Ibn al-Baytar’s Al-Mughni fi al-Tibb

by Ayman Yasin Atat Published on: 7th February 2022

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Ibn Al-Bayṭār was a botanist who was active in the 13th century. He was born in the Andalusian city of Málaga and learned botany from the Málagan botanist Abū al-‘Abbās al-Nabātī, with whom he started collecting plants in and around Spain. In 1219 AD, Ibn al-Bayṭār left Málaga to travel surrounding the western and eastern parts of the Mediterranean in order to obtain more knowledge of materia medica. After 1224 AD, he entered the service of the Ayyubid sultan Al-Kāmil in Cairo and was appointed chief herbalist. In 1227 AD, Al-Kāmil extended his empire to Damascus, and Ibn al-Bayṭār accompanied him, this provided him with an opportunity to collect plants in Syria. His research on plants extended over a vast geographic area surrounding the Mediterranean, as noted on the map in figure 1. Al-Bayṭār died in Damascus in 1248 AD.

Figure 1. The outline shows the area around which Ibn Al-Bayṭār travelled in order to study materia medica. – ©pixabay.com 

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Note of Editor: “Ibn al-Bayṭār’s Al-Mughnī fī al-Ṭibb: an overview of the copy found at the Osler Library, Bib.Osl.7785/39” a report prepared by Ayman Yasin Atat. Recipient’s Report: Dr Edward H. Bensley Osler Library Research Travel Grant. This report has been published in the Osler Library newsletter (N. 130, 2019, pp: 6-9).

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As is evident from the map, the trips made by Ibn al-Bayṭār – starting from Spain through North Africa, Egypt, reaching Turkey, and then ending in Damascus – gave him access to many different substances and sources. He also relied upon the locals’ knowledge to collect information and details on simple drugs and their formulations. This enabled him to enhance his own knowledge and skills and added new sources of information to the Arabic medical culture. Truly, his writings offer a perfect example of the knowledge of simple drugs in the Mediterranean area in the medieval age.

Among his scholarly works, Ibn al-Bayṭār did an explanation of Dioscorides’ (d. 90 AD) book on simple drugs. In addition, he authored two important books: Kitāb al-Jāmiʻ li-mufradāt al-adwīya wa al-aghdhīya, which he ordered alphabetically according to the name of simple drugs; and Al-Mughnī fī al-Ṭibb, which he ordered according to the medical benefits of the simple drugs and the ill organs. Both of these books are essential to those wishing to understand and study the culture of simple drugs in Arabic medieval medicine; interestingly, we could observe that Al-Jāmiʻ was edited, published, and also translated into many other languages across history, while Al-Mughnī is still without any real edition or study. Notably, my main motivation for studying this book was to shed light on its contents, in an effort to complete the understanding of knowledge about simple drugs in the Mediterranean during the era of Ibn Al-Bayṭār.

The most completed copy of Kitāb al-Mughnī fī al-Ṭibb known is housed at the Osler Library of the History of Medicine, shelfmark Bib.Osl. 7785/39. This copy consists of 369 folios, each with 23 lines per page. It includes some marginal corrections and glosses but regrettably is incomplete at the end.

Description of contents of Al-Mughnī fī al-Ṭibb.

As was the habit of medieval authors, they wrote the manuscripts to be as gifts for the caliphs. In the same vein, Ibn Al-Bayṭār mentioned that his book was a gift to the Sixth Ayyubid Caliph (Abu Bakr ibn Nāsir al-Dīn, who became Caliph in 635H/1238 AD and stayed only for two years).

In addition to the book being a gift, Ibn al-Bayṭār was motivated to write this book to provide reference work for physicians, wherever their patients might be. In addition, Ibn al-Bayṭār organized it according to the organs to facilitate the searching of medications. Moreover, he put all possible drugs that could be useful for any disease, so patients could easily choose the available and applicable simples to take and use.

Ibn al-Bayṭār divided the book into twenty chapters, their titles being listed in a table of contents after the introduction. The contents of these chapters are as follows:

Chapter One: simple drugs beneficial for ailments of the head. Ibn al-Bayṭār spoke on simple drugs that could heal headaches and migraines, or cause them. In addition to what helps people to sleep or to stay awake, he also spoke on melancholia, epilepsy, and hemiplegia and what might heal or cause those afflictions. In this chapter, Ibn al-Bayṭār quoted a lot of information from many different sources, furthermore, he gave details on the nutrition of their patients, which he quoted completely from Albucasis (d. 1013 AD).

Chapter Two: simple drugs beneficial for ailments of the eye. Here Ibn al-Bayṭār gave information on many diseases that may happen in the eyes like pannus, chalazion, epiphora, cataract, and what could strengthen the vision and improve it. Here two points are notable: first, Ibn al-Bayṭār did not mention drugs that might cause diseases, as he had done in the first chapter. The second point is a very interesting one: the quotations by Ibn al-Bayṭār are almost nonexistent, and despite that studies on him did not show him as an ophthalmologist, it seems that he had a great knowledge of ophthalmology.

Chapter Three: simple drugs beneficial for ailments of the ear. He gave details on some symptoms like the pain of the ears, ulcers of the ears, sonitus, deafness, and drugs that might cause it.

Chapter Four: simple drugs beneficial for ailments of the nose. Here Ibn al-Bayṭār mainly spoke on epistaxis, the polyps that appear in the nose, and how to heal them.

Chapter Five: simple drugs beneficial for ailments of the mouth. Ibn al-Bayṭār discussed in this chapter the oral symptoms like blisters, aphtha, and he also mentioned how to heal halitosis. Moreover, he pointed to the simple drugs that are useful in dentology for cases like toothache and cleaning the teeth, finally, he spoke on gum ailments like gingivitis.

Chapter Six: simple drugs beneficial for ailments of the throat, organs of respiration, the chest and its contents. Ibn al-Bayṭār started this chapter with the tonsils and the epiglottis, then he continued with lung ailments, particularly asthma and tuberculosis. Next, he spoke on the heart, finished with the breast and discussed how to increase and decrease the milk of women. It is important to mark that regarding heart drugs Ibn al-Bayṭār quoted completely the treatise of Avicenna (d.1037 AD) on cardio drugs (al-adwīyah al-qalbīyah), and he was proud in including it within his book.

Chapter Seven: simple drugs beneficial for ailments of the stomach, liver and spleen. Ibn al-Bayṭār divided this chapter into three parts dealing with each one separately. Examples of stomach ailments he spoke of included: the appetite of food and how to increase or decrease it, acidic belching, flatulence, and ulcers of the stomach. One interesting point here is that when Ibn al-Bayṭār spoke on dropsy as a hepatic symptom and the solidity of the spleen, he gave details on the nutrition of their patients while he did not mention this point for patients of stomach ailments, moreover, he quoted (again) the nutritional details from Albucasis.

Chapter Eight: simple drugs beneficial for ailments of the intestines. Ibn al-Bayṭār discussed drugs that affect the balance of humours in the body. In addition, when he mentioned the nutrition of colitis patients, and those who suffer from intestinal worms, he again quoted from Albucasis. When discussing the humours, Ibn al-Bayṭār quoted the information from the work of ͗Omaīyah ibn Abī Ṣalt (d. 1134 AD) on the simple drugs.

Chapter Nine: simple drugs beneficial for ailments of the rectum. In addition to the wounds and ulcers that might happen in rectum, the main focus of Ibn al-Bayṭār was on haemorrhoids and how to heal them. Here, he quoted from Avicenna, Ibn Jazzlih (d. 1100 AD), and Ibn Raḍwān (d. 1061 AD); in addition, when he mentioned the foods which could work for or harm patients with haemorrhoids, he quoted the paragraphs from Avicenna and Maimonides (d. 1204 AD).

Chapter Ten: simple drugs beneficial for ailments of kidneys. Ibn al-Bayṭār spoke in this chapter on nephritis, pains of kidneys, and simple drugs that alleviate it. The main focus was on kidney stones, and how to heal them by using simple drugs that have either a Saxifraga Effect or a sedative one. Interestingly, Ibn al-Bayṭār in this chapter mentioned al-͗Ibzin (bathtub) as a method for healing the patients of kidney stones; this method was used more in eastern parts of Arabic civilization, it came from Persian medical tradition, and became later an important way of home caring in Ottoman civilization. After that, Al-Bayṭār finished this chapter with foods that benefit or harm the kidney and again he quoted the paragraphs from both Albucasis and Rhazes (d. 925).

Chapter Eleven: simple drugs beneficial for ailments of bladder. Ibn al-Bayṭār spoke on the pain of the bladder and its ulcers, dieresis, enuresis, ischuria. When he listed the simple drugs that have diuretic effects, he divided them into two categories: first, those which increase urination by being drunk as a tea, and secondly those which have a diuretic effect brought about by being eaten directly.

Chapter Twelve: simple drugs beneficial for ailments of male reproductive organs and related issues. The main focus of Ibn al-Bayṭār in this chapter was upon aphrodisiac simples, of which he mentioned several types, including botanical, mineral, and stony. In addition, he mentioned some animal gallbladders that have the same effect. Following that, he gave information on orchitis and its associated pain; hernia; and the appearance of the belly button of infants.

Chapter Thirteen: simple drugs beneficial for ailments of the uterus, and those that relate to pregnancy, birth, and the health of embryos. Here, Ibn al-Bayṭār started with metritis and its pain, and also touched upon that which is useful for the uterus, then what helps women conceive, and what heals metrorrhagia. Next, he discussed the simples that have an effect on birth either to prevent abortion or to facilitate birth, especially in cases of dystocia. He finalized the chapter by speaking on dysmenorrhea.

Chapter Fourteen: simple drugs beneficial for ailments of joints. Ibn al-Bayṭār focused on arthrodynia and the pains of gout. Following that, he spoke on sciatica, and when he mentioned the foods that help or harm ailments of the joints he quoted (as usual) the paragraphs from Ibn Jamīʿ (d. 1198 AD), and Qusṭā ibn Lūqā (d. 912 AD).

Chapter Fifteen: simple drugs beneficial for abscess and ulcers. Ibn al-Bayṭār gave the simple drugs that could heal wounds, ulcers, and itching. In addition, he spoke about burns and how to treat them by using simples as bandages.

Chapter Sixteen: simple drugs beneficial for swelling and blisters. Interestingly, Ibn al-Bayṭār divided swelling according to its humoral etiology: phlegmatic, bilious, or atrabilious. In addition, he quoted the nutrition paragraphs from Al-Majūsī (d. 994 AD), Ibn al-Jazzār (d. 980 AD) and Oribasius (d. 403 AD). However, the exciting point in this chapter was his talk on smallpox. Following his discussion of the simples, he spoke about his expertise in this field starting by the smallpox stone. This is a red stone, which gets its name from a severe smallpox outbreak that took place in Persian lands; the people put this stone in the water and said that whoever drank from this water was safe from smallpox. In addition, Ibn al-Bayṭār described how he healed smallpox by using sesame in one case, and also by using henna in other cases; it is worth noting that the use of henna for smallpox was mentioned by Ḥassan al-ʿaṭṭār in 19th century within his book Rāḥat al-͗abdān.

Chapter Seventeen: simple drugs special for cosmetology. First, Ibn al-Bayṭār spoke on ailments that happen in the skin like acomia, ringworm, chloasma, and impetigo. Then he mentioned kakidrosis and what stimulates perspiration or prevents it from simple drugs. Finally, he spoke about foods that could increase the weight of the body or decrease it, and as usual, he quoted the nutritional paragraphs from Rufus (d. 110 AD) and Albucasis.

Chapter Eighteen: simple drugs beneficial for fevers and corruption of air. Ibn al-Bayṭār spoke on many kinds of fever like the quartan fever, phlegmatic fever, and bilious fever. In addition, he mentioned simples that might cause fever, and he quoted the paragraph of nutritional information for feverish patients from Albucasis in this case. Then he spoke on the corruption of the air, where he quoted from Shamʿūn al-Rāhib, Rhazes, and Ibn Masawīh (d. 857 AD).

Chapter Nineteen: simple drugs beneficial for poisons. Ibn al-Bayṭār divided this chapter into two parts: the first was about vermin bites in general, and the second part is about specific kinds of insects. Also in this part, Ibn al-Bayṭār wrote about toxins; his new methodology here was to provide details about the symptoms of being poisoned by these toxins (as he did not mention any symptoms for ailments before), and he quoted these details of symptoms either from Dioscorides or Avicenna. Unfortunately, the manuscript suffers from lack of information in this chapter and is missing some of its pages, and some other pages are incomplete.

Chapter Twenty: the acts of drugs and their characteristics without preparation. Ibn al-Bayṭār divided this chapter into two parts: first on what has benefits for the human body, and the second part on what has the specific character of simple drugs (botanical, animal, and mineral ones) beyond their therapeutic effect. Unfortunately, the manuscript suffers from missing pages, which makes it hard to discern the complete information that would have been included in this chapter. The two interesting points in this chapter were that his texts on using two different kinds of foods at the same time, and his notes on wine, were completely quoted from other sources like Hippocrates (d. 370 BC), Galen (d. 210 AD), and Qusṭā ibn Lūqā.

Finally, the numbering of the manuscript ends at 369. It is supposed that a few pages are missing.

Some observations on the contents Al-Mughnī fī al-Ṭibb

Let us start with the sources, Ibn al-Bayṭār used a great system of citation where he mentioned the name of the author and sometimes the name of a book or treatise. In all, he quoted his information from more than 100 sources. These sources were Arabic and non-Arabic, the non-Arabic sources coming from Greek authors such as Hippocrates, Dioscorides and Galen, and Syriac authors like Shamʿūn al-Rāhib and Ihrin, and Indian ones like Al-khūz and Mankah.

The Arabic sources mainly came from two geographical areas: first, the eastern parts of the Mediterranean, including Avicenna, Rhazes, and Ibn Masawīh. The second area is the Andalusia region, from which he quoted a lot of information from authors like Ibn Zuhr (d. 1162 AD), Albucasis, Avempace (d. 1138 AD), Al-Idrīsī (d. 1165 AD), and of course, Al-Ghāfīqī (d. 1165), whose work on simple drugs – Bib.Osl. 7508 – was published by McGill University in 2014 as The Herbal of al- Ghāfiqī. It is clear that Ibn al-Bayṭār depended more on the Andalusian sources, which might point to the advanced knowledge on simple drugs in Andalusia. Meanwhile, in the chapters about nutritional information, Ibn al-Bayṭār quoted mainly from Albucasis and others like Avicenna and Rhazes.

Regarding the method of arranging the book, one can see that it is an order that makes it easier for patients to find drugs that help them. In most cases, Ibn al-Bayṭār gave many possibilities that could be used. Moreover, it was interesting that when he was speaking about some ailments he followed them with names of simple drugs that could cause these ailments. Therefore, we could say that this book contains both curative knowledge and preventive medicine.

In the field of simple drugs themselves, Ibn al-Bayṭār mentioned more than 1400 kinds of them. Some he repeated many times like squill (Scilla Maritima), radish (Raphanus sativus), citron (Citrus medica), myrrh (Commiphora myrrha), and others.

It is also worth noting that Ibn al-Bayṭār went beyond herbal medicine, though botanical drugs were the most used in medieval medicine. That is, Ibn al-Bayṭār mentioned other kinds of simple drugs like animal products; the most used ones were milk from different sources and castoreum’s testis, but he also mentioned many mineral drugs, where the most used substances were the salt and verdigris.

One of the important aspects of Ibn al-Bayṭār’s work in the field of simple drugs was that he gave the meaning of strange names of simples in each instance that he mentioned them within the book. Furthermore, he tried to give the synonyms of the names according to many geographical parts of the Arabic world. 

Conclusion

I want to conclude this report by stating that Al-Mughnī fī al-Ṭibb could be considered as an encyclopedia for traditional Arabic medicine, and it would complement work on simple drugs culture in medieval Arabic civilization. I hope in the future to hear about efforts to look for other copies over the world, and then to prepare a useful edition of this important manuscript, and to translate it later into other languages. 

Figure 2. The first page of Kitāb al-Mughnī fī al-Ṭibb, Bib.Osl. 7785/39, which is housed at the Osler Library of the History of Medicine. Digitized version available at: https://archive.org/details/McGillLibrary-osl_robe_7785-39-19822Acknowledgement. Many thanks to Dr Mary Hague-Yearl for her supporting and facilitating my work on this manuscript, also great thanks to Dr Edward H. Bensley Osler Library Research Travel Grant, which gave me the chance for consulting this manuscript and other sources at McGill Library. 

Dr Ayman Yasin Atat is a fellow in the department of the history of science and pharmacy at TU Braunschweig, Germany. His main research fields are Arabic traditional materia medica and the history of Arabic pharmacy and medicine, and also studying and editing Arabic medical manuscripts.

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