AL-MAJūSī, ABU’L-ḤASAN ‘ALī IBN ‘ABBāS
(latinized as Haly Abbas ) (b. al-Ahwāz-Khūzistān, near Shiraz, Persia, first quarter of the tenth century; d. Shiraz, a.d. 994)
medicine, pharmacology, natural science.
Nothing is known of al-Majūsī’s ancestry except that the nickname Majūsī suggests that he, or most probably his father, was originally a Zoroastrian and that he does not seem to have traveled much outside his native country. Al-Maajūsī received his medical training under the physician Abū Māhir Mūsū ibn Sayyār, author of a commentary of a commentary on phlebotomy. Al-Majūsī served King Adud al-Duwla (d. 983), to whom he dedicated his only medical compendium, Kāmil al-Ṣinā’ah al-Tibbiyyah, called al-Maliki (Liber regius) in honor of his patron, who bore the title Shāgabsihāh (“king of kings”).
The Kāmil consists of twenty treatises on the theory and practice of medicine (ten on each). In it the author referred to how he has studied and used indigenous medicinal plants, as well as animal and mineral products, as therapeutics. Although several important physicians and natural scientists appeared in tenth-century Iraq and Persia, only a few seem to have been known to or acknowledged by al-Majūsī. For example, he referred to the two books of al-Rāsā (865–925), the most prolific and original medical author in tenth-century Persia and the leading clinician, social scientist, and alchemist of his time. Yet al-Majūsī did not mention his countryman and contemporary al-Husayn ibn Nūh al-Qumrī, author of the famous book Ghanā wa-Manā (“On Life and Death”), or Ahmad ibn Abī al-Ash‘ath of Mosul, author of a praiseworthy text on the powers and utility of the materia medica entitled Quwa ’l-Adwiya ’-Mufrada and one of the best medical educators of his time. From the introductory remarks in the Kāmil, al-Majūsī seems to have been critical of his predecessors, even those whom he quoted and whose writings influenced him, such as Hippocrates, Galen, Oribasius (fourth century), Ahrun the Priest (sixth century), and Yūhannā ibn Sirābiyūn (ninth century). He did, however, praise Ḥunayn ibn Ishāq (d. 873) as a reliable translator and fine scholar.
Al-MajūSī gave the following interesting, surprisingly accurate, and almost modern description of pleurisy: “Pleurisy is an inflammation of the pleura, with exudation which pours materials over the pleura from the head or chest…. Following are the four symptoms that always accompany pleurisy: fever, coughing, pricking in the side, and difficult breathing (dyspnea).” In defining theoretical medicine, he recognized three areas:
1. Knowledge of natural (instinctive) matters, such as the elements, temperaments, humors, actions, faculties (or powers), and parts.
2. Knowledge of things not part of human (instinctive) nature. This he apparently copied from Ḥunayn ibn Isḥāq’s Ars medica (al-Masā’il fi’l-Tibb), which defined them as the six essential principles: the air we breathe and how to be free from pollution, work and rest, diet, wakefulness and slumber, use of vomit-inducing drugs and laxatives, and psychological impulses.
3. Knowledge of things outside the realm of natural conditions of the human body and which are concerned with diseases, their causes, and their symptoms.
In describing the arteries and veins, al-Majūsī spoke of their divisions into numerous thin tubules spreading like hairs and of the connection between arteries and veins through tiny pores. He also described the function of the three valves in each of the pulmonary arteries, the aorta, and the two in what he called the veinal artery (most probably referring to the atrio-ventricular valves).
Al-Majūsī also propagated health measures to preserve normal conditions of body and mind, such as diet, rest and work, bathing, and physical exercises. For example, he cited three advantages of exercise:
1. It awakens and increases innate heat to enable the attraction and digestion of foods for assimilation by body organs (metabolism).
2. It helps relieve the body of its superfluities and cleans and expands its pores.
3. It solidifies and strengthens the body’s organs by inducing contacts among them so that the body functions harmoniously and is able to resist disease.
Furthermore, he said of sleep that it helps to relax and refresh the brain and the senses, as well as assisting in digestion and normalizing humors.
Long before Ibn Sīnā, al-Majūsī emphasized the importance of psychotherapy and the relationship between psychology and medicine. Emotional reactions (manifestations, a‘rāḍ nafsāniyya), he explained, may cause sickness or promote good health, depending on how they are controlled. He also spoke of passionate love and how it can cause illness if it has no fulfillment.
In addition, al-Majūsī discussed meteorlogy, hygiene, human behavior, and surgery, recommending frequent use of phlebotomy. In the section on embryology he clearly explained the presently accepted fact that the fetus is pushed out in parturition. His discussion of poisons, their symptoms, and their antidotes is an important chapter in the history of medieval toxicology. Furthermore, al-Majūsī elaborated on the effects of the use of opiates in a manner which is of interest to the history of drug addiction and abuse. His general discussions of materia medica and the therapeutics of crude and compound drugs are based on Dioscorides and Galen, with additions of indigenous, familiar drugs. Like his predecessor al-Rāzī, he used and promoted chemotherapy.
Regarding medical deontology, al-Majūsī emphasized the highest ethical standards and asked his colleagues, as well as all practitioners and medical students, to observe them as ordered and upheld in the Hippocratic writings. He also opposed the use of contraception, or of drugs that cause abortion, except in cases involving the physical or mental health of the mother, attitudes still heard and commended today.
Al-Majūsī boasted that in his Kāmil he covered the three most important points of a medical text: dealing with the most needed and highly honored art of healing; presentation of a much-improved medical compendium; and comprehensive coverage of the topic. In several areas, however, he seems to have fallen short of his objectives. Nonetheless, his diligent studies, personal observations, and detailed coverage of medical matters won al-Majūsī’s book the high prestige it deserved in Islam. It was translated more than once into Latin and incunabula copies exist in many libraries, a proof of its wide acceptance and circulation in East West for almost five centuries.
I. Original Works. Al-Majūsī’s Kāmil al-ṣnā ’l-ṭibbiyya in 20 treatises is believed to be his only medical contribution. Numerous Arabic MSS (complete of fragmentary) exist in many libraries. It was published in 2 vols., on eon medical theory and one on medical practice (Cairo, 1877). The ninth treatise was also published on its own (Lucknow, 1906). The Kāmil was rendered in part into Latin in the Pantegni Constantine the African (d. ca. 1085). In 1127 Stephen of Antioch translated the entire work into Latin, with annotations by Michael de Capella. This trans. was edited by antonius Vitalis Pyrranensis and was first published under the title Liber regalis dispositio nominatus ex arabico venetiis (Venice, 1492), repr. under the title Liber totius medicineae necessariae continens, quem Haly filius Abbas edidit regique inscripsit (Lyons-Leiden, 1523)
II. Secondary Literature. In Arabic the earliest and best biographies of al-Majūsī and accounts of his work are Jamāl al-Din ‘Ali al-Qiftī, Tārīkh al-H¯kamā’, Julius Lippert, ed. (Leipzig, 1903), p. 232; and Aḥmad ibn Abī Uṣaybi’, ’Uyūn al-Anbā’, I (Cairo, 1882), 236–237. In the West during the nineteenth century many historians of medicine wrote on al-Majūsī. See (in chronological order) K. P. J. Sprengel, Versuch einer pragmatische Geshichte der Arzeykunde, II (Halle, 1823), 412–418; Fredinand Wüstenfeld, Geschichte der arabischen Aerzte und Naturforscher(Göttingen, 1840), p. 59; E. H. F. Meyer, Geschichte der Botanik, III (Königsberg, 1856), 176–178; Lucien Leclerc, Historie de la médecine arabe, I (Paris, 1876), 381–388; George J. Fisher, “Biography of Haly Abbas,” in Annals of Anatomy and Surgery, 7 (1883), 208, 255; and Ernst J. Gurlt, Geschichte der Chirurgie, I (Berlin, 1898), 615–618. Twentieth-centry works include P. de Koning, Traité sur le calcul dans les reins (Leiden, 1898), pp. 124–185; and Trois traītés d’ anatomie arabes (Leiden, 1903), pp. 90–431; Max Neuburger, Geschichte der Medizin, II, pt. I (Stuttgart, 1911), 210; and Paul Richter, “über die spezielle Dermatologie des Ali b. Abbas aus de 10. Jahrhunderts,” in Archiv für Dermatologie und Syphillis, 113 (1912), 849–864; after the earlier twentieth-century studies, the investigations of Edward G. Browne, Arabian Medicine (Cambridge, 1921), pp. 51–57, 123–124, added significant weight to the importance of al-Majūsī’s work.
Special studies, besides those of Koning and Richter, include an important comparison and evaluation, by J. Wiberg, “The Anatomy of the Brain in the Works of Galen and ‘Ali Abbās,” in Janus, 19 (1914), 17–32, 84– 104. For further discussions on al-Majūsī and his compendium see also (in chronological order) George Sarton, Introduction to the History of Science, I (Baltimore, 1927), 677–678; Carl Brockelmann, Geshichte der arabischen Literatur, I (Leiden, 1943), 273, and supp., I, 423; A. A. Khairallah, Outline of Arabic Contributions to Medicine (Beiurt, 1946), pp. 116–117; Cyril Elgood, A Medical History of Persia(Cambridge, 1951), pp. 99–100, 153–157,199, 279; A. Z. Iskandar, Arabic MSS. on Medicine and Sciences (London, 1967), pp. 119–124; and Sami Hamarneh, Fihris Makhtūtāt al-Ẓāhirīyah (Damascus, 1969), pp. 248–254.