Two pharmacological texts on Whey by Abu Bakr Muhammad ibn Zakariyya' al-Razi (d. 925).

Author:Das, Aileen
Position:Critical essay

This article offers the first edition and translation of two heretofore unpublished pharmacological treatises by Abu Bakr al-Razi (d. 925), namely Fi ittikhadh ma' al-jubn (On How to Administer Whey) and Fi manafi' ma' al-jubn (On the Benefits of Whey), which seem to have formed part of a lost volume on dairy products. As it demonstrates, al-Razi's examination of whey is connected to his philosophical interest in the complex nature of simple substances such as milk. The article also highlights how these two treatises built on the Greek pharmacological tradition by incorporating ingredients from Persia and India. Abu Bakr Muhammad ibn Zakariyya' al-Raz! (d. 925) was a prolific author, writing on subjects that pertain to the fields of music, mathematics, medicine, philosophy, and alchemy. (1) While later writers in the medieval Islamicate world dismissed his philosophical endeavors as incompetent and even heretical, (2) he was widely recognized for his medical expertise. Al-Kitab al-Hawi fi l-tibb (The Comprehensive Book on Medicine, henceforth al-Hawi), an anthology of ancient and medieval medical sources, is al-Razi's best-known work, but he authored smaller treatises on individual diseases and materia medica. (3) This paper draws attention to two, as yet unpublished, tracts by al-Razi on whey, entitled Fi ittikhadh ma' al-jubn (On How to Administer Whey) and Fi manafi' ma' al-jubn (On the Benefits of Whey). In the first text al-Razi offered different recipes for the preparation of whey, which he recommended be given to patients suffering, for example, from an excess of black bile or phlegm to restore their temperament; the second text outlines how the purgative power of whey brings about the cure of specific diseases.

The use of whey as a drug or diet is an ancient therapy. It features in the prescriptions of several Hippocratic treatises and is associated especially with the Cnidian "school," whose members seem to have applied it as one of their stock remedies. (4) In his discussion of whey al-Razi cites Dioscorides, Rufus of Ephesus, Galen, and his contemporary Yusuf al-Qass ("Joseph the Priest"). A comparison of these sources with al-Razi's two texts reveals that he supplemented them by including medicinal substances from India and other eastern regions, which reached Muslim centers of learning like Baghdad through trade and conquest.

Al-Razi considered whey, the watery liquid that remains after milk has been curdled and strained, an efficacious remedy for diseases that resulted from a blockage or humoral imbalance in the body, such as melancholy, epilepsy, and pimples. He seems to have given preference to pharmaceutical rather than surgical remedies in his treatment of patients, and so the attention he afforded whey in his medical writings may reflect some key role the dairy product played in his own therapeutic practice. (5) Although Fi ittikhadh ma' al-jubn and Fi manafi' ma' al-jubn are concerned with the effects of whey on the body, al-Razi examined more generally the nature of milk in medico-philosophical works such as al-Shukuk 'ala Jalinus (Doubts about Galen), where he found that milk posed an epistemological problem because it is a naturally occurring complex substance that consists of two components that have opposite effects on the body.

The first part of this article situates these two texts on whey within the context of al-Razi's broader interest in milk. We then argue that the two treatises formed part of a lost volume on dairy that may have been modeled on Rufus's [PI][epsilon][rho][iota] [gamma][alpha][lambda][alpha][kappa][tau][omicron][zeta] (On Milk). Our analysis of the "eastern" ingredients in the texts show, however, that al-Razi adapted his source material to reflect the materia medica available to contemporary practitioners. The last section discusses the manuscripts utilized in the preparation of our edition and translation of the two works, which follow in appendix one and two respectively.


Milk played an important role in al-Razi's pharmacology, on both a therapeutic and an epistemological level. He highlighted the properties of milk and its diverse applications as both a food and a drug in a number of his extant medical writings. His most extensive treatment of the topic is found in book twenty-one of al-Hawi, which lists 911 simple substances with descriptions of their medical uses. (6) Citing Greek and Arabic sources, al-Razi offers information in this text about the nourishing qualities of various types of milk (human, goat, cow, and camel) and their efficacy in curing certain disorders afflicting the eyes and skin. (7) He included a similar, albeit abridged account of the salubrious effects of milk in the dietetic treatise Manafi' al-aghdhiya wa-daf' madarriha (Benefits of Food and Dispelling Its Harmfulness). In accordance with the title, al-Razi's chapter on milk explains how this product improves the condition of some patients, namely, those suffering from a deficiency in moisture, and how it injures others, such as sufferers of colic. (8) In these texts and elsewhere al-Razi paid special attention to the derivatives of milk because they have numerous and even conflicting therapeutic applications, which can only be understood by considering the nature of milk itself. Unlike most medical simple substances, milk is complex by nature, being compounded of wheyish, cheesy, and buttery parts, each of which has a different effect on the body--the buttery part has a fattening effect, for example, whereas whey has a purging effect.

In the third part of his medical textbook, Kitab al-Mansuri fi l-tibb (Book for al-Mansur on Medicine), al-Razi explored the complexity of milk and described the powers of whey. He distinguished between foods that have the capacity to make things thinner or thicker, and identified three categories of thinning substances, ranking them by the degree to which they make things on which they are applied thin. (9) Whey belongs to the third category, which includes foods that thin viscous substances; more specifically, it is part of a sub-species of this category, which comprises salty and non-greasy foods such as garum (muri). (10) This subset of thinning substances has a purging and soothing effect on the stomach. Al-Razi derived this classification of substances from Galen's [PI][epsilon][rho][iota] [kappa][rho][alpha][sigma][epsilon][omega][zeta] [kappa][alpha][IOTA] [DELTA][upsilon][nu][alpha][mu][epsilon][omega][zeta] [tau][omega][nu] [alpha][pi][lambda][omega][nu] [phi][alpha][rho][mu][alpha][kappa][omega][nu] (On the Mixtures and Powers of Simple Medicines, hereafter [PI][epsilon][rho][iota] [kappa][rho][alpha][sigma][epsilon][omega][zeta] [kappa][alpha][iota] [delta][upsilon][nu][alpha][mu][epsilon][omega][zeta],), which includes several theoretical distinctions, such as the concept of a property belonging to something "by essence" and "by accident," and proposes that substances can be grouped according to whether they are thin or thick. (11)

The thinning effect of whey makes it a mild purgative, while, as already noted, butter and cheese affect the body differently. In Fi ittikhadh ma' al-jubn, Fi manafi' ma' al-jubn, and al-Hawi, al-Razi commented on the qualities of various dairy products in order to provide a guideline for administering them in therapeutic practice. In al-Shukuk 'ala Jallnus, however, he considered more fundamental issues raised by the nature of milk, specifically in his discussion of Galen's [PI][epsilon][rho][iota] [kappa][rho][alpha][sigma][epsilon][omega][zeta] [kappa][alpha][iota] [delta][upsilon][nu][alpha][mu][epsilon][omega][zeta]. Al-Razi selected passages from Galen that he believed showed some contradiction, logical flaw, or bias toward a certain theory. (12) He reminded the reader that some medical substances are simple (basit) and others composite (murrakkab), and that even drugs that appear simple, such as milk and vinegar, are in fact composed of two different substances.

In al-Shukuk 'ala Jalinus al-Razi also made reference to the first book of Galen's [PI][epsilon][rho][iota] [tau][omega][nu] [epsilon][nu] [tau][alpha][iota][zeta] [tau][rho][omicron][phi][alpha][iota][zeta] [delta][upsilon][nu][alpha][mu][epsilon][omega][nu] (On the Powers of Foods), translated into Arabic by Hunayn ibn Ishaq and his nephew Hubaysh. Galen had proposed that some substances have opposite qualities because they are composed of heterogenous parts, although to the senses of smell and taste, for example, they seem to be homogenous. (13) According to Galen, milk is a paradigmatic example of foods that are not naturally simple. Its compound nature is the reason why "even when it is excellent, it sometimes acidifies because of the difference in [temperament of the] bowels, sending back up again fatty belching [...]. Lack of heat is the cause of acidification, excess heat the cause of gas. Both of these exist in milk, because it contains within itself not only a serous nature, but also a fatty and cheesy nature." (14) In order to explain how milk can have opposite effects on the body, al-Razi focused on the separation of the two contrasting components cheese and whey, which can be isolated by adding rennet or oxymel to heated milk, causing the thin parts of the milk to separate from its thick parts. (15) Al-Razi seems only to bring up the subject of milk here in order to criticize Galen's imperfect understanding of another substance that has a dual nature, vinegar. Galen believed that vinegar, unlike milk, could not be isolated into its different components. (16) Al-Razi disagreed on empirical grounds, referring to experiments where he had successfully separated the different parts of vinegar. He contrasted the discussion in [PI][epsilon][rho][iota] [kappa][rho][alpha][sigma][epsilon][omega][zeta] [kappa][alpha][iota] [delta][upsilon][nu][alpha][mu][epsilon][omega][zeta] of the separation of milk...

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