The Scholars of Seville – Medicine

by Salah Zaimeche Published on: 15th August 2005

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Seville was also a centre Medical expertise in Islamic civilisation. Continuing the Muslim scientific tradition of critical works that advance knowledge in Medicine, many books were written here by leaders of the field.


Summarised extracts from a full article:
Seville by Salah Zaimeche

Medical sciences equally thrived in Seville, and one family, the Ibn Zuhr dominated the subject. The ancestor of the Spanish line was named Zuhr, hence the patronymic Ibn Zuhr. The first prominent member of the family was a jurist, Abu Bakr Muhammad Ibn Marwan, who died at Talavera in 1030-1031, at the age of 86. His son, Abu Marwan ‘Abd al-Malik, was a great physician, especially famous as a skilful diagnostician, who practiced in Al-Qairawan, Cairo, and finally returning to Spain, settled in Denia where he died in 1077-1078.[1] This Abu Marwan had a son, Abu Al- ‘Ala, who is the subject of the present note.

Abu Al- ‘Ala’ studied at Cordova at the school of Abu Al-Aina, a doctor who came from the Orient to Spain.[2] He was even more successful as a physician than his father. He was attached to the court of al-Mutamid, the last ‘Abbadid king of Seville (ruled from 1068 to 1091), and after the-conquest of Seville by the Berber Murabitin (Almoravides) in 1091, he became wazir to the Yusuf ibn Tashfin (who ruled until 1106).[3] His usual name, Al-wazir Abu Al- ‘Ala’ Zuhr, was corrupted by early Latin translators into Alguazir Albuleizor (and variants). He died in Cordova in 1130-1131, and was buried in Seville.[4] His main title to fame is the fact of being Ibn Zuhr’s father, but he deserves to be remembered for his own activity. He wrote a number of medical books: Kitab al-khawas, Book of (medical) properties; Kitab al-adwiya-l-mufrada, Book of simple drugs; Kitab al-‘idah, Book of explanation; Kitab hall shukuk al-Razi ‘ala kutub Jalinus, Solution of al-Razi’s doubts with regard to Galen’s works (which proves if needs be that the Muslims were very critical of Greek science); Mujarrabat, Experimental facts (Medical observations); Maqala fil-radd ala Abu ‘A1i ibn Sina fi mawadi’ min kitabihi fi-l-adwiya-l-mufrada, Discourse of refutation of a few points in Ibn Sina’s book on simple drugs; Maqala fi basthi lirisala Ya’qub itn Ishaq al-Kindi fi tarkib al-adwiya, Discourse wherein is explained al-Kindi’s letter on the composition of drugs; Kitab al-nukat al-tibbiya, Main principles of medicine.[5] The last named is almost certainly identical with another work of his, the Tadhkira, or Reminder, which he wrote for his son ‘Abd al-Malik (Avenzoar) when the latter was travelling in Morocco. It is a practical guide containing special references to climatic and pathological conditions in Marrakech; complementary information on various medical subjects; and also deontological advice.[6] This treatise has sometimes been ascribed, wrongly, to the son.

The best known and most renowned physician of the Muslim Spanish period was Ibn Zuhr (Avenzoar). He was born between 1091 and 1094 in Seville, the most illustrious member of the famous Ibn-Zuhr family that produced six generations of physicians in direct descent.[7] His full name was Abu Marwan ‘Abd al-Malik ibn Abi-l-‘Ala’ Zuhr, etc. (see his father’s name, above). He was often called Abu Marwan Ibn Zuhr, hence the Latin form Abhomeron Avenzoar, or Avenzoar. He was born in Seville about 1091-1094, and died in the same city in 1161-1162.[8] Ibn Zuhr was not a Jew. This is sufficiently obvious, and need not be stated but for the fact that some good scholars, beginning with Casiri (Bibliotheca arabico-hispana, 1760), have maintained erroneously the opposite view.[9]

Among the many distinguished physicians of the Muslim West, he was by far the greatest; he was also the most famous physician of his time, not only among Muslims, but also in Christendom.[10] He served under the Almoravids, and after them the Almohads (Muwahhid, Unitarians). He became wazir (minister) and physician to ‘Abd al-Mu’min (ruled 1130-1163), a ruler well known for his great intelligence, his genius for organization, and his large support to culture and science, and who took Ibn Zuhr at his service.[11] For many years he was the court physician and vizier to ‘ Abd-al-Mu’min, founder of the Muwahhid dynasty, and unlike so many of the physicians of that period in Spain, he confined his activities to the field of medicine.[12]Colin has written one of the best, if possibly the best outline of Ibn Zuhr, on his life and work, and which is available in French.[13]

Ibn Zuhr was formed at the school of his father, and became an eminent practioner, with great medical experience, never relying on the Ancients (Greek) legacy, but instead, submitting everything to experimentation.[14] He wrote six medical texts, of which three are still to be found in a few of the libraries, like the British Museum and the Bibliothèque Nationale.[15] The three extant works, in chronological order, are as follows:

(1)Kitab al-iqtisad fi islah al-anfus wal-ajsad, Book concerning the reformation of souls and bodies, completed in 1121-1122, for the Almoravid prince Ibrahim ibn Yusuf ibn Tashfin—the son of the Yusuf, to whom Abu Al- ‘Ala’ Zuhr had been the wazir. It is a summary of therapeutics and hygiene, composed for the benefit of lay readers. It remained apparently incomplete; it contains fifteen iqtisad; it is probable that the author meant to write a second volume; there would then have been thirty iqtisad. As the title indicates, it treats of souls as well as bodies; the beginning of it is a summary of psychology.[16]

(2) Kitab al-taysir fi-l-mudawat wal-tadbir, Book of simplification concerning therapeutics and diet. This is Ibn Zuhr’s most important work. It was written at the request of Ibn Rushd, who was a great friend and admirer (though not a disciple); it would seem that they both meant the Taysir to be the counterpart of the Kulllyat (of Ibn Rushd), the latter dealing with the generalities of medicine, the former with more special topics.[17] If that be true, the task was certainly very well distributed between them, Ibn Rushd being primarily a philosopher, while the older man, Ibn Zuhr, was first of all a clinician or practitioner. The Taysir contains an elaborate study of pathological conditions and relevant therapeutics, the whole being followed by an antidotary or formulary called Jami’ (meaning Collector—collected recipes), which is sometimes mentioned as a separate work.[18] The Taysir deals with specific medical conditions, among them are pericarditis, pharangeal paralysis, inflammation of the middle ear, and recommended tracheotomy for laryngeal obstruction.[19] Ibn Zuhr realized the nocuousness of the air coming from marshes; he was a great advocate of venesection; he examined human ossements.[20]

(3) Kitab al-aghdhiya, Book of foodstuffs, composed for the first Almohad caliph, ‘Abd al-Mu’min, who ruled from 1130 to 1163. This work treats various kinds of food and their use according to the seasons; simple drugs, and hygiene. It also indicates the usefulness of various bezel stones.[21]

Amongst the works which are no longer extant, there is a treatise on cosmetics, reproduced twice by Wustenfeld, under the title Liber ornamenti, and under Liber de decoratione; a treatise on leprosy, and a memorial addressed to his son on what to do in the treatment of diseases and the use of laxatives.[22]

Although he may not have been the first to describe the itch mite (Acarus scabiei), Ibn Zuhr was one of the first paracytologists.[23] He was anticipated in this by Ahmad al-Tabari (second half of the tenth century), a few extracts of the Kitab al-mualaja al-buqratiya have been translated into German by Mohamed Rihab.[24]

Through Hebrew and Latin translations, Ibn Zuhr’s influence upon European medicine was maintained until the end of the seventeenth century.[25] The Taysir was promptly translated into Hebrew. There were at least two early Hebrew translations, both anonymous, one of which was known in Italy before 1260.[26] Jacob the Hebrew (Magister Jacobus Hebraeus) translated a Hebrew translation into vulgar language (Venitian?), and this version was turned into Latin by Paravici in 1280-1281. This Latin translation, Adjumentum de medela et regimine, was printed in Venice in 1490, 1496, 1497, 1514, 1530; Lyon 1531 (bis); Venice 1554 (?).[27] All of these editions contain both the Taysir and the Kulliyat. Outside of these complete editions, there appeared also many separate ones: for example, Libellus Zoar de cura lapidis (Venice 1497); editions of relevant parts included in the collections De balneis (Venice l553); and De febribus (Venice 1594). [28]

Another Latin translation of the Taysir was made by John of Capua (second half of the thirteenth century); not from the Arabic as has been claimed, but from the Hebrew. (Illustrated MS., Faculty of Medicine, Paris). This translation seems to be more correct than the one which was so often reprinted; yet both are full of errors and obscurities. Sarton insists that a critical edition of the Arabic text, and a good translation based upon it, are badly needed.[29]

To complete the history of this great medical dynasty, Ibn Zuhr’s only son, Abu Bakr Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Malik, etc., nicknamed al-Hafid (the grandson), was born in Seville in 1110-1111 (or 1113-1114), and died in 1199. He was a successful physician, but was more famous among his contemporaries as a man of letters and a poet, but a treatise on eye diseases is ascribed to him.[30] Just like his father, after serving the Almoravid rulers, he also served their successors, the Almohads, serving both Abu Yaqub Yussuf al-Mansur, and then Al-Nassir.[31] A group of envious dignitaries wrote a letter to Al-Mansur, in which they made serious allegations against Abu Bakr Al-Hafid, but al-Mansur instead had the accusers imprisoned as his confidence in Abu Bakr was boundless.[32] It is said, that whilst in Morocco, Abu Bakr felt great nostalgia, missing the presence of his family, and wrote verses about his state. Al-Mansur read the verses, and one day when Ibn Zuhr returned home, to his immense joy, he found his family waiting for him, Al-Mansur having had them secretly shipped from Spain.[33]

Abu Bakr Ibn Zuhr had also a daughter who became a skilful midwife, as did her own daughter later, delivering the children of the Almohad ruler, Al-Mansur, and his family.[34] This daughter was poisoned at the same time as her uncle, Abu Bakr al-Hafid Ibn Zuhr, in Marrakech in 1199 by a hateful vizier.[35]

Abu Bakr Muhammad left a son, Abu Muhammad ‘Abdallah ibn al-Hafid, born in Seville in 1181-1182, who became also a successful physician in the Almohad service, and just as his father, he died poisoned in 1205-6, and was buried in Seville near his family ancestors.[36] He also left two sons who lived in Seville; the youngest, Abu Al- ‘Ala’ Muhammad, was also a physician; he represented the sixth generation of physicians in direct descent in the Ibn Zuhr family.[37] There could have been a new generation of Ibn Zuhr’s, possibly, but soon, Seville was going to be taken by the Spaniards, and just as their line of scholarship ended, so was going to be that of all Muslim scholarship in the city, ending at precisely the same juncture (in the 1240s).

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[1] G. Sarton: Introduction; op cit; vol 2; p. 231.

[2] L. Leclerc: Histoire; vol 1; p. 83.

[3] G. Sarton: Introduction; op cit; vol 2; p. 231.

[4] G. Sarton: Introduction; op cit; vol 2; p. 231.

[5] F. Wustenfeld: Geschichte der Arabische Aerzte; Gottingen; 1840; p.91.

[6] Gabriel Colin: La Tedkira d’Abu’l-‘Ala’, publiee et traduite pour la premiere fois (86 p., Publications de la Faculte des lettres d’Alger, 45; Paris 1911); Arabic and French text with technical glossary.

[7] A. Whipple: The Role of the Nestorians and Muslims in the History of Medicine. Microfilm-xerography by University Microfilms International Ann Arbor, Michigan, U.S.A. 1977, p.52.

[8] G. Sarton: Introduction; op cit; vol 2; p. 232.

[9] G. Sarton: Introduction; op cit; vol 2; p. 233.

[10] G. Sarton: Introduction; op cit; vol 2; p. 232.

[11] L Leclerc: Histoire; op cit; p. 87.

[12] A. Whipple: The Role, op cit; p.52.

[13] Gabriel Colin: Avenzoar, sa vie et ses oeuvres (200 p., Publications de la Faculte des Lettres d’Alger, vol. 44; Paris 1911.

[14] L. Leclerc: History; vol 1; op cit; p. 86.

[15] A. Whipple: The Role, op cit; p.52.

[16] G. Sarton: Introduction; op cit; vol 2; p. 232.

[17] G. Sarton: Introduction; op cit; vol 2; p. 232.

[18] G. Sarton: Introduction; op cit; vol 2; p. 232.

[19] A. Whipple: The Role, op cit; p.52.

[20] G. Sarton: Introduction; op cit; vol 2; p. 233.

[21] G. Sarton: Introduction; op cit; vol 2; p. 232.

[22] F. Wustenfeld: Geschichte der arabischen Aerzte; 1840; p.90. L.Leclerc: Histoire; op cit; vol 1; pp. 92-3.

[23] A. Whipple: The Role, op cit; p.52.

[24]Mohamed Rihab: Archiv fur Geschichte der Medizin, 19, 123-168, 1927; the reference to the itch-mite will be found on p. 134; See ISIS; 10, p.119.

[25] G. Sarton: Introduction; op cit; vol 2; p. 233.

[26] M. Steinschneider: Die hebraischen Ubersetzungen des Mittelalters; 1893; pp.748-52.

[27] G. Sarton: Introduction; op cit; vol 2; p. 233.

[28] G. Sarton: Introduction; op cit; vol 2; p. 233.

[29] G. Sarton: Introduction; op cit; vol 2; p. 233.

[30] G. Sarton: Introduction; op cit; vol 2; p. 233.

[31] L. Leclerc: Histoire; op cit; p. 93.

[32] L. Leclerc: Histoire; op cit; p. 94.

[33]Al-Maqqari quoted by L. Leclerc: Histoire; p. 95.

[34] L. Leclerc: Histoire; p. 94.

[35] L. Leclerc: Histoire; p. 94.

[36] G. Sarton: Introduction; op cit; p. 233.

[37] G. Sarton: Introduction; op cit; vol 2; p. 233.

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