At the start of this period the largest, most influential and probably the richest city in the world was Baghdad. It was just over a century old, having been established in 762, but it was a magnet for scholars, attracted by its libraries of works translated from Greek, Syriac, Sanskrit, Persian and Chinese.
The arts flourished too. This decorative panel is from Samarra, north of Baghdad and is one of the first appearances of the style now known as ‘arabesque’.
In this post I will focus on two men, both of whom lived in Baghdad. Both were highly accomplished and they came to very different world views.
The first was called Abu Bakr Muhammad al-Razi. He was born in Rayy (Razi) in Persia in around 860. Rayy is now a suburb of Tehran. He seems to have been a kind, clever and open-minded man, the sort of person you would feel richer for knowing.
As a young man al-Razi studied music, mathematics and philosophy, among other subjects. He was particularly renowned for his investigations into chemistry. However, his writings from his early life are now mainly known from quotes by later writers such as al-Biruni and Ibn Sina as the original documents have been lost.
Around the age of 30 he went to Baghdad, about 600 miles away. He studied medicine with Ali ibn Sahl, a famous physician of the city. (Ibn Sahl was a convert from Judaism. His father had translated Ptolemy’s Almagest into Arabic.) It is said that al-Razi soon surpassed his teachers. Around the year 900 the caliph al-Muktafi commissioned him to set up a hospital.
To select a site, he had pieces of fresh meat hung up outside at different places in the city. After a few days he checked each of them. The piece of meat that had shown the least putrefaction was deemed to be in the healthiest location, and that is where the hospital was built.
The hospital itself had a psychiatric ward as well as medical and surgical wards. There were baths for men and for women. It was organised as a series of circles. The most straightforward ailments were dealt with in the outer circle. Al-Razi himself looked after the inner circle of most difficult cases.
He kept copious records and wrote extensively. He even questioned the authority of Galen, the main reference for medicine in his world and in the west until the Renaissance. He questioned Galen’s theory of the four humours when he observed that the body of a patient who drinks a hot drink warms up by more than the temperature of the drink itself, suggesting that more is going on than the simple transfer of warmth.
He is the first person known to have used a control group in a medical trial. He divided a group of people showing the symptoms of meningitis into two subgroups. To one group he applied bloodletting and he left the other alone. He reported that the group who received bloodletting fared better than the control group.
He wrote a book on medical ethics. He said, “The doctor’s aim is to do good, even to our enemies, so much more to our friends…”. He acknowledged that some diseases, such as advanced cancer or leprosy, are incurable. He also acknowledged that untrained healers, including wise women, were often more successful in treating certain diseases than trained physicians like himself. He wrote a medical self-help book.
Al-Razi’s open-mindedness extended to religion, too, and that got him into trouble. For him, God has given humans the ability to think for themselves. To unquestioningly accept the dicta of a revealed religion would be an affront to this God-given ability.
I really like this man.
The other influential man of this period took a different view. Abu al-Hasan al-Ashari was born in Basra, south of Baghdad in 874. Until he was forty he probably would not have disagreed too much with al-Razi. Then it is said that he had three life-changing dreams. In these dreams Mohammed commanded him to adhere to tradition, which he took to mean the Quran and the collected sayings, the Hadith.
As a young man he had studied philosophy and engaged in the debates of the time. As so much had been translated over the previous century, many of the discussions revolved around integrating the wisdom of the ancients with the revealed religion of Islam.
The first pillar of Islam requires the adherent to attest to the unity of God: ‘There is no God but God, and Mohammed is his messenger’.
To me, that sounds fairly straightforward, but the scholars went into contortions over it. Is the Quran separate from God or, as it is God’s words, is it therefore part of God? Does God know everything, down to every flap of a butterfly’s wing? Where is human free will? Has the universe existed forever or was it created at a certain moment?
Islam is a practical religion. It is based on action rather than beliefs as is the case with christianity. All of the five pillars are actions. The first pillar is known as the shahada, which is translated as the attestation, the bearing witness. In other words, an action. There were debates about how to behave, what to do, and people looked to the Quran and the Hadith for guidance. Al-Ashari had been trained in the mental gymnastics of the philosophers, so when he joined the traditionalist camp he was well-prepared to engage the philosophers with their own tools.
For al-Ashari the focus became to know God better. The Quran was the word of God and so part of God and so eternal and uncreated. It was to be taken literally rather than metaphorically. When it talked of God’s hands or eyes, it meant that God has hands and eyes. To al-Ashari’s credit, he didn’t think that everything was understood. He believed that there was always room for improvement, so he didn’t think that the scholars had the final word yet. Although he declared that God is omnipotent, he found a way to incorporate free will (which I confess is too subtle for me and so I won’t go into it). He is remembered as one of the foremost sunni theologians.
Al-Razi had probably gone back to Rayy to set up a hospital there when al-Ashari moved to Baghdad. I don’t think they would have had much in common if they did meet.
And on a completely separate issue, the first reported use of the decimal point dates from the end of this period. The Book of Chapters of Hindu Arithmetic by al-Uqlidisi (literally, ‘the Euclidean’) was written in Damascus. He set a problem of calculation to which the answer was 179.685, which he wrote as 179’685. More to follow on the Indian contribution to mathematics as we go on …