Monday, May 18, 2020

Turn a Goblet Upside Down

Omar Khayyam, born on this day in 1048, was a brilliant scientist and a talented poet. But was he a good Muslim?

It sometimes feels like the phrase “Golden Age of Muslim Science” is a misnomer. Yes, there may have been cutting edge scientific research in the lands ruled by the caliphs during the Middle Ages. But those great scientists you hear about weren’t such great Muslims. Not to mention that they were often persecuted by their co-religionists. It almost seems like their accomplishments were in spite of Islam, and not because of it.

I exaggerate, of course. Still, there’s some truth to it. Avicenna violated the shari’ah nightly by drinking wine while he wrote, his spectacular productivity fueled by the fruit of the vine. Ibn Haytham's books were burned in Baghdad. In a stunning act of impiousness, Rhazes took on the Quran itself, “a work which recounts ancient myths,” he wrote, “and which at the same time is full of contradictions and does not contain any useful information or explanation.”1

Then there’s Omar Khayyam. Today’s his birthday, May 18.2 Born in 1048 in the city of Nishapur, in what’s now Iran, Omar had become one of the leading scientists of his time by age 26, when the sultan Malik-shah tapped him to head up the royal observatory and reform the calendar. Thanks to Edward Fitzgerald’s bestselling English translation of his verses, The Rubiayat, he is also one of the leading poets of all time.

So Omar Khayyam was a brilliant scientist and a gifted poet. But was he a good Muslim?

Well, it's complicated.

His contemporaries and near-contemporaries were divided. Ali ibn Yusuf al-Qifti (d. 1248) said The Rubaiyat may have been pious on the surface, but “inside it are serpents to the shari’ah and shackles on the mosques.”3 The Sufi Najm ad-Din ar-Razi (d. 1256) counted Omar among “the philosophers, materialists, and naturalists.” To a pious 13th century Muslim, them’s fightin’ words. Omar was a “perplexed lost man,” he wrote, who “expressed his blindness” in poems written “in the extremity of wonder and ignorance.”4

Omar’s reputation fared better among people who actually knew him. One of the great Sufi poets, Sanai (d. ca. 1135), wrote, “Omar is attentive to guard the substance of honor of prophecy.”5. The historian Muhammad ibn al-Husayin al-Bayhaqi (d. 1169) wrote that “Sultan Malik Shah treated him as he did his companions, and the sovereign, Shams al-Muluk in Bukhara respected him more than anyone and sat with him on the same throne.” I believe the Shams al-Muluk mentioned here is Shams al-Muluk Nasr (d. 1080), brother of Terken Khatun, who was the wife of Malik-shah and a fascinating and powerful individual in her own right; readers of my novel The Thread of Reason will be familiar with her. In any case, had Omar really been the serpent that al-Qifti would have us believe, it would have been impossible for these respectable monarchs, who had to at least make a show of defending the faith, to honor him so.6

From the same source we learn that Abu Hamid Ghazali (d. 1111), the most influential religious scholar of Omar’s time, couldn’t make up his mind. On one occasion, he was so impressed by Omar’s explanation of some Quranic verses that he exclaimed, “May God increase such learned ones as you; consider me as one of your followers and be amicable with me!” But on other topics, Ghazali was less impressed. Once, when Omar was engaged in a “lengthy elaboration” of how a God who is One can create a universe which is diverse (this problem of “unity and multiplicity” was of great concern to the scientists and philosophers of the day), Ghazali was relieved to have the lecture cut short by the cry of the muezzin, calling the faithful to prayer. “Truth came and falsehood vanished,” he said tartly.

There is no doubt there are aspects of Omar’s life and works that are irredeemably un-Islamic. I’ve written previously about his irreverent humor and obssession with wine. Like all true scientists, he was a skeptic, reluctant to pretend to know things he didn’t, regardless of what was written in scripture or what the powers that be wanted to hear. This got him in trouble on more than one occasion. Al-Qifti again: “When the people of his time censured his faith and his secrets became visible, he feared for his life and stopped his tongue and his pen and arguing impiously, and disclosing impious secrets of secrets.”

Al-Qifti doesn’t tell us exactly what “impious secrets of secrets” put Omar’s life in such danger, but they were serious enough that he had to skip town and go on the Hajj to Mecca to prove his Muslim bona fides.

[After] he returned from his Hajj to his country, he went to the place of worship in the morning, and hid his secrets, and didn’t reveal revelations. And he had no peer in the science of the stars and in wisdom. And in [his heart] beat the example of the type that makes a life of purity. And from fear, he hid his secrets in his soaring poetry. And he muddied his dark, secret meaning with his poetic verses.”7

So what “secrets” did Omar conceal in his “soaring poetry” and what do they tell us about his relationship to Islam?

The author of The Rubaiyat was clearly, at the very least, what we would today call a “cultural Muslim.” His verses teem with mosques, the five daily prayers, and the Fast of Ramadan, not to mention expletives like “By Allah!” and “Muhammad’s Tomb!” These, of course, were the things of daily life in the time and place that he lived, so perhaps we shouldn't read too much into them.

But we can definitely read something into some verses which are unapologetically un-Islamic. IMHO, there’s nothing “muddied” about them. The heresy is right there on the surface.

Where Islam demands a strict regimen of prayer and fasting, and adherence to a code of upright behavior, Omar writes,

So far as in thee lies, follow the example of the profligate,
destroy the foundations of prayer and fasting:
     hear thou the Word of Truth from Omar Khayyam,
“Drink wine, rob on the highway, and be benevolent.”8

Where Islam promises life beyond the grave, Omar is skeptical. Islam is all about eternal life, far more so than Judaism or Christianity. “Threats of Hell and Hopes of Paradise”9 appear in the Quran hundreds of times. The essence of Islam is to not become too attached to this material, temporary, and wicked world, but to secure one’s place in the World to Come. And yet, Omar anticipated Hamlet’s “undiscover'd country from whose bourn no traveller returns” by five hundred years:

Strange, is it not? that of the myriads who
Before us pass'd the door of Darkness through
     Not one returns to tell us of the Road,
Which to discover we must travel too.10

Whatever awaits us beyond the grave, Omar can’t believe it is the Quran’s threat of eternal hellfire. Allah is omnipotent, He predestined our every move (and that’s a very Muslim idea). He would never be so unjust as to punish us for what we cannot control.

Oh Thou, who didst with pitfall and with gin
Beset the Road I was to wander in,
     Thou wilt not with Predestin’d Evil round
Enmesh, and then impute my Fall to Sin?11

Said one—“Folks of a surly Master tell,
“And daub his Visage with the Smoke of Hell;
     “They talk of some sharp Trial of us—Pish!
“He’s a Good Fellow, and ‘twill all be well.”12

Where Islam has a long and proud tradition of religious scholarship, Omar questions its value. The great Doctors of Theology and Shari’ah, like his sometime friend Ghazali, are, at best, wasting their lives on these mysteries. Despite all their ijma (consensus), qiyas (analogy), and ijtihad (interpretation), they are going to die, like all of us.

Myself when young did eagerly frequent
Doctor and Saint, and heard great argument
     About it and about: but evermore
Came out by the same door as in I went.13

At worst, they’re full of it:

To drink wine and consort with a company of the beautiful
is better than practising the hypocrisy of the zealot;14
In the face of such doubts, Omar recommends the very un-Islamic idea of carpe diem:

Some for the Glories of This World; and some
Sigh for the Prophet’s Paradise to come;
     Ah, take the Cash, and let the Credit go,
Nor heed the rumble of a distant Drum!15

Yet despite all his skepticism, heresy, and sin, Omar would only go so far in challenging the doctrines of Islam, and no farther. He never doubted the most fundamental precept—the Oneness of Allah. The oldest collection we have of The Rubaiyat is the Ouseley Manuscript in the Bodleian Library at Oxford. In the very first verse, Omar writes,

IF I have never threaded the pearl of Thy service,
and if I have never wiped the dust of sin from my face
     nevertheless, I am not hopeless of Thy mercy,
for the reason that I have never said that One was Two.16

I think it’s fair to say that Omar Khayyam was a complex figure. The respected scholar, honored by kings, who was nevertheless skeptical of the scholarly enterprise. The freethinker who winked at wine-drinking and other violations of the shari'ah, who nevertheless knew the Quran well enough to earn Ghazali’s praise. The heretic, literally run out of town, who nevertheless never waivered on the fundamental monotheism of Islam. It is this combination of the sacred and the profane which makes him such a compelling character.

If I’m drunk on forbidden wine, so I am!
And if I’m an unbeliever, a pagan or idolator, so I am!
     Every sect has its own suspicions of me,
I myself am just what I am.17

Omar continued to be just what he was well into old age. On what was literally the last day of his life, at age 83, Omar was still delving into the mysteries of the physical universe, still a practicing Muslim, and still aware that the tension between the two put him in need of some forgiveness. His son-in-law (whose name I won't give—that would be a spoiler for the upcoming Thread of Reason sequel) recounted Omar's final hours to the historian Bayhaqi:

He was studying the Shifa [by Avicenna] while he was using a golden toothpick until he reached the section on the “unity and multiplicity.” He marked this section with his toothpick, closed the book and asked his companions to gather so he could state his will of testament. When his companions gathered, they stood up and prayed and Khayyam refused to eat or drink until he performed the night prayer. He prostrated by putting his forehead on the ground and said, “O Lord, I know you as much as it is possible for me, forgive me, for my knowledge of you is my way of reaching you” and then he died.18

Omar asked us to remember him after he was gone—in a way that was true to how he lived:

Friends, when ye hold a meeting together,
it behoves ye warmly to remember your friend;
     when ye drink wholesome wine together,
and my turn comes, turn a goblet upside down.19

In that spirit, here is a toast to Omar Khayyam. Happy 972nd!

Michael Isenberg drinks bourbon and writes novels. His latest book, The Thread of Reason, is a murder mystery featuring Omar Khayyam, and tells the story of the conflict between science and shari’ah in medieval Islam. It is available on

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1Starr, S. Frederick, Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia’s Golden Age from the Arab Conquest to Tamerlane, Princeton: Princeton University Press (2013), pp. 181-182. 2Really it should be May 24, since we now use the Gregorian calendar, but the convention among historians is that what happens in the Julian calendar stays in the Julian calendar. 3Qifti, Ali ibn Yusuf al-, Tarih al-Hukama (History of the Scholars), Leipzig: Dieterich’sche Verlagsbuchhandlung (1903), Aug Müller, Julius Lippert, ed, p. 244. Translation mine. 4Abu Bakr Razi, Mirsad al-ibad min al-mabda’ ila’l-ma’ad, Tehran: 1366, p. 31, quoted in Aminrazavi, Mehdi, The Wine of Wisdom: The Life, Poetry and Philosophy of Omar Khayyam, Oxford: Oneworld Publications (2005, 2007), p.53. 5Sana’i Ghaznavi, “Letter to Khayyam,” Danish-namah-yi Khayyami, ed. R. R. Malik, pp. 13-16, quoted in Aminirazavi, op. cit., p. 41. 6Bayhaqi, Z.A. Muhammad ibn al-Husayin al-, Tatimah siwan al-hikmah, Lahore (1351) pp. 116-17. Quoted in Aminrazavi, op. cit., pp. 46-47. 7Al-Qifti, op. cit. 8The Ruba’iyat of Omar Khayyam, Boston: L.C. Page & Co. (1898), Edward Heron-Allen, tr. No. 123. 9Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, 2nd Ed., London: Bernard Quaritch (1868), Edward Fitzgerald, tr., No. LXVI. Though Fitzgerald’s translations are beautiful and spark the imagination, they may generously be described as loose. Many quatrains are composites of multiple verses in the original manuscripts, and a handful don’t seem to map to anything Khayyam wrote at all. Where used here, I’ve checked his sources to ensure that, even if the translations don’t capture Omar’s actual words, they accurately capture his thinking. 10Ibid, No. LXVII. 11Ibid, No. LXXXVII. 12Ibid, No. XCV. 13Ibid, No. XXX. 14Rubaiyat, Herron-Allen tr., op. cit., No. 127. 15Ibid, 3d Ed., No. XIII. 16Rubaiyat, Heron-Allen tr., op. cit., No. 1. 17 Khayyam, Omar, The Ruba’iyat of Omar Khayyam, Middlesex, England: Penguin Books (1981), Peter Avery & John Heath-Stubbs, tr. No. 74. 18Bayhaqi, op. cit., 19Rubaiyat, Heron-Allen tr., op. cit., No. 83.

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Portents of Infection

Did Avicenna invent quarantine in the 11th century?

In the wake of the coronavirus crisis, numerous claims have been making the rounds of cyberspace to the effect that during the Middle Ages, Muslims had an almost modern understanding of infectious disease and the steps that should be taken to combat it. In particular, it is claimed that Islam implemented quarantine centuries before the practice became common in Europe during the Black Death.

In my previous installment, I discussed what Muslim scripture had to say on the subject of disease and quarantine, and how it was interpreted by the theologians of the time. The bottom line was that although there are passages about not entering or leaving areas where plague has broken out, they are more about patiently submitting to the Will of Allah, than about trying to divert His Will by taking steps to combat the disease.

But in addition to its theologians, the medieval Muslim world was known for its scientists. They were certainly ahead of the curve in many areas, including medicine, and in this installment I’m going to take a look at the state of the art of medical science, circa 1000 AD. I’m going to focus in particular on the king of all medieval Muslim physicians, Avicenna. Born in 980 in what’s now Uzbekistan, Avicenna was a Renaissance Man hundreds of years before the Renaissance, with accomplishments in mathematics, astronomy, chemistry, and poetry. He even served in government when a satisfied patient, the Emir of Hamadan, made him his vizier (prime minister).

But it’s for his medical works that Avicenna is best known. His Canon of Medicine was the textbook on the subject, both in the Muslim world and in Christendom, up until the 1600s. Some claim that he invented quarantine and even that he came up with the forty day isolation period, which later became common in Europe and gave the practice its name (quaranta is Italian for forty).

I thought it was suspicious that all the claims about Avicenna and quarantine came from secondary sources—no actual quotations—so I did some research and found no place in the Canon of Medicine or Avicenna’s other works where he recommends the practice. The earliest references I could find come from around 1500, when reformers like Ilyas bin Abram al-Yahudi, a Jewish convert to Islam, attempted to persuade a reluctant Ottoman Court to adopt state-of-the-art medical practices. In her excellent 2012 book, Plague, Quarantines and Geopolitics in the Ottoman Empire, Birsen Bulmus speculates that, “Perhaps Al-Yahudi sought to cover his own personal arguments – like his warning ‘not go in crowded districts’ – with earlier renowned authorities so that his recommendations would be accepted within literary Islamic traditions.”1 In any case, al-Yahudi’s arguments fell on deaf ears—quarantine would not be established in the Ottoman Empire until 1838, and even then, only after considerable debate.

Indeed, it would have been strange for Avicenna to champion quarantine, given the understanding of health and disease that prevailed in his time. Despite the hype one hears about the great accomplishments of medieval Muslim physicians, it is, frankly, a mixed bag. They made great strides in diagnosing disease and assembling massive catalogs of symptoms. For example, A Treatise on Smallpox and Measles by Muhammad ibn Zakariyya ar-Razi (854-925), known in the west as Rhazes, is the oldest book we know of to distinguish between the two diseases (For an amusing story about Rhazes’s foray into psychology, see here). But when it came to understanding disease, and treating it, things were considerably more hit or miss.

The obstacle was that the germ theory of disease didn’t exist. The conceptual framework of medicine had not progressed since the time of the Ancient Greeks. The prevailing theory was Galen’s notion of the four humors—blood, phlegm, green bile, and black bile—and their corresponding properties of hot/cold and wet/dry. Under this theory, illness was the result of the humors getting out of balance, and the cure was to eat foods with opposite properties of temperature and moisture in order to compensate. Green bile, for instance, was thought to be hot and dry and therefore an excess of it caused fevers. Thus, to cure fever, the green bile needed to be balanced with something cool and moist. Although we do find some powerful drugs in the Muslim pharmacopeias—in a recent post about a tenth century cookbook, I included a recipe for opium-based cough drops—treatments were mostly food-based and bordered on quackery. In the case of fever, gourds and pomegranates were thought to be especially effective.

As for what causes the humors to fall out of balance in the first place, there were various theories.

Take smallpox, for example. Since Bubonic Plague was taking a rest—the aftershocks of the Plague of Justinian had died out around the end of the Umayyad Caliphate (750) and the Black Death of the 1300s was still centuries away—smallpox was probably the most dangerous disease with which the physicians of the Islamic Golden Age had experience.

Absolutely everyone got it, usually during childhood. Either they survived or they didn’t—the death rate was about 25%. If they survived, they never got it again.

Based on these observations, physicians concluded smallpox was just a normal part of growing up. Both Rhazes and Avicenna described it as a process of rot or fermentation in the blood. According to The Canon of Medicine,

Its symptomatic cause is the natural fermenting [or boiling] of the blood to shake out the remaining menstrual nourishment that was mixed in it from the time of pregnancy…like what nature does in squeezing the grape until it becomes a drink resembling its essence [i.e., wine].2

Still, this didn’t explain epidemics, why smallpox would break out in large numbers in certain times and places. Along those lines, Avicenna did have some rudimentary notion about contagion. One paragraph in The Canon of Medicine lists diseases that can be spread from person to person, and the manner in which they’re spread:

And among the diseases, some are contagious, like leprosy, scabies, smallpox, infectious fever, and festering wounds, especially where the houses are cramped, or likewise if the neighboring houses are downwind. Also conjunctivitis, especially from gazing into the eyes of someone else, and toothache from imagining biting into something acidic. Also pannus and leprosy.3

However, this was not so much due to the transmission of germs from person-to-person—Avicenna knew nothing of the variola virus—as it did with the presence of bad air, or miasmas, in certain places. Hence the significance of whether a house was closely confined or downwind from an infected house.

Sometimes the reason is that winds carry bad vapors from distant places that have stagnant water in them, or wounded bodies from battles, or those who died from fevers and weren’t buried or burned. And sometimes the reason is proximity to a neighboring place. And sometimes corruption is shown to be hidden in the ground for reasons not understood in detail. Then the water and the air are prepared and the fevers occur.4

Avicenna fills page after page describing how winds, seasons, temperature, humidity, and even the heavens affect the quality of the air. For example,

If we see the south wind increase, and days of turbid air, and then after that it becomes clear for a week, and then a cold night occurs that extends into a hot, hazy, cloudy day, then an epidemic might come that causes infectious fevers and smallpox and their like. And likewise if there was a cool summer and the atmosphere was heavy with soot. And comets, fires, and meteors in the fall are portents of infection as well.5

"As for improving the air," Avicenna writes, is the goal to dry the air. Make the air good and prevent the rottenness from entering and crude matter from returning with ambergris, camphor, musk, and a measure of candy, storax, sandarac, asafetida, clove resin, mastic, terebinth resin, laudanum, honey, saffron, cypress, juniper, moss, bay leaf, sedge, 'adhkhar, savin, waja, shababk, bitter almonds, and so forth. And take these components in vinegar and asafetida and sprinkle the house...perfume with incense: sandalwood, camphor, pomegranate peel, myrtle, apples, quince, teak, tamarisk, and ribas. The perfuming must be repeated.6

This use of perfumes and incenses to fumigate the bad air was common practice. The historian as-Suyuti (d. 1505) tells of an incident during the "Plague of the Notables" (716-717), when a merchant appeared before the prince Ayyub, son of the Caliph Suleiman. The desperate courtiers grabbed the merchant's supply of musk right out of his hands. It didn't work though. When the merchant returned a week and a half later, Ayyub and all his household were dead and the palace boarded up.7

Clearly these three theories—maturation of the blood, person-to-person transmission, and miasmas—are not entirely consistent with each other, despite all appearing in the same book, and sometimes on the same page. The miasma theory is the one to which Avicenna dedicates the most space, and also the one which one hears the most about in the works of other authors. It is, of course, entirely at odds with the idea of quarantine.

If disease is the product of a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors that have accumulated in some place, then rather than hunkering down where you are, the logical thing to do is escape to some more wholesome locale. The chronicles of the Umayyad period are rife with accounts of rulers fleeing their palaces during outbreaks of Bubonic Plague. Finding higher ground was especially popular, since it was believed that the miasmas had an affinity for hollows and valleys. In the example I gave in my previous post, in which the Caliph Omar relocated his troops during the Plague of Amwas, their destination was the higher elevations of Hauran, in what's now southern Syria.8

Despite the vaunted reputation of medieval Muslim physicians in general, and Avicenna in particular, there is not only no evidence that they invented quarantine, but the idea wouldn't even make sense to them, given their basic ideas about medicine. Some of which were downright laughable. Obviously comets have nothing to do with smallpox, and even though conjunctivitis is highly contagious, spreading it requires some form of contact; you don’t get it merely by gazing into the eyes of someone who has it.

Still, we shouldn’t laugh too hard. Their painstaking classification of disease and symptoms laid the foundation for what was to come. The pioneers of modern medicine stood on the shoulders of giants, and Rhazes and Avicenna were giants indeed.

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

Please follow Mike on Facebook and Twitter.

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Photo credit(s): Ether Monument, Boston Public Gardens from Wikimedia Commons

1Bulmus, Birsen, Plague, Quarantines and Geopolitics in the Ottoman Empire, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press (2012), p. 44.
2Avicenna, Qanun fi al-Tibb (Canon of Medicine), Book IV, Beirut: Muʻassasat ʻIzz al-Dīn (1987), Chapter 3, Section 67. All translations from The Canon of Medicine are mine.
3Avicenna, Qanun fi al-Tibb (Canon of Medicine), Book I, Beirut: Dar al-Kotob al-Ilmiyah (1999), Chapter 2, Section 8.
4Avicenna, Book IV, op. cit., Chapter 3, Section 65.
5Ibid, Chapter 3, Section 66.
7See Michael W. Dols seminal article, "Plague in Early Islamic History," Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 94, No. 3 (Jul. - Sep., 1974), p.379.
8Dols, op. cit., pp. 376-380.