Al-RAZI (Rhazes)

al-RAZI, Abu Bakr Muhammad b. Zakariyya', known to the Latins as Rhazes
(ca.250/854-313/925 or 323/935), physician, philosopher and alchemist.

The most free-thinking of the major philosophers of Islam, al-Razi was born in Rayy, where he
was well trained in the Greek sciences. He was reputedly well versed in musical theory and
performance before becoming a physician. His work in alchemy takes a new, more empirical
and naturalistic approach than that of the Greeks or "abir, and he brought the same empirical
spirit to medicine. Immersed in the Galenic tradition, and apparently even conversant with
Greek (al-Biruni ascribes to him translations and abridgements from the Greek and even a poem
'in the Greek language'), al-Razi greatly profited from the Arabic translations of Greek medical
and philosophical texts. He headed the hospital of Rayy before assuming the corresponding post
in Baghdad. His property in the vicinity seems to have brought him back often to Rayy, and he
died there, somewhat embittered and alienated, partly by the loss of his eyesight. Like many of
the great physicians of Islam,qal-Razi was a courtier as well as a scholar, clinician and teacher.
His medical handbook the Mansuri, translated into Latin by Gerard of Cremona in the 12th
century, was dedicated to Mansur b. Ishaq, the Samanid governor of Rayy; his Mulukior Regius, to
'Ali b. Wahsudhan of Tabaristan. The author of some two hundred books, al-Razi claims in his
apologia, the Sira al-falsafiyya, or 'Philosophical Way of Life', that his has been a life of
moderation, excessive only in his devotion to learning; he associated with princes never as a
man at arms or an officer of state but always, and only, as a physician and a friend. He was
constantly writing. In one year, he urges, he wrote over twenty thousand pages, 'in a hand like
an amulet maker's.' Others remark on his generosity and compassion, seeing that the poor
among his patients were properly fed and given adequate nursing care. Arriving patients first
saw an outer circle of disciples, and then an inner circle, if these could not aid them, leaving
al-Razi himself to treat the hardest cases. His medical research was similarly methodical, as
revealed in his notebooks. These were edited, in some 25 volumes, as the K. al-Hawi fi 'l-tibb, at
the instance of Ibn al-'Amid [q.v.], the vizier of Rukn al-Dawla [q.v.]. Translated as the
Continensin 1279 by the Jewish physician Faradj b. Salim (known as Farraguth) for King Charles
of Anjou, it was printed at Brescia in 1486 and repeatedly thereafter. The text (Haydarabad
1955) contains al-Razi's extensive notes from a wide range of sources, organised anatomically,
from head to toe. His own clinical observations, often at variance with received opinions,
typically close the sections. Al-Razi mined these files for his numerous medical works, and several
unfinished works can be discerned in the Hawiin embryo. His magnum opus, the Kitab
al-"ami' al-kabir, or 'Great Medical Compendium', often confused with the Hawi, was a work
that al-Razi published, not the corpus of his private files. Among the most famous of his medical
writings are those on Stones in the kidney and bladder(K. al-Hasa fi 'l-kula wa 'l-mathana) and Smallpox
and measles(K. al-"adari wa 'l-hasba). The latter was the first book on smallpox, and was translated
over a dozen times into Latin and other European languages. Its lack of dogmatism and its
Hippocratic reliance on clinical observation typify al-Razi's medical methods. His independent
mind is strikingly revealed in his Shukuk 'ala "alinusor 'Doubts about Galen'. Here al-Razi rejects
claims of Galen's, from the alleged superiority of the Greek language to many of his
cosmological and medical views. He places medicine within philosophy, inferring that sound
practice demands independent thinking. His own clinical records, he reports, do not confirm
Galen's descriptions of the course of a fever. And in some cases he finds that his clinical
experience exceeds Galen's. He rejects the notion, central to the theory of humours, that the
body is warmed or cooled only by warmer or cooler bodies; for 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 own warmth or coldness. This line of criticism has the potential, in
time, to bring down the whole theory of humours and the scheme of the four elements, on
which it was grounded. Al-Razi's alchemy, like his medical thinking, struggles within the cocoon
of hylomorphism. It dismisses the idea of potions and dispenses with an appeal to magic, if
magic means reliance on symbols as causes. But al-Razi does not reject the idea that there are
wonders in the sense of unexplained phenomena in nature. His alchemical stockroom,
accordingly, is enriched with the products of Persian mining andqmanufacture, and the
Chinese discovery, sal ammoniac. Still reliant on the idea of dominant forms or essences and
thus on the Neoplatonic conception of causality as inherently intellectual rather than
mechanical, al-Razi's alchemy nonetheless brings to the fore such empiric qualities as salinity
and inflammability-the latter ascribed to 'oiliness' and 'sulphuriousness'. Such properties are
not readily explained by the traditional fire, water, earth and air schematism, as al-óhazali and
other later comers, primed by thoughts like al-Razi's, were quick to note.

Like Galen, al-Razi was speculatively interested in the art and profession of medicine. He wrote
essays on such subjects as 'The reasons for people's preference of inferior physicians,' 'A
mistaken view of the function of the physician,' 'Why some people leave a physician if he is
intelligent,' 'That an intelligent physician cannot heal all diseases, since that is not possible,'
and 'Why ignorant physicians, common folk, and women in the cities are more successful than
scientists in treating certain diseases-and the physician's excuse for this.' He also shared
Galen's interest in philosophy and heeded his treatise, 'That the outstanding physician must
also be a philosopher.' Al-Biruni lists some eighty philosophical titles in his al-Razi bibliography,
and al-Nadim lists dozens of his works on logic, cosmology, theology, mathematics and alchemy.
Given the general repugnance toward al-Razi's philosophical ideas among his contemporaries
and medieval successors, few of these works were copied. But fragments survive in quotations by
later authors, as do the Sira al-falsafiyyaand the Tibb al- ruhani, the 'Spiritual physick' or
'Psychological medicine,' which embodies al-Razi's largely Epicurean ethical system. Among
the writings of which we have mention are: a commentary on Plato's Timaeus, perhaps based on
the epitome of Galen, a rebuttal of Iamblichus' response to Porphyry's Letter to Anebos(that is, the
De mysteriis), an appraisal of the qur'an, a critique of Mu'tazilism, another on the infallible Isma'ili
Imam, a work on how to measure intelligence, an introduction to and vindication of algebra, a
defence of the incorporeality of the soul, a debate with a Manichaean, and an explanation of
the difficulty people have in accepting the sphericity of the earth when they are not trained in
rigorous demonstration. Other works deal with eros, coitus, nudity and clothing, the fatal effects
of the Simoom (or simply, of poisons, sumum, cf. Sezgin, GAS, iii, 289 no. 32) on animal life, the
seasons of autumn and spring, the wisdom of the Creator, and the reason for the creation of
savage beasts and reptiles. One work defends the proposition that God does not interfere with
the actions of other agents. Another rebuts the claim that the earth revolves. Al-Razi discussed
the innate or intrinsic character of motion, a sensitive point at the juncture between
Democritean and Aristotelian physics. He wrote several treatments of the nature of matter, and
one on the unseen causes of motion. His expose of the risks of ignoring the axioms of geometry
may aim at kalamdefenders of dimensionless atoms; and his book on the diagonal of the square
may have defended his own atomism against the ancient charge, first levelled at
Pythagoreanism, that atomism is refuted by the demonstrated incommensurability of a square's
side with its diagonal; for al-Razi's acceptance of the void and rejection of Aristotle's doctrine of
the relativity of space disarms that charge, since al-Razi's absolute space is a Euclidean
continuum and need not, like his matter, be composed of discrete, indivisible quanta.

The Tibb al-ruhani, written for al-Mansur as a com-qpanion to the Mansuri, develops a moderately
ascetic ideal of life from the premise that all pleasures presuppose a prior pain (or dislocation).
This means that peace of mind or lack of perturbation is the optimum of pleasure, as al-Razi
explains in his widely-cited lost work on pleasure. Pleasures cannot be amassed or hoarded, and
what some hedonists might think of as 'peak experiences' are reached only by traversing a
corresponding valley. To feed an appetite, moreover, is only to enlarge it. So the attempt to
maximise one's happiness by serving the appetites and passions is a self-defeating strategy, as
Plato showed when he argued that such a life is comparable to trying to carry water in a sieve.
Epicurus took that argument very much to heart when he sought to devise a hedonistic
alternative to the sybaritic outlook of the Cyrenaic philosophers, and al-Razi does so as well. His
ethical treatise follows al-Kindi's precedent in treating ethics as a kind of psychic medicine or
clinical psychology, an approach later used by Ibn Gabirol and Maimonides. But the basis of
the art in question, which is the Socratic tendance of the soul, is not primarily the Platonic
'second voyage,' the endeavour to flee to a higher world-although that theme is important to
al-Razi. Expressing grave doubts about the demonstrability of immortality, he falls back on the
less metaphysically demanding and more dialectically persuasive position that, if death is the
ultimate end of our existence, it is nothing to be feared but only a surcease of our pains and

Wisdom, then, springs not from the thought of death, as many philosophers and pious teachers
have supposed, but from overcoming that thought. For, even more than the appetites
themselves, the fear of death is the goad of the passions that hamper human rationality and
undermine human happiness. As al-Razi explains: 'As long as the fear of death persists, one will
incline away from reason and toward passion (hawa').' The argument is Epicurean. The passions
here, as in Epicurus, are thought of as neuroses, compulsions, pleasureless addictions, to use
al-Razi's description (his word for an addict is mudmin). The glutton, the miser, even the sexual
obsessive, are, by al-Razi's analysis, as much moved by the fear of death as by natural appetites.
For natural needs, as Epicurus would explain, are always in measure. The unwholesome excess
that makes vice a disease comes from the irrational and unselfconscious mental linking of
natural pleasures and gratifications with security, that is, a sense of freedom from the fear of
death. Ethics here becomes entirely prudential, as al-Razi's critics were not slow to note. If we
knew that our ultimate state was immortality, and the return of the soul in us to her true home,
our mad scrabbling after the surrogates of immortality would cease. But the fear of death 'can
never be banished altogether from the soul, unless one is certain that after death it shifts to a
better state.' And his conclusion is that it 'would require very lengthy argumentation, if one
sought proof rather than just allegations (¦habar). There really is no method whatever for
argument to adopt on this topic ... The subject is too elevated and too broad as well as too long.
... It would require examination of all faiths and rites that hold or imply beliefs about an afterlife
and a verdict as to which are true and which are false'-a task al-Razi has no immediate or
pressing intention of attempting. For practical purposes, then, he offers the Epicurean
consolation that death is nothing to us, if the soul is really mortal. What scripture has to say on
the subject is just another undemonstrated report, an unsubstantiated allegation. q

In his debates with an Isma'ili adversary, Abu Hatim al-Razi (d. 322/934 [q.v.]), chief lieutenant
to the Isma'ili da'iof Rayy, and later chief da'ihimself, al-Razi faces a Mu'tazili argument that
harks back to Stoic sources: God's mercy would not deny humanity the guidance of leaders
inspired with revealed knowledge of God's own will and His plan for human destiny. Al-Razi
answers that God has provided what we need to know, not in the arbitrary and divisive gift of
special revelation, which only foments bloodshed and contention, but in reason, which belongs
equally to all. Prophets are impostors, at best misled by the demonic shades of restless and
envious spirits. But ordinary men are fully capable of thinking for themselves and need no
guidance from another. One can see their intelligence and ingenuity in the crafts and devices
by which they get their living, for it is here that they apply their interest and their energy.
Intellectuals who have not devoted their energies, say, to mechanical devices would be baffled
by the skills and techniques of such men; but all human beings are capable of the independent
thinking that is so critical to human destiny. It is only because the philosopher has applied
himself to abstract speculations that he has attained some measure of understanding in
intellectual matters.

Asked if a philosopher can follow a prophetically revealed religion, al-Razi openly retorts: 'How
can anyone think philosophically while committed to those old wives' tales, founded on
contradictions, obdurate ignorance, and dogmatism (muqim 'ala 'l-i¦htilafat, musirr 'ala 'l-djahl wa
'l-taqlid)?' Al-Razi takes issue with ritualism for what he sees as its obsession with unseen and
unseeable sources of impurity; but he also combats the natural tendency of his contemporaries
to think of philosophy as a dogmatic school or even a sect, their expectation that a philosopher
should believe and behave as Socrates or Plato did. Like many philosophers, he has difficulty
explaining to others that philosophical disagreements and divergences of outlook are not a
scandal but a source of vitality. A philosopher, he urges, does not slavishly follow the actions and
ideas of some master. One learns from one's predecessors, to be sure, but the hope is to surpass
them. Al-Razi admits that he will never be a Socrates, and cautions against anyone's expecting
in short order to rival Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Theophrastus, Eudemus, Chrysippus,
Themistius or Alexander of Aphrodisias. But he also affirms a belief in progress, at least for
individuals, and denies that one is trapped within the teachings of the great founders of
traditions: 'You must realise,' he tells Abu Hatim, 'that every later philosopher who commits
himself creatively (idjtahada), diligently, and persistently to philosophical inquiry where subtle
difficulties have led his predecessors to disagree, will understand what they understood and
retain it, having a quick mind and much experience of thought and inquiry in other areas.
Rapidly mastering what his predecessors knew and grasping the lessons they afford, he readily
surpasses them. For inquiry, thought and originality make progress and improvement
iinevitable.' The smallest measure of original thought, even if it does not reach unrevisable
truth, al-Razi insists, helps to free the soul from its thrall in this world and secure for us that
immortality which was so wrongly described and so vainly promised by the prophets.

The Soul, al-Razi argues in such works as his Kitab al-'Ilm al-ilahior 'Theology', and On the five
eternals, both now lost, but well represented by fragments, paraphrases, descriptions and
refutations, was one ofqfive eternal things that antedate the cosmos. The other four were God,
matter, time and space. Space is the void. It may or may not have atoms in it. Time, like space,
is absolute, not relative to bodies in motion, as in Aristotle. Being absolute, time is eternal.
Motion is not. For matter, in itself, is inert; its motion stems from the activity of soul. Soul, the
world soul, initially stood apart from matter, in a spiritual realm of her own. She yearned,
however, to be embodied. And God, like a wise father, understanding that Soul learns only by
experience, allowed her to embroil herself here, as a king might allow his headstrong son into a
tempting but in many ways noxious garden, not out of ignorance, unconcern, or even
powerlessness or spite, but out of understanding that only through experience will the boy's
restlessness abate. In the case of Soul's entry into materiality, chaos was the first result, as she set
matter stirring in wild and disordered motion. God, in His grace, intervened, imparting
intelligence of His own to the world that Soul's impetuous desire had formed. As an immanent
principle, intelligence gave order to the world, stabilising its motions and rendering them
comprehensible. But it also gave understanding to the Soul itself, allowing her to recognise her
estrangement in this world and seek a return from exile. It is this striving for return that gives
meaning to all human strivings in the realm of life.

Only by such a theory, al-Razi insists, can creationists hope to overcome the elenchus of the
eternalists, who deny creation altogether. A quasi-gnostic quasi-Platonic formatio mundi, then,
not creatio ex nihilo, is the sole workable hypothesis which al-Razi can offer on behalf of the
world's temporal origination, as opposed to its eternal, Plotinian emanation or its perpetual
existence as a Democritean or Epicurean mechanism. Clearly the materialists, al-Razi reasons,
improperly ignore the life and intelligence that course through nature, giving directed and
stable movement to otherwise inert and passive matter. As for the Neoplatonic Aristotelians,
their theory of emanation leads them to fudge (as Aristotle had done) on the inertness of matter.
For, by treating the natural order as eternal, they seem to make motion and ordering form
inherent properties of matter, rather than imparted acts and powers, as Neoplatonic principles
should require. Only the affirmation of a temporal origin, which al-Razi unabashedly adopts
from scripture and from the concurring authority of Plato's Timaeus, seems to do justice to the
fact that nature's order is not intrinsic but imparted; and only a temporal creation does justice
to the unimpeded operation of the forces of nature and the self-governing actions of human
intelligence and will. For these gifts were given long ago and are not, as in Neoplatonism,
timelessly imparted without ever really departing from their Source.

But although creation involves a kind of gift, al-Razi cannot treat the act of creation as a sheer
act of grace, as many of his contemporaries might wish to do. His view that in this life evils
outweigh goods, endorsed by Epicurean concerns over the problem of evil, and by physiological
arguments about the ultimate prevalence of pain and suffering over peace and pleasure in all
sensate beings, press him toward the gnostic conclusion that creation is a tragedy or mistake.
Stopping short of such condemnation, al-Razi treats creation as a qualified evil: Life as a whole
and bodily existence in general represent a fall for the life-giving principle, the Soul. But the fall
is broken by the gift of intelligence. The crypt of the gnostic image has a skylight, through
which streams the light of day. There is an avenue of escape. And the Soul's fall,qneither
devised nor forced by God, is ascribed to her spontaneity, not to God's will or wisdom. It was
neither coerced and destined nor mandated by the very nature of intelligence, as though it were
(as in Neoplatonism) a demand of logic, but it was foreseen and tolerated by an all-seeing
wisdom. And the loss it brought about will be overcome.
(L.E. Goodman)


Works by al-Razi. A.J. Arberry (tr.), The Spiritual Physick of Rhazes, London 1950

W.A. Greenhill (tr.), A treatise on the smallpox and measles, London 1847

P. de Koning (tr.), Traite sur le calcul dans les reins et dans la vessie, Leiden 1896

P. Kraus (ed.), Abi Mohammadi Filii Zachariae Raghensis(Razis) opera philosophica fragmentaque quae
supersunt, Cairo 1939, Pars prior(all that was published), repr. Beirut 1973

M. Meyerhof, Thirty-three clinical observations by Rhazes[from theHawi], in Isis, xxiii (1935),
321-56, see also Aziz Pasha's synopses and discussions of the Hawi, in Bulletin of the Department of
the History of Medicine, Osmania Medical College, Haydarabad, i (1963), 163-87, ii (1964),
23-32, iii (1965), 220-5, etc.

J. Ruska (tr.), Al-Razi's Buch Geheimnis der Geheimnisse, Berlin 1937

M. Vazquez (ed. and tr.), Libro de la introduccion al arte de la medicina, Salamanca 1979.
Studies and sources. M. Azeez Pasha, Biographies of Unani[Greek] physicians found inAl-Hawi of
Rhazes, in Bulletin of the Indian Institute of the History of Medicine, vii (1977), 38-40

Biruni, Risala fi Fihrist kutub M. b. Zakariyya' al-Razi, ed. P. Kraus, Paris 1936, ed. with Persian
tr. M. Mohaghegh, Tehran 1984-5, partial German tr. Ruska in Isis, v (1922), 26-50

M. Fakhry, A tenth-century Arabic interpretation of Plato's Cosmology, in Journal of the History of
Philosophy, vi (1968), 15-22

D. Gutas, Notes and texts from Cairo mss. I. Addenda to P. Kraus' edition of Abu Bakr al-Razi'sTibb
al-Ruhani, in Arabica, xxiv (1977), 91-3

G. Hofmeister, Rasis' Traumlehre, in Archiv für Kulturgeschichte, li (1969), 137-59

Ibn al-qifti, Ta'ri¦h al-Hukama', ed. Lippert, 271-7

Ibn Abi Usaybi'a, 'Uyun al-anba', ed. Müller, i, 309-21

M. Gaudefroy-Demombynes, Er-Razi philosophe, d'apres des ouvrages recents, in RHR, cxxiv (1941),

L.E. Goodman, The Epicurean ethic of M. b. Zakariya' ar-Razi, in SI, xxxiv (1971), 5-26

idem, Razi's myth of the fall of the soul: its function in his philosophy, in G. Hourani (ed.), Essays on
Islamic philosophy and science, Albany 1975, 25-40

idem, Razi's psychology, in Philosophical Forum, iv (1972), 26-48

G. Heym, Al-Razi and alchemy, in Ambix, i (1938), 184-91

A.Z. Iskandar, The medical bibliography of al-Razi, in G. Hourani (ed.), op. cit., 41-6

Maimonides, Guide to the perplexed, ed. Munk, iii, 18

M. Mohaghegh, Notes on the'Spiritual Physick' of al-Razi, in SI, xxvi (1967), 5-22

idem, Razi'sKitab al-'Ilm al-Ilahi and the five eternals, in Abr-Nahrain, xiii (1973), 16-23

Nadim, Fihrist, ed. Flügel, 299-302, 358, tr. Bayard Dodge, New York 1970, 82, 377, 435, 599,

J.R. Partington, The chemistry of Razi, in Ambix, i (1938), 192-6

S. Pines, Razi, critique de Galien, in Actes du Septieme Congres International d'Histoire des Sciences,
Jerusalem 1953


idem, art. al-Razi, in Dictionary of Scientific Biography

Abu Hatim al-Razi, A'lam al-nubuwwa, ed. Salah al-Sawy, with an English introd. S.H. Nasr,
Tehran 1977, extracts tr. F. Brion, in Bulletin de Philosophie Medievale, xxviii (1986), 134-62

F. Rosenthal, Ar-Razi on the hidden illness, in Bulletin of the History of Medicine, lii (1978), 45-60

Ruska, Al-Razi als Chemiker, in Zeitschrift für Chemie(1922), 719-22

idem, in Isl., xxii (1935), 281-319, xxv (1939), 1-34, 191-3

idem, Al-Biruniqals Quelle für das Leben und die Schriften al-Razi's, in Isis, v (1923), 26-50

H. Said, Razi and treatment through nutritive correction, in Hamdard Islamicus, xix (1976), 113-20

Sezgin, GAS, iii, 274-94, iv, 275-82, v, 282, vi, 187-8, vii, 160, 271-2

O. Timkin, A medieval translation of Rhazes' Clinical observations, in Bulletin of the History of Medicine,
xii (1942), 102-17.

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Source: from the Encyclopedia of Islam --© 1999 Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden, The Netherlands