Al-Biruni On Plants by John H. Harvey

Review of the ‘Book on Pharmacy and Materia Medica’

AMONG the greatest of the early scientists who wrote in Arabic was now to the Western public a forgotten name, over-shadowed by his contemporary and correspondent Ibn Sina, or, as he is popularly known, Avicenna. Born in the suburb (bfrün) of Käth, capital of Kharezm [a region adjoining the Aral Sea now known as Karakalpakstan] on 4 September A.D. 973 and therefore seven years before Avicenna, al-Birüni survived the latter by some fourteen years, dying about 1051. At the time he was still working, though almost blind and deaf, at over eighty years of age in lunar years—roughly seventy- eight according to Western reckoning. Famous in his own time as a mathematician and astronomer as well as for his wide travels in India and elsewhere, he deserves to be remembered particularly for his last work, Kitãb al-saydana fi al-tibb or, to give it the title under which it has at last been translated into English, the Book on Pharmacy and Materia Medica.“1” 

For the first time the modern world of scientific enquiry can study in adequate detail one of the most thorough of all pharmacopoeias, which is at the same time fundamental for historical botany and the lexicography of plants. For al-Birüni was not concerned simply with herbs and drugs and their medicinal uses; he went to great lengths to identify the names in use in all the languages to which he had access. These normally included Arabic, Persian, Syriac and Greek, to which he added Hindi, several other languages of India, sometimes Turki and dialects of central Asia. The text incorporates much from earlier writers, notably Dioscorides, Galen and Aba Hanifa al-Dinawari (c. 820—895), an Arab scholar of Iranian extraction. Al-BirUni also quotes freely from Arabic poems which mention plants and their properties. What makes the book outstandingly valuable, however, is the author’s wide personal observation and his humane and humorous outlook.

The present edition and translation form a remarkable collaborative product of a team of Pakistani scholars led by Hakim Mohammed Said. It comprises an Arabic text collated and annotated from the surviving manuscripts by Dr. Rana Ehsan Elahie, Professor of Arabic at the University of the Punjab, and reproduced from his own handwriting (430 pages!); with a complete English translation by Kamal Muhammad Habib and others, also fully annotated. In a second volume are an introduction and commentary by Sami K. Hamarneh of the Smithsonian Institution.

The amount of work represented is stupendous, and one can only regret that the printing abounds in obvious errors and prints several pages of the Arabic text on top of others. Another handicap, less easy to correct, is inherent in the independent attempts at identification made in the footnotes to the text, those to the translation, and those of the com- mentator. Some of the botanical solutions proposed—discrepancies apart —are impossible: for example, the suggestion that the herb asfaly&~iqus, as.tirä or khurram might be a Helonias (p. 26 and p. 6o note 154), since that genus is exclusively American. Lucien Leclerc a century ago regarded this plant as Aster amellus“2” 

Before considering the light which al-Birüni throws upon the horti- culture of the Middle East in the eleventh century we may notice the glimpses of social life afforded by his remarkable book. On the highest level we meet (p. 3!) the Caliph’s ambassador seated at table with the Byzantine Emperor in Constantinople. Mansür (Caliph A.D. 754—775) sent Umara ibn Hamza as leader of a mission to Constantine V Copronymus (741—775) who ‘one day during lunch called for a sealed earthen crock and ordered the attendant to take out some pickle from it. He then passed it on to Ilamza who tasted it, found it to be the pickle of kabar (caper), and smiled at this. When the Emperor asked for the reason of his smile, he told him, “This plant grows abundantly in our parts”. Thereat the Emperor said: “This means that your land is arid, for this plant grows only in uncultivated regions and for this reason is a rarity in our country”.’

By the ninth century dill pickles had become famous: ‘Isa ibn Mãsa al-Basri (d. A.D. 888) laid down that ‘a pickle having dill is the best of all’. (p. 349.) Opium already constituted a drug menace, for ‘people of hot climes, especially those of Mecca, gradually increased the dosage to the extent where it would be considered lethal’ (p. 36). Another addiction ‘was to the intoxicating grains and leaves of the dãdhi or dazi tree, sometimes identified with Cercis siliqua~trum.

Al-Biruni tells us that in the time of the ‘Abbãsids (from A.D. 750) a caravan pitched its tents by ‘a pond over which a dadhi tree cast its shadow and had shed its leaves on the water which had been contaminated . . . When the people drank the water they all became inebriated and from that day… people began to fetch leaves of that plant and use them in (date) wine’. We are also told of the African origin of mosquito nets (p. 229): ‘the people of Aswän observe the custom of sitting under domes of silk so as to be safe from the flies and the

Al-Biruni was a cautious and experimental scientist, far in advance of
any of his contemporaries in Europe. Although a propagandist for the
world-wide use of Arabic, he was well aware of the defects of the written
language (p. 8): ‘One great difficulty about Arabic is that many of its
words are similar and one has to differentiate one from the other by means of inflections and dots. The slightest of negligence . . . will bring about obscurity and confusion.’ In completing his great work on drugs in his old age he felt the need for a more active collaborator and found one in Abu Hamid ibn Muhammad al-Nahshan 1, blessed by God with a noble dis- position, well versed in languages and scholarship. It was presumably al-Nahsha 1 who finished off the book with the letter Shin and a supplement to Sad. The initials Dhãl and Rä’ are, nevertheless, altogether lacking; but the omitted plants and drugs can largely be supplied from synonyms beginning with these letters mentioned throughout the text.

It has long been recognized from a passage in his Chronology, published in translation almost a century ago,“3” that al-BirUni was the first to suggest that flowers could be identified by the number of their parts. He had a good notion of natural relationships and ‘deserves to be recognized as the father of Arabic Pharmacy in Mediaeval Islam’. (II, 35.) He was undoubtedly a sound practical botanist and in advance of his time, but we have to bear in mind that in his book botany and horticulture are sub- ordinate to medicine. We cannot hope to find in it a direct equivalent to the surviving works on agriculture which, for Muslim Spain of the eleventh and twelfth centuries A.D., provide us with definitive handbooks and lists of what was grown.

It is, however, from al-Birüni rather than from any other source that it is possible to derive an adequate list of at least the economic plants grown in the region from India on the east to Syria and Egypt on the west. Where Persian names are given it is fair to assume that the plants grew in Persia, either as natives or as garden exotics, and this is confirmed by the general agreement with what is known of the later garden flora of Iran. What is lacking, however, is a substantial group of purely decorative plants. In al-BirUnI we do not find the Carnation, the Crown Imperial, Hyacinth, Lilac, Lily, Pink, Primrose, Ranunculus or Tulip, whose varieties provided so much of the beauty of the eastern flower-garden, and were among the chief imports of the first great age of plant introductions to sixteenth-century Europe.

What can be deduced is, firstly, a list of 65 plants mentioned as culti- vated, grown in gardens, planted, grafted or sown; or identifiable as such by reference to a wild variety. In the lists which form an appendix all these 65 plants are printed in capitals. To them are added other plants described by al-Birüni and notoriously of ancient cultivation, either native to the region or certainly introduced at very early dates.“4”
Several points of interest occur in connection with the cultivation of some species. Mouse-ear (adhan al-far) was apparently our Forget-me-not, some species of Myosotis, since its flowers are described as azure in colour. It ‘grows in the shady areas of gardens’ (p. 18); astirã (probablyAster amellus or a related species) was ‘used for decorative purposes’ (p. 26); the red variety of willow (khilaf) ‘is sown upside down in the temples of China, when its branches incline downwards towards the ground and a sort of cupola is formed’. (p. 147.)

The best jujube (sidr: Zizyphus jujuba) ‘grows in Hajar in one locality only, the royal garden’ (p. 180), a demonstration of the early formation of botanical gardens under royal patronage, also evidenced at Toledo and Seville in the 11th century A.D. Madder (fuwwat al-sabbaghin, Rubia cordifolia) ‘is sown in Antioch, being rare there’ (p. 255). Garden anemones (shaqa’q al-nu’man) already existed in red, white and violet colour varieties (p. 355). Elsewhere al-Birüni quotes from a poem by Sanawbari (A.D. 895—945), the first great Muslim nature poet:

‘How beautiful are the anemone flowers’ (p. i8i)

though the translators mistakenly substitute ‘tulip’.“5” The tulip itself does not appear in the text, for it is clear that the Persian lãlä (if correctly reported by al-Biruni) was used in the sense of the Greek ‘animünus’, anemone. It remains an open question when and where it was first brought into cultivation, and why it should have acquired the name which etymologically belongs to the lily. The translation is again mistaken when another poem is made to refer to

‘garden primrose (khuzama) in the full flush of their bloom in the garden’;

the plant named in the text normally means lavender, though al-Biruni (p. 140) equates it with the wild wallflower khiri (Cheiranthus cheiri).

A much more serious difficulty is raised by the confusion, by al-Birüni himself of the names for plum and pear (ijjas, anjas, p. i 7); and again, by him or his continuator al-NahshaeI, for elm and ash (p. 351). It is, of course, a commonplace that words etymologically identical change their meanings in course of time and yet may in some conservative region simultaneously occur in their original sense. The wide area from which al-Birüni drew his synonyms adequately explains inconsistencies of usage, yet in general he was at pains to point out which senses are correct and which erroneous. His whole book, indeed, is largely an essay on the importance to medicine of precise terminology and translation of plant- names. Many plants, notably the aromatic labiates, resemble one another confusingly and it is not surprising that we should meet, for example, confusion between betony and germander.“6”

Yet there is a fundamental distinction between a stone-fruit such as a plum (apricot, peach, damson, cherry) and a pear. In eastern Arabic of modern times the pear is anjas or else kummathrã, whereas the plum is either khawkh (strictly peach, a related stone fruit) or barquq. The latter derived from Latin praecoquus, meaning the ‘early’ apricot, had been supplanted even in al-Birüni’s time by mishmish. The use of anjas and khawkh is Syrian, of kummathra and burquq typically Egyptian. It seems all but certain that superficial similarity led to early confusion between plum, ijjas (or ijjãs, for al-Birüni quotes the compilers of the Kitab al-Mashãhir that the word was spelt both with sad and sin) and anjãs (perhaps anjas) the pear. The principle that the Name is the essence of the thing itself is so deeply embedded in folklore that it cannot be doubted that dissimilar plants had originally distinct names.“7”

In discussing shajarat al-baqq, the ‘gnat-tree’ or elm, al-Nahsha’i(presumably working up al-Birüni’s notes) gives it the Persian synonym of dardãr, but goes on to say that ‘the Turkis call it dish budaq aghaji and in Greek it is known as mãlyã and in Persian banjashk zuvãn or zubãn.’ The Turkish disbudak agacz, Greek ueaia and Farsi zaban gunjishk all unequivocally stand for the ash-tree. Even the most ignorant layman could hardly confuse the trees themselves, and we must simply leave open to speculation the problem of how this nonsensical confusion arose. Such puzzles are but slight blemishes on the magnificent scientific achievement of al-Birüni.


For much help and encouragement in this field I am very deeply indebted to Dr. J. D. Latham, as well as to Dr. Penelope Johnstone~and Professor Geoffrey L. Lewis. My thanks go also to Dr. James Dickie, Dr. A. Z. Iskandar, Mr. R. H. Pinder-Wilson and Dr. C. H. Talbot; and for a great deal of assistance over the identifications of plants to Mr. Richard Corer. For access to relevant books I am grateful to the librarians of the Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine, the School of Oriental and African Studies, the Oriental Institute of Oxford University and the India Office Library, as well as to the London Library and to Mr. Philip Waley of the Oriental Department of the British Library.

1) Hakim Mohammed Said, ed., Ai-Bfrilnf’s Book (Karachi, Hamdard National Foundation, 1973). on Pharmacy and Materia Medico; (part 2) Sami K. In reference the Introduction is here distinguished as Hamarneh, Introduction, Commentary and Evaluation II.
2) Traiti des Simples par Ibn el-Be ftlzar (Notices et Extraits des manusc,’its de La BibLiotk~que Nationale, XXIII, r877, No. 64).
3) Muhammad ibn Ahmad al-Biruni, The Chronologp of Ancient Nations, translated and edited by C. E. Sachau (Oriental Translation Fund, 1879), pp. 294—5; cf. R. Taton, Ancient and Medieval Science (1957; English translation 5963), 416. For al-Biruni’s recognition of natural relationships see in the present translation pp. 44, 196,348 and note 151 On p. 203; 205 and note 12 on p. 208.
4) Use has been made of B. Laufer, Sino-Iraniea (Chicago, Field Museum Anthropological Series, XV No.3, 1919); M. Levey, 77w Medical Formulary of Al-Kindi (University of Wisconsin Press, 1966); H. Sabeti, Trees wad Shrubs of Iran (Teheran, 1966); and D.N. Wilber, Persian Gardens and GArden Pavilions (Rutland, Vermont, 1962)
5) In modern Farsi, shaqayq means both peony and tulip (J. A. Boyle, A Practical Dictiona,y of the Persian Language, 1949, p. 96).
6) This occurs not in al-BfrünVs region but in Spain, where the word bartilniqa (bertonica), etymo-logically betony (Stachys officinalis) had come as early as the tenth century to be applied in Andalusia to kamadaryus (chamaedrys) the germander (Teucrium chamaedrys), according to Ibn Juljul quoted by Ibn Samajun. This meaning continued in the region of Saragossa (F. J. Simonet, Glosario … , Madrid, 1888, pp. 46, 453). I am greatly indebted to Dr. Penelope Johnstone for this instance and for much other information. On the parallel problem of identification of the true hyssop of the Old Testa-ment see G. M. Crowfoot and L. Baldensperger, From Cedar to Hyssop (London, 1932), pp. 71-8. According to the High Priest of the Samaritans at Nablus in 1930, the real hyssop is za’tar (Origanum maru L.).
7) Cf. Genesis 11.19—20; H. Bett, Nursery Rhymes and Tales (1924), pp. 26-9.

The Islamic Quarterly, London 
January – June 1978