The Scholars of Aleppo: Al Mahassin, Al Urdi, Al-Lubudi, Al-Halabi

by Salah Zaimeche Published on: 22nd March 2005

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The article describes the works of the following scholars: Al Mahassin: an eminent writer in the field of eye surgery, Al Urdi: the first astronomer associated with Maragha, Al-Lubudi: a physician, mathematician, astronomer and philosopher and Al-Halabi: an astonomer.

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Aleppo by Salah Zaimeche

Khalifa Ben Abi Al-Mahassin

Syria produced a number of eminent writers in the field of eye surgery, such as a certain Salah Al-Din, who wrote Kitab Nur Al-uyun wa-Jami Al-Funun (light of the eyes), which is most particularly interesting in its mentioning all preceding authorities and their works, including Ali.b. Isa, Ammar, Ibn Jazla… Better known, though, is Khalifa Ben Abi Al-Mahassin (13th century) of Aleppo, who is the author of a large work of 564 pages in which he describes and gives drawings of various surgical instruments including 36 instruments for eye surgery. He is known to us through his work containing 250 pp on eye surgery; the treatise entitled: Kitab Al-Kafi fi’l Kohl – “The Sufficient Book on the Collyrium”, where he mentions eighteen major ophthalmologic texts; his work was very practical, too, with very good descriptions of cataract operations, and the instruments used, and also the steps to be taken after the operation. A manuscript of it was written by another hand in 1275 (Currently at the BN of Paris); the author was a Muslim the copyist, Abd Al-Aziz, was a Christian.

Chapters in the treatise deal with diseases, their definitions, descriptions, varieties, causes, symptoms, treatment and medicines and cures for them. Some chapters deal with the qualities an eye surgeon must have, and also there is a chapter where surgery for the removal of the cataract is described in good detail, including the author’s own experience. The last one hundred pages of the manuscript deal with simples and diets. In the introduction the author cites all his predecessors in eye surgery. The authors cited represent diverse aspects of the science and Al-Mahassin’s aim was to provide a compilation of such issues. The treatise subdivides into two halves: Anatomy and therapeutic Hygiene and also includes a particular chapter for affections and treatment which is for general medical surgery. The work’s first main part on the anatomy of the eye is subdivided as follows:

  • Definition, colour of the eye.
  • Tunics of the eye;
  • The fluids of the eye.
  • Visual power and its nerves.
  • Motive nerves.
  • Muscles of the eye, eyelids and eyelashes.
  • The second part on treatment is also divided into six chapters:
  • Generalities.
  • Hygiene of the eye; things which are useful and things which are harmful.
  • How to open the eye and introduce drugs into it.
  • The best kind of probe and its use.
  • Tools for the handling of the collyria.
  • Best garments for the eye doctor.

The text generally consists of two vertical texts on the same page progressing in parallel. The illustrations found in the manuscript of this treatise are very remarkable, chiefly a schematic figure representing the brain with its membranes, together with the eyes and eye nerves (the latter are shown crossed; i.e. the right eye is controlled by the left part of the brain and vice versa). The schema of the brain and eyes occurs only in a late manuscript., but it goes back undoubtedly to an old Arabic tradition and it is the earliest drawing of its kind which has come down to us.

There are in the work synoptic tables relative to the diseases of the eyes and eyelids, giving for each disease the definition, description, varieties, causes, symptoms, treatments, drugs including narcotics; and other tables relative to surgical cases. Finally there is a list of drugs. The most remarkable synoptic table is the one related to instruments; each table contains 18 such instruments, with its name and its usage. The instruments are in colour, and perfectly drawn; some instruments are for the operations on cataracts, others for eye infections which do not affect the senses. The author himself is so confident in his own talents as eye surgeon, that he did not fear to operate the cataract of a one eyed man.

Al Urdi

Al Urdi (d. 1266) from Aleppo, is famed for his Kitab Al-Hayah (A Book on astronomy). He was the first astronomer associated with Maragha to initiate constructing planetary models. He built astronomical instruments and wrote The instruments of the observatory of Maragha. Al-Urdi is also an architect and engineer who began his technical career in Syria, doing some engineering (Hydraulic) work in Damascus and constructed an astronomical instrument for the King of Hims Al-Mansur Ibrahim (ruler of Hims 1239-45). Following the invasion of Syria by the Mongols in 1259-60, Al-Urdi was taken to Maragha to work in the observatory there. Al-Urdi’s description of the instruments at Maragha shows that the Muslims realised the need for precise instruments and methods; and much importance was attached to such matters as the stability and correctness of the instruments and of each of their parts. Al-Urdi also wrote two other treatises:

  • Risala fi amal Al-Kura (Construction of the perfect sphere)
  • On the Determination of the distance between the centre of the sun and the apogee.
  • Astronomical treatises and a treatise on Ptolemaic astronomy are also ascribed to him.

Ibn Al-Lubudi

Ibn Al-Lubudi was a physician, mathematician, astronomer and philosopher, born in Aleppo in 1210; died after 1267. He studied medicine in Damascus under the famed Al-Dakhwar, then Ibn Al-Lubudi entered the services of Mansur Ibrahim ruler of Hims (1239-45), and then Najm Eddin Ayyub appointed him government inspector in Alexandria, a post he later occupied in Syria after his return from Egypt.

Ibn Al-Lubudi wrote a number of medical works: treatises on rheumatism, on Hippocrat’s aphorisms, on the questions of Hunayn Ibn Ishaq. Only two of his works have survived: Collection of discussions relative to fifty psychological and medical questions (discussions which are merely theoretical not experimental); Commentary on the generalities (Kulliyat) of Ibn Sina’s Qanun.

The first work (Collection of discussions) is of interest here. This work is found in the Escurial in Madrid. In this work Al-Lubudi deals with such matters as:

  • Question 19: The body and its preservation depend upon blood exclusively, and not upon the four humours as held by the majority of scholars and philosophers.
  • Question 25: That contrary to what Galen holds, women do not produce sperm.
  • Question 27: that the movement of the arteries is proper to them and does not depend upon the movements of the heart.
  • Question 29: That the first limb that forms in the body is the heart, which is contrary to what Hippocrate holds, which in his opinion is the brain.
  • Question 34: That the bones forming the skull can grow into tumours.
  • Question 58: That in cases of extreme fever, releases are not advised.

Ibn Al-Lubidi’s mathematical writings include:

  • An extract from Euclid; An Arithmetical Textbook; A Treatise on Algebra.
  • He also compiled astronomical tables: Al-Zahir (the brilliant) extracted from the tables of Habash Al-Hasib who lived in the early 9th century; and al-Muqarab (the approximate) based on his observations.

In the year 1325, Ibn Sarraj flourished in Aleppo. He devised two kinds of universal astrolabes; developed several varieties of markings for the almucantar quadrant, and devised various highly ingenious trigonometric grids as alternatives to the simple sine quadrant.

Ahmad Al-Halabi

Ahmad Al-Halabi (d. 1455) is an astronomer from Aleppo. He wrote on instruments, including: Bughyat Al-Tulab fi’l amal bi rub Al-astrulab, which translates as Aims of pupils on operations with the quadrant of astrolabe, which can be located at Leyden (1001/8); Paris (2524/10); Princeton (Yehuda 1168), and the Garrett Collection; the description of the Leyden manuscript accomplished by Ruska and Hartner.

Another treatise of his is titled Nubdha fi’l amal bu jawdal Al-nisba Al-sittiniya, which is a concise exposition of operations with tables with sexagesimal ratio, which is now found at Oxford University (Oxford I 1035/1). A third treatise is on the operations with the sine quadrant titled: Risala fi’l amal bu rub Al-mujayyab, a treatise that can be located at Princeton University (Yehuda 1168, after A1). Al-Halabi also wrote Jadwal irtifa Al-kawakib Al-thabita inda tulu Al-Fajr (table of the fixed stars on the ascension of dawn) which is now at Cairo (Falak 8525/2), and a final work to mention here is his table for the Azimuth for the latitude of Damascus, which is also located in the same Cairo library.

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