|Arabian and Egyptian Scientists in Botany and Agriculture
Contributions of Ancient Arabian and Egyptian Scientists
on Botany and Agriculture
Md. Wasim Aktar* and M. Paramasivam
Deptt. of Agril. Chemicals, Bidhan Chandra Krishi Viswavidyalaya,
Mohanpur, Nadia, West Bengal, India.
The modern Botany is based on the findings and thinking of the people of historical age. If no one knows the base
and work of the previous on a subject, he or she could mere develop a new thought or findings. For, a civilization
must know its past. Hence, the present work is a small effort to find out the contribution of ancient Arabian and
Egyptian scientists in the field of Botany and Agriculture. Different scientists of different school of thought, correlating
different streams of science being Botany as a main subject, are described in the present work.
There was a great scarcity of water and vegetation in the desert of Arabia. The people living there needed plants
to feed their animals. They wandered in search of vegetation, and went wherever they could find it. This great
importance of plants resulted in their becoming an important topic of Arabic literature.
The study of plants was chiefly made from medical and agricultural points of view. The Arabs already knew
about the medical use of some herbs and shrubs (‘Aqaqir wa’l Hashä’ish). At the advent of Islam when, in
connection with preaching, Jihad, or some other purposes they came in contact with other peoples, they took interest
not only in the names and uses of plants, but they became also interested in their cultivation. So they tried to know
the matters relating to agriculture such as the methods of plantation and fertilization, the time suitable for sowing and
harvesting, and the nature of the soil. They made correct observations on sexual differences between such plants as
palms and hemps. The plants were classified into those that grow from cuttings, those that grow from seeds and
those that grow spontaneously.
The Ancient scientists’ knowledge of applied botany and agriculture can be estimated by reading the accounts
of gardens and crops cultivated in different parts of the Ancient scientist world, particularly those in Spain. At one time
ancient Spain was proverbial in this respect. The Arabs introduced irrigation and agricultural methods there with the
result that it was transformed into a garden.
Cotton, rice, sugarcane, asparagus, oranges, lemons and pomegranates were some of the plants and fruits
brought from outside and cultivated in Spain. Through that country the Europeans became aware of the cultivation of
many plants which they did not know before. The famous gardens of Persia, Spain and Morocco, with well p1anned
arrangements of trees, shrubs and flowers, with their tilled floors, their rivulets and fountains of water, built with an
aesthetic taste, establishing harmony between architecture and vegetation throws light on their interest in agriculture,
gardening and love for flowers .
Since the Arabs did not know much about the art of agriculture, they turned towards other peoples including the
Romans, Nabateans and Persians for learning it. They also translated their botanical works into Arabic.
There are many lexicographers, geographers, travellers and physicians who wrote on plants. One of them was
Abü Sa’id ‘Abd al-Malik lbn Quraib al-Asma’i. He was a native of Basrah, and came to Baghdad during the reign of
Härun al- Rashid. Asma’i was born in 739 and died in 831. He is the author of a number of works on different
subjects. One of them is on plants and trees. In the preface of this book the author has provided a general
discussion on plants. First of all he has mentioned various types of soils having different conditions regarding their
capabilities for cultivation and vegetation. Then he has mentioned the trees, giving an account of their various stages
of development. After that he has classified the plants, giving examples for each class. Finally, he has described
those plants which grow in plains and deserts. He has mentioned 230 plants in all. (1)
Another lexicographer and grammarian who wrote on plants was Ahmad Ibn Da’ud Ibn Wanand, nicknamed al-
Dinawari. He was also called al- Ashshãb (the herbalist). He was a trustworthy reporter, an expert botanist,
astronomer and logician Who compiled a number of works on various subjects.
In his book on plants al-Dinawari described, after observing the plants in the places where they grew, all that
he had discovered and also all that his predecessors had mentioned. He did not leave even the minute details. This
book was considered to be a standard work on herbalism, medicine and lexicography at a time when no one could
become a physician or herbalist unless he had thoroughly studied this book, and was examined in it. (2)
Al-Birüni (d.1048) made observation on plants. He discovered that flowers have 3, 4, 5, 6 or 18 petals, never 7
or 9. (3)
A physician Mãsarjwaih also compiled a work on the properties of simple drugs mentioning their good and
bad effects. He was a Syrian Jew who flourished during the reign of Umar Ibn ‘Abd al-’Aziz, and translated for him
and for the Caliph Marwan some Greek works into Arabic. He translated the second part of Galen’s work on simple
drugs, which consists of six discourses. The translation was corrected by Hunain lbn Ishaq. (4)
The Ancient scientists attached more importance to the translation of Dioscorides’work than to other botanical
works. The later writers based their works on it adding whatever they knew of plants and simple drugs. Dioscorides
was a distinguished scientist and an authority on herbs. He was a native of Anazarbos, hence called Ainzarbi. He
travelled extensively and made investigations on plants and their properties. When he reached certain conclusions
about the plants, he entered them into his book illustrating them with the pictures representing the colours of plants.
The book of Dioscorides consists of five discourses. Two more discourses on the animal poisons are ascribed to
him. Thus the total number of discourses is seven.
The first discourse deals with sweet smelling drugs. The second consists of the description of vegetables
and animals and their fluids. The third discourse discusses the roots of plants, the thorny plants and similar topics.
The fourth deals with the drugs which are cold in nature, those which are warm, and those which cause relief from
poisonous effects. The fifth discourse mentions different kinds of drinks and mineral drugs. (5).
One of the most important Ancient scientist botanists was Abu’l-Mansur Rashid al-Din Abu’l-Fadl Ibn Ali al-
Süri He was the greatest authority on simple drugs, the variety of their names, their properties and uses. He was
born in 1177 at the city of Sur in Syria, and was brought up there. Later he came to Baghdad where he started the
study of medidine from Shaikh Muwaffaq al-Din Abd al-Latif al-Baghdadi. Al-Suri spent two years in Quds, at the
hospital of the city where he practiced medicine.
Al-Süri went to the places where the plants could be found, like the hills of Lebanon and other places
which were famous for one or the other plant. He used to take with him a painter having different kinds of colours and
paints. He observed the plants and showed them to his painter. The painter noticed the colour and roots of the
plants, the size of their leaves and branches, and made the pictures accordingly. Al-Suri showed the plants to the
painter at the time of their growth, maturity and withering. The painter prepared the pictures of the plants at every
stage of their development, and filled in them the colours which he observed at that time. Al-Suri included these
illustrations in his book on simple drugs and plants. He collected in it the material that he found in the books of the
ancients, and also mentioned the drugs which he had discovered himself and their use which he came to know. Al-
Suri served al-Malik al-Adil Abu Bakr Ibn Ayyüb as a physician in 1215, and accompanied him from Quds to the
Egyptian lands. After the death of al-Malik al-Adil, he served his son, al- Malik al-Mu’azzam ‘Isa Ibn Abi Bakr. After the
latter’s death, al-Suri served his son, al-Malik al-Nasir Da’ud Ibn al-Malik al-Mu’azzam. He was made the chief
physician. Al-Suri died in 1241 in Damascus. (6)
Another illustrious scholar and a distinguished botanist was Abu Ja’far Ahmad lbn Muhammad Ibn
Ahmad Ibn Sayyid al-Ghafiqi (d. 1165). As compared with others, he had a greater knowledge of the properties, uses
and names of the simple drugs. His book on this subject is a valuable source of information. The author described
briefly what Dioscorides and Galen wrote on this subject. He also mentioned what the later writers contributed to this
branch of science. Thus his book consists of the accounts of simple drugs given by those who are learned in this
One of the most important Ancient scientist botanists was Abu Muhammad ‘Abd Allah Ibn Ahmad al-Mãliqi
al-Nabäti, known as Ibn al-Baitàr. He was the greatest expert of his time in identifying the plants. He conducted
research on the plants, and acquired a good knowledge of the names of the plants and their species and the places
where they grew. He travelled in the Roman lands (Asia Minor) and some other territories and observed the plants in
the places where they grew. There he also met some botanists, and learnt from them about many plants. He also
met some well known botanists in the Maghrib and other places.
Ibn al-Baitar was in the service of al- Malik al-Kamil Muhammad Ibn Abi Bakr Ibn Ayyüb. He was
considered to be an authority on simple drugs and shrubs, and was appointed in Egypt as the chief of physicians
and apothecaries. He remained in his service until his death. Then he was honoured by his son al-Malik al-Salih
Najm al-Din Ayyilb. He died in Damascus in 1048. Al-Baitàr is the author of many works on simple drugs and other
subjects. One of them is the Kitab al-Jami’ fi‘l-Adwiyyah al-Mufradah. This book is chiefly based on the works of his
Greek and Ancient scientist predecessors, but also contains his personal observations made in different lands. The
opinions of the later scholars about mineral, animal and plant drugs have also been quoted in the book. The author
gave in alphabetical order the Persian, Latin and Berber tames of the simple drugs and also cleared the confusions
in the names. He also mentioned their properties and uses. This book is the best Arabic work on this subject. It was
written for Al-Malik al-Salih Najm al-Din Ayyüb Ibn al-Malik al-Kãmil. It was translated into French and German. (8)
Another famous scholar and botanist of Spain was Abu’l-Abbas Ahmed lbn Muhammad Ibn Mufarraj Ibn
Abi’l-khatib known as Ibn al-Rumiyah. He was a native of Seville. In 1216 he went to Egypt. He lived for two years in
Egypt, Syria and Iraq where the people learnt something from him. In these lands he observed many plants which
were not found in his native land. He observed the plants in the places where they grew. When he reached
Alexandria the Sultan al-Malik al-’Adil Abü Bakr Ibn Ayyub heard about his scholarship and his deep knowledge of
plants. The Sultan called him to his court and honoured him. He stayed with him for sometime, and then returned to
Ibn al-Rümiyah was a well-known scholar, researcher on medicine, the author of many works and fond
of collecting books. One of his writings is a commentary on Dioscorides’ book dealing with simple drugs. He also
wrote a travelogue at the end of his travels in the Eastern land entitled Al-Rihlat al-Mashriqiyyah. It is a collection of
his discussions and observation made particularly on the coasts of the Mediterranean. (9)
The last famous writer on agriculture in Spain was Abü Zakariyyä Yahya Ibn Muhammad Ibn Ahmad Ibn
Awwam al-Ashbili. His valuable book is entitled Kitab al-Falahah. It is based on the works of his Greek, Roman,
Nabatean and Ancient scientist predecessors, but also includes the author’s personal observations. It is divided into
two parts which consist of 35 chapters. Every chapter deals with some definite topics concerning agriculture. (10)
Another important book on agriculture was written by Shaikh Radi al-Din al-Qarshi. It is entitled Jami’ farã’
id al-Malähah fi Jawami’ Fawa’id al-Falahah. It consists of the following eight chapters:
1. Various kinds of soil
2. Watering, digging of canals and wells and taking out of water
3. Trees and their plantation
4. Various methods of plantation
5. Seeds and grains, their selection, sowing and cutting
6. Various types of flavours , flowers, etc.
7. Description of the days, months, weathers, etc., suitable for cultivation.
8. Storage of grains, seeds, dry and fresh fruits, some vegetables1 extracts, salts,
yeasts, rose water, etc.’ (11)
The first geographer and traveller who mentioned plants in his books was Ibn al-Wádih al-Ya’qübi (d.
1794). He travelled throughout the Ancient scientist world and composed a work entitled Kitab al-Buldán. (12)
The famous geographer Abu Abd Allah Muhammad Ibn Muhammad Ibn ‘Abd Allah Ibn Idris al-Husaini al-
Saqali, commonly known as al-Sharif al-Idrisi, also wrote three works on plants and simple drugs. One of them
entitled ‘Kitab al-Jãmi’ li-Sifat Ashtat al-Nabät contains the description of various useful drugs relating to trees, fruits,
roots, flowers, minerals, etc. The names of drugs have been arranged in alphabetical order, and their Arabic,
Persian, Greek, Syrian, Latin and Berber names have been described. The author has mentioned the use of some
plants and the oils and gums extracted from them. The book consists of four parts. The first part contains the
description of 369 simple drugs and the second one of 250. (13)
The greatest botanist of the 16th century was Da’ud Ibn Umar al-Nasir al-Antäki. He was a distinguished
physician as well No scientist compiled such a valuable work on simple drugs as he did. He made a remarkable
addition to the knowledge of his predecessors regarding the simple drugs and their uses. (14)
An important botanist of the 18th century was ‘Abd al-Razzäq Ibn Muhammad Ibn Hamadush Al-Jazä’iri. In
1717—18 he left for Makkah for the performance of Hajj . He wrote a book called ‘Kashif al-Rumüz fi Sharh al-Aqaqir
wa’l-A’shab. This book seems to be a summary of the books written on this subject by Abd al-Razzaq’s
predecessors with the addition of the new substances which were used by the Europeans as drugs. He also gave
their common and local names. He derived information from the works of Ibn Sinä, Ibn al-Baitar and Da’ud al-Antaki.
One thousand simple drugs in all have been dealt with. This was translated into French. (15)
1. Al-Baghdadi, Ismail Basha,Hadiyyat al-‘Arifin , Istanbul, 1951, Vol. I, p. 623.
2. Ibid., p. 52.
3. Sarton George, Introduction to the History of Science,Washington, 1950, Vol. I, p. 707.
4. Al-Qifti, ‘Ali Ibn Yusuf ,Tarikh al-Hukama,Leipzig, 1903, p. 324.
5. Ibid. p. 94, Ahmad ‘Isa, Tarikh al-Nabat Ind al-’Arab ,Cairo, 1944, p. 38.
6. Al-Zirakli, Khair al-Din, Al- A’lam, Beirut,1955, (2nd Edition), Vol. III, p. 49.
7. Sarton, op. cit., Vol. II, P4rt I, p. 424.
8. Ibid. , Part II, p. 663.
9. Al-Zirakli, Vol. I, p. 210.
10.Al-Baghdadi, op. cit., Vol. II, p. 520.
11. Ahmad ‘Isa, Op. cit., Cairo, 1944, p. 110.
12. Ibid., p. 113.
13. Al-Zirakil, Vo. 7, p. 250.
14. Al-Baghdadi, op. cit., Vol. I, p. 362.
15. Kahhalah, ‘Umar Rida, Mu’jam al-Mu’llifin, Damascus, 1958, Vol. 5, p. 218.
Corresponding author: - Md. Wasim Aktar
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