Beauty, Hair and Body Care in the Canon of Ibn Sina

by Nil Sari Published on: 17th June 2005

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The seventh and last art mentioned in the fourth book of the Canon of Medicine by Ibn Sina is assigned to the theme of "zina", that is beauty and physical appearance. It consists of four articles dealing with appearance, beauty and hair and body care, as well as skin diseases and their treatment. Subjects such as obesity and emaciation that affect the appearance, and preventive methods and measures for all of these, are also discussed.

Professor Nil Sari*

Table of contents

1. Introduction
2. Hair care
3. Drugs protecting the hair
4. Skin care
5. Skin diseases
6. Emaciation
7. Conclusions
8. Glossary
9. Dictionaries Used in this Study


1. Introduction

The seventh and last art mentioned in the fourth book of the Canon is assigned to the topic of “zina” (“ziynet” in Turkish), that is physical appearance. It consists of four articles. Although the term “zina” calls to mind ornament and ornamentation, when we take a look at the text in the Canon, we may observe that it deals with appearance. That is to say the hair and body care; as well as skin diseases and their treatment. What is more, it also refers to subjects such as obesity and emaciation that affect the appearance, and preventive methods and measures for all of these are discussed.

This article is based on the Turkish version of the Canon [1]. It is important to note however, Mustafa b. Ahmed b. Huseyin of Tokat, who translated it into Turkish, in the 18th century, often used medical Arabic terminology and some idioms that may not be found in most contemporary Ottoman dictionaries. It is a literal translation, yet most of the terms of Arabic origin that are found in it have different meanings from those of today. For this reason, in order to comprehend thoroughly the medicine of Ibn Sina, we must first perform an exhaustive study of the meanings of the medical terms used in the medical literature of the period. Only after this may we wholly understand the old medical texts. If we cannot aptly comment on the theories regarding the etymology of illnesses or, in other terms, the “philosophy of medicine”, I believe that it will be impossible to thoroughly comprehend ancient medicine.

2. Hair care

In the first article of the chapter on “zina” matters about hair (sha’r) are studied, where all knowledge on hair, beard etc. are discussed under the title sha’r (hair).

What are the states of hair? In short, these are, respectively, the growing of hair and its “substance” or “factor” (jawhar), measures to be taken in order to prevent the shedding of hair and beard; getting the hair grow plentifully, suggestions on how to make strands thicker, softer and grow longer; besides the measures to be taken in dressing it, such as getting it smooth or curly, methods for changing the colour of the hair, for example, darkening it, dyeing it red, brown, etc.

All matters on the growth of hair, its illnesses, and treatment are explained according to humoral theory. It is difficult however to understand the medical meanings of some of the terms. Similar to other topics, this point is of importance in “zina.” For instance, the growing of hair depends on an agent (factor) called “buhâr-i duhânî” (meaning smoky or dry vapour), which is the substance (jawhar) of the hair. That is to say, the growing of hair, its abundance and thinness are connected with an agent (jawhar) referred to as “buhâr-i duhânî“. This smoke collects in the pores of the skin; sometimes hair grows with the help of other smokes. The surface from which hair grows is likened to the deciduous trees with fatty leaves. Akin to these, the place from where hair grows is greasy.

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Figure 1: A drawing of Ibn Sina.

When studying hair diseases, the lack or scarcity of hair, beard or body hair (butlan-i sha’r) are primarily discussed. Sometimes the lack of hair is due to a “substance” (matter, madde) and sometimes due to a factor in the place of hair growth. The substance affecting hair is “blood.” The cause of decreasing blood is an object (matter, nesne) which retains blood for a long time. Something connected with the “substance” which changes the character of the blood is, also, another cause of the lack or scarcity of hair.

Hair also lessens when the agent (jawhar), which is the active cause, growing hair (buhâr-i duhânî) decreases.

Scarce hair and the lack of beard in children and women is explained as follows: According to this theory, in children and women the “moist vapour” (ebhire-i ratbe) is more than the “dry vapour” (buhâr-i duhânî); and since the dry vapour, which is the agent of growing hair, is less in children and women they have little bodily hair and they cannot grow beards. Here, I liken the “dry vapour” to the masculine hormone (testosterone) and the “moist vapour” to the female hormone (estrogen). Without any technical facilities, Ibn Sina explained his successful observations by means of the medical theories of his period.

How does the agent (jawhar) of hair decrease? Sometimes it is acquired and sometimes it is hereditary. It is acquired during convalescence, since in chronically and emaciating (degenerating) diseases the “moistness” (rutûbet) is absorbed and as a result in those who are in the state of convalescence lessens. Thus, the nutrition nourishing the hair causes the hair to fall off and does not grow; just as in the case of plants growing when watered, dying off in draught.

Regarding those who are castrated, hair will not grow. Those castrated are similar to women in “moistness” and “coldness”. Since no sperm may be produced in their genitalia, the “innate moistness” accumulates and cools the body. In those castrated, only a very small portion of their moistness decomposes, and since the moisture that decomposes is very thin, it excretes through the pores. Owing to this, those castrated may find bodily hair does not grow. Today it is established that if castrated, testosterone secretion decreases.

Hair of those who continually cover their head also gets thinner.

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Figure 2: Illuminated opening of the first book of the Kitab al-Qanun fi al-tibb (The Canon on Medicine) by Ibn Sina. Undated, probably Iran, beginning of 15th century. (Source).

Hereditary scarcity of hair is seen in baldness, called sal’. Such hair loss results from the deficiency of the matter (substance), which means that the matter is insufficient.

There are three basic reasons for the failure of hair growth:

1. The “matter” of hair will not diffuse (penetrate) into the place where hair grows from.

2. The “matter” will penetrate into the place where hair grows from, but it will not remain there.

3. The “matter” of hair is spoiled, consequently it acquires a quality not suitable for the growth of hair.

The factors causing hair loss are discussed as follows. Baldness (sal’) develops faster in people with a “hot temperament.” Since the pores dry in men with “hot temperaments”, they tend to bald prior to others. It is hard to cure scarcity of hair in such people, because of the hotness of their humour. However, those with a predisposition for baldness have a lot of bodily hair on their chest and other parts of their bodies.

Hair loss develops because of the obstruction and blocking of the pores. For instance, scars of old wounds prevent hair growth. Baldness, called aqra’ develops in this way.

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Figure 3: First page of the Latin translation of the Canon: Liber Canonis, de Medicinis Cordialibus et Cantica, iam olim quidem a Gerardo Carmonensi ex arabico in latinum conversa (Source).

Yet, on occasion some substances (madde) penetrate into the place where hair grows from, these substances then expand the pores and therefore prevent hair from growing. This state dominates in those who do not have beards alongside those whose remaining hair is easily uprooted.

With regards to those who have “moistness” (rutubet, a kind of hormone) in their temperament, the “substance” (madde) of the hair is more able to feel the preventitive effects of healing from baldness. In this instance, the castrated man may be able to grow a beard and in women, hair loss can be healed.

But when the “substances” of hair are spoiled, in other words, when the “malign humour” (habîs hilt) develops, the growth of hair is inhibited (hindered). This is what happens in “dâü’l-hayye” and “dâü’s-sa’leb” and in worn away chronic ulcers. This is the case in some types of baldness (kar’).

Although it is hard to cure baldness, it can be cured in some cases. That is, if measures are taken prior baldness develops, it can be prevented or its occurrence may be delayed.

As we have seen, several different terms, such as ” sal’“, “kar’“, “asla’“, “akra’” and “dâü’s-sa’leb” are used to desribe baldness or hair loss. As it is understood from the term itself, “dâü’s-sa’leb” is an illness (alopecia areata: porrigo decalcans), as a result of which baldness (asla’) takes place. Thus, the bodily, head and beard hair of people who suffer from this disease sheds.

The hard and cartilaginous character of the places of which hair, eyebrows and eyelashes grow from tend to hold hair. Since the skin of people of African-Carribean origin is firmer, baldness is rarer in them. Hence, the firmness of their skin holds their hair securely and it is hard to pull their hair out. It is due to this same reason that people from African-Carribean origin tend to have thinner hair.

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Figure 4: An illustrated page of the Canon in a Hebrew translation. The miniatures shown here are the three basic stages of a physician’s visit with a patient: the examination of the patient, the consultation with attendants, and possibly a written prescription or treatment procedure. (Source).

After having discussed the causes of the scarcity or lack of hair and its symptoms Ibn Sina precedes to discuss medicine which protects and heals hair from diseases under the title “hair protecting medicine.”

The principles of healing are based on humoral theory. The medicine that protects hair must have an “inviting” pleasant temperature (hararet-i latîfe-i jazzabe) and a “retaining (astringent) force” (quvva-i kâbiza). When we study the drags for protecting hair, the names of which are given below, we note that almost all of them have astringent effects that is longlasting. Having astringent effects also aid the external healing of wounds. Whether doctors in times past had observed that astringents are effective drugs, as they have characteristics which externally heal wounds and grouped them under the title “the astringent force” (quvva-i kâbiza), is yet to be revealed.

3. Hair Protecting Drugs

“As”, “habbu’l-as”, “laden”, “emlec”, “halilec-i kabilf”, “murr-u sabir”, “barsiyavugan”, “afs” (sometimes useful owing to it’s astringent effect). “Filzaharac”, especially used with “Sharab-i kabz” (astringent syrup); or “duhn-i as”, “duhn-i mastaki” is used with “ma-i as” and “varak-i azad diraht usaresi”. Alternatively, “shecere-i bezir-i ketan” is burned seeds which release oil, this oil may then be rubbed in to the hair; “cevz-i kusuru muhreki” is mixed with “duhn-i as” and “Sarab-i kabiz” and rubbed in the hair, especially of children.

The following are examples of compound drugs (preparations) used for protecting hair and new hair growth as opposed to hair loss:
“Habbü’l-âs”, “afs” and “emlec” are cooked in “dühn-i verd” or “dübn-i âs.”

Another compound drug is composed of “âs’in varak-i ratbi”, “laden” “avsec”, “ezraf-i serv” and “habbü’l-âs.” These drugs are initially pounded in to a powder. The preparation is them mixed with olive oil and the head is wrapped (treated) with it.

Ibn Sina later mentions medicine for protecting eyebrows, aiding the hair to grow longer, preventing baldness and hair loss. Topics on beautifying and dressing hair follow, including; curling, smoothing, softening hair; preventing hair from turning grey; vitalizing hair, applying henna; dying hair to black, yellow or lightening the colour of hair. The first topic ends with the description and cure of the disease “huzaz“. The Ottoman dictionaries give “huzaz” as “konak“, (scurf) but “huzaz” may be a group type dedicated to skin diseases (lichen).

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Figure 5: The drawing of Ibn Sina on a Libyan stamp.

4. Skin care

In the second article on beauty, Ibn Sina deals with skin, the characteristics of colour and introduces the describing factors that lead to changing the colour of the skin.

The sun, cold, wind, old age, bathing rarely, consuming too much salty food, the changing of blood into bile (according to humoral theory) are all factors which Ibn Sina outlined darkened skin colour.

The following are factors which Ibn Sina indicated cause skin to become pale:

Illnesses, anxieties (“gumflm“), hunger, too much sexual intercourse, severe pain, exceedingly hot weather, drinking stagnant water[2], eating “nânhuvah“, taking vinegar regularly, consuming cumin in liquid form [3] and geophagia . Ibn Sina’s continues to state that geophagia blocks the lumen of the blood vessels; consequently preventing blood from reaching the skin. Here the disease Pica is also discussed. It is noteworthy to also mention that Ibn Sina observed the relation between geophagia and anaemia [4].

Ibn Sina subsequently introduces several types of drugs which aid the preservation  of skin colour by describing the dynamics leading to change and/or the brightening of skin. All drugs attracting the “blood” and “spirit” (ruh)[5] give skin colour  – making it pinkish, cleansed and glowing.

There are three ways in which blood is attracted to the skin:

1. Some drugs (“eshya“) beautify the colour of the skin by producing and increasing the amount of blood. The following produce “fine blood” (“dem-i rakik“) or “healthy blood” (“dem-i ceyyid“): Chickpea (nohud), soft boiled egg, meat broth (bouillon), sweet basil (reyhan) and a drink made from sweet basil and figs. When these food stuff are consumed, they develop into “fine blood” which penetrates into the skin and act as beautifiers of skin colour.

Ripe dried figs  and other fruit, but not overripe (busr), fruit , in particular dates are useful in improving the colour of the skin of the convalescent. These increase the amount of “fine blood” (dem-i latif) and natural body temperature (hararet-i gariziyye).

2. Some substances (eshya) such as “itrifîl-i sagîr” (clover) and “helilec murebbai” (fruit based gelatine) beautify the colour of the skin by the clearance of blood.

3. Substances such as “haltit (Asafoetida/digestive sedative), fulful (pepper), karanfil (Flos Caryophylli; acts as a stimulant/antiseptic/digestive), su’d (the corm and perfume of Cyperus rotundus ” are stimulants which diffuse in the blood. Hence, beautifying the colour of the skin as  they attract the blood outwards and dilate blood vessels (vasodilators). These should be added and taken with meals.

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Figure 6: The drawing of Ibn Sina on a Polish stamp.

Later, topics such as  sun and cold protection for the skin, the treatment of sunstroke; the cure of pock marks, skin diseases which alter skin colour such as “bahak” (vitiligo) alongside “baras” (achromic leprosy) and the differences among them along with their treatment are examined. For instance, Ibn Sina is of the opinion that “bahak” occurs on the skin but “baras” penetrates into the “flesh.”

5. Skin diseases

The third book explores skin diseases that cause blisters, pimples, pustules, boils, furuncles, ulcers etc.

One of the most pressing skin diseases discussed is that which causes sore blisters (büsûru karhiyye), or”sa’fe” (tinea). Indicators of “sa’fe” include miniscule itching blisters (büsûr-i mustahike-i hafife). These blisters appear scattered on different parts of the body. These blisters then take on a crusty red boil (kuruh-i hushk rîshte) form. On occasion, these suppurate and excrete pus. This is referred to as “shir-benc” and “moist sa’fe” (sa’fe-i ratbe).

The cause of sa’fe is once again outlined in terms of humoral theory. According to this, the malign (redie), acute (hadde) and irritating (ekkale) “moistness” (rutubet) diffuses in the blood.

At times this “unhealthy moistness” mixes with the defective, dense (crude) humours (ahlât-i galîze-i redîe). These combine to form a swelling (teverrum) mix which in turn dissolves the fine humour (hilt-i rakîk).

Occasionally,”dry kûbaiyye” (kûbaiyye-i yâbise) may occur and this type of disease get could get unexpectedly worse in winter, however, it can also heal just as quickly. The cause of the “dry kûbaiyye” is large amounts of black bile (hilt-i sevdâvi) mixing with “acrid moistness” (rutubet-i hirrîf) which diffuses in to the skin, spoiling and eroding it.

After having discussed the different types of “sa’fe” and having specified their method of treatment, Ibn Sina goes on to mention the disease “kubâ” (impetigo). In the Turkish translation of the Canon, it is said that “kubâ” means “temregi“(lichen). However,”temregi” most probably is identified as a different illness altogether. “Kubâ” differs from “sa’fe” in some minor regards. It is more similar to “dry sa’fe” (sa’fe-i yabise) than other types. The “dry sa’fe” is a highly malign type of “kubâ“. The cause of “kubâ” is similar to that of “sa’fe“, for the cause of “kubâ” is the acute (hadde) and acrid (hirrif) moistness (maiyyet); in “kubâ“, also, an amount of matter mixes with the “dense” (galiz) bile matter.

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Figure 7: Dar al-Shifa (Hospital) and patients inside (Sivas, Turkiye).

The characteristic of the type of “kubâ” of which the blisters heal quickly is that the thinness (rakîki) of its matter overcomes its thickness (galîz).

There is also a moist (ratb) and bloody (demevî) type of “kubâ” of which if blisters are scratched, a serous fluid secretes.

Additionally, there is also a “dry” (yâbis) type of “kubâ“, which is produced from the matter turning phlegm (balgam) into ” black bile” (sevda) through combustion (ihtirak).

Another kind of kubâ forms a crust because of the intensity of dryness (shiddet-i yubûset) and the depth of the sore (kesret-i gavr). This kind of kubâ is similar to “baras-i esved” (black leprosy; lepra nigricans) and “hushk-rishte[6].

Yet another kind of kubâ is one that does not form into a scab.

In short, there are different kinds of kubâ, some of which develop rapidly and spread all over the body (sat), some which do not spread (vâkif), while others appear later (hadis) and others  are chronic (muzmin).

In the Turkish translation, kubâ is defined as as “temriye” (lichen). Yet, as we have already seen, various skin diseases are mentioned under the title of kubâ  and the descriptions of them are very different from those in use today. As a result, we are not able to specify the clinical tables.

Kubâ is treated according to its etymology. In kubâ, primarily the “dense- matter” (galîz madde) occurs, leaving the “thin and inflammable matter” (madde-i hârre-i rakîka) to develop later. Alternatively, kubâ appears as a result of the prevalence of one of the two matters. For treatment, mixtures to remove the causes are prepared and measures expected to remove the cause that is predominant may be taken. Appying leeche (irsal-i alak), administering enema (tenkiye) and the cheese water (mâ-i cübn) also prove effective.

Moistening (rutubetlendirmek) is useful for healing. Here is the prescription for dressing the wound: 1 dirham of sabr (washed); and 3 ûkiyye (a measurement of weight about 1 ounce (28.3 grams); or about 4.5 ounces. (It changes from country to country it is used) of reyhan (cooked). If the disease is in its early stages and mild, some of the following simpler drugs (mufred devalar) may be administered:

Hummâz (sheep’s sorrel), utrûc (citrus fruits), zamk-i arabî (Arabic gum with vinegar), zamk-i levz (almond gum with vinegar), asel lebeni (the gum of styrax officinal with vinegar), hardal (mustard with vinegar), mâ-i kibrit (concentrated sulphuric acid), mâ-i mâlih (salty water), zebedü’1-bahr (L. Ossa sepiae, decapedae) etc.

Withstanding the simpler treatments, many compound drugs  may also be prescribed. Examples of that being, 1 dirham’s worth of zac, 1 kibrit, sabr, and zamk. , These drugs are then applied by rubbing them on (tilâ) with vinegar.

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Figure 8: Ibn Sina drawing by A. Suheyl Unver. (Source).

In the third article, besides the examples given, other skin diseases such as; blister based skin diseases; itching and its treatment; calluses and obtaining calluses; skin fissures in the lips, feet and between fingers; fissures and wounds resulting from lying in bed for lingering amounts of time; pungent smells radiating from skin, urine etc. and their treatment; becoming fatigued easily and its treatment are dealt with.

6. Emaciation

In the fourth article, with which the topic “zina” is discussed, subjects related with the body and limbs are studied.

To begin with, Ibn Sina explores the treatment of emaciation (izâleaü’l-hüzal). To achieve this, the causes of emaciation are determined and are defined as the following:

1. Failing to consume fattening food or eating too much “mülâttif” (attenuant) food that causes one to become underweight. Although we cannot describe the “gentle food” (latîf gida) specifically, one can deduce examples of “gentle food” (latîf gida) found in old medical manuscripts. According to these manuscripts the majority of vegetables, broth, egg yolk, radish, mustard, liver, piecles etc. are gentle (latîf) food which do not cause one to grow fat [7].

2. Blood attracting food that does not produce “uncontaminated blood” (dem-i zekî).

3. Insufficiency of potential energy (quvvat) contained in said food.

4. Digestion or the “attractive force” (quvva-i câzibe) [8] may be inefficient. These forces weaken because of the corrupted (fesâd) humour (mizac). Typically, the corrupt humour causing weakness is the “cold” humor (mizac-i barid). The cause of the weakness of the attractive force is “extreme inactivity” (kasrat-i sukûn); for when one is much too inactive, the “attractive force” becomes unresponsive and dormant. This condition is observed more frequently in those who have the habit of activating their function of attracting food by their own “attractive force” with the help of exercise, this is, sports. If such people remain in continuous inactivity, however moderate, (mutedil) the food they eat may be, the “attraction of food” by the attractive force weakens. Here the importance of sports is mentioned in the terms of feeding.

5. Splenomegali and resulting pressure on the liver is a cause of emaciation. As a result of spleenomegali, the attraction of the spleen is higher, compared to that of the liver. The liver organises inefficiently the food that diffuses in the body. This pressure causes the liver to weaken, rendering the “food” that flows out of the liver as insufficient. The loss of weight is related to the disturbance of the liver.

6. Helminths consumes the food that is to be used by the body.

7. Humours block the pores.

8. Other reasons of underlying emaciation include the pores and canals in the body being blocked. As a result, food cannot diffuse property into the organs, hence, consequently the food is unable to spread throughout the body, causing emaciation. The agents that cause the pores to be stopped consist of “heat, cold and dryness.”

9. Eating soil is a cause for emaciation.

10. Too much dissolution of the food (kesret-i tahallul): The food reaches the organs as intended, yet undergoes too much dissolution upon arrival. (This reminds us of the catabolism and metabolic reactions.) Emaciation may develop by partaking in heavy sports (riyazât-i seriâ), anxiety (hümûm), worries (gumûm) and consuming diseases.

It is possible for those who have become emaciated after a short period, may equally be able to gain weight on after a short period also. Those who have become emaciated after a long period however may require a longer time to gain weight. This is owing to their humours and ability to benefit from the more nutritious values of food may be low. Metabolic reactions once again seem to be the contributing factor.

Ibn Sina then proceeds to explore the reasons underlying why people may not wish to be underweight. According to Ibn Sina, underweight people tend to have thin skin. What is more, being mehzfil, or skin and bones extremely affects one’s temperature. In such people various spiteful resentments (infialat-i nefsaniye), illnesses, fatigue and insomnia may also be frequently observed.

As established earlier, the subject of being underweight and its treatment, which is determined by the cause, will not be discussed further so as to avoid repetition. It is important to state however that different parts of the body such as the hands, legs, etc. may develop with the help of massage.  This being a remarkable factor from a physiotherapy perspective.

Although it is understood that being overweight was regarded as desirable in the past, Ibn Sina had made observations of the harmfulness of obesity. Leading Ibn Sina to conclude that “Obesity also does harm. The obesity [in overweight people] is not like [that which appears in] normal people. Yet, they do not take it seriously as long as they do not appear to receive any harm from it. But one must protect oneself and beware of excessive obesity. Although they may not be suffering from obesity and see no harm in it, their health may unexpectedly fail. In order to lose weight, Ibn Sina advices people to partake in diets, bathing and intensive sports. After achieving these regimes, methods for toning organs such as the arms and legs are discussed.

Finally, nail diseases are studied. The topic “zina” ends with subjects such as pulling nails out, protecting newly growing nails, blood blisters in the nail etc.

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Figure 9: Opening chapters on zina in the Canon (Part 7, On Cosmetics) featured in the Rome edition, 1593, reproduced online by the American University of Beirut. (Source).

7. Conclusions

1. Subjects are essentially classified according to the “symptoms”. For example: Hair shedding, skin-growing pale, becoming underweight. Thus, some of skin diseases are discussed in the article on “hair”, yet others are studied under categories such as “Skin Colour”. Further, this discourse on the subject in question may exclude the third article where only skin diseases are deliberated.

Another classification was made in relation to the organs. The topic zina begins with the head, studying the “hair” and concludes with the foot studying the subject of the “nail”. Only in this manner can we explain why nail diseases are discussed succeeding the subjects on obesity and emaciation.

2. The topic zina deals only partly with cosmetics. This is primarily with regard to the first and second articles where formulas for hair and skin care are given. Besides chapters on other subjects such as skin diseases, metabolism, nourishment and haematology, physical therapy is also discussed thoroughly.

It is important to note that the main underlying purpose Ibn Sina wished to highlight in the chapter on “zina” is not beautifying people. He discussed all subjects from a strictly medical point of view and solely aimed to “cure” these diseases which “spoil the appearance.”

3. Many “observations” given under the title “zina” are surprisingly remarkable. The subject “Ziynet” dealing with the externally observable symptoms, observation ought to have made medical problem solving easier for physicians. While acquisition of clinical knowledge was helpful, the etymology of diseases depended on older theories of medicine, since technical aids were not developed. Physiopathology and the etymology of diseases were explained according to the medical theory based on humoral theory. Many terms used in the explanations formed the medical terminology of the time. Although we know the meanings of these words commonly used in language, their medical meanings are yet to be satisfactorily defined. For instance, in this text there are several words such as “dem-i rakîk, dem-i latîf, dem-i ceyyîd, dem-i zekî” etc., describing different types of blood, of which the meanings remain obscure, in particular as medical terms. Although these are considered to be theories or philosophy, I believe that they are based on medical observations not aided by technology. This is why we associate “buhâr-i duhâni” with the male hormone (testosterone) and “ebhire-i ratbe” with the female hormone (oestrogen).

Drugs are classified in categories according to their effects. While we know what some of these are, the composition of others is yet to be found out. In the topic headed, “zina“, drugs are considered in categories with certain names according to their effects. For example, in this text, it is interesting to see that while astringent drugs were called “quvva-i kabîza” (astringent agents), they were also used externally to cure hair and skin diseases.

A complete criticism and evaluation of Ibn Sina’s medicine will be possible only when the ancient medical terminologies have been interpreted correctly and when their proper meaning is revealed.

4. Some definitions we come across in the topic “Ziynet” are worth noting in respect of their similarity with today’s medical knowledge. An example we can quote being the fact that Ibn Sina distinguished vitiligo from lepra.

The chapter “Ziynet” comprises  of extremely interesting knowledge such as geophagia, an illness which is said to have been discovered and described in the 20th century, which we find clearly described by Ibn Sina approximately ten centuries before.

I will not quote any other examples in order to avoid over exhausting the subject. I do believe, however, that when one studies Ibn Sina’s Canon as well as the works of the other great scientists who contributed to ancient medicine attentively and patiently, changes should be brought about of our learning and knowledge in the field of the history and practices of ancient medicine.

8. Glossary

  • afs: (Quercus infectoria); ,Oak. Used as astringent and coagulant.
  • âs: (Fructus myrti). Myrtle. Its leaves and berries are used internally and externally as an astringent, bactericide, appetizer and coagulant. On applying externally, it has healing effects on wounds.
  • âs’in varak-i ratbi: Green leaves of myrtle.
  • asel lebenî: The gum of styrax officinale. A liquid derived from the liquid ambar tree, a gum.
  • avsec: (lyceum Europaeum). Boxthorn, Purgative, sedative.
  • barsiyâvusân: ca’det el-qinna. Adianthum oder Asplenium (Filices).
  • busr: ripe, but not too ripe fruits, especially dates.
  • cevz-i kusûr muhrek: Burnt walnut shells. (Pericarpium; Juglandis nu-cum). Green walnut leaves and its shell have astringent and tonic effects. It is used externally in skin diseases as an antiseptic. May also be mixed with myrtle oil and the astringent syrup; and specially applied on children’s hair.
  • dâü’l-hayye: Alopecia ophiasique. To shed scales from the skin (scaling skin).
  • dâü’s-sa’leb: Alopecia areata: porrigo decalvans. Pelade.
  • dühn-i mastakî: gum mastic. A resin extracted from cuts on the branches and trunk of pistacia lentiscus.
  • duhn-i mastakî: mastic oil; oil extracted from the seeds of the fruit of P. lentiscus.
  • duhn-i âs: The oil of myrtle. It is produced by the distillation of green myrtus Communis leaves of.
  • duhn-i verd: (oleum rosae). Rose oil; dried rose leaves have an astringent effect. It is used externally for gargling purposes.
  • emlec: emblic myrobalans; emblica officinalis.
  • ezraf-i serv: cypress cone. The dried cones of the Cupressus sempervirens species, picked when green. It has astringent and coagulant effects. It is used externally for healing haemorrhoids and foot odour due to sweating.
  • filzaharac: the African jasemin. Lycium afrum L. (The comman jasemin (oleaceae) is used as an astringent and sedative).
  • fulful: pepper. Appetizer.
  • habbu’l-âs: Fruit of myrtle.
  • halilec-i kâbili (helile-i kabuli): chebulic myrobalan. Dried fruits of the species Terminalia chebula, picked unripe. Used as an astringent. Ointments containing myrobalan powder are used externally for healing wounds. These ointments have antiseptic properties and wound healing effects, owing to the tannin they contain.
  • haltit: (Ferula assa foetida). Asafoetida. Sedative, digestive, antihelminthic.
  • Hardal: (Sînâpis; brassica nigra). Mustard. It is externally used to diffuse blood in the skin and as an analgesic in forms of mustard poultice, mustard plaster, or mustard bath.
  • helilec murebbâsi: fruit based gelatine acquired from Myrobalan.
  • hummâz: (Rumex acetosella). Sheep’s sorrel. It is a plaster used in bandaging boils for maturing (suppurating) them.
  • Itrifîl-i sagîr: clover, trifolium arvense. Astringent.
  • irsal-i alak: Applying leeches.
  • karanfil: (Flos Caryophylli) Stimulant, antiseptic, digestive. (During Ottoman rule women used ointments prepared from the flowers of “Sweet William”, a type of clove, in order to make their faces look radiant and healthy. It is used as a sedative, cardiotonic and diaphoretic).
  • lâden: The dried leaves and boughs of the species Cistus creticus L. or C. Salvufolius. are  used as astringents. The oleoresin is extracted from the leaves of the species C. creticus or C. ladanifer and are called “Ladanum” (laden). (A hair dye is prepared from the gum of this shrub in Crete).
  • kibrit: sulfur.
  • mâ-i as: The sap of the leaves of the myrtle tree. If hair is washed with it, it would hinder hair shedding.
  • mâ-i cubn: cheese water.
  • mâ-i kibrit: concentrated sulphuric acid.
  • mâ-i malih: salty water.
  • murr-ü sabir: (The finest quality of aloes). It is derived by concentrating the sap of the leaves of the aloe species, by heating it in the sun. Acts as a purgative.
  • su’d (sudâa): The corm and perfume of the plant Cyperus rotundus. Tonic, amenogog, diaphoretic, digestive, antihelminthic, thic stimulant.
  • sarab-i kabz: syrup acting as an astringent.
  • secere-i bezir-i ketan: flax seed tree.
  • flax: linum usitatissimum. It is used as a material for dressing wounds. Oil derived from its seeds is used externally for the treatment of wounds and burns. It is burnt with its seeds, mixed with oil and applied on hair.
  • ûkiyye: A measurement of weight about 1 ounce (28.3 grams); or about 4.5 ounces. (It changes from country to country it is used).
  • utrûc: Citrus medica; citron tree; the fruit of this tree. Its seeds are used as digestive and antihelminthic.
  • varak-i âzâd-i diraht usaresi: The juice of Melia azedarach’s leaves. Margosa tree. The leaves heal wounds. zdc: Natural copper or iron sulfate.
  • za’feran: (Crous sativus). Saffron. Stimulant, appetizer, amenogog. zamk-i arabi: Arabic gum.
  • zamk-i levz: Almond gum.
  • zebedu’l-bahr. L. Ossa sepiae, decapedae.

9. Dictionaries Used in this Study

  • Ahmed Issa Bey, Dictionnaire des Noms Des Plantes, Cairo, 1930.
  • Baytop, Turhan, Turkiye’de Bitkiler ile Tedavi, Istanbul, 1984.
  • Redhouse, James, W., Turkish and English Lexicon, Istanbul, 1978.
  • Siggel, Alfred, Arabisch-Deutsches Worterbuch Der Stoffe, Berlin, Akademie Verlag, 1950.


[1] Suleymaniye Kutuphanesi No. Hamidiye 1015.

[2] It was believed that stagnant water infects and contains parasites which are transmitted to people.

[3] It can be assumed that habitual use of vinegar and cumin (kimyon) might fatigue the liver.

[4] Geophaigia was first described in Turkey by Muin Memduh Tayanc, in 1942 and knowledge in this field was improved by Prof. Reimann’s clinical and laboratory findings. See Orhan Ulutin: “A look at the Turkish Hematology in the 100th anniversary of Ataturk’s birth.” Cerrahpasa Tip Fakultesi Dergisi, vol. 12, June 1981 p. 258.

[5] As the term ruh is used for the celestial element which is the essence of life, it can also be valued as the “natural spirit” (tabi’i ruh) or the “vital spirit” (hayati ruh) of the “pneumatic theory.” On some occasions, the term ruh was then used to mean “vessel”.

[6] “Hushk-rishte” seems to have two meanings, the wound forming a crust or a kind of itch (uyuz) having dry pustules. As a term “husk” means “dry” and “rishte” means “Jigger”.

[7] See Nil Sari: Food in the Ottoman Palace, arranged according to the seasons and its relation with the medicine of the period. Symposium paper on the Turkish Kitchen. Ankara 1982, p. 246.

[8] As far as we now the “attractive force” (quvva-i câzibe), attracts the humours to the surface of the body.

*Professor Nil Sari, Ph. D., from Istanbul University, Cerrahpasa Medicine Faculty, Department of Deontology and History of Medicine, is a world expert scholar in the history of medicine, Islamic medicine and culture and Ottoman science and medicine. Professor Sari is also a key FSTC associate. This article was published at Acts of the International Symposium on Ibn Turk, Khwârazmî, Fârâbî, Beyrûnî and Ibn Sina (Ankara, 9-12 September 1985), Ankara 1990, pp. 351-367.

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