'Rhazes: The Thinking Western Physician' by Gennady Stolyarov II
The Liberal Institute

Rhazes: The Thinking Western Physician

The Dark Ages in Europe were a dismal atmosphere for methodical thought and its technological products. The barbarian hordes having overrun the Western Roman Empire, they destructed not merely the governmental and military structure of Classical civilization, but its cultural achievements as well. Few people in that dreary age would have exhibited basic literacy, not to mention knowledge of ingenious Greek philosophers such as Aristotle or medical pioneers such as Hippocrates.

Few people today would have been exposed to the legacies of Europe’s glorious antiquity were it not for the translations and scholarly extrapolations performed by Arabic researchers during the Middle East’s Golden Age lingering from about the eighth to the twelfth centuries A.D. One of the most prodigious figures during this period of mini-Enlightenment was Abu Bakr Muhammad bin Zakaria al-Razi, better known as Rhazes. The endeavors undertaken by this man centuries ahead of his time served to popularize and expand the Scientific Method within the field of medicine as well as devise a system which in many aspects served as a philosophy of reason.

Rhazes lived circa 854 to 935, a time period when Persian thinkers had only begun to rediscover and incorporate into their practices the accomplishments and techniques of Ancient Greek thinkers. Serving as the head of the hospital in his home city of Rayy and later in the Abbasid dynasty’s capital at Baghdad, he challenged the prevailing Dogmatic school of medicine, which professed as its mantra the strict deductibility of treatment methods. The Dogmatics had been ignorant of the discoveries of Hippocrates in the field some twelve centuries earlier, which involved a meticulous observation of the patient and his individual condition prior to administering treatment. While this may seem common sense in today’s world, many of Rhazes’ contemporaries had been entrenched in a stale mysticism which had carried over into early European medieval doctrines, accepting the ludicrous one-size-fits-all models of Galen who had postulated that the body of a human being would possess an identical structure to that of a pig (on which he had performed his only anatomies). Yet Rhazes’ thorough clinical records have demonstrated, for example, that Galen’s theories on the progression of a fever within a patient are flawed.

Galen’s core blunder had been the so-called theory of humors, which suggested that the body was possessed by four separate liquid substances whose balance was the key to health and normal temperature, and that the sole means of upsetting such a system was to introduce a liquid of a varying temperature into the organism, after which the resulting instability would bring about an increase or decrease in bodily heat identical to the temperature of the particular fluid. Rhazes, however, had experimentally proved that, in the words of I. E. Goodman, “a warm drink may heat the body to a degree much hotter than its own. Thus the drink must trigger a response rather than simply communicating its warmth and coldness.” This was the first step toward a comprehensive refutation of the entire theory of humors, which had been founded on the simplistic four elements scheme upheld by numerous ancients. Here Rhazes’ experiments in the field of alchemy served to furnish observations of such qualities within objects as “oiliness” and “sulphuriousness”, or inflammability and salinity, which were “not readily explained by the traditional fire, water, earth, and air schematism.” Rhazes opened the door to a far more complex and realistic conception of elemental makeup through a challenge posed to a set of blundering and empirically unwarranted speculations.

In the manner of numerous Greek thinkers, including Socrates and Aristotle, Rhazes rejected the mind-body dichotomy and pioneered the concept of mental health and self-esteem as essential to a patient’s welfare. This “sound mind, healthy body” connection prompted him to frequently communicate with his patients on a friendly level, encouraging them to heed his advice as a path to their recovery and bolstering their fortitude and determination to resist the illness and swiftly convalesce. He also advised for them a constant maintenance of their health, a revolutionary idea at the time, through a balanced diet and exercise, recognizing the impacts of nutrition and physical fitness on the organism’s durability and resistance to malfunction and disease. This is why his treatment always included fresh, quality food of diverse makeup. Simultaneously, his works in alchemy, serving as a supplement to his medical endeavors, caused him to reject a myriad of potions and “magical brews” which possessed no scientific merit and had frequently been employed due to a mere superstition. He was capable of distinguishing genuinely functional mixtures from pseudo-cures and even poisons, and was one of the first to write treatises on the harmful effects of the latter.

Rhazes’ hospitals produced remarkable rates of patient recovery particularly because of a soundly logical division of labor which employed two “circles” of his disciples. The first, moderately trained, would receive new patients and treat mild disorders, while the more severe cases would be passed to an inner and more proficient circle and the most difficult and peculiar problems would be treated by the master physician himself. This provided a challenging environment for all levels of doctors on Rhazes’ payroll and tested the limits of even the most skilled mind which was his. The physician’s training, he emphasized, does not halt at the time he obtains the license to practice, but must continue throughout his career to yield the most qualified doctor possible. He sponsored educational seminars and lectures, as well as the study of treatises and on-site training for his disciples while himself became immersed in systematizing his observations into a comprehensive medical encyclopedia, known as the al-Hawi, or “Comprehensive Work on Medicine”. The Medieval Europeans had managed to obtain a hold on its text and translate it only in 1279, and subsequently it served as a standard medical textbook in the Western world until the 1700s. Rhazes altogether had written over 50 medical works, the most notable among those being the Great Medical Compendium, Stones in the Kidney and Bladder, and Smallpox and Measles. Rhazes’ focus in the field was as expansive as the maladies which he had encountered in his patients.

One of Rhazes’ most notable approaches places yet another emphasis upon his rejection of the mind-body dichotomy and its consequence, the schism of theory and practice. This prodigious healer was also a prodigious thinker, emphasizing that the competent physician must also be a philosopher well versed in the fundamental questions concerning existence. He must be aware not merely of what he is doing, but why, implying an ethical foundation, as well as the general context of the universe in which he lives, implying a metaphysical one. His balanced diet theory was a result of his extrapolations on the doctrines of the Epicurean school, which saw happiness in measured, moderate quantities of life’s pleasures instead of excesses of such temptations as food and lust. Happiness, to Rhazes, was not a hedonistic anything-goes form of revelry, but a byproduct of rational, intellectual endeavors which yielded a comfortable existence wherein the organism progressed in its quality of life without being endangered by indulgence in destructive excesses. He realized that the mind, not unthinking whim, produces genuine pleasure and health, as only the thinking mind is capable of comprehending reality and utilize the data acquired for self-amelioration. Centuries before European Deists like Voltaire and Jefferson, Rhazes enunciated the belief that God does not intervene in worldly affairs directly or through other agents, and that He has left a structured universe for man as well as the ability to grasp it. Reason, not special revelation, he asserted, was the divine means of cognition, accessible to all men equally and granted solely based on the amount of one’s personal merit and the thoroughness of the attention one grants to his field of activity. He used as his example for this proposition the capacity of all people to specialize in various fields, both humanitarian and technological, wherein their success is determined not by revelation, but through study.

A knowable universe for man to utilize to his advantage lay at the root of his metaphysical and epistemological discoveries, which aimed ultimately to surpass the condition of one’s predecessors. He proclaimed the absolutism of Euclidean space and mechanical time as the commonsense basis for the world in which men lived, but resolved the dilemma of existent infinities by synthesizing this outlook with the atomic theory of Democritus, which recognized that matter existed in the form of indivisible and fathomable quanta (i.e. discrete entities). The continuity of space, however, holds due to a void, or a region lacking matter, which separates entities. This is remarkably close to the systems yielded by the discoveries of such later European scientists as John Dalton and the observational and theoretical works of modern astronomer Halton Arp and Objectivist philosopher Michael Miller. Progress, in the view of all these men, is not to be obstructed by a jumble of haphazard and contradictory relativistic assertions which result in metaphysical hodge-podge instead of a sturdy intellectual base. Even in regard to the task of the philosopher, Rhazes considered it to be progressing beyond the level of one’s teachers, expanding the accuracy and scope of one’s doctrine, and individually elevating oneself onto a higher intellectual plane.

Rhazes was a staunch foe of fanaticism and authoritarianism, as manifested by his outright opposition to all forms of mystical revelation and “insight”. He also recognized the flawed nature of religious texts, ritual practices, and fables, commenting on the matter, “How can anyone think philosophically while committed to those old wives’ tales founded on contradictions, obdurate ignorance, and dogmatism?” Ultimately this resulted in a judgment that no man was inherently superior to another, that distinction must be earned, not given via the favor of some cosmic (or earthly) bureaucrat. Rhazes believed ideological discourse and disagreement to be the most fruitful for an atmosphere of learning and progress, as they encouraged critical analysis and a reliance on no authority beyond that of one’s rational mind. His works, although not mentioning the concept overtly, hint at an early philosophy of individual rights. Nevertheless, this is one belief which we may soundly derive from his other doctrines and thereby conclude that on numerous crucial levels, Rhazes was an Objectivist!

Alas, the world of his time neglected to realize the marvelous treasure that was his work. Goodman reveals that “given the general repugnance toward al-Razi’s philosophical ideas among his contemporaries and Medieval successors, few of those works were copied.” The bumbling clerics with their flat-earth cosmology, Galenic physiology, and divine-right politics then possessed a tyrannical monopoly on learning and chose to disregard the forward-thinking discoveries of al-Razi in exchange for a mystic muck of censorship, bloodshed, and technological stagnation for some seven centuries, from 500 to 1200. When al-Hawi was at last translated into Latin, Thomas Aquinas was already working on introducing the antidote of Aristotelian reason into the poison of early militant Christianity, and the foundations of the Renaissance were already emerging. Five centuries were required to fully appreciate Rhazes’ insightful contributions, but today we may benefit from the fruits of his labor.

To physicians of modernity, Rhazes’ advice lingers in as potent a manner as ever. You, doctors of America, are facing an extraordinarily similar form of oppression today as statist Medicare bureaucrats are barring you from choosing your patients, your tools, and your methods, while New Left socialists curtail your rightful rewards for rendering services your patients would otherwise have been more than happy to pay for. You must become philosophers yourselves and wage a comprehensive ideological war against irrationalism, mysticism, altruism, and statism by embracing an objective metaphysics, a rational epistemology, an individualist ethics, and a laissez-faire politics. Like Rhazes, I urge you to become Objectivists. Your resources today are far more bountiful than his had been, and you have in your arsenal the works of another prodigious thinker, Ayn Rand. May it serve as a beacon of truth for you in your work and in defending the integrity thereof.

GENNADY STOLYAROV II is an award-winning poet, published novelist,
and wide-ranging entrepreneur; he is also the editor and publisher
of the magazine The Rational Argumentator

References Used

Ahmad, Brodsky, et al. 'World Cultures: A Global Mosaic,' Prentice Hall. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, 1996. “Muhammad al-Razi, Islamic Physician”. p. 574.

Bio-Bibliographies. “Razi, Abu Bakr Muhammad ibn Zakariya”. Available September 22, 2002: http://www.nlm.nih.gov/hmd/arabic/bioR.html

Goodman, I.E. Islamic Philosophy Online. “Al-Razi (Rhazes)”. Available September 22, 2002: http://www.muslimphilosophy.com/ei/razi.htm