Razi Abu Bakr Muhammad Ibn Zakariyya' Al-

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known in the Latin West as Rhazes (b. Rayy, south of today’s Teheran, Iran, 1 Sa'ban 251/28 August 865; d. Rayy, 5 Sa'ban 313/26 October 925 [or perhaps ten years later, 935?]), medicine, alchemy, logic and philosophy, religious criticism. For the original article on Al-Rāzī see DSB, vol. 11.

Since Shlomo Pines wrote his entry for the original Dictionary of Scientific Biography (1975), only a few new data have emerged about Rāzī’s life. The situation that the rich bio-bibliographical share of classical and medieval Arabic literature conspicuously neglects Rāzī has not changed, and the well-known reasons for this—Rāzī’s distance from the caliph’s capital Baghdad for the greater part of his life, and more saliently, his position as an outsider to the scholarly establishment and as a freethinker— remain the same. However, the precise dates of his birth and death recorded by al-Bīrūnī in his account of Rāzī’s works may well be trusted. The information that the debate between Abū Bakr al-Rāzī and Abū Hatim al-Rāzī was conducted before the governor of Rayy, Mardāwīj, who took over the town only in 930 CE, would suggest a later year of death for Rāzī (as later authorities have it), but it has been plausibly argued that the actual governor was not Mardāwīj, but Ahmad b. 'Ali who died in 923 or 924 CE. Bīrūnī’s precise recording of Rāzī’s dates might also serve to credit his family with a certain level of education and affluence, which would also have facilitated his access to the scholarship to which his works amply attest. Rāzī’s scholarly relations include two students of the philosopher al-Kindī, al-Sarakhsi and Abū Zayd al-Balkhi, the latter of whom he mentions as his teacher in philosophy and for whom he in turn wrote a recipe—an early example of its kind—against Abū Zayd’s rose allergy during spring in Balkh. He exchanged letters on religious-philosophical problems with some other colleagues from Balkh, Abū l-Qāsim al-Ka'bi and Abū l-Husayn Shahid. Rāzī’s only known disciple is the Christian philosopher Yahyā ibn 'Adī, who later went on to study with the famous philosopher al-Farābī (d. 950).

Medical Writings Rāzī’s largest medical work, and the work for which he was most famous in the Latin tradition, K. al-Hāwī (Continens), still represents a largely unexploited treasure of medical information, much of it otherwise lost, from Greek, Sanskrit, Syriac, and early Islamic sources, complemented by his own clinical observations (introduced by li, meaning as for myself) on diagnosis and therapy. The complicated manuscript history of the text has not been investigated since 1975 (and will probably remain a desideratum for some time), but a few studies show that the Hāwī is composed of a series of thematically neighboring, yet independent, monographs. These studies illustrate the method of composition and prove that the choice of quotations (entirely from written sources) and their authenticity have to be examined from instance to instance, and that the ultimate product is not Rāzī's. Rather, it was written after Rāzī’s death by his students, who collected works from Rāzī’s files before the year 961, in which the dedicatee, the Buyid vizier Abū l-Fadl Ibn al-'Amid, died. Rāzī’s stance toward medical authority can meanwhile be, but has not so far in depth, studied in his Doubts concerning Galen. Both Rāzī’s ethical works and a number of medico-ethical texts of his, some of them only known by title, show that he sees his entire work, including his medical writing, as belonging to philosophy; medicine and alchemy are considered as natural philosophy, complemented by metaphysics, and both of these as opposed to mathematics (which he depreciates).

In his attempt to promote medicine to a philosophical discipline, Rāzī conspicuously deviates from the traditional framework of the Aristotelian/late-Alexandrian system of the sciences that also shaped Islamic classifications of the sciences. Here, medicine was mostly considered a mere craft, sina'a, lacking a theoretical basis. It is from this frame of reference that Rāzī as a physician was denigrated by later colleagues such as Avicenna and Maimonides, and also by the philosopher al-'Amiri, a near contemporary of Rāzī, who said that he heard people ascribe wisdom (hikma) to Rāzī—or describe him as a philosopher—because of his proficiency in medicine, in spite of his various ravings. On the other hand, Rāzī, in his Philosopher’s Way of Life, enumerates an impressive number of his works that successfully support his philosophical claims, covering, in rough order, the Aristotelian curriculum: Logic (in particular the Analytica posteriora), Metaphysics, Ethics (for example, his Spiritual Physick), Physics, Cosmology, Psychology, and ending in Medicine and Alchemy.

Rāzī’s interest in the professional ethics and sociology of medical practice is illustrated by titles such as On Examining the Physician and Treatise on the Causes why Most People Turn Away From Excellent Physicians Toward the Worst Ones. Rāzī’s most influential medical work, his Compendium for[the Sāmānid governor of Rayy] al-Mansur, extant in many manuscripts and in Hebrew and Latin translations (the latter done by Gerard of Cremona), and his celebrated monograph On Smallpox and Measles, with an equally long afterlife, remain understudied. The same applies to Rāzī’s K. al-Taqsim wa-l-tashjir (On Division and Ramification), which is a tool in graphic form to serve the differential diagnosis of illnesses, symptoms, and pains, and which represents one of the numerous monographs of Rāzī that have the practical aim of facilitating the physician’s job.

General Philosophical Stance It has long been noted that Rāzī’s open-minded attitude toward all natural phenomena was at the core of both his critique of Galen and his approach to alchemy: He famously points out that the Galenic doctrine that a warming or cooling body is always warmer or cooler than the body on which it acts does not necessarily hold for medicine where Rāzī reports the boosting effects of, for example, a warm beverage that heats up the patient to a much hotter temperature than the beverage itself was. In alchemy (Secret of Secrets, and the still-unpublished treatise on the [occult] Properties of Mineral, Vegetable and Animal Substances), Rāzī accepts the existence of unexplained phenomena and likewise analyzes his samples by experiment, rather than by ascribing magical qualities to them. Both these approaches, in medicine and in alchemy, had the potential to disintegrate the traditional doctrine of the four humours and the four elemental qualities, and they were taken up as an argument against that doctrine by later religious thinkers such as al-Ghāzalī.

Rāzī’s ethics, mainly represented in his Book of Spiritual Physick (A. J. Arberry’s translation) and his The Philosopher’s Way of Life (Pines), have been discussed extensively since the mid-1970s. As Rāzī himself said, his Spiritual Physick serves as a companion to the -K. al-Mānsuri, Rāzī’s great systematic handbook (edited in 1987) on the theory and practice of medicine. The definition of ethics as a kind of medicine for the soul may well go back to al-Kindī’s views, possibly negotiated by Abū Zayd al-Balkhi’s book Hygienics for Body and Soul. Rāzī’s philosophical asceticism, originally inspired by the example of Socrates, is tempered by the observation that human beings in general, and legitimately, seek pleasure, but are misguided by an irrational fear of death that seduces them to content themselves by gratifying their base appetites for power, food, or sex. The philosopher’s role in society is not that of an infallible authority to be followed; rather he is merely expected to demonstrate to his fellow citizens that happiness cannot be accumulated boundlessly and in fact does not exist by itself, but can be achieved only as a release from prior discomfort or irritation, and that fear of death, as well as speculations about the hereafter, have no rational basis. This position, including a kind of temperate hedonism along with a number of other features, may have its origin with Epicurean ethics. Other aspects of Rāzī’s ethical thought, such as his notion of the three aspects of the human soul and their equilibrium that should be pursued, as well as his views on death and the afterlife, may be seen as modifications of Galenic ideas.

It must be stressed, however, that as limited as Rāzī sees the philosopher’s function as a model for society in general, equally small is his willingness to rely on book learning as opposed to empirically acquired knowledge. One of the most striking examples of this stance is a debate between Rāzī and his compatriot, Abū Hatim arRāzī, an Isma'ili theologian and missionary, about revelation, prophecy, cosmological problems, and about the question of the proper attitude toward scholarly authorities. The so-called debate between the two Rāzīs has been preserved in Abū Hatim al-Rāzī’s work Signs of Prophet-hood. (It remains unclear whether it constitutes a straightforward record of the debate and to what degree he distorts Rāzī’s argument.) Abū Hatim’s authorship causes Rāzī to have the worst of the argument; however, the modern reader’s attention lies on what he (Abu Bakr alRāzī, the subject of this article) has to say.

“Abu-Hatim: […] How is it possible, then, that the subject should be higher than the sovereign, and the led a more accomplished philosopher that the leader? Abū Bakr: On this issue I will now state something to you whereby you will know that the matter is indeed as I have mentioned, and you will (be able to) recognize the true from the false on this subject. Know that when every succeeding philosopher expends his zeal in philosophical investigations, applies himself with perseverance and assiduity to them, and researches issues that are controversial on account of their subtlety and difficulty, he learns from his predecessors their knowledge, retains it, and supplements it with other things through his sagacity and numerous researches and investigations. This is so because, proficient now in the knowledge of his predecessors, he becomes aware of other useful ideas (fawa'id) and learns even more, since research, investigation, and assiduity necessarily result in additional and Abūndant material.” (Translation with references in Gutas 1988)

Gutas describes Rāzī’s position as follows: “Central to Abū-Bakr’s argument is the concept of progress in the acquisition of truth. This lies at the root of his disagreement with the theologian Abū-Hatim for whom truth, by the very nature of what he is professing, was revealed complete all at once. (…) Past philosophers, ‘the ancients,’ discovered Fundamental Principles (usul), and each succeeding generation of philosophers, after learning all they had to teach them, added to their store of knowledge and supplemented it” (Gutas, 1988). In addition to Rāzī’s remarkable emphasis on the epistemological principles of learning and research, this debate also contains ideas about cosmology, prophecy and revealed religion, and the hereafter, that in their unheard-of audacity must have horrified his opponent. These have led to a kind of damnatio memoriae in the Islamic scholarly tradition, and have fascinated and dominated Western scholarship since Paul Kraus’ studies, not least in the past three decennia.

Abu Hatim’s text itself has been re-edited in 1977, translated in part, summarized and analyzed, and interpreted under the titles of the Iranian background of Rāzī’s cosmological ideas, the political context of postcolonialism, and of the concept of heterodoxy.

Writings on Religion Rāzī uses five formative principles in his cosmological systems, as did many of his Iranian predecessors, most of whom were Dualists or Zoroastrians. Of the many designers of cosmologies that are reported by heresiographers such as al-Shahrastani and historians such as al-Mas'udi, one philosopher stands out, Abū l-'Abbas al-Iranshahri (fl. 873), a contemporary of Rāzī and to all evidence an influence on him in these matters. It is in working with Iranshahri’s system that Rāzī was compelled to take issue with the question whether the creator has brought into existence the world automatically, that is, by his very nature, or in a special act of volition. Rāzī opts for the latter, because it is only in this option that the creator remains uncreated, as he should be. If this is so, if the creator is older than his creation and the creation came into existence only by his act of volition, then the question arises why he had not taken this decision from the beginning. Meier describes Rāzī’s situation as follows:“[It is at this junction that] Rāzī was confronted with the principal question, and he answered it by jumping into the notorious pentad of uncreated entities, first of all saying that there must have co-existed along with God something else that was uncreated which impelled him to change his intention from not creating anything to creating the world” (Meier, 1992, p. 9). This something else is the soul (nafs), alive and unknowing. Another passage shows clearly the accord between Iranshahri and Rāzī, where the former is quoted as saying that “time is a sign of God’s knowing, as space is a sign of his power (qudrat), movement a sign of his activity, and matter/body (jism) a sign of his energy (quwwat). Every one of these four is unlimited and uncreated. Time is a wandering and restless substance. A statement of [Rāzī] who follows Iranshahri amounts to the same: Time is a passing substance” (Meier 1992). The four uncreated principles that in Iranshahri’s system clearly are subordinated to God while representing him, are counterparts to Rāzī’s quartet of time, space, soul, and matter. Iranshahri’s movement corresponds with Rāzī’s soul, which in a kind of echo of Iranshahri’s notion indeed introduces movement into the static situation prevailing so far by falling in love with matter and moving God in his mercy and power to allow soul to unite with matter and set the world in motion. Mahdi says Rāzī thus

[…] seems to be trying to present a coherent and defensible theory of creation that can absolve God of the evils of creation. On the one hand, he tries to resolve some of the difficulties facing kalam- theologians who attribute to God everything present in the physical world, including evil and ignorance. His God is pure knowledge and pure goodness, not responsible for the defects of creation. On the other hand, he is trying to argue against the eternalists, all those who held the view that […] the defects of the world below […] do not reflect on the maker of the world, since the world had no ‘maker’” (Mahdi 1996).

It is an interesting, though unanswerable question, whether Rāzī himself would have been willing to accept the possibility that his own system of the five eternals might be subject to a better explanation by future thinkers.

Another instance of Rāzī’s rootedness in Iranian intellectual tradition, notwithstanding his originality of thought, may be noticed in his stance toward the message of the prophet Muhammad in particular, and to prophet-hood in general. Islam was brought by Arabs from the Arabic peninsula to non-Arabs in far-away regions of Asia and Africa, and it served and was perfectly understood as a religion to organize both individual daily life and collective political affairs. Both Abū Hatim and Abū Bakr alRāzī belonged to a generation of postcolonialism that was characterized by Arabic conquerors who had long mediated their beliefs and values to the conquered Iranians, nonetheless allowed the Iranians to retain, and accentuate, their cultural identity. In the time of the two Rāzīs, although the Islamic-Arabic empire had long broken up, there remained a close cultural bond between the former rulers and their subjects. When the two Rāzīs conducted their debate, all of Iran was ruled by Iranians. It is only one of the many features of postcolonial Iran that the role of the prophet Muhammad was seen by both Rāzīs as political, the law he had brought being only about the organization of the community. For the philosopher Rāzī,

“the so-called revelation was simply politics in disguise: the so-called prophets claimed that their warfare and (by implication) the political activities leading to it were ordered by God, but God had nothing to do with mundane affairs. As he saw it, the truth was elevated above such affairs, and accessible through the intellect which all humans shared, not through membership of this or that community, and it was not a prescription for order in this world at all, but on the contrary something that purified your soul of worldly concerns and caused you to be released from this world.” (Crone, 2006)

For the religious propagandist Abū-Hatim al-Rāzī, on the other hand, although the law of the Prophet was equally temporary, it was practically necessary for the maintenance of communal organization. The inner meaning of the revelation was necessary for salvation, and in order to decipher revelation’s symbols one had to take recourse to the authority of the imams, not that of the prophets—one fault as horrible as the other in Abū Bakr al-Rāzī’s eyes. Crone summarizes the situation this way:

“[W]e are now in the period that some call the Iranian intermezzo and others the Renaissance of Islam, with reference to the return of the abovementioned Iranian rulers plus Persian culture and the Persian language on the one hand and that of Greek science and philosophy (without the rulers) on the other. The debate between the two Rāzīs is symptomatic in that respect, too, for both men were Iranians and most of what they said had long roots in Near Eastern culture.” (Crone, 2006, p. 19) It is difficult to assess Rāzī’s exact position in his contemporary society, professional and otherwise. He must have enjoyed a wide reputation as a physician, at court and in the hospitals. His philosophy and worldview were well known, although, to the extent his views were pro-grammatically heretical, they were hushed and do not even figure in his auto-bibliography. It may well be that in the two generations following al-Kindi a greater variety of theological and philosophical views were discussed than the literature of the tenth and eleventh century would suggest, cf. for instance the information collected in van Ess 1997 and the list of works by Kindi’s students al-Sarakhsi and Abū Zayd al-Balkhi. “It is thus possible that some views, which would be considered shockingly heretical in the fifth Islamic century, could still have offered a legitimate option a century earlier” (Stroumsa, 1999). However, had it not been for Rāzī’s incontestable excellence and integrity of conviction, the Islamic intellectual world would perhaps have regarded freethinking as a dismissible slip of an eccentric; after him it was prepared “to strike pre-emptively against any danger, real or imagined, of the resurgence of this folly” (Stroumsa, 1999).



Abu Hatim al-Rāzī. A'lam al-nubuwwa. Edited by Salah as-Sawi, Ghulamrida A'wani. Tehran, Iran: Imperial Iranian Academy of Philosophy, 1977.

K. al-Mudkhal ila l-tibb. Edited by M. de la Concepción Vazquez de Benito. Salamanca, Spain: Universidad, 1979.

K. Sirr sina'at al-tibb. Edited and translated by R. Kuhne. alQantara 3 (1982), 5 (1984), 6 (1985). -K. al-Mānsuri fi l-tibb. Edited by Hazim al-Bakri al-Siddiqi. alKuwayt: Publications of Institute of Arab Manuscripts, 1987.

K. al-Taqsim wa-l-tasg ir. Edited [under the title TaQāsim al-'ilal] by S. M. Hammami. Syria: University of Aleppo, Institute for the History of Arabic Science, 1992.

K. al-Sukuk 'ala Jalinus. Edited by M. Mohaghegh. Tehran, Iran: Mu'assasa-i Mutala'at-i Islami, 1372/1993.


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Brague, Rémi. Rhazès. La medicine spirituelle [K. al-Tibb alruhani]. Paris: Garnier-Flammarion, 2003.

Bryson, Jennifer S. The Kitab al-Hāwī of Rāzī (ca. 900 AD), Book One of the Hāwī on Brain, Nerve, and Mental Disorders: Studies in the Transmission of Medical Texts from Greek into Arabic into Latin. PhD diss. Yale University, 2000.

Crone, Patricia. “Post-Colonialism in Tenth-Century Islam.” Der Islam 83 (2006): 2–38. On Rāzī’s debate with Abū Hatim alRāzī.

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Hinrich Biesterfeldt