(born in 854 CE, Reu Iran, died in 925 CE Rey, Iran)

Abū Bakr Muhammad ibn Zakariyyā al-Rāzī (also known by his Latinized name Rhazes or Rasis), was a Persian polymath, physician, alchemist, philosopher, and important figure in the history of medicine.

A comprehensive thinker, Razi made fundamental and enduring contributions to various fields, which he recorded in over 200 manuscripts, and is particularly remembered for numerous advances in medicine through his observations and discoveries.

He was among the first to use humorism to distinguish one contagious disease from another, and wrote a pioneering book about smallpox and measles providing clinical characterization of the diseases. He also discovered numerous compounds and chemicals including Alcohol, kerosene, among others.

Through translation, his medical works and ideas became known among medieval European practitioners and profoundly influenced medical education in the Latin West. Some volumes of his work Al-Mansuri, namely “On Surgery” and “A General Book on Therapy”, became part of the medical curriculum in Western universities.

Edward Granville Browne considers him as “probably the greatest and most original of all the Muslim physicians, and one of the most prolific as an author”. He has been described as a doctor’s doctor, the father of pediatrics, and a pioneer of ophthalmology. Al-Hawi (Kitab al-Hawi fi tebb, Comprehensive book on medicine) is the title of a major medical book on medicine in twenty-five volumes by Rhazes. He spent 15 years on this book.

The disposition of the material in al-Ḥāwi generally follows the traditional order: localized diseases and their therapy from the crown of the head to the sole of the feet; worms, gout, etc; external lesions and their treatment; fevers; acute diseases; crises; uroscopy, animal bites, etc., poisons; materia medica, pharmacy; diabetes, dermatology etc.

Kitab al-Hawi fi al-tibb (The comprehensive book on medicine), which was translated into Latin in 1279 under the title Continens Rasis.

This book is also known in Latin as Continens Liber and in English as The Virtuous Life. Shown here is the rare 1529 edition of Continens Rasis, which was printed in Venice by Johannes Hamman.

Statue of Rhazes, United Nations Office, Vienna, Austria.


Avicenna (Ibn Sina) (980—1037)

Abu ‘Ali al-Husayn ibn Sina is better known in Europe by the Latinized name “Avicenna.” He is probably the most significant philosopher in the Islamic tradition and arguably the most influential philosopher of the pre-modern era.

He was a Persian polymath who is regarded as one of the most significant thinkers and writers of the Islamic Golden Age. Of the 450 works he is known to have written, around 240 have survived, including 150 on philosophy and 40 on medicine.

His most famous works are The Book of Healing, a philosophical and scientific encyclopedia, and The Canon of Medicine (al-Qanun fi’l-Tibb), a medical encyclopedia which became a standard medical text at many medieval universities and remained in use until the early modern period.

He was also a distinguished philosopher whose major summa the Cure (al-Shifa’) had a decisive impact upon European scholasticism and especially upon Thomas Aquinas (d. 1274).

Avicenna began his prodigious writing career at age 21. As mentioned, some 240 extant titles bear his name which cross numerous fields, including mathematics, geometry, astronomy, physics, alchemy, metaphysics, psychology, Islamic theology, logic, philology, music, and poetry.

According to his autobiography, Avicenna had memorized the entire Quran by the age of 10. He turned to medicine at 16, and not only learned medical theory, but also by gratuitous attendance of the sick had, according to his own account, discovered new methods of treatment. The teenager achieved full status as a qualified physician at age 18. The youthful physician’s fame spread quickly, and he treated many patients without asking for payment.

He lived a hectic life, he declined the offers by many emirs (kings) and wandered from city to city, seeking for a place to settle down in order to find an opening for his talents.

In the last ten or twelve years of his life he began to study literary matters and philology. In the last year of his life a severe colic seized him, so violent that he could scarcely stand. The disease kept returning, and with difficulty he reached Hamadan, where, finding the disease gaining ground, he refused to keep up the regimen imposed, and resigned himself to his fate. His friends advised him to slow down and take life moderately. He refused, however, stating that: “I prefer a short life with width to a narrow one with length”.

He died in June 1037, in his fifty-eighth year, and was buried in Hamadan, Iran.

Avicenna’s tomb, Hamadan, Iran.

The Canon of Medicine

Persian version of The Canon of Medicine at Avicenna’s mausoleum in Hamadan, Iran.

The Canon of Medicine (al-Qānūn fī al-Ṭibb) is an encyclopedia of medicine in five books compiled by Avicenna (Ibn Sina) and completed in 1025. It presents an overview of the contemporary medical knowledge.

The Canon of Medicine remained a medical authority for centuries. It set the standards for medicine in Medieval Europe and the Islamic world and was used as a standard medical textbook through the 18th century in Europe.

The Canon of Medicine is divided into five books:

  1. Essays on basic medical and physiological principles, anatomy, regimen and general therapeutic procedures.
  2. List of medical substances, arranged alphabetically, following an essay on their general properties.
  3. Diagnosis and treatment of diseases specific to one part of the body.
  4. Diagnosis and treatment of conditions covering multiple body parts or the entire body.
  5. Formulary of compound remedies.

A Latin copy of the Canon of Medicine, dated 1484, located at the P.I. Nixon Medical Historical Library of the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio.

The earliest known copy of volume 5 of the Canon of Medicine (dated 1052) is held in the collection of the Aga Khan and is to be housed in the Aga Khan Museum planned for Toronto, Ontario, Canada. The earliest printed edition of the Latin Canon appeared in 1472, but only covering book 3. Soon after, eleven complete incunables were published, followed by fourteen more Latin editions in the 16th century until 1608.

William Osler  described the Canon as “the most famous medical textbook ever written”, noting that it remained “a medical bible for a longer time than any other work.”

George Sarton  wrote in the Introduction to the History of Science:

“The Qanun is an immense encyclopedia of medicine. It contains some of the most illuminating thoughts pertaining to distinction of mediastinitis from pleurisy; contagious nature of phthisis; distribution of diseases by water and soil; careful description of skin troubles; of sexual diseases and perversions; of nervous ailments.”

Reduction techniques for spinal deformities, 1556 edition, “The Canon of Medicine”. Reduction involved the use of pressure and traction to correct bone and joint deformities.

The Reynolds Historical Library, Lister Hill Library, University of Alabama at Birmingham

Statue of Avicenna, United Nations Office, Vienna, Austria.