Abu Zayd al-Balkhi – Author of Sustenance Of The Soul

Abu Zayd al-Balkhi – Author of Sustenance Of The Soul

Abu Zayd al-balkhi رَحِمَهُ ٱللَّٰهُ  was an encyclopedic genius whose profound contributions to knowledge covered many diverse fields that would seem, to our modern minds, to be unrelated to each other. He is also considered to be one of the world’s first known cognitive psychologists, astonishingly centuries ahead of his time, studying and suggesting cognitive treatments to anxiety and mood disorders.

A polymath and prolific writer, he authored more than sixty books and manuscripts, meticulously researching disciplines as varied in scope as geography, medicine, theology, politics, philosophy, poetry, literature, Arabic grammar, astrology, astronomy, mathematics, biography, ethics, sociology as well as others. Although excelling in many fields his fame as a great scholar came actually as a result of his work in geography leading him to become the founder of what is known as the “Balkhi School” of terrestrial mapping. Regrettably, most of these valuable documents, hand-written manuscripts, have either been lost or lie concealed in museums or in inaccessible libraries.

Similarly, very little has been written by way of biography. Most of what we know about al-Balkhi comes from a single biographer, Yaqut al-Hamawi. In a well-known volume on the biographies of poets and men of letters, Mu’jam al-Udaha’, al-Hamawi states that al-Balkhi’s full name was Abu Zayd Ahmad ibn Sahl al-Balkhi, and that he was born in the year 235 ah (849 ce) in a small village called Shamisitiyan, in the Persian province of Balkh, which is now part of Afghanistan. Aside from noting that he received his early education from his father, Hamawi does not mention any other information about al-Balkhi’s childhood. He does, however, provide some detailed information on his youth and endeavors to educate himself in the sciences and arts of his time.

Al-Hamawi chronicles that one of al-Balkhi’s students, Abu Muhammad al-Hassan ibn al-Waziri, described him to be a slim man of medium height, deep brown complexion and protruding eyes, with a face bearing the marks of smallpox. He was generally silent, and contemplative thus exhibiting a (reserved) shy personality. This description of his personality added to the meticulous nature of his vast and rigorously written studies in modern terminology, allows us to infer al-Balkhi to be a highly introverted, yet brilliant scholar. What also seems apparent is that he preferred seclusion and contemplation to socializing with friends or attending parties because there is no mention in his biography of either, whether association with intimate friends or attendance of lavish parties, by lavish meaning eating, listening to music and/or captivating Arabic poetry, common in the Abbasid era. This conclusion is strongly supported the more we read al-Hamawi’s account of him.

If al-Balkhi had mixed in social circles as early Muslim physicians such as Abu al-Faraj ibn Hindu and Abu Bakr al-Razi, had done we would have known more about his personal life, and more about the fate of his missing, great contributions. For example, we know that Ibn Hindu’s treatise, Miftah al-Tibb wa Minhaj al-Tullah (The Key to Medicine and the Students’ Guide) one of the greatest contributions to medicine of the 11th century, was the product of a request made by friends. In his introduction to this inimitable treatise, Ibn Hindu states:

Some of my learned friends have looked through my book entitled, A Treatise Encouraging the Study of Philosophy; its easily understood style made them want a similar treatise on medicine. So I undertook to compose such a treatise for them, taking pains to make it accessible, and called it ‘The Key to Medicine’.

So, it was Ibn Hindu’s sociability and reverence for friendship that enabled the legacy of this priceless historical document to be left to us.

Similarly, it was fascination with music and musical parties that led al-Razi to one of his greatest medical inventions. Al-Razi was a famous musician before becoming one of the most distinguished physicians of all time. Yet, his great medical successes did not weaken his love for music and he would invite musicians to his house to play in the evenings with instruments such as violins and lutes, the strings of which were made from animal intestines. At one of these parties, his guests stayed far into the night, and too tired to carry their instruments back left them in al-Razi’s care. Now al-Razi kept a few domesticated monkeys in the house for medical research and one of these cut the strings off the instruments and ate them. Al-Razi decided to use the incident for a scientific experiment. Keeping the monkey under close observation, he examined its faeces for remains of the strings. Nothing appeared and he realized that the strings had been fully digested. This resulted in one of medicine’s greatest inventions, the use of dissolving catgut strings to stitch wounds (al-Fanjari, pp. 81-82).

Although some historians of Islamic medicine credit al-Zahrawi with the invention of dissolving sutures, it was in fact al-Razi, as both a musician and a physician, who made this great discovery. The point being that science sometimes finds its inspiration in creativity, and also, as in this case and that of Ibn Hindu, by way of simple sociability.

We should also be grateful for al-Balkhi’s introspective and introverted personality, in that it was this and its concomitant traits that bestowed on him the patience and astute clinical acuity, to write Masalih al-Abdan wa al-Anfus. Without introspective, analytical thought, and penetrative clinical perception al-BalkÏ would not, in the 9th century, have been able to write in such detail about psychosomatic disorders, to be able to differentiate between psychoses and neuroses, to categorize depression as normal, reactive and endogenous, or to give a detailed exposition on the use of cognitive therapy in treating psychological disorders. As he rightly asserts in his manuscript, no scholar before him had written a medical treatise of this kind.

As mentioned earlier, al-Balkhi was not only a great physician but also a polymath, an eminent geographer, and a great Muslim theologian. He was also a master of Arabic prose and not argumentative. In describing his eloquence al-Waziri, as quoted by al-Hamawi, states that when al-Balkhi spoke it was as if “a shower of gems” had fallen. He was unsurpassed in expression. Al-Waziri compares him with al-Jahiz and Ali ibn Ubaydah al-Rayhani, the two most prominent writers of his time, and quotes the linguists of the time stating that alBalkhi was more articulate than both since his words were more eloquent and he was able to elucidate any topic with ease, whereas in comparison al-Jahiz was verbose and al-Rayhani, too laconic.

In describing Balkhi’s style of writing, al-Hamawi notes that his great knowledge of classical and modern sciences gave to his written work the style of philosophers, and the eloquence of men of letters. Some of his writings have indeed become wise sayings and proverbs. For example:

If someone praises you for what is not in you, then you cannot trust that
he will not blame you for what is not in you.
Religion is the greatest of philosophies; therefore, man cannot be a
philosopher until he becomes a worshipper.
The greatest medicine is knowledge.

Al-Balkhi did not earn this prestigious scholarly status without humbly enduring the hardships of patient learning. Al-Hamawi notes that he traveled from Balkh, his home town, to Baghdad to reside there for eight long years in search of religious and secular knowledge, and to acquire the scholarly methodology of his time. Among his great teachers was the renowned philosopher, Abu Yusuf al-Kindi.

According to al-Hamawi during this period al-Balkhi became deeply engrossed in conflicting philosophical issues that confounded his religious beliefs and caused him to divert from the right path of Sunni Islam. This led some religious Muslim scholars to accuse him of deviance. So much so in fact that at one time, he was considered an adherent of the Shiaism of al-Imamiyyah or al-Zaydiyyah and at other times, an adherent of the Mutazilah school of thought. This confirms our conjecture of al-Balkhi being a young, lonely, reflective introvert, without intimate friends who at the time could have helped him out of his spiritual crisis.

It was a turbulent era in any case, the Abbasid caliphate had lost much of its powerful grip over its people, resulting in theological upheaval, and the rise of destructive movements such as al-Qaramitah and what has come to be known as the negro revolutionary movement c. 868 ce which almost brought about the caliphate’s downfall.

However, this youthful state of confusion did not last long. Al-Hamawi asserts that after Baghdad’s culture shock, al-Balkhi finally established himself on the right path of the Sunni School, as apparent in his work Kitab Nazm al-Qur’an, which exceeded all that had been written in this field. Furthermore, unlike the Shia he was annoyed by those who gave preference to some of the companions of the Prophet (ﷺ) over others, and detested the pomposity of Arabs over non-Arabs.

After completing his studies in Baghdad, al-Balkhi returned to Balkh and there took up the post of katib (literally writer) or secretary to Prince Ahmad ibn Sahl ibn Hashim al-Marwazi, the ruler of Balkh and its suburbs. In fact the ruler offered him a ministerial as well as a writing position. However, al-Balkhi turned down the former and accepted the latter. The ruler respected his choice and paid him well.

Again, al-Balkhi’s choice confirms our belief as to his unsociable nature. Limiting himself to the role of katib allowed al-Balkhi more time for reclusive in-depth study, and it was perhaps due to this personality trait that he avoided the more prestigious, but socially demanding job of minister. Al-Balkhi continued to research and write until the age of eighty-eight, avoiding the temptations of jobs of better status and higher salary.

In relation to this, al-Hamawi narrates that the king of Khurasan himself invited al-Balkhi to assist him in his kingdom, but he politely declined. He visited Baghdad for a second time, but quickly returned to Balkh and lived there until his death in the year 934 ce.

The subject of this book is al-Balkhi’s ninth century manuscript Masallih al-Abdan wa al-Anfus (Sustenance for Bodies and Souls), comprised of 361 pages and located in the Ayasofya Library, Istanbul. Written in clear, easy to read Arabic, the hand written document (no. 3741) consists of 268 pages devoted to the sustenance of the body and 73 pages to the sustenance of the soul or psyche.

Our translation is limited to the second psychotherapeutic part, concerning the sustenance of the soul. As expected, the first part on the sustenance of the body deals with the physical aspects of health. In writing this section, al-Balkhi naturally developed it from the outdated medical knowledge of the 9th century which had been greatly influenced by the theories and practices of Greek physicians. Much of what he has included in this part would be of great interest to historians of medicine.

However, what is worth noting is that even in writing this part, al-Balkhi, a great scholar of psychosomatic medicine, has surprisingly discussed medical and psychosomatic issues of interest to modern medical practitioners. The sustenance of the physical health of man is discussed in 14 chapters, with the approach being largely preventative, to preserve health, and protect the body from physical disorders. With tremendous foresight he includes two chapters on environmental and public health: the first on the importance of having a suitable house, pure water and clean air, and the second on protecting the body by avoiding the extremes of hot and cold temperatures, and by wearing proper clothing. Other chapters include the importance of nutrition, that is proper nourishment with suitable food and drink, good sleep and cleanliness of the body.

Al-Balkhi also recognized the importance of physical exercise and massage, comparing bodily fluids to nature’s stagnant and running water, noting that just as stagnant water quickly becomes polluted and unhygienic whilst running water preserves its purity, likewise lack of physical exercise can cause body humors to become stagnant and eventually pathological.

Some of the chapters in this section do not fall wholly into either category of physical or psychological ailments but discuss psychophysical issues related to music therapy and aromatherapy, i.e. there is a chapter on the benefits of music and perfume in relaxing the body and treating physical ailments.

Finally, in the ninth chapter of the treatise al-Balkhi introduces an extremely delicate subject, one remarkably ahead of its time which today would be the domain of modern sex therapists, and this is the study of various sexual attributes and their affects. Thus, he considers sexual abstinence to be unnatural and a cause for certain physical problems, and wet dreams a mechanism employed by the body to get rid of ‘trapped’ potentially harmful ejaculates. He even suggests methods for the treatment of sexual impotence including certain foods and drink and notes the harmful effects on the body of medications that at the time purported to improve sexuality.

Following this brief summary of Balkhi and his work Sustenance for Bodies, we turn next to an introduction by distinguished Turkish scholar, Fuat Sezgin, the first to discover the priceless value of the manuscript and have it published by the Institute of the History of the Arab Islamic Sciences (Germany), of which he is the founder and honorary director. He is also professor emeritus of the History of Natural Science at Johann Wolfgang Goethe University in Frankfurt.