A Commentary on Toxicology in the Arabic Civilization

by Ayman Yasin Atat Published on: 2nd December 2021

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Toxicology and Pharmacy: In the field of toxicology an early manual was Kitab as-Sumum attributed to Shanaq the Indian and translated into Arabic by al-’Abbas bin Sa’id al-Jawhari for the Caliph al-Mamun (r.813-833). The text discusses poisons and how they can be detected by sight, touch, taste, or by the toxic symptoms which they cause. Descriptions are given of poisoned drinks, foods, clothes, carpets, beds, skin lotions, and eye salves, as well as narcotics and universal antidotes. Kings were said to guard the book, keeping it in their treasure cabinets, hidden from their children and friends.

Article Banner: “Kitāb al-Munqidh min al-Halakah” manuscript by Ibn al-Mubārak, see below for detailed information about this book

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Note of the Editor: This article, “A Commentary on Toxicology in the Arabic Civilization” written by Ayman Yasin ATAT,  is taken from Academia Letters Article 1486, July 2021 (©2021 by the author — Open Access — Distributed under CC BY 4.0)

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The topic of poisons was of great interest in both antiquity and the medieval world, generating its own body of literature. Galen and Dioscorides were considered ancient authors on that subject, and many previous treatises on the subject were attributed to them. Numerous Arabic writers discussed poisons and the antidotes for them (Tschanz 2003, 12). Snakes, dog’ bites, as well as the ill effects of scorpions, spiders and other animals, were a cause of great concern. On the parallel aspect of toxicology knowledge, while the poisonous properties of various minerals and plants were exploited, criminal poisoning was reported throughout history in many geographical places. The use of toxic foods or beverages was well known in this field, although the killing in Judaism, Christian and Islam religions is forbidden, many incidents were reported in biographical books. Therefore, because of that, both Umayyad and Abbasid Caliphs were afraid of being poisoned, and they always hired a confident specialist for their nutrition (al-Bābā 1980, 71).

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Figure 1. Galen, Ibn Sina (Avecena), and Hippocrates, the three authorities on medical theory and practice in a woodcut from an early 15th-century Latin medical book. (Source

During the golden era of Arabic medicine, the medical encyclopedias like “al-Qānūn fī-l-Ṭibb” book by Avicenna (d. 1037AD) and “Kitāb al-Mukhtārāt fī-l-Ṭibb” book by Ibn Hubal (d. 1213AD) contained chapters on poisons. In addition, the authors of Materia Medica books took care of the poisons within their books, the famous Andalusian botanist Ibn al-Bayṭār (d. 1245AD), who wrote an important text about simple drugs “Kitāb al-Jāmi li-mufradāt al-adwīya wa-l-aghdhīya”; he mentioned the symptoms of some botanical poisons and their treatment. However, at the beginning of this golden era of Arabic civilization, the most important toxicology booklet was “Kitāb as-Sumūm” attributed to Shānāq, the Indian physician who was very famous in wisdom and toxicology and because of that, he was close to the Indian kings and was alive circa 300 BC (Ibn Abī Uṣaybiʿa 1965, 474; Salāmih 2014). The text discusses poisons and how they can be detected by sight, touch, taste, or by the toxic symptoms which they cause. Descriptions are given of poisoned drinks, foods, clothes, carpets, beds, skin lotions and eye salves, as well as narcotics and universal antidotes. Kings were said to guard the book, keeping it in their treasure cabinets, hidden from their children and friends (Tschanz 2003, 12). Indeed, we could say that Shānāq was as important to toxicology studies as Dioscorides was for materia medica knowledge in the history of Arabic medicine.

In addition to Shānāq’s booklet, specific writings on poisons and their treatment appear in the Arabic civilization. Jābir ibn Ḥayyān (d. 815 AD) might be the first person who categorized poisons in the Arabic medicine, where one of his medical books was on poisons and their antidotes “Kitāb as-Sumūm”. Jābir in his book identified poisons by their kinds, natural origins, their modes of action, dosages, methods of administration, choice of drugs, and the targeted organ that is attacked by each particular poison (Tschanz 2003, 13). Moreover, Ibn Waḥshiyyah (d. 930 AD), who was a Nabataean agriculturalist and toxicologist, said about Jābir’s book that:

“it is a great work…it is a wonder” (Haq 1994, 4).

Figure 2. The cover page of the “Kitāb al-Munqidh min al-Halakah” manuscript by Ibn al-Mubārak (this copy is from the Library of Congress).

However, the most comprehensive toxicological text was “Kitābal-Munqidhminal-halakah fī daf maḍārr al-sumūm al-muhlikah” (The Savior from Demise and on Withstanding the Harms of Deadly Poisons, written in 488/1095) or shortly known “Kitāb al-Munqidh min al-Halakah”  by Ibn al-Mubārak (Al-Ḥasanibn Abī Thaʿlab ibn al-Mubārak) who wrote this book in three essays. Although M. Ullmann established the lifetime of Ibn al-Mubārak to belong to the 5th/11th century, unfortunately, details about his biography are unavailable (Khalīfah 1941, 2:1869). Actually, this book works as a complete text on the potential causes of poisoning where the author speaks on all kinds of toxic food such as fruits, vegetables, toxic flowers, and different kinds of mineral poisons. Moreover, he describes many animals which have toxic bites, and then he mentions their possible antidotes. Unfortunately, a critical edition of this book is unpublished yet, despite many copies of this manuscript being available worldwide in libraries like the library of congress, Chester Beatty Library, and others.

Ibn al-Mubārak says that:

“[My] (Kitāb al-Munqidh min al-Halakah) book is very important for anyone who wants to avoid being poisoned”

He also mentions that his main source came from an Indian book but he did not name the source, which I suppose to be the previous Shānāq book, anyway, as mentioned, he divides his book into three essays:

  • First essay: Ibn al-Mubārak mentions the symptoms of poisons inserted within usable things like food, this method was used to kill Kings and Noblemen, therefore he writes how-to prevent their damages and prepare their antidotes. Moreover, he discusses the symptoms that help to identify which kind of poison is used within the toxic foods, and hence he divides the treatise according to the different kinds of food such as meat, sweets, cheese, fruits, and aromatic plants. Finally, he gives some recipes of antidotes that could be useful for all these poisons (Ibn al-Mubārak, folio 12).
  • Second essay: Ibn al-Mubārak presents the symptoms which indicate how a person is poisoned by simple poisons such as animals (the gallbladder of leopards, the venom of snakes and scorpions, and the blood of some animals), or plants (such as wolf’s bane, cowbane, all kinds of henbane, and devil’s trumpet), or mineral (such as gold, silver, lead, iron, and mercury). It is notable that he always mentions the test for the reality of each poison, and then its treatment and antidotes (Ibn al-Mubārak, folio 119).
  • Third essay: it could be the most interesting part of this manuscript in which Ibn al- Mubārak speaks on different kinds of toxic snakes, and the variances between them. Moreover, he categorizes them according to months in a year (snakes which are toxic in July or August etc.), then he completes with the other toxic animals like scorpions, bees, and ants (Ibn al-Mubārak, folio 177).

To conclude this commentary, I would say that toxicology in Arabic medicine at the beginning of its golden era was deeply influenced by the Indian source of Shānāq. Afterwards, the medical Arabic encyclopedias discussed toxins, until writers composed specific books on toxicology. In particular, Ibn al-Mubārak who authored a brilliant book on toxicology “Kitāb al-Munqidh min al-Halakah” which, based upon its contents, might work as a full encyclopedia for toxicological sciences during the Arabic civilization.

See the whole manuscript please click the below link:

https://www.loc.gov/resource/amedscd.2008401929/?sp=1&st=slideshow

Figure 3.Kitāb al-Munqidh min al-Halakah” pages screenshot is from the Library of Congress (Source)

References

  • Al-Bābā, M.Z. 1980, “Toxicology in the Arabic medicine”, in Arabic Heritage Journal, vol. 1:2, pp. 62-79, Damascus.
  • Haq, S. N. 1994, Names, Natures and Things: The Alchemist Jābir ibn Ḥayyān and his Kitāb al-Ahjār (Book of Stones), Harvard University.
  • Ibn Abī Uṣaybiʿa, 1965. ʿUyūn al-anbāʾ fī ṭabaqāt al-aṭibbāʾ, Beirut.
  • Ibn Al-Mubārak, Al-Ḥasan Ibn Abī Tha lab, Kitāb al-Munqidh min al-halakah fī daf maḍārr al-sumūm al-muhlikah. [2 Rajab 834 H 16 March 1431], MS Washington, Library ofCongress. Arabic manuscripts, SM-47, https://www.loc.gov/item/2008401929/ (last accessed February 22, 2021).
  • Ibn Hubal, Muhadhab Al-Dīn. 1943. Kitāb al-Mukhtārāt fi ṭ-Ṭibb, Istanbul.
  • Ibn Sīnā (Avicenna), 2006. Al-Qānūn fi ṭ-Ṭibb, Beirut.
  • Khalīfah, Ḥājī. 1941. Kashf al-Ẓunūn, Beirut.
  • Salāmih, M.Y. 2014. Kitāb Shānāq fi s-Sumūm wa-t-tiryāq, manuscripts center, Alexandria.
  • Shānāq, 1934. “Das Giftbuch des Śānāq. Eine literaturgeschichtliche Untersuchung”, ed. Bettina Strauss, In: Quellen und Studien zur Geschichte der Naturwissenschaften Bd. 4 (Heft 2), Berlin.
  • Tschanz, D.W. 2003, “A short history of Islamic pharmacy”. In JISHIM, vol. 1:3. PP. 11-17.
  • Ullmann, Manfred: “Edelsteine als Antidota. Ein Kapitel aus dem Giftbuch des ibn al-Mubârak”, In Janus 61 (1974), pp. 73-89 (reprinted in id.: Aufsätze zur arabischen Rezeption der griechischen Medizin und Naturwissenschaft Aufsätze, Boston/Berlin 2016, pp.430-446)

Citation: Atat, A.Y. (2021). A Commentary on Toxicology in the Arabic Civilization. Academia Letters, Article 1486. https://doi.org/10.20935/AL1486. Ayman Yasin Atat , Einstein Guest Researcher, Freie Universität Berlin, Seminar für Semitistik und Arabistik, Fabeckstraße 23/25, Berlin

 

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