JAʿFAR AL-ṢĀDEQ v. And herbal medicine



v. Herbal Medicine

Imam Jaʿfar al-Ṣādeq’s work on medicine (Ṭebb al-Emām al-Ṣādeq) belongs to a genre of traditional herbal medicine attributed to the Shiʿite imams and known as the Medicine of the imams (ṭebb al-aʾemma), whose salient figure is Imam Jaʿfar al-Ṣādeq. Imam Ṣādeq’s narrated dictums (Hadith) are central to Shiʿite medical literature as it enhanced, in the course of time, the spiritual image of the imam in popular religion. Imam Jaʿfar, indeed, was not the only imam who contributed to Shiʿite traditional medical wisdom, but the variety of his ethical instructions on the priorities of foods and drinks has significantly extended the chapter of “eating and drinking” (bāb al-aṭʿema wa’l-ašreba) in Shiʿite jurisprudence (see FEQH; Āqā Bozorg Ṭehrāni, XV, pp. 139-40). Before juridical rearrangements of Imami traditions by Shiʿite authors of the 4th/10th century (particularly by Abu Jaʿfar Kolayni, d. 329/940 and Ebn Bābuya, d. 381/991, q.v.), Imam Jaʿfar’s medical instructions were compiled by some of his companions under the rubric of ṭebb al-aʾemma (Āqā Bozorg Ṭehrāni, XV, pp. 139-42; Ebn Besṭām, tr., p. xv). A similar rubric ketāb al-ṭebb (the book of medicine) appears in the earliest collection of Hadith of the Prophet Moḥammad by Moḥammad Boḵāri (d. 256/870; Boḵāri, IV, pp. 8-23), whose contents, too, were rearranged and renamed with different designations in Sunnite jurisprudence.

Another main reshuffling of Shiʿite medical traditions occurred in the late Safavid period by two renowned authors, Moḥammad Ḥorr ʿĀmeli (d. 1104/1693, q.v.), and Moḥammad-Bāqer Majlesi (d.1111/1699), who refashioned the imam’s traditions not only with more popular flavor, but also with religious sanctions. The juridical instructions of the imam appear with medical sanctions in the language of Majlesi. Based on the above-mentioned sources, Imam Jaʿfar al-Ṣādeq’s medical statements were re-collected in the modern period (see Āqā Bozorg Ṭeh-rāni, XV, p. 141). The most recently published collection, compiled by Moḥsen ʿAqil, endeavors to support the imam’s instructions with today’s scientific medical evidence.

Following a summary of Imam Jaʿfar al-Ṣādeq’s traditional herbal medicine according to Moḥsen ʿAqil’s arrangement, this article will deal with intellectual reactions to the traditional herbal medicine and comments by various observers and scholars.


Imam Jaʿfar al-Ṣādeq’s medical traditions are concerned with three spheres: a variety of beneficial and harmful food items and drinks; some commonly known diseases and their remedies; corroboration of some traditional methods of treating illness.

Useful and harmful foods and drinks. Beneficial fruits reportedly mentioned by Imam al-Ṣādeq include apple (10 Hadiths), dates (7 Hadiths), quince (6 Hadiths), pomegranate (5 Hadiths), citrus fruits (4 Hadiths), pear, walnut, and raisins (3 Hadiths each), grape, melon, and olive (2 Hadiths each; ʿAqil, pp. 7-79, quoting Majlesi, LXIII, pp. 133-74, 181-82, 188, 196, 198; Ḥorr ʿĀmeli, XXV, pp. 124, 151,156, 164, 167-68, 170-71, 174, 177; Nuri, XVI, pp. 397-98, 400-2, 405-6).

Vegetables, legumes, and grains with health benefits reportedly recommended by Imam al-Ṣādeq include barley, lentil, and rice (16 Hadiths), rice (13 Hadiths), wild chicory (5 Hadiths), eggplant (5 Hadiths), black cumin and chard (4 Hadiths each), onion (3 Hadiths), radish, harmal peganum, marshmallow, turnip, beans, and pumpkin (2 Hadiths each), carrot, lettuce, leek, garlic, and frankincense (1 Hadith each; ʿAqil, pp. 80-161, 187-89, quoting Majlesi, LIX, pp. 220 234, LXIII, pp. 208, 215, 221, 227-28, 237, 239, 248-49, 280-81, 444, LXXIII, p. 86; Ḥorr ʿĀmeli, XXV, pp. 14-18, 21, 129-31, 189, 195-96, 199-200, 205-6, 212; Nuri, XVI, pp. 337, 339, 416-17, 423, 428-30).

Imam Jaʿfar al-Ṣādeq is also credited with naming a number of juices and beverages as being beneficial to one’s good health. They include water (12 Hadiths), milk, and vinegar (7 Hadiths each), honey (3 Hadiths), and rose water Hadiths; ʿAqil, pp. 162-63, 213-59, 291 460-67, quoting Nuri XVI, pp. 363-64, 369; Ḥorr ʿĀmeli XXV, pp. 88-92, 112, , 115, 302-3; Majlesi, LIX, pp. 145-47, 221-29, 236, LXIII, pp. 95, 101, 302-3; Kolayni, VI, pp. 336-39).

Beneficial kinds of meat and other animal products, reportedly remarked by Imam al-Ṣādeq, include general references (13 Hadiths), fish (7 Hadiths), egg (4 Hadiths; see ʿAqil, pp. 268, 278, 446-47, quoting Majlesi, LXII, pp. 190, 207-8, 212, 215, LXIII, pp. 46-47; Ḥorr ʿĀmeli, XXV, pp. 39-41, 44-45, 77). Harmful drinks and foods which cannot be used even for medical treatment include alcoholic beverages, specifically wine (13 Hadith), blood, pork, and dead meat (1 Hadith each; see ʿAqil, pp. 410, 594, quoting Majlesi, LIX, p. 89).

Commonly known diseases and their remedies. In cases of certain pain in the waist, honey and cumin are advised (3 Hadiths;ʿAqil, p. 325, quoting Majlesi, LIX, p. 170). In cases of certain stomach pains, honey, cumin, rice, and sumac are advised (4 Hadiths; ʿAqil, p. 327, quoting Majlesi, LIX, p. 177). For treating certain hemorrhoids, it is advised to eat rice, leek, especially white leek (3 Hadiths; ʿAqil, pp. 337-38, quoting Majlesi, LIX, pp. 195-96). In case of head cold, among other things, violet oil is advised (3 Hadiths; ʿAqil, p. 341, quoting Majlesi, LIX, pp. 183-84). For treating tapeworm, freckles, throat pain, cough, chest pain, nightmares or anxiety during sleep, herbal medicine are mostly advised (1 Hadith each; see ʿAqil, pp. 354-61, quoting Majlesi, LIX, pp. 165, 182). For treating fever, in general, twenty-one Hadiths are quoted in which footbath and eating fruits such as apple and, on occasion, onion and honey are advised (ʿAqil, pp. 372-76, quoting Majlesi, LIX, pp. 93-99, 101-4). For the remedy of eye disease, washing, cleaning, nail-cutting, and eating specific foods are advised (9 Hadiths; ʿAqil, pp. 291-92, quoting Majlesi, LIX, pp. 145-47).

Methods of treating some illnesses. Imam Jaʿfar al-Ṣādeq has corroborated some traditional methods of treating illness and health problems. He has sometimes supported his instructions with God’s blessing and šariʿa law; treatment of the eyes with kohl (9 Hadiths; ʿAqil, p. 390, quoting Majlesi, LXIII, pp. 94-96); vento treatment (ḥejāma) or art of cupping (39 Hadiths; ʿAqil, pp. 394-402, quoting Majlesi, LIX, pp. 108-31; see BLOODLETTING); cauterization (kayy) or burning the skin (1 Hadith; ʿAqil, p. 410, quoting Majlesi, LIX, p. 74); cutting down on food (11 Hadiths; ʿAqil, pp. 481-82, quoting Ḥorr ʿĀmeli, XXIV, pp. 239-40, 242-43, 247; Nuri, XVI, p. 213; Majlesi, LXIII, p. 232; 336); taking a bath (8 Hadiths; ʿAqil, pp. 281-82, as cited by Majlesi, LXXIII, pp. 70-71, 76-79).


On the authenticity of the above-mentioned Hadiths, Āqā Bozorg Ṭehrāni quotes Majlesi’s view that the imams’ traditions on food and drinks do not need strong documentation (al-asānid al-qawiya) on the part of transmitters, because their ignorance does not spoil what they have heard and quoted from the imam (Ṭehrāni, XV, p. 140 ). This argument is in line with the opinion articulated by the pioneering scholar of early Shiʿism, Shaikh al-Ṭāʾefa Abu Jaʾfar Moḥammad Ṭusi (d. 460/1067), who adopted weak traditions from ignorant or exaggerative narrators relying on their general knowledge of the religion (Ṭusi, p. 349). An example of a weak transmitter in Imam Jaʿfar al-Ṣādeq’s medical traditions is Mofażżal b. ʿOmar Joʿfi (q.v.), who, as a companion of the imam, figures repeatedly in the imam’s traditions, but whom the famous biographer of the early period Aḥmad b. ʿAli Najā-ši (d. 450/1058-9) described as “weak” (Ebn Besṭām, tr., p. xxii, quoting Najāši).

Unlike the Shiʿite position that regards the imams’ statements as aḥkām (rulings) or parts of divinely inspired ordinances, Ebn Ḵaldun (d. 809/1406, q.v.) characterized the Prophet Moḥammad’s medical statements as something customarily practiced among the Arabs. According to him, “the medicine mentioned in religious tradition is of the (Bedouin) type. It is in no way part of the divine revelation. (Such medical matters) were merely (part of) Arab custom and happened to be mentioned in connection with the circumstances of the Prophet, like other things that were customary in his generation. They were not mentioned in order to imply that that particular way of practicing (medicine) is stipulated by religious law. Moḥammad was sent to teach us the religious law. He was not sent to teach us medicine or any other ordinary matter. In connection with the story of fecundation of palms, he said: “‘You know more about your worldly affairs (than I)’” (Ebn Ḵaldun, III, p. 150).

Ebn Ḵaldun’s quotation of the above tradition of the Prophet refers to three Hadiths documented by Abu’l-Ḥosayn Moslem b. Ḥajjāj (d. 261/875) saying, “I am a human, follow me when I order you something concerning your religion, when I order you something out of my opinion, [be aware] I am a human. You know more about your worldly affairs [than I])” (Moslem, XV, pp. 116-17). Neither is Imam Jaʿfar al-Ṣādeq’s overall language so juridical in his medical statements as they are in religious matters. Today’s Shiʿites, however, make use of the imam’s medical traditions mostly for invocation, good omen, and recently to prove the miraculous insight of the imam that can be ascertained by contemporary scientific evidence (ʿAqil, p. 6).

Michael Dols has characterized the origin and contents of the imams’ medical traditions as a blend of three distinct elements, “The folk medicine of the Arabian Bedouin, the borrowing of Galenic concepts (see JĀLINUS; HUMERISM) that had become common parlance (such as humours, temperaments, and qualities), and the over-acting principle of divine or supernatural causation” (Dols, p. 421, as cited in Ebn Besṭām, editor’s Introd., p. xvi).

Commenting on the ṭebb al-aʾemma, Fazlur Rahman observes that the Shiʿites “underplay the natural cures and emphasize the value of suffering.” Such tendencies, he argues, were “undoubtedly connected with the passion motif and the stress on martyrdom, of which Sunni Islam has little trace” (Rahman, 1987, pp. 37-38, as cited in Ebn Besṭām, editor’s Introd., p. xv). In Imam Jaʿfar al-Ṣādeq’s collection of medical traditions, however, we do not find any obvious trace of such value in suffering or martyrdom.

Given the high priorities of fruits and vegetables prescribed by Imam Jaʿfar al-Ṣādeq, one may conclude that the imam was essentially concerned with herbal-based remedies then current in Mesopotamia, where he traveled in the latter part of his life. He occasionally combined his food and drug instructions with invocation to God, or recitation of passages from the Qurʾān; but, in his medical stipulations he did not ascertain his remarks by attributing them, even by implication, to divine inspiration, neither did he ascribe them to a tradition of the Prophet Moḥammad. It is noteworthy that some of the his instructions, such as drinking three sips of hot water of the reservoir of a public bath wherein one enters (ʿAqil, p. 468, quoting Majlesi, LXIII, p. 451), are common among Muslims where public baths are still in use.



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(Ahmad Kazemi Moussavi)

Originally Published: December 15, 2008

Last Updated: April 5, 2012

This article is available in print.
Vol. XIV, Fasc. 4, pp. 264-266