Banner featuring Arabic calligraphy in dark blue ink above the words Islamic Medical Manuscripts at the National Library of Medicine written in burgundy ink.

Catalogue: Physiognomy

Blue arrow pointing to the right A Note on Physiognomy

Physiognomy, or physiognomics - both English words derived from the Greek word for the practice -was, since its inception in Greek and Roman literature, not just a taxonomy of human expressions or the codifying of bodily features, but it was a means of classifying people so as to gain knowledge of their internal ideas and motives. Thus it was a means of character analysis, and so it continued in the Islamic world, where it was known as firasah or ‘ilm al-firasah.

Physiognomy played a major role in the rhetoric of the day, and its principles were applied by other writers to the practical problems of medical diagnosis and prognosis or how one could choose a good physician or a reliable and honest servant. In physiognomy (through its use of external physical clues), one passed directly from knowledge of the known to the unknown, and for this reason it was incorporated into many general divinatory manuals. The term Arabic term firasah came from the vocabulary of the ūfī, where it designated a type of mystical intuition and form of wisdom. It was employed in the ninth century as a translation of the Greek word phusiognomonika.

The National Library of Medicine has three treatises concerned with physiognomy: (1) a fragmentary copy of one of the most popular treatises on physiognomy called Kitāb Sirr al-asrār (The Secret of Secrets) - an immensely influential treatise intended as a guide to kings and rulers purporting to have been written by Aristotle as a guide for Alexander the Great; (2) a treatise by the 14th-century Syrian writer Shams al-Dīn al-Dimashqī, and (3) and a short Persian discourse on the subject by Sayyid ‘Alī Hamdānī of which the NLM copy may be the only preserved manuscript.

For physiognomy in the medieval Islamic world, see Toufic Fahd, 'Firasa' in EI (2nd ed.), vol. 2, pp. 916-7, and Toufic Fahd, La divination arabe: etudes religieuses, sociologiques et folkloriques sur le milieu natif de l'Islam (Strasbourg: Université de Strasbourg, Faculté des Letters et Sciences Humaines, 1966), pp. 369429. For the Greco-Roman world, see Tamsyn S. Barton, Power and Knowledge: Astrology, Physiognomics, and Medicine under the Roman Empire (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994).

Welcome Getting started Medieval Islam Catalogue Bio-bibliographies Glossary Abbreviations Credits About the Author Concordances A 1 - A 29 A 30 - A 59 A 60 - A 89 A 90 - A 92 P 1 - P 29 Authors, Translators & Commentators Copyists & Illustrators Owners & Patrons