Interpreting and verifying Arabic botanical terms

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Ibrahim Ben Murad

Article contents:
The interpretation of Plant Names
The verification of plant names
The verification of plant names in the written context
Verification of the essential nature of a plant


Iraq, Baghdad, Abbasid era, 13th century. This page is from an herbal book, an illustrated manuscript about the properties of plants. Herbal books were among the first manuscripts in the Islamic world to include drawn images of forms.

The science of plants passed through four stages1 before it made its first appearance in the heritage of Arabic science as an independent subject in its own.

The language stage. This first stage is characterised by the importance of language with regard to botany. It lasted for over two centuries, from the second/ eighth to the third/ninth centuries. The second century hijrī was a period of gathering and standardising the basic linguistic elements of the science. Language scientists were obliged to travel extensively among the Arab tribes in their native regions – particularly in the valleys of the Najd and the Ḥijāz – in an effort to extract from them the pure elements of the Arabic language. From this rough collection, a language standard was established and, more specifically, the names and descriptions of plants were recorded. A few simple treatises and short books were published with the names of plants and their descriptions. The third century hijrī was a period of consolidation when great benefit was derived from what had been gathered previously, although scholars continued their journey through the regions and remote tracts, inhabited by native Arabs. Scholars of this period published individual treatises and more extensive works, detailing the names of plants and their descriptions. The most significant book to emerge during this early period was Kitāb al-Nabāt by Abū Ḥanīfah al-Dīnawarī (d. 282/895), an extensive work consisting of six parts2. The first four parts detail plants in general, while the fifth and sixth parts deal with the plants’ names and their descriptions. As a whole therefore, the book is a lexicon. The material in the first four parts is ordered by subject matter and arranged alphabetically. The names of plants and their descriptions in the fifth and six parts are also listed alphabetically. By classifying Kitāb al-Nabāt to ‘the school of linguistic botany’, it should be also taken into consideration that the book contains a huge amount of detailed knowledge about the plants of the Arab lands along with their descriptions, particularities, classifications and uses.

The translation stage. Arab scholars of the first stage did not translate many books on plants because botany was not considered to be an independent science that time. Books on the laws of physics and theoretical scientific foundations were, however, translated. One of the few books that was translated, and moreover is a work of pure botany, is the Materia Medica of Dioscorides, dealing with plant medicines. This book found great favour among the Arabs and had a profound influence on their botanical studies. The popularity of the book is revealed by the number of translations, analyses and commentaries devoted to it3. The book was translated into Arabic three times. Stephanus, son of Basilius and Ḥunayn ibn Isḥāq translated its main content in Baghdad, during the days of Jaʿfar, al‐Mutawakkil (between 232/847 and 247/861). The Baghdadian translation was revised twice after that: once in Andalusia and again in Iran. In Morocco and Andalusia, at least four known commentaries on the translation were produced between the fourth / tenth and seventh/thirteenth centuries. The most important of these were by Abū al-ʿAbbās al-Nabātī, known as Ibn Rūmīyyah (d.637/1239), and his student, Abū Muḥammad ʿAbdallāh ibn al-Bayṭār (d. 646/1249). The deep impact that the Materia Medica had on Arabic botanical studies, becomes clearer when we examine the third stage of development in the science of botany among the Arabs.

The importance of plants in medicine. That medicines are dependent on plants’ knowledge has been already known; indeed, plants constitute the most important of the three elements used in the pharmaceutical industry. Academic books on elementary plant medicines, during the discussed period, were Dioscorides’ Materia Medica and Galen’s De Simplici Medicina, which was translated into Arabic during the same period as the Materia Medica. In the original Greek version4, Dioscorides mentions 827 materials used in the manufacture of basic plant medicines, including gums, oils, infusions, pastes and animal genitalia. Around 30 sections of the book were devoted to plants, containing around 500 plant materials. The hasty translation of the book into Arabic during the third century left its mark on the publication of basic plant elements in Arabic language. In this respect, Arab writers followed each other in publishing plant medicines with verifications. Furthermore, they continued reading Dioscorides accurately, finding the precise definitions of preparations mentioned in the book and also searching for comparative Arabic equivalents for their translations5. Dioscorides was, as Ibn al-Bayṭār put it, ‘the best teacher’ of all. In his book, al-Jāmiʿ li-Mufradāt al-Adwīyah wa al-Aghḍīyah, by Ibn al-Bayṭār examines almost all of the elements mentioned by Dioscorides in Materia Medica.

The specialised scientific stage. The time frame for this development was actually quite short and did not, as far as we know, extend beyond the period between the second half of the sixth/twelfth century and the first half of the seventh/thirteenth century. The most important exponent of this stage was ʿAbbā al-Nabātī ibn al-Rūmīyyah who published a book on pure botany: al-Riḥlah al-Mashriqīyyah. This work has since been lost, and all that remains, are over a hundred transcriptions from it, in a volume written by his student, Ibn Bayṭār; al-Jāmiʿ li-Mufradāt al-Adwīyah wa al-Aghḍīyah. From the available material, however, we can distinguish four main areas of achievement, which demonstrate the value and range of the work:

Its transmission of knowledge. Abū al-ʿAbbās was the first who offered a proper detailed and scientific description of plants ‐ his sole aim was to provide us with information about the different plants as they were specifically defined.

Its analysis, for the first time, of plants that had previously only been known by name, or were of doubtful value.

The placing of previously known plants in new classifications.

Its addition of new plant species purely on the basis of their discovery6.

It is clear from these four areas outlined above, that the Arabs placed very great value on botanology and, indeed, published a vast array of writings on the subject. These writings were on botanical nomenclature, medicinal botany or else pure botany. Yet the most significant works ‐ both in terms of volume and variety ‐ were the works on medicinal botany, that is to say, known books that compile elementary plant medicines. The sources used in writing these books were either entirely foreign or Arab‐Islamic. The dominant influences, however, were foreign, because Arab‐Islamic sources were based – in their method of writing and in the scientific material they contained – on foreign sources, in particular, on the books of Dioscorides and Galen on elementary plant medicines. Arab scientists praised these two Greek scientists a lot. Ibn al‐Jazzār al-Qayrawānī (d. 369/979‐980) said of them: “There is no end behind these two men and no boundary before them in what they achieved for this art7”. Ibn al-Bayṭār in similar style wrote, “They extended this science with everything they transmitted, a model for the learned, and evidence for the ignorant8”.

It, therefore, followed that plant names in the Arab – Islamic scientific heritage were ‐ thanks to the sources relied on – either completely foreign, or else Arabic. The pure Arabic name is delineated by what was taken from Abú Õanífah al‐Dínawarí’s Kitåb al‐Nabåt, which was also the most important source for the writing of the general linguistic lexicon.

Basically, there were two kinds of foreign plant names. The first were words of mere foreign origin. These had entered Arabic literature as borrowed elements ‐ either because the Arabic equivalent had been lost, and the foreign terms, thus, filled the gaps in the Arabic dictionary, or ,because the equivalent term in Arabic was not known.

The second kind was foreign words for which an Arabic equivalent was known. Where the strength of its authority had aged the equivalent Arabic term, the foreign name came into use as the prime convention, making a number of Arabic equivalent terms secondary. For this reason, many pure Arabic names did not have a precise definition except those related to foreign names, and to Greek terms in particular.

This authority of foreign names and the Arabic terms’ dependency on them, increased the problems in the literature of Arabic medicine. This was especially visible in the interpretation of plant names and in their verification. These are problems that we would like to target in this research.

The interpretation of Plant Names

Pages of Herbal of al-Ghafiqi_Botanical Manuscript in Arabic_written by Abu Ja`far al-Ghafiqi_ 12th c. - Andalusia

Early scientists devoted a great deal of work to the task of interpreting plant names. There are a number of testimonies of these; here we will look at three of them.

The first was derived from the Andalusian revision of the Baghdadian translation of Materia Medica. Around the year 337/948, the Umayyad caliph of Andalusia, ʿAbd al-Raḥmān al-Nāṣir, received a fine copy of the Greek version of Dioscorides’ book, complete with illustrations. However, it was difficult to derive any benefit from this book, as the physicians who surrounded the caliph were ignorant of Greek. The caliph, thus, demanded the gift’s sender, the Byzantine King Romanos I, to send to Cordoba a scholar who could speak both Greek and Latin so that the Andalusian scientists could learn how to solve the problems stated in the book. The Byzantine king sent the monk Nicholas Fandam to the physicians of the Umayyad caliph, with whom he worked in the exegesis (tafsīr) of plant names in the book, particularly those which remained unknown in the Baghdad translation. Subsequently, the Andalusian revisers sought to improve the clarity of the Greek terms. Ibn Abī Uṣaybiʿah  quoted Ibn Jaljal, who summarised the achieved results, by saying: “The research done by those people, cleared up the names of the medicines in Dioscorides’ book, eliminated the doubts and facilitated its knowledge by defining its character and correcting the meaning of the names without distortion, except for very few of them which were of little value and of no great danger, and which did not exceed about ten medicines9”. The Andalusian revisers’ 'basic aim, was to eliminate distortions in the interpretation of basic terminology in the Arabic translation of Materia medica.

The second of these testimonies derives from Ibn al- Bayṭār’s forays into teaching. Ibn al‐Bayãår had a number of students in Damascus and he used to take them to the meadows outside the town and read to them from books on basic plant medicines, in particular from Dioscorides and Galen. A description of this is provided by Ibn Abī Uṣaybiʿah, one of the students close to Ibn al‐Bayṭār. On the teaching received regarding plant names from Materia Medica, he wrote, “first he would recall what Dioscorides stated in his book in the Greek pronunciation, on how they healed in the country of the Greeks10”. From this, it seems that Ibn al‐Bayṭār used to teach his students the Greek terms used by Dioscorides, using their correct pronunciation. That he knew how to pronounce them correctly, is evidence of his extensive scientific travels in Greece and Asia Minor.

The third testimony relates neither to the Materia Medica nor to the names of plants in Greek. Rather, it is connected to the general description of plants. This testimony also relates to Ibn al‐Bayṭār, as it first appears in the introduction of his book al-Jāmiʿ. At the end of the introduction, he writes that precision is essential, if the understanding of plant medicines is not to be distorted and if the text is to be protected from distortion. He wrote: “I have ascertained what is required for their determination with exactitude in both form and expression, a determination which guarantees against distortion and provides a fixed reference against alteration and verbal confusion. If further error or mistake should come to the reader’s attention in the transliteration, these distortions are attributed to the scribe’s reading11”.

It is difficult to verify the matter of precision and accuracy described in the testimonies above. This is because Arabic writing on basic plant medicines is full of distortions in plant names. Furthermore, such distortions can be divided into three main categories as described below:

1- Slight distortions. These can be resolved by retracing the word’s origin. This category comprises distortions caused by the replacement of one letter by another, the exclusion of a letter, or the addition of a letter that was not in the original. Examples of this kind are:

i- Aṭar aṭṭīqūs, which first appears in Ibn Sīnā12, and Shaykh Daʾūd al-Anṭākī13, and was describes by al-Bīrūnī in Kitāb al-Ṣaydanah as asṭar aṭṭīqūs14, and the correct form is astēr attikos, which is an original Greek word15.

ii- Bāṭānankhī, appears in Ibn al-Bayṭār16 under the letter B. The correct term is katanankhē, beginning with the letter K. This is a Greek word as well.17

iii- Dukhr, which appears in Shaykh Daʾūd al-Anṭākī and which is known as al-lūbiyā18. The correct word is dujr, with a ‘j’.19

 iv- Riʿy al-Ibil, mentioned by Ibn Sīnā, who explained the name as being a result of the fact that, "the camel (ibil in Arabic) is not affected by drowsiness or death by poison, when given this protective (riʿy) antidote20". Shaykh Daʾūd also published the term’s origin21. The correct form, however, is riʾy al-ayyil, and appeared in this way in Ibn al-Bayṭār’s al-Jāmiʿ22 and al-Tafsīr.23 This is the Arabic equivalent of the Greek term elephobaskon, composed of elphos mening deer (ayyil) and baaskon meaning protection (riʿy).

v- Ṭufrīyūs, the word appears in this form in Ibn Sīnā24 and in the Būlāq edition of Ibn Al-Bayṭār25. The correct term is teukrios, a Greek word26.

vi- Ālīyūn, which appears with this spelling in Ibn Sīnā.27 The first letter has, however, been changed and its correct term is galion28 also of Greek origin.

vii- Faqlāmīnūs, which appears in Ibn al-Bayṭār.29 The first letter again has been changed and the correct term derives from Greek and should be read as kuklaminos.30

viii- Qamar quraish, the pine nut. This spelling was used by Ibn Sīnā31. The term has appeared in threee different forms: qaḍm quraish; qammu quraish; qaml quraish. All three forms appear in Ibn al-Bayṭār’s al-Tafsīr32.

2. A high degree of distortion. Again, by going back to the origins the mistakes can be rectified with accuracy. This category is characterised by the substitution of letters, or the deletion of one or more letters within the term. The following examples are given.

i. Andrūṣārūn, which appears in Ibn Sīnā and in the Būlāq edition of Ibn al-Bayṭār33. The correct term is hēdisaron and is originally Greek34.

ii. Aghālūjī, which appears in this form in both Ibn Sīnā35 and Ibn al-Bayṭār36. The correct form is agalokhon, of Greek origin37.

iii. Jalaz, which appears in Daʾūd al-Anṭākī with this spelling38. It signifies marrowfat. The correct word is Khulr39 and is derived from the Persian language40.

iv. Jawz rūmī, a distorted form, which appears in Ibn Sīnā41 and Abū al-Rayḥān al-Bīrūnī42, and whose origin is the Greek aigeiros. The Arabic equivalent is al-ḥawr al-rūmī43.

v. Ṭarghāfīthā which appears in Ibn Sīnā44. The correct spelling is tragakantha and is originally Greek45.

vi. ʿĀlūsīs, Ibn Sīnā uses this spelling46. The correct form is galiopsis and comes from the Greek language47.

vii.  Fanjīyūn, first appears in Būlāq’s edition of Ibn al-Bayṭār’s al-Jāmiʿ48. In this translation, the spelling used is fikhīyūn, which is correct becaused the original word is the Greek pēkhion.49 Būlāq, thus, grasped the basic sense of the word.

viii. Qūthīrā, as stated in Būlāq’s edition of Ibn al-Bayṭār.50 It is also to be found in Shaykh Daʾūd’s al-Taḍkirah,51 written as qūshīrā. The original translation in al-Jāmiʿ read is as qūnīzā52. In Arabic, it is the word for tobacco – established by Leclerc in his translation. Its Greek origin is the word konuza53.

3. General distortion. Such instances are those whereby there is a clear spelling distortion that has been perpetuated until, the word’s root is traced. This can, however, be very difficult, as the distorted word has a specific meaning in its original language. Some examples are listed below:

i. Abū ḥalsā is mentioned in Ibn Sīnā54. The correct spelling should be ankhasa based on itd Greek origin, ankhusa55. It appears in the Būlāq edition of Ibn al-Bayṭār as anjushā56.

ii. Ishrān appears with this spelling in Shaykh Daʾūd al-Anṭākī57 who wrote: “Obscure, Greek, to us it is known as uẓun al-qissīs or āẓān al-qissīs, a common Egyptian name whose general limits lead to another term, al-iẓnah – Daʾūd mistook it – and to the plants known in Greek as Kotulēdon”. When Ibn al-Bayṭār described this plant, he said that the leaves are similar to the sukkarjāl58 or the sukārij.59 The word sukkarjāt in copies of al-Jāmiʿ is mis-spelt as shukkarjān. Sukkarjāt and sukārij are not the names of plants, but rather the plural of sukrajah, which is a small bowl used for condiments60. Furthermore, where Shaykh Daʾūd describes the word ishrān, it seems he was actually talking about isrān, which does not bare much resemblance to the word shukarjāt, the plural of shukarjah, which is a vessel and not a plant.

iii. Alsafānī appears thus in Ibn Sīnā61. The correct term is of Greek origin, elelisphakon62.

iv. Allīnī appears in this way in Ibn al-Bayṭār who confirms totally its spelling63. The correct form of the word, however, is oinanthê which is Greek.64

v. Saṭrūnīyūn appears as such in Ibn Sīnā.65 His description indicates that it is transcribed from Dioscorides and refers to a plant which in Greek is called saturion, known in Arabic as khuṣā al-thaʿālib.

vi. ʿArqūn, which Ibn Sīnā places under the Arabic letter ʿain66. The proper spelling is, however, ghārāniyūn, which comes from a word of Greek origin, geranion67.

vii. Nīṭāfīlī, is splet this way in al-Qānūn68. The correct form is Banṭāfulin and is derived from the Greek word, pentaphullon69.

Such typical distortions, as listed above, can only be identified by returning to the original texts from which the distorted names were transcribed, assuming that the writer indicated the sources on which they were based. It can also be helpful to make comparisons between the meaning of the original definition and how the word is used in Arabic texts. As it is possible for us to distinguish foreign terms of Greek origin by researching them in Dioscorides’ Materia Medica, the knowledge of term is also to be found in the Materia Medica, if not fully, then, in an abridged form.

Aside from this awareness of distorted transliterations, it is also important to mention that, to a considerable extent, these problems affect the work of two great scientists, whose books form the two main foundations for the science we are dealing with. The first scientist is Ibn Sīnā, who is known as the leading authority in his field. His al‐Qānūn constitutes a major reference in the science of pharmaceutical medicine, including elementary plant medicines in the second part. The second scientist is Ibn al-Bayṭār, known for his knowledge on botanology, to the extent that he was referred to as al‐ʿAshshāb (the herbalist). We have seen his work on the precision of plant names and the correction of their pronunciation, both with his students while he was teaching them, as well as in his book, al‐Jāmiʿ. Ibn al‐Bayṭār’s book took precedence over Ibn Sīnā’s al‐Qānūn during the second half of the seventh/thirteenth century. Indeed, al‐Jāmiʿ, was such a success that it almost brought the whole scientific enterprise to an end. Successive scientists embraced this text with such affection that they devoted themselves entirely to the task of commenting on, interpreting and abridging it. This was an unprecedented assault on his material; these writings repeat his scientific arguments and show that what was to be found in the book were convincing and well established.

It is, however, important to address the question of who was responsible for these types of errors and distortions we have identified. Was it the author himself who concealed his lack of knowledge on the subject and, thus, erred in defining the plant’s name? Or was it the scribes, who copied out scientific works that dealt with precise knowledge on quite specific subjects but led them to their distortion because, in the majority of cases, they did not have the necessary knowledge to judge what they were translating?

As we saw above, Ibn al‐Bayṭār declared that, “any error or mistake which should come to the reader’s attention in transliteration, are distortions made by the scribe”.70 In other words, he claimed that mistakes arose, either because the reader was not specialised enough, or because of errors made by the scribes. This is close to what the French orientalist, Lucien Leclerc, who translated Ibn al‐Bayṭār into French, claimed. As we saw briefly in his translation, he showed an avid desire to determine the correct spellings of the distorted plant names which appear in al‐Jamiʿ, even if the mistake appeared in the original. Leclerc’s translation of Ibn al‐Bayṭār stands up to many other translations, in particular that of the German, Sontheimer, who translated it into his native tongue.71 Leclerc checked his reading carefully, by thoroughly researching many subjects. He also identified those mistakes in the text, where a name had been misrepresented, and those related to the distorted interpretation in the original manuscript, on which he was working72. However, Leclerc did not bear Ibn al‐Bayṭār with any responsibility, because he considered him to be above making such mistakes. He preferred him to Ibn Sīnā, who, in his view, while being methodical, lacked a critical way of thinking and, therefore, transcribed many mistakes into the second half of al‐Qānūn73. But Leclerc opposed those translators or researchers of Arab medicine, who have transcribed the names from Ibn Sīnā’s work wrongly, believing that they should provide a correct reading of the plant name according to scientific verity –  rather than a false reading of the word, where the writer had clearly committed a mistake. This, is the view of a scientist who refused to disregard anything that might deviate his research from scientific objectivity’s laws. Nor is it usually the position of a researcher who approaches a text convinced of its accuracy.

The verification of plant names

Two understandings of verification are implied here. First, is the term’s verification within the text, considering it a part of a text being published/edited through a rigorous methodology. Second, is the establishment of the term’s meaning in its field, i.e. establishing the relationship between the term and a specific plant, so the term is deemed correct every time it is used to denote that plant.

The first method is generally more widespread, because it is commonly used in verification work; the second method is less used because it relates to the work done in botany, that is to say to distinguish the form of plants as well as their species, their use and their classification; their order, genus and type. Verification in this context is, therefore, identification and, as we shall see, both interpretations, left their traces, as well as their own specific problems, in the field of Arabic botany.

The verification of plant names in the written context

We touched upon this subject earlier, but it demands further examination because of the serious nature of the problems associated with it. Botanical terminology in the Arabic tradition exhibits specific features related to classification. The most important of these, is that it mostly refers to specific, concrete entities. At the same time, it belongs to two dominant linguistic discourses: one borrowed from the non‐Arabic (particularly Greek), and the other developed through the intermarriage of Arabic and non‐Arabic.

A return to original sources, whether Arabic‐Islamic or non‐Arabic, has led to the adoption of many non‐Arabic sources74. The following two examples illustrate the problems associated with the verification of terminology, in Arabic botanical texts, and will help to improve our understanding of the situation.

The first is an investigation outlined in a volume entitled Al-Adwīyah al-Mufradah fī Kitāb al-Qānūn fī al-Ṭībb li-Ibn Sīnā. This book is basically a treatise on, or an abridgement of, Ibn Sīnā’s book by a well‐known scientist, Sulaymān ibn Aḥmad. It focuses on the basic plant medicines which Ibn Sīnā is known to have concentrated in the second volume of al‐Qānūn. It is a rather considerable abridgement as the treatise includes only 394 elementary plant medicines, whereas in Ibn Sīnā’s book appear to be 806. The Iraqi, ʿAbd al-Amīr, subjected what was available of this precious manuscript to an examination and published his results in 198475. His research concentrated on rectifying any deficiencies and so he traced more than half of the abridged material in the treatise, back to its source. He, therefore, effectively verified Ibn Sīnā’s basic plant medicines. However, this verification does not fulfil three criteria:

1- The rectification of the deficiencies indicated above. Since the method used in the treatise, returns to the source material, the published book does not resemble that written by Sulaymān ibn Aḥmad.

2- The spellings used for the plant names added to the original, are that of the Būlāq edition of al‐Qānūn. By not seeking the correct form of names, there is no attempt to change or to replace, modify or comment on the distortions that are incorporated. It appears that the ‘editor’ saw in Būlāq’s book an edition of reliable quality. He “examined the Rome edition of 1593 and compared it with the Būlāq edition (1294/1877) and it became obvious for many reasons that [the] Būlāq edition was the worthiest in our appraisal of the book. The most important of these factors is that the correct edition among the numerous manuscripts of al‐Qānūn, is available to us at the present time”.76

3- The correction of a number of errors in the interpretation of the Būlāq edition. However, these corrections deal mainly with the text and rarely with the actual plant medicine names, where there is divergence between the text of the treatise and Būlāq’s editon. In his verification, the researcher does not examine the basic plant elements’ condition in the text and this limits the extent of his coverage. The established texts do not, therefore, receive proper scientific analysis. When all of this is added to the emission of a new publication of the Būlāq edition, it becomes clear that the original has been covered quite completely.

The outcome of all this, is that this ‘new reading’77 of the second part of the second volume of al‐Qānūn includes the same mistakes which appear in the Būlāq edition: distortion and verbal confusion in the transliteration of the names of the plants. These mistakes appear to be of minor importance to the researcher who does not mention any of these distortions78. Here we shall take the opportunity to look at five specific mistakes which appear in the book.

Al‐Lablakh79, this spelling differs from the way in which it appears in Ibn Sīnā. Ibn Sīnā spelt it as al‐labakh80 and since it appears under the letter alif, this suggests that the alif and the two lam are original. He might, however, doubted about his spelling as he wrote: “If this were al‐labakh then it should really fall under the letter lam”. The correct name is al‐labakh beginning with the letter alif and lam. But Ibn Sīnā settled on placing it under the letter alif and he does not duplicate its appearance under the letter lam for reasons of caution or brevity.

1- Afīyūs81, this is also the spelling that appears in al‐Qānūn.82 Ibn Sīnā knew it as al‐ḥadaqī, something which resembles al‐ḥadaqah (the pupil of the eye)’. The correct term is awaqanthūs, and derives from the Greek word, huakinthos83. In al‐Jāmi’, Ibn al‐Bayṭār wrote “the interpretation al‐ḥadaqī resulted after many erroneous translations84”.

2- Īṭābās,85 appears with this spelling in al-Qānūn86. It was also known by Ibn Sīnā as shajarat al-gharab. The name derives from the Greek word ītéa which is where the word gharab comes from, furthermore the correct Arabic form is īṭāyā.

3- Būyāns,87 appears in this form in al-Qānūn88. What Ibn Sīnā writes about it, is based on Galen, as reported by Ibn al-Bayṭār89. Ibn al-Bayṭār mentions Galen s description of the plants known in Greek as peukédanon.

4- Bīlūn90, is stated, in this way, in al-Qānūn91. Ibn Sīnā believed that he had identified it as, “al-ʿarfaj al-birrī and it belongs to the yatūʿāt group”. This information was transcribed directly by al-Adwīyah al-Mufradah’s editor. There are in fact two mistakes. The first is in the beginning, which is distorted and should be read babliyūn. The name derives from the Greek word peplion. This is a Greek name for the plants named buqlah ḥamqāʾ barrīyyah in Arabic. In Ibn al-Bayṭār s work, it is identified as walb92. He noted: “This belongs to the yutūʿāt group. There are those who claim this is a kind of what the Greeks call bābluṣ ... and those who consider it a recognised kind of al-fartaj al-barrī, which the Greeks call peplis. Hippocrates calls it peplion and in some translations is found as ḥalbītā. Bābliṣ appears to be the Greek original peplos. Peplis and peplion belong to the buqlah al-ḥamqāʾ al-barrīyyahʾ or al-rajlah al-barrīyyah”.

The second mistake is found in al-ʿarfaj al-barrī. This mistake also stems from the Būlāq edition of al-Jāmiʿ93. The correct term, as it appeared in the translation of al-Jāmiʿ94 is farfaj barrī, which is the Arabic name of the plant wild purslane, whereas farfaj is the name of the cultivation. Abū Ḥanīfah mentions this in his book of plants where he places it under the letter ḥā in the first part of the botanical lexicon, where it comes under the section rajalah: “al‐ rajalah al‐farfaḥ is, in fact, purslane”. The origin of the word farfaḥ is Persian.95 It comes under the letter khå in the second part of the book, in an independent section, farfakh,96 and is also mentioned elsewhere using the letter kh. The word comes from the Persian perpehen, and, imported in the Arabic language via the Assyrian, in which it appears as parpehînâ97. Furthermore, the word ʿarfaj in Ibn Sīnā’s book becomes farfaj, which is a Persian name, written in Arabic as ḥā and also khā.

The second case we would like to mention, in order to demonstrate the problems of verification associated with Arabic plant names is provided in a study, published by an Egyptian researcher, in 1987, on Ibn al-Bayṭār’s Tafsīr Kitāb Dioscorides. This was an abridgement of 184 pages, taken from Ibn al-Bayṭār’s exegesis, and was published under the title, Tafsīr Kitāb Dioscorides. On the cover it was claimed that the book was a study and research work.98 There is no doubt that any researcher attempting a task of such difficulty as the exegesis of the Materia Medica will need to stretch the limits of his courage in order to avoid being affected by the problems mentioned above. Any study of the book necessitates the use of the relevant dual‐language dictionaries for Greek and Arabic, while the book also contains a great number of foreign plant terms, particularly in Latin, Berber and Persian. There are also terms in the local vernacular which Ibn al‐Bayṭār picked up in the places he passed through in the Arabised countries of his day.

The researcher mentions the origins of the received Greek terms, distinguishes the subjects of the Greek treatise and defines the scientific names based on Ahmed Issa’s dictionary of plant names. However, the text, itself, does not contain any verification but is instead a rather mutilated, distorted transcription of the original. These distortions are not limited to botanology’s terms, foreign or Arabic, but also exist in the general language used by Ibn al‐Bayṭār in the text. If we take a look at the book’s introduction99, which is extremely brief, we find a number of examples: the word al‐mutadārik (poetical metre) is written as al‐madārik (mental faculties); al‐asqām becomes al‐intiqām, al‐mutashawwifīn becomes al-mutashwwiqīn and al‐mutaʿllimīn (the educated) becomes al-mutakallimīn (the speakers). In the first pages of the first chapter100, we find yabḥath ʿanhu (to search for) reproduced as fasaḥtu ʿanhu (to open onto);101 ustīka bihā becomes ustubika bihā102; thafal (sediment) becomes thiqlā (ponderous);103 al-kathīr al-ʿiṣī becomes al-kathīr al-ʿasr,104 al-ṭāhir (from ṭahārah-purit) becomes al-Dhāhir (from dhuhūr – appearance);105 al-raḍḍ becomes al-raṣṣ.106 To avoid mistakes, as mentioned here, it is not necessary to be specialised in science. All that is required, is some knowledge of the language to allow the researcher to base the text of his research on a proper foundation. Without of any doubt, in the process of researching any text, being part of the Arabic heritage, it is advisable to rely on understanding the nuances of the language in order to distinguish the intended meaning from an incorrect interpretation, rather than using an improvised set of guidelines. This is necessary to ensure that the terms noted here, which have been distorted, appear correctly in the text, as they were intended, and are not subjected to misrepresentation107.

In examining scientific plant names it is clear that the researcher experienced some difficulty. The plant terms used by Ibn al‐Bayṭār in his Tafsīr (exegesis) cannot be adequately dealt with by using an ordinary dictionary, but they require a specialist knowledge. It is, therefore, necessary to refer to original sources and above all, to the writings of Ibn al‐Bayṭār, particularly al-Jāmiʿ li Mufradāt al-Adwīyah wa al-Aghḍīyah, and to look thoroughly to the used methodology, as well as to the mistakes therein. Secondly, it is necessary to go through the Materia Medica, both in its Greek version and the Arabic text that was published in Spain. The most valuable manuscript for this purpose, is the one kept in the Bibliothéque National de Paris (Ref. No. 2849). In the manuscript’s margins there are many extracts taken from Ibn al‐Bayṭār’s ‘exegesis’. When we turn to the examination of Tafsīr, it becomes clear that the researcher benefitted from Ibn al‐Bayṭār’s book, as well as from the Greek and Arabic versions of the Materia Medica, regarding the plant names’ reading and spelling. He found Greek terms’s definitions sufficient and simply transcribed what appears in the manuscript of the Tafsīr ‐ which contains many distortions‐without taking into account Ibn al‐Bayṭār’s interpretation and definitions in al‐Jāmi and al‐Ibānah. The researcher did not attempt to try and correct the verbal distortions and mistakes in transliteration, but actually managed to confuse words that were correct in the original version. An example of this is the term rāmus108 - boxthorn ‐ which substitutes ramnos as appeared in the original; the term al‐waqīsūn109 ‐ perigee ‐ substituted lukion110; the word aqīyūs ‐ pear ‐ replaced afyūs (apios) mūzā111 –  tūt (mulberry) – and not tūshā was transcribed as Moréa and so on.

Furthermore, the researcher does not compare the Arabic terms in their transliteration, in the exegesis manuscript, with what appears written in al‐Jāmi and al‐Ibānah. Had he looked at these two works he would have been rewarded with learning those plant names that are difficult to read, or are unknown, or distorted. Of these Arabic terms, or Arabised foreign terms -aside from the imported Greek words ‐ whose alteration was propagated, because the researcher did not identify them and, thus, avoided correcting them‐ we can mention some examples such as karwiyyā (Caraway) which emerges as kurdīyyā;112 tibn Makkah (Atcher) becomes tīn Makkah;113 al‐lakk appears as al‐malik;114 sandrūs appears as santrās;115 al‐jādī, and al‐jasād, al‐rīhqān‐which are all versions of the word zaʿafrān (saffron) – become al-ḥādī, al-jasār and al-zabqahārr,116 al-yarnāʾ, al-ruqān, al-ruqūn – which are all names of al-ḥināʾ (henna or lawsonia) - becomes al-yarfāk, al-duqān, al-duqūn and so on.117 The terms given here, all appear in al-Jāmiʿ, in the original manuscript - with the exception of al‐rīhqān, which is spelt al‐zīhqān in the original. All of these were transcribed correctly in the original text. The researcher seems unable to differentiate between some of the letters properly, replacing dāl with rāʾ in some cases and the reverse in the case of ruqān and ruqūn, whereas in other cases the hamzah becomes a kāf. This work does not constitute a verification of botanical terms, but rather a distortion of them.

Verification of the essential nature of a plant

This verification is purely scientific as its main aim is to identify the plant as an individual with specific features in botany, or as having medicinal uses in which it differs from other plants. The Arabs, from an early period, paid particular attention to this kind of verification. Translators were verifiers (or editors) if they were able to match the Arabic or Arabised name to the plant that had a Greek name. Pharmacists would also conduct researches, by trying to use correctly the basic plant medicines with the view to providing a specific cure among the other known medical remedies. The scientists of basic plant medicines were also researchers in this sense; they could distinguish between different plants and attribute to each the specific remedy which they were capable to provide.

There were disputes about scientific verification that made Arab scientists of basic plant medicine re‐examine the translations of the Materia Medica, and their descriptions, more than once in the period between the fourth and seventh centuries hijrī. This is also one reason that compelled them to publish books which criticised scientific mistakes made by their peers when they confused plants. Among them, the most famous is, undoubtly, al‐Ibānah wa al‐Iʿlām, in which Ibn al‐Bayṭār gives a clear picture of previous defects and mistakes, while the most outstanding approach is that provided by Ibn Jazlah al-Baghdādī who showed how plants can be used. Verification was of great importance for these scientists, because it addressed the growing problems dealing with distortions and mistakes. The latter development was inexcusable in medicine.

This climate of circumspection and care, among themselves as well as among others, did not, however, prevent many of the scientists from making errors, even such venerable men as Abū Bakr al-Rāzī, Aḥmad ibn al-Jazzār, Ibn Jazlah, Ibn Sīnā and Abū Jaʿfar Aḥmad al-Ghāfiqī. If we look at Ibn al-Bayṭār’s work we will see three reasons for such mistakes118.

1- Mixing up two or more names which are derived from commonly used appellations. If two names appear similar, because of a confusion in some, or all of the letters in their spelling, then they might have a similar pronunciation even though they refer to two different plants with different characteristics and uses. Ibn al-Bayṭār gives some very well‐ known examples of this kind of error, such as the similarity between khāmālāwn and khāmālā. Khamaileṣn – which literally means ‘lion of the earth’ ‐ is the chameleon, while khamelaia is the camellia119. Furthermore, lotus (lṣtos) is meliot or sweet clover, and lūṭūs al‐maṣrī the lotus.120

2- Confusion in analysis, with non‐qualitative descriptions of herbal medicines. This mix‐up obviously occurs, when one plant’s characteristics are attributed to another.121 Ibn Bayṭār mentions a number of examples of this mistake.122

3- Confusion on a plant’s utility. A medicine’s benefits are confused with those of another herb, leading to a medicine’s usage that does not have the characteristics needed to deal with the ailment. This kind of confusion is linked to the first type of mistake noted above; if two different plants are considered to be one and the same then each one effectively acquires the characteristics of the other.

This kinds of mistakes are not at all rare in the early literature. Some examples of this are given below.

A. The element purithros, originally Greek, was known as ʿāqarqarḥā (Pellitory). This definition was recorded by Stephanus, son of Basilius, and Ḥunayn ibn Ishāq in their translation of the Materia Medica123. Ibn Sīnā copied this from them in al-Qānūn124 and al-Bīrnī in al-Ṣaydanah125. Both of these scientists also considered this ʿāqarqarḥā to be a variety of tarragon, mountain tarragon according to Ibn Sīnā and ʿEuropeanʾ tarragon126 according to al-Bīrūnī.127 It was Masīḥ ibn al-Ḥakam al-Dimashqī who came across this error. According to Ibn al-Bayṭār: “Masīh realised that it was actually the herb ʿāqarqarḥā and not what it  was stated to be128”. Fartharūn is described by Dioscorides in Materia Medica and Ibn al-Bayṭār confirms that in Arabic this group of plants are known as ʿud al-qarḥ al-jabalī – Anacycle pyĕthre. The plants known as al-ʿāqarqarḥā are called Tīqindist in the Maghrib countries, and thisis a Berber name.129

B. The Greek term struthion130 is known as kundus -Ptychotis Heterophyllum. Al‐Bīrūnī writes about this in al-Saydanah131 and Daʾūd al-Anṭākī in al-Taḍkirah132. There is no relation between sṭrūthīyūn and kundus other than that they both cause sneezing. And when Ḥunayn ibn Ishāq translated the Greek term kundus from Galen’s book, De Simplici Medicina transcribed the error to his own translation133.

C. The confusion between the plants known as asterattikos in Greek and those named qarṣaʿnah. The first person to commit this error was Ibn Wāfid al‐Andalusī134. The mistake was subsequently propagated by Ibn Rushd who transferred it to his book, al‐Kullīyāt, and wrote of the qarṣaʿnah that “it is particularly famous for curing ureter’s swelling. Even its name in the Greek language, is derived from ureter135”. The name for qarṣaʿnah in Greek is actually erungê and it has no connection with the word ḥālibī which is derived from the Greek bûbôn and which in Greek is linked to bûbônian, which is ḥālibī in Arabic. This refers to the plants known as asṭīr ṭīqūs in Greek. Galen mentions asṭīraṭīqūs, and writes: “This plant is called buniūn in Greek and this name is a derivative of the word ureter as it is a medicine which people relied on, to reduce swelling occurring in the ureter when put on as a dressing136”.

D. The existing confusion between the plants known in Arabic as aḍanah or āḍān al-qissīs (priest’s ears)‐ found in Greek terminology as kotuledôn ‐ and the plants known as qātil akhīh –  brother's killer, which are known as khiṣi al-thaʿlab (fox testicle), corresponding to the Greek term saturion. Shaykh Daʾūd al-Anṭākī made this error in his book, alTaḍkirah. It came within the group ishrān earlier we indicated the problem of confusion in the spelling of this term, and its connection to the plants known in Greek as koṭuledôn putting alaḍanah, uḍun alqissīs and qātil akhīh together as though they were the same plant. Al-Anṭākī wrote: “Ishrān this is al-lāḍnah (al-aḍnah) and we call it uḍun al-qissīs … It is a plant with reddish leaves and a white flower and numerous fine cups which do not exceed more than six stems ... And if uprooted, it is found that its extremities are like human testicles, some of them are hard and others soft ... And it is not used with the view to arousing passions, either individually or collectively ... The soft ones will quieten passions137”. The characteristics noted by Shaykh Daʾūd are not those of ādhān al-qasīs, but rather the characteristics of the type known as qātil akhīyah from the plant known as khiṣi al-thaʿlab138.

The contributors to this discourse were also interested in a clear verification. A vast array of books have been published about the definition of the plantts’ authenticity as mentioned in Arabic Heritage books. The most well known of these are Muʿjam Asmāʾ al-Nabāt by Aḥmad ʿĪssā, Muʿjam al-Alfādh al-Zirāʿīyyah by Muṣṭafā al-Shihābī and Iḥyāʾ al-Taḍkirah by Ramzī Miftāḥ. This last title actually resembles a compilation of early Arabic scientific writings, whereby the writer has tried to take one book from that legacy to test its coverage in contributors’ writings.

Ramzī Miftāḥ chose, however, a rather difficult model for his experiment – Taḍkirat Ūlī al-Albāb wa al-Jāmiʿ lil-ʿAjab al-ʿUjāb by Shaykh Daʾūd bin ʿUmar al-Anṭākī (d. 1008/1599). Shaykh Daʾūd was not one of the innovators, but rather someone who relied heavily on his predecessors, particularly on Ibn al-Bayṭār. One cannot, therefore, expect our understanding about medical plants’s usage based on a scientist who appeared rather late and imitated his predecessors. Furthermore, the errors that occurred in earlier works – the plant names’ distortions and confusion in their verification ‐ reached their nadir in Shaykh Daʾūd’s al-Taḍkirah. These include many of the mistakes noted by Ibn al-Bayṭār in Ibn Jazlah’s Minhāj al-Bayān and Ibn Sīnā’s al-Qānūn.

Many of the mistakes in Shaykh Daʾūd’s al-Taḍkirah require very careful study and the researcher must refer to the scientific sources that is relied on, particularly those sources from which the writer transcribed material. The most important source used by Shaykh Daʾūd was Ibn al‐Bayṭār’s al-Jāmiʿ - and since Ramzī Miftāḥ used al-Jāmiʿ he refers to it more than once. However, he used the Būlāq edition alone, and not the Arabic version. The source he depended on, was therefore, imperfect, because the Būlāq edition is replete with distortions and words’s mistakes. There is also no doubt that a scholar cannot benefit fully from Ibn al‐Bayṭār’s book in the Arabic, without referring to the excellent French translation performed by Lucien Leclerc, and published in three large volumes between 1877 and 1883.

When dealing with terminology, Leclerc preserves the framework established by Ibn al‐Bayṭār in his book. He, therefore, spelt the plant names in his book with Arabic letters before translating them. From what we know, Leclerc was not aware of the 1874 Būlāq edition. This is probably because at the time of its publication, he was at an advanced stage in his own translation, or perhaps had even finished it ‐ indeed, by 1866, he had reached the letter m139. Leclerc founded his work on original plant names and before beginning his translation he sought out the best works on botanical terms, collecting more than ten. All this meant that his translation was not simply a direct, literal transcription of the book from one language to another, but instead a faithful representation of the text and the methodology applied to it, in order arrange the terminology. Leclerc’s work is, indeed, so valuable that any research on al-Jāmiʿ ‐ or on the Materia Medica ‐ should necessarily rely on it. If Ramzī Miftāḥ had done so, he would have avoided a great number of errors, including those made by Shaykh Daʾūd, along with those caused by his weak grasp of the scientific material he was writing about, that is to say Arabic basic plant medicines. Below are a few examples of the mistakes the two men made.

1- Afanqīṭish. This is the spelling used by Shaykh Daʾūd140. Ramzī Miftāḥ adopted both the spelling and the description connected with the term141. Shaykh Daʾūd made a mistake in that afanqíãish is a distortion of the word afībqiṭīs, derived from the Greek word epipaktis. This is not the plant Shaykh Daʾūd identified, who thought that its Arabic equivalent had been found, but rather something that is known in Greek as gongulê. Ibn al‐Bayṭār mentions afībqiṭis in al-Jāmi142ʿ but makes no mention of an Arabic equivalent. It has remained without an equivalent to the present day. It is mentioned by Aõmad Isså in his dictionary143 but he does not provide any Arabic equivalent.

2- Aqsūn. Shaykh Daʾūd wrote the word in this way and knew it as raʾs al-shaykh144 -elder s head. Miftāḥ transcribes Daʾūd s description and spelling of the term and added another name to it, shakāʿā145. Both men were wrong in the transcription of the Greek word, akanthion, which is known in Arabic as raʾs al-shaykh. Furthermore, Miftāḥ made a mistake by linking it to the word shakāʿā, because this is not akanthion, but matches instead another plant known as al-shawkah al-ʿarabīyyah- Arabic thorn, or, in the Greek,  akantha arabikê.

3- Awāfīnūs. This is the spelling used by Shaykh Daʾūd. In his description, he explains that it is Greek and means, shabīh al‐hadhaq146. Miftāḥ used the same spelling. In his efforts to explain the term’s origin, he stated, “its name is distorted and its origin in the European is ʿayn fīnūs which is the goddess of beauty147”. Here, too, both men were wrong. Awāfīnūs is nothing else than a distortion of the word awāqanthūs that refers to the original Greek word, haukinthos. It is not related to Ramzī Miftāḥ’s speculations about ʿayn fīnūs (eye of Venus).

4- Īmār Anṭūlī. Shaykh Daʾūd wrote it in this manner and identified it in Arabic as karmah (vine)148. Miftāḥ used the term from Daʾūd as well as his plant’s account149. However, they had both committed a mistake, because the term has a Greek origin, hiera botanê, and no connection to the Arabic karmah, for it is a plant known in Arabic as riʿyu al-ḥamām.

5- Barṭālīqī. Daʾūd recorded it this way and was not aware of any Arabic equivalent150. Miftāḥ took the term and identified it as rijlah (common purslane), adding the Arab equivalent to the Latin, portulaca151. Shaykh Daʾūd made a mistake in his original term’s transliteration, which is Barṭānīqī, as well as being confident with the description that he provided. Barṭānīqī comes from the Greek, brettanikê. Miftāḥ, by finding a root for the word, significantly distorted the meaning by linking it to the Latin portulaca, or rijla in Arabic. Such distortion is more apparent in Shaykh Daʾūd’s book, dealing with rijla152 although there is a considerable difference between these two plants.

6- Ṭalīqūn. For this plant, Shaykh Daʾūd wrote153: “It is a plant like purslane, which has a white flower and leaves which diverge from one another like branches that do not exceed six protrusions. It is sticky if rubbed”. It appears that this description is an abridgement ‐ one of the many in Shaykh Daʾūd’s work ‐ of what was known of the plants called telephion in Greek. Ibn al‐Bayṭār described these plants although he spelt their names differently. In Būlāq’s edition, he recorded them as ṭīlākiūm. Referring to Dioscorides, he stated: “the leaf of this plant and its stem resemble those of al‐baqlah al‐ḥamqāʾ [that is, rijlah or purslane]. Sprouting from each stubby leaf, there are seven small prongs covered in thick leaves which, if rubbed, produce a sticky substance. It has a white flower and grows between the vine and the tilled soil154”. Telephion appears in Daʾūd as the Arabic ṭalīqūn. Ramzī Miftāḥ adopted this term155 but then tried to trace its origin within ‘European languages’ and links it to theligone, which he classifies it in the genus cynocrambacēes and describes it as a ‘harmful sexual stimulant’. He interprets the meaning of the term’s Latin origin ‐ thelygonum ‐ as the ‘cause of sexual mania’. Such a statement, however, has no scientific basis as the origin of the term is actually Greek, as noted above. The plant belongs to the group of borraginées and its scientific name is cerintha minor. There are many examples of these kind of mistakes and they occur on numerous occasions in al‐Taḍkirah.


In this paper we have concentrated on the problems in interpreting Arabic plant names and their verification both in the texts belonging to the Arabic‐Islamic heritage and in contemporary literature. By examining these two problems, we have focused on a handful of texts, the most important of which are Ibn Sīnā’s al-Qānūn, al-Bīrūnī’s al-Ṣaydanah, al-Jāmiʿ by Ibn al-Bayṭār and al-Taḍkirah by Shaykh Daʾūd bin ʿUmar al-Anṭākī. Among contemporary works, we have selected three: namely, a treatise by an Iraqi researcher on the verification of ‘the basic plant medicines’ in Ibn Sīnā’s al-Qānūn, a study on Tafsīr Kitāb Dioscorides by some Egyptian academics and Ihyāʾ al-Taḍkirah by an Egyptian researcher.

While we have provided examples of mistakes in interpretation and verification, it is not our intention to imply that early scientists were worthless, or to denounce the competence of the contemporary ones. Our primary aim has been to draw attention on these problems dealing with the terminology, and which have distorted the plant names’ scientific meaning. Most of our examples were chosen with regard to improving the accuracy of such terminology, by referring mainly to Persian and Greek words and words in other languages, where this is possible. Their place in the early texts of botanical science‐particularly those books on basic plant medicines‐cannot be over‐estimated. Furthermore, it impossible to understand the early botanical texts of the Islamic heritage, without understanding and being aware of their sources and the way in which that knowledge was transferred into Arabic language, as well as the ways in which it was used by the scientists who published works on basic plant medicines. The examples we have presented here demonstrate that contemporary writers are not immune from making the same mistakes as early writers, when dealing with interpretation and verification. This leads us to two closing points.

First, there is a need for the verification of the written texts of Arabic botany in a proper scientific way, in order to achieve an accurate and critically correct model. It is no surprise to us that there are still undiscovered mistakes in the basic texts ‐ such as Ibn Sīnā’s al-Qānūn or Ibn al-Bayṭār’s al-Jāmiʿ. Some of them are handwritten errors of transcription and others have been propagated, due to a lack of control over later transcriptions. Secondly, the position of the existing writings of Arabic botany should be recognised within the field of Arabic heritage texts. They constitute a crucial part of that heritage and should be recognised as such.

Source note:
This was published in:
The Earth and its Sciences in Islamic Manuscripts: proceedings of the fifth conference of Al-Furqān Islamic Heritage Foundation – English version, 2011, Al-Furqan Islamic Heritage Foundation, London, UK., p 293-338.

Please note that some of the images used in this online version of this article might not be part of the published version of this article within the respective book.

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