al-Razi Research Paper

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Although al-Razi (c. 865–c. 925 ce) was an Islamic philosopher whose unorthodox ideas earned little credence among Muslims of his day, his free thinking and, most importantly, his role as a physician made a significant contribution to world history. His work, and especially his translations, provided an important connection between ancient practices and physicians during medieval times, and in the development of current-day Western medicine.

Abu Bakr Muhammad ibn Zakariya’ al-Razi, also known to Europeans by his Latinized name of Rhazes, was one the most influential Islamic physicians of the pre-modern era. Razi’s contributions have been favorably compared to those of such early physicians and scientists as Hippocrates (c. 460–c. 377 bce), Galen (129–c. 199 ce), Ibn Sina (980–1037), and Vesalius (1514–1564). Razi’s works were widely used throughout medieval and Renaissance Europe. His translations and original works provided a critical link among ancient Greek, Persian, and Indian medical traditions and the later works of medieval and Renaissance physicians in Europe. In addition to his importance in the field of medicine, Razi’s fame also stems from his work as an alchemist and freethinking philosopher.

Razi was born in the Persian city of al-Rayy (modern Shahr-e-Rey), near present-day Tehran, Iran. As a young man he cultivated talents in music, philosophy, and alchemy; however, as he grew older, he turned his attention to the study of medicine. During his distinguished career as a physician, he directed hospitals in both Rayy and Baghdad. He also enjoyed royal patronage, traveling extensively in the service of the Samanid courts throughout Khorasan and Transoxiana (a Persian-Islamic dynasty in Central Asia, vassal of the Abbasids, from around 819 to 1005). Yet, far from leading the life of an idle courtier, Razi was praised as a tireless and compassionate clinician and teacher as well as a prolific writer.

Razi’s most famous medical works are the Kitab al- Hawi (Liber Continens; The Comprehensive Book of Medicine) and the Kitab al-Mansuri (Liber Almansoris; The Book of Medicine for Mansur). The Kitab al-Hawi, a twenty-three-volume encyclopedia posthumously prepared by Razi’s pupils, contains extracts from Greek, Indian, and Arabic sources on pathology, therapy, and pharmacology as well as records from his own clinical experience. The Kitab al-Hawi was translated into Latin in 1279 by Faraj ibn Salim, a Sicilian-Jewish physician employed by Charles I of Anjou. Thereafter, it became widely used throughout Europe as an encyclopedia and teaching manual. Similarly, the Kitab al-Mansuri became highly prized in Europe after its translation into Latin as the Almansoris by Gerard of Cremona (d. 1187). During the Renaissance, its ninth chapter, Liber Nonus, was often circulated by itself or with commentaries by leading physicians such as Vesalius. Another of Razi’s most influential treatises, the Kitab fial-Jadari wa al-Hasbah (Treatise on Smallpox and Measles), was the first to distinguish smallpox from measles. He also wrote treatises on kidney and bladder stones, diabetes, childhood diseases, allergies, psychosomatic medicine, and medical ethics.

Razi’s works are characteristic of medieval Islamic medicine in that they are based primarily upon the Greek scholarship of Hippocrates and especially that of Galen. However, despite his immense respect for the Galenic tradition, Razi claimed that his own clinical experience exceeded Galen’s. Razi noted that his clinical methodology of studying cases contradicted Galen’s description of fevers, which Razi believed to have been inspired by philosophical dogma. He even called into question the Galenic system of balancing the body’s “humors,” or elements. Accordingly, Razi—and indeed other Islamic physicians of the period—should not be seen as mere preservers of Greek medical thought during Europe’s so-called Dark Ages, but rather as innovators in their own right.

Just as Razi relied on his clinical experiences and logic in the field of medicine, his empirical thinking led him to deny occultist and symbolic significance in his study of alchemy. Because of this, he may be seen as having transformed the study of alchemy into an embryonic form of chemistry. Throughout his works there are descriptions and classifications of mineral substances, chemical processes, and explanations of experimentation that meet the standards of empirical investigation in modern chemistry. While Razi’s famous Sirr al-Asrar (Secret of Secrets) has generally been classified as alchemy, such a classifi- cation fails to take into account Razi’s philosophical preferences—evident in Sirr al-Asrar—for reason, science, and observable reality over prophecy, revelation, and spiritual symbolism.

Razi’s philosophical positions regarding reason and revealed religion were among the most heretical in the medieval Islamic world. He believed that man’s intellect or reason was a divine gift that made revelation and prophecy superfluous. Razi praised humanity’s intellectual potential, but violently attacked revealed religion, detailing how revealed religions and prophecies contradicted one another, were hostile toward scientific and philosophical progress, and were ultimately sources of conflict. He showed an obvious preference for Greek philosophy over the wisdom offered by the Quran. Thus, unlike Islamic Aristotelians, Razi denied the possibility of reconciling philosophy and religion.

As a result of Razi’s heretical views, his contributions to philosophy in the Islamic world have been marginalized. Moreover, because his ideas never gained a large audience in the Islamic world, their impact on his small audience of Christian readers was limited at best. Yet, from a world historical perspective, Razi’s free-thinking is still relevant. It challenges scholars to alter the monolithic picture of Islamic civilization that is often presented in Western scholarship. Similarly, Razi’s important role in the development of Western medical practice indicates the necessity of expanding the history of science and medicine beyond the study of modern Europe to include more Islamic contributions, especially during the Middle Ages, an era in which Islamic rather than European scholarship reigned supreme.


  1. Arberry, A. J. (Trans.). (1950). The spiritual physick of Rhazes. London: John Murray.
  2. Iskandar, A. Z. (1975). The medical bibliography of al-Razi. In G. Hourani (Ed.), Essays on Islamic philosophy and science (pp. 41–46). Albany: State University of New York Press.
  3. Iskandar, A. Z. (1990). al-Razi. In M. J. L. Young, J. D. Latham, & R. B. Serjeant (Eds.), Religion, learning, and science in the Abbasid period (pp. 370–377). Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
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  5. Nasr, S. H. (1981). Islamic life and thought. Albany: State University of New York Press.
  6. Qadir, C. A. (1988). Philosophy and science in the Islamic world. London: Croom Helm.
  7. Stroumsa, S. (1999). Free thinkers of medieval Islam: Ibn al-Rawandi, Abu Bakr al-Razi and their impact on Islamic thought. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill.
  8. Ullman, M. (1978). Islamic medicine. Edinburgh, U.K.: Edinburgh University Press.
  9. Walzer, R. (1962). Greek into Arabic: Essays on Islamic philosophy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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