The jurist, poet, and scholar Baha Al-Din Ibn Shaddad (بهاء الدين ابن شداد) was born in the city of Mosul, Iraq in 1145. He was a close friend of the famed commander and statesman Saladin, and wrote a highly valued biography of that eminent conqueror. He served for a time as the qadi (judge) of Aleppo, and in this capacity had much opportunity to acquaint himself to the realities of human behavior; it seems that, no matter the country or culture, career lawyers and judges make remarkably astute observers. Ibn Shaddad’s biographer Ibn Khallikan says that the judge often liked to quote this line of verse from the poet Ibn Al-Fadl (known as Surr-Durr):
The promises made by them in the sands of the desert have been broken: so fails whatever is built upon sand. [IV.425]
What he meant by this, of course, is that whatever has been built on an unreliable foundation cannot endure. Ibn Shaddad also liked to relate the following anecdote as an instructional lesson for his students. He would tell that when he was at Nizamiya College in Baghdad, four or five of his fellow law-students decided to ingest some pieces of the belador nut (بلاذر) in order to enhance their powers of comprehension and memory. This nut is known modernly as the fruit of the semecarpus anacardium plant, and is a relative of the cashew; it has played a role in traditional Persian medicine as a sexual stimulant and a cure for digestive diseases. It has other remedial properties as well, which we will discuss shortly. But to return to our anecdote. The students purchased the nuts and made a decoction from them, which they then drank; all of them suffered serious effects, as the drug taken in large doses can be harmful.
One of the group, a very tall man, returned to the college a few days later, completely naked except for a high-peaked cap that had a piece of fabric dangling down his back as far as his ankles. His demeanor was calm and tranquil, and he spoke little. Someone asked him what had happened, and he said, “My friends and I drank belador, and they lost their powers of reason, while I retained mine.” He was unaware of his condition and behavior; even though everyone was laughing at him, he seemed unperturbed, convinced in his belief that he had achieved a higher state of cognition. Convinced of his own wisdom and rectitude, he was blind to how he actually appeared before the world.
So it often happens, Ibn Shaddad reminded his students, that those who believe they have attained enlightenment, have in fact succeeded only in immersing themselves in befuddlement. An interesting footnote to this story is the fact that the belador nut may contain a substance useful in treating Alzheimer’s Disease. A medical research paper entitled Treatment of Alzheimer’s Disease in Iranian Traditional Medicine (Ahamdian-Attari et. al., Iranian Red Crescent Medical Journal, 24 Dec 2014) contains some fascinating information on this topic. So much of modern discovery is but rediscovery.
The line between curing and damaging can be a fine one in medicine, as in life in general. I remember recently reading an interesting account in the travels of Ibn Battuta about how one of his companions dealt with a snakebite in the Sahara. This is what happened as his caravan was traveling through what is now Mali and Mauretania in the early 1350s:
There was in the caravan a merchant of Tilimsan [Tlemcen] who had a habit of taking hold of these snakes [i.e., desert horned vipers] and playing about with them. I had told him not to do this, but he did not stop. One day he put his hand into a lizard’s hole to pull it out and found a snake there instead. He grasped it in his hand and was going to mount his horse but it bit the index finger of his right hand, giving him severe pain. It was cauterized, but in the evening the pain grew worse, so he cut the throat of a camel and put his hand in its stomach and left it there for the night. The flesh of his finger dropped off and he cut off his finger at the base. The Massufah [a tribe living in the region] told me that the snake had drunk water before biting him; if not the bite would have killed him. [Trans. by H. Gibb & C.F. Beckingham]
What I find fascinating about this anecdote is the remedy Ibn Battuta mentions for snakebite: the inserting of the affected body part in the cavity of the camel’s stomach. Why would this be effective? Unfortunately neither the author nor the editor of the translation provide any clue; we are told in a footnote, however, that “apparently a similar treatment, involving the warm stomach of a chicken, is still practiced in the Setif region of Algeria.” So here we have evidence of some kind of traditional remedy for snakebite in which the bitten body part is placed inside a freshly-slaughtered animal. Do the bodies of animals have some sort of anti-venom properties? Or do the animals’ stomach acids counteract the snake’s venom? It is not entirely clear to me, as there appears to be little discussion of the topic. In a paper entitled Life-threatening Envenoming by the Saharan Horned Viper (Cerastes cerastes) Causing Micro-angiopathic Haemolysis, Coagulopathy and Acute Renal Failure: Cases and Review (Schneeman et al, QJM: An International Journal of Medicine, Volume 97, Issue 11, Nov. 2004, pp. 717–727). This article contained the following passage, which mirrors the remedy described by Ibn Battuta:
Guyon (1862) described two cases in Laghouat, Algeria treated by local incisions and instillation and ingestion of ammoniacals. One man, bitten on the foot, had been subjected to a traditional remedy of having the bitten part placed inside the abdomen of a freshly-killed dog. He developed local swelling up to the knee and, 4 days later, hemiparesis and difficulty speaking, attributable to a stroke.
The people of the Sahara must have been aware that the internal organs of animals, or their blood, had some kind of restorative power in cases of snakebite. It is regrettable that the subject has apparently not been studied in detail. Perhaps the blood of animals living in the desert contain natural anti-venoms: a recent article called “Camels Could Hold Key to Better Cure for Snakebites,” appearing in the United Arab Emirates The National on March 24, 2010, states that “because of the harsh environment in which camels live, they produce better antibodies than horses and sheep, according to Dr Ulrich Wernery, the scientific director of the Central Veterinary Research Laboratory (CVRL) in Dubai.”
As we noted above, there can be a fine line between remedies and detriments. What one man considers a remedy, may in fact prove to be little more than a delusion. Life will run its course; it may be delayed and prolonged, but the end result will always be the same destination. The elevation of scientific or medical factors ahead of moral elements is a particular disease of our modern age: we believe that, simply because we are in possession of technology and science superior to those of our ancestors, we can ignore the moral lessons that they considered decisive in human affairs. And they were correct; technology and science can never, solely by themselves, produce a strong, resilient society. As we once pointed out in Thirty-Seven:
Man + Technology = 0.
Far better is it to understand the moral factors that produce an ethic of courage and resilience. Consider, then, this speech by Mundila, a bodyguard of the Roman general Belisarius, to his men in 539 A.D., as recorded by the Greek historian Procopius in his Wars (VI.21):
If ever any people had the chance to save their lives with disgrace but chose rather to die with good fame and abandon their immediate safety for a glorious end of life, such men I would wish you also to be at the present time. Do not try to save your life even if it means bringing shame upon yourselves, which is also contrary to the teachings of Belisarius, which you have followed for a long time, so that for you to be anything but noble and extremely courageous is sacrilege. All people who are born face a single fate—to die at the appointed time. But in the manner of their death men differ greatly from each other. The difference is that cowards, as one might expect, always bring insult and ridicule from their enemies upon themselves and then, at the exact time designed by heaven, fulfill their destiny no less than the others; but noble men endure this with virtue and an abundance of glory. [Trans. by H. Dewing]
So it always has been true, and forever will be so. Remember, reader, the admonition we mentioned at the outset: that which has been constructed on an edifice of sand cannot endure.
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