Thursday, June 7, 2007


Ibn Sina's writing on Beauty

This short article is taken from the full article which is available here as a PDF file
Ibn Sina (980-1037 CE), known in Latin as Avicenna, whose compatriots gave him the honorary title "Shaikhal-Rai's" (Leader among Wise Men), was the one of the most influential philosopher-scientist of Islam. One of his best known works is the "Canon of Medicine" which is the epitome of Islamic medicine, taught to this day in the East. It was translated into Latin and taught for centuries in Western Universities, being in fact one of the most frequently printed scientific texts during the Renaissance.
The seventh and the last art in the fourth book of the Canon is assigned to the topic "ziynet" meaning "beauty" or "physical appearance." Although the term "ziynet" calls to mind ornament and ornamentation, when we get a look at the text in the Canon, we see that it deals with appearance, that is to say, the care of hair and body; as well as skin diseases and their treatment; and also subjects such as obesity and thinness that affect the appearance, and preventive methods and measures for all of these are discussed.
The main subjects and findings within the topic of "zinyet" can be summarised as follows:
1. Subjects are essentially classified according to the "symptoms". For example: Shedding of hair, skin-growing pale, getting thin... Thus, some of the skin diseases are discussed in the article on "hair" while also being studied in the article on "the colour of the skin" and the discourses on this subject are excluded from the third article where only skin diseases are studied
Another classification was used for the organs. The topic ziynet starts with the head, studying the "hair" and ends with the foot by focusing on the "nail". Only in this way can we explain why nail diseases are discussed just the after the subjects obesity and emaciation.
2. The topic ziynet deals only partly with cosmetics. Especially in the first and second articles, there are formulas for hair and skin care. Besides chapters on other subjects, primarily skin diseases, metabolism and nourishment, haematology, physical therapy is also discussed thoroughly.
I would also like to make it clear that the main goal of Ibn Sînâ in the chapter on "ziynet" is not beautifying people. He discussed all subjects from the point of view of medicine and aimed to "cure" these diseases which "spoil the appearance."
3. Many "observations" given under the title "ziynet" are surprisingly interesting. The subject "Ziynet" dealing with the externally observable symptoms, observation ought to have been easier for physicians. While acquisition of clinical knowledge was good, the etymology of diseases depended on the old theories of medicine, since technical aids were not developed. Physiopathology and the etymology of diseases were explained according to the medical theory based on the humoral theory. Many terms used in the explanations are form the medical terminology of the time. Although we know the meanings of these words commonly used in language, their medical meanings are not yet satisfactorily explained. For instance in this text there are several words such as "dem-i rakîk, dem-i latîf, dem-i ceyyîd, dem-i zekî" etc… describing different types of blood, the meanings of which are obscure, especially as medical terms. Although these are considered to be theories or philosophy, I believe that they are based on medical observations not aided by technology. This is why we associate "buhâr-i duhâni" with male hormone (testosterone) and "ebhire-i ratbe" with female hormone (estrogen).
Drugs are classified in categories according to their effects. While we know what some of these are, the composition of the others has not been discovered yet. In the topic, "ziynet" drugs are considered in categories with certain names according to their effects. For example, in this text, it is interesting to see that while astringent drugs were called "quvva-i kabîza" (astringent agents), they were also used externally to cure hair and skin diseases.
A complete criticism and evaluation of Ibn Sînâ's medicine will be possible only when the ancient medical terminologies have been interpreted correctly and when their meaning is brought into light.
4. Some definitions we come across in the topic "Ziynet" are worth noting in respect of their similarity with today's medical knowledge; for an example, we can quote the fact that Ibn Sînâ distinguished vitiligo from lepra.
The chapter "Ziynet" comprises some extremely interesting knowledge; such as geophagia, is an illness discovered and described in the twentieth century which we find clearly described by Ibn Sînâ.
When we have studied Ibn Sînâ's Canon as well as the works of the other great names of the old medicine, attentively and patiently, we shall have to bring about some changes in our learning and knowledge of the history of the old medicine.
by: Prof. Nil Sari Akdeniz , Fri 17 June, 2005

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