Al-Razi: The Greatest Freethinker in Islam
Fraz Shafique, Pakistan, Saturday 20 October 2007
History has produced humans of exceptional abilities among all races of people. There are some who are inspired by the lot of the meek and make it their purpose in life to raise their stock. Others in seeking answers to complex and eternal questions garner the courage to come up with new ways of thinking. Regardless of what the situation, the reason for the endeavors of great people is inspired by the time they live in and the circumstances surrounding them. Here is a brief glimpse at one such exceptional individual.
Muhammad Zakariya Al-Razi (or Rhazes as he’s known in the West) was born in 865 in the Persian city of Rayy from where comes the name Razi. According to the great traveler and historian Al-Biruni, in his early life Al-Razi was a jeweler, money-changer, and very likely a lute-player. He first left music for alchemy and then at the age of 30 or 40 left alchemy because his experiments in it gave him some eye disease which obliged for him to search for medicine and doctors. In the process he became the greatest physician of his time.
His treatise on small pox and measles was the basis for the future treatment of these diseases. By perfecting methods of distillation and extraction, he was able to discover sulfuric acid, and also prepare alcohol by fermenting sweet products. Al-Razi’s most well-known book was al-Hawi, the nine-volume encyclopedia known in Europe as The Large Comprehensive or Continens Liber . Based on this book alone, many scholars considered Razi as the greatest medical doctor of the Middle Ages. Aside from the study of medicine, the book includes Al-Razi’s own interpretations and opinions which are almost entirely based on sound logic derived from observations – something uncommon in that time period.
Because of his expertise, he was put in charge of the world famous Muqtadari Hospital in Baghdad and was able to gather many of his observations from his stay. In keeping with Al-Razi’s overall philosophy of giving value and significance to the abilities of the average person, he wrote a medical manual dedicated (the first of its kind) to the poor which they could carry around. It contained remedies, cures and other advice for treatment of common ailments when a doctor was not present.
Razi’s achievements in the field of medicine are many – from discovering allergic asthma to being the first to realize that the fever a was natural mechanism of the body to fight disease to rejecting many of Galen’s claims on the premise that sound medical practice demands independent thinking (and thus not on any abstract or cosmological notions). However, his other contributions are often ignored.
Like many physicians of the time, Razi was also a renowned philosopher. Yet, his views have been subject to being ignored at best and censored or suppressed at worst.
Consequently, much of Razi’s work on philosophy has been lost. Most of what is known is based on the documented arguments with the Ismaili opponent Abu Hatim Al-Razi in the latter’s Alam al-Nubuwwa.
For Al-Razi, reason is supreme. This is best expressed in his al-Tibb al-Ruhani.
“God, glorious is His name, has given us reason in order to obtain through it from the present and future the utmost benefits that we can obtain; it is God’s best gift to us… By reason we perceive all that is useful to us and all that makes our life good – by it we know obscure and remote things, those which are hidden from us…by it, too, we succeed to the knowledge of God, which is the highest knowledge we can obtain…If reason is so highly placed and is of such an important rank, we should not degrade it; we should not make it the judged while it is the judge, or controlled while it is the controller, or commanded while it is the commander; on the contrary, we should refer to it in everything and judge all matters by it; we should do according as it commands us to do.”
With reason being sufficient, Razi goes on to reject both revelation and prophecy.
He rejects the miraculousness (i’jaz) of the divinely revealed books and candidly states that it is possible to write a better book in a better style. Books of science – on astronomy, medicine, geometry – are more useful than the scriptures as the former came about from men’s own intelligence rather than through prophets.
According to Razi, it would be highly unreasonable for God to send prophets as they do far more harm than good. Different nations and people believe in different prophets. This has resulted in divisions and tremendous bloodshed. Thus this was one of the reasons all those who claimed to be Prophets were out right rejected. Another was that since Al-Razi believed that all humans (at least potentially if not always) were equal in their ability to grasp reason, there was absolutely no logic to having someone claim they were ‘chosen’ or divinely inspired in any way.
To the claim of people claiming to be prophets or claiming to perform miracles the title of his book Mahariq al Anbiyaa makes his position very clear. He rejects all such claims as merely fraudulent tricks.
Razi was unsparing in his criticism of those he saw were ridiculing reason. His deprecation of religious dignitaries who indulged in the process of conveying the hadith is shown in his tirade:
“They adopted this approach as a result of their being long accustomed to their religious denomination, as days passed and it became a habit. Because they were deluded by the beards of the goats , who sit in ranks in their councils, straining their throats in recounting lies, senseless myths and “so-and-so told us in the name of so-and-so…”
Though Maimonides and Averros expressed similar views about religious habits being the root of prejudices and other ills connected to religion, Razi was savagely blunt about such attitudes and did not restrain himself to objective analysis. Consistent with his practice as a physician of using logic rather than superstitions of any kind to fight diseases, Razi unrepentantly used the same method to scrutinize and reject all religions and all religious teachings. Anything that was good, could be arrived at by sound reason and thus there was no need for religion.
The vast majority of Razi’s fellow Muslims naturally disagreed with his philosophy. However, with the intensity of charges hurled against the most sacred – nay the very basis of religion by Al-Razi, one can see that the earlier period of Islam was far more tolerant of such dissent than Muslims of today. Al-Razi had many detractors, but unlike other freethinkers of the age like Al-Rawandi, Al-Razi could not be ignored or persecuted-in-like because of his unsurpassed contributions to humanity – contributions that lead the Islamic Encyclopedia to declare Al-Razi as the greatest physician for nearly 700 years.
[Previously on http://www.naseebvibes.com]
Sources and further readings:
1. Freethinkers of Medieval Islam: Ibn Al-Rawandi, Abu Bakr Al-Razi and Their Impact on Islamic Thought (Islamic Philosophy, Theology, and Science) (Library Binding)
by Sarah Stroumsa
2. A History of Muslim Philosophy – 2 Vols. ; With short Accounts of Other Disciplines and the Modern Renaissance in Muslim Lands (Hardcover)
by Mian Mohammed Sharif