Rhazes: A Pioneer in Clinical Observation

Rhazes: A Pioneer in Clinical Observation

By Helen Holmlund

Oklahoma Christian University Journal of Historical Studies, Vol.20 (2012)

Introduction: In the Golden Age of Islamic science, Islamic scientists made significant advancements in philosophy, mathematics, and medicine. Scholars recognize al-Razi (865-925) as one of the leading figures of the Islamic Golden Age. Abu Bakr Muhammad Ibn Zakariyya al-Razi, known to the West as Rhazes, studied a variety of subjects, including philosophy, alchemy, music, and medicine, writing over 200 works on these subjects. However, even though he did not begin his study of medicine until the middle of his life, scholars primarily acknowledge him because of his developments in the field of medicine. Rhazes challenged accepted medical beliefs through his skepticism of certain Galenic practices, his definition of small pox and measles, and his perceptive research through clinical investigation, resulting in substantial improvements in medical beliefs and practice.

Rhazes contributed to medicine through his skepticism and resulting correction of certain beliefs of Galen, a renowned GrecoRoman physician of the second century. Galen’s fame increased tremendously after he died. By the time of Rhazes, Western physicians and scientists widely accepted Galenic thought. Although he wrote treatises on a variety of subjects, the scientific world especially takes note of his medical works. Scholars translated his works into Syriac, Arabic, and eventually Latin. As part of his medical theory, Galen believed that men of science should recognize the interconnection between philosophy and medicine, as he explained in his work That the Good Physician Must Be a Philosopher.

Rhazes challenged some of Galen’s beliefs in his book entitled Doubts about Galen. Officially titled Kitab al-Shukuk ala Jalinus, this work succeeded in perpetrating Rhazes’ views on the Galenic practices in question. Ironically, Rhazes actually considered himself a devout follower of Galen; he merely disagreed with Galen on certain points with respect to both medicine and philosophy. He said in his al-Shukuk, “[In writing this book] I am faced with opposing one who is in my eyes the greatest of men, and who has benefitted me more than any other person. It was through him that I was guided; I trod in his footsteps and drank of his knowledge as if from an ocean.” The fact that Rhazes respected Galen added even more credibility to his Doubts about Galen because Rhazes’ admiration of Galen reduced the possibility of his criticizing Galen for ulterior motives other than pursuit of the truth.

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