Saturday, November 28, 2009

On Anger - An 1100 year old medical advice

"Medicine of the Soul" is over a thousand year old book written in Arabic by Abu Bakr Al-Razi (born in AD 875 near Tehran), the greatest medical scientist and physician produced by the early Islamic civilization. He ventured in all aspects of medicine and psychiatry (including scientific medical research) and is known to be the first in the history of medicine to treat pediatrics as a distinct specialty, and not just medicine for people with small bodies.

Despite his great respect for Hippocrates, Galen and Aristotle, the three divine figures of medicine and philosophy in early Islam, he felt free to criticize and oppose their opinions (e.g., he wrote a book titled Doubts on Galen) if he felt he had adequate proof for his opinions. In his own words 'philosophy demand that you do not submit [intellectually] to your teachers, for that leads to stagnation of knowledge'.

Believe it or not, his criticism of the three learned ones earned him a lot of enemies in the academia of the Muslim world at that time, but could not cloud his influence as he continued to be a revered and reprinted author in medicine until the 18th century in northern Europe especially his book on infection diseases (You can read more about Al-Razi here).

As a medical professional myself, a message he wrote to a student of his leaving for a job in a distant royal court was unbelievably impressive in how modern it is. He was teaching his student (a budding new attending) not only the morals, and ethics of medical practice, but also on the psychology of 'VIP patients' and extended the scope of his advise to teach the student about life and politics in a royal court and how to handle it as a physician.

That lead me to another book of his called "Medicine of the Soul", an short treatise on psychology and psychiatry that also has the feel of a modern self-help and self-improvement book. I liked the the section on Anger very much that I decided to translate it and share it on the blog. I hope you would like the structure and the flow of logic, starting with the practical and mundane, culminating in a great sublime conclusion that has far reaching significance today as much as it had eleven centuries ago.

On conquering anger

Anger was created into the animal so it could revenge on other harmful creatures. That trait in excess, which leads to the loss of the control of reason, would inflict more harm on the angry creatures than on the ones that made them angry.

For that reason, the wise person should keep reminding themselves of situation of those whose anger lead them to bad outcomes, either immediate or late. Then they guide themselves to imagine those bad outcomes when they themselves are angry.

Many of those who get angry can end up punching, or butting heads, thus bringing pain onto themselves sometimes more that what they inflict on the other. So many times I have seen a man, throwing a punch against another’s jaw, suffer from broken fingers that may take months to heal, when the one that received the blow did not get nearly as much harm.

And I have seen those who get so angry and screaming that they started coughing up blood, resulting in breathing problems that may lead them to their death.

I also became aware of people who, in their times of extreme anger, excessively punished and harshly abused their family, children or their loved ones with what they regretted for a very long time. They may have even been unable to repair what they damaged in their lifetime.

Galen [a ancient Greek founder of medicine] has even mentioned that his own mother [getting angry if she is unable to unlock a door] would jump at the lock and start biting on it in anger.

And, by God, their does not seem to be much difference between the one who loses his mind and his poise in anger, and the one who is actually crazy.

And the more one remind themselves of these things when they are calm, the more likely they would remember it when they are getting angry.

As for those who have done such unpleasant things when they were angry, they need to be informed that anger got the best of them because they lost their reason, so that they train themselves not to act in times of anger except after contemplation and patience. That way they would not get afflicted, when they thought they were punishing another person. And that way, they would not share with beasts their nature of unrestrained behavior.

He who wants to punish others need to be free from four attributes at the time he inflicts punishment: free from pride and hatred towards the one they are punishing, and free from the opposites of those two attributes. If he has the pride and hatred, revenge and punishment will exceed the extent of the crime, and to have the opposite of those two, revenge and punishment will not measure up to the extent of the crime.

A wise person who educates himself about these thoughts, and trains his instincts to follow their guidance, will have their anger and revenge fairly meted, and will be safe from harming themselves, in soul and in body, soon after they get angry or much later.

----- End of translation text.

These two old drawings are interesting if you just think how Al-Razi was perceived in the minds of of an artist, depending on cultural background of the artist.


  1. Indeed, insight we can use today.

  2. Beutiful article, amazingly true, it reminds me of the Quranic and Prophetic advice about anger.
    If only we could remember this when we are angry!!

  3. Assalam,
    The muslim world needs a cultural ane intellectual renaissance. It is high time we discovered our now classical values, and not just be proud of them, but use them after critical analysis. The result is gonna be the presence of the past, and pastness of the present. Razi, despite criticism directed at him, is one of the muslim scholars the West has discovered and referred to long after the hibernation of the Islamic heritage. It also shows the existence of "freethinking" in Islam and presents it as a peculiarly Islamic phenomenon as far as Razi is concerned. Such freethinkers do acknowledge the existence of God, the intellect's ability to know some of His attributes, and to infer from them a way of life. He does not believe in the tradition blindly. In fact, this is very Koranic. "What if your forebearers were wrong?" is a daunting question. Once upon the the beacon of intellectual and civilizational masterpieces, the Islamic world is yet to discover the self and what the self meant to "the other." Hence we find, for
    example, in Arabic versions lost philosophical treatises by Galen or
    sections of a paraphrase of Plotinus or unknown treatises on Platonic
    philosophy or Greek commentaries on Aristotle, but are disappointed
    whenever we look for writings of the pre-Socratics, dialogues of Aristotle,
    works of early and middle Stoic writers, etc. The value of the Arabic
    translations for the Greek text of the authors translated is not as neg-
    ligible as is often assumed, and much can be learned from the Arabic
    versions about the actual transmission of the various works. The authors
    best known to the Arabs were Aristotle and his commentators; we know
    their translations of them relatively well and are able to appreciate their
    fine understanding of the original arguments, which on the whole comes
    up to the level of the late Greek schools. Aristotle's Dialogues, which
    had been very popular in the Hellenistic age and had, because of their
    Platonic colour, appealed to some of the Neoplatonists, were not trans-
    lated. But almost all the treatises of Aristotle eventually became known,
    with the exception of the Politics, which to all appearance was not studied
    much in the Greek Schools of the Imperial Age. Hence a thorough
    knowledge of Aristotle's thought, as the late Neoplatonists understood it,
    is common to all Arabic philosophers from Al-Kindī in the ninth to
    Ibn Rushd in the twelfth century, although its application varies in the
    different philosophical systems established on this base. Aristotle's formal
    logic was latterly used also by the theological adversaries of the philo-
    sophers. In addition, most of the commentaries known to the Greeks were
    eagerly studied and discussed, and some of them are known to us only
    through the Arabs. Plato's Timaeus, Republic and Laws were available
    and were studied. The Republic and Laws became textbooks of political
    theory in the school of Al-Fārābī; the Timaeus was widely known, but
    the detailed history of its study in the Islamic world is still to be written.
    Philosophers like Al-Rāzī styled themselves Platonists, but their Plato
    had a definitely Neoplatonic character. Porphyry and Proclus were more
    than mere names; the Arabs were acquainted with many minor Neo-
    platonic treatises unknown to us, and the Hermetic writings were read
    and studied in Arabic versions. When we unearth the heritage, we can then move on to re create it to make it both present to us and to the world. Thank you for bringing this upü Khaled. Best, Metin.