Ibn Buṭlān, Abuʾl-Ḥasan Al-Mukhtār Ibn ʿAbdūn Ibn SaʿDūn
(b. Baghdad, ca. beginning eleventh century; d. Antioch, 460/1068)
He was a Christian physician who first practiced in Baghdad. His master, Abu’I-Faraj ibn al-Ṭayyib, was also a Christian. He taught at a hospital founded in Baghdad by ‘Adud al-Dawla, who held him in high esteem and who made him study a great many medical works. Ibn Buṭlãn also knew well Abu’I-Hasan Thābit ibn Ibrāhim al-Ḥarrāni and felt that the latter had taught him most of the practical medicine he knew.
In 440/1049 he left his native city, and came to Fusṭaṭ, Egypt, by way of al-Raḥba, al-Ruṣāfa, Aleppo, Antioch, and Lattaquié. There he met the physician ‘Alī ibn Riḍwān with whom he engaged in sharp controversy. Then he continued on to Constantinople, where the plague was rampant. From there he returned to Antioch. Finally, tired of his wanderings and disappointed by his associations with ignorant people, he retired to a monastery in that city where he remained as a monk until his death.
Ibn al-Qifṭī has preserved for us an account he made of his trip (which was later used by Yāqūt). In it he displays his curious, observing, open-minded character; in particular, his description of Antioch is both interesting and precise (sites, monuments, fortifications). He furnishes us with a specific recollection of the coexistence between Christians and Moslems in Lattaquié, and of the customs practiced in that city. He shows himself to be hungry for contacts with men of learning in all the lands he visited. But it appears that his somewhat difficult, overbearing personality did not make for prolonged relationships. Ibn al-Qifṭī recalls that in Aleppo he was an utter failure with the Christians, whose community he wanted to dominate and whose religious life he wanted to reform.
But it is his controversy with Ibn Riḍwān (excerpts of which have been preserved by Ibn al-Qifṭī) that proves how cunning and tough he was beneath a facade of gentleness. He reminded his adversary that on Judgment Day his patients would demand justice against their poor physicians and that he would have to face his accusers, who would be much more unmerciful than Ibn Buṭlān himself was. He prayed to God that Ibn Riḍwān should be enlightened.
Among the many questions he dealt with, mention can be made of (1) the difficulty of eradicating prejudices and doubts brought about by a purely bookoriented concept of science; (2) the obligation not to condemn the ancients merely by superficial reflection on seemingly contradictory statements: interesting observations on the logic of interpreting texts and the essence of languages and problems of Galen and Aristotle and obvious inconsistencies in works by Aristotle himself; (3) the discussion with a student of Ibn Riḍwān who, in treating everyday fever, practiced purges to treat blood thickness and bleedings to counteract bile; (4) anomalies in the relationship of food and disease to warm and cold climates (i.e., winter and summer), the internal temperature of the body, and why the need to urinate wakes one up when one dreams that this urge has been satisfied, whereas in an erotic dream there is a discharge of sperm during sleep itself.
In developing this theme, Ibn Buṭiān first grapples with questions of physics (the nature of the attraction of iron to magnets), geometry (Euclid’s negative definition of the point), an examination of Aristotle’s definition of place (if there is no place outside of this world, then the enveloping sphere moves in local motion but not in one single place). He also defended Ḥunayn ibn Isḥāq against the obtuseness of Ibn Riḍwān.
Thus it is clear that Ibn Buṭlān had scientific and philosophical knowledge that extended beyond his knowledge of medicine. Besides Aristotle and Galen he refers to Themistius, Porphyry, and Anebo. He was part of an era that came out of the era of translations, but which, by means of clinical experimentation and observation, sought to verify, extend, and correct the heritage of the Anciencts by applying it according to the tradition introduced a century earlier by Rāzi.
I. Original Works. Taqwīm al-ṣiḥḥa (“Health Tables”), trans. into Latin as Tacuini sanitatis Elluchasem Elimithar medici (Strasbourg, 1531–1532), and into German by M. Herum as Schachtafeln der Gesundheit (Strasbourg, 1532); Da‘wat al-aṭibbā, (“Vocation of Physicians”), Basara Zalzal, ed. (Alexandria, 1901); Tadbīr al-amrāḍ al-‘ārīḍa ‘ala’I-akthar bi’I-aghdhiya al-ma’slūfa wa’I-adwiya al-mawjūda yantati’u bihū runbān al-adyira wa-man ba‘uda min al-madina (“Diet for Diseases Caused Mainly by Customary Food, and Current Remedies Practiced by Monks in Monasteries and Other Persons Living Far Away From Cities”), in manuscript form; Risāla fī shirā’ al-raqīq wa-tqlīb al-’abid (“Treatise on the Purchase and Examination of Slaves”), instructions for detecting bodily defects in slaves, in manuscript form; Maqāla fi anna’I-farrūkh aḥarru min al-farkh (“Dissertation: the Chick Is Warmer Than the Fledgling”).
II. Secondary Literature. Ibn Abī Uṣaybi‘a, Müller, ed., I, 241; Ibn al-Qifṭī, Lippert, ed., p. 294; Leclerc, Histoire de la mèdecine arabe, I, 489; H. Derenbourg, Vie d’Usama b. Munqid (anecdotes on Ibn Butlān’s sense of observation, used by E.G. Browne, Arabian Medicine, French trans., La médecine arabe [Paris, 1933], pp. 81–82); Brockelmann, Geschichte der arabischen Literarur (Leiden 1943) I, 636, Supp. I, p. 885; Encylopédie de I’Islam, article on Ibn Buṭlān; M. Meyerhof and J. Schacht, The Medoco-philosophical Controversy Between Ibn Batlan and Ibn Ridwan, a Contribution to the History of Greek Learning Among the Arabs (Cairo, 1937); I. Krachkowski, Izbrannie sochinenia, IV (Moscow, 1957), 266–267.