Abu Qasim ibn al-Zahrawi – Muslim Scientist and Thinker


Abu Qasim ibn al-Zahrawi, also known in West as Abulcasis, was born in the town of al-Zahra, close to Cordoba, Spain, in 993 CE. His ancestors were Ansar Arabs, who settled in Spain in the 8th century. He lived most of his life in Cordoba, where he received his education. As he finished his education, he started teaching and practicing medicine. With his surgical skills, he became the physician of Caliph al-Hakim II in Cordoba. He died there in 1064 CE. The street where he lived is named after him (Calle Abulcasis), and his house has been preserved by the Spanish government in his honour.

Al-Zahrawi is considered to be the father of modern surgery. As a physician and surgeon, he also had an interest in chemistry and cosmetology. His 30-volume encyclopaedia of medical practices (“Kitab al-Tasrif”) is considered to be his greatest contribution in the field of medicine and surgery. The encyclopaedia included a large section on surgery and covered also such medical topics as orthopaedics, pharmacology, ophthalmology, nutrition, dentistry and childbirth.

Al-Zahrawi emphasized the importance of a good doctor-patient relationship and took great care to ensure the safety of his patients and win their trust irrespective of their social status. His clinical methods showed foresight and promoted close observation of patients. He warned against dubious practices adopted by some physicians for purposes of material gain and warned against deviation from medical ethics. He also cautioned against quacks, who claimed surgical skills they did not possess. His treatise contains many original observations of great interest in the field of medicine. He has given great importance to the causes and symptoms of diseases.

There is no doubt that al-Zahrawi was a rare genius in the field of medicine. His treatise was translated into Latin in the 12th century and became the standard book in the universities of Europe for the next 500 years. His book was the primary source of surgical knowledge for the European physicians and, thus, had a huge influence on their practice of surgery. Pietro Argallata, a 15th century European surgeon, says about him: “Without doubt, he was the chief of all surgeons.” Jaques Delechamps, another 16th century French surgeon, made extensive use of his treatise in his elaborate commentary, confirming the tremendous contributions of al-Zahrawi in the field of surgery.

Writer’s email: Aslamsyed1@yahoo.com


Jabir ibn Hayyan – The Renowned Muslim Chemist


Abu Musa Jabir ibn Hayyan, known in Europe as Geber, was born in Tus, Iran, in 721 CE during the rule of the Umayyad Khaleefah. He went to Kufa, Iraq, after the fall of the Umayyad dynasty, where he lived and received his education. In Kufa, he became the student of Imam Jafar as-Sadiq. After completing his education, he started his career as a physician under the patronage of the Vizier of Khaleefah Haroon ar-Rasheed. His connection to the Vizier cost him dearly, when the Vizier fell from the grace of the Khaleefah. In 803 CE, Jabir ibn Hayyan was arrested and spent the rest of his life under house arrest, till he died in 815 CE.

Jabir’s interest in alchemy was probably inspired by his teacher Jafar as-Sadiq. He was a deeply religious man, and repeatedly emphasizes in his works that alchemy is possible only by subjugating oneself completely to the will of Allah (swt). In the “Book of Stones”, he prescribes long and elaborate sequences of specific prayers that must be performed without error, alone in the desert, before one can even consider alchemical experimentations.

Jabir ibn Hayyan is widely considered to be the father of chemistry, but he was also an astronomer, pharmacist, physician, philosopher and engineer. His works in the science of chemistry are as important as those of such 18th century scientists as Priestly and Lavoisier. He is credited for the discovery of nineteen different substances, which we call ‘elements’ in modern chemistry.

According to “The Cultural Atlas of Islam” by Ismail al-Faruqi, Jabir invented a kind of paper that resisted fire and an ink that could be read at night. He invented an additive which, when applied to a textile, would make it water repellent. He applied his knowledge of chemistry to improve the manufacturing processes of steel and other metals. Several instruments, which he designed a thousand years ago, are still being used in modern chemical laboratories – for example, a pipette and a test tube. Jabir also made important contributions to medicine, astronomy and other sciences that are too numerous to mention here.

The writings of Jabir ibn Hayyan can be divided into several categories. The Arabic version of the “Emerald Tablet”, an ancient work that is the foundation of the ‘spiritual’ alchemy, was translated into Latin and widely used among European alchemists in the Middle Ages. One of his books, “Chemical Composition”, remained the authoritative textbook in the European universities until the eighteenth century. Several technical terms introduced by Jabir, such as alkali, have become part of scientific vocabulary.

This man was one of the greatest geniuses ever born. The Europeans translated his work into their languages and five hundred books, and essays can be found in the national libraries of France, Germany and the UK. There is no doubt that his writing and inventions strongly stimulated the development of modern chemistry in Europe. Sadly, he seems to have been ignored by the Muslims – I completed my Masters in Chemistry in India but knew nothing about Jabir, the father of chemistry.

Writer’s email: Aslamsyed1@yahoo.com