Feb/March 1997 THE IRANIAN Issue No. 9

Image of Persian anatomical map

Avicenna headline

From "A Medical History of Persia and the Eastern Caliphate" by Cyril Elgood (Cambridge University Press, London, 1952). Elgood, who was "Physician to H.B.M. Legation, Tehran, ,Perssia" points out in his introduction that he has used the terms Arabic and Persian medicine indiscriminately in writing about the Islamic period.

(Page V)

No other country in Europe, Asia or Africa seems to inspire writers as does Iran. Light works of travel and heavy books on more or less obscure subjects are printed and published by the score. Yet no complete history of medicine in Iran, that part of the Middle East formerly called Persia, has up until now been attempted.

It is strange, for Persia has played as important a part in the world's history of medicine as have Persian poetry and Persian miniatures in the world's history of literature and art. Of the three, I think medicine has played the greatest part.

This subject has not, of course, been entirely neglected. Nevertheless, more remains, as Professor Browne pointed out many years ago, to be accomplished in this branch of oriental studies than in any other of equal importance.

A few Arabists have dealt with some of the Persian physicians who wrote in Arabic. These are, it is true, the greatest of the Persian School of Medicine.

(Pages 205-209)

The influence of Rhazes [a.k.a. Mohammad Zakariyya Razi] and Avicenna [a.k.a. Ibn Sina] upon Western thought was great. Scarcely more than a century elapsed after the death of Avicenna before manuscripts of his works found their way into Europe and began to be translated. The success of Arab arms favored the spread of Arab science.

There was also a constant contact between the eastern caliphs and the powers of Europe. Harun-ul-Rashid sent an ambassador to the court of the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. Courtesies were frequently exchanged between the emperor of of the Arabic East and the Latin West. It is even said the Charlemagne paid an incognito visit to Palestine in order to consult Arab physicians about his health.

There was therefore every reason why Arab learning should be well received by men of learning in Europe. On the other hand, after the death of Charlemagne in A.D. 814 Latin Europe sank to the lowest depths of barbarism that history records. It was only in those parts which were under Moslem domination, that is to say, Sicily and Spain, that Roman civilization survived.

It was to these two centers that Arabic manuscripts first traveled, and it was from these centers that Arabic science was propagated among a people who were very ready to accept it. Of these two centers of diffusion Sicily was the less important. There the period of greatest energy was Frederick II, having quarreled with the Pope, drew to his court scholars whose investigations were discouraged by the clergy.

The most famous of these was Michael Scot (c. 1175-c. 1232), who, aided by Andrew the Jew, translated Avicenna into Latin. The last of the great translators of the Sicilian School was the Jew Farraguth who died in 1285 and who translated into Latin not only theContinens of Rhazes, but also theTacuini Aegritudinem of Ibn Jazla, a work on surgery by Meuse Junior, and a pseudo-Galenic work to which Hunayn had given an Arabic form.

The school of Toledo was of far greater importance. Here a Society of Translators, comparable to the Bayt-ul-Hikmat of Baghdad, was founded by the Archbishop Raymond. Toledo was by this time nominally Christian once more. Internal discussions among the Arab aristocracy of the western caliphate allowed the rulers of Castile to reassert the supremacy of Christianity and Toledo was rescued from the Moors in 1085.

But the city remained Moorish at heart. The Spanish Jews retained Arabic as their medium of expression long after Islam had yielded its temporal supremacy. Spanish Jews, too, formed the bulk of the physician-philosophers of those times. Speaking and writing the language of the Qoran andCanon they were ready interpreters of Arabic medicine to the rest of the Latin-reading world. It was to them, therefore, that Raymond turned, and from their pens during the twelfth century a deluge of Latin translations was offered to the rest of Europe.

Another patron the Society of Translators was Frederick Barbarossa, and in the encouragement of translating movement at Toledo he found an outlet for his pro-Arabian sympathies. Some time between 1170 and his death in 1187 Gerard of Cremona, the greatest of the Toledo translators, made the first translation into Latin of the Canon of Avicenna, at the command, it is said, of Frederick Barbarossa.

A good knowledge of Arabic and the assistance of a native Christian writer, Ibn Ghalib, allowed Gerard to put forth in his own lifetime an enormous number of translations. Leclerc, in his Histoire de la medicine arabe, gives a list of these works. They include Rhazes' Liber ad Almansorem, Ibn Serapion's works, and the Canon. His translation of the Canon formed the prototype upon which most other translations were based.

The lesser works of Avicenna now received notice. Gundisalvus translated his Sufficentia, Armengaud his Canticum with the commentary of Averroes on it, and Arnold of Villanova his De Viribus Cordis.

The popularity of the Arabs was thus established and among them Rhazes and Avicenna were considered preeminent. So great was their popularity and so long did it endure that we find Montagna, Gentile da Fabriano and other artists decorating the edge of the Madonna's robe with Arabic lettering and two Arab doctors, Cosmas and Damian, raised to the altars of the Church.

In 1825, Farraguth the Jew died. That year may be taken as the date when the era of Latin translations ceased and the Arab scholastic revival entered into its full glory. Two universities of Europe specialized in Arab letters and became identified in their medical schools with the propagation of the teaching of Rhazes and Avicenna.

The interest of the university being speculative rather than practical, Avicenna was preferred to Rhazes. The medical students, however, read both. Of these universities, one was Montpellier, the other Bologna. Montpellier was the protagonist of Arab culture. Its library was immense. All the translations of Arab writers made by Constantine the African and by Gerard of Cremona were housed in its library and that at a time when the medical library of Paris University contained less than a score of works.

From these two centers the teaching and influence of the Arabs spread to every medical school in Europe. From the twelfth to the seventeenth century Rhazes and Avicenna were held superior even to Hippocrates and Galen.

At the height of this Asiatic domination of Europe a new spirit began to stir. Certain Greek works had come to light. They were translated into Latin and found not to be in complete agreement with the Latin translations of their Arabic versions. The first reaction was to criticize the Arabs as traducers of the Greek texts. The second reaction was a determination to explore further and to see to what extent the Arabs had misrepresented Greek thought...

The combined opposition of the Hellenists and the Experimentalists was too strong, although it was a long time before the fortress, founded upon Avicenna, fell. Lectures at Montpellier up to 1555 continued to be given upon the text-books of Rhazes, Avicenna and the two Mesues. In 1558 Saporta, the doyen of the Faculty of Medicine of that university, was still lecturing upon the Libre Nonus ad Almansorem. In the University of Brussels by some curious oversight, the lectures upon Avicenna survived until 1909...

The death-blow to Arabic medicine came from many quarters. In Italy, Leonardo da Vinci (d. 1519), though he used many Arabic terms, did as much to overthrow the Avicennan system of anatomy as did any medical anatomist. Not did he even pay lip service to the system in which he was reared.

"They scorn me who am a discoverer," he wrote. Yet how much more do they deserve censure who have never found out anything, but recite and blazon forth other people's works... Those who study old authors and not the works of Nature are the stepsons not the sons of Nature, who is the mother of all good authors."


Avicenna, a.k.a. Ibn Sina, was born in A.D. 980 in the village of Khamsaran in the trans-Caspian province of Balkh. At the age of five his extraordinary memory displayed itself while learning the Qor'an. After studying rhetoric, geometry, algebra and arithmetic, he started learning medicine at sixteen. His Qanun or Canon had a great influence in the development of modern medicine. He has been set by Dante in Paradise along with the greatest intellects of the non-Christian world; and William Harvey said 600 years after his death: "Go to the fountain-head and read Aristotle, Cicero and Avicenna."

Rhazes, a.k.a. Mohammad Zakariyya Razi, was born 27 August 865 A.D. in Ray, today a southern suburb of Tehran." He was a skillful player of the lute as well as a singer. He abandoned music in favor of philosophy. At the age of 30 he developed a passion for medicine and became a legendary physician. (p. 196-197)


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