Two new texts on medicine and natural philosophy by Abu Bakr al-Razi.

Author:Pormann, Peter E.
Position:Critical essay

This paper introduces two newly discovered epistles by the celebrated physician and philosopher Abu Bakr Muhammad ibn Zakariyya' al-Razi (Rhazes, d. ca. 925). The first epistle addresses the question of why and how clothing can be used both to stay warm and to stay cool, drawing on the Aristotelian tradition of problem literature (prohlemata physika). The second epistle arises out of a court polemic and treats the question of whether one should consume mulberries after watermelons. This study offers analysis, editions, and translations of these previously unknown epistles, situating them within their broader literary and cultural contexts.


It is not often that one discovers a new text by a well-known author. Here we present two texts that were thought to be lost, both by the great clinician and philosopher Abu Bakr Muhammad ibn Zakariyya' al-Razi, celebrated not only for his innovative medical thinking, but also for his unconventional ideas about life and the universe, among other things. (1) Al-Razi (Rhazes, d. ca. 925 C.E.) was among the most influential scholars in the history of medicine, and his works were often translated into Latin, especially his famous study of smallpox and measles. He was well acquainted with ancient Greek medicine and language, but did not slavishly follow the giants of the ancient Greek medical tradition, famously penning a work titled Shukuk 'ala Jalinus (Doubts about Galen). As much philosopher as physician, he favored empirical thought and scientific experimentation. In addition to teaching and running hospitals in Rayy and Baghdad, he participated in courtly and social gatherings of intellectuals. These sittings (majalis) can be seen in part as developments of the ancient Greek sympotic tradition and the broader Mediterranean tradition of learned debate or literary recitions in a semi-informal social setting. The competitive atmosphere of these learned social gatherings is strongly felt in the two recently discovered treatises discussed below.

These two texts deal with questions of natural history and dietetics respectively. They originated in the debate milieu of elite Abbasid society, where courtiers would engage in arguments in front of the caliph or other high-ranking officials. In the first epistle, the question under debate was why one sometimes undresses in order to cool off and at other times covers oneself to achieve the same result (for instance, in order to protect the body from the sun). The second epistle passionately defends the benefits of eating mulberries after watermelon.

Both epistles have hitherto only been known from the bio-bibliographical literature. (2) The first is mentioned in Ibn al-Nadim's Fihrist in the list of al-Razi's publications as Kitab al-Ta'arri wa-l-tadaththur (Book on Getting Naked and Covering Oneself); (3) in Ibn Abi Usaybi'a as Fi l-'llati llatl yudfa'u harru l-hawa'i marratan bi-l-takashshufi wa-marratan bi-l-tadaththur (On the Reason Why Warmth Is Sometimes Dispelled by Uncovering Oneself and Sometimes by Covering Oneself); (4) and with nearly the same title in al-Biruni, which suggests that Ibn Abi Usaybi'a based his information about the title on al-Biruni. (5) The second epistle is recorded in Ibn al-Nadim as al-Radd 'ala Jarir al-tabib fima khalafa fihi min amr al-tut al-shami bi-'aqibi l-bittikh (A Refutation of Jarir, the Physician, Regarding His Divergent Opinion about the Matter of [Eating] Mulberries after Watermelons); (6) al-Biruni cites it as Flma jam baynahu wa-bayna Jarir al-tabib fi l-tut 'aqiba l-bittikh (On the Discussion between Him [sc. al-Razi] and Jarir, the Physician, about [Eating] Mulberries after Watermelons); (7) and Ibn Abi Usaybi'a has an even more complete title: Maqalatun abana fiha khata' Jarir al-tabib fi inkarihi mishwaratahu 'ala l-amir Ahmad ibn Isma'il (A Treatise in Which He [sc. al-Razi] Demonstrates the Error of Jarir, the Physician, When He Invalidated His [sc. al-Razi's] Advice to Prince Ahmad ibn Isma'il). (8)

We discovered these two texts in the course of gathering digital copies of all available manuscripts containing Arabic commentaries on the Hippocratic Aphorisms as part of our ERC-funded project at the University of Manchester. (9) An entry in an eighteenth-century catalogue of medical manuscripts in Florence's historical Biblioteca Laurenziana first piqued our interest, as it lists Galen's commentary on Hippocrates's Aphorisms in Arabic translation as one of the items contained in MS orientali 413 (henceforth, MS L). (10) As we subsequently discovered, however, this entry presents an unreliable account of the contents of MS L. The entry runs as follows:


An Epistle, or "Golden Treatise," on medicine in Arabic. Its author's name appears as Ali, son of Moses, also called Imam al-Rida. He is considered the tenth of the twelve Imams or priests of the Persian sect, who were the descendants of AH, the son of Abu Talib and son-in-law of the false prophet [Muhammad]. He died in the city of Tus because he ate too many grapes, as appears from the Arabic Chronicle by Bar Hebraeus, part nine, passing away in the month of Safar, in the year 203h (818). (11)

__ Also some short works on individual diseases and simple drugs, excerpted by an anonymous author from al-Hawi, the work by Abu Bakr [in text, Au-Bacri] Muhammad son of Zakariyya' al-Razi, also called the "Comprehensive [Book]."

__ Galen's Commentary on Hippocrates's Aphorisms, translated from Greek into Syriac by Hunayn son of Ishaq, and--as one reads here--very accurately from Syriac into Arabic by Qusta son of Luqa (d. 300/912), of Baalbek, an eminent Christian philosopher.

__ Excerpts from the "Canon of Medicine" [al-Qanunfi l-tibb] by Ibn Sina, on diseases, and their causes and symptoms, written by a more recent hand.

__ An octavo manuscript on oriental paper, consisting of 89 folios, written in Arabic letters and unpolished language by various hands. (12)

The catalogue is correct in its characterization of the contents of MS L as "unpolished" (rudis) at least in appearance. It is to this rough appearance that we must attribute the cataloguer's mistaken claim that the Hippocratic Aphorisms can be found within its pages. We found no trace of these aphorisms or their commentaries in MS L itself, but only the word fusul (aphorisms) in the well-nigh illegible table of contents. As described below, however, here this word does not refer to the Hippocratic Aphorisms but to the chapters (fusul) excerpted from Ibn Sina's (Avicenna, d. 1037) al-Qanunfi l-tibb.

Though disappointed in our search for texts Hippocratical, we found instead these two previously unpublished treatises--not found, as the catalogue wrongly suggests, in al-Razi's influential work al-Hawi fi l-tibb. The inaccuracy of the catalogue entry suggests the inadequacy of the catalogue itself and the possible existence of more unknown gems hidden in the Biblioteca Laurenziana collection of Arabic manuscripts.


MS L is listed in the catalogue as manuscript number 260, the number that also appears on its spine, despite being labeled as 259 on fol. 1a. As described, it is a codex with eighty-nine folios. It is small and portable, measuring about 12.5 cm by 15 cm, bound in pale yellow vellum in thirteen quires. It is slightly waterstained and tattered, but in good condition. The paper is thick with visible pulp and has straight, tightly spaced laid lines. The margins are about 1.5 cm wide, and would have been wider before the pages were cut down for binding. The main text begins in mid-sentence on fol. 3a, containing a total of eight short works interspersed with poetry and very brief writings of a medical or religious nature.

The main hand (henceforth, hand one), namely, that of the scribe who wrote the eight principal works in this collection, is in black ink; it is unreliable and difficult to read. A second hand (henceforth, hand two) scribbled brief treatises and poems on spare pages that were left between the eight principal works. Its ink now appears faded and brown, and these scribblings, apparently religious and medical in nature, are also extremely difficult to read. Some of hand two's poems are colloquial in tone; for example, the interrogative aysh (13) is used several times on fol. 67b, which contains a love poem, perhaps mystical in nature. Hand two, seemingly that of an enthusiastic if not entirely competent former owner of MS L, is also apparently responsible for inserting dots into the treatises copied by hand one, and these dots are especially unreliable. Certain words marking new sections are traced in rubrics, and in the final treatise of this work--selections from the Qanun (on which, see more below)--the subject headings themselves, such as "coldness of the womb" (bard al-rahim) and "pains of the womb" (awja' al-rahim) on folio 74b, are written in rubrics. Each treatise ends with a colophon including a prayer for Prophet Muhammad and his family, the name of hand one, Yahya 'Ali ibn al-Hajib, and the date of completion (during the month of Ramadan, 538h, corresponding to March 1144).

MS L includes a somewhat random and sensational gathering of topics, from poisons to sex, as described by very famous physicians. The hastily written and unreliable script on high-quality paper gives the overall impression that MS L was more of a novelty item than an aid to serious students of medicine, although we can only speculate about its exact purpose. On fol. 1a we find some medical poetry and library stamps of the Biblioteca Laurenziana. Fol. 1b contains a short treatise that is apparently fragmentary and difficult to read. This seemingly polemical text, and at least some of the writing on fol. 1a, are written in hand two.

On fol. 2a are a number of recipes that appear to have been written by hand one. One recipe reads:


The secret to making hot water is to take four ritls of water and one ritl of...

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