Science, Medicine and Technology

Qarshi Ibn Al Nafis [1210-1288] – Muslim Physician, the Father of Circulatory Physiology

Ibn Al Nafis
The opening page of a 17th or 18th century copy of one of Ibn-al-Nafis’ medical texts

Musa Sattar, London, UK

Many great scientists have been credited for the discovery of the pulmonary circulation system. However, a deeper and unbiased look at the works of Muslim physicians during the Islamic Golden Age (the Islamic era of cultural, economic, and scientific advancement, dated from the 8th century to the 14th century) reveals that the pioneer of this remarkable discovery was Qarshi Ibn al-Nafis.

Who Was Ibn al-Nafis?

Qarshi Ibn al-Nafis, born in 1210 CE near Damascus, was one of the great Muslim physicians of the Islamic Golden Age. His full name was Ala al-Din Ali Ibn Abi al-Hazm al-Qarshi. At the age of 22, he studied medicine under a well-known physician, Muhadhdhib al Din al Dakhwar.[1] He also studied the books of pioneering Muslim physicians such as Al-Razi, and Ibn Sina. Alongside medicine, Ibn al-Nafis gained excellence in law, literature and theology, and thus became a renowned expert on the Shafi’i School of Jurisprudence. Due to his findings, knowledge and exceptional practical skills, he was often compared with the great mind of medicine – Ibn Sina. Ibn al-Nafis was extremely committed to his work, which for him was compatible with his deep religious beliefs[2] – Islam – and this was his main driving force behind his contributions towards the sciences such as anatomy and medicine.

Ibn al-Nafis’ Works in Medicine

Ibn al-Nafis made significant contributions towards the advancement of medical knowledge and science, penning numerous books on variety of subjects including medicine, many of which were consulted and commented upon by physicians. He wrote commentaries on Hippocrates’ work, such as AphorismsPrognostics, and The Nature of Man, to name a few. His famous treatises The Perfect Book on Ophthalmology and The Usefulness of the Parts still exist. His mastery on medicine is evident from his mammoth three-hundred volume notes Comprehensive Book on the Art of Medicine, eighty of which were published during his lifetime.[3]Ibn al-Nafis is also credited with the authorship of the medical reference guide the ‘Epitome of Medicine’.[4]

Ibn al-Nafis – The Father of Circulatory Physiology

Ibn al-Nafis was the first physician to challenge the Galenic cardiovascular anatomy. Rejecting Galen’s views, in his multivolume treatise Commentary on Ibn Sina’s Cannon of Medicine, he wrote, ‘The thick septum of the heart is not perforated and does not have visible pores as some people thought, or invisible pores as Galen thought.’[5] Ibn al-Nafis was the first person to propose that blood flowed from the  right side of the heart to the left side – a fact that is well-established by modern medicine.[6] The physiological system that Ibn al-Nafis outlined in The Book of Universal Principle, laid the foundation to William Harvey’s theory of blood circulation, almost three hundred years later. According to Ibn al-Nafis, the blood’s pulmonary circulatory system was based on the flow of blood from one chamber of the heart to the lungs and then back to a different chamber of the heart. He also detailed the movement of oxygenated blood through the arteries to all parts of the body. He explained that deoxygenated blood was pumped by the right ventricle of the heart to the lungs through the pulmonary arteries where it became oxygenated and then moved to the left atrium of the heart through the pulmonary veins. He claimed a new theory of pulse, positing that the arteries do not pulsate simultaneously, but rather parts of them contract while others expand, and vice versa. Ibn al-Nafis’ profound work thus became the first description[7] of pulmonary circulation. 

In 1924, Dr. Muhyi al-Din al-Tatawi, an Egyptian physician, found an important manuscript in Berlin Library and made it known to the world. This manuscript revealed a much earlier first description of pulmonary circulation. Centuries after his death, Ibn al-Nafis, was finally credited by historians for the discovery of pulmonary circulation in the middle of the twentieth century.[8]

In addition to his discovery of pulmonary circulation, Ibn al-Nafis also contributed in examining coronary circulation (the supply of oxygenated blood to heart muscles), cranial nerves, gall bladder anatomy and many new aspects of ophthalmology. Ibn al-Nafis was also the first to highlight the constitution of the lungs and how the airways and blood vessels interact. He described the small ‘pores’ between the pulmonary artery and capillaries. Due to these pioneering contributions Ibn al-Nafis was also known as ‘the father of circulatory physiology’. 

Ibn al-Nafis in the Eyes of Modern Historians

It is reported that Ibn al-Nafis was among the few Muslim physicians who confidently challenged the work of established medical authorities of that time like Galen and Ibn Sina. Highlighting the extraordinary works of Ibn al-Nafis, Max Meyrhoff, ophthalmologist and medical historian said: ‘We have seen that Ibn Nafis, three centuries before Colombus [sic], had already noticed visible passages between the two types of pulmonary vessels.’ Similarly, Edward Coppola regarding the discovery of pulmonary circulation said, ‘…centuries after his [Ibn al-Nafis’] death it may have influenced the direction of the anatomical investigations of Colombo and Valverde, who finally announced it to the Western world…’[9]

Commended by the Promised Messiah (as)

In the first volume of Essence of Islam, on page 472-3, the Promised Messiah Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (as) praised Ibn al-Nafis as ‘the expert physician’ while explaining that the Holy Qur’an has brought out the accord between spiritual and physical medicine. The Promised Messiah (as) states: ‘It is only that person who can interpret the Holy Qur’an truly and perfectly, who ponders the principles laid down by the Holy Qur’an in the light of the system of physical medicine.’

The Promised Messiah (as) further stated:

‘On one occasion I was shown in a vision some books of expert physicians which contained a discussion of the principles of physical medicine, among which was included the book of the expert physician Qarshi, and it was indicated to me that these books contained a commentary on the Holy Qur’an. This shows that there is a deep relationship between the science of bodies and the science of religion and that they confirm each other. When I looked at the Holy Qur’an, keeping in mind the books that dealt with physical medicine, I discovered that the Holy Qur’an sets out in an excellent manner the principles of physical medicine.’


It is evident that during the ‘Islamic Golden Age’, Muslim researchers reached the highest echelons in the fields of medicine and other science, empirical study, clinical professionalism and pioneered many discoveries. Their work points to an era of medical enlightenment and advancement that forms the basis of modern medicine. 

The Italian Medical School of anatomy adopted Ibn al-Nafis’ theory of pulmonary blood flow from one of the Latin translation. The famous research regarding blood circulation and the functioning of the heart was therefore not first described by Michael Servetus in the 16th century, nor William Harvey in the first half of the 19th century, but this theory comes from the ground-breaking research of the 13th century Muslim physician – Ibn al-Nafis.

As stated by the renowned 20th century historian of Arabian Medicine, Dr Donald Campbell: ‘The European medical system is Arabian not only in origin but also in its structure. The Arabs are the intellectual forebears of the Europeans.’[10]

About the Author: Musa Sattar has an MSc in Pharmaceutical Analysis from Kingston University and is also serving as the Assistant Manager of The Review of Religions and the Deputy Editor of the Science & Religion section.


 [1] I. Kalin, The Oxford Encyclopedia Of Philosophy, Science, and Technology In Islam. Vol 2. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 347.

[2] M. H. Morgan, Lost History: The Enduring Legacy of Muslim Scientists, Thinkers and Artists (Washington, D.C.: National Geographic, 2008).

[3] I. Kalin, The Oxford Encyclopedia Of Philosophy, Science, and Technology In Islam. Vol 2. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 347.

[4] R.E. Abdel-Halim, “Contributions of Ibn Al-Nafis (1210-1288 AD) to the progress of medicine and urology. A study and translations from his medical works.” Saudi Medical Journal. 2008 Jan;29(1):13-22. PMID: 18176669.

[5] Salim T. S. Al-Hassani, 1001 Inventions, 3rd ed. (Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society), 166,167.

[6] I. Kalin, The Oxford Encyclopedia Of Philosophy, Science, and Technology In Islam. Vol 2. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 348.

[7] M. Loukas, R. Lam, R. S. Tubbs, MM Shoja, N. Apaydin, “Ibn al-Nafis (1210-1288): the first description of the pulmonary circulation.” The American Journal of Surgery. May 2008; 74(5):440-2. PMID: 18481505.

[8] Salim T. S. Al-Hassani, 1001 Inventions, 3rd ed. (Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society), 167.

[9] M. Akmal, M. Zulkifle, A. Ansari, “Ibn Nafis – a forgotten genius in the discovery of pulmonary blood circulation.’ Heart Views : the Official Journal of the Gulf Heart Association, March 2010;11(1):26-30. PMID: 21042463; PMCID: PMC2964710.

[10] I. Kalin, The Oxford Encyclopedia Of Philosophy, Science, and Technology In Islam. Vol 2. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 347.