The physician, scientist and philosopher, ‘Ali b. Sahl Rabban al-Tabari was the son of Sahl Sahl Rabban al-Tabari. ‘Ali was born into an educated and intellectual Christian family. He wrote many books on philosophy, medicine and religious matters. In particular, his Firdaws al-hikma is the first ever written medical encyclopaedia which incorporates all the branches of the medical sciences. This article demonstrates the significance of ‘Ali b. Sahl al-Tabari's contribution to Muslim heritage in terms of philosophical, religious and medical works. An extensive bibliography supports the arguments of the article and provides a solid basis for further reading.
Table of contents
Abū’l-Hasan ‘Ali ibn Sahl Rabbān (or Raban) al-Tabarī, son of Sahl Rabbān al-Tabarī is a notable 9th-century Muslim physician, psychologist and one of the first scholars who studied the comparative history of religions. He also produced one of the first encyclopaedic works on medicine. He lived more than seventy years and met with important figures such as Muslim Caliphs, governors and eminent scholars. He is one of the most controversial of scholars due to his family’s religious background and the books he composed on religious matters. In this study, the works of al-Tabarī will be analyzed in the light of new findings about his life and works.
Figure 1: The region of Tabaristan, today the north of Iran. (Source).
‘Alī b. Sahl Rabbān al-Tabarī was born into an intellectual Syriac Christian family in Marw in the region of Khurāsān (near present-day Tehran). We do not know the dates of his birth and death. His father, Sahl Rabbān al-Tabarī (d. c. 845-850), was a highly placed state official; he was an educated and respected member of the Christian Syriac community. His Uncle Abū Zakkār Yahyā b. al-Nu’man was also a distinguished scholar and the leader of the society of the time.
Professionally, Ali’s father Sahl was a successful scholar and skilled calligrapher. . Besides, he had a deep insight into the disciplines of astronomy, philosophy, mathematics and literature. He was also the first translator of Ptolemy’s Almagest into Arabic (c. 800) . Some complicated parts of the book which translators preceding him had failed to solve, were resolved by way his intellectual expertise. He wrote a scholarly commentary on the book, expounding some of the finer points that were not understood by previous translators.
Sahl received the title of Rabbān because of his vast learning and knowledge of medicine and philosophy. Since the title “Rabbān (rabbi)” was given to the Jewish religious leaders, most historians thought that this family was Jewish in origin. Additionally, his title is given differently in several writings. For instance, one of the oldest books of Islamic history, The History of Tabarī of al- Tabarī  (d. 922), while giving his name and family names as Ali b. Rabbān al-Nasrānī, Mas’ūdī mentions him as “Ali b. Zayd”. In Ibn al-Nadīm, he is called “Ali b. Sahl b. Rabbal” , whilst Yāqūt writes about him as “Ali b. Zayn” , and Ibn al-Qiftī as “Ali b. Rabbān” . The erroneous knowledge about his Jewish origin most probably goes back to what Ibn al-Qiftī said about him. He wrote that “Rabbān, as a Jewish physician from Tabarīstān, was very good on mathematics, astronomy, and Jewish religious law and he translated the philosophical texts from one language to the other. His son Ali was a famous physician, who went to Iraq and settled down in Samarra. The words al-Rabbān, al-Rabin and al-Rāab are names given to those who are the eminent Jewish theologians” .
On the other hand, Ali b. Rabbān very clearly described himself as a Christian in his book Kitāb al-Dīn wa al-Dawla. In Firdaws al-hikma, he also explains why his father got the title Rabbān and the meaning of it: “My father was one of scribes of Marw, noble, intelligent, kind, very good on the books of medicine and the philosophy. Medicine, as his family field has the priority. The aim of this was spiritual and religious satisfaction, not boasting and getting benefit from it. This is why he got the title Rabbān. The word Rabbān implies “our leader, our senior person and our teacher” . In his other book Al-Radd ‘alā al-Nāsārā he says that he lived as a Christian until the age of seventy when converted to Islam. In spite of the fact that some scholars mention him as a Jewish physician who wrote in Arabic, and some of them as just a Jewish scholar, when his known treatises were published, all these claims became academically invalidated.
The dates given for his birth and death in some modern studies are also erroneous. According to Brockelmann, for example, he was born in 192 H (808 CE), and according to Meyerhof in 193 H (809 CE). In a statement given in his Firdaws al-hikma, it was understood that he was born earlier. In this statement, he says that “when I was praying maghrib with my father, I saw a huge fire in the sky as a column shape. Just after this event, the ruler got into trouble and lost some of his territories”. Sources such as Ibn Al-Athīr and Ibn Kathīr say that this event occurred during the reign of Caliph Mahdī and that the relevant event occurred in 167 H (783-84 CE) to the ruler of Tabarīstān Wandad Khurmuz. Evidently, Ali b. Rabbān was of a certain age so that he could remember the event. Therefore, most probably he was born around 778-9 CE.
‘Alī b. Sahl Rabbān received his preliminary education in medical and natural sciences, calligraphy, mathematics, philosophy and literature from his father Sahl. Besides giving him a good education, his father taught him religion and philosophy. As one can understand through his works, in addition to Arabic, Persian and Syriac, he had also mastered the Hebrew and Greek languages to a high degree of proficiency. For example, he translated his own book Firdaws al-hikma written in Arabic into the Syriac language.
When he was ten years old, he was taken to Tabarīstān (henceforth al-Tabarī) by his father and he spent his early youth in Tabarīstān. The intellectual and pleasant atmosphere enabled him to devote his time to the study of a range of subjects including philosophy, medicine and religious, as well as various aspects of natural sciences.
After he had completed his education in Tabarīstān, he moved to Iraq in 813 when he was thirty years old. Because he had lived in Tabarīstān, he became known as al-Tabarī. When Māzyār b. Qārin was appointed as a governor of Tabarīstān in 825, he returned to Tabarīstān and entered Māzyār’s service as a scribe. During this time, he started to compose his Firdaws al-hikma which he finished in Samarra in 850.
His patron Māzyār unsuccessfully revolted against the caliph in 839, but was captured and executed. Al-Tabarī returned to Rayy and to his own job as a physician but after a while, he went again to Iraq and settled down in Samarra. Having been highly recommended to the caliph as a man of wisdom and intellectual and administrative ability, he was summoned by the ‘Abbasid Caliph al-Mu’tasim (833–842) to Baghdad to serve at the court. In a short time, Ali became one of the close friends of the Caliph, and became his diwān scribe. He continued in this job until the Caliph’s death in 842 and upon his death, he moved again to Samarra during the reign of Caliph al-Wathiq (842-847).
He returned to Baghdad and continued in court service again as a private physician and courtier under the new Caliph al-Mutawakkil (847-861). It was in his reign; however, that al-Tabarī was promoted to that of companion to the caliph and lasting fame was assured. Caliph al-Mutawakkil urged and encouraged him to embrace Islam and confess his faith openly. Hence he converted to Islam around 849-850, and was given a title as “Mawlā amīr al-mu’minīn” by the caliph. He praises the Caliph at the end of his book Kitāb al-Dīn wa al-Dawla. When he converted to Islam, his cultured and highly respected uncle, Abū Zakkār Yahya b. al-Nu’man tried repeatedly, but in vain, to persuade al-Tabarī to renounce his new faith and return to Christianity.
The date of al-Tabarī’s death is not cited. However, as he converted to Islam when he was seventy years old, during the reign of Caliph al-Mutawakkil, and he composed few books after that time, it can be deduced that he passed away after 864 in either Baghdad or Samarra.
Although few of them survive today, Al-Tabarī left twelve books. Most of them were on medicine. Besides medical science, he was also a master of philosophy, mathematics and astronomy.
3.1. Firdaws al-hikma (Paradise of Wisdom) (Arabic). (British Library Or. Arund. 41). This work also known as al-Kunnash al-hadrā was a system of medicine. It was completed around 850, the third year of the reign of Al-Mutawakkil, most probably before the author converted to Islam. We will analyze the book below in section 4.
3.2. Al-Radd ‘alā al-Nāsārā (Refutation of Christians), known also as al-Radd ‘alā asnāf al-Nāsārā and as al-Nasāyikh). (Arabic) (Suleymaniye Library, Sehid Ali Pasa, MS 1628). In the prologue of the book, the author says that he was born and used to live as a Christian and converted to Islam when he was seventy. It was written between 850 and 855. He explains why he composed this book saying that his only aim was to gain Allah’s consent and to warn the Christians. Because of his Christian roots, and as a Christian theologian , who can compare al-Qur’an and other divine books, his book has been accepted as the most successful of the books refuting the Christianity. This book was divided into five chapters.
Sāfī b. Assāl, a Copt wrote two refutations, titled al-Sahā’ih fī javābi al-Nasāikh and Nahj al-sabīl fī tahjīli muharrif al-Injīl (published in Cairo in 1926-1927 as a one volume.). Although there is no citation, when we compare it with al-Tabarī’s work the first one can be seen to be a refutation of the book of al-Tabārī. Al-Radd ‘alā al-Nāsārā was edited and published by I. A. Caliph and W. Kutsch. Khalil Samir, however, compared this book with Ibn Assal’s Refutation in an article and found that half of the book is missing. Khalil Samir wrote an article comparing the first book with al-Tabarī’s book and realized that most of al-Tabarī’s book is missing. He demonstrates that using Ibn Assāl’s treatise, one can complete the missing parts of the book.
3. 3. Kitāb al-Dīn wa al-Dawla (The Religion and the State/Empire) (Arabic) (John Ryland Library, MS 6131). Another book, Al-Tabarī’s best-known treatise, which deserves as much attention and consideration. Al-Tabarī composed this treatise after he converted to Islam around 855, to authenticate and testify that Islam is the true religion, Qur’an is the book of Allah and Prophet Muhammad is the last messenger. Since al-Mutawakkil encouraged him to compose this book, At-Tabarī dedicated this book, as he did with the Firdaws, to the Caliph. In this book, at-Tabarī praised the Prophet of Islam and the true message he brought from Allah. Muhammad, he affirmed, was mentioned very clearly by the ancient prophets divine book (the Old Testament and the New Testament (the Bible), ‘However, their statements were concealed and wrongly interpreted.
In terms of the content and the subjects, this book is superior to his al-Radd ‘alā al-Nāsārā. ādil Nuwayhiz edited and published the book with explanations. This book divided into a prologue, ten chapters and an epilogue. Since this book sheds considerable light on the life, religious beliefs, and philosophy of at-Tabarī, it seems of particular interest to the history of the ninth-century religious and philosophical thought in Islam, particularly in Iraq. This book of al-Tabarī was not widely circulated and its contents seem to have been overlooked by Muslim scholars and intellectuals. Tabarī’s polemics in this treatise shed considerable light on his life, beliefs, and philosophy, and reflect on religio-philosophical thought in ninth-century Islam.
3. 4. Hifz al-sihhah (On the Preservation of Health). This treatise is available in manuscript-form in the Library of Oxford University (Bodleian Library, Oxford, catalogue 1:578).
3. 5. Kitāb al-Lu’lu’a. It is a treatise on medicine. (Suleymaniye Library, Ayasofya MS 3724, ff. 238b-248a).
Other books were composed by Ali b. Rabbān, but none are extant today. Here is the list of them:
3. 6. Kitāb Manāfi’ al-at’ima wa al-ashriba wa al-‘aqākīr, (a work on the proper use of food, drink, and medicines)
3. 7. Kitāb al-ādāb wa al-Amsāl wa al-ādāb ‘alā mazāhib al-Fars wa al-Rūm wa al-Arab
3. 8. Nawādiru ahlu al-sharqiya wa nawādiru awsat al-nās wa nawādir al-sufla wa al-du’a (Translation of previous book).
3. 9. Kitābu Irfāq aI-hayāt
3. 10. Kitāb fī al-rukā (Book of Magic or Amulets)
3. 11. Kitāb al-hajāma (Treatise on Cupping)
3. 12. Kitāb fī tartīb al-‘Agdhiyah (“Treatise on the Preparation of Food”)
3. 13. Tuhfat al-Mulūk (“The Kings’ Present”)
3. 14. The Translation of Firdaws al-Hiqma in Syriac
3. 15. Kitāb al-īzāh min al-saman wa al-huzal wa tahayyuj al-bāh wa ibtāluhu
Figure 5: The figure of Ptolemy. (Source).
Al-Tabarī started this book almost two decades earlier after reading the available medical texts on each subject. This is the work on which his fame rest. It is the first ever-Medical encyclopaedia, which incorporates all the then available branches of medical science.. The virtue of at-Tabarī’s book was the abstraction of essential information from these Syriac texts, as well as from Greek and Indian compendiums, and compiling all the information and abstracts into a manageable concise volume, which embraced the whole field of medical knowledge. It is particularly known for its extensive treatment of anatomy. His work contains not only chapters on general cosmological principles and all the branches of medicine, but also a special section devoted to Indian medicine (In his quotations and discussions of Indian medicine, he refers to Indian physicians such as Susruta, Charaka, Nidana and Ashtangahradaya). He relied on the Hippocratic corpus and the writings of Hippocrates, Galen, Dioscorides, Pythagoras, Democritus, Aristotle, Theophrastus and Ptolemy. He also made reference to the outstanding contributions of two of his contemporary colleagues Yuhanna b. Masawayh (d. 857), the caliph’s own physician, and Hunayn b. Ishaq (d. 873). At-Tabarī, moreover, emphasized the strong ties between psychology and medicine and also emphasized psychotherapy and urged the physician to be smart, witty, and able to inspire and encourage his patient to feel better.
As a medical text for students of medicine and practitioners, Firdaws is one of the most important sources for early Islamic medicine towards the end of the translation period. Al-Tabarī spent a very long time on this work which he started to compose when he was in Marw, and completed in Samarra. However, he wrote it in Arabic but simultaneously translated it into the Syriac language.
There are seven main chapters (naw’), 30 sections (makala) and 365 parts (bāb). It contains much information belonging to Indian, Persian, Greek and Arabic medicine. It deals with paediatrics and child development in depth, as well as psychology and psychotherapy. Unlike earlier physicians, however, al-Tabarī emphasized strong ties between psychology and medicine, and the need of psychotherapy and counselling in the therapeutic treatment of patients.
At-Tabarī also devoted several chapters in Firdaws al-hikma to discussions on embryology, gynaecology, and obstetrics – being all branches of the healing art. Some sections were also devoted to plants and their medical benefits, which is very new in Arabic medicine. The Firdaws al-hikma is noteworthy from this point of view as are several treaties of Hunayn ibn Ishāq and during the following century Ibn Juljul and ‘Ali ibn ‘Abbās al-Majūsī marking the transition between the translation phase and the phase of originality of Islamic medicine started by Al Rāzī.
As a medical encyclopaedia, it quickly became a model for later physicians including al-Majūsī, followed by original contributions from Abū Bakr al-Rāzī (H. 250-312/AD 865-925), Ibn Sīnā and al-Bīrūnī that influenced Eastern and Western medical circles for several centuries. From the writings of al-Razi, it is obvious that he benefitted from the works of al-Tabarī and quoted them repeatedly. Although some scholars claimed that al-Rāzī was educated by al-Tabarī, this could not have been so since al-Tabarī had already been dead by the time of al-Rāzī.
Although some scholars including Ibn al-Nadīm and Ibn Al-Qiftī claimed that al-Tabarī has another work named al-Kunnāsh al-Khudrā, this is the other title of the Firdaws al-hikma. Thus, in the beginning of the work he says that “the name of the al-Kunnāsh is Firdaws al-hikma, and its nickname is Bahr al-manafī’ wa shams al-ādāb.” It is clear that there is no other work named al-Kunnāsh.
Following are the details of its all seven naw’ (part):
1. Naw’ one: Kulliyat-i Tibb. This volume discusses contemporary knowledge of medical science. In that era, these principles formed the basis of medical science. It is the introduction to the encyclopaedia and contains some philosophical descriptions as well.
2. Naw’ two: Elucidation of the organs of the human body, rules for keeping good health and comprehensive account of certain muscular diseases. Contains five maqalas and information about the care of the health (preservation of health).
3. Naw’ three: Contains one maqala. Discussion and description of diet for good health and prevention of diseases.
4. Naw’ four: Consultation (discussion) of all human diseases. In addition to information derived from ancient medicine, in this chapter he also added his own observations and interpretations. It is the largest and most significant volume, nearly half the size of the whole book, and comprises twelve sections (maqalas):
a. General causes relating to eruption of diseases
b. Diseases of the head and the brain
c. Diseases relating to the eye, nose, ear, mouth and the teeth
d. Muscular diseases (paralysis and spasm)
e. Diseases of the regions of the chest, throat and the lungs
f. Diseases of the abdomen
g. Diseases of the liver
h. Diseases of gallbladder and spleen
i. Intestinal diseases
j. Different kinds of fever
k. Miscellaneous diseases-Brief explanation of organs of the body
l. Examination of pulse and urine.
5. Naw’ five: Description of flavour, taste and colour and also relations between foods and the body.
6. Naw’ six: descriptions on herbal medicines, drugs and poisons. Comprises six maqalas.
7. Naw’ seven: Deals with miscellaneous topics. Discusses climate and astronomy. Also contains a brief mention of Indian medicine. Comprises four sections.
In this book, the ethical advice of Al-Tabarī takes a prominent place. He insisted that the conduct of practitioners should be as high as their calling. Those aspiring to be practising health professionals, he contended, should acquire four virtues essential in their everyday activity: gentleness, contentment, pity, and uprightness. In serving his patient, the physician’s primary objective should be helping the sick rather than seeking monetary gain.
Muhammad Zubair al-Siddiqī compared and edited the original manuscripts and published it in 1928, in Berlin under the Firdaws al-hikma fī al-tibb. Prior to this publication, only five of his manuscripts were to be found scattered in libraries all over the world. In his prologue, he has provided extremely useful information regarding the book and the author. Wherever necessary, explanatory notes have been added to facilitate publication of this work to modern publishing standards. Fuat Sezgin republished this book with and introduction .
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* Senior Researcher at the Foundation for Science, Technology and Civilisation (FSTC), UK.