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Principles of Iranian Traditional Medicine

M. Mosaddegh

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The ITM looks at patients and diseases through an angle different from that of modern medicine . Modern medicine has an abstract supervision on the work of organs, tissues and genes, considering the disease as the driving force behind an imbalance in body  performance. It does it's utmost to strike a balance in organ, tissue or gene  performance to cure the disease. The ITM, however, views man as one entity. Under ITM a disease shows that the whole body is imbalanced. So it tries to strike an overall balance. Prominent Iranian physician Akhaveini Bokharaei, author of “Hedayat-ul-Motealemin” says "Medicine was a profession to maintain man's health , and retrieve it through science and experience when it was lost."

Iran's Traditional Medicine  brings together natural sciences , anatomy , diagnosis, therapeutic and materia medica, and is based in the following principles:

  • The universe is a single orderly unit.
  • All components of the universe act in coordination with one another and are subject to certain rules.
  • Bodies are only called bodies when they have the following features:
  1. quantity
  2. quality
  3. time
  4. place
  5. direction
  6. rank
  • The closer bodies are to their origin, the hotter and more active they will be. Temperature causes expansion. So if bodies are closer to their origin, they are warmer and have more motion. The other way round is true as well. If bodies are far from their origin, they will be more and more motionless. As a result of this they become contracted which in turn makes them more fragile and stiff.
  • The earth is the lowest-ranking body  in the universe.
  • Warmness , coldness , wetness  and dryness  are the basic components of the universe. Warmness and coldness are the primary natures while wetness and dryness are dubbed as secondary natures.
  • Adding up these natures will create features for bodies and elements.
  1.  Warmness  and dryness
  2.  Warmness  and wetness
  3. Coldness  and wetness
  4. Coldness  and dryness
  •  In a first-ever encounter, man viewed things as purely physical. Later, after mulling them over he came up with the following classification.
  1. The solid represented by soil
  2. The liquid represented by water
  3. The gas or steam represented by air
  4. The force represented by fire  and light
  • The more we move from "the force" towards “the solid”, the less warmth we will have. Condensity will increase, as we move in that direction. In other words, the solid and soil  are the lowest while light and fire  are the highest in nature.
  • Comparing the above features one would arrive at the following conclusions.
  1. Fire  and light are warm  and dry .
  2. Air  is warm  and wet .
  3. Water  is cold  and wet .
  4. Soil  is cold  and dry .
  • All beings are complex in the nature. The above features are more or less present in all creatures. However some features are hidden in some creatures, while they are more apparent in others.
  • Among other features of the beings is "constant transition from one stage to another". Transition and metamorphosis  are ever-present features of the world. Nothing goes waste in the world.
  • Rules and regulations apply to both the little world (particles) and the great world (universe). Both which are also known as microcosm  and macrocosm  are subject to fixed regulations.
  • Every "body " goes through three stages:

"Spirit , soul , body ", or "Spirit, life, corpse," and or "Afterlife, limbo, world". There are 4 different kinds of spirits.

1-      Solid spirit
On the surface solids seem motionless, in actuality they are full of motion.

2-      Vegetal spirit
This spirit  grows and turns minerals to plants or other live beings, which in turn produce energy.

3-      Animal Spirit
This spirit  has apparent motion in addition to all vegetal spirit features. That is, it can change some rules to some extent.

4-      Human Spirit
In addition to the features already mentioned for the above spirit , human spirit has free will. That enables man to obtain other human feature such as "knowledge, skill and creativity" to move toward evolution.

  •  All beings in the world (solids, plants, animals and humans) affect each other.
  • There are certain rules governing the relations between components of the world. Some of them are clear-cut and evident at certain times, the others, which outnumber the first group, are invisible. The two groups surely interact. As science advances the number of known and evident rules increases. This will surely decrease the number of the unknown.
  • Elements, which make up world beings were created by the revolution of heavens. In a first stage warmness , coldness , wetness  and dryness  came into being. In the second stage, these four elements joined forces to create fire , air , water  and soil . The third stage saw the creation of compound beings. In a later stage plants and animals came into being. In the latest revolution stage, humans were created. The number of natural elements, which are the cornerstone of life, stands at seven.

1.      Arkan  (Elements)

"Arkan " are simple bodies, which account for original constituents of human and non-human beings. They include fire , air , water  and soil .

2-   Mizaj  (Physical Temperament)

Physical temperament is a product of combination of elements. Under a classification, physical temperaments fall into two categories.

A.     Moderate

B.     Immoderate

A. Moderate temperament in turn falls into two categories.

  q               Real moderate is a temperament in which the amount of qualities or quantities, which run counter to each other, is equal.

  q               Hypothetical moderate includes all those temperaments, which are not real.

Real moderate is a non-existent. What philosophers call Moderate is in fact hypothetical Moderate.

B. Immoderate temperaments fall into two categories as well:

  q            Simple temperaments

In such temperaments the quantity of two elements is equal but the third element outweighs the fourth. That definition adds up to 4 different simple temperaments. For instance if warmness  and coldness  are equal in quantity, but dryness  is bigger than wetness , that temperament is called "dry ".

  q            Complex Temperament

Neither pair is equal in this temperament. Two elements are always over whelmed by the other two. Overall, under this category we have four temperaments: "warm  and dry ", "warm and wet ”, "cold  and dry" and "cold and wet".

3-  Akhlat  (Structural Components)

Structural components are the components into which food is first turned. There are four of them.

  1. Bile , which is warm  and dry .
  2. Blood , which is warm  and wet .
  3. Phlegm  which is cold  and wet .
  4. Black bile , which is cold  and dry .

Below is a chart showing the features of structural components in comparison with elements. 


Structural Component




Warm and Dry



Warm and Wet



Cold  and Wet


Black bile

Cold  and Dry


Each one of the structural components in turn falls into two categories: natural and unnatural.

To have life, water  and air  are the most important elements respectively. The main components of human body  are bile  and blood . Human life depends on blood circulation. When circulation stops, life comes to an end. Structural components interact. When there is a balance in relationship among structural components, life becomes sustainable.

Structural components are said to be made up of food. That means food, just like humans, has physical temperaments. Some foods are warm  and dry  so they make up bile . In fact they have anti-phlegmatic effects. Some others are warm and wet . They make blood  and have anti-black bile effects. Another group is cold  and wet. That is  it helps create phlegm  and has anti-bile effect. The last group is cold and dry helps the body  make black bile . They have anti-blood effects. Natural drugs such as herbal medicines have physical temperaments, too. These temperaments are used as a basis for prescription of a certain herbal medicine  for an illness.

4-  Adha  (Fully - Grown Organs)

Fully-grown organs are made up of akhlat (structural components). Each one of them has its special features. For instance heart is the warmest organ, while bones are the coldest. Organs fall into two different categories: "Raeesah" and "Qeir Raeesah". The latter in turn falls into two categories "Khadem-ul-Raeesah" and "Qeir Khadem-ul-Raeesah". "Qeir Khadem-ul-Raeesah" organs are either "Maroosah" or "Qeir Maroosah". "Raeesah" organs are instrumental in sustainability of life. Among them are heart, brain, liver and testicles.

Examples of "Khadem-ul-Raeesah" organs are nerves, arteries, and urea, which help brain, heart and liver carry out their functions. Maroosah organs are those which receive the power from Raeesah organs. Among them are kidneys, stomach, spleen, and lungs. Qeir Maroosah organs are those which receive no power from Raeesah organs. Among them are bones and joints.

5-      Arwah  (Vital forces of life)

Arwah  is the plural form of "Ruh ". They are made up of steams of structural components and fall into three different categories.

  1. Natural Ruh (Tabiee) , which is pumped into veins from liver. It visits all parts of the body  and facilitates nutrition and growth.
  2. Animal Ruh  (Heywani), which is pumped into arteries from heart and circulate.
  3. Spirit  Ruh (Nafsani) , which is sent by brain to different parts of the body  through nerves. It is the origin of sense and motion.
  4. Quwa  (Bodily power)

Quwa  is the plural form of "Quwat" which is the power granted to human or animal body  to do what they want to. Quwa fall into two different categories.

  1. The Quwa  (powers) which are essential in life.
  2. The Quwa  (powers) which are essential in reproduction.

The first group in turn falls into three categories.

  q               Natural powers which are based in liver and are instrumental in nutrition and growth.

  q               Animal power, which are based in heart and play a role in living functions. While the heart pumping blood , air  is taken in and smoke-like steam is forced out of heart and lungs.

  q               Spiritual powers which are based in brain and control senses and motions. Spiritual powers fall into different categories in turn:

a)     Perceptive powers

Perceptive powers in turn fall into external and internal categories. External powers include vision, hearing, smelling, tasting and touching. Internal powers include common sense, imagination, thinking, illusion and memory.

  • Common senseis a power, which senses all tangible things.
  • Imaginationis a power, which retains the effects of what has crossed the line from tangible to common sense.
  • Thinkingis a power, which makes changes in tangible things like thinking of a headless or two-headed man. The difference between dreaming and thinking is that the first one keeps what it receives from the common sense but the latter makes changes to what dream keeps in it.
  • Vahm (Conceit)
  • Hafezeh (preserving power)

b) Motive power

Motive power falls into two categories:

  • "Ba_etheh" (incentive power), which encourages the person to make a motion which is useful or seems so; or it makes the person stop a motion, which is harmful or seems so.
  • "Fa_eleh" (active power) is the power, which makes muscles do what "Ba_etheh" instruct them to.

7.Afaal  (functions)

Afaal  is the plural form of "Fel" which means task and activity. All the previous six entries are there to carry out certain tasks. Some tasks are accomplished by one single power like digestion and excretion. Some tasks require cooperation of a few powers. Among them are "turning food to structural components" and "turning structural components to "Ruh ", etc.

What was already mentioned reveals that the ITM has its roots in medicine  of ancient Iran, folk medicine  and the medicine practiced in other countries. It should be mentioned however that Islamic teachings have played a significant role in shaping up the ITM.


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