Longevity in the Ancient Middle East and the Islamic Tradition
The Middle East has often been perceived as a constantly belligerent area, where human life has been held cheap, since the time of despots and tribal wars well to the present. Yet, in fact, the Middle East would be more appropriately seen as a cradle of civilization, where many ideas of human development had their roots, where many technological and scientific concepts were first formulated, and where the goals of preserving and extending human life, even ideas of radically extended longevity, have been pronounced among the earliest. Hopefully, the few examples below will help to see the Middle East not chiefly as an arena of ruthless confrontation, but as it has mostly been – a fertile ground for creativity and pursuit of life.
Thus one of the earliest known works of literature is in fact also one of the earliest representations of the pursuit of life, rejuvenation and life extension, and it stems from the Middle East. This is the Sumero-Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh, a story about the hero’s struggle with death. (The most complete version has been dated from circa 1300 BCE to 650 BCE, but the story possibly originated as early as about 3000 BCE.) According to the Epic of Gilgamesh: “There is a plant like a thorn with its root [deep down in the ocean], Like unto those of the briar (in sooth) its prickles will scratch [thee], (Yet) if thy hand reach this plant, [thou’lt surely find life (everlasting)].”1 The plant has been sometimes likened to box-thorn and dog-rose.
There are striking parallels between the description of the immortalizing plant and the story of the extremely long-lived Utnapishtim in the Epic of Gilgamesh, and the biblical stories (with the composition sometimes dated c. 1300 BCE to 450 BCE) about the “tree of life,” the original potential physical immortality of human beings and its loss due to ill will and negligence, as well as about the extreme and admirable longevity of antediluvian patriarchs (Genesis 2:9, 3:22-24, 5:1-32).
In the Avesta, the sacred text of the Iranian Zoroastrian religion (with estimated dates of origin ranging from 1200 BCE to 200 BCE), during the rule of the mythical king Jamshid (Yima), people knew no disease, aging and death.2 The legendary “cup of Jamshid” was said to be a container for the elixir of immortality and at the same time a means for information retrieval (scrying/remote viewing). According to the Persian poet Ferdowsi (940-1020, CE), as told in the epic poem Shah Nameh, Jamshid became proud and his reign of prosperity and longevity was terminated by the demonic king Zahhak.3
Also in ancient Egypt, longevity and rejuvenation were celebrated. It may even be argued that many of the pioneering technologies of ancient Egypt, from pyramid construction to embalming and surgery, emerged in the pursuit of life preservation, balance, constancy or immortality.
In one of the earliest known Egyptian medical papyruses, “The Edwin Smith Surgical Papyrus” (commonly dated to the period of the New Kingdom of Egypt, c. 1500 BCE), there is a “Recipe for Transforming an Old Man into a Youth.” The recipe involved the external use of bruised and dried hemayet-fruit (with recent identifications varying from fenugreek to almond). The remedy would not only have a cosmetic anti-aging effect – remove wrinkles, beautify the skin, remove blemishes, disfigurements, and “all signs of age” – but it would also have a true rejuvenating effect, as it would remove “all weaknesses which are in the flesh.”4
And in yet another ancient Egyptian medical papyrus, “The Ebers Papyrus” (c. 1500-1600 BCE), there are anti-aging cosmetic remedies to prevent the graying of hair (for example by the use of honey, onion water, donkey liver and crocodile fat), and to stimulate hair growth (for example by the use of flaxseed oil, gazelle excrements and snake fat). Yet, actual treatment of aging was also mentioned: “When you examine a person,” the book advised, “whose heart is weak as when old age comes upon him, you say: ‘This is an accumulation of diseased juices,’ the person should not arrogantly dismiss the disease or trust in weak remedies.”5
The legendary chief minister to the Egyptian pharaoh Djoser, and the reputed builder of the first step pyramid, Imhotep (c. 2650-2600 BCE), too was said to be skilled in the art of rejuvenation. Also, according to the “Turin Papyrus” and other sources, the ruling periods of Egyptian kings in the first and second dynasty (up to c. 2500 BCE) were allegedly very long (up to 100 years) and the kings’ life-spans were believed to reach into hundreds.6 The vitality and longevity were revered.
Egypt was also apparently the birthplace of alchemy, aiming at the manipulation of matter generally, and improvement of health and longevity in particular. And alchemy’s growth and maturation took place broadly in the Middle East.
The world “al-kimia” is of Arabic origin, “al” being the Arabic definite article, and the etymology of “kimia” being very uncertain, with hypotheses ranging from the Greek “Khemeioa” (appearing c. 296 CE in the decree of the Roman Emperor Diocletian banning the “old writings” of Egyptian “makers” or counterfeiters of gold and silver); “Khemia” (“the land of black earth” – the old name of Egypt); or some other Greek etymology of the Hellenic Middle East: e.g. “khymatos” (pouring/infusing in Greek) or “khymos (the Greek word for juice), etc. In either case, clearly Egypt was a hotbed of this pursuit.7
The term “alchemy” apparently took root in Europe only in the 12th century, and was apparently borrowed from the Middle East. The first European alchemical text was translated from Arabic, presumably by Robert of Chester in 1144 and was entitled Liber de compositione alchimiae (The book of alchemical composition). This was allegedly a translation from Arabic into Latin of an epistle of the Egyptian-Greek-Christian alchemist Marianos to the Arab alchemical adept, the Umayyad prince Khalid ibn Yazid (665-704 CE).8 Also the word “elixir” comes from the Arabic “al-iksir” (dry medicinal powder), as well as many other terms currently found in modern science and born in the pursuits of Islamic alchemists, such as realgar (“raj al-har”), nushadir, alcohol (“al-kuhul”) and many more.
Many Islamic alchemists spoke very explicitly about the possibility of radical life extension, which according to their views did not contain any contradiction with the Koran.
Thus one of the founding figures of alchemy is considered to be the Baghdad scholar and physician Abu Mūsā Jābir ibn Hayyān (also known as Jabir in Arabic and Geber in Latin, c. 721-815) whose theory of elements profoundly influenced both the Islamic and European (Latin-Christian) alchemy. In one of his treatises Jabir stated:9
“If you could take a man, dissect him in such a way as to balance his natures [qualities] and then restore him to life, he would no longer be subject to death. … This equilibrium once obtained, they will no longer be subject to change, alteration or modification and neither they nor their children ever will perish.”
Also according to the alchemist Ibn-Bishrun (c. 1000 CE), quoted by the Tunisian historian Ibn Khaldoun (1332-1406): “Man suffers from the disharmony of his component elements. If his elements were in complete harmony and thus not effected by accidents and inner contradictions, the soul would not be able to leave his body.”10
Indeed, Islam has been sometimes presented as somehow intrinsically antagonistic to the idea of life extension. Often the story about the “70 virgins” hopefully awaiting the martyrs in Heaven (a loose paraphrase on Hadith 2687) and similar ones are regurgitated, aiming to demonstrate the alleged denigration of this worldly life in Islam.
Yet, in fact, Islamic thought has not been inherently opposed to the idea of life extension or even to radical life extension! There are strong currents favoring this pursuit.
Thus, the book Al-Imam al-Mahdi, The Just Leader of Humanity by Ayatollah Ibrahim Amini (b. 1925, a foremost Islamic scholar, since 1999 Vice President of the Assembly of Experts of the Leadership of the Islamic Republic of Iran), includes the chapter “The Research About Longevity.” In the chapter, the necessity to pursue longevity research is largely derived from the desire to explain and emulate the remarkable longevity of Al-Mahdi – مهدي – the messianic “Last Imam” who, in the belief of the Twelver Shi’a Muslims (the largest branch of Shi’a Islam) will come to protect mankind and, together with Jesus, will bring peace and justice to the world.
According to this tradition, the Last Twelfth Imam, Muhammad al-Mahdi, was born c. 869 CE (255 AH – Anno Hegirae), and has not died but lives in “occultation.” Biological science is required to explain this fact and make such great longevity a gift to humanity. As the book states:11
“There is no such age fixed for human life the transgression of which would be impossible. …. All the above observations in the medical and biological sciences make it possible for human beings to expect to discover the secret of longevity and overcome old age one day. Moreover, it has prompted them to continue their research until the goal is reached. There is hope that scientific research into understanding the mystery of longevity will also lead to uncovering the secret of the long life of the Qa’im [al-Mahdi] from the Family of the Prophet (peace be upon him and his progeny). Let us hope that day will come soon.”
These were the words of Dr. Abu Turab Nafisi, Professor and Chair of the School of Medicine, University of Isfahan, Iran, and they were cited approvingly.
Other Islamic scholars agree. Thus according to the article “The Long Life Span of Imam Mahdi (A.S.)” at the Imam Reza website (affiliated to the Ahlul Bayt – ‘People of the House’ – Global Center for Information), the Islamic tradition acknowledges the possibility of extended life spans, such as those of Noah, Jesus, Khidhr (“the green one”), or Dajjal. Hence, “There is no dispute amongst theists and followers of Divine Religions about the possibility of extended longevity and that there is no limitation on the human life span.”
The views of great Islamic thinkers on the subject, as quoted in the article, are unambiguous:
The Persian scientist and philosopher Khwajah Nasir al Deen Tusi (1201-1274 CE) said: ‘Extended life spans have occurred for other than al-Mahdi (p.b.u.h.) and been recorded, and for this very reason it is pure ignorance to consider his longevity as improbable.’
The great Tajik-Persian physician, Avicenna (Abū Alī al-Husayn ibn Abd Allāh ibn Sīnā, c. 980-1037 CE) said: ‘Consider as possible whatever you hear about the strange things until you have no reason to reject it.’
And more recently, the Azerbaijan-Iranian philosopher and theologian Allamah Tabataba’i (1904-1981 CE) stated: ‘There are no intellectual reasons or rules to denote the impossibility of an extended life span; therefore, we cannot deny it.’
The article continues:12
“As we have seen, the Holy Qur’an, the noble traditions, intellect, and history, provide proof of the possibility and the existence of extended longevity. …
From a biological, medical or scientific point of view, the human life span does not have a specific time frame where exceeding it would be considered impossible. No scientist up to now has stated that a specified amount of years is the maximum limit of the human life span after which death would be certain. Indeed some scientists, from the east and west, old and new, have stipulated that the human life span is not limited and in fact humans can have power over their deaths by delaying it and thus extending their life spans. This scientific hypothesis encourages scientists to research and administer tests day and night in hope of success. Through these tests they have proved that death, is similar to other illnesses because it is an effect of natural causes which, if they could be discovered and altered, death can be delayed. Just as scientists have been able to discover remedies for different illnesses through research, they can do the same for death.”
Thus, clearly, extended longevity is considered as theoretically possible, ethically desirable and practically and scientifically feasible by the Islamic tradition.
However, according to Aisha Y. Musa’s article “A Thousand Years, Less Fifty: Toward a Quranic View of Extreme Longevity” (2009), the idea of physical immortality, of a complete defeat of death, would be incompatible with an Islamic view. According to the author: “The Qur’an declares unambiguously that ‘whenever you are death will find you,’ and ‘every soul will taste death.’ These verses have always been understood to preclude the possibility of earthly immortality.”13 Still, according to the author, by reinterpreting certain key concepts of Islam, such as Heaven (“Jannah”) and Hell (“Jahannam”) understood not as physical places but as states of the soul; the concept of “the first death” understood not as a transition to unearthly paradise, but as a radical spiritual change in this world (e.g. the death of old and harmful habits); and the notion of Thereafter (“akhira”) understood not as an afterlife but as a new stage of evolution – then even the idea of “practical immortality” (that is to say, not actual, but potential or biological immortality) would be acceptable by Islam.
Yet, even without such far-reaching reinterpretations, the core Islamic values clearly favor the pursuit of life extension and even radical life extension. And these values are equally shared also by representatives of other religions as well as non-religious denominations of the Middle East. Thus according to the Iranian-American philosopher, one of the chief founders of the transhumanist intellectual movement, Fereidoun M. Esfandiary (pseudonym FM-2030, 1930-2000), “More than ever therefore it is urgent to overcome death. The conquest of death is the single transcendent triumph which in one sweep will defuse all other human problems.”14
That was an extremely optimistic forecast. The conflicts in the Middle East and in the area generally known as the “Islamic World” are real. Yet the issue of protecting and extending life needs to be raised again with great force, to overcome the destructive tendencies, to leverage the tremendous economic and human potential of the area, to work toward the practical realization of the noble intellectual tradition, to achieve healthy longevity for all.15
References and notes
- The Epic of Gilgamesh, translated by R. Campbell Thompson, 1928, Tablet 11: The Flood, lines 268-270, “The magic gift of restored youth,” reprinted at Sacred Texts, http://www.sacred-texts.com/ane/eog/index.htm.
- “Avesta: Venidad. Fargard 2. Yima (Jamshed) and the deluge,” translated by James Darmesteter, from Sacred Books of the East, American Edition, 1898, http://www.avesta.org/vendidad/vd2sbe.htm.
3. Ferdowsi, The Epic of Kings, translated by Helen Zimmern, 1883, “The Shahs of Old,” http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/shahnama.txt.
- James Henry Breasted (Translator and Editor), The Edwin Smith Surgical Papyrus, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, Illinois, 1930, XXI9-XXII10, pp. 506-507.
- H. Joachim (Translator and Editor), Papyrus Ebers. Das Älteste Buch Über Heilkunde (The Ebers Papyrus, The Oldest Book on Medicine), Georg Reimer, Berlin 1890, pp. 105-107, 43-44.
- Alan H. Gardiner, The Royal Canon of Turin, Oxford, 1959.
For lists of mythical longevity cases, see for example, the compilation: Craig Paardekooper, Records of Human Longevity from Other Nations, 2001, mentioning the Turin papyrus and other sources, http://s8int.com/phile/page44.html; http://saturniancosmology.org/files/kings/turin5.txt.
See also the Wikipedia article “Longevity Myths” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Longevity_myths.
- Douglas Harper, Online Etymology Dictionary, 2012, http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?search=alchemy;
Alchemy Academy Archive, June 2006, “Diocletian’s Edict against alchemy,” http://www.levity.com/alchemy/a-archive_jun06.html.
- Alchemy Academy Archive, January 2002, “Maryanus,” http://www.levity.com/alchemy/a-archive_jan02.html.
- Quoted in Gerald Joseph Gruman, A History of Ideas about the Prolongation of Life. The Evolution of Prolongevity Hypotheses to 1800, Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, Volume 56(9), Philadelphia, 1966, “Arabic Alchemy: The Missing Link?” p. 60.
- Quoted in Gerald Joseph Gruman, A History of Ideas about the Prolongation of Life. The Evolution of Prolongevity Hypotheses to 1800, Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, Volume 56(9), Philadelphia, 1966, “Arabic Alchemy: The Missing Link?” p. 60;
“Alchemy in Ibn Khaldun’s Muqaddimah,” edited and prepared by Prof. Hamed A. Ead, Cairo University, Giza, 1998, http://www.levity.com/alchemy/islam20.html.
- Ayatollah Ibrahim Amini, Al-Imam al-Mahdi, The Just Leader of Humanity, Ch. 9 “The Research About Longevity,” translated by Dr. Abdulaziz Sachedina, 1996, reprinted at “Al-Islam” – The Ahlul Bayt Digital Library Project, Spring Lake Park, MN, USA – a repository of Islamic cultural resources, https://www.al-islam.org/al-imam-al-mahdi-just-leader-humanity-ayatullah-ibrahim-amini; http://www.ibrahimamini.com/en.
- “The Long Life Span of Imam Mahdi (A.S.)” Imam Reza, 2012, http://www.imamreza.net/eng/imamreza.php?id=7127.
- Aisha Y. Musa, “A Thousand Years, Less Fifty: Toward a Quranic View of Extreme Longevity,” in Calvin Mercer and Derek F. Maher (Eds.), Religion and the Implications of Radical Life Extension, Macmillan Palgrave, New York, 2009, pp. 123-131.
- Fereidoun M. Esfandiary (FM-2030), Up-wingers. A futurist manifesto, Popular Library, Toronto, 1977, p. 177.
- The text of the article “Longevity in the Ancient Middle East and the Islamic Tradition” is also available in Arabic (translated by Ahmed Adel Ibrahim, a longevity research activist from Egypt)
إطالة الحياة في التراث الإسلامي و الشرق الاوسط القديم
And Persian (translated by Ali Yahyaei, a longevity research activist from Iran)
تاریخچه واژه “تمدید حیات” در خاورمیانه باستان و عرف اسلامی
The initial material for this article was presented in Ilia Stambler, A History of Life-Extensionism in the Twentieth Century, Longevity History, 2014, http://www.longevityhistory.com/.
See also: Ilia Stambler, “The pursuit of longevity – The bringer of peace to the Middle East,” Current Aging Science, 6, 25-31, 2014. http://www.eurekaselect.com/122295/article