Muhammad ibn Zakariya al-Razi; the magical alchemist of all eras

Celebrating the birth of al-Razi, one of the greatest Muslim scientists, Laleh Lohrasbi traces his life and achievements.

The golden age of Islamic medicine is mostly marked by name of Ibn Sina (Avicenna), and his book, ‘Canon of Medicine’. However, many historians believe that Muhammad ibn Zakariya al-Razi is the greatest physician of the whole era. Al-Razi – also known as Rhazes or Rasis – was born more than 100 years prior to Ibn Sina and was a Persian polymath, physician, alchemist and philosopher.

Al-Razi was an oud player, a poet, a goldsmith turning to alchemy, finally moving towards medicine and philosophy after the age of forty. His major achievements in medical science, practice, teaching and writing, took place within a span of only 20 years which highlight his incredible ingenuity.

Al-Razi lived in an era when science was more about guarding and interpretation of what ancestors had said, done or written. At the time when he was famous for alchemy, it was very hard to find critical thinkers. In fact, al-Razi’s books and essays contained more words of doubt, contravention, criticism and dialectics than confirmation and acceptance of what once was done or accepted by the ancestors.

One of the characteristics distinguishing al-Razi from his contemporary physicians is that he discussed the Greek scholars’ views while describing his own findings, in order to improve or decline those theories or propose new ones. And that is the reason his writings give the reader the tools to identify the superiority of his ideas in comparison to his ancestors. However, this manner was not accepted by most of the fanatic followers of old beliefs, so most of al-Razi’s books in philosophy were destroyed and the remaining ones are mostly about medicine, pharmacology and food properties. His most famous book in medicine is Kitab al-Hawi fi al-tibb (The Comprehensive Book on Medicine) with twenty-five volumes.

The extent of disagreement with his ways was such that the famous Persian polymath scholars and historians Ibn-Sina and Abu Rayhan Biruni later criticised some of his beliefs in philosophy. However, Ibn-Sina highly acknowledges al-Razi’s work in medicine and uses many of his ideas from Al-Hawi in his ‘Canon of Medicine’. Biruni also introduces al- Razi as his mentor and even in his history book, in a short biography of Razi, introduces his numerous works.

He wrote more than 230 books in different fields of science such as medicine, pharmacology, mathematics, astronomy, alchemy, theology and philosophy. He died at the age of sixty.

After his death, al-Razi’s fame spread beyond the Middle East to medieval Europe and lived on. In an undated catalogue of the library at Peterborough Abbey, most likely from the 14th century, al-Razi is listed as the author of ten books on medicine.  The Islamic Culture and the Medical Arts of the US National Library of Medicine, is fortunate to hold the oldest recorded copy of part of Al Hawi.

Al-Razi was a successful doctor and served as the chief physician of Baghdad and Rey’ hospitals. He was the first physician who described the differences between smallpox and measles. The encyclopaedia of Britannica has identified his diagnosis as the most trustworthy statement about the disease – the symptoms were clearly described, its pathology explained by a humoural theory, and directions given for its treatment.

Al-Razi also was the first physician to introduce allergy and asthma, and the first to write a book dedicated to paediatric diseases. He was the first physician to use humours and emphasised the influence of diet on health and balance. His method was to treat all diseases first with diet, then with simple drugs and if not effective, with complex drugs. He believed that if a physician could cure his patient with diet, then he could find the real taste of happiness.

Al-Razi was an alchemist first. He discovered many compounds and chemicals including alcohol, sulphuric acid and kerosene. He can be called the father of modern chemistry especially as he was the first person to categorise all compounds into metals and semi-metals.

Thanks to his alchemy background, al-Razi also contributed to pharmacology in many ways. He derived many compounds and alkaloids from plants and used them as drugs for his patients. Just like modern pharmacology, he used to try his drugs first on animals, and if successful, then on humans. He was the first physician to insert experiments into the medicine. He discovered alcohol and denatured it for use as a disinfectant.

Al-Razi had many students. In scientific circles, questions would have been put to his students. The first circle would try to answer, if not successful then the second, third and so on. And only if the questions were not answered by his students would al-Razi himself address the issues.

Al-Razi developed vision problems due to exposing himself to chemical vapours and became totally blind in the latter years of his life. However, he continued practising medicine and lecturing. He was dedicated to learning and was the best manifestation of the tradition from the Prophet recommending that people “acquire knowledge from the cradle to the grave.”

It is interesting to mention that in Iran, al-Razi’s home place, in an acknowledgement of his efforts in pharmacology and chemistry, his birthday is marked and celebrated as ‘Pharmacist Day’. This year it falls on August 27th.


The section on gastrointestinal diseases from
‘The Comprehensive Book on Medicine’
(Kitab al-Hawi fi al-tibb) composed in Arabic
by Muhammad ibn Zakariya’ al-Razi (d. ca 925/312 H).

(image and caption from US National Library
of Medicine under the section of Islamic Culture
and the Medical Arts


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2 Comments on Muhammad ibn Zakariya al-Razi; the magical alchemist of all eras

  1. Mary Flowers Braswell // 06/12/2017 at 15:36 // Reply

    I am interested in al Rhazis as a poet. This is occasionally mentioned but no further information is given.

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