Ibn al-Baytâr

Author: Philippe Provençal, Natural History Museum, Aarhus

One of the most famous Arabic books in Materia Medica was written by Ibn al-Baytâr in 1240-1248. This book bears the title: al-Jâmi´ li-Mufradât al-Adwiyah wa-l-Aghdhiyah, i.e. “The Collection regarding the simple drugs and nourishments.” Ibn al-Baytâr was born in Malaga (Spain) in 1197. He studied medicine and thus pharmacology in Sevilla, and in 1219 set on a journey that was about to bring him to Egypt, Syria, Mesopotamia, and parts of Arabia. In all places where he travelled, he gathered botanical materials in view of any pharmacological use (Leclerc 1877 vol. 1 p. VI-IX).

The Collection has been criticised for being an extensive but simple compilation of earlier writings. This would nevertheless be unjust towards Ibn al-Baytâr as his materia medica is written with an impressive knowledge of its subject matter (Ullmann 1970 p. 282). It is true that the material is widely put in form of quotations, but Ibn al-Baytâr also brought his own theses, observations and conclusions to his text.

The book of Ibn al-Baytâr was going to have lasting importance. It was copied in innumerable manuscripts, and it was translated to Turkish (Ullmann). On the other hand it is no wonder why such an important book on pharmacology never was translated to Latin and used in Europe, since the Collection was only written after the great waves of translations from Arabic into Latin in Italy during the 11th -12th century C.E. and a little later in Spain.


Further research has shown that, although ascribed to Ibn al-Baytâr, the manuscript Cod.Arab. 114 is in fact the tabular part of the book Kitâb Taqwîm al-Adwiyah fî mâ-shtahara min-al- a’shâb wa-l-aqâqîr wa-l-aghdhiyah = Book for determining medicaments of those herbs, medical plants and nourishments which are publicly known. The author was Ibrâhîm ibn Abî Sa’îd ibn Ibrâhîm al-Maghribî al-‘Alâ’î. The book was written in the middle of the 12th century (Ullmann 1970 p. 276).

This book consists of two parts: The first is a general theoretical pharmacological introduction in which i.a. the role of reasoning and experiments in determining the effects of medicaments are discussed (Renaud 1933 p. 72); and the second is a set of tables where the single drug representing one column is treated in 16 rows which treat the following items: 1. Name of the drug, 2. Physical appearance of the drug, 3. The different forms of the drug, 4. Selection from the given materials, 5. The primary qualities of the drug according to the classical system of four primary qualities: heat/ cold, dryness/humidity, 6. Effects, 7. Use on the head, 8. Use on internal organs, 9. Use on the digestive system, 10. Use on the whole body, 11. Directions for use, 12. Dosage, 13. Harmful effects, 14. Improvements of the drug, 15. Replacements, 16. Number, (i.e. numerus currens), where the numbers are indicated with the use of letters and not by Arabic (Indian) numerals.

The purpose of the tabular part was evidently to write a clear and simple survey of drugs that could be consulted when the pharmacist or the physician was confronted with an actual problem of drug prescription. In all, 550 drugs are treated . They are listed alphabetically according the abjad alphabet, i.e. the Arabic alphabet where the order of the letters follow to a wide degree the order of Hebrew and Syriac alphabets. The tables, in which the single drugs are in fact treated according to a system of card-index, is reminicent of the ‘Materia medica’ of Ibn Sînâ, i.e. the second book of the Canon which itself is divided in first a theoretical section, and secondly in a list of simple drugs treated according to a card-index-like system.

Cod. Arab. 114 consists as indicated above only of the tabular part. Whether it was copied in this way, or the theoretical pharmacological introduction was removed at a later stage and the book bound containing only the tabular part, is not possible to determine.

July 2006


Ibn al-Baytâr: Al-Jâmi´ li-Mufradât al-Adwiyah wa-l-Aghdhiyah. Cairo : Maktabat al-Mutanabbî, [no date of publication is given in this edition but it is probably a reprint of the edition of Bûlâq from 1874].
Leclerc, L.: Ibn al-Baytâr. Traité des Simples. Traduction de Lucien Leclerc 1877. [Reprint from Institut du Monde Arabe, Paris. No publication date.]
Renaud, H.P. (1933): Le “Taqwîm al-Adwiya” d’al-‘Alâ’î, Hesperis, vol. 16, pp. 69-98.
Ullmann, M.: Die Medizin im Islam. Leiden : Brill, 1970.