Introduction to Islamic Medicine

بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم



1. A Brief History

Knowledge of medicine flourished in the Islamic caliphate between the fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th century C.E., and the European Renaissance in the 15th century. However, the surge of Islamic medical institutions began during the 9th century C.E., and conincided with the golden age of the ‘Abbasid Caliphate in the East (749 – 1258 C.E.).

This sea of knowledge which flowed for nearly four centuries was halted later on by the Mongolian invasion of the Eastern Caliphate and the eclipse of the Western Caliphate in Spain.

Traditional Islamic medicine is highly ecletic, and it was built upon the earlier medical knowledge, including Indian, Persian, Roman, Greek, and Syrian. The initial phase of the development of Islamic medicine concentrated on the translation of Greek, Persian and Nestorian works into Arabic. This was known as Madrasatu-Shurrah al-Ighriqïyeen (The School of the Commentators of Greek Works) whose masters translated almost all of the Greek works on medicine and science. In fact, Muslims are credited with preserving much of the work of Galen and Hippocrate, among others, and Europe first knew about Greek medicine from Arabic translations.

Following the phase of rapid acquisition of Greek and Persian sciences, a new generation of Muslim scientists emerged with their own original concepts and contributions to medicine, and the work of such scholars as Avicenna, al-Rãzi, and others dominated the European medical schools for several centuries.

The ‘Abbasid Caliph al-Ma’moun (d. 813 C.E.) took a giant step in the direction of establishing translation departments and medical colleges when he founded Dãr al-Hikma (the hospice of medical treatment) in Baghdad. This major institution included a college for translation headed by the Muslim physician and philosopher Hunayn Ibn Ishaq al-’Ibãdi (810 – 873 C.E.) who also occupied the position of head of translators of the time, and incidentally, he was the son of a pharmacist from the city of Hïra in Iraq.

These medical colleges established the basis of medical practice at the time, and they contributed largely to the innovations in hospital designs, ambulatory patient care and mobile clinics.

Among these hospitals and colleges, the greatest and most renowned were al-Nuri hospital in Damascus (1160 C.E.), which remained active for nearly three centuries, and the Mansüri Hospital in Cairo, Egypt (1276 C.E.). At one time, Baghdad had about sixty hospitals, while in Cordoba, in Spain, had more than fifty hospitals. The larger hospitals had libraries, outpatient clinics and medical schools. These hospitals were operated with the scrutiny of separating patients with fevers or contagious diseases as well as the mentally disturbed. Medical education was carried on in these hospitals. Students sought theoretical and practical training there, and renowned physicians and surgeons were selected to serve in these hospitals.

The Mansüri hospital was the first hospital to emphasize science, teaching, and social service. It had separate wards for women, children, and convalescents, wards dedicated to specific diseases, an extensive library, and outpatient clinics. In addition to that, there were smaller libraries and private collections each boasting no less than 100,000 books. These libraries contained medical references, besides other scientific works such as on astronomy, chemistry, geometry, philosophy, and more. At that time, the eastern and western capitals of the Islamic caliphate became the centers of civilization, and the medical institutions and research were sponsored by the state.

Muslim physicians stressed both clinical and basic medicine in their teaching. Medical students were required to be competent in basic, sciences, and to have adequate knowledge of the works of the authorities in medicien such as Galen, Hippocrate, and al-Zahrawi among others. Medical knowledge was codified in writing so that clinical tests could be evaluated to a limited extent, and students were examined in the basic sciences. Only those who passed were allowed to take the clinical tests, and certification in medicine required adequate knowledge in both fields.

The ‘Abbasid Caliph al-Muqtadir (d. 908 C.E.) designated an eminent physician, Sannan Ibn Thãbit (d. 976 C.E.) to examine all physicians and to license those who qualified to practice medicine. However, court physicians and renowned physicians were exempted.

Muslim scientists also refined and expanded pharmacology and chemistry. They described many new drugs such as senna, camphor, nutmeg, cloves, cubebs, etc. and they used new solvents for drugs such as rose water, orange water and tragacanth. They also used aldehydes, alcohol and other solvents as well as they perfected methods for testing for the purity of metals and chemicals. Their persistence in the search for a method to convert baser metals into gold resulted in the discovery of several chemicals such as mineral acids, antimony, bismuth, ammonia and compounds of mercury. Such Arabic words as alcohol (Arb. kuhül), syrup (Arb. shurub), and others are now widely used. Basic chemical processes including distillation, crystallization, and sublimation also were discovered. It is also known that Muslim physicians used cannabis sativa indica (Arb. Qunnab Hindi; Hasïshat-ul Kaif) and the variety of hyoscyamus (Arb. banj) as anesthetics, and there are suggestions that they were familiar with inhalation anesthesia. The work of al-Kindi on the method of prescriptions and the exact dosages of drugs is well known. He applied the law of geometrical progressino in prescribing drugs. And finally, the fame of Muhammad Ibn. A. al-Ash’ath of Mosul, Iraq in medicine and pharmacology drew students from far and near to hear his lectures.

2. Muslims’ Contribution to Medicine

Among the great physicians in the Eastern caliphate under the ‘Abbasid dynasty, lived al-Rhazes who distinguished smallpox from measles, and Avicenna, the ‘Prince of Physicians,’ who attempted the impossible when he tried to codify medicine while squaring its facts with the systems of Galen and Aristotle. However, his writings influenced European thought for centuries.

In the Wester caliphate, and under the Umayyad dynasty, they knew the greatest clinician Avenzoar of Cordoba (d. 1162 C.E.). Avenzoar was one of the few physicians of the centuries prior to the European Renaissance with the courage to challenge the writings of Galen.

Several Muslim scholars unsheathed their pen to elucidate the guidance of God’s Messenger صلى الله عليه و سلم on medicine. Among them, we mention here Hunayn Ibn Ishãq (L. Joannitus) 809 – 873 C.E., who wrote several treaties interpreting the prophetic guidance, and he is also known for his book on ophthalmology al-’Ashr Maqãlãt fi al-’Ayn (The Ten Treaties on The Eye).

We also mention here, Muhammad Ibn Zakariyya al-Razi (L. Rhazes) 865 – 925 C.E. whose masterpiece al-Judari w-al Hasba (Smallpox and Measles) is considered the earliest of its kind. In it, he describes the ground for differential diagnosis between the two diseases. Al-Rãzi also wrote a book on children’s diseases and is considered by many as the father of pediatrics. History also recorded the work of Abu al-Hasan al-Mukhtãr Ibn Butlan (L. Elluchasen Elimithar) ca. 1065 C.E., Tathkïr al-Kahhalïn (Notes for Ophthalmologists), which is the oldest Arabic manuscript on ophthalmology.

Then came ‘Abd al-Malik A. Ibn Zuhr (L. Avenzoar 1091 – 1162 C.E.) who was the first to discuss feeling in bones and the itchmite (Arb. su’ubat al-Jarab, L. acarus scabici), who was also known for his work al-Taysir fi al-Mudãwãh w-al Tadbïr (Simplification of Therapeutics and Diet). ‘Ali ibn al-’Abbãs (L. Haly Abbas) ca. 994 C.E., a prolific writer, was also renowned for his book al-Kitãb al-Malaki, also known as Kamil al-San’a al-Tibbiyah (The Royal book, L. liber regius), a comprehensive treatment of science and practice of medicine in which he emphasized dietetics and materia medica, and where he contributed a rudimentary conception of the capillary circulation.

We also have to mention here the Muslim philosopher and commentator A.M. Ibn Rushd (L. Averoës) 1126 – 1198 C.E., whose major encyclopedic medical work al-Kulliyãt fi al-Tibb (Generalities in Medicine) recognized the function of the retina and the fact of immunity in cases of smallpox.

During the thirteenth century also lived ‘Ali Ibn al-Nafïs, 1210 – 1288 C.E., who wrote Sharh Tashrïh al-Qãnün (Commentary on the Analysis of the Cannon of Avicenna), and who became noted for advancing his description of the pulmonary circulatino of the blood three centuries before the Portuguese Servetus, to whom this discovery was credited.

The thirteenth century also notes the most distinguished historian of medicine, M. Ibn Abi Usaybi’a, 1203 – 1270 C.E., for his masterpiece ‘Uyün al-Anbã‘ fi Tabaqãt al-Atibbã (Sources of Information on the Classes of Physicians), which is an early collection of 400 biographies of Arab and Greek physicians.

Finally, this partial list of renowned Muslim physicians and their contribution to the healing arts cannot be complete except with citing some of the earlier works of the master-physician Abu ‘Ali al-Husayn Ibn Sïna (L. Avicenna) 980 – 1037 C.E., who was quoted by most of the above scholars. Avicenna summed up the medical science of his days in an encyclopedic work entitled al-Qãnün fi al-Tibb (The Canon of Medicine). This book was translated into Latin several times, and have influenced several generation of European medical students. Avicenna also wrote kitãb al-Shifã (The Book of Healing), al-Adwiya al-Qalbiyyah (The Remedies of The Heart), and Kitãb al-Qülanj (The Book of Colic), among others. Avicenna also wa twice the vizier of Hamadhan, and he was imprisoned for four months because of his political opinions at the time. Doctor Krueger, M.D. wrote about Avicenna, saying: “His medical experience was transcendetally greater than that of Galen… (he) demonstrates a mind like Goethe’s, and possessed a genius similar to that of Leonardo da Vinci” (C. Krueger, M.D. Springfield, I11. Charles C. Thomas, 1963).

3. Traditional Medicine

Traditional Islamic medicine exists in varying levels of sophistication. Muslim scholars such as Avicenna defined medicine (Arb. tibb) as ‘the art which is concerned with the preservation of good health, combating disease, and restoring health to the sick.’

The original forms of traditional medicine were established on the basis of set text, customs, manners, and researches. Traditional medicine used the theory of the four humors, i.e., black bile, blood, phlegm, and yellow bile. These humors or bodily fluids correspond respectively to the four basic elements, earth, fire, water, and air. Emotion and temperament were determined by the balance of humors, resulting in melancholic, sanguine, phlegmatic, and irascible, or choleric characters. In the humors theory of physiology, for instance, melancholy is produced by an excess of black bile.

These four humors are also combined with the primary attributes of dryness, heat, cold, and moisture. The balance and equilibrium of these humors defines the extent of one’s health and illness. In Unani medicine, a branch of traditional Muslims’ medicine, therapy, for example, uses the opposite medication, a ‘hot’ disease is treated with a ‘cold’ remedy, and excess ‘moisture’ is treated with ‘dry’ medications, etcetera. In this school of medicine, the works of Galen and Avicenna are accepted readily and in details, although practitioners (hakïms) have modified some of them, and innovations continue to be made in pharmacology. In India, Unani practitioners have also added homeopathy to their therapeutic offerings, because of the emphasis it places in decoctions of herbs.

Although modern medicine assumes that a drug has the same effects on the human body, or nearly so, yet the traditional Islamic medicine treats each patient according to his or her unique humoral blend, which balance cannot be found exactly the same in another individual.

Lastly, traditional Islamic medicine also concentrated on anatomy and physiology. Among the writings dating back to the 9th century, we find al-Mukhtasar fi ‘Ilm-i Tashrïh (A Brief Manual of Anatomy), written by ‘Abdul Majïd al-Baidãwi, and the famous 15th century text Tashrïh al-Mansüri (Mansür’s Anatomy) by Mansur Muhammad Ibn Faqïh Ilyãs. The major departure from the Galenic anatomy and physiology came with the work of Ibn al-Nafïs, and his discovery of the lesser circulation of the blood.

4. Medicine of The Prophet

The medicine of the Prophet صلى الله عليه و سلم also known as al-Tibbu Nabawi is based upon the Qur’anic revelation and the guidance of God’s Messenger, upon whom be peace. Interpretation of the vast collection of prophetic sayings (Hadïth)* by canonical scholars, as found in this book, have adopted a successful and distinct style. In fact, several Muslim canonists, philosophers, jurists, theologians, and historians, among others, have unsheathed their pen, and went to a great length to elucidate the prophetic guidance, and they were successful in integrating the Islamic medicine with the materia medica found in earlier medical systems. The famous lexicon of the Ottoman bibliographer Hajji Khalïfah, Kashf al-Zunün (The Removal of Doubts), compiled in 1658 C.E., is a good example of such class.

Among the renowned scholars cited in his lexicon, we also mentioned here the biographer of early sufism, Abu Na’ïm al-Asfahãni, Abu ‘Abdullãh al-Thahabi, the encyclopedists Jalãl al-Deen al-Suyütï, and many more, all of whom wrote books on the prophetic medicine under the title al-Tibbu Nabawi, or have at least incorporated such studies in their works.

*Cf. Sahih Bukhãri; Sahih Muslim; Sunan Ibn Mãja; Sunan al-Nisã’ï; and others.

5. Conclusion

Finally, as the reader is invited to indulge in this sea of knowledge, to discover the wealth, the analytical wisdom, and the concise interpretations of the prophetic sayings, as viewed by the 14th century Imam Ibn al-Qayyim al-Jawziyya, God bless his soul, I take this opportunity to thank Almighty Allah, Who allowed this servant to recognize a glimpse of His magnificent signs (Ayat), and to contemplate for a single moment upon the beauty of His magnificent work.

Glory be to Allah, and may He shower His utmost blessings upon the best and the most perfect of His creation, who possessed the most balanced physical and psychological temperaments. May his family, companions, children, and followers be blessed forever. Ameen.

(Taken from the book of the Medicine of The Prophet by Imam Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya page xix)

6 thoughts on “Introduction to Islamic Medicine

  1. Jana

    Salaam! This is great read mashallah. Being both a medical student and a Muslim, it’s always inspiring to read about contributions to medicine that Islam made!

  2. thinkwagon Post author

    Wa salam wa rahmah, mashaAllah I’m glad you liked this ^.^ Yes I agree with you, it’s always inspiring to read about contributions that Islam made to medicine as well as to other things.


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