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Remembering Zakariya Al-Razi, greatest physician and alchemist from Iran

By Humaira Ahad

“In the school of medicine at the University of Paris,” Will Durant, the eminent American historian and philosopher writes, “hangs two portraits of Muslim physicians – Rhazes and Avicenna.”

Abu Bakr Mohammad ibn Zakariya Al-Razi, known in the West as Rhazes, was born into a Persian Muslim family in 865 AD in the ancient Iranian city of Rey, located on the southern slopes of the majestic Alborz mountain range near the capital Tehran.

After completing his primary education in his hometown, Razi moved to Baghdad for higher studies. Later, on the invitation of the Islamic ruler of the time, he assumed the position of director and chief physician of Baghdad's premier hospital, before returning to Rey to continue his practice in medicine.

Like most of the poets, philosophers and scientists of his time, Razi was a Persian who wrote in Arabic.

Essentially a practitioner of medicine, Razi produced over 200 seminal books and articles in various fields of science, theology, philosophy, mathematics and astronomy.

Al-Razi a medical practitioner

In his Introduction to the “History of Science”, George Sarton, an eminent Belgian-American historian of science, writes that Razi was the greatest physician of Islam and the Medieval Ages.

Sarton calls the second half of the ninth century, when Al-Razi flourished, the "Time of Al-Razi".

 For Sarton, Razi was not only the greatest clinician of Islam and of the whole Middle Ages, but he was also a chemist and a physicist par excellence.

The achievements of the Persian physician-philosopher did not remain confined to his era, but for centuries, his medical writings became fundamental teaching texts in European medical schools.

Razi wrote extensively on medicine, and some of his works include “Kitab Al-Mansoori”, “Al-Hawi fi al Tibb”, and “Kitab Al-Jadariwa Al-Hasabah”.

Kitab Al-Mansoori” was translated into Latin in the 15th century AD. Comprising ten volumes, the book was published separately in Europe and dealt exhaustively with Greco-Arab medicine.

Durant, the author of "The Story of Civilization", says it was "the most highly respected and frequently used medical textbook in the white world for several centuries…one of the nine books that composed the whole library of the medical faculty at the University of Paris in 1935."

Taking 15 years to complete, Rhazi's most celebrated work, “Al-Hawi” is a 25-volume, largest medical encyclopedia composed by a single person.

Translated into Latin as “Liber Continens”, it remained the largest and heaviest of all books published before 1501. Being considered the father of experimental medicine, the Muslim physician presented his own observations and opinions apart from the medical theories on diseases from various sources.

Al-Hawi” remained the main source of therapeutic knowledge until long after the Renaissance.

Based on Razi’s direct observation and analysis, “Al-Jadariwa Al-Hasabah” was the first book that drew clear comparisons between smallpox and chickenpox.

Its influence can be judged by its popularity. Forty English editions of the book were printed from 1498 to 1866. The Bulletin of the World Health Organization of May 1970 paid tribute to Razi 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.”

The celebrated clinician's explanation of why survivors of smallpox do not develop the disease a second time is regarded as the first theory of acquired immunity.

He was an expert surgeon who first used opium for anesthesia.

A Pioneer in the field of ophthalmology, Razi was the first to note the pupillary reaction to light and also described the operation for cataract.

Razi discovered the common occurrence of allergic rhinitis in spring and became the first person to write on allergy and immunology.

He was ALSO the first to realize that fever is a natural defense mechanism of the body and not a disease.

"God says in the Quran that a remedy for every illness has been provided, and we should search for the cure. Razi practically implemented this Quranic verse in his life and did a great service to humanity," Dr. Syed Waris, an immunologist, said in a conversation with the Press TV website.

Also considered as the father of psychotherapy, Razi introduced the concept of psychiatric wards as a place to care for patients with psychological illnesses.

The gifted physician believed that doctors need to be soft and gentle when communicating to their patients to ease their anxiety and instill hope of recovery.

Al-Razi the alchemist

Razi made meaningful contributions to the field of pharmacy. His death anniversary is commemorated in Iran as the ‘National Day of Pharmacy’.

The celebrated alchemist discovered and purified alcohol and pioneered its use in medicine.

Zinc preparations, he suggested, are still used in curing various eye ailments. He is also credited with the discovery of sulfuric acid, the workhorse of modern chemistry.

The gifted pharmacist introduced the use of “mercurial ointments”, and developed different experimental apparatus like flasks, mortals, phials, and spatulas that still find use in experimental sciences.

In “Kitab al-Asrar” (The Book of Secrets), Razi classified matter into three categories, having plant, animal, and mineral origin, thus opening the way for inorganic and organic chemistry.

His other important book on alchemy, “Sirr alAsrar” (The Secret of Secrets) contains a great deal of practical advice on chemical manipulations.

In his paper, "A Tribute to Zakariya Razi (865 – 925 AD), an Iranian scholar Dr. Houchang D.Modanlou, a neonatologist in the US, writes that "a volume of Kitab al-Hawi fi al-Tibb is dedicated to pharmacology.

“Indeed, pharmacy can trace much of its historical foundations to singular achievements of Razi."

Al- Razi the humanist philosopher

In his writings on Razi, Abdur Rahman Badawi, a renowned Egyptian existentialist and philosopher says Al-Razi had “no organized system of philosophy, but compared to his time, he must be reckoned as the most vigorous and liberal thinker in Islam and perhaps in the whole history of human thought.”

As a humanist philosopher, Razi emphasized love for fellow humans for gaining nearness to God. He believed that the imitation of God's mercy requires humans to be empathetic.

Razi disapproved of hunting for pleasure as was the norm of the Kings. Advocating animal rights, a millennium ago, the Persian philosopher spoke against imposing excessive labor on domestic animals.

He championed personal examination and critical thinking, contradicting the uncritical following of tradition.

He was also one of the main initiators of rationalism in Islamic sciences.

“I don’t consider Razi as a theologian but he was a rationalist par excellence. He questioned everything at a time when questioning established beliefs was not a norm, he searched for answers, and made huge discoveries,” Dr. Hujjatullah Jawani, professor of religion and mysticism at Al Zahra University, Tehran, told the Press TV website.

“We don’t say all he said was right but his experimental mind changed the course of Islamic civilization.”

According to Paul E. Walker, professor of Islamic studies, Razi believed that the ultimate end of humans is the otherworldly existence, one without death and pain, and the achievement of the soul in that world will depend on the quality of its life in this world.

Objections against Al-Razi

Peter Adamson, the author of “Great Medieval Thinkers: Al-Rāzī”, holds that Al-Razi did not reject revealed religion and was rather a believer in Islam.

According to Adamson, critical views about religion that are often ascribed to Razi were written by Abu Hatim Al Razi. Abu Hatim was an Ismai’li missionary, hostile towards Razi and his record of Razi’s views is disputable.

Al-Shahrastani, the eminent Persian historian of Islam writes that such accusations “should be doubted since they were made by Ismai’lis, who had been severely attacked by Muḥammad ibn Zakariyya Al Razi.”

Spending his last years in blindness, the people’s physician who distributed all his wealth to the downtrodden died in 925 AD as a poor man.

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