al-Biruni on pharmacological substitutes

Al-Biruni, a prolific scholar working in eleventh-century Ghazni in present-day Afghanistan, recognized a weakness in lists of pharmacological substitutes that earlier scholars had compiled.  Al-Biruni declared in his own pharmacological treatise:

Whatever has been written by the ancient and modern physicians about substitutes is insufficient.  This is so because each medicament has several characteristics and each characteristic cures one disease or another.  … {A medicament} can be used as a draught, posted for external application only, painted or rubbed on the body, applied as a fomentation, dropped on the body in the form of a hot or cold solution, applied as a washing, or given in the form of a vapour bath.  It is also possible that a substitute may be given to the patient for drinking but not for pasting on the body.  This applies to all medicines. [*]

In other words, specifying substitutes simply as a pair of medicines, like Paulus Aegineta did, ignores relevant medical context.  Nonetheless, al-Biruni explicitly cited substitutes from Paulus Aegineta’s list of substitutes.  Al-Biruni respected Greek medical authority, even when his own reasoning uncovered one of its weaknesses.

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[*] From al-Biruni, Kitab al-Saydanah fi al-tibb, trans.Ahmad & Said (1973) v. 1, p. 7.  Al-Biruni also notes that he had seen Razi‘s Kitab al-Abdal (Book of Substitutes), but he “derived little satisfaction from it.”  Id. p. 10.  Al-Biruni recognized the value of knowing linguistic equivalents.  He mentioned that he had seen a book called Deh Nam (Ten Names), which provided names of herbs in different languages.  But he complains that the book doesn’t contain names in ten languages.  He reports that the Christian book Bashaq-Samahi, also known as Chahar Nam (Four Names), gives herbs’ names in Roman {almost surely Greek}, Syriac, Arabic, and Persian.  He also states that he has obtained OribasiusKinnash, “containing the Greek equivalents of herbs.” Id. p. 9.


Aḥmad, Muḥammad ibn and Hakim Mohammed Said. 1973. al-Biruni’s book on pharmacy and materia medica. Karachi: Hamdard National Foundation.

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