Home > Kalākośa > Kalāsamālocana Series > List of Books > Prakrti Series > The Nature of Matter


[ Previous Page | Contents of the Book | Next Page ]

Concept of Matter in Unani Medicine  


Hakeem Altaf Ahmad Azmi


Since time immemorial, man has been consistently pondering over the secrets of his Universe, particularly the primary and principal source for the creation of all things including man.

The fathers of Unani medicine have acquired all knowledge about the matter and its constituents from the Greek philosophers. It was believed in Greece that the whole universe has been created by gods and goddesses. But in the sixth century b.c. this idea was challenged by a group of philosophers. They did not refute this idea openly but forwarded quite a different view about the creation of the universe, i.e., creation of the universe by nature (matter) itself.

But before explaining the concept of matter in Unani medicine, I think it necessary to define matter as propounded by Greek and Arab physicians/philosophers.

Definition of Matter

Its literal meaning is to expand and to enlarge. In a more wider sense, it implies a substance out of which a thing is made and sustained by it.1 It is also said to be an abode (Mahall) in which it is transmigrated.2 Some philosophers have signified it a fundamental which accepts the bodily form (Surat-i Jismaniah).3

Today, scientifically, it means that which occupies space and with which we become acquainted by our bodily senses.

Broad Division of Matter

Matter has travelled a long way before coming into the present form. Accordingly it has been divided into the following four kinds:4

  1. First matter (Maddah-i Ula): It is directly or indirectly connected to the creator of the universe. It is like a wave flowed from the ocean of light.

  2. Matter in aggregate (Majmu‘i maddah): Out of which the heavenly bodies have been formed. It is a determined luminous form of the first matter.

  3. Four essential elements (‘Anasir-i Arba‘ah): water, fire, air and earth.

  4. Bodily compounds (Jismi murakkabat): Like wood and stone etc.

Since this topic, more or less, deals with the third kind of matter, the other kinds of matter have also been touched to some extent, therefore, the forthcoming discussion is centred round it, and I proceed accordingly.

Constituents of Matter

When the Greek philosophers saw the material world around them and pondered over it, they found it divided into four forms: liquid (water), fiery (fire), solid (earth) and gaseous (air). From this observation they came to this conclusion that matter consists of four constituents: water, earth, fire and air. But the question arose which constituent has the status of primary substance, to which other constituents owe their origination. This issue was discussed and debated at great length by the Greek philosophers, but they had different opinions as briefly mentioned below:

Water as primary substance

The propounder of this theory was Thales of Melitus (585 bc).5 He was one of the seven wise men of Greece.6 According to Aristotle (d. 323 bc) he thought that water is the original substance out of which all other constituents are formed, and he held the view that the earth rests on water.7 Thales is said to have travelled to Egypt and thence he brought this idea to Greece.8 Despite revolutionary change of mind, Thales could not get rid of the old religious belief that all things are full of gods.9

Earth as Primary Substance

Phrekides, a Greek Philosopher, was of the view that earth was primary substance. He argued that if anything is detached from its natural place by any artificial means, it ultimately returned to its original position after the effect of that means vanishes. This experiment proves that earth is the original substance.10

Air as Primary Substance

Anaxemanes (494 bc) is reported to have said that air is the fundamental substance and other constituents of matter are changed forms of this substance. Accordingly fire is rarefied air; when condensed, it becomes first water then, if further condensed, earth and finally stone. He also thought that our soul is air and it holds us together and that it encompasses the whole world and that the world also breaths.11

Fire as Primary Substance

Heraclitus (500 bc) believed fire to be the primordial substance out of which every-thing originated. He said that this world which is the same for all, neither made by any god nor by any man but it was ever, is now, and ever shall be an everliving Fire, with measures kindling and measures going out.12

He also advocated that everything is in a state of flux. There is nothing that can be called a constant and unchangeable being. I quote here some of his phrases:

All is and all is not. We are changing but have

changed. You cannot step twice into the same river

for fresh water are ever flowing in upon you.13

His another worth-mentioning doctrine is the idea of mingling of opposites. In accordance with this concept, by strife opposites combine to produce a motion which is a harmony. There is a unity in the world, but it is a unity resulting from diversity.14

After some time, old controversy again arose about the primary substance. Some philosophers came forward and challenged "one substance theory". They expressed view that the two substances instead of one are the basic source of all creation. Some held water and earth and some held water and fire as the primary substances. But later on this theory was also replaced by three and finally by four primary substances. The theory of four substances got supremacy and it is still prevalent.

Theory of Four Substances

The propounder of this theory was Empedocles (440 bc). He rejected the theories of one, two and three substances. He said that primary substances are four in number, i.e., water, earth, fire and air. When these four substances are intermingled in a proportionate manner, things are created.15 These primary substances are everlasting and unperishable.

He also explained how things come into being and then perishes. He said that there are two forces operating in this world, love and strife. By love, primary substances are brought together and thus things are formed and by strife they are disintegrated into original substances. These two opposite forces are eternal but compounds are perishable.16 He called these opposite forces as divine eternal force.17

The theory of four substances was further augmented and elucidated by Aristotle who compounded it with four qualities: hot, cold, dry and wet.18 He postulated a fifth substance also called "quinta essentia" from which all heavenly bodies are made.19

Theory of Atom

Democritus (420 bc) is credited to have rejected the theory of four substances. He believed that everything is composed of atom which are physically, but not geometrically, indivisible; that between the atoms there is empty spaces; that atoms are indestructible; that they always have been, and always will be in motion; that there are an infinite number of atoms.20

Theory of Innumerable Substances

Anaxagoras (500 bc) like Democritus was against that concept in which matter has been divided into four substances as mentioned above. He was of the view that primary substances are innumerable. Every substance contains a portion of other substances. When this portion in a particular substance is accumulated in a greater quantity it is named after it.20

According to this notion, the concept of life and death has no real meaning. Life is nothing but the assemblage of necessary primary substances and its disintegration is called death.21 Chakbast, a great Urdu poet, has rendered this idea in the following couplet:

What is life? It is an arrangement of elements in a particular order and the disintegration of these elements is termed death.

Anaxagoras was the first Greek physician who put forth the idea that mind, a non-physical entity, played very important role in the creation of the universe. It enters into the composition of all living things and distinguishes them from dead matter. Mind has power over all things that had life; it is infinite and self-ruled, mixed with nothing; it is the source of all motion; it causes a rotation, which is gradually spreading throughout the world and is causing the lightest things to go to the circumference and the heaviest to fall towards the centre.23


The concept of matter in Unani medicine has been constantly changing as described in the foregoing pages. Most of the physicians were materialist in their outlook and assumption. In their view the world has been created from matter (four primary substances). But some physicians mostly Arab, believed that every living thing comprises both matter and non-matter, i.e., mind and/or psyche (Nafs).

When this notion is compared to the concept of matter in our modern scientific age, we find some resemblance between the two. Now, matter is regarded as a condensed form of energy and it can be reconverted again to the same. It means that matter has no independent existence, only energy is the real entity and that the universe is nothing but the expansion of the energy.

In conclusion we can say that the approach of Unani medicine towards matter and the creation of the universe is reasonable and accommodative having belief in both matter and mind simultaneously.


1. Sayed Sharif Jurjani, Kitab al-Ta‘rifat, Beirut.

2. Ibn Rushd, Maba‘d al-Tabi‘iyat, Hyderabad Dakan, 1947, p. 12, See further Kashshaf-i Istilahat al-funun (Al-Thanawi) Beirut 1968, p. 1327.

3. Urdu Da’rah-i M‘arif-i Islamiah (Urdu Encyclopaedia) vol. 18, p. 239.

4. Bertrand Russell, History of Western Philosophy, London 1957, p. 44.

5. Ibn Nadim, Mohammad b.Ishaq, Al-Fihrist, Urdu translation by Mawlana Mohammad Ishaq Bhatti, Lahore, 1969, p. 575.

6. Bertrand Russell, op. cit., p. 44.

7. John Willium Draper, The History of the Intellectual Development of Europe, London, 1864, vol. I, p. 91.

8. Bertrand Russell, op. cit., p. 44.

9. Abdul Latif, Hakim, Tajdeed-i Tib, Tibbi Academy Aligarh, 1972, p. 32.

10. Bertrand Russell, op. cit., p. 47.

11. Ibid., p. 62.

12. Ibid.

13. Ibid.

14. Ibid. p. 74.

15. Ibid.

16. John Willium Draper, op. cit., vol. I, p. 119.

17. Encyclopaedia Britannica Micropaedia, 1974, (15 ed.) vol. III, p. 846.

18. Bertrand Russell, op. cit., p. 229.

19. Ibid., pp. 85-91.

20. Ibid.

21. Ibid. p. 81.

22. Alfred Weber, History of Philosophy, Urdu translation by Khalifah ‘Abdul Hakim, Hyderabad Dakan, 1938, p. 37.

23. Bertrand Russell, op. cit., p. 82.


[ Previous Page | Contents of the Book | Next Page ]

HomeSearchContact usIndex

[ Home | Search  |  Contact UsIndex ]

 [ List of Books | Kalatattvakosa | Kalamulasastra | Kalasamalocana ]

© 1995 Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, New Delhi