Islam and Medicine

Article

A greatly influential tradition of faith and healing.

In the past, Muslim scholars did not separate areas of learning such as medicine, mathematics and literature instead, each was regarded as a single part of a unified whole truth. As a result studying and writing about medicine became integrated with other traditions such as philosophy, natural science, mathematics, astrology and alchemy.

As areas of Islamic influence have at different times reached from Spain in the west to the regions which are now Malaysia and China in the east, it is not surprising that Islamic medicine incorporated aspects from many different cultures. The Greek medical tradition was particularly significant, and was preserved and developed in the Islamic world during the European 'Dark Ages'. As Greek works were translated into Arabic, doctors of the early Islamic era learned about figures such as Hippocrates of Cos (died c360 BCE) and Galen (died c199CE). They were strongly influenced by the basic Hippocratic theory of four humours within the body: phlegm, blood, yellow bile and black bile. If these are balanced within an individual's body, so the theory goes, he or she will stay healthy, but any imbalance will lead to illness and disease.

Medieval Islamic society had a pioneering role in the establishment of hospitals and Muslim physicians set up some of the earliest hospitals, including the one in Cairo, founded in 872CE. One of the reasons for this was the Islamic teaching that the rich should provide for the poor and the healthy should look after the sick. Many wealthy individuals left money to pay for hospitals and Muslim rulers contributed by setting up hospitals in cities all over the Islamic world, which became sophisticated centres of medical care. By the 12th century, Baghdad had 60 and there were also hospitals in Cairo and Damascus and in the Spanish cities of Granada, Seville and Cordoba. At this time London was just building its first hospital.

Notable pioneers in Islamic medicine include the 10th century surgeon Abu al-Qasim al-Zahrawi, who was based in Cordoba. He wrote the Kitab al-Tasrif, a 30 volume medical encyclopedia. Latin translations of Arabic medical works such as the Kitab al-Tasrif had a significant influence on the development of medicine in Europe.

Equally influential was the 'Canon of Medicine' by Ibn Sina Avicenna (980-1037CE). This medical encyclopedia was translated into Latin and disseminated in manuscript and printed form throughout Europe. It remained a text until the 17th century, and described some concepts that are still adhered to today, advising surgeons to treat cancer in its earliest stages, ensuring the removal of all the diseased tissue, and discussing the surgical use of oral anaesthetics.

As well as travelling west, Arabic medicine also spread east with the advance of Islam, becoming known in India as 'Unani tibb', meaning Ionian or Greek medicine. 'Unani tibb' continues to exist today as a system of healthcare in the Indian subcontinent and the Middle East. At its core remains the Hippocratic theory of humours within the body. A practitioner of 'Unani tibb' is called a Hakim, and many prepare their own herbal medicines, although they are also now produced commercially too. Hakims practicing in Britain often work with traditional British herbalists.

 

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Participants in a Wellcome Collection event discuss the treatment of influenza in western and Islamic traditions.