Abu Bakr Muhammad ibn Zakariya ar- Razi Biography (c. 850-c. 932)
- physician, philosopher
Abu Bakr Muhammad ibn Zakariya ar-Razi, also known as Rhazes, was born at Ray(near Tehran) in Persia. The actual years of his birth and death are uncertain. An Arabic physician and scientist, Rhazes is today recognized as one of the original portrayers of disease. Like many medieval scholars, Rhazes mastered a wide range of subjects, including philosophy, music (he wrote an encyclopedia on the subject), poetry, and logic. His interest in medicine apparentlydid not arise until he was in his thirties, when it is said that he was stimulated by a chance encounter with an apothecary. At various times he taught and practiced in Baghdad, where he also served as director and chief physicianin that city's hospital. Very little is known of Rhazes' personal life, butit is believed that he was often persecuted for his open mindedness and beliefs in equality.
Rhazes rejected all forms of dogma as fanaticism, and argued that religious fanaticism breeds hatred and wars. He held that science is a continual and unlimited progression based on the accumulation of past knowledge and the pursuit of the unknown. This idea differed significantly from the Aristotelian viewthat there exists a point of intellectual perfection.
Rhazes' most celebrated work is a 25-volume Graeco-Arabic compendium of medical and surgical knowledge entitled Al-Hawi. Translated into Latin as Liber continens in 1279 (it was the largest and heaviest of all books published before 1501), this work contained information on many diseases. In this work, Rhazes listed medical theories for each disease entry from Greek, Syrian, Indian, Persian, and Arabic medicine; these theories were followed bythen-current ideas and by his own observations and opinions. Following the tradition of Hippocrates, Rhazes supplied case histories, along with pragmaticsuggestions for treatment. Rhazes advocated simple remedies, including dietary supplements, and warned against the dangers of complex preparations. He advocated medical receptivity as a means by which all observed phenomenacould be given proper consideration.
Rhazes also made one of the first accurate descriptions of (and distinctionsbetween) smallpox and measles. Although smallpox had been described by some of the church fathers in the sixth century, and again by the seventh century chronicler Aaron, Rhazes' description differs from the earlier ones by its greater completeness as well as by its close resemblance to modern descriptions.The ninth book of Al-Hawi remained the main source of therapeutic knowledge until long after the Renaissance.
Rhazes was familiar with a wide range of well defined chemicals, which he probably used in his medical work. Like many physicians of his time, Rhazes wasalso actively interested in alchemy; his Book of the Secrets containsa great deal of practical advice on chemical manipulations. He believed in the transmutation of metals, and believed that metals were derived primarily from two elements, sulfur and mercury. He attempted to classify all known substances, dividing them basically into animal, mineral, or vegetable categories.
Rhazes' views sometimes got him into political trouble, and he was obliged onmore than one occasion to leave his native city. Although medical care was aluxury available mainly for wealthy and noble families during his lifetime,Rhazes treated poor patients at no charge out of compassion and dedication toclinical practice. When he was in his seventies, it is said that Rhazes wasbeaten and blinded by order of a caliph who objected to his views. Despite his achievements leading to distinction, honors, and acquired wealth, Rhazes issaid to have died in poverty, his wealth having been distributed to those less fortunate than himself. Although this physician-philosopher was the authorof over 200 treatises (and over half of them about medicine), it was finallyhis outspoken and antiauthoritarian views on religion, politics, and sciencethat gained him distinction as a leading figure in the history of Islamic thought. He once said that all that is written in books is worth much less thanthe experience of one wise doctor.