and after sometime he moved to Baghdad where he also held the post of Director of the hospital. After the death of Khalifa al-Muktafi he returned back to Rayy where he spent most of his time teaching and writing books. He lived a long life and died at Rayy in the year 925 CE. He rejected all forms of dogma as fanaticism, and argued that religious fanaticism breeds hatred and war. He believed that the knowledge of science is a continual process which is based on the accumulation of past knowledge.

Razi is regarded as Islam’s greatest physician and one of the most original thinker. He was a prolific writer, who wrote some 230 books, half of which dealt with medicine, 21 on chemistry and the rest on physics, mathematics and astronomy. His books on the Diseases of Children was so authentic and original that he is regarded as the Father of Pediatrics. Razi was the first to identify hay fever and its cause. His work on kidney stones is still considered a classic. In addition, he was instrumental in the introduction of mercurial ointments to medical practice. Razi was a strong proponent of experimental medicine and the beneficial uses of previously tested drugs. After serving as a hospital director in Baghdad for sometime he returned to his home town Rayy Iran, where he continued his writing. His first major work is divided in ten parts and is called Kittab al Mansuri. He discussed in his book various subjects such as diets and drugs, and its effects on the human body and mental health. A useful knowledge about childcare, obstetrics, ophthalmology skin disease, general hygiene and hygiene of mouth can be found in those treatises. He was the first scientist of his time to shed light on the effect of the environment on health, and the first person to write treatise on smallpox and measles, and as such he gave the concept of epidemiology. By his brilliant demonstration and by clinical observation he proved that these two diseases are quite different from each other. He thus provided, valid guidelines for the treatment of both diseases.

Razi’s most outstanding work was medical encyclopedia consisting of twenty-five books called Kittab al Hawi. He spent a good part of his life collecting data from the patients he examined and tried to find a pattern for a particular disease. He summarized all the medical knowledge of his time, and his own experiences and observations to complete the medical encyclopedia, which is by any account, a tremendous work in the field of medicine. He also emphasized the need for physicians to pay careful attention to the patient’s medical history which proved very useful in treating disease successfully.

Razi’s work to future physicians proved to be a gold mine. His book Kittab al Hawi was translated in Latin and became one of the standard medical reference works in the universities of Europe. A portion of his work were used in European medical schools well into the 19th century. In this work, Razi listed medical theories for each disease and its treatment from Indian, Persian, and Arabic medicine and then he added the current ideas and his own observations and opinions. He advocated simple remedies, including dietary supplements, and warned against the dangers of harsh medicine.

Razi developed several chemical instruments that remain in use to this day. Perfected methods of distillation and extraction, which have led to his discovery of sulfuric acid, by dry distillation of vitriol and alcohol from wine. These discoveries paved the way for other Muslim alchemists to gain further knowledge in this field. Razi was familiar with a wide range of chemicals, which he used in his medical work. Like many physicians of his time, he was also actively interested in alchemy. In one of his book on alchemy named Kitab al-Asrar, he provides a great deal of practical advice on chemical manipulations and its preparation. Tried to classify all known substances, dividing them basically into animal, mineral, and vegetable categories which finally led to the classification organic and inorganic compounds.

Razi views sometimes got him into political trouble, and on several occasions he was forced to leave his native city. Medical care in those days was a luxury available mainly for wealthy and noble families but Razi treated poor patients at no charge out of compassion. Being one of the brilliant physician of his time he acquired a lot of wealth but died as a popper because he distributed all his fortune among the less fortunate people.

Razi criticized Galen a Greek physician for “humors” theory and Aristotle’s theory of four elements. His own alchemical experiments suggested other qualities of matter such as salinity, oiliness and inflammability etc which could not be explained by the traditional four elements theory (fire, water, earth and air).

Razi was a free thinking Islamic philosopher, his idea on metaphysics was based on ancient Greek. In his Philosophical Biography he asserts that there is life after death, full of happiness and that man should not self-indulge, pursue knowledge, use his intellect and apply justice to all.

Razi was way ahead of his time and is considered as one of the leading figure in the history of Islamic thought because of his outspoken and antiauthoritarian views on religion, politics, and science. The writer George Sarton says in his introduction to the History of Science that Razi was the greatest physician of Islam and the Medieval Ages. In 1970 World Health Organization paid tribute to him by stating that his work on smallpox and measles and his essay on infectious diseases are the first scientific treatise on this subject.


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