Ibn Zuhr: Master who blended arts and science

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ibn zuhr

You journeyed away without good byes

You parted away with all

Helplessness gives and prevents.

How often do we find medical geniuses penning such beautiful poems of love? Difficult to remember one in modern times. The medieval ages, however, were different. Then masters of various fields of the arts and sciences were not totally uncommon. These lines were composed by a person credited by the Encyclopaedia Britannica to be “the greatest medicinal clinician of the Western Caliphate”. Nearer to his own times Abu Marwan Abd al-Malik ibn Abi al-Ala Zuhr, or Ibn Zuhr, a Spanish Muslim genius of the late 11th early 12th century was called by the great Jewish philosopher Moses ben Maimon, “unique in his age and one of the great sages”.

Ibn Zuhr as physician and poet

Ibn Zuhr, largely known to the Western world as Avenzohar. He was one of the foremost physicians and surgeons of his time. He was born in the city of Seville in Andalusia, Spain, in 1094. Zuhr was famous for his emphasis on the practice of medicine on the basis of practical empiricism. Terming him as “one of medieval Islam’s foremost thinkers,” Encyclopaedia Britannica points out, “An intensely practical man, Ibn Zuhr disliked medical speculation”. One of his major works is titled Taysīr fī al-mudāwāt wa al-tadbīr (Practical Manual of Treatments and Diet).

It was later translated into Hebrew and Latin. In this magnum opus, he described serious pericarditis (inflammation of the membranous sac surrounding the heart). He talked about mediastinal abscesses (affecting the organs and tissues in the thoracic cavity above the diaphragm, excluding the lungs). These apart Zuhr also outlined surgical procedures for tracheotomy, excision of cataracts, and removal of kidney stones.

He even studied in-depth eye diseases such as excessive contraction and dilation of the pupil (miosis and mydriasis). Zuhr advocated the use of the narcotic plant Mandragora as an effective medicine for this ocular disease. Ibn Zuhr has been credited to have performed the first experimental tracheotomy on a goat.

Fleeing from Seville

In what must be one of the earliest examples of the ethical responsibilities taken upon himself by a physician, Ibn Zuhr himself has reminisced in one of his writings that his father encouraged him to study the works of such masters as Galen and Hippocrates. His father asked him to swear the Hippocratic Oath in his youth.

He started his medical career as a court physician in the Almoravid empire. Unfortunately, for reasons not revealed in his own writings or those of his contemporaries, Zuhr later fell out of favor with the Ali bin Yusuf bin Tashufin, the Almovarid emperor. As a result, he had to leave Seville in great distress. Fleeing Seville didn’t save him. However, and Zuhr was arrested and imprisoned in Marrakesh in 1140. Later in 1147 when the Almohad empire conquered Seville, he returned to the city of his birth. And totally immersed himself in medical practice. He passed away in Seville in 1162.

Zuhr is particularly remembered for his book Kitab al-Iqtisad, “The book of moderation”. It is a treatise on general therapy. It summarises various diseases, therapeutics, and general hygiene. Also, this book is famous for tips on cosmetics and physical beauty.


(Written by Author and Translator Nilanjan Hajra)

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