The Persian physician al-Razi (ca. 865-925), also known as Rhazes, prepared compilations that were influential in Western medicine for centuries. His monograph on smallpox and measles is still considered a medical classic.
Abu Bakr Muhammad ibn Zakariya al-Razi was born at Ray, a city not far from modern Teheran in northeastern Iran. He is believed to have devoted his early years to the study of music and philosophy. An accomplished lute player and singer, he enjoyed music throughout his life and even compiled an encyclopedia on the subject. According to one Islamic biographer, however, he never truly grasped the purpose of metaphysics and finally abandoned philosophy for more practical pursuits. He may even have earned his living for a time as a banker or money changer.
Authorities differ on precisely when al-Razi began to study medicine. Some maintain that he first left Ray and journeyed to Baghdad as a mature man, and others that he was still a youth when he arrived in the capital city of the Abbasid empire. As Baghdad at that time was the cultural and intellectual center of the Islamic world, there seems to be little doubt that he learned much about the healing art in Baghdad's well-equipped hospitals and remarkable libraries and in the research institutes that the Abbasid caliphs had richly endowed.
Returning to Ray, al-Razi was appointed chief administrator of the municipal hospital. He was soon summoned again to Baghdad, having been offered the post of chief physician and director of a great hospital in the capital. His appointment occurred during the caliphate of al-Muktafi, who reigned at Baghdad from 902 to 907.
Al-Razi's success as chief physician of Baghdad is indisputable, and his services were in constant demand. Much of the remainder of his life was spent in traveling from city to city attending rulers and nobles as well as the poor, to whom he bestowed alms and ministered without charge.
Diet was a fundamental therapeutic procedure in al-Razi's medical methodology. He emphasized the importance of consulting the wishes of the patient concerning food, especially during the period of convalescence. Theoretically, no single factor in the treatment of the sick was more important to al-Razi than was the doctor-patient relationship. He stressed that a physician by a cheerful countenance and encouraging words should instill hopes of recovery in his patient even when the practitioner doubted that the case could terminate successfully. He also advised patients always to choose a physician in whom they had confidence and then to abide by his instructions exclusively. In practice, however, al-Razi's relations with his own patients were scarcely ever as placid as these calm injunctions would seem to indicate.
Al-Razi's writings, according to one authority, number over 230 and range in subject matter from medicine and surgery to mathematics, chess, and music. During the Middle Ages his most esteemed composition in the West was the concise handbook of medical science that he wrote for a ruler named Mansur, generally believed to be Mansur ibn Ishaq, who was appointed governor of Ray in 903. Called by al-Razi the Kitab al Mansuri, the Latin translation was known in Europe as the Liber de medicina ad Almansorem or Liber Almansoris, and its ninth book in particular formed part of the medical curriculum of almost every European university through the 16th century.
Al-Razi's most important medical work, the Kitab al-Hawi, is a compilation of the notes on his thoughts, reading, and practice that he amassed throughout his entire medical life. Perhaps never intended to appear as a single book, it was assembled posthumously by al-Razi's friends and students. In consequence, though the complete title of al-Hawi in Arabic means "System of Medicine," the book lacks the unity of design that only its author could have given it. Because of its immense size, copies of this medical encyclopedia were always rare, and even in the Islamic world it was not until modern times that a complete Arabic text was compiled for publication.
Since it is composed of extracts drawn from the writings of Greek, Islamic, and Hindu physicians enriched by al-Razi's own observations and comments, the book's utility was recognized early in the West, where a Latin version, entitled Continens, was prepared for Charles of Anjou, King of Sicily, in 1279 by the Jewish scholar Farj ibn Salim, who was known also by his Latin name, Farragut. The first Latin edition of the Continens, published at Brescia in 1486, is the largest and heaviest book printed before 1501. The Continens has been termed one of the most valuable and interesting medical books of antiquity, and al-Razi's reputation as the greatest Islamic clinician rests in large part on the case histories recorded in this work.
The most highly esteemed of al-Razi's works today is the monograph on smallpox and measles. Although smallpox had been described earlier, his account is astonishingly original and seems almost modern. Composed late in his life, the small work was translated from Arabic first into Syriac and Greek. The earliest Latin edition of the work, printed at Venice in 1498, was a translation from the imperfect Greek text, but in 1747 a more accurate version was prepared on which the first translation into English was based.
In his declining years, al-Razi was hindered by the slow deterioration of his sight. An anecdote relates that when urged to have the films removed from his eyes surgically, the old man rejected the proposal, replying that he had already seen enough of the world. Though the place and date of his death are uncertain, one rather reliable Islamic chronologer places it at Ray on Oct. 26, 925.
Further Reading on al-Razi
Biographical material on al-Razi is in Edward G. Browne, Arabian Medicine (1921), and Cyril Elgood, A Medical History of Persia and the Eastern Caliphate (1951). See also Donald Campbell, Arabian Medicine and Its Influence on the Middle Ages (2 vols., 1926); George Sarton, Introduction to the History of Science, vol. 1 (1927); and Henry E. Sigerist, History of Medicine, vol. 2 (1961).