Science and Technology

Did early Muslim physicians research laughter, too? Of course they did, LOL.

Written by Hassam Munir

Muslim physicians of the early 9th and 10th centuries tried to dig deeper to find the meaning of laughter (LOL) and the science behind it.

This post was originally written by Hassam for Mvslim (find it here).

The Muslim thinkers of the Middle Ages seem to have offered some commentary on just about anything you can think of, and LOL (‘Laughing Out Loud’) is no exception. Here’s what some of them had to say about that.

In the mid-9th century, the physician Ali ibn Rabbān at-Tabarī explained laughter in this way: “Laughter is the [result of] the boiling of the natural blood [which happens] when a human being sees or hears something that diverts him and thus startles and moves him. If he then does not employ his ability to think in connection with it, he is seized by laughter.” In other words, according to Ibn Rabbān, laughter is the result of a person’s inability to think rationally about something that they are suddenly exposed to. After this passage, he shared Aristotle’s definition of the human as the laughing animal, followed by the Greek philosopher’s observation that out of all the animals, only humans can laugh.

The famous Muslim polymath Abu Yūsuf al-Kindī, who also lived in the mid-9th century, commented on laughter in similar terms. He defined it as “an even-tempered purity of the blood of the heart together with an expansion of the soul to a point where its joy becomes visible”.

Ishāq ibn Imrān was a thinker coming later in the 9th century, and his thoughts on laughter were similar but more detailed. In his book ‘On Melancholy’, he described the laughter of children and drunk people as the result of “the joy of the soul because of the even temper of their blood”. He also described excessive laughter as a sign of insanity. He then commented on laughter in more detail, defining it as “the astonishment of the soul at [observing] that is not in a position to understand clearly” and discussing different theories on where it originates in the body. In the 11th century, Constantinus Africanus translated On Melancholy from Arabic to Latin. Africanus’ Latin collection of textbooks (including Ibn Imrān’s work) was translated into other European vernaculars and used until the 17th century.

A famous student of Ibn Imrān was the physician Ishāq ibn Sulaymān. He suggested that sadness is caused by anything restricting the flow of blood in the body and the release of heat from it. Therefore, laughter and joy are caused by healthy circulation of the blood and a working exothermic process in the body. It’s interesting that Ibn Sulaymān developed his own theory about laughter rather than just borrowing from his teacher, Ibn Imrān. Some of Ibn Sulaymān’s work was translated into French in 1579 by a man named Joubert, who suggested that Ibn Sulaymān was the first to offer a definition of laughter – and then discussed how wrong it was and why his own definitions were better.

There are two important points to note here. The first is that these early Muslim thinkers didn’t take anything for granted, not even something as seemingly trivial as laughter. They tried to describe the origins and characteristics of laughter. They did their research and tried to dig up the deeper purpose and meaning of a simple human activity. The second is that they all recognized that laughter has something to do with the circulation of blood in the body. More than a thousand years later, science has established that laughter does, in fact, lower blood pressure and improves blood flow. The lesson? Don’t settle for a shallow understanding of anything, and never forget to LOL!


Source: Franz Rosenthal, Humor in Early Islam (Leiden: Brill, 1956), 132-138.

About the author

Hassam Munir

Hassam is a university student, blogger, and independent researcher of Islamic history based in Toronto, Canada. He is the founder and editor-in-chief of iHistory. He enjoys looking at the past from fresh and diverse perspectives. His work has also been featured in other outlets, including The Link Canada, Mvslim, and Excalibur.

2 Comments

  • hi hassam, two more fascinating articles. especially the turkish sultan helping ireland
    >British diplomats advised him that it would be offensive for anyone to offer more than Queen Victoria, who had only donated ₤2,000. It was suggested that he should donate half of that amount, so he gave ₤1,000. Henry Wellesley, the British ambassador to Constantinople, expressed his gratitude on behalf of the British Empire.
    grrrr. the odious brit aristos. classic imperialists (as marx devastatingly explained) -on the surface all smiles, underneath, murder and destruction of the 90%). the secret supplies, the crescent moon in the coat of arms and the enthusiastic help in the crimean war are touching details.

    • Hey Eric, I’m glad you found these articles fascinating. I agree with what you make of Queen Victoria and her government essentially blockading aid to the suffering Irish people. There definitely seems to be an ulterior motive at play here as the British try to make it seem as if she is the Irish people’s greatest benefactor, which is simply not the case.

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