Zuhr believed in two different streams of treatments that were held by one common thread — his unflinching faith in God.
Known as Avenzoar in the West, Ibn Zuhr was the first physician during the High Middle Ages to accurately identify cancerous formations in the stomach, oesophagus and uterus. Zuhr named the disease akila, which means something that ‘eats up’, and wrote therapeutic prescriptions that he felt helped contain the condition.
Science historians consider him an exceptionally perceptive physician who experimented on animals before applying his new methods on humans. Two centuries after him, physicians unanimously recommended tracheotomies in the 13th century to cure life-threatening upper airway obstructions, which was a major scientific feat for which Zuhr had laid the foundations.
Despite being an acclaimed physician of his time, he was controversial, too. His practice of Khawass remedies, an ancient style of treating sick people with a combination of herbs and physical and mental practices, was sometimes considered curious.
For instance, he recommended staring into the eyes of wild asses to maintain good eyesight and prevent cataracts forming within the eyes. There was also a theory about eating rabbit heads to prevent paralysis or body tremors.
Many physicians of his time could not fathom the reason behind Zuhr’s passion for Khawass since he was a technically-sound physician whose medical prescriptions followed the official line.
According to science historian Henry A Azar, Zuhr had no personal conflict over his power of reasoning, nor his passion for Khawass. Both the streams complemented each other since they were held by one common thread — his unflinching faith in God.
In response to his critics, Zuhr said: “The essence of science is for mankind to know its limitations and that knowledge is what God inspires, and that there are matters beyond understanding”.
Born in Seville, Spain, in 1091, Zuhr belonged to a family of jurists, physicians and men of learning.
He studied Islamic Law, theology and literature until his father Abu Ala directed him to medicine.
Following his death in 1162 in Seville, he was buried outside the gate called ‘Gate of Victory’.
The last message Zuhr left on his deathbed reveals his submission to God. His last wish, as per historical accounts, was to have these lines inscribed on his tomb.
“Stand and reflect!” it read. “I behold the place to which we are all impelled. The earth of the tomb covers my cheek, as I have never trod upon its surface. I treated people to save them from death, yet here I am, brought to it myself”.
Zuhr’s humility shouldn’t be misconstrued for his scientific unfulfillment. His works on medicine remained popular amongst the leading Western universities for more than 500 years.
The main reasons 13th century physicians Ibn Al-Quff and Al-Baghdadi began to employ the tracheotomy procedure, was due to Ibn Zuhr’s successful experiments of performing the surgical method on goats, and then repeating it on humans.
The procedure became the cornerstone of organised scientific experimentation, which was inspired by 9th century polymath Al Razi‘s (Rhazes) monkey trials. Razi administered small doses of mercury to monkeys to check the toxicity of the chemical for human use.
Zuhr went a step further, performing post mortems on sheep in the course of his clinical research on treatment of ulcerating lung diseases.
Aware of the complication of such procedures, Zuhr insisted on structured training programmes for the potential surgeons and vehemently stood against quackery, which was common in those times. He was successful in drawing the red lines for physicians.
Outstanding Works of Ibn Zuhr
As a groundbreaking physician, Ibn Zuhr was known as being a convinced Galenist (Claudius Galenus), one of the most celebrated physicians of the Roman Empire. Zuhr however drifted away from Galen’s theoretical focus and spent a lot of time on experimental and therapeutic medical practices.
Ibn Zuhr’s work is a mixture of Hippocratic and Galenic theories along with his original observations and the insights that came from his rich family tradition in medicine. Several anecdotes on his piety, generosity, medical skills and originality of his treatments are preserved in his own work and by his biographers.
One of his most read medical encyclopedias, Al-Taysir, was translated into Latin and Hebrew by John of Capua under the name of ‘Alteisir scilicet regiminis et medelae’. It was reprinted more than ten times until the 16th century and became a textbook in medical universities. The book remained popular through the Middle Ages by inspiring and influencing the development of Western medicine.