The 13 Commandments of a Medieval Physician

What were the principles that medieval physicians used in their profession? A document from the 13th century offers a handy guide of 13 points to rely on.

In an article in the Journal of the International Society for the History of Islamic Medicine, a pair of Syrian scholars examine the career of Abu Nasr Sa`ed al-Baghdadi (d.1227), and his book Kitab Intikhab al-iqtidab. The physician, who once treated the Abbasid Caliph al-Nasir (1185-1225), created Kitab Intikhab al-iqtidab as a beginner’s guide in medical sciences. Al-Baghdadi included a number of tips for students in his work, including one section where he gave 13 ‘Commandents’ that a medieval physician should follow:


1. The power of the patient is stronger than the disease, there is no need then for a physicians or medicine.

2. Physicians first control pulse and the eyes of the patient.

3. If we can treat the patient with food, there is no need for the drug.


4. If we can treat the patient with mild medicine, there is no need for strong one.

5. If we can treat the patient with one medicine, there is no need for more than one.

6. Don’t prescribe the drug before expert it.

7. The experience of the drug should be on a healthy person.

8. When you need to treatment two diseases at same patient, you must begin deal with the most dangerous one.

9. When patient desire some thing like foods, drink, give him it.

10. We must take care about the patient desire of method of treatment.

11. We must relieve the patient’s pain.

12. We must know the whole clinical story of patient.

13. We must know the disease before begin the medication.

The authors note how al-Baghdadi’s commandments closely align with modern medical principles in four ways:


First: Adoption of the principle of prevention is better than cure; Second: Adoption the diagnosis by inding out the clinical story; Third: Lay the foundations of the drug used in the treatment: and Fourth: Taking care the psychological state of the patient as choose the right way to give medication.

The authors go into more detail with each of the commandments and how they relate to modern medicine. For example, with the second commandment, they comment, “Pulse plays an important role in the knowledge of the condition of the heart, and the eyes and their focus gives us the situation of brain, and nowadays especially in hospitals in emergency cases we note the physicians irst measure pulse and look inside the eye of an infected person.”

The article, “Physician’s Commandments at Abu Nasr Sa`ed Al-Baghdadi (Died 624 H),” by Abdul Nasser Kaadan and Ayman Yaseen Atat, appears in the Journal of the International Society for the History of Islamic Medicine, Vol.14 (2008). You can read the article through the journal’s website or on Ayman Yaseen Atat’s page.


When the article was written, both authors were based at the University of Aleppo. Abdul Nasser Kaadan is now a Professor at Weber State University in the United States, while Ayman Yaseen Atat teaches at Technische Universität Braunschweig in Germany.

Top Image: British Library MS Sloane 1977   fol. 47v.