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Saturday, 29 August 2015 18:58

Commemoration of master physician Zakaria Razi

Commemoration of master physician Zakaria Razi

Every year on the 5th of the Iranian month of Shahrivar, the Islamic Republic of Iran commemorates the master physician, polymath and multi-sided Iranian-Islamic genius Mohammad bin Zakariya Raazi. He was born in 251 AH, corresponding to 854 AD in the city Rayy, which is today a southern suburb of modern Tehran. His surname Raazi means he was from Rayy. He is considered as one of the all-time greatest physicians of the world, and through the Latin translations of his Arabic works, was known to medieval Europe as Rhazes.


While still a youth, Raazi moved to Baghdad, which was the scientific and intellectual capital of the Islamic World, where he studied and practiced at the “Bimaristan”, which is Persian for hospital. Later, he returned to his hometown and was appointed head of the ‘Bimaristan” of the city of Rayy by its governor Mansour ibn Ishaq. He declined offers to visit Bukhara, the capital of the Iranian Samanid Dynasty of Central Asia and Khorasan, and instead accepted the invitation of become director of a new hospital in Baghdad named al-Mutadid by its Abbasid founder. He spent the last years of his life in his hometown, where he died at the age of 73. Razi had a sharp memory and strong intellect.

In his book titled “Doubts about Galen”, he has rejected several claims of the Greek physician, on the alleged superiority of the Greek language and cosmological and medical views. Raazi links medicine with philosophy, and has stated that sound practice demands independent thinking. He has written that Galen's descriptions do not agree with his own clinical observations regarding the run of a fever. And in some cases he finds that his clinical experience is better than that of the ancient Greek physician. He has criticized Galen's theory that the body possessed four separate "humors" (liquid substances), whose balance is the key to health and a natural body-temperature. A sure way to upset such a system was to insert a liquid with a different temperature into the body resulting in an increase or decrease of bodily heat, which resembled the temperature of that particular fluid. Raazi noted that a warm drink would heat up the body to a degree much higher than its own natural temperature.

Raazi's own alchemical experiments suggested other qualities of matter, such as "oiliness" and "sulphurousness", or inflammability and salinity, which were not readily explained by the traditional fire, water, earth, and air division of elements as defined by the ancient Greeks. Raazi wrties: "I prayed to God to direct and lead me to the truth in writing this book. It grieves me to oppose and criticize the man Galen from whose sea of knowledge I have drawn much. Although this reverence and appreciation will and should not prevent me from doubting, as I did, what is erroneous in his theories. I imagine and feel deeply in my heart that Galen has chosen me to undertake this task, and if he were alive, he would have congratulated me on what I am doing. I say this because Galen's aim was to seek and find the truth and bring light out of darkness. I wish indeed he were alive to read what I have published."

Raazi thus believed that contemporary scientists and scholars are by far better equipped, more knowledgeable, and more competent than the ancient ones, due to the accumulated knowledge at their disposal. His attempt to overthrow blind acceptance of the unchallenged authority of ancient sages encouraged and stimulated research and advances in the arts, technology, and sciences.

Raazi believed in the ethics of medicine. On a professional level, he 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, which was humanly speaking impossible. To become more useful in their services and truer to their calling, he advised practitioners to keep up with advanced knowledge by continually studying medical books and exposing themselves to 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. On medical ethics, Raazi has written:

“The doctor's aim is to do good, even to our enemies, so much more to our friends, and my profession forbids us to do harm to our kindred, as it is instituted for the benefit and welfare of the human race, and God imposed on physicians the oath not to compose mortiferous remedies.”

Raazi's book on Smallpox and Measles titled “al-Judari wa’l-Hasbah” 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. He has given a scientific diagnosis, and writes: “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. 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. Smallpox appears when blood 'boils' and is infected, resulting in vapours being expelled."

This diagnosis by Raazi is acknowledged by the Encyclopaedia Britannica , which has called it “the most trustworthy statements as to the early existence of the disease are found in an account by the 9th-century Persian physician Rhazes, by whom its symptoms were clearly described, its pathology explained,  and directions given for its treatment."

Raazi wrote some two hundred books and treatises, and groomed many students. His lectures attracted many students. As the famous bibliographer Ibn an-Nadeem relates in his book “al-Fehrist”, Raazi was 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. When all students would fail to answer, Raazi himself would consider the query. Raazi 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, and wrote for them a treatise with a moral advice titled “Man La Yahzuruhu at-Ṭabeeb”, or “Who has no Physician to Attend Him”.     

He was possibly the first Persian doctor to deliberately write a home medical manual (remedial) directed at the general public. 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. This book is of special interest to the history of pharmacy. Raazi described in its 36 chapters, diets and drug components that can be found in either an apothecary, a market place, in well-equipped kitchens, or and in military camps. Thus, every intelligent person could follow its instructions and prepare the proper recipes with good results. Some of the illnesses treated were headaches, colds, coughing, melancholy and diseases of the eye, ear, and stomach.

Among the important books of Raazi on medicine is “al-Hawi al-Kabeer” on ways of leading a sound and healthy life. This monumental medical encyclopedia in nine volumes, also known as “Jame’ al-Kabir”, contains considerations and criticism on the Greek philosophers Aristotle and Plato, and expresses innovative views on many subjects. Because of this book alone, many scholars consider Raazi the greatest medical doctor of the Middle Ages.

Raazi developed several chemical instruments that remain in use to this day. He, however, was also attracted by alchemy and believed, while experimenting in vain, that base metal could be turned into silver and gold. Raazi also wrote on philosophy, metaphysics, and religion. His religious and philosophical views were later criticized by two most outstanding Iranian-Islamic geniuses, Abu Rayhan Birouni and Abu Ali ibn Sina – known as Avicenna to medieval Europe.

Birouni in particular wrote a short treatise criticizing Raazi for his alleged sympathy with Manichaeism, his religious and philosophical views, his refusal to mathematize physics, and his active opposition to mathematics. Ibn Sina, who was himself an outstaind physician and philosopher, also criticized Raazi. During a debate with Birouni, he stated:

“Mohammad ibn Zakariya Raazi meddles in metaphysics and exceeds his competence. He should have remained confined to surgery and to urine and stool testing—indeed he exposed himself and showed his ignorance in these matters.”

Raazi died in his hometown Rayy in 313 AH, corresponding to 925 AD.



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