Al-Razi (Rhazes)

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Muhammad ibn Zakariyā Rāzī (865 – 925), known as Rhazes or Rasis after medieval Latinists was a Persian Muslim polymath, a prominent figure in Islamic Golden Age, physician, alchemist and chemist, philosopher, and scholar.

al-razi

His “firsts”

  • The first to differentiate smallpox from measles,
  • The discovery of numerous compounds and chemicals including alcohol, kerosene, among others.

He knew Ancient Persian, Greek, and Ancient Indian medical knowledge. Some 200 books are attributed to him.

He furthered medicine by observation and experimentation

Educated in

  • music,
  • mathematics,
  • philosophy, and
  • metaphysics,

Medical Contributions

In addition to his experiments he’s also considered the father of pediatrics and a pioneer of ophthalmology. He wrote the first book that treated children’s illnesses separately.

He was among the first to use Humoralism to distinguish one contagious disease from another. In particular, Razi was the first physician to distinguish smallpox and measles through his clinical characterization of the two diseases.

Razi contributed in many ways to the early practice of pharmacy by compiling texts, in which he introduces the use of ‘mercurialointments’ and his development of apparatus such as mortars, flasks, spatulas and phials, which were used in pharmacies until the early twentieth century .

Life

He became chief physician of Rey and Baghdad hospitals.

He traveled extensively, mostly in Persia. As a teacher in medicine, he attracted students of all disciplines and was had a reputation for being compassionate and devoted to the service of his patients, whether rich or poor.

While himself a Persian and part of a prolific generation of brilliant Persian scholars, he wrote his works exclusively in Arabic, at that time the language of scholarship in Iran.

Razi was born in the silk road passing city of Rey (hence Al-Rhazi)

After becoming a famous physician Razi moved from Rey to Baghdad during Caliph Muktafi’s reign (approx. turn of the 10th century)) where he again held a position as Chief Director of a hospital.

Blindness

His eye affliction started with cataracts and ended in total blindness. The cause of his blindness is uncertain. One account attributes the cause to have been a blow to the head by his patron, al-Mansour. Others claim that the cause was eating beans. Another attributes the cause of his blindness to a beating ordered by a mullah who was offended by his work, al-Hawi. According to that version the beating was administered with the manuscript of the work.

According to another legend he could have been blinded by steaming vapors during an accident in one of his experiments.

During that time he was approached by a physician offering an ointment to cure his blindness. Al-Razi then asked him how many layers does the eye contain and when he was unable to answer he refused his services and the ointment stating “my eyes will not be treated by one who does not know the basics of its anatomy”. One of his pupils from Tabaristan came to look after him, but, according to al-Biruni, he refused to be treated, proclaiming it was useless as his hour of death was approaching. Some days later he died in Rey, on the 5th of Sha’ban 313 AH (27 October 925).

Ethics of medicine

On a professional level, Razi introduced many practical, progressive, medical and psychological ideas. He attacked charlatans and fake doctors who roamed the cities and countryside selling their nostrums and “cures”. At the same time, he warned that even highly educated doctors did not have the answers to all medical problems and could not cure all sicknesses or heal every disease, which was humanly speaking impossible.

Doubts About Galen

In his book Doubts about Galen, Razi rejects several claims made by the Greek physician, as far as the alleged superiority of the Greek language and many of his cosmological and medical views. He links medicine with philosophy, and states that sound practice demands independent thinking. He reports that Galen’s descriptions do not agree with his own clinical observations regarding the run of a fever. And in some cases he finds that his clinical experience exceeds Galen’s.

Criticism over the Four Humors

He criticized moreover Galen’s theory that the body possessed four separate “humors” (liquid substances), whose balance are the key to health and a natural body-temperature. A sure way to upset such a system was to insert a liquid with a different temperature into the body resulting in an increase or decrease of bodily heat, which resembled the temperature of that particular fluid. Razi noted that a warm drink would heat up the body to a degree much higher than its own natural temperature. Thus the drink would trigger a response from the body, rather than transferring only its own warmth or coldness to it.

Four Elements

This line of criticism essentially had the potentiality to destroy completely Galen’s Theory of Humours including Aristotle’s theory of the Four Elements, on which it was grounded. Razi’s own alchemical experiments suggested other qualities of matter, such as “oiliness” and “sulphurousness”, or inflammability and salinity, which were not readily explained by the traditional fire, water, earth, and air division of elements.

Crystallization of ancient knowledge, and the refusal to accept the fact that new data and ideas indicate that present day knowledge ultimately might surpass that of previous generations.

Razi believed that contemporary scientists and scholars are by far better equipped, more knowledgeable, and more competent than the ancient ones, due to the accumulated knowledge at their disposal. Razi’s attempt to overthrow blind acceptance of the unchallenged authority of ancient sages encouraged and stimulated research and advances in the arts, technology, and sciences.

Mental Health

As many other theorists in his time of exploration of illnesses he believed that mental illnesses were caused by demons. Demons were believed to enter the body and possess the body. This shows that mental illnesses were understood to be out of the control of the sufferer (i.e. not their fault and they should receive care)

Alchemy

Al-Razi isolated many chemical substances, produced many medications, and described many laboratory apparatus.

The Transmutation of Metals

Razi’s interest in alchemy and his strong belief in the possibility of transmutation of lesser metals to silver and gold was attested half a century after his death by Ibn an-Nadim’s book The Philosophers Stone (Lapis Philosophorum in Latin). Nadim attributed a series of twelve books to Razi, plus an additional seven, including his refutation to al-Kindi’s denial of the validity of alchemy.

Finally we will mention Razi’s two best-known alchemical texts, which largely superseded his earlier ones: al-Asrar (الاسرار “The Secrets”), and Sirr al-Asrar (سر الاسرار “The Secret of Secrets”), which incorporates much of the previous work.

Apparently Razi’s contemporaries believed that he had obtained the secret of turning iron and copper into gold.

Chemical Instruments and Substances

Razi developed several chemical instruments that remain in use to this day.

He is known to have:

  • perfected methods of distillation and extraction.
  • dismissed the idea of potions and
  • dispensed with magic, meaning the reliance on symbols as causes.
  • his alchemical stockroom was enriched with products of Persian mining and manufacturing, even with sal ammoniac, a Chinese discovery.
  • He relied predominantly on the concept of ‘dominant’ forms or essences, which is the Neoplatonic conception of causality rather than an intellectual approach or a mechanical one). Razi’s alchemy brings forward such empiric qualities as
  • salinity and inflammability -the latter associated to ‘oiliness’ and ‘sulphurousness’.

Major Works on Alchemy

Razi left out the usual alchemists’ elusive and obscure way of writing. He had (maybe for the first time since late antiquity) a clear systematic classification of observations of chemical substances, reactions and apparatus, described in a language almost entirely free from mysticism and ambiguity. Razi’s scheme of classification of the substances used in chemistry shows sound research on his part.

  • In his book Sirr al-Asrar, Razi divides the subject of “Matter’ into three categories as he did in his previous book al-Asrar.
  • Knowledge and identification of drug components of plant-, animal- and mineral-origin and the description of the best type of each for utilization in treatment.
  • Knowledge of equipment and tools of interest to and used by either alchemist or apothecary.
  • Knowledge of seven alchemical procedures and techniques: sublimation and condensation of mercury, precipitation of sulfur and arsenic calcination of metals and minerals

This last category contains additionally a description of other methods and applications used in transmutation:

  • The added mixture and use of solvent vehicles.
  • The amount of heat (fire) used, ‘bodies and stones’, (‘al-ajsad’ and ‘al-ahjar) that can or cannot be transmuted into corporal substances such of metals and Id salts (‘al-amlah’).
  • The use of a liquid mordant which quickly and permanently colors lesser metals for more lucrative sale and profit.

Similar to the commentary on the 8th century text on amalgams ascribed to Al- Hayan (Jabir), Razi gives methods and procedures of coloring a silver object to imitate gold (gold leafing) and the reverse technique of removing its color back to silver. Gilding and silvering of other metals (alum, calcium salts, iron, copper, and tutty) are also described, as well as how colors will last for years without tarnishing or changing. Behind these procedures one does not find a deceptive motive rather a technical and economic deliberation.

This becomes evident from the author’s quotation of market prices and the expressed triumph of artisan, craftsman or alchemist declaring the results of their efforts “to make it look exactly like gold!”. However, another motive was involved, namely, to manufacture something resembling gold to be sold quickly so to help a good friend who happened to be in need of money fast.

Of interest in the text is Razi’s classification of minerals into six divisions, showing his discussion a modern chemical connotation:

  1. Four spirits (AL-ARWAH) : mercury, sal ammoniac, sulfur, and arsenic sulphate (orpiment and realgar).

  2. Seven bodies (AL-AJSAD) : silver, gold, copper, iron, black lead (plumbago), zinc (Kharsind), and tin.

  3. Thirteen stones : (AL-AHJAR) Pyrites marcasite (marqashita), magnesia, malachite, tutty Zinc oxide (tutiya), talcum, lapis lazuli,gypsum, azurite, magnesia, haematite (iron oxide), arsenic oxide, mica and asbestos and glass (then identified as made of sand and alkali of which the transparent crystal Damascene is considered the best),

  4. Seven vitriols (AL-ZAJAT) : alum (al-shabb الشب), and white (qalqadis القلقديس), black, red (suri السوري), and yellow (qulqutar القلقطار) vitriols (the impure sulfates of iron, copper, etc.), green (qalqand القلقند).

  5. Seven borates : natron, and impure sodium borate.

  6. Eleven salts (AL-AMLAH): including brine, common (table) salt, ashes, naphtha, live lime, and urine, rock, and sea salts. Then he separately defines and describes each of these substances and their top choice, best colors and various adulterations.

Razi gives also a list of apparatus used in alchemy. This consists of 2 classes:

  1. Instruments used for the dissolving and melting of metals such as the Blacksmith’s hearth, bellows, crucible, thongs (tongue or ladle), macerator, stirring rod, cutter, grinder (pestle), file, shears, descensory and semi-cylindrical iron mould.

  2. Utensils used to carry out the process of transmutation and various parts of the distilling apparatus: the retort, alembic, shallow iron pan, potters kiln and blowers, large oven, cylindrical stove, glass cups, flasks, phials, beakers, glass funnel, crucible, alundel, heating lamps, mortar, cauldron, hair-cloth, sand- and water-bath, sieve, flat stone mortar and chafing-dish.

Secret of Secrets (Sirr Al-asrar)

This is Razi’s most famous book which has gained a lot of recognition in the West. Here he gives systematic attention to basic chemical operations important to the history of pharmacy.

Avicenna stated:

Or from Muhammad ibn Zakariyyab al-Razi, who meddles in metaphysics and exceeds his competence. He should have remained confined to surgery and to urine and stool testing—indeed he exposed himself and showed his ignorance in these matters.

Quotes about Razi

“Rhazes was the greatest physician of Islam and the Medieval Ages.”– George Sarton

“Rhazes remained up to the 17th century the indisputable authority of medicine.”– The Encyclopaedia of Islam

“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 Bulletin of the World Health Organization (May 1970)

“In today’s world we tend to see scientific advance as the product of great movements, massive grant-funded projects, and larger-than-life socio-economic forces. It is easy to forget, therefore, that many contributions stemmed from the individual efforts of scholars like Rhazes. Indeed, pharmacy can trace much of its historical foundations to the singular achievements of this ninth-century Persian scholar.” — Michael E. Flannery

Legacy

The modern-day Razi Institute in Tehran, and Razi University in Kermanshah were named after him, and ‘Razi Day’ (‘Pharmacy Day’) is commemorated in Iran every August 27.

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