Ibn al-Baytar An Islamic Botanist from the Middle Ages
When we look back in the history of Europe, we discover the name of Ibn al-Baytar written in golden words. He was a renowned botanist, prestigious pharmacist, noteworthy physician, and a great scientist of his time. He worked on plant taxonomy and characterization. His herbalism rubbed off the Islamic history of Andalusian Arabs from the 13th-17th century.
Ibn al-Baytar Pedigree (Genealogy)
Diya al-Din Abu Muhammad Add Allah is the first name given by his parents. He was the son of Ahmad who was a veterinarian by profession. He got his Arabic cognomen name ‘Ibn al-Baytar’ due to his father’s occupation which means ‘Son of Baytar (Veterinarian)’. His full name was Diya al-Din Abu Muhammad Add Allah Ibn Ahmad al-Malaqi, where ‘al-Malaqi’ was his name added due to his nisba (birthplace).
Diya Ibn al-Baytar belonged to Malaga (a municipality), Andalusia (autonomous region), in the Southern portion of Muslim Spain. He was born late in the 12th century in 1197 A.D. and died in 1248 A.D. in Damascus. He has spent 51 years making great contributions to all ancient medicinal works. However, his work on plant taxonomy was commendable.
The Scholarly history of Ibn al-Baytar
Since juvenescence, Ibn al-Baytar was sophisticated and eloquent as a person. As spices and medicine were the subject of discussion in ancient medical works, he decided to study plants. He got expertise in the subject of botany from a known Andalusian botanist, Abu al-Abbas al-Nabati at Seville (capital of Andalusia, Spain). In the history of pharmacy, he was recognized for intervening scientific methodology in medical material, Latin ‘Materia Media’. Abd Allah b. Ṣaliḥ and Abu al-Ḥad̲jd̲jad̲j are two more botanical mentors of Ibn al-Baytar whose guidance and courtship helped al-Baytar in grasping the botanical techniques.
Ibn al-Baytar adopted the observation and investigation technique from the aforementioned three botanists. He had a special influence from al-Nabati. That’s why, he applied techniques learned from his teachers in his pharmaceutical research. Thus, he led the foundation of plant taxonomy. Initially, he was prompted in botany by the virtue of his teachers. Then, the study of the work of al Ghafaqi, al-Zahrawi, al-Drisi, Pedanius Dioscorides, and Galen twisted his arm till he became the greatest botanist, scientist, pharmacist, and physician of Andalusian Arab.
Ibn al-Baytar’s Alms and Endowments
Compilation of previous work
Antiquity is the period of classical and other human civilization. This period holds a place due to extensive scientific and pharmaceutical research in the field of medicines (ilm e adwiyat) and physiology (ilm e tashreeh). Early medicinal treatments took the aid of herbs for curing various illnesses. In fact, people believed that nature always has the cure for human illnesses. Due to this ideology, they put their efforts to explore more and more about it. So, various scientists had replenished ancient medical and pharmaceutical research with their remarkable work.
Finally, Ibn al-Baytar started his career as a botanist. For his botanical and pharmaceutical research, he gathered and compiled the work on plants by other scientists of the middle ages. In fact, he was among the pioneers who filed a systematic compilation of previous work.
Traveling around the World for his Plant Collection
It was customary for Muslims especially to travel miles for performing Hajj. During their journey, they used to gather information about different cultures and traditions. Also, Muslim countries had opened their doors for other Muslim brothers. Therefore, people visit different regions for their intellectual growth and beneficial pharmaceutical research. Many flocks traveled in search of knowledge to enlighten their souls. So, ibn al Baytar did the same.
Ibn al-Baytar traveled many miles from North Africa to Asia Minor for his botanical and pharmaceutical research. He was accustomed to gathering different plants for studying: their properties, medicinal values, active components, and much more. Such an extensive pharmaceutical research on plants made enroute towards plant taxonomy later.
Sample Collection from Asia Minor to North Africa
Ibn al-Baytar accompanied his botany teacher al-Nabati in his research at Seville. First, he collected the samples from his native place for pharmaceutical research, Malaga.
Then, in 1219 A.D., he moved along the coast of North Africa in various areas, including Marrakesh (Morocco), Bugia (Bejara), Tunis (Tunisia), Tripoli, Constantinople, Barqa (Barca), Anatolia, Antalya, Damascus, and Adalia. He usually traveled with his acolytes. Ibn Abi Usaybia is one of his acolytes who was known for his writing “The Classes of Physicians (Tabaqat al-Atibba)”. He had reflected a eulogistic passage of his companion, Ibn al Baytar.
Ibn al Baytar was always at the right time in the right place. All the periods in Ibn al Baytar’s life were covered by the religious hostilities between Muslims and Christians-the Crusade (1096 A.D. to 1291 A.D.). In 1202-1204 A.D., Rome was battling for the 4th crusade. And in 1219 A.D., when he departed from the coast of North Africa, 5th crusade (1217-1221 A.D.) entangled the country’s peace, and the Roman Empire lost its tributary economy.
Ibn al-Baytar as Chief Herbalist
In 1224 A.D, 4th Ayyubid sultan of Egypt Sultan Malik al-Kamil Nasir al-Din Muhammad designated Ibn al Baytar as a chief herbalist. It was a time before the 6th crusade (1227-1229). The Ayyubid dynasty soon under controlled the situation and developed a peaceful environment in Egypt.
It was a good time for Ibn al Baytar when he continued his major portion of botanical research and wrote his famous plant encyclopedias. Ibn al Baytar’s exodus to Egypt gave an impression that he was avoiding the crusade. He wanted to be at peace by focusing on his career.
The Ayyubid dynasty was expanded to Syria and Palestine till the death of the sultan. This appointment from Ayyubid sultan provided an opportunity for Diya Ibn al Baytar to gather plant varieties from Egypt (Syria and Palestine) and a little portion of Iraq as well. When al-Kamil expanded his dynasty to Damascus after 1227 A.D., Ibn al Baytar moved along with the Sultan to this region.
Introduced the System of Plant Taxonomy
The reason why the name of Ibn al Baytar grasped considerable attention up till now is his traditional plant taxonomy. In his plant taxonomy, he named at least 1400 plants along with their specifications and uses in native areas. He noted down all the majors and minors related to these plants. Also, he employed an ethnobotanical approach to writing down the belief of people for a specific plant along with its cultural significance to identify its ethical value. In short, he has used every possible approach in his pharmacopeias to distinguish the reasons for which one plant differs from the other.
Ibn al-Baytar’s work on Chicory plant | Herbal Treatment of Cancer
Many methods were suggested for dealing with cancer and tumors both in antiquity and in medieval periods. Early scientists believed that cancer and tumors could be treated at their early stage. Avicenna mentioned various surgical methods and cannons in his book “Canon of Medicines’ ‘.
He invented the herbal medicine ”Hindiba (chicorium intybus)” for the treatment of cancer. Everyone was familiar with the medicinal value of Hindiba (chicorium intybus) but nobody actually could explain the active agent for imparting medicinal effects to this plant.
Later, the plant properties were described by Ibn al Baytar in his botanical research. He confirmed that the Hindiba plant had anti-carcinogens that make it competitive for cancer treatment. Ibn al Baytar was the earliest person who initially compounded this plant for a cancer drug. He also mentioned that the timing of taking a drug played a significant role in recovery. He listed the medicines that could be taken in the morning and those that are effective before bedtime.
Some single herbs described by Ibn al-Baytar
From 1216 A.D., Ibn al Baytar started his search for medicinal plants in his vicinity. He introduced up to 300 plants during his pharmaceutical practice and wrote down his notes in his writings.
Discovery of Athirlal (Lat. Phychotic verticillata) in Bugia
During his stay at Bugia (Bejaia, Algeria), he found Athirlal (Lat. Phychotic verticillata) plant and used for the treatment of leprosy (Kustha\jazam). It is a disease of scattering burnt humor (sauda) throughout the body. Athirlal, suggested by ibn al Baytar, is a member of Apiaceae family with the genus Phychotis from region Morocco.
Discovery of Tafriat (Cynara acaulis) in Tunis
The stay in Constantine (Northeastern Algeria) was also marked by several discoveries. From where he moved to Tunis (Tunisia). He picked up a local cosine, called Tafriat (Cynara acaulis) from this region. It is a stem-less artichoke. Ancient Romans used it in their cooking. They pickled it in honey, vinegar, and cumin.
Ibn al-Baytar mentioned the medicinal attributes of Tafriat. It is a herb from the temperate Mediterranean region where summer is hot and dry and winter is cold and wet. According to researchers at the moment, this herb has pronounced:
- Choleretic effects
- Diuretic effects
- Aphrodisiac effects
- Mild anti-fungal effects
- A little anti-bacterial effect as well
Unmasking of Ascelepias Procera (Calotropic Procera) at Tripoli
During Ibn al Baytar’s stay at Tripoli, he collected Onchrar– the Ascelepias Procera which was used in traditional medicines for;
- Leprosy (Kustha\jazam)
- Ulcer (Qarah-e-Meda)
- Tumors (Sartan)
- Spleen and hepatic debility (Zo’f-e- Kabid)
- Piles (Bawaseer-e-Aamiya)
Later, the effects of this medicinal shrub on intestinal smooth muscles were studied both in vivo and in vitro.
Essential Oil for Aromatherapy
Aromatherapy is a method used in Regimental Therapy (Ilaj-Bil-Tadbir). Another contribution of Ibn al Baytar was his detailed research on Fragrant Shurub (syrup\ Sharbat). He explained the method for extraction of different essential oils from herbs as a concentrated, hydrophobic, and aromatic liquid.
He especially focused on rosewater and orange water which are fragrant essential oils from the namesake plant. The treatment suggested by Ibn al Baytar for human ailment in his comprehensive books mainly consists of essential oil therapies. As their oils contain the aroma of the herb or plant source from which they are extracted, the oil therapies are referred to as aromatherapies.
Ibn al Baytar’s pharmaceutical writings
Spanish botanist and pharmacist has written manuals which includes;
- The Book of Medicinal and Nutritional terms (Kitab al-Jami fi al-Adwiya al-Mufrada)
- The Comprehensive Book of Drug and Foodstuff (Kitab al-Mlughni fi al-Adwiya al-Mufrada)
- The Physician’s Balance (Mīzān al-Ṭabīb)
- Treatise on Food and Simples (Risāla fī l-Aghdhiya wa-l-Adwiya)
- The Book on Lemon (Maqāla fī al-Laymūn)
The Book of Medicinal and Nutritional terms (Kitab al-Jami fi al-Adwiya al-Mufrada)
It is the most popular materia medica manual by Ibn al Baytar. Kitab al-Jami fi al-Adwiya al-Mufrada is a plant encyclopedia that covers the description of many foodstuffs and herbal products. It is a massive book with 3000 simples enlisted in alphabetical ordering. Ibn al Baytar has covered 1400 plants and vegetables with their names in Latin, Greek, Roman, Persian, Arabic, and Berber. He also introduced 300 more varieties of plants that were not discovered at that time. This comprehensive book on materia medica (medicinal substances) referred to 150 authors, most of them were Arabic.
The Comprehensive Book of Drug and Foodstuff (Kitab al-Mlughni fi al-Adwiya al-Mufrada)
Kitab al-Mlughni fi al-Adwiya al-Mufrada was a tremendous book for the inclusive study of medicinal drugs. He dedicated his book to 4th Ayyubid Sultan Al-Salih Ayyub B. al-Kamil. The book was arranged according to therapeutical ordering in contrast to Al-Jami which was in alphabetical order. The detailed study of this book evidenced the literature collection from Turkey, Spain, North Africa and Greek. It comprises more than 150 manuscripts and 20 chapters. Each chapter concerned with the diseases related to specific body parts along with their traditional herbal treatment methods and herb specification. For example,
- Brain ailments were in Chapter 1.
- Ear disorders were in Chapter 2.
- Treatments for eye defects were covered in Chapter 3.
- Cosmetics in detail were explained in Chapter 17.
- Remedies for common fevers were enclosed in Chapter 18.
- Different antidotes were discussed in Chapter 19.
- Remedy for combating common health problems based on various drugs used was discussed in Chapter 20.
Ibn al Baytar covered more than 1000 plants, animals, and minerals and focused on plant naming (taxonomy) and ethnobotany along with their health benefits.
Ibn al Baytar has influenced both the Eastern and Western world of medicine by his botanical research. Although his writing was translated late in history, many scientists desperately followed his path for guidance. Ibn al Baytar’s herbal research (herbalism) laid the foundation of modern botany. Many of his taxonomic names remained unchanged for a long time. The death of Ibn al Baytar was a great loss for Muslim Spain. But his books formed the basis for many subsequent manuals by others.
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