Al-Razi, Ibn Sina and the Canon of Medicine


9 Nov 2015

History of Science, Medicine

Jim al-Khalili

Jim al-Khalili shows how advanced medicine is in Doha, Qatar, visiting the Hamad General Hospital and Weill Cornell Medical College, and how these relate to the works of three premodern scholars of the Islamic world.

The three premodern scholars al-Khalili discusses are:  Abū Bakr Muḥammad ibn Zakariya al-Rāzī (ca. 854-925 CE), Ibn al-Nafīs (1213-1288 CE), and Ibn Sīnā, also known as Avicenna (ca. 980-1037 CE) and his Canon of Medicine.

Al-Khalili starts in Doha at a neonatal unit, where he links their double-blind methodology to research encephalopathy to al-Rāzī’s use of experimental methods to tackle problems.

He then, using a kebab shop in Doha as a backdrop, shifts to a discussion of Ibn al-Nafīs, and turns to Dr. Magdi Yacoub in the UK to explain the anatomy more fully.  From this he shifts to a discussion of Ibn Sīnā, using his own personal copy of Ibn Sīnā’s Canon of Medicine to talk about what he covered.

Al-Khalili visits both Rema Hazmat in Jordan and Dr. Devlet Quintern in Istanbul, walking among their gardens discussing the medicinal qualities of plants.

Al-Khalili then visits a calligrapher, Saleh Nasab to discuss paper-making and calligraphy.

The last stop on this tour is to see how the latest advances in genome sequencing are being used in Doha.  The scholars involved in the work see it as “a great platform to kind of build connectivity”.

A number of people serve as resources in this episode.  Samawal Lutfi speaks about the neonatal unit at Hamad Hospital in Doha.  Magdi Yacoub (b. 1935), an expert on the heart, speaks about Ibn al-Nafis’s work from the Harefield Heart Science Centre at Harefield Hospital in the UK.  Rema Hazmat, who appeared in an earlier episode about soap production, here discusses medicinal herbs, as does Devlet Quintern from the Museum of the History of Science in Islam.  Khaled Machaca and Yasmin Ali Mohamoud present on behalf of the Weill Cornell Medical College.

This is the final episode of Science in A Golden Age, a six-part series first broadcast in 2015.  It was created by al-Jazeera network and the Glasshead production company.  Each episode focuses on topics that have both historical and contemporary components.  Some of the contemporary segments were filmed in Doha, Qatar, home for the al-Jazeera network.


Islam:  The material on Islam is within the bounds of what Muslims have historically understood as acceptable.

Science:  The science presented is consistent with a consensus of contemporary scientists.

History:  Most of the history is consistent with a consensus of contemporary historians.  One segment, on paper and book production in the premodern Islamic world, is problematic and should not be considered reliable.  Paper was rarely made by scholars themselves, but rather by skilled tradespeople.  Art calligraphy had little to do with book production; there were individuals and workshops which copied manuscripts en masse when needed, but students also made their own copies, in their own hand.  Many scholars of the premodern world have had to spend time reading texts written by someone with poor penmanship!  Al-Khalili’s presentation would be more accurate for manuscripts or codices that would be presented to court, a very limited range.

Also somewhat problematic is al-Khalili’s references in this episode (unlike the others) to an apparently unified “Islamic empire”.  The Abbasid caliphate (750-1258 CE), at its broadest extent, never included Cordoba, which was part of a different political entity, nor did it reach to what was then China.

About Jim al-Khalili

Born September 20, 1962 in Baghdad, Iraq, Jim Al Khalili is a renowned theoretical physicist, writer, lecturer, and broadcaster. Growing up with a devout Christian mother and a slightly agnostic Muslim father, Al-Khalili now describes himself as a “cuddly atheist.” He immigrated to the United Kingdom in 1979, and completed both a bachelors of science and a Ph.D. in nuclear reaction theory at the University of Surrey. Khalili remained at the University of Surrey, and as of 2015 is still a professor of physics there. In addition, he holds a chair in Public Engagement in Science Department.

Khalili conducts research into quantum physics and quantum biology, but is most well known for his accessibly written, popular science books and his regular appearances as a TV presenter for science documentaries. Khalili is also a radio broadcaster for BBC4, presenting ‘The Life Scientific’ weekly. His list of accomplishments and awards are long, though most notably he was the youngest person to ever receive the Royal Society’s Michael Faraday prize for science communication in 2008 and also received the Institute of Physics Kelvin Medal in 2011. Khalili also became President of the British Humanist Association in 2013.

As of 2015, Khalili operates an active Twitter page and a personal website. In addition, he periodically writes for The Guardian newspaper; however, his most recent post there was in December 2014. Khalili’s personal website is host to his blog and a collection of his various science communication efforts.

Selected Bibliography:

Al-Khalili, Jim. Jim Al-Khalili’s Website. N.p., n.d. Accessed 1 June 2015.

Al-Khalili, Jim. Twitter. Twitter, n.d.

“Jim Al-Khalili.” Contemporary Authors Online. Detroit: Gale, 2012. Biography in Context. Accessed 1 June 2015.

Peck, Tom. “Jim Al-Khalili: ‘I’m a Cuddly Atheist. I Don’t Need to Tell My Mum Her Faith Is Stupid’” The Independent. Independent Digital News and Media, 23 Dec. 2012. Accessed 1 June 2015.

President of the British Humanist Association.” British Humanist Association. British Humanist Association, n.d. Accessed 1 June 2015.

Professor Jim Al-Khalili OBE.” Professor Jim Al-Khalili OBE. The Royal Society, n.d. Accessed 1 June 2015.