Womb Heat versus Sperm Heat: Hippocrates against Galen and Ibn Sīnā in Ibn al-Nafīs’s Commentaries

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Ibn al-Nafīs composed lemmatic commentaries on Hippocrates’ Aphorisms and Ibn Sīnā’s entire Canon of Medicine. While he regularly challenges, critiques and refutes Ibn Sīnā’s positions in his Commentary on the Canon, Ibn al-Nafīs generally upholds the validity of each Hippocratic aphorism. This suggests that he considered Hippocrates the supreme authority in medicine over Ibn Sīnā (and even Galen). Through an analysis of his commentary on the Hippocratic Aphorisms, Book Five, aphorisms 42 and 48 (on the causes and consequences of bearing male children), and how he deploys them in his commentary on the analogous chapters from the Canon, we shall see how Ibn al-Nafīs establishes the validity of these aphorisms using his own understanding of generation. This tight interweaving of the Aphorisms and his physiology allows Ibn al-Nafīs to marshal the authority of Hippocrates to simultaneously undercut the positions of Ibn Sīnā, Galen and other adversaries, and to elevate the authority and validity of Ibn al-Nafīs’s own (novel) positions.

Womb Heat versus Sperm Heat: Hippocrates against Galen and Ibn Sīnā in Ibn al-Nafīs’s Commentaries

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Wesley SmithThe Hippocratic Tradition (Ithaca: Cornell University Press1979). For an excellent analysis of how Galen uses his commentary on the Aphorisms to align the Hippocratic text with his own thought see Heinrich von Staden “ ‘A Woman Does Not Become Ambidextrous’: Galen and the Culture of Scientific Commentary” in The Classical Commentary: Histories Practices Theory eds. Roy Gibson and Christina Shuttleworth Kraus (Leiden: Brill 2002) 109–39.


Manfred UllmannDie Medizin im Islam (Leiden: Brill1970) 35–62.


Ibid.160. Ullmann refers to him as the “second Hippocrates.” Ibn Abī Uṣaybiʿa (d. 1270) however does not use this title for Ibn Abī Ṣādiq in his history of physicians although he cites a verse in which a later Cairene physician Abū Shākir ibn Abī Sulaymān (d. 1216) is called “the successor (khalīfa) of Hippocrates.” Ibn Abī Uṣaybiʿa ʿUyūn al-anbāʾ fī ṭabaqāt al-aṭibbāʾ ed. Nizar Reza (Beirut: Dār maktabat al-ḥayāh 1965) 589–90. An English translation by Lothar Kopf has been made available courtesy of The Tertullian Project: Ibn Abī Uṣaybiʿa History of Physicians trans. Lothar Kopf (unpublished manuscript ca. 1971) online edition last accessed October 8 2015 http://www.tertullian.org/fathers/ibn_abi_usaibia_00_eintro.htm. The text has also been translated into Urdu: Ibn Abī Uṣaybiʿa Tārīkh al-aṭibbāʾ trans. Ḥakīm ʿAbd al-Majīd Iṣlāḥī 2 vols. (Lahore: al-Fayṣal 1993).


Ibn Abī UṣaybiʿaʿUyūn461. This is not meant to suggest that Ibn Abī Ṣādiq followed Galen blindly nor that he was unoriginal in his defense of Galenic doctrines.


SmithHippocratic Tradition14–6; Owsei Temkin Galenism: The Rise and Decline of a Medical Philosophy (Ithaca: Cornell University Press 1973) 129–30.


Ibid.143 (Arabic text) 16 (English translation).


Ibn al-NafīsTheologus15–6; Nahyan Fancy Science and Religion in Mamluk Egypt: Ibn al-Nafīs Pulmonary Transit and Bodily Resurrection (New York: Routledge 2013) 24–5. The most popular abridgment of the Canonal-Mūjaz (Epitome) is also ascribed to Ibn al-Nafīs though its exact relationship to both Ibn al-Nafīs and the Canon is complicated; see Fancy Science and Religion Appendix; Nahyan Fancy “Medical Commentaries: A Preliminary Examination of Ibn al-Nafīs’s Shurūḥ the Mūjaz and Commentaries on the MūjazOriens 41 (2013): 525–45.


Savage-SmithNew Catalogue19. In the preface to his Commentary on the Prognostics Ibn al-Nafīs refers to the success of his Commentary on the Aphorisms which he claims has encouraged him to compose a commentary on the Prognostics. This confirms the humble tone of the preface to the earlier Commentary on the Aphorisms. See N. Peter Joosse and Peter E. Pormann “ʿAbd al-Laṭīf al-Baġdādī’s Commentary on Hippocrates’ ‘Prognostic’: A Preliminary Exploration” in Epidemics in Context: Greek Commentaries on Hippocrates in the Arabic Tradition ed. Peter E. Pormann (Berlin: de Gruyter 2012) 251–84 258.


SmithHippocratic Tradition14.


von Staden“ ‘A Woman Does Not’ ” 114.


Ibn Abī UṣaybiʿaʿUyūn461. The text survives in at least one complete manuscript: Abū al-Qāsim Ibn Abī Ṣādiq al-Nīsābūrī (d. after 1068) Sharḥ manāfiʿ al-aʿḍāʾ (MS Paris Bibliothèque nationale de France arabe 2854).


Ibn al-NafīsSharḥ al-fuṣūl390–1. Ibn al-Nafīs is clearly making certain assumptions about sexual positions. It is unclear whether he intends this comment to be descriptive of the most common sexual position or prescriptive for increasing the chances of producing a male child. Legally there were no restrictions on sexual positions for licit intercourse but Ibn al-Nafīs may have been more prudish than his contemporaries. For example his only substantial comment on the Canon’s section on managing abortions is to highlight the fact that medical necessity does not entail legal permissibility. For the latter one must consult the appropriate texts; Ibn al-Nafīs Sharḥ al-Qānūn fol. 461b ll. 21–3.


Ibn al-NafīsSharḥ al-tashrīḥ434.


GalenUsefulness of the Parts2:635; Ibn Sīnā al-Qānūn 1:92 [Book I Fann 1 Instruction (taʿlīm) 5]. Ibn Sīnā states that the left gonadal vein sometimes also receives a branch directly from the inferior vena cava that joins with the branch coming from the renal vein. Vesalius modified Ibn Sīnā’s claim by asserting that this only happens in some people and not in all; Andreas Vesalius The Fabric of the Human Body: An Annotated Translation of the 1543 and 1555 Editions of “De humani corporis fabrica libri septum” trans. Daniel H. Garrison and Malcolm Hast (Basel: Karger 2014) 2:763.


GalenUsefulness of the Parts2:634–5; Ibn Sīnā al-Qānūn 1:86 [Book I Fann 1 Instruction 4]. Ibn Sīnā maintains the analogy between the veins and the arteries and suggests that in this case too the left gonadal artery may sometimes receive a piece directly from the descending aorta in addition to the branch from the left renal artery. Vesalius rejects the claim that the left gonadal artery branches from the left renal artery and shows instead that both gonadal arteries branch from the main trunk of the descending aorta; Vesalius Fabric of the Human Body 2:796.


Ibn al-NafīsSharḥ al-tashrīḥ328.


GalenUsefulness of the Parts2:635; Ibn Sīnā al-Qānūn 1:92 [Book I Fann 1 Instruction 5].


Ibn al-NafīsSharḥ al-tashrīḥ306.




Ibn al-NafīsSharḥ al-fuṣūl390.


Ibn al-NafīsSharḥ al-tashrīḥ440.




FancyScience and Religion91.


Ibn al-NafīsSharḥ al-tashrīḥ446.


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