Let Knowledge Keep Us Alive During Catastrophes
Abu Bakr Muhammad ibn Zakariyya al-Razi (d. 925), or commonly Muhammad al-Razi, was a renowned 9th century Muslim physician in the so-called Golden Age of Islam.
Regarded as one of the most important figures in the history of medicine, al-Razi mastered several fields of knowledge including alchemy, logic, astronomy, grammar, and philosophy. He also pioneered the scientific experimental method in medicine.
Al-Razi was the first to differentiate between smallpox and measles, describing their characteristics in his treatise al-Judari wa al-Hasbah (Smallpox and Measles) which was later translated into Latin and other European languages.
In the early 10th century, Caliph al-Muktafi (d. 908) appointed al-Razi as chief physician of Baghdad and commissioned him to choose the site of a new mustashfa (hospital). Conducting an experiment by hanging fresh meats in several districts in Baghdad, he decided the spot where the meat was slowest to rot as having the cleanest air and healthiest environment therefore most suitable.
Al-Razi’s scientific practice adhered to an epistemology which, in addition to true and corroborated reports, accepts observation as a means of obtaining knowledge and a basis for verifying calculation.
In his career, al-Razi made significant paradigm shifts in the medical field through his critique of Greek medicine. He also criticised medical practitioners who had neither accreditation nor proper training in another of his work with a long Arabic title which can be translated as Why People prefer Charlatans and Liars to Skilled Doctors.
In his view, medical knowledge is ever expanding. In order to keep treatments effective, a medical practitioner or a doctor should keep up to date with the latest medical knowledge by always studying the texts and obtaining new information.
In addition to the medical classification method al-Razi introduced in his voluminous work al-Hawi (Virtuous Life), which became the standard reference in Europe for hundreds of years, he also gave alchemical recipes for producing glycerine from olive oil and making pleasant smelling hard toilet soap.
The notion of diseases-causing infective agents, such as microbes and viruses, was unknown during al-Razi’s time, but today we know that cleaning with soap is the best defence against them. The hybrid structure of soap contains pin-shaped molecules with hydrophobic tails which destroy pathogens by wedging in and breaking apart their lipid (fat) membranes.
Apart from soap export from Syria to Europe and other parts of the Muslim world, it is known that Europeans imported copiously from the scientific and medical tradition of the Muslims in their encounters during the Crusades.
Meanwhile, the deadly bubonic plague called “Black Death” was spreading in Europe and killing between 75 to 200 million people, about 45–50 per cent of the European population, around 1347–1351.
At that time, the world had yet to come up with inoculation and antibiotics, therefore it appeared that the Europeans merely survived the plague until its disappearance. Whatever preventive measures and treatments they developed were adopted by the Muslims when the plague afflicted them too.
Jared Diamond wrote in his book Guns, Germs, and Steel (1997) that when the Spanish conquistadors went to colonise the Americas in the early 16th century, they brought along disease-causing viruses of smallpox, measles, influenza, typhus, and bubonic plague.
The Spanish had failed in their first attack to conquer the Aztecs, but soon smallpox began to spread among the Native South Americans, severely weakening them. Over time, the diseases brought by the Europeans killed “an estimated 95 percent of the pre-Columbian Native American population.”
After smallpox killed the Inca emperor Huayna Capac and most of his court in 1526, an epidemic of the disease led the disputing claimants of the imperial throne into the Inca Civil War of Succession.
The Spanish took advantage of the internal strife, “killing thousands of natives” without losing a single soldier of the 168-strong Spaniard army at the Battle of Cajamarca in 1532.
On the one hand, the Spanish had the advantage over the natives from their literacy, superior military equipment and logistics, and strategy in exploiting the Incan political division and disease-induced vulnerability.
On the other hand, the Incas were neither known to be a literate society, save for the small elite class, nor did they possess any scientific thinking or medical knowledge to treat new maladies, both political and physiological, which had left them exposed to conquest and extermination.
How does history relate to the present pandemic situation? From the above, it can be surmised that it is the culture of knowledge and scientific thinking that allowed the Muslim and Western civilisations to survive disasters and calamities. Instead, failure to develop them is the surest road towards downfall.
Despite today’s advances in science and technology, we can still fail when we let ignorance manifest selfish acts amidst crises which can threaten to frustrate efforts to overcome any major catastrophes. Indeed, history speaks for itself.