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Scientists and Scholars of the Islamic Golden Age: Al-Razi

As scientists, we stand on the shoulders of giants, so I think it’s the least we can do to acknowledge them. Many of those who impacted our lives the most are omitted from history lessons, and this is especially true for those who lived outside of Europe.

I’m passionate about shining a light on those who are often left out of the narrative.

I am an undergraduate neuroscience researcher, but in this three-part mini-series, I want to shine a light on a few of the great Islamic thinkers and the ways that their work impacted modern medicine and psychology. I believe that a comprehensive and informed knowledge of history can prevent us from making the mistakes of the past, remind us of the potential of the future, and honour those who paved the way for us.

A Bit of Background: A forgotten golden age

The Islamic Golden Age generally refers to the period after the 8th century until the 14th. Depending on how you define it, the Golden Age of Islamic Science coincides with the period historians refer to as “The Dark Ages,” marked by a reduction in intellectual development and a lack of understanding of diseases, such as the Bubonic plague. History classes tend to gloss over the Renaissance that was occurring in the Middle East in favour of discussing Europe.

However, this era was marked by astounding developments in the fields of science, mathematics, and medicine. Many of the most significant works of this time period were translated into Latin, which allowed Islamic knowledge to spread across Europe, laying the foundations for the Italian Renaissance and the Enlightenment.

In the first blog of this three-part series, I’ll be telling the story of Abu Bakr Muhammad Ibn Zakariya Al-Razi, known in the West as Rhazes.

Al-Razi: Father of pediatric medicine

Al-Razi was born in Ray, a city on the outskirts of what is now Tehran, Iran. He is considered to be the father of pediatric medicine, although his influence extends to neurology, infectious diseases, and public health.

Al-Razi published over 200 books and possibly 1,000 manuscripts throughout his lifetime. One of Al-Razi’s most notable publications, Kitab al-Hawi fi al-tibb, was compiled by his students and published after his death in 925. It included both descriptions of illnesses and therapies for them and became a staple in Western universities during the Dark Ages. It is thought to be one of the most widespread medical texts of its time.

Perhaps Al-Razi’s most influential work is Man la Yahduruhu al-Tabib, meaning For One Without a Doctor, in which he aims to provide medical advice that any unskilled individual could understand and perform. He famously refused to take payment from his impoverished patients and worked to make medicine something that was accessible to everyone.

Written records of his medical practice describe a clinical trial in which he treated meningitis patients with bloodletting. While the treatment itself would never be used today, his use of a control group and an experimental group was revolutionary. Outside of a passage in the Bible, this is believed to be the first written record of a rudimentary clinical trial. The idea of testing medicines systematically was expanded upon by other Islamic scholars, including Ibn Sina, who I’ll be writing about next week in the second blog of the series.

Al-Razi made substantial contributions to the field of neurology. He is considered to be the first to propose the idea that different mental processes were localised to different parts of the brain. He also described various spinal nerves and cranial nerves in detail for the first time. He described a variety of neurological conditions in his works, including epilepsy, migraines, and concussions, the last of which was perhaps most influential, for he was the first person to distinguish concussions as a unique kind of trauma.

Al-Razi is perhaps most famous for his work as medical director at a bimartisan in Baghdad. Bimartisans, or ”houses of the sick,” were the equivalent of what we know today as university hospitals, places where patients are treated, students are trained and assessed, and clinical research is performed, all under one roof. Before construction, the Caliph asked Al-Razi where the bimartisan should be built. In response, Al-Razi hung meat in various corners of the city and observed the rate of decay over time. After identifying the least rotten meat, he declared that this was the cleanest area of the city, and therefore, the best location for a hospital.

This emphasis on cleanliness and hygiene exemplifies a core value of Islam. This starkly contrasted the mainstream belief in Europe at the time — that sickness was the consequence of sin or the result of demonic possession. Al-Razi and his contemporaries viewed illness as something that should be understood, not blindly feared. Unlike Christianity, which often framed science and innovation as oppositional to God, Islam regarded the investigation of the human body and the natural world as something sacred.

I leave you with this quote from the Prophet Muhammed:

“The scholar’s ink is more sacred than the blood of the martyr’s.”

Next week, I’ll be writing about Ibn Sina, the father of experimental medicine and clinical trials.

Recommended Reading:

The House of Wisdom: How Arabic Science Saved Ancient Knowledge and Gave Us the Renaissance by Jim Al-Khalili


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