Ibn Riḍw

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(b. El Gīzah, Egypt, a.d. 998; d. Cairo, Egypt. A.D, 1061 or 1069)


Most of what is known about Ibn Riḍwān’s life is based upon the information about him given by Ibn al-Qiftī and Ibn Abī Usaybi’a, although his own autobiography offers some additional clues. His father was employed in a bakery, and Ibn Riḍwān himself referred to his own early poverty, Ibn Riḍwātn early displayed a taste for study, and went to Cairo at the age of ten; when he was about fifteen he began to teach himself medicine while earning his living by casting horoscopes for passersby. He married when he was about thirty and adopted one child, an orphan girl who, around 1044, disappeared with his money and valuables. The shock is said to have affected Ibn Riḍwān’s sanity. He was happier in his medical career, and it is reported that his advice was sought by the king of Makran, Abū’l-Mu’askar, who had suffered a hemiplegia. His success was assured when a Fātamid caliph of Cairo named him chief of all the physicians in Egypt; J. Schacht identifies this ruler as al-Mustansir, who reigned from 1036 to 1094, rather than al-Hākim (whose name is given by Ibn Abī Usaybi’a), who died in 1021, when Ibn Riḍwān was only twenty-three.

Ibn Riḍwān’s short autobiography is preserved in the work of Ibn Abī Usaybi’a. In it Ibn Riḍwān asserts that each man should practice the profession that most suits him. In his own case, it is clear that the configuration of the heavens on the day of his birth predestined him for medicine, a science that, he emphasizes, borders closely on philosophy and is equally pleasing to God. His piety is everywhere apparent; although he stipulated that the physician should be paid in cash for his consultations, and should not lend money except in cases of real necessity, he also stated that if borrowed money is not returned, the loan should be considered an act of charity, done for God, who also sustained him in more severe defeats.

Ibn Riḍwān subscribed to a code of scrupulous medical ethics, Hippocratic in inspiration. He pledged to be cleanly dressed, to perfume his clothes, to be pure of heart and chaste of eye, and not to desire women or seek riches. He was to keep professional secrets and to avoid bullying the patient, in whom he should rather inspire confidence and whom he must treat gently and without deception. He swore not to use dangerous remedies, to respect life, and not to perform abortions. Like al-Ghazālī, Ibn Riḍwān thought medicine as useful to the soul as to the body, and even wrote a treatise on how to attain happiness through medicine. He was interested in treating the soul, and made notes on the works of Posidonius and Philagrius. which might loosely be termed psychiatric and neurological. He saw a relationship between medicine and morality, and was further concerned with the survival of the soul after death, in which connection he drew upon the ideas of Plato and Aristotle.

Ibn Riḍwān’s lofty conception of the art of medicine was complemented by his conscientious practice of it. He combined his considerable theoretical knowledge with careful clinical observation. He asserted that the physician should first consider the exterior aspect of the parts of the body and note the color, temperature, and texture of the skin; he should then examine the function of the internal and external organs, testing, for example, the acuteness of hearing and vision and the articulation of speech by the tongue. Ibn Riḍwān also advocated evaluating the muscles of the patient by having him lift weights, and ascertaining the force of his prehension by having him grasp objects. He recommended observing the walk of the patient, both forward and backward, palpating the abdomen to determine the state of the intestines, feeling the pulse to discover the “temperament.” of the heart, and examining the urine and humors to determine the condition of the liver. He asked the patient questions to determine his state of mind, and carefully noted his responses, as well as aspects of his behavior and personal preferences. He attempted to discover whether the patient’s affliction was of recent origin or of long duration, and he based his treatment on all of these factors.

At the end of his autobiography Ibn Riḍwān lists some of the books that he had read, including works of literature and religious law, Hippocrates and Galen, Dioscorides’ treatise on simples, Rufus of Ephesus, Oribasius, Paul of Aegina, al-Rāzī’s Al-Hawi, writings about agriculture and pharmacopoeias. Ptolemy’s Almagest and Qnadripartitum, and Plato, Aristotle. Alexander of Aphrodisias, Themistius, and al-Fārābī. This list reflects the scope of Ibn Riḍwān’s self-education, although he was frequently attacked as an autodidact who had only book learning. He defended the superiority of his training, however, and denounced his critics for the slightest deviation from ancient texts; he thus became involved in a controversy with Ibn Butlān, who offered both logical and psychological arguments to prove that verbal teaching facilitates learning. Ibn Riḍwān wrote several polemics against Ibn Butlān, on this and other subjects, and also attacked Hunayn ibn Ishāq for his translation of Galen and al-Rāzī, for his doubts concerning Galen, and for impiety and the denial of prophecy. He wrote against Ibn alJazzār and Ibn al-Tayyib, whom he accused of sophistry.

Ibn Riḍwān’s medical writings embraced a wide variety of topics. He was the author of about fourteen commentaries on, and summaries of, Hippocrates and Galen; his commentary on the latter’s Ars parva was translated into Hebrew, as was his compendium of the principles of medicine. He also wrote a series of short treatises on the treatment of elephantiasis, purgatives, syrups and electuaries, classifications of fevers, tumors, recurrent fevers, and asthma, as well as a book on medical education. A longer book dealt with diseases prevalent in Egypt; Ibn Riḍwān there discussed preventive measures, sanitation, the rules of hygiene, and the causes of plague, a disease of which he had had firsthand experience during an epidemic in Cairo in 1044. He compiled notes on pharmacology and a dictionary of simples, arranged alphabetically.

Ibn Riḍwān’s nonmedical works comprise treatises on Aristotelian physics (on the superiority of Aristotle’s science, on heat, and on the physical existence of points and lines), metaphysical tracts (on prime matter and the eternal existence of the world), and books on the climatology of Egypt and the utility of Porphyry’s Isagoge. His commentary on Ptolemy’s Quadripartitum was translated into Latin and is extant in an edition printed in Venice. Although he championed the written word, Ibn Riḍwān also lectured; his students included the Fātamid prince al-Mubashshir ibn al-Fātik, himself a writer and philosopher, and the Jewish physician Afraim ibn al-Zaffar.

It is apparent from his writings and his activities that Ibn Riḍwān possessed a logical and calculating mind, coupled with a great love of his profession and of knowledge itself. His character must have been formed in part by the poverty of his early years, since he was economical, while eschewing both waste and parsimony, and constantly concerned with financial security and providing for his old age. He was nonetheless generous to others, an attitude fostered by his religious faith and perhaps by his natural goodness. He was cautious and regulated his life methodically. Although he was jealous of his fame, and sometimes intemperate in debate, he was modest about his own accomplishments, calling himself merely industrious and criticizing his own lack of scientific rigor. It must, in fact, be admitted that Ibn Riḍwān did not advance the course of medicine. In his controversies, for example, he displayed a rather scholastic mentality, and his strict adherence to the Greek masters may be at least in part the result of his self-tuition. But he remains a good witness to the science of his time, and his was a complex personality, not without charm.


On Ibn Riḍwān and his work, see Ibn al-Qiftī, Ta’rīkh al-hukamā’ (“History of the Philosophers”), J. Lippert, ed. (Leipzig, 1903), 443–444; Ibn Abī Usaybia, ‘Uyūn al anbā’ fi ̣abaqāt al-ạibbā’, II (“Sources of Information on the Categories of Doctors”; Cairo, 1884), 99–105; C. Brockelmann, ed., Geschichte der arabischen Literatur, I (Leiden, 1943), 637, supp. I, p. 886; M. C. Lyons, “‘On the Nature of Man’ in ’Alī Ibn Riḍwān’s Epitome,” in Al-Andalus, 30 (1965), 181–188; C. Gabrieli, in Isis, 6 (1924), 500–506; and M. Meyerhof and J. Schacht, The Medico-philosophical Controversy Between Ibn Butlan of Baghdad and Ibn Ridwan, a Contribution to the History of Greek Learning Among the Arabs (Cairo, 1937).

A translation of the second part of Risalā f̄ daf’ madārr al-abdān bi-ard Misr (“Treatise on Avoiding What is Harmful for the Body in Egypt”), is by M. Meyerhof, in Sitzungsberichte der Physikalisch-medizinischen Sozietät in Erlangen, 54 (1923), 197–214; and in Comptes rendus du Congrès international de médecine tropicale et d’hygiène, II (Cairo, 1929), 211–235.

Roger Arnaldez

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Ibn Riḍw

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