Muhammad ibn Zakariya al-Razi


Muhammad ibn Zakariya al-Razi : biography

865 – 925

His eye affliction started with cataracts and ended in total blindness. The cause of his blindness is uncertain. One account attributes the cause to have been a blow to the head by his patron, al-Mansour. Abulfaraj (Historia Compendosia Dynastiarum, p.291) and Casiri claim that the cause was eating beans. Another attributes the cause of his blindness to a beating ordered by a mullah who was offended by his work, al-Hawi. The beating was administered with the manuscript of the work.

During that time he was approached by a physician offering an ointment to cure his blindness. Al-Razi then asked him how many layers does the eye contain and when he was unable to answer he refused his services and the ointment stating "my eyes will not be treated by one who does not know the basics of its anatomy". One of his pupils from Tabaristan came to look after him, but, according to al-Biruni, he refused to be treated, proclaiming it was useless as his hour of death was approaching. Some days later he died in Rey, on the 5th of Sha’ban 313 AH (27 October 925).

However, his fame spread and lived on. In an undated catalogue of the library at Peterborough Abbey, most likely from the 14th century, he is listed as a part author of ten books on medicine.Gunton, Simon edited and augmented by Patrick, Simon. The History of the Church of Peterborough. published by Richard Chiswell, London (1686). Facsimile edition pub. Clay, Tyas, Watkins and Clay, Peterborough and Stamford (1990). Item Fv. on pp. 187-8.


On existence

Razi is known to have been a free-thinking philosopher, since he was well-trained in ancient Greek science and philosophy although his approach to chemistry was rather naturalistic. Moreover, he was well versed in the theory of music, as so many other scientists of that time.


His ideas on metaphysics were also based on the works of the ancient Greeks:

"The metaphysical doctrine of Razi, insofar as it can be reconstructed, derives from his concept of the five eternal principles. God, for him, does not ‘create’ the world from nothing but rather arranges a universe out of pre-existing principles. His account of the soul features a mythic origin of the world in which God out of pity fashions a physical playground for the soul in response to its own desires; the soul, once fallen into the new realm God has made for it, requires God’s further gift of intellect in order to find its way once more to salvation and freedom. In this scheme, intellect does not appear as a separate principle but is rather a later grace of God to the soul; the soul becomes intelligent, possessed of reason and therefore able to discern the relative value of the other four principles. Whereas the five principles are eternal, intellect as such is apparently not. Such a doctrine of intellect is sharply at odds with that of all of Razi’s philosophical contemporaries, who are in general either adherents of some form of Neoplatonism or of Aristotelianism. The remaining three principles, space, matter and time, serve as the non-animate components of the natural world. Space is defined by the relationship between the individual particles of matter, or atoms, and the void that surrounds them. The greater the density of material atoms, the heavier and more solid the resulting object; conversely, the larger the portion of void, the lighter and less solid. Time and matter have both an absolute, unqualified form and a limited form. Thus there is an absolute matter – pure extent – that does not depend in any way on place, just as there is a time, in this sense, that is not defined or limited by motion. The absolute time of al-Razi is, like matter, infinite; it thus transcends the time which Aristotle confined to the measurement of motion. Razi, in the cases of both time and matter, knew well how he differed from Aristotle and also fully accepted and intended the consequences inherent in his anti-Peripatetic positions." (Paul E. Walker)

Excerpt from The Philosophical Approach