Monday, April 9, 2018

Tales of Medieval Islam: A Psychological Cure

In my new novel, The Thread of Reason, there’s a scene where the hero, Omar Khayyam, and his assistant, Muhammad Baghdadi, are discussing the case of a young man who had been jilted by his bride-to-be. “For weeks he moped around,” the former fiancé tells them. “He didn’t leave the house at all, except to go to mosque, which he started doing every day. He hardly ate anything, just picked at his food. At night I’d hear him knocking around the apartment, unable to sleep.”

“Clearly a case of melancholia,” Baghdadi said. “Too much black bile produced by excessive heat in the liver. You should have served him a steady diet of cooling foods, like celery.”

Omar rolled his eyes. “After we get done with Aristotle,” he said, “I’m going to start you on a steady diet of Avicenna. There are other ways to restore the humors than food. His psychological treatments were quite ingenious—especially where young men in love were concerned.”

Avicenna (980–1037), or Abu Ali ibn Sina as he’s known in the Muslim world, was a real-life figure, the epitome of a Renaissance man, centuries before the Renaissance. Arguably the most prominent philosopher in Islam, he was also a physician, poet, naturalist, vizier to the Emir of Hamadan, and occasional fugitive. His Canon of Medicine was the handbook for doctors for centuries, both in the Muslim world and in Europe. As for his psychological treatments for young men in love, here’s an account of one of them by Nizami Arudi:

Some time elapsed thus, until an illness befell one of the relatives of Qabus ibn Washmgir, who was the King of Gurgan. The physicians set themselves to treat him, striving and exerting themselves to the utmost, but the disease was not cured. Now Qabus was greatly concerned about this, till one of his servants said to him, “Into such-and-such a caravanserai a young man hath entered who is a great physician, and whose efforts are singularly blessed, so that several persons have been cured at his hands.” So Qabus bade them seek him out and bring him to the patient, that he might treat him, seeing that the effort of one may be more blessed than that of another.

So they sought out Abu Ali and brought him to the patient, whom he beheld to be a youth of comely countenance, whereon the hair had scarcely begun to shew itself, and of symmetrical proportions, but now laid low. He sat down, felt his pulse, asked to see his urine, inspected it, and said, “I want a man who knows all the houses and districts of Gurgan.” So they brought one, saying, “Here you are”; and Abu Ali placed his hand on the patients pulse, and bade the other mention the names of the different districts of Gurgan. So the man began, and continued to name the districts until he reached one at the mention of which the patient’s pulse gave a strange flutter. Then Abu Ali said, “Now give the streets in this quarter.” The man gave them, until he arrived at the name of a street whereat that strange flutter recurred. Then Abu Ali said, “We need someone who knows all the houses in this street.” They brought such a one, who proceeded to give out the houses till he reached a house the mention of which the patient’s pulse gave some flutter. “Now,” said Abu Ali, “I want someone who knows the names of all the household and can repeat them.” They brought such a one, and he began to repeat them until he reached a name at the mention of which that same flutter was apparent.

Then said Abu Ali, “It is finished.” Thereupon he turned to the confidential advisers of Qabus, and said, “This lad is in love with such-and-such a girl, so-and-so by name, in such-and-such a house, in such-and-such a street, in such-and-such a quarter: union with that girl is his remedy, and the sight of her his cure.” The patient, who was listening, and heard all that Abu Ali said, hid his face in shame beneath the bed-clothes. When they made enquiries, it was even as Abu Ali had said. Then they reported this matter to Qabus, who was mightily amazed thereat and said, “Bring him before me.” So Abu Ali ibn Sina was brought before Qabus…

Then Qabus came down from his throne, advanced several paces to meet Abu Ali, embraced him, sat beside him on a cushion before the throne, [and] heaped favours upon him...

“O most glorious, eminent and excellent one,” said he, “both the lover and the beloved are the children of my sisters, and are cousins to one another. Choose, then, an auspicious moment that I may unite them in marriage.” So Master Abu Ali chose a fortunate hour, and in it the marriage-knot was tied, and lover and beloved were united, and that handsome young prince was delivered from an ailment which had brought him to death’s door.

Michael Isenberg drinks bourbon and writes novels. His latest book, The Thread of Reason, is a murder mystery that takes place in Baghdad in the year 1092, and tells the story of the conflict between science and shari’ah in medieval Islam. It is available on

The quotation from Nizami come from Chahar Maqala (The Four Discourses), Edward G. Browne, tr., Mirza Muhammad, ed., London:Luzac & Co., 1921, Anecdote XXXVI, pp. 88-89.

Photo credit: Subtilties of Truth, 1271