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Rabies in medieval Persian literature – the Canon of Avicenna (980–1037 AD)
By Behnam Dalfardi, Mohammad Hosein Esnaashary and Hassan Yarmohammadi
Infectious Diseases of Poverty, Vol.3:7 (2014)
Abstract: Ibn Sina (980–1037 AD), known by his full name Abu Ali al-Hussain ibn Abdallah ibn Sina and the Latin name ‘Avicenna’, was a Persian scholar who is primarily remembered for his contributions to the science of medicine. He authored Al-Qanun fi al-Tibb (The Canon of Medicine). Sections of his work are devoted to detailed descriptions of a number of infectious illnesses, particularly rabies. Avicenna described rabies in humans and animals and explained its clinical manifestations, route of transmission, and treatment methods. In this article, our goal is to discuss Avicenna’s 11th-century points of view on rabies and compare them with modern medical knowledge.
Introduction: Rabies is an acute, progressive, and fatal anthropozoonotic infection of the central nervous system caused by viruses from the genus Lyssavirus and the family Rhabdoviridae. Its history dates back thousands of years, yet despite this long history, it remains a challenge for modern medicine.
No doubt the present-day knowledge of rabies is indebted to a chain of theories and experiences developed over time. Scholars, such as Democritus (460–370 BC), Aristotle (384–322 BC), Pliny the Elder (23–79 AD), Galen (130–200 AD), Celsus (25 BC–50 AD), Rufus of Ephesus (80–150 AD), Oribasius (320–400 AD), and Aëtius of Amida (502–575 AD) are among the first physicians to specifically study rabies and contribute to the process of building up a knowledge base about it. For instance, Aristotle noted the possibility of rabies transmission from an infected animal to a healthy one through a bite. As another example, Celsus coined the term “hudrophobia” (hydrophobia) and suggested that the saliva of a rabid animal contains a poisonous agent.
Some centuries later, Persian scientists, such as Rhazes (865–925 AD), Al-Akhawayni Bukhari (?–983 AD), Avicenna (980–1037 AD), and Jurjānī’ (1042–1137 AD), made significant contributions to the art of medicine, leading to the formation of ‘The Golden Age of Islam’ (ninth to 12th centuries AD), an era of great development for the science of medicine in Islamic civilizations. These scholars played key roles in gathering and preserving the extant medical knowledge of their predecessors and disseminating it to future generations. In addition, they added their own accumulated information and experiences to previous knowledge.
The disease of rabies and its various aspects are topics discussed in detail by Persian scientists in their works. Keeping in mind that Avicenna played a leading role in the medicine of his own time, as well as in successive centuries, this paper aims to review his opinions on rabies.