126 - High Five: al-Rāzī

Posted on 28 April 2013

The doctor and philosopher Abū Bakr al-Rāzī sets out a daring philosophical theory involving five eternal principles: God, soul, matter, time and place.

Further Reading

• Abū Ḥātim al-Rāzī, The Proofs of Prophecy, trans. T. Khalidi (Provo: 2011).

• P. Adamson, “Galen and Abū Bakr al-Rāzī on Time,” in Medieval Arabic Thought: Essays in Honour of Fritz Zimmermann, ed. R. Hansberger and C. Burnett (London: 2012), 1-14.

P. Adamson, Al-Rāzī (New York: 2021).

• T.-A. Druart, “Al-Rāzī’s Conception of the Soul: Psychological Background to his Ethics,” Medieval Philosophy and Theology 5 (1996), 245-263.

• M. Fakhry, “A Tenth Century Arabic Interpretation of Plato’s Cosmology,” Journal of the History of Philosophy 6 (1968), 15-22.

• P. Koetschet (ed. and trans.), al-Rāzī: Doutes sur Galien (Berlin: 2019).

• J. McGinnis and D.R. Reisman (ed. and trans.), Classical Arabic Philosophy: an Anthology of Sources (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2007). [Translations of several texts by al-Rāzī.]

• S. Stroumsa, Freethinkers of Medieval Islam: Ibn al-Rāwandī, Abū Bakr al-Rāzī, and their Impact on Islamic Thought (Leiden: Brill, 1999).

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Abu Bakr al-Razi


Ron 28 April 2013


I thoroughly enjoyed this episode on one of my favorite philosophers of the Middle East.

As you were explaining the characteristics of the ignorant soul, I wondered if al-Razi was at all familiar with Zoroastrianism and Manichaeism, and the Persian conception of the evil spirit or the evil god (ahriman) which was coequal to the benevolent god, Ahura Mazda. Any thoughts on this at all?



Hi Ron,

That's a very good question and one I have pondered myself. We are told in some sources that al-Razi borrowed (or plagiarized - these aren't friendly sources!) much of his theory from an Iranian thinker named al-Iranshahri. Unfortunately we seem to know very little about this person, but it could be that he was a conduit for dualist/Zoroastrian ideas on which Razi drew. On the other hand there is some evidence that he could have known Plutarch's work on the Timaeus (that's why I mentioned Plutarch in the episode) and that could be an explanation for the evil soul (also the interpretation of the Timaeus Razi seems to work with, i.e. a temporal creation rather than eternal cosmos). I'm trying to sort this out actually since I am at work on a book on Razi; the Iranshahri angle is one thing I haven't really come to a settled view about so far but it could certainly be taken in the direction you're suggesting, albeit that Iranshahri was apparently not a card-carrying Zoroastrian, since Nasir-e Khusraw (our main source on this connection) says he "did not believe in any of the then existing religions" (Strouma trans., from her book cited above, p.12).




Thanks for the explanation. I did not mean to suggest a single tradition as the primary source of al-Razi's views. Like you, I think the Greek (and Roman?) sources were important to his philosophy, but I wonder if the Iranian tradition is also an element of his intellectual background. Now, he may or may not have had direct contact with Zoroastrian and Manichean communities (or texts) during his lifetime. But some of these ancient ideas could have been mediated through the available Muslim and Arabic texts. I should stress though that in the 9th and 10th centuries there were still a good number of Manicheans, Mazdakites, and more traditional Zoroastrians around in various parts of the eastern Caliphate.



Yes, absolutely, and for other readers of this exchange I should reiterate that his name means he is from Rayy, which is in northern Persia near the Caspian Sea. Actually he refers to Manicheans in at least one place, but very critically - he gives them as an example of a group whose religious beliefs actually require them to be wicked (because they refuse help to people not of their sect). So these groups are doubtless part of his intellectual context, the question is whether they had any influence on his cosmological theory.

Declan Foley 29 April 2013

Pleased to hear Eriugena mentioned

Peter Adamson 29 April 2013

In reply to by Declan Foley

And I was pleased to mention him! Actually he lived at around the same time as al-Razi now that I think about it. I look forward to covering him in the podcast (I suspect he'll get two episodes, one about his role in the predestination controversy, one on the Periphyseon).

Declan Foley 30 April 2013

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Looking forward to that episode Peter,

I presume you are aware of the conversation between Eriugena and Charles the Bald?

Over repast Charles inquired from Eriugena sitting opposite him "What is the difference between a fool and an Irishman?"
The immediate response "The width of this board!"

Peter Adamson 30 April 2013

In reply to by Declan Foley

Ha, that's good! It rings a bell but I didn't remember that it was a story about Eriugena. Maybe I'll work it into the episode when the time comes.

Urban Djin 1 August 2017

Since mechanical clocks and metronomes hadn't been invented yet, what would Al Razi have been making reference to by defining time as "tick, tick, tick"?


Peter Adamson 2 August 2017

In reply to by Urban Djin

Well, actually there were water clocks, so he can be thinking of "drip drip" at least. But I think it is not that concrete a metaphor, I was just trying to convey the sense that he envisions time passing "bit by bit" and independently of anything else.

rhazetitis 5 November 2018

In this episode you discussed the idea of creation in an arbitrary point in time, from a supporter's perspective. At some other episode you described the counter argument. Where was it ?

I think probably you mean the Ghazali episode, so number 144, and I discuss related issues in a Maimonides episode, number 161. You might also check out the one on Latin debates over the eternity of the world, number 252.

Adam 16 May 2021


If I understand correctly, Hatim Razi in Proofs of Prophesy (translation in Medieval Philosophy, a Multicultural Reader ed. B.Foltz p549+) maintains al-Razi stated that a) God wouldn't have chosen one peoples for prophesy over another peoples b) All people had equal ability if they so applied themselves in discerning truth via philosophy.

Hatim then critiques this by reference to 'self-evident' human nature not having equally proficient propensities to reason (or other human activities), and thus people need to be led and instructed, and prophesy singles out individuals (and a people) to facilitate this.

In Al Razi's Doubts Against Galen (Selected translations in Classical Arabic Philosophy, McGinnis & Reisman) he shows a place for guides and teachers in his own version of 'on the shoulders of giants' train of thought. However, the translation also states, in critiquing Galen's 'On Demonstration', "...in my opinion, it is the most important & useful book ever, after the books of divine revelation" (My emph, p51 ibid).

Thus, did he discount prophesy? Were the divine revelations, not as named, but still the pinnacle of human achievement nonetheless? Is he just trying to avoid controversy deflecting from the points he actually wants to make, or is Hatim Razi engaging in some straw doggery? Or, perhaps of course, I may have nibbled at the wrong end of the stick? 

Peter Adamson 17 May 2021

In reply to by Adam

Oh you came to the right place with that question! There is a whole chapter on it in my book which only just came out:

P. Adamson, Al-Rāzī (New York: 2021).

To make a long story short, I argue along the lines you are thinking namely that the idea of Razi as an outright skeptic concerning prophecy is probably a slander perpetrated by Abu Hatim and other Ismailis.

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