Zakariya Raazi, the Great Islamic Iranian Physician
Every year the Islamic Republic of Iran commemorates one of its greatest scientists, who despite the passing of over a millennium, continues to influence medical developments. Stay with us for a special feature on Mohammad Zakariya Raazi.
Mohammad ibn Zakariya Raazi, was an Iranian/Islamic polymath, physician, alchemist, philosopher, and important figure in the history of medicine. A comprehensive thinker, he made fundamental and enduring contributions to various fields, and is particularly remembered for numerous advances in medicine through his observations and discoveries. An early proponent of experimental medicine, he became a successful doctor, and served as chief physician of the hospitals of Rayy near modern Tehran and Baghdad in Iraq. As a teacher of medicine, he attracted students of all backgrounds and interests and was compassionate and devoted to the service of his patients, whether rich or poor. Stay with us for a feature on his life and times.
Raazi, who was known to the West in his days as Rhazes, was born and died in the historical city of Rayy, which is today a southern suburb of Tehran. Although his treatise “The Philosophical Life” or “Kitab as-Sirat-al-Falsafiyya”; also called Apologia, is a broad outline of his life. The precise transmission of the dates of his birth and death would seem to credit his family with a certain level of education and affluence, which subsequently may have facilitated his access to the scholar-ship that his works amply attest. Further, comfortable circumstances would easily explain the report about his initial occupation as a moneychanger. His own station in life would later have ensured the recording of his death. As alluded to above, Raazi spent most of his life in his hometown of Rayy; however, medical studies and practice more than once occasioned years of absence from Rayy. He is said to have sojourned in Baghdad as a student and, later, as the director of its hospital, while in Naishapur and Bukhara, he attended the Samanid rulers. Before taking up medicine (as late as in his thirties), Raazi is said to have been a poet and a practitioner of alchemy, as a result of which he was plagued by poor eyesight and eventual blindness in old age.
Zakariya Raazi, took medicine to new heights. In his book “al-Hawi fi't-Tibb” or Authority on Medicine, he researched and introduced over 700 herbal medications and their characteristics. This is a unique work in the history of medicine and discusses various diseases in details along with their treatment for which neither Galen nor Hippocrates and other Greek doctors had any clue. Raazi also had access to the books at the famous pre-Islamic Iranian academic centre, Jondi Shapour near Ahvaz, which was enriched by the works of Nestorian Christian scholars who were driven out of the Roman Empire due to polemical differences with the Trinitarians. Although Raazi came to embody Galen's ideal that the excellent physician also be a philosopher. Raazi himself mentions as his teacher Abu Zayd Ahmad bin Sahl al-Balkhi, but he also conducted epistolary debates with two of Abu Zayd's fellow townsmen, Abu’l-Qassim Abdullah ibn Ahmad al-Ka’bi and Abu’l-Hussain Shahed. Doubts Concerning Galen demonstrates Raazi’s critical attitude toward classical authorities. With regard to students of Raazi’s, the only name to be transmitted is Yahya ibn Adi, who was later a prominent disciple of the famous philosopher Abu Nasr Faraabi.
Raazi’s medical writings would seem to confirm the biographers’ reports about his heading the hospitals of Rayy and of Baghdad, respectively. As some sources would have it, he was so much sought after by students and patients alike that he attended only to the most intractable cases, referring all others, by degree of severity, to his junior and senior students and assistants. In any case, he generously cared for indigent patients (as witnesses attest) and dedicated a special treatise to the needs of those who had to do without expert treatment as is evident by the book “Man la yahdhuruhu at-Tabib”, which means Everybody His Own Doctor or What to do in the absence of a physician.
On the other hand, Raazi’s medical acumen could not fail to attract the attention of the powers that be; indeed, his familiarity with princes aroused criticism for violating the principles of the philosophical life. Beyond study and writing, he strove after human perfection by practicing the philosophical life, which he saw embodied in Socrates. Raazi’s outline of the good life in Apologia includes gainful occupation, procreation of the species, and, generally, measured enjoyment of worldly goods. As for his own conduct of the philosophical life, other than study and writing, he expressly names his general moderation in material acquisitions; the pursuit of legal claims; in food, drink, entertainment, dress, mount, etc. Raazi’s books and treatises run close to two hundred titles. Subsuming his entire work under philosophy, he, in turn — and along established Aristotelian lines — divides philosophy into natural and metaphysical science on the one hand and mathematics on the other. In trying to understand Razi's epistemology — learning as open-ended, infinite progress — and, specifically in medicine and alchemy, his attitude toward book learning versus empirically acquired knowledge, care has to be taken to distinguish his programmatic statements (e.g., “Doubts Concerning Galen”) and his actual practice. In his much celebrated but understudied monograph “On Smallpox and Measles”, he is quite reluctant to impute to Galen of these devastating transmissible diseases. The Greek and Latin translations of Raazi’s works were printed repeatedly in medieval Europe, right through the middle of the nineteenth century.
The most voluminous of Raazi’s works, is a posthumous compilation of his medical notebooks and files that mainly served his project of an Islamic medical encyclopedia under the title “al-Jam’e” (not to be confused with “al-Hawi”). The immense volume of “al-Hawi” could not but affect its manuscript transmission. Plausibly the single most influential of Raazi’s books was his medical compendium “Book for Mansur”, one hefty volume that combined theory and practice. Its success is illustrated by a large number of manuscripts in the original Arabic, in Hebrew, and in Gerard of Cremona's Latin version of 1175. Corresponding with the format of Raazi’s medical writings — ranging from encyclopedias to the briefest of monographs, which were designed as handy references for far-flung practitioners — his envisioned audiences run the gamut from fellow scholar to layman. His equally comprehensive thematic interests include everything from anatomy to specific disorders; to dietetics (including sexual medicine), materia medica, and pharmacy; to deontological questions; and to lay people's attitudes toward medicine and its practitioners. In addition, Raazi engaged authoritative texts of his discipline — especially Hippocrates and Galen — in commentaries, revisions, and emulations. Monographic treatments of (in the broad medieval sense) philosophical interest include discussions of allergic reactions to flowering roses; of the strictly physiological causation of pathicism (passive anal eroticism); of the public's frequent preference for quacks over qualified doctors; and of physicians' curative failures and, conversely, of the success of wise women and their ilk.
Raazi stands out among Islamic philosophers for his ethics and his metaphysical and physical doctrines, although he did not ignore logic. From among Razi's physical works, his treatise about vision deserves special mention for his rejection of Galen's extromission theory and excessive reliance on Euclid. The modern-day Razi Institute in Tehran and Razi University in Kermanshah were named after him. A 'Razi Day' ('Pharmacy Day') is commemorated in Iran every 5th of the Iranian month of Shahrivar (26 or 27 August). In June 2009, Iran donated a "Scholars Pavilion" or Chartagi to the United Nations Office in Vienna, now placed in the central Memorial Plaza of the Vienna International Centre. The pavilion features the statues of Raazi, Ibn Sina, Abu Rayhan Biruni, and Omar Khayyam.