Ecology in Muslim Heritage: Treatises on Environmental Pollution up to the End of 13th Cen.


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Figure 1: Galen, Ibn Sina, and Hippocrates, the three authorities on medical theory and practice in a woodcut from an early 15th-century Latin medical book.

In Antiquity, the physicians studied causes and treatment of widespread illnesses or crowd diseases, both endemics and epidemics, as part of medicine. A handful of books in this field was translated into Arabic during “The Translation Period” of the Arab/Islamic intellectual history (8th to 9th Centuries). Among those were the works of Hippocrates and Galen. Two Hippocrates’ works, namely AirsWaters and Places and Epidemics, were among the most influential works used by the Arab physicians later.

This paper reviews a group of Arabic texts that studied environmental pollution as a cause of various illnesses, endemic and epidemic. Its focus is limited to the treatises written solely on this subject, unless the caption issue was treated in depth within some compendium. In addition to the quick review of the contents, we mention any genuine and noble ideas in the treatise. Other researchers before treated this subject briefly; their works are mentioned in the references. But many of the treatises mentioned in this paper were not known when those works were published. This fact leads to some erroneous assumptions, which are corrected below.

The issue of health protection against pollution was treated in other non-medical Arabic books. Among those are the “market and industry inspection manuals” (Hisba books in Arabic) and the books of “jurisprudence of civil works”, i.e. regulations of civil works and buildings (Ahkām al-Bunyān in Arabic).

On Table 1, we list the titles and bibliographical data of the treatises reviewed in this article. The table also shows the year when the author died. Two dates are given: the hijra (Arabic lunar calendar) year and the Gregorian year. The period covered in the paper is up to the end of the 7th /13th century. This is because the Black Death took place in the 8th/14th century and enhanced several authors of that time to write about epidemics and plague. These latter works were studied before

2. Texts and Authors: Characterisation of the Corpus

2.1. Al- Kindī (9th century)

According to the status quo in the 1970s it was assumed that the latter medieval physicians who wrote on plague did not cite the works of al-Kindī [2]. This is not true any more because al-Tamīmī, whose book was discovered later, cites the treatise on Incenses Purging the Atmosphere against Epidemics in seven pages. He says [3]:

These are recipes of incenses which I extracted from a treatise by Ya’qūb ibn Ishāq al-Kindī to Ahmed ibn al-Mu’tasim [an Abbāsid prince] on making incenses which purge air spoilage. وهذه صفات دخن استخرجتها من رسالة
ليعقوب بن إسحق الكندي إلى أحمد بن المعتصم
في أعمال الأبخرة المصلحة لفساد الهواء
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Figure 2: Front cover of the German translation of On Contagion by Qustā ibn Lūqā (Stuttgart, 1987).

According to those extracts, the sources of al-Kindī were: (1) books of Sabian or Mandaean sect, descended from the Babylonian star worshippers and (2) Indian books. Hence, the treatise of al-Kindī is about incenses that combat air pollution according to the available knowledge from his sources and experience.

2.2. Qustā ibn Lūqā (9th-10th centuries)

Qustā ibn Lūqā authored and translated many books. His works on environmental issues are given in Table 1 below. One of those is a small treatise On Contagion. He defines contagion as a transmission from one ill body to a healthy one. He then describes the ways of contagion and examples of transferrable diseases. He assigns two causes to widespread illnesses: (1) surrounding air, and (2) contagion/infection [4]. He relates contagion to environmental pollution by saying [5]:

Surrounding air differs greatly according to different effects on it. Those are either from the earth or from the sky. The earth factors include: [i] vapors ascending from forests and swamps, [ii] other ground humidities such as the smoke ascending from mountains and furnaces, [iii] other dry bodies which emit smoke when they are burned, corpses and [iv] other spoiled things which emit bad fumes and stinky odors when heated by the sun and nature. Heavenly factors include: extreme heat in summer and extreme cold in winter. These factors cause common illnesses that overwhelm most people. The most obvious cause is air spoilage which results from these factors. الهواء المحيط يختلف اختلافا كبيرا، على قدر
اختلاف التأثرات التي تحدث فيه: إما من الأسباب
الأرضية كالبخارات التي ترتفع من السباخ
والغياض وسائر الرطوبات الأرضية كالأدخنة التي
ترتفع من الجبال والأتاتين وغيرها من الأجرام
اليابسة التي إذا عملت فيها النار انقادت منها دخانا،
وكجثث القتلى وغيرها من الأشياء العفنة التي إذا
فعلت فيها الحرارة الشمسية والطبيعية أحدثت منها
بخارات رديئة وروائح منتنة. وإما من أسباب
سمائية، كالحر المفرط في الصيف والبرد المفرط
في الشتاء كان كثيرا ما يعرض للناس أمراض
مشتركة تعم أكثرهم، يكون أظهر حدوثها عن فساد
الهواء بما يعرض فيه من هذه الأحداث

His text on Medical Regime for the Pilgrims to Mecca is a traveler health guide, especially written for a pilgrim to Mecca. The following sections of the treatise are related to environmental pollution and about coping with various natural resources. Each section is one page long on average:

Chapter 4: On the diseases arising from the blowing of the different kinds of winds.

Chapter 6: On rheum, defluctions and cough, which are caused by a change of weather, and their treatment.

Chapter 7: On eye diseases which are caused by a change of weather, by dust or winds, and their treatment.

Chapter 8: On the examination of the different waters in order to find out which one is the best.

Chapter 9: On the improvement of contaminated water.

Chapter 10: On the lack of water and the ingenuity in finding means of quenching one’s thirst.

Chapter 12: On the treatment of stings and bites of all kinds of vermin [6].

Qustā was a translator who lived during the previously mentioned “Translation Period”. The influence of Galen’s ideas can be traced in his works [7]. A treatise entitled On Epidemics and Its Causes was ascribed to Qustā [8]. But the study of its content, made by the author of this paper, showed that it is the work of Abū Sahl al-Masīhī, which will be reviewed below.

2.3. Al-Rāzī (Rhazes) (9th-10th centuries)

Here we meet another prolific author, especially in medicine. His extant works in the subject of our study are given in Table 1. In his work On Types of Water the subject is treated from the medical, geological and physical points of view. He cites Hippocrates, Dioscorides, Rufus, Galen, Alexander of Tralles, Ibn Māsawaih, ‘Alī ibn Raban at-Ţabarī and Hunayn ibn Ishāq [9].

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Figure 3: View from Wadi Hanifa Wetlands, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Contrast of the lush lanscape of Wadi Hanifa with the harsh arid landscape of the surrounding environment (Image of ArchNet, 2001). (Source).

In his short text Epistle on Chronic Coryza at the Bloom of the Roses, he describes the effect of pollen dust on the respiratory system [10].

Al-Rāzī is well known for being the most freethinking of the major philosophers of Islam. His medical works are typified of being free of dogmatism, following Hippocratic reliance on clinical observations. His criticism of Galen had the potential, in time, to bring down the whole theory of humors and the scheme of the four elements, on which old medicine was grounded [11]. Among his ideas, which appear for the first time in a book is positioning dwelling units uphill and upwind from infected areas [12].

2.4. Ibn al-Jazzār (10th century)

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Figure 4: Front cover Māddat al-Baqā’ (The Survival Material) by Al-Tamīmī al-Maqdisī edited by Yahya Sh’ār (Cairo, 1999).

Ibn al-Jazzār did not travel outside the region of “Ifrīqiya” (today’s Tunisia); yet he authored a book on epidemics in Egypt (see Table 1). This made him subject to bitter criticism by the Egyptian physician ‘Alī ibn Ridwān, whose book is reviewed below. Ibn al-Jazzār’s work is not extant, except for small extracts quoted by al-Tamīmī and ibn Ridwān. Al-Tamīmī quotes compositions of three syrups that were composed by Ibn al-Jazzār. These syrups were made as health protectors when crowd diseases attack the community. Ibn Ridwān acuses Ibn al-Jazzār of being weak in Greek philosophy, besides writing about an environment that he did not see. He quotes the erroneous statements of Ibn al-Jazzār and then comments on them, one by one.

Nevertheless, Ibn al-Jazzār deserves credit for being the first author in the genre of medical geography books, the books that study the environmental conditions of a specific town. This genre include the works of ‘Alī ibn Ridwān, Ibn Jumay’, Ya’qūb al-Isrā’ īlī, and ‘Abdallatīf al-Baghdādī (Table 1). Some researchers said that Ibn Butlān (d. 458 H/1066 CE) gave a brief description of Baghdad [13]. This “description” is too brief, and does not give any valuable information [14].

2.5. Al-Tamīmī (10th century)

Compared to other treatises, al-Tamīmī’s book is voluminous (Table 1). Its contents are broadly classified as follows:

  1. Views of Hippocrates, Aristotle and Aharun on the subject. The author devotes special sections to each one of those scholars. In addition, he quotes other non-Arab scientists throughout the book.
  2. Description of polluted air types in the Islamic states, and their relations to weather geographical conditions.
  3. Diseases resulting from air pollution and their infectious nature.
  4. Hygienic procedures for protection against contagion when epidemics occur.
  5. Types of incenses which treat/combat air pollution. Many of these were developed by the author himself.
  6. Treatment of stagnant water which produces various types of pollution.
  7. Drugs which strengthen the immunity system. Here he cites Indian sources, among others.
  8. Usage of perfumes, music, and psychotherapy to strengthen the bodies for avoiding infection.
  9. Description of smallpox and measles, together with their remedies.
  10. Drugs for healing those who caught air born diseases. Many of these were prepared by al-Tamīmī himself [15].

This work of al-Tamīmī was listed among the lost Arabic writings until the end of 1970s [16], and even the 1980s [17]. Because it was discovered lately, a number of important ideas in it were ascribed to latter authors. Examples are: (i) preventive measures that include sour juices and pickles, ascribed to Tashkupruzāde (d. 968 H/1561 CE) [18], (ii) methods for improving air quality and increasing body resistance to diseases, ascribed to Ibn Khātimah (d. ca. 775 H/1373 CE) [19]. These subjects were discussed in detail by al-Tamīmī.

2.6. Abū Sahl al-Masīhī (10th-11th centuries)

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Figure 5: General view of a rehabilitation work of a traditional mud building in the Draa Valley, Southern Morocco. The mud buildings are well suited to their desert environment, only a few small openings appear on the façades for climatic reasons (Image of ArchNet, 1986). (Source).

If al-Tamīmī’s work is important in its details and pioneering, al-Masīhī is outstanding in being organized and clear. In 19 manuscript pages he presents an “engineered report”, classifying crowd diseases in terms of their causes, and specifying a certain remedy for each type of disease.

Al-Tamīmī, for comparison, lists many recipes without specifying when and why they are used. Therefore, al-Masīhī ‘s work is a clue to many other works like the one of al-Tamīmī.

The treatise is divided into four sections, each one is called jumlah (collection or bunch), as follows: (1) The necessity of air to life, (2) Changes in air contents and the effects of these changes on health. (3) The ways by which epidemics harm the body. (4) Prevention and treatment according to the types of epidemics.

In the 2nd section or jumlah we see a clear distinction between endemic illnesses (al-amrād al-bilādiyyah), epidemics (al-wabā‘) and calamity (al-muwatān). Also in this section the author gives three causes of epidemics: (i) Extensive humidity and warmth in air, compared to usual conditions at that time of the year; (ii) extensive dryness in air; (iii) air being changed into an abnormal condition, or when abnormal detrimental fumes are mixed with it. This latter condition causes more calamity.

In section 4 the epidemics are classified according to their causes given in section 2. Then he specifies the remedies for each type [20].

2.7. Ibn Sīnā (Avicenna) (10th-11th centuries)

Ibn Sīnā’s Canon is very important in this subject. Some chapters in it were devoted to (i) moldiness, (ii) types of water, their quality and treatment, (iii) illnesses caused by impurity in water, (iv) air spoilage and its effect, (v) designing houses and selecting their location according to health considerations, (vi) food quality and its effects, and (vii) animals transmitting pollution or observed at the time of plague. He mentions as a sign of an approaching plague that rats and subterranean animals flee to the surface of the earth, behave as if they were intoxicated, and die. This important phenomenon was mentioned by Ibn Sīnā for the first time [21].

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Figure 6: Front cover of the edition by Lutfallah Gari of two treatises on environment: Mizāj Dimashq (Temperament of Damascus) by Ya’qūb al-Isra’īlī, and Fī Tahqīq Amr al-Wabā’ wa-l-Ihtirāz Minhu Idhā Waqa’ (About Investigating the Nature of Epidemics, Prevention and Cure) by Abū Sahl al-Masīhī (Kuwait, 2006).

Some of these ideas are treated in depth in another work of Ibn Sīnā entitled Repulsion of Inclusive Harms from Human Bodies (see Table 1). It discusses issues like: (i) Types of harmful air: hot, cold, coal smoke, perfumes, northerly wind, southerly wind, moving from one air to another, epidemics caused by air putrescence, stagnant and moving air; (2) The harms and treatment of water types: forest water, sulfur water, alum water, sulfate water, arsenic water, verdigris water, ammonia water, copper water, tar water, saline water, bitter water, sour water, beer, strong black liquor, light transparent liquor and stored liquor [22].

2.8. Alī ibn Ridwān (11th century)

As we saw earlier, Ibn Ridwān wrote his work to rebut Ibn al-Jazzār. According to Ibn Ridwān, Ibn al-Jazzār was not only a foreigner to Egypt; he also lacked the knowledge of the Greek theory in medicine. Ibn Ridwān was a strong exponent of Galen’s thoughts [23]. His treatise contains the following issues: (i) Specific causes of pollution in Egypt (more exactly Metropolitan Cairo), (ii)The temperament of Egypt, (iii) The necessity to adhere to the local environment, (iv) Disturbances and corruption of air there, (v) Causes of epidemics, (vi) Geographical comparison between various parts of Metropolitan Cairo, (vii) Geographical comparison between Metropolitan Cairo and rural areas, (viii) Methods of improving the quality of air, water and food in Egypt, (ix) Appropriate medical remedies to ill bodies, (x) Advantages of living in Metropolitan Cairo, (xi) Emphasis on proper regime and prophylaxis rather than remedial treatment [24].

2.9. Ibn Jumay’ (12th century)

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Figure 7: Title page from Ibn Sina’s Canon of Medicine (Source).

Here we meet another study of the specific environment of a city. Ibn Jumay’ wrote about Alexandria, where he (i) examines the various parts of the city, (ii) conducts field reviews of drinking water sources and how they are polluted, and (iii) studies the types of food and drinks. After showing the shortcomings, he gives the proper advices to eliminate pollution and avoid illnesses. He also gives special advices to the physicians who work in the city [25].

Ibn Jumay’ was influenced by Ibn Ridwān, not only in the overall subject, but also in repeating some of the predecessor’s ideas. For example, Ibn Ridwān mentioned that “Burqa rams are imported to Egypt. Their transportation creates in their bodies aridity, dryness and humors that are not like the temperament of the Egyptians. For this reason most of the rams get sick when they enter Egypt. After settling down in Egypt for a suitable length of time, their temperament changes and agrees with that of the Egyptians” [26]. Ibn Jumay’ repeats the same thing about Burqa rams, but without giving any credit to Ibn Ridwān [27].

2.10. Ya’qūb al-Isrā’ īlī or Al-As’ad al-Mahallī (12th century)

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Figure 8: Front cover of Ibn Ridhwan’s Treatise On the Prevention of Bodily Ills in Egypt edited and translated by Michael W. Dols and Adil S. Gamal. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984.

Ya’qūb states, in the introduction, that when he visited Damascus in 598 H/1202 CE he was asked several questions. The treatise is composed of the answers to those questions. One of them was about the temperament of Damascus, its location and variation from Egypt (again, the word Egypt here is used for Metropolitan Cairo). It is composed of four “articles” (maqālāt) in 31 pages (Table 1). Only the first article (in 10 pages) is devoted to the question of the environment in Damascus and Egypt. That article is divided into three sections: (i) Presenting the seven climates, and proving that the equator is not a temperate zone; (ii) Egypt’s temperament; and (iii) the temperament of Damascus [28].

In his opinion, Egypt is healthier than Damascus, because of the differences in weather and terrain. He , therefore, gives several advises regarding the suitable diet in Damascus, to avoid the common illnesses there [29].

2.11. ‘Abdallatīf al-Baghdādī (12th-13th centuries)

‘Abdallatīf was a Baghdādi physician who was in Cairo when great famine and spread of illness occurred in 597-598 H (1201-1202 CE). In his book we have a graphic and detailed eye-witness account of this occurrence, as well as other chapters dealing with ancient monuments of Egypt at that time, plants, animals, exotic foods, buildings (including public baths) and ships. It contains also a progressive study of the River Nile and its risings, so vital to the life and economy of Egypt at that time. This is a famous important work that was studied by several researchers. It has valuable information concerning environmental pollution. Examples are:

  1. The effect of weather conditions and the rise of the Nile river on the health of people. Here he follows Ibn Ridwān in saying that the people of Upper Egypt are healthier than those of Lower Egypt [30].
  2. The social effects and the behavior of people at the time of crisis. Some researchers thought that he was talking about an epidemic [31]; while actually he was describing a calamity that resulted from drought and famine [32].
  3. The proper design of houses and city planning. He observed the use of wind catchers or the towers containing ventilation shafts in houses. The Egyptians had firm sewage channels; their streets markets and houses were wide and comfortable [33].
  4. The bath houses were designed with proper ventilation, enough lighting and elevated vaults [34].

2.12. Ibn al-Quff (13th century)

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Figure 9: Front cover of Tab’al-Iskanderiyya (The Nature of Alexandria) by Ibn Jumay’ (Mekka, Umm al-Qura University, 1997).

Ibn al-Quff ‘s work (Table 1) belongs to the literary genre of preventive medicine, as did Ibn Sīnā’s work. Other works existed [35], with less concern about environmental issues. Ibn al-Quff ‘s book is considered outstanding among all the others, being the most comprehensive, finest and most original. It has not been surpassed at the time up to the European Renaissance in its precision, scope, contents and objectivity [36]. Among the subjects of the book are: (1) Water quality and treatment, (2) Causes of epidemics, and (3) Diet and health protection of people according to the terrain and weather in their areas [37].

2.13. Ibn al-Nafīs (13th century)

Ibn al-Nafīs wrote a volumous commentary Hippocrates’ Epidemics I & III. But this commentary does not add much new information to the field. In his introduction, Ibn al-Nafīs mentions that his task is limited to explaining the statements of “the Leader Hippocrates” (al-Imām Abuqrāt in his Arabic wording) and justifying his claims. He decided to avoid any lateral issues and arguments against the opponents of Hippocrates, because these controversies were mentioned in other works written by the commentator [38].

The latter authors who cited Ibn al-Nafīs were not influenced by this commentary. They referred to another book of his, namely Summary of the Canon (Mūjaz al-Qānūn) which has a commentary on the important plague description of Ibn Sīnā [39].

3. Classification of the Treatises

Table 1 lists twenty books related to the field of environmental pollution. Most of them were mentioned in this article; a few are not extant. The areas covered by those books are:

  • Pollution & Contagion [numbers 1, 4, and 9 on the Table]
  • Medical Geography: environmental conditions of specific cities (Alexandria, Cairo, Damascus) [10, 14, 15, 16, 17]
  • Remedies, Treatments, & combating Illness [2, 3, 11, 12]
  • Prevention of Air & Water Pollution [8, 13, 18]
  • Clinical Observations [19]
  • Conservation of Health for Travelers [5]
  • Effects of Weather [6, 7, 20].

Some of the authors had genuine contributions to the field. For example we mention those who studied specific localities. Others did not do more than rely on the Greek theory of humors and miasma. For example Ibn al-Nafīs, known in the history of medicine for being the discoverer of the lesser circulation of the blood, wrote two lengthy commentaries on Hippocrates. Reviewing the extant one of those commentaries we do not find anything new. Anyhow, all of the mentioned authors had one thing in common; they were all concerned with environmental pollution and how to protect human health from its effects.

4. List of Arabic Treatises on environmental pollution up to the end of the 7th/13th Century

Serial English Title Arabic Title Author Condition (manuscript or printed) Folios or Pages
1 Causes of Heavenly Fatal Toxicants Named Epidemics رسالة في إيضاح
العلة في السمائم
القاتلة السمائية وهو
على القول المطلق
Al- Kindī (d. ca. 200/873) Not extant [40] Not extant
2 Drugs Curing from Detrimental Odors رسالة في الأدوية
المشفية من الروائح
= Not extant [41] =
3 Incenses Purging the Atmosphere against Epidemics رسالة في الأبخرة
المصلحة للجو من
= Not extant, but al-Tamīmī (see below) cites it [42] 7 printed pages are extant
4 On Contagion كتاب في الإِعداء Qustā ibn Lūqā (d. ca. 300/912) Printed in Stuttgart, 1987 9 printed pages
5 Medical Regime for the Pilgrims رسالة في تدبير
سفر الحج
= Printed in Leiden, 1992 34 printed pages
6 Epistle on Chronic Coryza at the Bloom of Roses مقالة في العلة التي
من أجلها يعرض
الزكام لأبي زيد
البلخي في فصل
الربيع عند شمه
al-Rāzī (Rhazes), d. 313/925 Printed in Aleppo, 1977 [43] 3 printed pages
7 The Reason for that Simoom (Hot Wind) Kills Most Animals السبب في قتل ريح
السموم أكثر
= Manuscript in Tehran [44] fols. 90a-91a (3 manuscript pages)
8 On Types of Waters رسالة في المياه = Manuscript in Tehran [45] fols. 224b-242a (36 mss. Pages)
9 On Epidemics الرسالة الوبائية = Manuscript in Istanbul [46] fols. 493b-502a (18 mss. Pages)
10 Causes Generating Epidemics in Egypt, Methods of Prevention and Treatment نعت الأسباب
المولدة للوباء في
مصر وطريق
الحيلة في ذلك
وعلاج ما يتخوف
Ibn al-Jazzār
(d. 369/980)
Not extant; but small extracts are given by al-Tamīmī
& Alī ibn Ridwān
Small extracts
11 Survival Material about Treating Air Spoilage & Avoiding Harms of Epidemics مادة البقاء بإصلاح
فساد الهواء
والتحرز من ضرر
al-Tamīmī (d. ca. 390/1000) Printed in Cairo, 1999 700 printed pages
12 Investigation on the Nature of Epidemics, Prevention and Cure رسالة في تحقيق
أمر الوباء
والاحتراز منه
وإصلاحه إذا وقع
Abū Sahl al-Masīhī (d. 401/1010) Manuscript in Istanbul fols. 73a-82a (19 mss. pages)
13 Repulsion of Inclusive Harms from Human Bodies دفع المضار الكلية
عن الأبدان
Ibn Sīnā (Avicenna), d. 428/ 1037 Printed in Aleppo, 1984 63 printed pages
14 On the Prevention of Bodily Ills in Egypt دفع مضار الأبدان
بأرض مصر
Alī ibn Ridwān (d. 460/ 1068) Printed in 3 different editions: Berkeley, Baghdad & Cairo 63 printed pages (U.S. edition)
15 Nature of Alexandria طبع الإسكندرية Ibn Jumay’
(d. 594/ 1198)
Printed in Mekka, 1997 74 printed pages
16 Temperament of Damascus, Its Location and Variance from Egypt مزاج دمشق
ووضعها وتفاوتها
من مصر
Ya’qūb al-Isra’īlī
(d. ca. 600/1204)
Manuscript in Istanbul Fols. 34a-49a (31 mss. pages)
17 Instruction and Admonition on the Things Seen and Events Observed in the Land of Egypt الإفادة والاعتبار في
الأمور المشاهدة
والحوادث المعاينة
بأرض مصر
Abd al-Latīf al-Baghdādī
(d. 629/1231)
Printed in several editions: e.g. Paris 1810, London 1964, Damas 1982, Baghdad 1987 96 printed pages
18 Prevention of Health and Avoiding Ills جامع الغرض في
حفظ الصحة ودفع
Ibn al-Quff
(d. 685/ 1286)
Printed in Amman, 1989 363 printed pages
19 Commentary on “Epidemics” شرح كتاب أبيذيميا Ibn al-Nafīs (d. 687/1288) Manuscript in Istanbul and Cairo Cairo copy is in 193 folios (386 pages)
20 Commentary on “Airs, Waters and Places” شرح كتاب الأهوية
والمياه والبلدان
= Not extant [47] Not extant

Commentary on the Bismillah


Bism ‘Lláh al-Rahmán al-Rahim

In the Name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful

That the Mighty Book begins, when read and when written, with the bismillah inspires in us a sense of God’s kindness to His creaturen, despite how they turn away from Him.

For whenever one reads or recites the book, moving one’s eye over the page or moving one’s tongue in the recitation, one is connected to In the Name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful, and thus one invokes the Name (al-Ism)( Allah) and draws blessing from it without even being aware of this, whether one intends it or not, whether one likes it or not.

Had we not been commanded to write it down, intentions would have varied, and heedlessness would have come to bear, and even those of strong faith would have forgotten it; and hypocrites would have affected to forget it. Yet since the bismillah is prescribed for both the writing and recita-tion of the Qur’án, this possibility has been nullified.

As for the prescription that the bismillah be invoked before every action of importance, its effect is to nullify any special distinction that would be otherwise afforded to tyrants, so that no overwhelming power is attributed to one person over another.

Non-Islamic communities, both of the ancients and the moderns, used to seek blessing by invoking the names of their kings and rulers; for example, one of them might invoke the name of the king or ruler before drinking, especially if he were in his presence.

Now since Islam preaches human equality and affirms that superiority over others can only be attained by mindfulness of reverence to God ( Allusion to verse Q.49.13: …the noblest of you, in the sight of God, is the one most mindful of Him), the Lawgiver commanded that no name be invoked before significant actions but the Name of God.

The only exception being such actions as the Law forbids; for the Name of God could not possibly be a support for them. The wisdom of this is that since the Almighty has not permitted the action, He is saying, as it were, ‘I have not made this lawful for you, nor given you leave to do it, which means that you have made it lawful for yourself: do it, then, in your own name, not in Mine.’ A law is attributed to the one who makes it.



Now the letter ب  ba’ of the bismillah (meaning in)   implies connection, and it is itself connected (directly) to God (Llah); the word ‘Name” (Ism) does not separate them, since it is identical with the Named according to the Sufis as well as most of the Ash’aris.

Note: When the bismillah اسم الله‎, is written in Arabic, the letter ba’ ‘in’, is directly connected to the word ism, ‘Name’. ب س م ل    What the Shaykh al-Alawi is saying is that since the Name (Ism) is identical with the Named, i.e. God Himself Ism does not really separate the letter bá’ from the Divine Name Allahالله

Thus the beginning is in God (bi’llah): from Him all begins and to Him all returns.

  • JURIDICAL : Four rulings can be deduced from the basmala:

Firstly,  all who write or recite the Qur’án must begin with the bismillah; this is inferred from that fact that the Almighty Himself begins the Book with it.

Secondly, we understand from this that God wishes us to praise Him for His Beauty more so that His Majesty ; this is inferred from how He begins with the two Holy Names ‘the Compassionate’ (al-Rahmán) and ‘the Merciful’ (al-Rahim), describing His Essence (Dhát) thereby.

Thirdly, we learn that there is a difference between the two Names, though they are derived from a single Quality (They are both derived from rahma);  for otherwise, to list both ‘the Compassionate’ and ‘the Merciful’ would be nothing but repetition.

Fourthly, we learn that the Name is identical with the Named; otherwise, it would not be proper to seek aid in it rather than its object, God (Allah).

  • ALLEGORICAL : The way the letter ba’ is fastened to the Divine Name(Ism al-Jalála, the ‘Name of Majesty’ ), though it is not part of it, inspires in us a consciousness of how everything in existence, with all its different realities and divergent paths, is fastened to God.

Do not imagine that it touches Him—for in His transcendence, our Lord is not touched by any contingent thing, and such could not occur without the contingent thing vanishing altogether because of its lack of permanence in the presence of Him who is Eternal—rather, we mean that it is connected to Him and given being through Him: it subsists through Godnot through itself. Its being is borrowed from that of its Being-Giver (mujid), as it has been said:

That which has no being in and of itself Could not be at all, were it not that He is.

The way the ba’ of the bismillah is lengthened where otherwise it is not, is because it is connected to the Name, and the one who is connected to the Named—and is thus one of God’s Folk—is worthy of being raised above the other members of his kind. As for the lengthened bá”s standing in for the elided letter alif of the word ism, it symbolises the representationi of God by he who possesses the Muhammadan inheritance: 0 David, We have made you a vicegerent on earth [Q.38- 26]; Whoso obeys the Messenger has obeyed God [Q.4- 8 0] .

Note:  In the bismillah, the first downward stroke of the letter ba’ is often lengthened, particularly in North African orthography, so that it is as tall as a letter alif, because it serves the function of representing both the letter bei’ and the alif of the word ism, ‘Name.’ See Martin Lings, A Sufi Saint, p. 156.


We have translated the word niyába as both ‘standing in’ and ‘representation‘. The Shaykh is saying that the letter ba’ is lengthened to represent the alif in the same way that a prophet or saint is God’s intermediary and His representative .

As for the position of the bismillah at the head and summit of the Book, it symbolises how God is raised above His Throne; and since this `rising’ (istiwa ) does not mean, as ordinary people think, that He is `contained’ by the Throne, but rather that He is present in every element of existence, the bismillah is placed at the head of every Chapter               of the Qur’án (Sura), whether short or long: And He is with you, wherever you are [Q.57-.4].                (In fact it is placed at the head of all Chapters but one, the exception being Surat al-Tawba – Chapter9)

Traditions affirm that everything in the Book is encapsulated in the words ‘In the Name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful’ ; this symbolises how all things are contained in the Being of their Being-Giver; that is, that everything in them branches from what is in Him: Nor is there anything but with Us are the treasuries thereof [Q.15.21]. That the Divine Name (Allah] comes before the other Beautiful Names  symbolises the precedence of the Essence, and how the Names and   Qualities are contained in Its treasury.

(Note:The Beautiful Names (al-Asma’ al-Husná) are the Names of God, referred to as such in the verse: God’s are the most Beautiful Names, so call on Him by them (Q.7-180)and traditionally said to number ninety-nine based on a famous hadith, although the exact identity of the ninety-nine is not agreed upon and several lists exist. )



The first of the Names to be proclaimed thereafter is The Compassionate (al-Rabmán): ask any informed of Him! [Q.25-59]; because of this, it among all Names is given in the bismillah to describe Him. Were it not that it was the first Name to be manifested, it would not have been assigned the position of `rising'(istiwa’): The Compassionate, raised upon the Throne [Q.20- 5].

Because of this `rising’, this Name has precedence over all other Names, both those of Majesty and those of Beauty. This is alluded to in those sacred hadith’ which affirm that mercy has precedence over wrath. The rising of the Compassionate over all beings is what allows the unbeliever to receive divine favours, and what allowed Satan to rebel.



As for His Name ‘the Merciful’ (al-Rabim), it is the last of the revelations (In the sense that it is the last word of the bismillah, which here symbolises the whole of the Qur’án), and its effect is hidden within the actions of created beings. This is alluded to in the hadiths‘The merciful are shown mercy by God,’ and, ‘To fail to thank people is to fail to thank God.’ The presence of His mercy in them means that they merit thanks; and all thanks is due to God.

Now the ba’ of the bismillah  requires a verb to give it context (That is, it requires us to say ‘I begin in the Name of God’, or the like), and this verb is here elided.

This symbolises how a Quality (ija) requires a context to make its manifestation necessary; and this context is provided by the Act of the Essence, but it is elided; which is to say that it is only supposed (muqaddar), but has no being of its own independent from its Being-Giver.

This is the difference between the two kinds of being. As to whether it comes before or after the Quality, this depends on the perspective of the given spiritual wayfarer.

He who is immersed in the divine Magnificence will not see it at all, nor will he describe it either with being or nonbeing, never mind see it as coming before or after.

As for he who has attained the level of sensitivity (shu ‘ur), he will ‘suppose it to come after, because he sees the Almighty before he sees His Act, and sees in God evidence of it.

As for the ordinary wayfarer, he will see the Act before he sees He who acts, and the former will guide him to the latter. What a difference there is between one who sees Him as evidence, and one who sees other things as evidence for Him!

  • SPIRITUAL: The short vowel kasra on the letter ba resembles the first person genitive pronoun as it is pronounced in certain dialects. (That is, the first syllable bi in bismillah resembles the compound bi, meaning ‘in me’ or `through me’).

In this is hidden a secret expression: `Through me (bi) is all that is, and through me is all that will be.’ This [me] indicates the active quality the Sufis call ‘the handful of light.‘ (Referring to a Sufi tradition, sometimes thought to be a hadith, which states that creation began with a handful of God’s own Light).

It says—by means of the ba’ attached to the Supreme Name—to the Eternal Presence and the Hidden Treasure, `Through me (bi) is the Name of God; You have manifested me just as I manifested You; just as You raised me, I raised You; just as You made me known, I made You known.’

Speaking from its state, it says,

If not for You, we would not be; and if not for us, You would not be ;

You are, and we are, and the truth cannot be known.

To You we ascribe all glory and wealth;

To us we ascribe poverty, yet poverty there is none.

(The Shaykh is saying that the ba’ represents the intermediary between God and creation, and that without this intermediary God would not be known, and thus `would not be’ in a metaphorical sense since His existence would be a secret. In the language of Ibn `ArabI, this is expressed by the ilah/ma’luh relationship: in order that He be ilah (`divine‘) in the full sense of the word, ma’luh or `divine thrall’ ( a “slave”, “servant’, or “captive ”who recognized his own poverty), is required to recognise Him. 

Note:  In The Sufi Path of Knowledge: Ibn Al-Arabi’s Metaphysics of Imagination, William C. Chittick explains: “ Since the Essence is unknowable, no one can conceive of Its opposite; no relationship at all can be envisaged. But the Divinity demands relationships. From this principle arises Ibn aljArabi’s well-known doctrine of the ma’luh or “divine thrall.” The word is a past participle derived from the same root as ‘ilah, “god.”

Literally it means that which is “godded over,” or the object in respect of which a god is a god. It is nearly synonymous with marbub, “vassal,” the past participle from the same root as rabb, “lord.” The Divine Essence cannot be understood by the rational faculty, since there is nothing “other” ( siwa) than It.  But the Divinity and the Lordship (al-rububiyya) can be understood by this faculty, since the “others” in relation to them are the divine thrall and the vassal. (II 257.28) We have already seen the Shaykh employing past participles derived from various divine attributes in a number of passages. For example, he has asked how there can be someone powerful without an object of power (maqdur), or a knower without an object of knowledge (malum).  In respect of God, he says, the same principle is involved. When we speak of the names, they are relationships, or better, “correlations” (idáfa); each name demands two correlative terms (mutadaif), the name itsclf and the object to which it is connected (ta’álluq). The name Allah is not outside of this principle, only the Essence, since It is not a correlative term, but the Entity Itself. As soon as we say that It is related to something, we are talking about the “level” of the Essence, not the Essence in Itself.

So the All-Powerful has power through the objects of His power, and the All-Seeing has sight through the objects of His sight, and so on.

Now since the Acts manifest the Names and Qualities but not the Essence, the ba’ is connected to the Name (bism) and not directly to the Named (Allah), which ensures that we understand it is the Name that it manifests.

As for the Essence, It is the reason for this pronoun on the ba’ being concealed. For He is Outwardly Manifest in His Essence as long as His Act is not taken into consideration;

when the Act is taken into consideration, however, we say that He is Inwardly Hidden in His Essence and Outwardly Manifest in His Qualities.