Haematology Watch

Ibn Al-Nafees

Alaa’ Al-Deen Ali ibn Abi Hazm is best known as Ibn Al-Nafees, or Ibn Al-Naphis. He was of a Qurayshi descent and born in Damascus in 607 H, corresponding to 1210 CE. At the time, Damascus witnessed a period of scholarly progress that owed much to the efforts of Noor Al-Deen Mahmood Zangi.

By the time Ibn Al-Nafees was born, Damascus was in the reign of Sultan Al-Adil Sayf Al-Deen, who gave particular attention to medicine and built more hospitals than were built under any other ruler. Hence, Damascus attracted a large number of physicians who came from different parts of the Muslim world.

It was under the most famous experts in the field that Ibn Al-Nafees studied medicine before he moved to the main hospital in Damascus which provided a high standard of medical care, akin to what we see today in teaching hospitals.

A colleague of his, Ibn Abi Usayba’ah, who wrote a book providing biographical notes on physicians and medical experts, writes: “Alaa’ Al-Deen ibn Al-Nafees was a pioneer in medicine who outshined all others. He wrote many scholarly works on medicine.”

Having worked first in Damascus, he then moved to Egypt at the invitation of its ruler King Al-Kamil Muhammad. He worked first at Al-Nasiri hospital, then Al-Mansouri hospital, where he gained prominence.

It was under him and Al-Imad Al-Nabulsi that most physicians in Cairo and Egypt studied.

However, his learning was not limited to medicine. He also achieved a good standing in several other disciplines, including Fiqh, Hadith, Arabic, philosophy and logic. His books indicate that he was well versed in all these disciplines, although his main specialty was medicine in which he was most distinguished. Furthermore, he was very religious and God-fearing man. When he was ill, suffering much pain, he was advised to take some alcoholic drink, because it was suggested by some fellow doctors that it could relieve his pain and improve his condition. He categorically refused, saying: “I would not meet God with traces of alcohol in my body.”

Ibn Al-Nafees took medicine into a new phase, breaking with traditions that date back to Greek physicians. He criticized old theories and moved on to record new discoveries.

Perhaps his most important discovery is that he was the first to explain the pulmonary blood circulation in terms that are akin to what we now know with all the advancement that medicine has seen over the eight centuries since his time. Although the discovery of this pulmonary circulation is normally credited to Sir William Harvey of Kent, England, Ibn Al-Nafees discovered it nearly 350 years earlier.

This was confirmed by Professor Latham of the University of Manchester in 1957. Prof. Latham added that Ibn Al-Nafees “recognized the fallacy of Galen’s theory of invisible channels between the ventricles.” Furthermore, Ibn Al-Nafees explained that blood was purified in the lungs on contact with the air inhaled through the upper respiratory system.

Ibn Al-Nafees was nicknamed as Ibn Sina, or Avicenna, the Second. However, he did not achieve the fame of his illustrious predecessor, simply because his books remained undiscovered for a long time. It was only recently that some of them were unearthed to testify to his great achievement.

Ibn Al-Nafees wrote several books on a variety of health subjects, but his most important work is that entitled Sharh Tashreeh Al-Qanoon, which is an explanation of the parts that deal with human anatomy in Ibn Sina’s book Al-Qanoon, which remained the authoritative medical work for many centuries. Thus, Ibn Al-Nafees’s book is concerned only with anatomy.

It is divided into several parts and covers a wide area. Ibn Al-Nafees devotes one part to discuss the differences of animal body organs, then discusses how anatomy helps in determining the function of each organ in the human body. He also discusses the nature of anatomy and then discusses in great detail each human organ.

However the most important part of the book is that which describes the blood circulation system.

Ibn Al-Nafees was at his most original in this study. There were several theories concerning the blood circulation, one leading to the other.

At one stage, it was considered that the liver was the center of the circulatory system, while the heart was of secondary importance.

Then Galen, or Galenos, the Greek physician, was able to distinguish the different functions played by veins and arteries, without being able to determine the role of the heart in purifying the blood. Ibn Sina was also of this view.

It was left to Ibn Al-Nafees to discover the central role of the heart in the whole circulatory system and the purification and refinement of the blood, pointing out the role of the lungs in the process.

Ibn Al-Nafees died in 687 H, corresponding to 1288 CE. May God shower His mercy on him.