Academic journal article The Journal of the American Oriental Society

Two New Texts on Medicine and Natural Philosophy by Abu Bakr Al-Razi

Academic journal article The Journal of the American Oriental Society

Two New Texts on Medicine and Natural Philosophy by Abu Bakr Al-Razi

Article excerpt

This paper introduces two newly discovered epistles by the celebrated physician and philosopher Abu Bakr Muhammad ibn Zakariyya' al-Razi (Rhazes, d. ca. 925). The first epistle addresses the question of why and how clothing can be used both to stay warm and to stay cool, drawing on the Aristotelian tradition of problem literature (prohlemata physika). The second epistle arises out of a court polemic and treats the question of whether one should consume mulberries after watermelons. This study offers analysis, editions, and translations of these previously unknown epistles, situating them within their broader literary and cultural contexts.

INTRODUCTION

It is not often that one discovers a new text by a well-known author. Here we present two texts that were thought to be lost, both by the great clinician and philosopher Abu Bakr Muhammad ibn Zakariyya' al-Razi, celebrated not only for his innovative medical thinking, but also for his unconventional ideas about life and the universe, among other things. (1) Al-Razi (Rhazes, d. ca. 925 C.E.) was among the most influential scholars in the history of medicine, and his works were often translated into Latin, especially his famous study of smallpox and measles. He was well acquainted with ancient Greek medicine and language, but did not slavishly follow the giants of the ancient Greek medical tradition, famously penning a work titled Shukuk 'ala Jalinus (Doubts about Galen). As much philosopher as physician, he favored empirical thought and scientific experimentation. In addition to teaching and running hospitals in Rayy and Baghdad, he participated in courtly and social gatherings of intellectuals. These sittings (majalis) can be seen in part as developments of the ancient Greek sympotic tradition and the broader Mediterranean tradition of learned debate or literary recitions in a semi-informal social setting. The competitive atmosphere of these learned social gatherings is strongly felt in the two recently discovered treatises discussed below.

These two texts deal with questions of natural history and dietetics respectively. They originated in the debate milieu of elite Abbasid society, where courtiers would engage in arguments in front of the caliph or other high-ranking officials. In the first epistle, the question under debate was why one sometimes undresses in order to cool off and at other times covers oneself to achieve the same result (for instance, in order to protect the body from the sun). The second epistle passionately defends the benefits of eating mulberries after watermelon.

Both epistles have hitherto only been known from the bio-bibliographical literature. (2) The first is mentioned in Ibn al-Nadim's Fihrist in the list of al-Razi's publications as Kitab al-Ta'arri wa-l-tadaththur (Book on Getting Naked and Covering Oneself); (3) in Ibn Abi Usaybi'a as Fi l-'llati llatl yudfa'u harru l-hawa'i marratan bi-l-takashshufi wa-marratan bi-l-tadaththur (On the Reason Why Warmth Is Sometimes Dispelled by Uncovering Oneself and Sometimes by Covering Oneself); (4) and with nearly the same title in al-Biruni, which suggests that Ibn Abi Usaybi'a based his information about the title on al-Biruni. (5) The second epistle is recorded in Ibn al-Nadim as al-Radd 'ala Jarir al-tabib fima khalafa fihi min amr al-tut al-shami bi-'aqibi l-bittikh (A Refutation of Jarir, the Physician, Regarding His Divergent Opinion about the Matter of [Eating] Mulberries after Watermelons); (6) al-Biruni cites it as Flma jam baynahu wa-bayna Jarir al-tabib fi l-tut 'aqiba l-bittikh (On the Discussion between Him [sc. al-Razi] and Jarir, the Physician, about [Eating] Mulberries after Watermelons); (7) and Ibn Abi Usaybi'a has an even more complete title: Maqalatun abana fiha khata' Jarir al-tabib fi inkarihi mishwaratahu 'ala l-amir Ahmad ibn Isma'il (A Treatise in Which He [sc. al-Razi] Demonstrates the Error of Jarir, the Physician, When He Invalidated His [sc. …

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