The Arabic Galen – Abu Bakr Zakariya Al-Razi

By Zakaria Virk, Kingston, Canada

Source website: (An amazing website with great material related to Muslim science)

Abu-Bakr Muhammad bin Zakaria Al-Razi is considered to be one of the greatest clinical physicians of medieval world. His authority in medicine is second only to Shaikh ul Rais Ibn  Sena ( Avicenna ) but in regards to observational powers Al-Razi was far superior to Ibne Sina. Al-Razi was an accomplished physician, philosopher, physicist and a chemist. His insight, sharp intellect and encyclopedic knowledge earned him the title of ‘ Arabic Galen.’ He was a master of prognosis and psychosomatic medicine.

Al-Razi was born around 844 in Rayy (near Teheran) as the name al-Razi indicates. He studied philology, mathematics, philosophy, logic, chemistry, and music, but at age 30 he devoted himself to medicine. In his youth he was great lute player. He traveled to Baghdad to acquire medical education, subsequently becoming director of Royal Hospital in his native Rayy, & later at Baghdad’s famous Muqtadiri Hospital. While in Baghdad, he learnt the art of healing from a well-known physician Ali Bin Sahal (d 870) who was superintendent of all government hospitals. Ali Bin Sahal devised new methods for treatment of diseases, documented all cases in his diary. Subsequently this diary was published as ‘Firdaus ul Hikma’ which was arranged alphabetically. This book was indeed first medical encyclopedia of the world.

In Baghdad Razi was a respected teacher and court physician to Buwayhid  Emir  Adud-al-Daulaw (949-83).  As director of the Baghdad General Hospital he chose a site for its building by suspending shreds of meat in different locations of the city and finding out where the least sign of decomposition appeared. Here he performed the duties of both hospital director and dean of medical school.  He issued instructions to have a ward exclusively devoted to the mentally ill.

Al-Razi traveled to many distant cities for purpose of acquiring knowledge, was in touch with eminent scholars of his time. He authored close to 200 works in philosophy, astronomy, physics, chemistry and medicine. He was a Persian but most of his works were written in Arabic, which was lingua franca at the timeHe was highly esteemed for his learning, diagnosis and therapeutic skills, which was based upon observation of the course of the disease and laying stress upon hygienic and dietetic measures.  He was a tireless writer of immense productiveness and versatility, and an inspired teacher. He advised his students while they were examining a patient to bear in mind the classic symptoms of a disease as given in a textbook and compare them with what they observed.

Al-Biruni, the celebrated scientist from present Afghanistan, prepared a catalog of al-Razi’s books and treatises numbering well over 184. Most of these books have been lost but some have survived through Latin translations. This catalog was published in German language in 1924 from Berlin under the title ‘ Al-Biruni als quelle fur das leben and die schriften al-Razi’.


It was characteristic of al-Razi to set greater value upon description of disease than upon theoretical speculation as is evidenced from his medical works which contain numerous clinical histories which are proof of his admirable powers of observation. He expanded great care upon diagnosis and prognosis.

Kitab al-Hawi

Al-Razi’s magnum opus, Kitab al-Hawi  (  Comprehensive Book ) represents the fruit of a long life spent in writing this illustrious work. It contains an astounding mass of extracts from Greco-Arabic and Indian literature, as well as numerous records from his own medical practice. This encyclopedia of medicine was used as a textbook in numerous European universities for 500 years, from 12th to 17th century. During this period Galen, Razi and Ibn Sina were considered as giants in the field of medicine. Al-Hawi,  was translated into Latin by a Sicilian Jewish scholar  Faraj Ibn Salim in 1279 under auspices of Italian King Charles I of Anjou (1220-1285)  as Liber Continens. This enormous twenty volume medical encyclopedia was the largest ever composed by one person.  An eminent historian Will Durant has pointed out that “al-Hawi was one of the nine volumes constituting the whole library of Paris

Faculty of Medicine in 1395”. In 1486 a Latin translation of this book was published as ‘Liber Dictus Alhavi’. Al-Hawi was published in Arabic text from Hyderbad , India in 1955.

He wrote two treatises on ethics that have been published;  Kitab al-Tibb al-Roohani ( translated by A.J. Arberry entitled The Spritiual Physick of al-Razi) & Sirat al-Faylasuf (philosophers way of life). Several manuscripts exist of his work entitled Doubts Concerning Galen.

 Al-Razi made use of psychotherapy with dramatic results, antedating Sigmund Freud by a thousand years. It is stated that he was called to treat a famous Caliph who was suffering from severe arthritis. He advised a hot bath, and while the Caliph was bathing, Razi threatened him with a knife, proclaiming he was going to kill him. This deliberate provocation increased the natural caloric which thus gained sufficient strength to dissolve the already softened humors, as a result the Caliph got up from his knees and ran after him.

Al-Razi ( Rhazes in Latin) was a pioneer in many areas of medicine and treatment in general. In particular, he was a pioneer in pediatrics, obstetrics and ophthalmology. Some of his medical  works e.g. Kitab al-Mansoori, Kitab al-Hawi, Kitab al-Mulooki and Kitab al-Judri wal Hasabah have earned him an everlasting fame. His treatise on smallpox was published last time from London in 1847. His views & experiments in chemistry are given in Kitab al-Asrar wa sirr al-Asrar, published from Tehran in 1964. Only fragments have been preserved of his treatise al-Ilm al-Ilahi (the Divine Science) which contains his cosmogony.

An outstanding feature of his treatment was that he favored cures through properly regulated food. He would try his remedies first on animals in order to evaluate their side effects.

His clinical observations have been edited by  Max Meyerhof entitled ‘Thirty three clinical observations by Rhazes”. Al-Razi indicated that on some points his medical experience was much more abundant that Galen. Razi regarded soul as a substance. He thought that the brain was the instrument of the soul. Al-Biruni admired him as a master physician, while Ibn Sena suggested that Razi should have confined him self to dealing with medicine instead dabbling in philosophical problems.

He is associated with several technical innovations e.g. he was the first person to use alcohol as antiseptic and used opium for the first time as anesthesia. He made medical use of mercury as purgative ( after testing this on monkeys),  this drug was called ‘Album Rhazes’ during the Middle Ages. He was the first physician to find stones in bladder, and he was the one who used seton in surgery.  He was the first person to give an amazing account of the operation for the extraction of a cataract and also the first scientist to discuss the pupillary reaction or the widening and narrowing of the pupil of the eye to light. He explained that this reaction was due to the presence of small muscles that react to the intensity of light. His treatise on ophthalmology,  was rendered into German language in 1900 by W. Brunner.  Also he was the first one to use animal gut for surgical sutures and used plaster of Paris for casts to heal broken bones. He checked the enthusiasm for urinalysis in an age when physicians were prone to diagnose ailments by examining the urine, sometimes even without seeing the patient. His interest in Urology focused on ailments involving urination, venereal disease, & renal abcess. He described hay fever or allergic rhinitis also. In his scholarly work on eye diseases ‘Monograph on the Eye’ he repudiated the theory that light emanates from the human eye whereby things become visible.

During the Middle Ages a medical student was required to study he following text books:  Aphorism of Hippocratic, Questions of Hunain Ibn Ishak, Guide of al-Razi, Treasury of Sabit ibn Qurra, al-Mansuri of al-Razi, Sixteen Treatises of Galen, Kitab al-Hawi of al-Razi and lastly al-Shifa of Ibn Sina.

An Experimental Scientist

Al-Razi was very much influenced by  famous Iraqi chemist, Jabir Ibn Hayyan though he developed his chemistry independently. His work on chemistry Sirr al- Israr ( Secret of Secrets) was translated into Latin as ‘ Liber Secretorum Bubacaris’ in which he has discussed several chemical reactions in distillation, calcination and crystallization. He has given full description of about 25 instruments he used in his laboratory such as Beakers, Shears, Tongs, Alembies, Pestels and Mortars.

He has been credited with inventing sulfuric acid. He classified chemical substances into mineral, vegetable and animal thus laying foundation for organic and inorganic chemistry.  He explained that all living bodies are made up of living cells which depend upon intricate chemical reactions.

In the chapel of Princeton University, NJ, and at the Faculty of Medicine, Paris University, hang two portraits of Muslim physicians – Rhazes and Avicenna – as a tribute to their enormous contributions in medicine.  There is scant literature available in Eastern languages on the life of this great son of Islam, however numerous books in English and German have documented his eventful life. For instance Prof Max Neuberger’s book ‘die Gschichte der Medizin’ published in 1911, has a chapter on his life, as well as George Ranking’s book ‘the Life and Works of Rhazes’ published in 1913 is a good read. Another well documented book on his life is published from Iran, Faylasuf Rayy ( The Philosophers of Rayy) , by M. Mohaghegh, Tehran, 1970.

Al-Razi gathered many brilliant pupils around him, who regarded him as a second Galen. His medical works have remained a beautiful source of medical knowledge for generations. Following excerpts from his writings paint a brief picture of this extraordinary physician.

*                 “ Truth in medicine is an unattainable goal and the art as described in books is far beneath the knowledge of an experienced and thoughtful physician.”

*                 “ At the commencement of illness, choose measures whereby the strength may not be  lessened. Where you cannot cure by diet, use no drugs and where simple measures suffice, use no complex ones.”

*                 “  Amongst those factors which make the people turn away from the physician and place their

trust in impostors is the delusion that the physician knows everything and requires to ask no questions. “

*                  “ It is advisable for an intelligent ruler that he should not make his physician anxious, but should cheer him, be much in his society and should make it known that he will not be held onsible for the cure of incurable nor held to account for error or misunderstanding.”

*                    “ A physician should not forget to ask his patient all sorts of questions pertaining to the possible causes of his illness, both internal and external. If a physician can treat a patient through nutrition rather than medicine he has done the best thing.”

*                    “ A physician should always try to convince his patient of improvement and hope in the effectiveness of treatment, for the psychological state of the patient has a great effect on his physical condition.”  ( all of the above quotations are from History of Medicine)

*                     “ My love and passion for knowledge, and my labors to acquire the same, are familiar to all who have kept my company or seen me at my studies; from my youth up to this very time, I have not ceased to devote myself to this object.  If ever I have come upon a book I have not read, or heard tell of a man I have not met, I have not turned aside to any engagement- even though it has been to my great loss- before mastering that book  or  learning all that man knew. So great in fact have been my endeavors and endurance, that in a single year I written as many as 20,000 pages in a script as minute as that used for amulets. I was engaged fifteen years upon my great compendium (meaning Al-Hawi) working night and day, until my sight began to fail and the nerves of my hand were paralysed, so that at the present time I am prevented from reading and writing; even so I do not give up these ccupations so far as I am able, but always enlist the help of someone to read and write for me. ( Revelation & Reason, A.J. Arberry, London,  page 37&38)

*                      On fearing death: “ There is no need for a man to fear death, if he be righteous and virtuous and carries out all the duties imposed upon him by the religious law which is  true for this law promises him victory and repose and the attainment of everlasting bliss. “

Ornament to medical literature

It was characteristic of al-Razi to cite Greek, Syriac, Persian and Hindu opinions on a given question and then present his views. This independent attitude enabled him to make some remarkable discoveries, above all to distinguish for the first time differences between smallpox and measles. His work Kitab al-Judri wal-Hasba  brought him lasting fame and is considered as an ornament to the medical literature . It ranks high in importance in the history of epidemiology as the earliest work

on smallpox. He describes the initial symptoms of smallpox & measles with care – the first vivid description of disease appearing in medical literature. Thereupatic measures prescribed are the result of many years of clinical experience. For centuries it has remained a masterpiece of direct observation and clinical analysis. Here is an excerpt from this monograph on these two diseases.

“ The outbreak of small-pox is preceded by,  continuous  fever, aching in the back, itching in the  nose and shivering during sleep. The main symptoms of its presence are: backache with fever stinging pain in the whole body, congestion of the face, sometimes shrinkage, violent redness of the cheeks and eyes, a sense of pressure in the body, creeping of the flesh, pain in the throat and breast accompanied by difficulty of respiration and coughing, dryness of the mouth, thick salivation, hoarseness of the voice, headache and pressure in the head, excitement, anxiety, nausea and unrest. Excitement, nausea and unrest are more pronounced in measles than is small-pox, whilst the aching in the back is more severe in small-pox than in measles.”

This book was first translated into Latin in 1565, later into several European languages and went into forty editions between 1498 and 1866. Al-Razi has mentioned 24 contraceptive recipes, mechanical as well as chemical in his book Quintessence of Experience, section ‘on the means of preventing conception’.

The number of medical works he produced comes to around fifty. Another important work in medicine was his Kitab al-Mansuri which comprised of  ten volumes and dealt with Greco-Arab medicine. Some volumes of this work have been published separately in German and French. It was translated into Latin ‘ Liber Almansoris’ in 1264 by Jewish physician and philosopher,  Shem Tob at Marseilles. Later in 1480, the ninth volume which was translated by Italian scholar Gerard of Cremona (d.1187),  was published as “Nonus Almansoris”. In this work he devoted a chapter to anatomy giving a detailed description of various organs of the human body, including sensory and motor parts. He gave elaborate description of spinal cord, and stated that injury either to the brain or spinal cord can lead to paralysis of the parts of the organs whose nerve supply is damaged. This was used as a standard textbook in European universities of Montpellier, Bologna, Paris, Oxford until sixteenth century.

Al-Razi’s contribution as a philosopher is no less compared to medicine. He studied Platonic, Stoic, and Epicurean philosophy and took as his hero Socrates, the great questioner of ideas and values. In his book Sira al-Falsafiya (conduct of a philosopher) he said that indulgence in enjoyments of life and total abstemiousness is bad. He said that some people deny themselves lawful pleasures as training in self-control which is not healthy.

His questioning of Islamic beliefs led him to doubt the validity of religious teachings and caused orthodox Muslims (Ismailies) to destroy his philosophical works. When he lost his eyesight through cataract, it was assumed to be God’s punishment for his heretical beliefs. He stands unique among Muslim philosopher who urged the use of reason for self-development.  In his book on ethics ‘ The Spiritual Physick ’  this is how he sings the  praise of reason:  “(Reason ) is God’s greatest blessing to us…. Reason is the thing without which our state would be the state of wild beasts, of children and lunatics….. Since this is its worth and place……… it behooves us not to bring it down from its high rank or in any way to degrade it… We must not give Passion the mastery over it, for Passion is the blemish of Reason…. preventing the reasonable man from finding the true guidance .”

In this book he described moral diseases and discussed how they adversely affect human behavior. He recommends that a person with moral disease should find a critic-friend who should analyze his conduct but be sympathetic to him. He recommended the maintenance of a healthy mind, for this he even prescribed spiritual cures.

Prof  Hoodbhoy in his book Islam and Science, chapter Five Great Heretics, has thisto say on this aspect of al-Razi ‘s life.“ Al-Razi ‘s unconventional views on religion certainly did notendear him with all Muslims. Later writers, though wondering at is erudition, condemned him for blasphemy because he openly spoke of the superiority of reason to revelation. Heterodox Ismailis, such as Nasr-i- Khusrow, also charged him with heresy. For his radical views, al-Razi had to pay a high price: the relegation of most of his scholarly works to oblivion.  Even Al-Biruni, with the possible motive of trying to please his orthodox patron, openly denounced al-Razi and attributed his blindness to divine retribution. It is said that the blindness resulted from the punishment meted out to him by an Emir who was a member of conservative Mansur family of Bukhara. This enraged emir ordered al-Razi be hit on the head with his book until either the book or his head broke. Thereupon al-Razi lost both his eyesight, as well as his zest for life. When an oculist suggested remedial eye surgery,al-Razi replied, “ I have seen enough of this world, and I do not cherish the idea of an operation for the hope of seeing more of it.”

He died in Iran at the age of eighty-two (d. 926 ) blind and in poverty. His name is commemorated in the RAZI institute near Tehran.  An international medical conference was held in London 1913 and papers were read on his eventful life. His 1000th  anniversary of this was celebrated in Paris in 1930.

George Sarton says in his famous book Introduction to History of Science that “ Rhazes was the greatest physician of Islam and the medieval ages.” In Encyclopedia of Islam he is described as   “ Rhazes remained up to the 17th century the indisputable authority of medicine”. The Bulletin of WHO ( World Health Organization) May 1970 paid tribute to him in these words “ His writings on smallpox and measles show originality and accuracy, and his essay on infectious diseases was the first scientific treatise on the subject”

Al-Razi also developed a pleasure-pain theory: “Pleasure consists in the restoration of that condition which preceded the suffering of pain. A man leaves a restful, shady spot to go out into the desert; there he proceeds under the hot summer sun, is affected by the heat; he goes back to his former place where he experiences pleasure until his body returns to its original condition. The intensity of  his pleasure in coming home is in proportion to the intensity of the heat he had suffered. Since pain sometimes sets in and increases gradually over a period of time, and the return to the original state Often occurs quite suddenly, we do not become aware of the element of pain at once, while the sharpness of the return to the original state is keenly and pleasurably felt”. Arabic Thought and the Western World, page 14, by Eugene Myers, New York, 1964

In another book The Classical Heritage in Islam, the nature of pleasure is described in this way:

” Pleasure is nothing more than a respite from pain, and pleasure exists only in the wake of pain…….when pleasure lasts it becomes pain……… pleasure is a liberating perception of the senses, and pain a painful one…. Sensual pleasure is nothing more than a respite from pain, and pain nothing more than forsaking nature. Nature is neither pain nor pleasure…… The pleasure of copulation is caused by the accumulation of a certain substance in a particularly alert and sensitive place. When that substance is long accumulated there and then suddenly leaves that place, this produces pleasure.. it is comparable to the pleasure derived from scratching when it itches…….. The pleasure felt at the sight of beautiful faces is explained by arRazi in the sense that people tire of unattractive and ugly companions and thus forsake their natural condition. Everyone who hears soft sounds after harsh ones feels pleasure………. Everybody feels pleasure when he sees light, but when he sees a great deal of light, closing of the eye and darkness also give him pleasure”

  • By Franz Rosenthal, page 103,London, 1975).

His Books

Razi was very fond of acquiring knowledge and parting the same to others. He enjoyed writing and said ” I have written in one year more than twenty thousand leaves and worked day and night for fifteen years on my book Kitab al-Hawi until my eyesight has been badly weakened and the muscles of my hand can no longer work. ”

Following books are available at Library of Congress, Washington, DC, USA: Manafi al-Aghdhiyya wa daf madarihha, Rasail Falsafiyah, Kitab al-Murshid, Al-Sira al-Falsafiyah, Akhlaq al-Tibb, Mansoori fi al-Tibb, Al-Hawi fi al-Tibb, Kitab al-Ilaj al Ghoraba, Kitab al-Jadri wal Hasba (last book was translated into German in 1968 – Uber die Pocken und die Masern).

Other books of interest: Jami fi al-Tibb, al-Malooki, Kitab al Qalb, Kitab al-Mafasil, Bar al-Saah, al-Taqseem aal Takhsir. About 40 of his manuscripts are still extant in the museums and libraries of Iran, Paris, Britian, and in Rampur, & Bankipur (India). Tibb Al-Razi is in Arabic edited by eminent writer Muhammad Husayn Kamil, published in 1977 from Cairo. Kitab al-Qawlanj’s (Colic treatment) French translation was published in 1983.

Advice to patients

Ar-razi advises patients to follow the physician’s orders; they should respect their physicians, They should consider their physicians better than their friends; they should have direct contact with there Physicians, they should not keep any secret from them, they should be in touch with them before the ailment sets in, as prevention is better than treatment

Razi then gives the following advice to physicians. Physicians should gain the trust of their patients, & they should be kind to all patients. Physicians should be self-reliant because knowledge gained from books is insufficient. It is said one patient suffered from irregular fever and urination. After lengthy examination Razi said that man suffered from a kidney infection, stating also that had the man told him in the beginning that he felt pressure on the lower back when standing up, he could have diagnosed it much earlier. Physician should never lose patience, he must lead a balanced life, and he should not indulge in pleasure. Physician should give enough time to the patient; he should listen to the patient more and talk less. A physician should be proud of his profession.

Health & Medicine in Islam, by F. Rahman, page 93, NY 1987

Two Cases

There are many remarkable medical cases told about Razi,but the following two are of great interest. A young man of Baghdad came to him complaining of haematemesis. The patient was in great despair, so Razi asked him as to the water he had been drinking during his journey. He replied that he drank water from some stagnant ponds. Razi brought two vessels filled with water-weed (Tuhlub in Arabic) which he ordered him to drink. When the patient said he could not drink any more, Razi put more in his mouth until it caused severe vomiting. Razi checked the substance that came out with vomiting, it turned out that there was a leech which was causing this trouble.

There was dropsical boy whose father consulted Razi in Bistam, Iran. After examination Razi declared the case to be hopeless, and advised the father to let the boy eat and drink as he pleases. (Dropsy is a condition in which large amount of fluid collects in the body tissue). Twelve months later Razi returned and found the boy to be completely healthy. Razi asked how did this come about, the father told him that one day the boy saw a snake approach a bowl of madira ( broth prepared with sour milk ) drink some of it, and vomit into the rest,  he saw the food changed color. Hoping to end his life with this poisonous food, he ate more of it, and then fell into a deep sleep. When he awoke he was perspiring profusely, and after purging he realized he had no sign of dropsy. ( The Arabian Medicine, by EG Brown, pages 74-76, Cambridge 1921 )

In another case Razi was summoned to treat Amir Mansur who was suffering from rheumatism.

Razi tried various treatments but to no avail. The Amir was in despair, Razi said to him tomorrow I will try another treatment but it will cost you the best horse and best mule in your stables. Next day Razi brought the Amir to a hot bath outside the city, entered the hot room with the patient. Razi had prepared douches of hot water and a draught which he gave to the Amir till such time the humors in the joints were matured. Then Razi went out and came back with a knife in his hand and stood there reviling the Amir, saying things like you conspired to kill me, by sending  a small boat to bring me over to you. I have decided to kill you for this, for if I don’t my name is not Muhammad ibn Zakaria. The Amir became furious, and partly from anger and from fear sprang to his feet. Razi fled the bath where his horse was waiting for him, rode off to Merv. Upon arriving in Merv he sent a letter to the Amir stating that I could not treat the natural caloric, so I decided to use the Ilaji Nafsani ( psycho-therapeutics). I provoked you to increase the natural caloric which caused you to stand up and run after me. The Amir was delighted to regain his health, and rewarded Razi with a robe of honor, a cloak, a turban, arms, a horse and two slaves and a yearly pension of 2000 gold dinars, and 200 horse-loads of corn.

Visit the following Internet site for info on more books: ~mcneil/cit/citlrazi/htm


1. History of Medicine,  English translation of Prof Max Neuberger’s book, 1910. available at Queens

University, Kingston, Canada

2. The Spiritual Physick of Rhazes, English translation by A.J. Arberry, 1950, London

3  Age of Faith, history of medieval civilization 325-1300,  by Will Durant, 1950, page 247

4. The Islamic Tradition by John Christopher, New York, 1972 pages 109, 121

4. Islam and the Arab World, edited by Bernard Lewis, 1976

5. Islam and Science by Pervaiz Hoodbhoy, page 111,  New York  1992

6. Revelation & Reason In Islam by A.J. Arberry , London, 1957, pages 37 to 39


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