Be Scrupulous About What You Write: The Lesson Of Rhazes

Abū Bakr Muhammad ibn Zakariyyā al-Rāzī (known in the West by his Latinized name Rhazes) is considered one of the most original and accomplished of the medieval Muslim physicians.  An impressive list of achievements is linked to his name: he pioneered the study of pediatrics, ophthalmology, synthesized laboratory acids, composed treatises on smallpox and measles, wrote voluminously in a number of scientific fields, and had extensive practical experience with treating patients.

He was born in 854 A.D. in the town of Rai in Persia, and was educated in Baghdad’s extensive network of hospitals.  His biographer Ibn Khallikan describes him in the following way:

In his youth, he played on the lute and cultivated vocal music, but, on reaching the age of manhood, he renounced these occupations, saying that music proceeding from between mustaches and a beard had no charms to recommenced it. Having then applied himself to the study of medicine and philosophy, he read the works on these subjects with the attention of a man who seeks to follow the author’s reasonings step by step; and he thus acquired a perfect acquaintance with the depths of these sciences and appropriated to himself whatever truths were contained in the treatises which he perused. He then commenced attending the sick and composed a great number of books on medicine.

Another writer says: “He was the ablest physician of that age and the most distinguished; a perfect master of the art of medicine, skilled in his practice and thoroughly grounded in its principles and rules. Pupils traveled from distant countries to receive the benefit of his tuition.” [Trans. by M. de Slane, Biog. Dict. III.312]

Rhazes’s great treatise Kitab al-Mansuri (كتاب المنصوري) contains a wealth of practical advice and was used as a standard text in European medical training for many centuries.  Some of his sayings are still valuable, among them the following:

When you can cure by a regimen, avoid having recourse to medicine; and when you can effect a cure with a simple medicine, avoid employing a compound one.

With a learned physician and an obedient patient, sickness soon disappears.

Treat an incipient malady with remedies which will not prostrate the strength.

In his own charming way, our faithful guide Ibn Khallikan ignores nearly all of Rhazes’s scientific and medical accomplishments, choosing instead to repeat amusing anecdotes about his life.  Like all anecdotes in Arabic literature, it houses a moral lesson, even if the story itself may be apocryphal.  The following story, says Ibn Khallikan, is related by the Spanish historian of medicine Ibn Juljul in his work Generations of Physicians and Wise Men (طبقات الأطباء والحكماء).

It is said that Rhazes, when he was an old man, composed an extended treatise on alchemy and decided to present it to one of the Saminid kings named Abu Salih al-Mansur, a prince of Khorasan, who was known to be an enthusiastic patron of the arts.  He was also a man of subtle cunning, and had a nose for chicanery.  Al-Mansur was greatly pleased on being presented with this work, and said to the old philosopher:

Your work on alchemy is exceedingly fine.  I am going to present you with a gift of one thousand dinars.  And I would like you to reproduce for me the thing you have described in this treatise.

Rhazes must have grown nervous at hearing this, for he tried to stall the prince by saying as follows:

That, sire, is a task for the execution of which ample funds are necessary, as also various implements and drugs of genuine quality; and all this must be done according to the rules of art.  So, the whole operation is one of great difficulty.

But the monarch was not to be put off.  He told Rhazes, “Everything that you need will be furnished to you, so that you can bring about what you describe in this book.  You will want for nothing.”  Seeing that there was no way to wriggle out of what he was asked to do, he confessed to Al-Mansur that he would not be able to do it.  The prince said to him sternly:

I should never have thought a philosopher capable of deliberate falsehood in a work represented by him as a scientific treatise, and which will engage people’s hearts in a labor from which they can draw no advantage.  I have given you one thousand dinars as reward for this visit and the trouble which you have taken, but I shall assuredly punish you for committing a deliberate falsehood.

With this, he hit Rhazes on the head with a whip and then sent him off to Baghdad “with a stock of provisions for the journey.”  This blow caused one of his eyes to swell, but Rhazes refused to have the boil lanced.  The reason, he said sadly, was that he “had seen enough of this world.”  He died soon after this.

Whether this pretty fable is true or a contrivance, we will let the reader decide.  Few would be able to doubt the validity of the tale’s moral, which is that we should pay scrupulous attention to what we write, and not put out demonstrable nonsense.  It is a lesson that unfortunately seems to have been lost on a great many.


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