The Grand Theriac

One of humanity’s most pressing preoccupations throughout time has been to seek a cure for the numerous ailments that have plagued us in the past and continue to do so today. The lure of an all curing grand theriac is therefore understandable and so too the fact that it has been the pursuit of physicians and men of medicine since time immemorial.

In this article we take a look at the Fatimi conceptions of theriac and how it continues to be a potent force even today.

Rooted in the Greek term theria, which refers to wild beasts, theriac was initially given as a preparation that served as an antidote against the venom of animals and then as an all purpose cure for a range of illnesses. After successive centuries of alterations and revisions to what constituted theriac, the Greek physician Galen is said to have set out to concoct a preparation that would eclipse all others. His theriac consisted of more than 70 ingredients and required a painstaking manufacturing process followed by a period of maturation that lasted for over two years before being administered either orally or topically for a wide variety of ailments. Even during the plague many centuries after Galen, theriac was one of the most prevalent of medieval medicines used as a therapeutic and preventive drug against the onset of plague. Ibn Sina (Avicenna) refers to it, ‘as the most sublime medicine for the multiplicity of its advantages.’

In the introduction to the Rasail Ikhwan al-Safa, the impact of the Rasail upon its receivers is defined as follows: ‘They (the Rasail) cure and cause illness, give life and bring about death like the grand theriac which is one in itself but many in its effects. It therefore does a thing and its opposite depending on those who accept it and are acted upon by it.’ The effects of the Rasail are likened to that of the grand theriac which has the capacity to both give life and cause death, cure all as well as cause ailment according to the differentials of acceptance.

It can therefore be understood that theriac in Fatimi philosophy is not merely a universal compound which cures all maladies irrespectively, as theriac is generally made out to be, but a reactive element which calibrates its effects to each individual. Depending on the nature and constitution as well as the reception it is afforded, the grand theriac can either cure all or have a complete inverse outcome.

Just as the understanding of theriac in Fatimi philosophy is different, so is the appreciation of the ailments that necessitate the existence of theriac. Illnesses are understood as being twofold, those of the body and those of the soul.

Islamic medicinal traditions abound with mentions of substances and supplications that perform the function of theriac by healing all maladies save death.

The most interesting aspect however is that paradoxically, ailments of the body can act as grand theriac for the soul but only if they are accepted in such a manner. To reiterate, the effects of the grand theriac are subject to the manner in which it is received. This notion is illustrated with great clarity in a narrative from Syedna al-Qadi al-Nuʿman’s Daim al-Islam.

‘The Prophet Mohammed once visited an ailing man from the ansaar (helpers, referring to the people of Madina who aided the Prophet in his conquests). The man complained to the Prophet of what befell him as a result of the fever he had. The Prophet said to him, verily fever is [a cause of] purity from a benevolent Lord, to which the man replied, rather a fever boils over an old man until it sends him to his grave. The Prophet was angered by the man's words and said to him, may that happen to you and the man perished from his ailment.’

If the man had received his bodily ailment as the Prophet instructed, it would have cleansed his soul of sins and impurities and eventually restored health to his body as well. In Fatimi philosophy bodily ailments are the result of a tainted soul and so when the soul is rid of decay the body returns to health. Instead the man chose to receive his ailment in an ungrateful fashion and so the very theriac which could have cured both body and soul, ended up causing his death.

In one of his couplets His Holiness Syedna Taher Saifuddin states: ‘His (Imam Husain) name is theriac for those bitten by the serpent like foes of the house of wahy (divine revelation).

Syedna Saifuddin likens the name of Husain and his remembrance to theriac, thereby ascribing it the quality of differential acceptance. In one of his renowned couplets, the Fatimi poet Syedi Abdeali Mohyuddin expresses this notion:

‘Lo! Indeed the day of Ashura (the tenth day of Muharram when Imam Husain along with his kin and companions was martyred in Karbala) is a day of merriment for the Umayyads, and among the sons of Hashim it is a day of lamentation.’

Just as the grand theriac is one in itself but multitudinous in its effects, so too is the remembrance of Husain. For the oppressors who inflicted pain upon him and those who chose to align with them, his remembrance is a source of torment and eternal perdition. Narratives of what befell those who played even the slightest part in the slaying of Husain speak vividly of their ruin.

For the faithful believers of Husain however, his remembrance is a potent theriac healing the deepest of wounds and curing all ailments of the body and soul. Syedna al-Muʾayyad al-Shirazi states: ‘In a tenth of what befell Husain the son of Fatima, there is solace for the likes of me if I were to take it,’ elucidating how the remembrance of Imam Husain, when received in that way, is a salve for all afflictions.

For the Dawoodi Bohra community, the remembrance of Imam Husain and the atrocities that befell him is indeed a grand theriac, sublime and of innumerable advantages. When community members recall the thirst and hunger of Husain, they receive it as inspiration to feed the hungry and quench the thirst of the parched. When they hear of Husain’s encampment being set ablaze, it drives them to build shelters for those who have none. When they learn of Imam Husain’s ailing son Imam ʿAli Zain al-ʿAbidin traversing miles of burning sand barefoot, it rouses them to visit the ill and make certain that they are well cared for and all their needs are met. On the whole, the abject violence and cruelty to which the Prophet’s household was subjected, impels the community towards kindness and consideration for all Creation.

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Last Updated
August 26, 2020
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