THE STRANGE CASE OF IBN AN-NAFIS | Kickoff

THE STRANGE CASE OF IBN AN-NAFIS

12 May

Western   scholars   long  maintained  that   the  major   contribution  of Arabian  medicine was the preservation  of ancient  Greek  wisdom and that  medieval  Arabic  writers  produced  nothing  original.  Because  the Arabic manuscripts  thought worthy of translation were those that most closely followed the Greek originals (all others being dismissed as corruptions), the original premise—lack of originality—was  confirmed. The strange story of Ibn an-Nafis  (1210–1280; Ala ad-Din  Abu al-‘Ala

‘Ali ibn Abi al-Haram al-Qurayshi-ad-Dimashqi Ibn an-Nafis)  and the pulmonary circulation  demonstrates the unsoundness of previous assumptions  about  the Arabic  literature.  The writings of Ibn  an-Nafis were essentially ignored until 1924 when Dr. Muhyi ad-Din  at-Tatawi, an  Egyptian  physician,  presented  his  doctoral   thesis  to  the  Medical Faculty  of Freiburg,  Germany.  If a copy  of Tatawi’s  thesis  had  not come to the attention of the historian  Max Meyerhof, Ibn an-Nafis’ dis- covery of the pulmonary circulation  might have been forgotten  again. Some texts by Ibn an-Nafis  that  were thought to be lost were rediscov- ered in the 1950s.

Honored by his contemporaries as a learned physician, skillful sur- geon, and ingenious investigator,  Ibn an-Nafis  was described as a tire- less writer  and  a pious  man.  His writings included  the Comprehensive Book on the Art of Medicine, the Well Arranged Book on Ophthalmology, and a Commentary on the Canon of Ibn Sina. According to biographers, while serving  as  Chief  of  Physicians  in  Egypt,  Ibn  an-Nafis  became seriously ill. His colleagues advised him to take wine as a medicine, but he refused because he did not wish to meet his Creator  with alcohol in his blood.

It is not clear how Ibn an-Nafis  reached his theory  of the pulmo-nary circulation,  but he was known to be critical of Galenic dogma. Like Galen,  Ibn an-Nafis  could not conduct  human  dissection.  In his Com- mentary,  Ibn  an-Nafis  explained  that  religious  law prohibited human dissection, because mutilation of a cadaver was considered an insult to human dignity. In the pre-Islamic Arab wars, victors sometimes deliber- ately mutilated  the bodies of their enemies. Islamic law prohibited this ritualistic  mutilation, and  orthodox legal experts argued  that  scientific dissection was essentially the same violation of the dignity of the human body. It seems quite unlikely that the physician who refused to take wine to save his life would have acted against religious law and the dictates of his own conscience to satisfy scientific curiosity.  During  the twentieth century,  some  Muslim  theologians  reasserted  this  prohibition on  the mutilation of cadavers in response to advances in organ transplantation. The general population seemed eager to accept organ  transplants, but some religious authorities  tried to forbid such procedures.

In  the  midst  of a fairly  conventional discussion  of the  structure and function of the heart, Ibn an-Nafis departed from the accepted explanation of the movement  of the blood.  His description  of the two ventricles of the heart  accepts the Galenic  doctrine  that  the right ven- tricle is filled with blood and the left ventricle with vital spirit. His next statement,  however, boldly contradicted Galen’s teachings on the pores in the septum. Ibn an-Nafis  insisted that there were no passages, visible or  invisible,  between  the  two  ventricles  and  argued  that  the  septum between the two ventricles was thicker than  other  parts  of the heart  in order  to  prevent  the  harmful  and  inappropriate passage  of blood  or spirit  between  them.  Thus,  to  explain  the  path  taken  by  the  blood, Ibn an-Nafis  reasoned that after the blood had been refined in the right ventricle, it was transmitted to the lungs where it was rarefied and mixed with air. The finest part of this blood was then clarified and transmitted from  the lungs to the left ventricle. Therefore,  the blood  can only get into the left ventricle by way of the lungs.

Perhaps, some still obscure Arabic, Persian, or Hebrew manuscript contains  a commentary  on the curious  doctrines  of Ibn  an-Nafis,  but there  is as yet no evidence that  later  authors  were interested  in these anti-Galenic  speculations.  Thus,  although  Ibn  an-Nafis  did  not  influ- ence later writers, the fact that  his concept  was so boldly stated  in the thirteenth century  should  lead  us to  question  our  assumptions  about progress  and  originality  in  the  history  of  science.  As  only  a  small percentage of the pertinent manuscripts have been analyzed, the questions may go unanswered for quite some time.

human anatomy

A depiction of human anatomy in an Arabic text.

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