Praise be to the Almighty, for it is through His divine grace and wisdom that humanity has been gifted with knowledge and understanding of the workings of the human body and its ailments.
In the realm of medicine, the Islamic tradition stands tall as a comprehensive and holistic school of thought that has been in existence for over a millennium. Rooted in the scientific knowledge of ancient civilizations such as Egypt, Iran, Greece, Rome, India, and China, and complemented by the wise and divine teachings of Islam, Islamic medicine has evolved into a robust and enduring medical system. For centuries, it has been the source of diagnosis and treatment for the masses living in diverse geographical regions. Some of its practitioners have earned worldwide recognition for their invaluable contributions to the world of science.
It is unfortunate that the West has neglected to acknowledge the impact of the Muslim world on the evolution of medicine. Western historians have paid little heed to the scientific and intellectual contributions of Islam, even though Muslims served as the only keepers of knowledge and reason in a time when other civilizations were living in dark times. It’s not uncommon for western authors to write about the ancient Greeks, move on to writing about the Romans, and then jump all the way to writing about the so-called European renaissance without a single mention of the many centuries of wisdom and knowledge that was brought by the Muslims in between – wisdom and knowledge that serve humanity till today.
During a period when learning was deemed heretical and scientists were persecuted by the Orthodox Christian church, many Christian and Jewish scholars found refuge in the Islamic world. They were welcomed with great reverence and given a hospitable environment in which to work and flourish, igniting a cultural revolution that spread enlightenment throughout the ancient world, which was slowly, inevitably, and eventually inherited by the West. Some of these great non-Muslim men, as I have mentioned in Part I of this article, include Hunayn, the ”Sheikh of the Translators”.
In recent centuries, countless western books have falsely claimed the work and discoveries of Muslim authors from the Age of Enlightenment as their own. However, thanks to wary, observant learned Muslims from around the world, it has been proven that many so-called western inventions were original ideas documented in Muslim texts many centuries before Europeans even knew what a toilet was. You shall read more about these vile acts of theft in the final section of this article, God willing.
And so, I conclude this introduction by stating that the legacy of Islamic medicine remains an enduring testament to the brilliance and tenacity of the Muslim world and a reminder of the West’s never-ending debt to the Islamic civilization.
The Seeking of Knowledge
A Generalized Overview & Background
In the pre-Islamic era, there were several notable medical practitioners, including ibn Huzeem, Harith ibn Kalda al-Thaqafi, and Ndr ibn Harith, among others. With the spread of Islam, the Muslims made a concerted effort to collect and preserve the ancient texts and manuscripts of their predecessors. In their conquests, they valued such knowledge as the most precious of all booty, as we saw earlier with the Abbasid caliphs and their everlasting preference for the obtainment of books over any other type of war prize.
As the era of active conquest in the early centuries of Islam came to a close, the Arab people threw themselves into various branches of learning with great zeal. They worked tirelessly to translate the Greek, Persian, and Indian manuscripts they had acquired, with the aid of Nestorian translators. Aside from the Sheikh of the Translators which we already spoke of, some of the other prominent translators were Abu ‘Uthman al-Dimashqi, ibn Musa al-Nawbakhti, and Thabit ibn Qurra, among many others, who lived in the 10th century.
Within a century and a half after the blessed advent of Islam, Baghdad came under the rule of the Abbasids and Cordoba under the (Iberian) Umayyads. These cities became world-renowned centers of learning, particularly in the field of medicine. Notable physicians of the Umayyad era included ibn Uthal and Abu al-Hakam al-Dimashqi.
Ibn Uthal, a Christian, was the physician of the first Umayyad caliph, Mu’awiyah, and was known for his expertise in the science of poisons. During Mu’awiyah’s reign, many influential figures died mysteriously, and ibn Uthal was eventually killed in revenge. Abu al-Hakam al-Dimashqi, on the other hand, also a Christian physician, was known for his skills in therapeutics and was the physician to the second Umayyad caliph, Yazid.
The Muslim world had faced many challenges in its early days, yet despite this, the brilliance of its people and their passion for learning allowed them to rise to the top of the scientific and educational world in an extremely short amount of time. This accomplishment stunned every other civilization with its speed and thoroughness, creating a legacy of Muslim dominance in the world of knowledge and sciences that lasts to this day. By continuing their pursuit of knowledge, the Muslims have become one of the most influential cultures and civilizations in history, and have contributed greatly to the advancement of human knowledge.
Long before the flourishing of Abbasid learning, the age of translation into Arabic began during the reign of the Umayyad Caliphate, with Prince Khalid ibn Yazid (who was also an alchemist) leading the charge. Known for his love of alchemy, Prince Khalid employed the services of Greek philosophers residing in Egypt and generously rewarded them for translating Greek and Egyptian books on subjects such as chemistry, medicine, and astronomy.
During this time, the famous Arab chemist, Jabir ibn Hayyan, also known as Geber, made significant contributions to the field, including being the first to discover mercury. Jabir is also the author of a humungous number and variety of works in Arabic; this collection is often called the Jabirian corpus, and it covers many fields of study, including cosmology, astronomy, astrology, medicine, pharmacology, zoology, botany, metaphysics, logic, grammar, and many more subjects.
The Umayyads’ efforts to encourage the pursuit of knowledge from foreign sources were truly remarkable; however, they paled in comparison to what followed the establishment of the House of Wisdom in Baghdad.
One of the most remarkable achievements of the Umayyads was the construction of the first-ever hospital for lepers, located in Damascus. This is a testament to the compassion and humanitarianism of the Islamic empire, in stark contrast to the brutal and inhumane treatment of lepers by the Europeans at the time, who, even six centuries later, were still being burned alive by royal decree.
The Umayyad Caliphate saw the spread of Islam across the vast territories, from China in the east to Iberia in the west, and the translation of scientific books into Arabic gained momentum. Under the succeeding Abbasids, the translation of ancient texts was greatly accelerated, with the richness and versatility of the Arabic language, its terminology, and its capacity for expression, playing a crucial role, as talked about in greater detail in Part I of this article.
In the days of the Caliph al-Mansur, a renowned Syrian physician by the name of Jurjis ibn Jibrail was summoned to attend him. This remarkable man belonged to the illustrious family of Bakhtyishu, whose legacy of renowned physicians spanned several generations. For three centuries, the Bakhtyishu family served at the Abbasid court, acquiring great wealth and positions of power that often surpassed that of princes and ministers. Some of them were even gifted translators of scientific texts and authors of numerous medical books.
Yuhanna ibn Masawaih was another physician in the court of Harun al-Rashid. At the request of the Caliph, he translated Greek medical books purchased from Byzantium and was the author of several books on fevers, nutrition, headache, and sterility in women. Caliph al-Mu’tasim, the successor of Harun al-Rashid, was so interested in Yuhanna’s work on dissection that he made a special room available for him to use, even going so far as to have apes specially brought from Nubia in Africa for his dissections.
Hunayn ibn Ishaq, as we spoke about in great length in Part I of this article, was arguably the greatest translator in Arab history. After his death, his pupils and nephew, Hubaish, continued his work and even wrote books on medicine, including a treatise on nutrition which continues to benefit mankind today.
Many other prominent translators and philosophers also contributed to the development of medicine in the Arab world. Thabit ibn Qurrah wrote numerous books on various medical topics, as well as on philosophy and astronomy. Qusta ibn Luqa, a contemporary of AI-Kindi, translated many books into Arabic. Mankah the Indian was known for translating from Sanskrit into Arabic and translating a treatise on poisons written by the Indian physician Shanaq. These great minds of the past have forever left their mark on the field of medicine and their contributions are still celebrated today.
Oftentimes, history remembers the Abbasid Caliphs for their immense wealth and political power. However, it is important to note that their interest in the well-being of their people extends far beyond their political pursuits. Ali ibn Isa, a minister at the court of the Abbasids, recognized the need for better health care and tasked Sinan ibn Thabit, the court physician, with organizing regular visits to prisons by medical officers.
The Abbasids also took the initiative in establishing hospitals throughout the Muslim empire, starting with Baghdad in the ninth century during the reign of Caliph Harun al-Rashid. These facilities were designed with the utmost care and consideration, with separate wards for men and women, libraries, lecture rooms, and even pharmacies. I’ll write a more detailed account of the founding of hospitals and other medical-related topics momentarily.
This interest in public health also paved the way for a period of even greater creativity in the fields of science and learning. The latter half of the ninth and tenth centuries were marked by an outpouring of works on a wide variety of subjects, including medicine, philosophy, zoology, and astronomy. Al-Tabari, a physician who served under two Abbasid Caliphs, was one such individual who made immense contributions to these fields. He wrote an encyclopedic work that drew upon the teachings of Aristotle and Galen, and greatly influenced the works of those who came after him.
The History of Things
Introduction – Prophetic Medicine
Verily, first and foremost, it is a matter of great significance to recognize that the most efficacious cure known to humankind is the health wisdom imparted by the blessed Prophet Muhammad, may the peace of God be upon him. The esteemed scholar, ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya, compiled a valuable treatise entitled al-Tibb al-nabawī, which comprises the counsel given by the Prophet Muhammad on matters of illness, remedy, and cleanliness as recorded in the hadith. This practice is typically carried out by learned men who are not necessarily physicians, but who have a deep understanding of these traditions.
Prophetic medicine distinguishes itself from Islamic medicine, a wider realm that encompasses various medical practices rooted in Greek natural philosophy, which you will read about right after this introductory section, God willing. Prophetic medical traditions emphasize not only adhering to the teachings of Prophet Muhammad, peace of God be upon him, but also pursuing remedies for various maladies. Thus, the literature of prophetic medicine holds a symbolic place in defining Islamic identity, as it constitutes a specific set of relationships between science, medicine, technology, and nature.
Throughout history, there has been a discrepancy in the interpretation of medical narratives in the hadith. Some are uncertain as to whether they should be viewed as the Prophet Muhammad’s (peace be upon him) religious edicts or as temporally and culturally contingent, not representative of eternal medical truths. It was only in the 14th century that this body of knowledge was fully developed, at which point it aimed to harmonize the Sunnah with the prevailing Galenic humoral theory in the medical establishments of the Islamicate world. Despite the passage of time, the tradition of prophetic medicine remains pertinent and relevant in the present day.
Prelude: Rufayda al-Aslamia
In the annals of history, there lived a woman of remarkable character and compassion by the name of Rufayda al-Aslamia. Born into the Bani Aslam tribe in Madina, she was among the first to embrace the teachings of Islam and was known for her unwavering commitment to the care of the sick and the less fortunate.
Rufaida was a trailblazer in the field of medicine, being the first female Muslim nurse and surgeon. She was renowned for her kindness, clinical expertise, and organizational skills, and went on to train other women, including the esteemed ‘Aesha, to become nurses themselves. In addition to her medical work, Rufaida also devoted herself to solving social problems, caring for orphans, and helping the poor.
Her father, Sa’ad al-Aslamy, was a physician of great renown, and under his tutelage, Rufaida honed her skills and became an expert healer in her own right. Despite the limitations imposed upon her as a woman in a patriarchal society before the birth of Islam, Rufaida’s work in field hospitals was widely recognized and she was called upon by the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings of God be upon him, to treat the wounded in battles.
Although little is known about the history of nursing in pre-Islamic Arabia, a deep understanding of the religious and cultural norms during the time of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) provides valuable insight into the roles and responsibilities of nurses in those times.
In contrast to the Christian belief that disease was a divine punishment, Muslims held a high regard for the cleansing of the body and followed strict dietary and prayer regimens. During the holy wars, medical treatment was largely provided by physicians who would visit patients to diagnose and treat their ailments. Nurses were limited in their duties to providing physical comfort and emotional support, with their responsibilities limited to the noninvasive care of patients.
With the decrease in holy wars and civil unrest, advancements in technology and architecture led to the construction of new hospitals and better methods for treating the sick (which we will talk about in detail shortly). Although nurses were still limited to basic tasks such as serving food and administering medicine, traditional Islamic norms necessitated the segregation of hospital wards based on gender, with males treating males and females treating females. While some relaxation of these segregation practices has occurred in contemporary times, many traditional Islamic communities still hold these values in high regard and advocate for hospitals to reflect these historical practices.
It is also believed that Rufaida Al-Aslamia was not only the very first Muslim nurse and surgeon, but she was considered to be the very first nurse in history as well. She was renowned for her unwavering commitment to the art of healing and was known for her pioneering efforts in developing the first-ever mobile care units during the Battle of the Khandaq (aka Ditch) that brought medical aid to the far-flung corners of the land; these mobile hospitals, called bimaristan, would later be developed further during the rise of the Islamic civilization. With her deep knowledge of the intricacies of medicine, Rufaida was able to provide care and comfort to the ailing and injured, tending to their wounds and restoring their health.
Her name resounds through the ages as one who brought solace and hope to the suffering, for she led a group of volunteer nurses who went to the battlefield during the battles of Khandaq, Khaibar, and others, and provided care to the casualties of war. And even in times of peace, Rufaida remained steadfast in her mission to assist those in need, for she trained a group of women companions as nurses and brought aid to the suffering wherever it was required.
It was a testament to Rufaida’s dedication and skill that the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) himself acknowledged her contributions, for when the Muslim army was getting ready to go to the battle of Khaibar, Rufaida and her companions came to him and asked for permission to go out with them and tend to the injured. And so it was that the Prophet (peace be upon him) granted their request, and the nurse volunteers performed their duties with such grace and skill that the Prophet (peace be upon him) assigned a share of the bounty to Rufaida, recognizing her tireless work on the front lines of medicine; she was given the same share as a soldier; such is the justice and equality that Islam brings into the world.
In times of peace, Rufaida continued her humanitarian efforts, assisting those in need. Even to this day, the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland at the University of Bahrain honors her legacy by awarding the prestigious Rufaida Al-Aslamia Prize in Nursing to a student who consistently excels in delivering superb care to patients.
Let this tale serve as a reminder of Rufaida’s contributions to the field of nursing and surgery, a shining example of the compassion and dedication that should be embodied by all who seek to heal the sick. It is a testament to her unwavering dedication and selflessness that Rufaida’s legacy continues to inspire and enlighten generations, and her story serves as a reminder of the remarkable impact that a single individual can have on the world. May God be pleased with her and all those who contributed to the cause of Islam.
I – al-Tadrib al-Tibbi
In the early Islamic era, the study of medicine was highly regarded and given great importance. In the cities of Jundishapur and Baghdad, schools specifically devoted to the study of basic sciences were established. Prospective medical students would receive their foundational education through private tutors, self-study, and lectures. In Baghdad, anatomy was taught through the dissection of apes, observation of skeletal studies, and the use of didactic techniques. In other medical schools, anatomy was taught through illustrations and lectures. The study of alchemy was a necessary prerequisite for admission to a medical school, and the students would also study medicinal herbs and pharmacognosy to round out their basic education.
Hospitals would often maintain herbal gardens for both the use of patients and as a source of instruction for students. Upon completion of their basic education, students would become apprentices at a hospital and work under the guidance of a young physician to familiarize themselves with library procedures, pharmacology and toxicology, and the use of antidotes.
Clinical training was the next step in the education of a medical student. The students would be divided into small groups and assigned to renowned physicians and experienced instructors for ward rounds, lectures, reviews, and discussions. Early on in this stage, students would be taught about therapeutics and pathology, with a strong emphasis on clinical instruction. Muslim physicians made brilliant contributions to the field that are still remembered to this day. As students progressed in their studies, they were increasingly exposed to the subjects of diagnosis and judgment, with a heavy emphasis on clinical observation and physical examination.
Students were then asked to examine patients, make a diagnosis of their ailment, and report six major factors: the patients’ actions, excreta, the nature and location of pain, and swelling and effluvia of the body, as well as the color and feel of the skin, and the yellowness in the whites of the eye and the ability to bend the back. Only if all else failed, would the professor make the diagnosis himself. This approach placed great importance on the students’ critical thinking skills and ability to diagnose through observation and examination.
After enduring a thorough education, a group of students would then be granted the invaluable opportunity to practice their craft in the outpatient wards. As they ventured through the hospital, they carefully evaluated and examined each patient they encountered. After each assessment, they reported their findings to their instructors, who then discussed and decided upon a suitable course of treatment. Those who were too ill to receive outpatient care were granted admission as inpatients, and the diligent students ensured to maintain detailed records for every individual.
II – Manahij
Verily, it was during the rise of the Muslim civilization that the study of medicine reached great heights in the history of mankind, and in this hallowed tradition, numerous medical schools flourished, each with its own curriculum, but all dedicated to the art of healing and the preservation of life. The focus of the education was primarily on internal medicine, where a clear and concise description of a disease was deemed of utmost importance. The legendary physician, ibn Sina, was a master of this art, and his description of meningitis still stands as a testament to his mastery of the subject, even a thousand years after his time. I’ll write a more detailed account of ibn Sina in the following section(s).
Surgery was also considered a vital part of the medical curriculum, and many students sought to specialize in the field under the tutelage of renowned specialists. As for surgical procedures, one must know the techniques of amputation, removal of varicose veins, and the treatment of hemorrhoids. Orthopedics was widely taught, and the use of plaster of paris (a quick-setting gypsum plaster consisting of a fine white powder) for cast application after reducing fractures was shown to students and later adopted in the backward West in 1852.
Ophthalmology, although widely practiced, was not taught regularly in medical schools, and apprenticeship to an eye specialist was the preferred method of specialization in the field. The surgical treatment of cataracts was a common occurrence, while obstetrics was left to the care of midwives. Psychotherapy was also a part of the medical curriculum, and the great physicians, ibn Sina and Hazi, both widely practiced and taught this art.
Upon completion of medical training, every graduate was required to pass a licensing examination before embarking on their medical practice. It is also noteworthy that there existed a Scientific Association formed in the hospital of Mayyafariqin, where medical practitioners would convene to discuss the conditions and diseases of their patients.
III – Tarkhees Tibbi
It was in the year 931 CE, during the reign of Caliph al-Muqtadir in Baghdad, that the issue of physician licensing came to light. The Caliph was horrified to learn of a patient’s death caused by a physician’s mistake and immediately sought the advice of his chief physician, Sinan ibn Thabit bin Qurrah. Upon his directive, Sinan embarked on a comprehensive examination of all those who practiced the art of healing within the city of Baghdad alone. In the first year of this decree, more than 860 individuals were scrutinized.
From that moment forth, the licensing of physicians became a mandatory requirement, and examinations were administered in various locations across the land. These licensing boards were placed under the supervision of a government official known as the Muhtasib, or, inspector general. The Muhtasib also played an important role in maintaining the standards of commercial and medical trade by overseeing the accuracy of weights and measures used by merchants and pharmacists.
Pharmacists were appointed as inspectors to ensure the quality of drugs sold in apothecaries and to enforce regulations. The chief physician would conduct both oral and practical examinations and, upon the successful completion of these tests, the Muhtasib would administer the Hippocratic Oath and issue a license.
This practice was imitated and adopted by the backward West, particularly America, through the establishment of State Licensing Board Specialties in fields such as Medicine, Surgery, Radiology, and others. However, in western countries, the healthcare industry mostly serves as a commercialized industry to line the pockets of arrogant and egoistic degree-holders, pharma corporations, and the shameless regulators that collude with them, with little to no regard for patients’ wellbeing.
European medical schools also followed the pattern set by their Islamic counterparts, with students at the Sorbonne unable to graduate without having read ibn Sina’s Qanun (Canon of Medicine). In the Muslim world, however, Abu Bakr al-Razi (aka Rhazes) outlined two conditions for selection as a physician: firstly, a comprehensive understanding of both new and old medical literature and, secondly, practical experience gained as a house physician in a hospital.
Thus, it was through the foresight and wisdom of Caliph al-Muqtadir, Sinan ibn Thabit bin Qurrah, and the Muhtasib that the practice of licensing physicians throughout the golden ages of Islam was established and maintained for the betterment of the health and well-being of all people. And so, a thousand years after its implementation, this tradition continues to this day.
IV – Mustashfa
“The Hospital Shall Keep All Patients, Men, And Women, Until They Are Completely Recovered. All Costs Are To Be Borne By The Hospital Whether The People Come From Afar Or Near, Whether They Are Residents Or Foreigners, Strong Or Weak, Low Or High, Rich Or Poor, Employed Or Unemployed, Blind Or Signed, Physically Or Mentally Ill, Learned Or Illiterate. There Are No Conditions Of Consideration And Payment; None Is Objected To Or Even Indirectly Hinted At For Non-Payment. The Entire Service Is Through The Magnificence Of God, The Generous One.”– Policy statement of the bimaristan of al-Mansur Qalawun in Cairo – ca. 1284 CE
In the golden era of Islamic civilization, the establishment of efficient and compassionate hospitals was a significant achievement in the annals of medical history. These institutions served all citizens, regardless of their religion, ethnicity, gender, age, or social status, and were run by the government with physicians as directors. The hospitals were equipped with state-of-the-art facilities, including separate wards for male and female patients, staffed by nursing and ancillary staff of the same sex, to cater to a wide range of ailments, including fever, wounds, infections, mania, eye conditions, cold diseases, diarrhea, and female disorders.
The hospitals also served as teaching institutions, imparting knowledge and training to aspiring medical students. They provided housing for students and in-house staff and contained well-stocked libraries, replete with massive collections of the latest books and medical texts, a testament to the great value placed on education and knowledge in Islamic society.
Notable among these libraries was that of the Tulum Hospital in Cairo, founded in 872 CE, which housed an impressive 100,000 books. Other renowned institutions, such as the Mustansiriyya University in Baghdad, Cordoba, Cairo, and Tripoli, contained even larger collections, totaling 80,000, 600,000, 2,000,000, and 3,000,000 volumes, respectively.
For the convenience of patients, the hospitals were divided into two main departments, the out-patient and in-patient departments. The latter was designed to provide a comfortable and dignified experience for patients, with amenities such as unlimited water supply, bathing facilities, and special apparel provided upon admission. Patients’ clothes, money, and valuables were safely stored away, and upon discharge, they were returned along with five gold pieces to assist them in their convalescence.
Another remarkable feature of these Islamic hospitals was the meticulous record-keeping of patients and their medical care, a novel practice at the time that laid the foundation for modern medical documentation. The legacy of these hospitals continues to inspire and inform medical practitioners and institutions even to this day.
The advent of efficient hospitals in the Islamic world was a momentous contribution to the field of medicine. These institutions served the populace without discrimination, offering their services to all regardless of their race, religion, gender, age, or social status. The hospitals were operated by the state, with their directors appointed from the ranks of physicians, who also served as teachers to educate and train medical students.
As I recently mentioned, the hospitals were divided into separate wards for male and female patients, each staffed by nursing and auxiliary personnel of the same gender. Diseases such as fevers, wounds, infections, mania, eye conditions, cold ailments, diarrhea, and female disorders were allocated to different sections for effective treatment. Additionally, the hospitals had convalescent centers, each with its own distinct section. These institutions were well-equipped, with an unlimited supply of water and bathing facilities, as well as conference rooms and extensive libraries containing the latest books and medical texts.
The hospital and medical school at Damascus were renowned for their elegance, spacious rooms, and extensive library. According to legend, healthy individuals even feigned illness to partake in its delicious cuisine. The city also had a separate hospital for lepers, a contrast to the dire fate faced by lepers in Europe, who, as I mentioned earlier, and will continue to mention again, were burned to death by royal decree even six centuries later.
The Qayrawan Hospital in Tunisia, built in 830 CE, was also characterized by its spacious wards, waiting rooms for visitors and patients, and female nurses from Sudan – the first recorded instance of organized nursing in Islamic history. The hospital also provided facilities for performing prayers.
The al-Adudi Hospital in Baghdad, established in 981 CE, was fitted with the latest equipment and supplies of the time and was attended by interns, residents, and 24 consultants. The Abbasid minister, Ali ibn Isa, even requested the court physician, Sinan ibn Thabit, to organize regular medical visits to prisons to ensure that all prisoners receive equal treatment and checkups as anyone else in Baghdad.
While Paris and London were still comprised of dirt streets and hovels, Baghdad, Cairo, and Cordoba had hospitals that incorporated innovations that seem strikingly modern to this day. In the annals of history, it is well known that the hospitals of the Islamic world were renowned for their compassionate and humanitarian approach to the care of the sick and infirm.
This stands in stark contrast to the abhorrent and inhumane treatment that was inflicted upon patients in the West, where the brutish practices continued well into the late 19th century. It is a tale that is both gruesome and shocking, a manifestation of the darkest corners of the human psyche. Yet it is a tale that must be told, for it serves as a warning to future generations and a testament to the superior wisdom and mercy of Muslim civilizations. In a future article, I shall delve further into this ghastly episode, exploring its roots and writing a detailed account of it.
In the fever wards of Islamic hospitals, on the other hand, fountains cooled the air, the insane were treated with kindness, and at night, music and storytelling brought comfort to patients.
The hospitals were of two types – fixed and mobile. The mobile hospitals (bimaristan) were transported on beasts of burden and erected as needed, with physicians of the same standing serving both fixed and mobile hospitals. The traveling clinics accompanied the armies in the field, well-equipped with medicaments, instruments, tents, and a staff of doctors, nurses, and orderlies.
Once again, in the Islamic world, the concept of providing medical care to all, regardless of their circumstances, was of utmost importance; this rule was one of the preliminary rules of conduct that a physician ought to practice, as recorded in most early Muslim physicians’ works. This idea manifested itself in the establishment of traveling clinics, which brought medical services to the doorsteps of the most vulnerable and marginalized members of society. These clinics served the disabled, the disadvantaged, and those residing in remote regions, providing them with access to much-needed medical care.
The traveling clinics were also instrumental in responding to public health emergencies, particularly during times of epidemics, where they were deployed to contain and treat outbreaks. Furthermore, they were utilized to care for prisoners, a population often neglected in other societies. By offering medical services to all, regardless of their station in life, these clinics embodied the Islamic principle of compassion and equality.
Verily, these traveling clinics were a testament to the innovative and forward-thinking approach to healthcare that characterized the Islamic civilization. They represented a commitment to ensuring that no one was left without access to medical care and a belief that every person deserves to be treated with dignity and respect. The legacy of these clinics and hospitals continues to inspire and inform modern healthcare systems, and their spirit of compassion and service remains an ideal to strive for in the delivery of medical services in these dark times that we are in.
V – ‘Ilm al-Jarathim & ‘Ilm al-Amraadh
In the city of Baghdad, al-Razi was tasked with selecting a suitable location for the establishment of a new hospital. With a keen eye for hygiene, he hung pieces of meat in various parts of the city and observed where they decomposed the least. This method allowed al-Razi to choose the most hygienic site for the hospital.
Ibn Sina spoke of the contamination of bodily secretions by a foul earthly body that leads to infection. Meanwhile, ibn Khatima spoke of the precise minute in which infected body(ies) that surround a man cause disease by entering the human system (aka contagion).
A notable figure of Cordoba during this time was ibn Rushd, also known as Averroes, who was a twelfth-century physician, philosopher, and astronomer. While his primary focus was on philosophy, he was also a practicing physician who wrote a medical work entitled al-Kulliyat, which was later known in Latin as Colliget. Among his many groundbreaking contributions was the observation that smallpox can only infect once, which was a revolutionary discovery for the time.
Amid the devastating black plague that swept across Europe in the 14th century, while the Christians stood helpless, considering it an act of God for their self-acknowledged sins, ibn al-Khatib of Granada wrote a treatise in defense of the theory of infection. He addressed those who questioned the possibility of infection in light of religious law, stating that the existence of contagion is established through experience, investigation, evidence of the senses, and trustworthy reports.
Al-Razi, a pioneering physician in the field of bacteriology, also wrote the first medical description of smallpox and measles, two significant infectious diseases. He was able to distinguish between the two diseases with such accuracy that nothing has been added to his description since. On the other hand, ibn Sina suggested the communicable nature of tuberculosis; he was the first to describe the preparation and properties of sulfuric acid and alcohol. His recommendation of wine as a dressing for wounds was widely practiced throughout the Middle Ages.
Al-Razi made significant contributions to the field of medicine, including being the first to use silk sutures and preparing absolute alcohol from fermented sugars for hemostasis; furthermore, al-Razi is credited with the invention of a scale for measuring the specific gravity of fluids, and he was also the first to use alcohol as an antiseptic to prevent the growth of disease-causing microorganisms. These innovative practices have helped shape modern medicine as we know it today.
VI – Takhdeer
The illustrious polymath ibn Sina also made a seminal contribution to the field of anesthesia. He was the first to conceive the idea of using oral anesthetics and recognized opium as the most potent of all intoxicants. At the time, other anesthetics known to man included mandragora, poppy, hemlock, hyoscyamus, belladonna, lettuce seed, and even snow or ice-cold water, yet none of these could match the potency of opium.
The ingenuity of the Arabs did not end there. They gave birth to the soporific sponge, a forerunner to modern anesthesia. This sponge was soaked in aromatic and narcotic substances, which would be held under the patient’s nostrils during surgery. The use of anesthesia in Islam was a major factor in elevating surgery to a respected and dignified profession, unlike in backward Europe where it was discredited and practiced by unqualified individuals such as barbers and charlatans. In 1163 CE, the Council of Tours declared surgery to be abandoned by all reputable physicians and schools of medicine.
It is worth noting that anesthetics have been used in surgery throughout Asia and the Central world (Eastern world, according to the backward, double-standard Europeans) for centuries before ether and chloroform became the norm in the West. This is a testament to the far-reaching impact of the Islamic Golden Age on the world and its enduring legacy in the field of medicine.
VII – Jiraaha
In the golden era of Islamic civilization, renowned physician-surgeons made immense contributions to the field of medicine, paving the way for modern surgical techniques and procedures. One such luminary was the legendary pioneer al-Razi, who first utilized the seton in surgery and animal gut for sutures. However, it was Abu al Qasim Khalaf ibn Abbas al-Zahrawi, also known as Abulcasis, Bucasis, or Alzahravius in the West, who remains the most celebrated surgeon in Islamic medicine to date. The cultural center of Al-Andalus at the time was the magnificent city of Cordoba (Qurtuba). This city was renowned for its vast library, which was said to hold over 600,000 books, making it a hub of knowledge and learning.
Al-Zahrawi was born in the nearby town of al-Zahra. This legendary figure was not only a skilled surgeon, but also an accomplished pharmacist, who combined both fields in his practice and teachings. Al-Zahrawi’s masterpiece, Kitab al-Tasrif, is a comprehensive manual on surgery, which includes sections on the preparation and use of drugs, nutrition, public health, and anatomy. In English, this work is roughly translated to The Arrangement of Medical Knowledge for One Who is Not Able to Compile a Book for Himself or The Method of Medicine.
This seminal work contains illustrations of over two hundred surgical instruments, many of which were invented by the great surgeon-author himself. Al-Tasrif also describes techniques for performing various surgical procedures, including amputations, removal of foreign bodies, and crushing of bladder stones. This book also marked the first-ever mention of hemophilia in medical history.
Furthermore, al-Zahrawi was also a pioneering dentist, who is credited with performing cosmetic surgeries to correct dental irregularities. He emphasized the crucial role of anatomy in the study of surgery and advocated for the reimplantation of fallen teeth, using dental prostheses carved from cow’s bones, which were a much better alternative to the wooden dentures worn by U.S. President George Washington seven centuries later.
Al-Tasrif was widely adopted in the backward universities of Europe during their Dark Ages and was translated into Latin by Gerard of Cremona in 1187 CE. This landmark work served as the primary reference for surgery in the universities of the world and remains an important historical document to this day.
Moreover, al-Zahrawi was also the first to use cotton in surgical dressings, padding, and dentistry. He introduced the method of removing kidney stones by cutting into the urinary bladder and taught the lithotomy position for vaginal operations. He also described tracheotomy, differentiated between goiter and cancer of the thyroid, and explained his invention of the cauterizing iron, which he used to control bleeding. His description of varicose veins stripping, even after a millennium, still resembles modern surgical procedures.
In the field of orthopedic surgery, al-Zahrawi introduced the method of reduction of shoulder dislocation and patellectomy, a thousand years before the so-called Kocher’s method or Brooke’s reintroduced version in 1937.
Ibn Sina’s description of the surgical treatment of cancer, on the other hand, emphasizes the importance of a wide and bold excision and the inclusion of all veins running to the tumor in the amputation; this still holds true today.
The Muslim surgeons of the golden eras performed three types of surgery – vascular, general, and orthopedic – with ophthalmic surgery being a distinct specialty. They performed open abdominal surgeries and drained the peritoneal cavity in the approved modern style. An unnamed surgeon of Shiraz is credited with performing the first colostomy operation. Moreover, liver abscesses were treated by puncture and exploration, and many of these surgical procedures introduced by al-Zahrawi over a thousand years ago continue to be practiced and used by surgeons all over the world to this day.
Another one of the brilliant minds at this time was the renowned family of ibn Zuhr, who, through six generations, produced many famous physicians, both male and female. The most renowned of these was the Seville-born Abu Marwan ibn Zuhr (Avenzoar), who lived during the same time as ibn Rushd and was widely known for his exceptional clinical skills. His major work, al-Taysīr fil-Mudāwāt wal-Tadbīr (Book of Simplification Concerning Therapeutics and Diet) was one of the early works that was essential to the overall progress of surgery. It was translated into Latin, thus spreading its knowledge throughout backward Europe. Ibn Zuhr even performed the first experimental tracheotomy on a goat and is thought to have made the earliest description of bezoar stones as medicinal items.
VIII – Tibb
Verily, among the greatest of all contributors to the field of medicine was the illustrious al-Razi, who distinguished between two diseases that were previously thought to be one and the same: smallpox and measles. He was truly a visionary, credited with numerous other advancements, including the art of distillation, the use of glass retorts, corrosive sublimate, and various compounds such as arsenic, copper sulfate, iron sulfate, saltpeter, and borax for the treatment of diseases. He was also the first to introduce mercury as a purgative, which he tested on monkeys, as well as mercurial and lead ointments.
His expertise was not limited to internal ailments, as he was also a pioneering figure in the field of urology, dedicating much of his work to the treatment of urination problems, venereal diseases, renal abscesses, and renal and vesical calculi. He was also the first to describe the condition now known as hay fever or allergic rhinitis.
Al-Razi was born in Iran and studied under al-Tabari, eventually becoming one of the greatest Muslim physicians of his time. He was not only knowledgeable in medicine, but also chemistry as well. Moreover, it was his work as a clinician that truly set him apart. He was deeply interested in a wide range of medical topics, including women’s diseases, hereditary diseases, and eye diseases.
His greatest work, al-Hawi fi al-Tibb, or the Comprehensive Book on Medicine, is a 24-volume encyclopedia on medicine that greatly influenced the medical practices of the world at the time, particularly in dark, backward Europe. During the 13th century, a Sicilian-Jewish physician by the name of Faraj ben Salīm was employed by Charles of Anjou to translate the book into Latin. It was then published under the title Continens in 1279.
Verily, ibn Zuhr also discovered the itch mite of scabies and made a significant contribution to the field, by introducing the practice of artificial feeding, either through the use of a gastric tube or by nutrient enema. Arab physicians were also the first to perform gastric lavage in cases of poisoning, using the aforementioned stomach tube.
Qalqashandy, another great physician, was responsible for identifying the cause of sleeping sickness. These brilliant minds also understood the workings of tuberculosis and pericarditis, and Al Ash’ath even demonstrated gastric physiology by pouring water into the mouth of an anesthetized lion, showing the distensibility and movements of the stomach, a feat that preceded that of William Beaumont by over a thousand years. Abu Sahl al-Masihi also explained that the absorption of food occurs more through the intestines than the stomach.
Another noteworthy physician was ibn al-Nafis, who was an Arab polymath whose areas of work included medicine, surgery, physiology, anatomy, biology, Islamic studies, jurisprudence, and philosophy. Born in Syria and practiced medicine in Cairo, he challenged Galen’s beliefs about the flow of blood through the heart and was the first to discover and describe the lesser pulmonary circulation. Regrettably, his groundbreaking discovery was largely ignored for centuries.
There also emerged another physician of great renown, Ali ibn al-‘Abbas al-Majusi. Born in the land of Iran, he made a significant contribution to the medical field through his writing. His book, Kitab al-Maliki, also known as Liber Regius in Latin translation (The Complete Book of the Medical Art, aka The Royal Book), was widely used as a reference work on medicine and psychology during the Middle Ages. Al-Majusi was a pioneer in his field, being the first to explain that the fetus is extruded from the uterus by contractions and not by its own efforts.
The legendary ibn Sina was verily one of the greatest minds in the Islamic world. Born in 980 CE, he lived a short but productive life, passing away at the young age of fifty-three. Despite his brief life, he was an accomplished writer, producing a multitude of works on various subjects. However, the most famous of these works was undoubtedly the Canon of Medicine (Al-Qanun fi al-Tibb), an encyclopedic tome comprised of fourteen volumes. This composition was considered to be the grandest of all works in the field of medicine.
This vast work encapsulated the combination of Greek and Arabic medical systems, along with ibn Sina’s personal experience. It contained over a million words, covering complete studies of physiology, pathology, and hygiene, and delves into the depths of various ailments and conditions, including breast cancer, poisons, diseases of the skin, rabies, insomnia, childbirth, and the use of obstetrical forceps, meningitis, amnesia, stomach ulcers. As mentioned before, ibn Sina also uncovered the truth about tuberculosis as a contagious disease. Moreover, the Cannon of Medicine also describes facial ties, phlebotomy, tumors, kidney diseases, and geriatric care. And in his worldly wisdom, ibn Sina even defined love as a mental disease.
Aside from the vast array of topics, the Canon of Medicine dealt with individual diseases, their causes, classification, and description, as well as therapeutics, hygiene, the functions of the body’s parts, and much more. Ibn Sina also made a remarkable contribution to the medical field by accurately describing the symptoms of diabetes mellitus and its complications. He was also the first to note that pulmonary tuberculosis was contagious and believed that it spread through soil and water.
Furthermore, he was deeply interested in the effect of the mind on the body, writing extensively on psychological disturbance. I could go on and on about the neverending stream of discoveries he had made in the field of medicine, but to conclude, I’ll also note that ibn Sina uncovered the presence of anthrax, ankylostoma, and the guinea worm.
The Canon of Medicine was eventually translated into Latin and published multiple times, having a profound influence on the medical field throughout the world, including backward Europe during their Dark Ages. It was a standard reference book in universities up until the seventeenth century, solidifying ibn Sina’s legacy as one of the greatest physicians in early Muslim history.
We must not also forget about the lesser-known contributions of Abu Mohammed Abdellah ibn Mohammed Al-Azdi, who was known also as ibn Al-Thahabi or ibn al-Zahabi. This eminent physician hailed from the city of Suhar in Oman but journeyed far and wide in pursuit of learning and understanding. From Basra, he journeyed to Iran, where he studied under the tutelage of the renowned Al-Biruni and the great ibn Sina. He then traveled to the holy city of Jerusalem before finally settling in the magnificent city of Valencia in Al-Andalus.
Ibn Al-Thahabi was celebrated for his monumental work, the 900-page Kitab Al-Ma’a (The Book of Water), which was a medical encyclopedia that organized the names of diseases, medicines, physiological processes, and treatments in a never-before-seen alphabetical order. This innovative classification of medical terms was a true marvel of its time, and the author himself added numerous original ideas and insights about the function of human organs. The book also contained a comprehensive collection of herbal treatments for a wide range of illnesses and diseases, and a treatise on the treatment of psychological symptoms, which was of great importance in those times.
Ibn Al-Thahabi’s thesis, is that cure must start with controlled food and exercise, and if it persists, then specific individual medicines must be used, and if the disease persists, medical compounds must be employed, and if it still persists, then surgery is performed, has become a cornerstone of medical wisdom and is still remembered to this day. This great physician’s contribution to the knowledge of the medical arts is truly a testament to the enduring legacy of Al-Andalus and the Arab nation.
Ibn Abi Usaybi’ah
Additionally, other physicians made significant contributions to the realm of medicine. Many of them did not hail from either Baghdad or Cordoba (e.g., ibn al Nafis as I mentioned earlier) as did many of the renowned ones I mentioned before. One such interesting figure was the historian ibn Abi Usaybi’ah, who I mentioned briefly back when I was detailing the account of Hunayn ibn Ishaq. Ibn Abi Usaybi’ah was born in Syria and practiced medicine in Cairo.
Ibn Abi Usaybi’ah embarked upon a most noble and arduous journey – to chronicle the annals of the art of medicine, from its inception to the present day, throughout the lands known to man. Never before had any scholar dared to undertake such a monumental task in his times, but with unwavering determination and a keen eye for detail, ibn Abi Usaybi’ah set out to document the teachings, methods, and compositions of no less than four hundred and forty-two physicians. His book, Uyūn ul-Anbāʾ fī Ṭabaqāt al-Aṭibbā (Sources of News on Classes of Physicians, aka History of Physicians), managed to fulfill that ambition.
In his work, the esteemed author masterfully painted a vivid portrait of the most prominent and revered physicians of the ancient and medieval world, from the Greeks, Romans, and Indians up to the year 650 A.H. (1250 CE), in which more than 700 pages are dedicated to fellow Muslim physicians and the like, weaving together a tapestry of their life and character, rich with amusing poetry, tales, and anecdotes.
And so, this section of the article merely highlights only a few of the many notable figures who have made indelible marks on the rich history of medicine in the Arabic Muslim world. It is worth mentioning that between, before, and after each of these prominent individuals were thousands upon thousands of other Muslim scientists, scholars, and figures who also contributed to the development of medicine and science as a whole.
IX – Tibb al-‘Uyoon
Verily, the physicians of the Arab Empire were renowned for their expertise in the treatment of eye ailments, and the legacy of their contributions to the field of ophthalmology has been immense. The words “retina” and “cataract” are but two examples of the lasting impact of Arab scholars on the language and science of the field.
One of the most brilliant minds in the realm of optics was the renowned scholar ibn al-Haytham, known to the backward western world as Alhazen; he was also known as the Father of Modern Optics. His Kitab al-Manazir, aka Magnum Opus (the Optical Thesaurus), was a treasure trove of knowledge that influenced countless luminaries, including Roger Bacon, Leonardo da Vinci, and Johannes Kepler.
In his Kitab al-Manazir, ibn al-Haytham presented his groundbreaking theory that light passes from objects to the eye, and not from the eye to the objects, as was believed by the Greeks. He performed experiments to determine the angles of incidence and reflection and even proposed the concept of the magnifying lens, which would later be realized in Italy three centuries later.
Furthermore, the famous al-Razi was also the first to recognize the pupil’s reaction to light, and the renowned physician ibn Sina was the first to accurately describe the number of extrinsic muscles of the eye, which he determined to be six.
Among his many contributions to the field of medicine, Yuhanna ibn Masawaih’s Daghal al-‘ain (Disorder of the Eye) remains one of his most impactful works. This systematic treatise on ophthalmology, the earliest of its kind in Arabic, served as a foundational work for generations of medical practitioners. Similarly, his Aphorisms, which were translated into Latin, were widely popular in the Middle Ages, providing valuable insights into the treatment of various medical conditions. I’ll write more about ibn Masawaih in the following section.
In the realm of practical ophthalmology, however, one of the greatest contributions of Islamic medicine was in the field of cataracts. The most significant development in the extraction of cataracts was developed by Abu al-Qasim Ammar ibn Ali al-Mawsili.
Verily, Amman al-Mawsili graced the world with his sole composition, the esteemed Kitāb al-Muntakhab Fī ‘Ilm al-Ayn (A Treatise on the Science of Ophthalmology). But, it is not solely for his literary contributions that Amman al-Mawsili is remembered in the annals of time. Through his unwavering dedication and passion for the sciences, al-Mawsili conceived and brought forth the hypodermic syringe, a device of wondrous utility and efficiency. With this instrument, he was able to perform the delicate and precise procedure of removing cataracts, a malady that had plagued the vision of mankind and caused much blindness throughout history. And, in his own words, did Amman al-Mawsili thusly relate the story of his invention:
“Then I constructed the hollow needle, but I did not operate with it on anybody at all before I came to Tiberias. There came a man for an operation who told me: Do as you like with me, only I cannot lie on my back. Then I operated on him with the hollow needle and extracted the cataract, and then he saw immediately and did not need to lie, but slept as he liked. Only I bandaged his eye for seven days. With this needle nobody preceded me. I have done many operations with it in Egypt.”
This technique would not be rediscovered in Europe until the nineteenth century. Thus, it is clear that Muslim physicians played a pivotal role in advancing the science and practice of ophthalmology, leaving behind a legacy that has stood the test of time and continues to shape the field to this day.
Of particular note in the realm of ophthalmology is ibn al-Thahabi’s explanation of the process of vision in his Kitab al-Maa’ (Book of Water). He describes how light enters the eye through the pupil and strikes the vision nerves, leading to the brain unifying the images and storing them in its memory. This theory bears a striking resemblance to that of the famous polymath, ibn Al-Haitham, who lived only a few decades before him. Though it is uncertain whether they ever crossed paths or were aware of each other’s work, it is clear that both thinkers were pioneers in the field of ocular science.
Last, but certainly not least, at the turn of the 11th century CE, there lived a physician by the name of ʿAlī ibn ʿĪsā al-Kahhal, known to the world as “the oculist”, aka al-Kahhal. He was renowned for his expertise in ophthalmology and was revered as the most celebrated Arab ophthalmologist of his time. His knowledge was so renowned that he was even referred to as “Jesu Occulist” in medieval Europe.
ʿAlī ibn ʿĪsā was the author of the Tadhkirat al-Kahhalin, a comprehensive guide to the anatomy and diseases of the eye. This work was based on the teachings of notable scholars such as Hunayn ibn Ishaq and Galen, and it provided in-depth descriptions of eye anatomy along with treatments for various ocular diseases. The Tadhkirat al-Kahhalin was also graced with illustrations, making it a valuable resource for ophthalmologists of the time.
In his book, ʿAlī ibn ʿĪsā provided treatments for a wide range of ocular diseases and was the first to describe the symptoms of Vogt–Koyanagi–Harada syndrome. He classified epiphora as a result of overzealous cautery and provided treatments based on the stage of the disease, including astringent materials, burned copper, and lid paste in the early stages, and a hook dissection with a feathered quill for chronic stages. Other surgical operations were also described in his book, and it is believed that he may have recorded a case of temporal arteritis.
Thus, in the annals of Islamic history, ʿAlī ibn ʿĪsā al-Kahhal will forever be remembered as a pioneering physician and an accomplished author who contributed greatly to the field of ophthalmology. So too will the aforementioned geniuses, for they all contributed their fair share in their respective fields of expertise.
X – ‘Ilm al-‘Aqaaqeer
Verily, in the golden era of Islam, the innovations brought forth to the world by the Muslims from east to west are beyond measure. Amongst the numerous disciplines in which they excelled, none can match their mastery in the fields of pharmacology and perfumery.
From the distant lands of Arabia to the far-reaching corners of the world, the legacy of their knowledge endures to this day. The Arabic formularies, in which Arabic-speaking physicians and pharmacists compiled and adapted the wisdom of ancient civilizations and presented new remedies to the masses, have left a profound impact.
Words such as camphor, lemon, syrup, and tamarind all owe their origin to these treasured tomes. The field of pharmacology was one of the many medical disciplines in which the Arabs shone, and it developed its own specialized literature, as well as sections in general medical encyclopedias.
Some of these works were dedicated to “simples”, or Mufradat, which more or less refers to the words that are used to describe the individual plant/botanical, mineral, or zoological products (and so on) used in medicine. Other simples, known as formularies, contained recipes for the preparation of drugs and listed compound remedies. These formulas, typically syrups, combined several ingredients to treat a specific ailment.
For when a person fell ill, surgery was a last resort. The first attempt at a cure was a change in diet, and if that failed, drugs were used. And it was here that the formularies played a crucial role in providing the necessary remedies. Such was the proficiency of the brilliant Muslims of those ancient times, that their innovations continue to enrich and inspire us even to this day, unlike the modern-day criminals that run the healthcare industry as a racket to line their pockets and commit mankind to more harm (physical, mental, and financial) than good.
During the glorious eighth to tenth centuries CE, the works of Galen and Dioscorides, the Greek masters of the art of healing, were translated into Arabic and laid the foundations for the study of simple drugs. The traditions of the Greeks were blended with discoveries from distant lands, such as India, Southeast Asia, and China, to form a comprehensive pharmacopeia of wondrous remedies.
From the fragrant basil and mint, to the pungent ginger and pepper, to the sweet-smelling musk, violet, and jasmine oils, the simples of the early Islamic world were not limited to herbs and spices. They also included minerals and animal products that were not known to the Greeks and Romans. The formularies, also known as aqrābādhīn (aka medical formulary, dispensatory, or pharmacopeia), were compilations of compound prescriptions for a variety of ailments and were based on the Greek format of graphidion, or list or registry.
The aqrābādhīn were works of art in their own right, with each chapter devoted to a particular form of preparation. Syrups, robs, thickened fruit juices, jams, and even toothpaste and eye medicines were all part of these comprehensive works. Many of these formularies were used in the public hospitals of Baghdad and Cairo, and one of the most renowned of these was the Aqrābādhīn al-kabīr (Great Formulary) of the learned scholar ibn al-Tilmīdh, who passed away in 1154 or 1165 CE.
In the early Islamic period, medical treatment was not restricted to hospitals alone. A considerable number of patients preferred to be treated in their familiar surroundings and sought medical assistance from local physicians. The physicians of the time made use of a comprehensive alphabetical handbook of medicines entitled Minhāj al-bayān fīmā yastaʿmiluhu al-insān (The Clear Path on What Drugs People Use), written by the renowned physician of Baghdad, ibn Jazlah (died 1100 CE). This book was unique in its presentation, as it listed both compound medicines and simple drugs together. For instance, all cataphatic or medicinal powders were listed under the letter ‘S’ (sīn), followed by simple drugs such as saqamūniyā (scammony).
In addition to seeking medical assistance from physicians, patients also had the option of consulting local pharmacists, who offered their services at a lower cost. The only known formulary composed by a pharmacist during this time was Minhāj al-dukkān (How to Manage a Pharmacy), written in Cairo by the renowned Jewish pharmacist Kūhīn al-‘Aṭṭār (died 1260 CE) as advice for his son. This work was widely successful and remains in use to this day.
The Arabic-language pharmacy of the early Islamic period was a formidable tool in preserving and restoring health, as it combined drugs from various regions of the world to improve existing treatments and create new remedies. The medical recipes found in these marvelous books have been proven to be effective against the symptoms they claim to treat, thus forming the foundation of modern herbal medicine. The pursuit of medicine, according to the renowned physician, ibn Sina, was to restore health to the sick and preserve the health of the well.
Yuhanna bin Masawayh
In the year 777 CE, Yuhanna bin Masawayh, a physician of great renown, and Hunayn ibn Ishaq’s teacher, initiated the systematic study of therapeutics in the capital of the Abbasid Caliphate. As the director of a renowned hospital in Baghdad, he held the trust and confidence of four consecutive caliphs, who sought his expertise as their personal physician. With an unwavering dedication to the pursuit of knowledge and the improvement of human health, ibn Masawaih left behind a legacy of invaluable medical works.
His treatises covered a vast array of subjects, including ophthalmology, fevers, leprosy, headache, melancholia, dietetics, and the methods by which to test the qualifications of physicians. One of his most notable works is the treatise entitled, On Simple Aromatic Substances, which delves into the medicinal properties of aromatics. In addition to his written works, ibn Masawaih was also known for his ability to engage and educate through spoken word. He held regular assemblies where he consulted with patients and held discussions with pupils, attracting a large and attentive audience due to his wit and repartee.
Ibn Masawaih was also a respected translator, having contributed to the translation of Greek medical works into Syriac alongside other greats such as Hunayn ibn Ishaq. However, he was not content to simply translate the works of others, and also wrote extensively in Arabic, creating his own original medical treatises. With the support of the caliph al-Mu’tasim, he was even provided with apes for dissection, allowing him to expand his knowledge of anatomy.
In his tome, al-Masail Hunayn, Hunayn bin Ishaq al-Ibadi illuminated the importance of experimenting with drugs on human subjects to confirm their pharmacological effectiveness and emphasized the significance of accurate prognosis and diagnosis for effective treatment. As a result of these groundbreaking works, the profession of pharmacy emerged as a separate discipline from medicine and alchemy.
As the apothecary shops multiplied, regulations were imposed to ensure the quality of drugs sold within their walls. The Muhtasib, or the syndic, was appointed to inspect these establishments and meted out humiliating corporal punishments to merchants found guilty of adulterating drugs. To become licensed professionals, pharmacists were required to pass rigorous exams and were bound by law to abide by the physician’s prescriptions. Moreover, physicians were prohibited from owning or holding stock in a pharmacy.
The Saydalanis, or the pharmacists, honed the techniques of extracting and preparing medicines to a high art, utilizing processes such as distillation, crystallization, solution, sublimation, reduction, and calcination. Through their expertise, they introduced novel drugs such as camphor, senna, sandalwood, rhubarb, musk, myrrh, cassia, tamarind, nutmeg, alum, aloes, cloves, coconut, nux vomica, cubebs, aconite, ambergris, and mercury to the world.
The Muslims’ invaluable contributions to the development of modern pharmacy and chemistry are manifest in the numerous pharmaceutical and chemical terms derived from Arabic, including “drug,” “alkali,” “alcohol,” “aldehydes,” “alembic,” and “elixir,” to name but a few. They also pioneered the creation of flavoring extracts, such as rose water, orange blossom water, orange and lemon peel, tragacanth, and other aromatic ingredients.
And then there is the Andalusian Arab physician, botanist, pharmacist, and scientist, ibn al-Bayṭār. He devoted his life to the study of medicine and was a student of the renowned Abu al-Abbas al-Nabati. He made a significant contribution to the world of medicine by systematically recording the contributions made by Islamic physicians during the Middle Ages, which added hundreds of new medicines to the thousand known since antiquity. His magnum opus, Kitab al-Jami’ Li-Mufradat al-Adwiya wal-Aghthiya, a pharmacopeia listing 1400 plants, foods, and drugs, and their uses, is widely regarded as his greatest contribution to the field of medicine. This comprehensive encyclopedia, organized alphabetically, has served as a valuable resource for generations of scholars and practitioners alike. His second major work, Kitāb al-Mughnī fī al-Adwiya al-Mufrada, is an encyclopedic treatise on Islamic medicine that incorporates his extensive knowledge of the use of plants for the treatment of various ailments, including diseases of the head, ear, eye, and more.
In this wonderous chronicle of the great minds who shaped the field of medicine, I must not neglect to mention the illustrious figure of ibn Butlan. He is remembered for his magnum opus, the Taqwīm aṣ-Ṣiḥḥa (Tabular Register of Health), a comprehensive treatise on the art of maintaining good health and hygiene. The text, which was revered in its time and continues to be studied to this day, details the beneficial and detrimental qualities of various foods and plants. But it is much more than a mere herbal, for it outlines the six crucial components of a healthy existence: moderation in the consumption of nourishment and beverages, exposure to fresh air, a balance of rest and activity, a harmonious alternation between sleep and wakefulness, the proper secretion and elimination of bodily fluids, and the influence of mental states upon overall well-being.
Let’s dig deeper into the achievements of a few more renowned pharmacologists out of the thousands of others that I didn’t have the chance to mention.
One of those was Sabur ibn Sahl, who passed away in the year 869 CE; he was a pioneering physician who documented an extensive array of drugs and remedies to cure various ailments.
The name of Abū Manṣūr Muwaffaq Harawī, a physician of the 10th century, shines with brilliant distinction in the realm of Islamic pharmacology. A native of Herat, located in present-day Afghanistan, Muwaffaq flourished under the patronage of Samanid prince Mansur I. He was a pioneer in his field, the first to conceive of a comprehensive treatise on materia medica written in Farsi. To this end, he embarked on extensive journeys throughout Iran and India, amassing a wealth of knowledge and information.
Muwaffaq’s remarkable acumen was evident in his distinctions between sodium carbonate and potassium carbonate, as well as his understanding of substances such as arsenious oxide, cupric oxide, silicic acid, and antimony. He was acutely aware of the toxic effects of copper and lead compounds and of the depilatory properties of quicklime. He was also familiar with the composition of the plaster of paris and its surgical applications.
Between the years 968 and 977 CE, Muwaffaq penned his most famous work, the Kitab al-Abniya ‘an Haqa’iq al-Adwiya (Book of the Remedies), a testament to his vast erudition. This is the oldest known prose work written in new Farsi, and it is the only surviving work of Muwaffaq to this day. The book begins with a general theory of pharmacology, followed by a discussion of over five hundred remedies, classified into four groups according to their physiological actions. These remedies, the majority of which were derived from plants, were supplemented by seventy-five remedies derived from minerals and forty-four from animals.
Moving on, we must also mention the legendary al-Biruni, the great polymath of the 10th century, who wrote the monumental work Kitab al-Saydalah fi al-Tibb (The Book of Drugs), which meticulously details the properties of various drugs, the significance of pharmacy and the responsibilities of a pharmacist. This book remains a vital source of knowledge for all those interested in the field of pharmacology and its history, especially since it contains a full list of synonyms of drug names in Syriac, Farsi, Greek, Baluchi, Afghan, Kurdi, and several Indian languages.
Furthermore, also in the field of pharmacology, al-Biruni’s keen mind and meticulous methods never failed to shine. Using a hydrostatic balance, he was able to determine the density and purity of metals and precious stones, classifying gems based on their physical properties such as specific gravity and hardness, rather than the superficial classification by color commonly practiced at the time. In honor of his further achievements, an entire section in Part III of this article is dedicated to al-Biruni.
For now, let’s not forget two more illustrious pharmacologists of Al-Andalus, who illuminated the fields of medicine and botany with their scholarly pursuits.
The first, ʿAlī ibn al-Ḥusayn ibn al-Wāfid al-Lakhmī, also known as Abenguefith, was a brilliant physician and pharmacist of Toledo, who served as the vizier of the noble al-Mamun. He was a master of the art of alchemy, using it to extract no fewer than 520 different medicines from plants and herbs, as recorded in his famous work, Kitāb al-Adwiya al-Mufrada (De Medicamentis Simplicibus). The legacy of his teachings was carried forward by his student, Ali ibn al-Lukuh, who penned the renowned Umdat al-Ṭabīb fī Maʿrifat al-Nabāt li Kulli Labīb, a botanical dictionary. I shall include another section for ibn al-Wafid in Part III to discuss some of his agricultural achievements.
The second, Abū Bakr Muḥammad ibn Yaḥyà ibn aṣ-Ṣā’igh at-Tūjībī ibn Bājja, commonly known as Avempace, was an Andalusian polymath of great repute, whose works encompass a vast array of disciplines, including astronomy, physics, music, philosophy, medicine, botany, and poetry. He wrote the celebrated Kitāb an-Nabāt (The Book of Plants), which defined the sexual nature of plants, and his philosophical theories had a profound impact on the works of ibn Rushd (Averroes) and Albertus Magnus.
Regrettably, much of Avempace’s writing and works were left incomplete due to his untimely death, though his contributions to the fields of medicine, mathematics, and astronomy were remembered and recorded by the likes of Moses Maimonides and Averroes. Avempace was not only a renowned philosopher but also a celebrated musician and poet, and his diwan, a collection of poetry, was rediscovered in 1951.
Avempace’s impact on the world is immeasurable. His theories in astronomy and physics were preserved and spread, influencing the works of later astronomers and physicists, both within the Islamic civilization and in the so-called Renaissance Europe, including the noteworthy Galileo Galilei. Avempace also wrote one of the earliest commentaries on Aristotle, and while his work on projectile motion was not translated into Latin, his ideas were widely known and had a profound influence on contemporary thought, as well as on the works of the Italian Galileo. Avempace’s theories on projectile motion can be found in the text known as Text 71.
In conclusion, I cannot in good conscience end this chronicle without mentioning the contributions of many other noteworthy illustrious figures to the field of pharmacology and therapeutics and medicine as a whole, but sadly, I’ll have to leave the rest for another time.
All these amazing men of science contributed fascinating works that continue to inspire future generations of healers and seekers of knowledge. And let us not forget the fragrant legacy of the Arabs – the words ṣayḍalah and ‘aṭṭār, commonly used to refer to pharmacy and pharmacists, actually translate to “sellers of sandalwood” or “perfume”, highlighting the close relationship between the substances used for fragrance and culinary purposes, and those employed for medicinal purposes in the Age of Enlightenment.
XI – al-‘Ilaaj al-Nafsi
In the realm of medicine, the physicians of Islam were known for their broad range of treatments, ranging from freckle lotion to psychotherapy. It is with great reverence and admiration that I once again recall even more pioneering contributions of al-Razi and ibn Sina, who made remarkable (and legitimate) advancements in the field of psychosomatic disorders a thousand years before the uneventful appearance of immoral, fraudulent jokers such as Freud and Jung (their names put together sound perfect for a new Beavis-and-Butthead-like show; Darwin’s too, for that matter, for he would fit in perfectly with those two).
At the Baghdad Hospital, al-Razi was appointed as the physician-in-chief and he dedicated a ward exclusively for the mentally ill, making it the first ever hospital to have such a facility. Al-Razi utilized a unique approach that blended psychological methods with physiological explanations and his innovative use of psychotherapy was truly dynamic.
A remarkable example of his skill is demonstrated in the treatment of a famous caliph who suffered from severe arthritis. Al-Razi prescribed a hot bath and, with a calculated act of provocation, threatened the caliph with a knife. This deliberate act increased the caliph’s natural caloric, enhanced its strength, and dissolved the caliph’s sense of humor. The result was the caliph stood up in the bath and chased after al-Razi.
The Arabs brought a much-needed spirit of impartiality and clarity to the field of psychiatry. They were not burdened by the demonological theories that plagued the backward Christian world, allowing them to make clinical observations about mental diseases with remarkable accuracy. Najib al-Din Abu Hamid Muhammad ibn Ali ibn Umar Samarqandi, a contemporary of al-Razi, left behind many invaluable descriptions of various mental diseases.
His most celebrated work, The Book of Causes and Symptoms, was a comprehensive tome of knowledge and understanding in the field of therapeutics and pathology. Such was the wealth of wisdom contained within its pages that the learned men of the time sought to comment upon it, seeking to add their own insight and understanding. His meticulously recorded observations of patients led to the most comprehensive classification of mental diseases known at that time. Najib described agitated depression, obsessive neurosis, a combination of priapism and sexual impotence, persecutory psychosis, and mania.
Moreover, ibn Sina’s contribution to the field of psychotherapy was immense. He recognized the importance of physiological psychology in treating illnesses related to emotions. From a clinical perspective, he developed a system for linking changes in pulse rate with inner feelings, which is considered to predate Jung’s silly word association test.
A famous anecdote about ibn Sina relates to how he treated a seriously ill patient by feeling his pulse and reciting the names of provinces, districts, towns, streets, and people. By observing how the patient’s pulse quickened when certain names were mentioned, ibn Sina was able to deduce that the patient was in love with a girl whose home he was able to locate through his examination. The patient followed ibn Sina’s advice, married the girl, and recovered from his illness.
It is not without reason that the Arabs were known for their compassionate and enlightened treatment of the mentally ill. As early as the 8th century, an asylum for the mentally ill was established in Fez, Morocco, and similar facilities were built by the Arabs in Baghdad in 705 CE, Cairo in 800 CE, Damascus in 1270 CE, and Aleppo in the same year. In addition to the use of baths, drugs, and benevolent treatment, music therapy, and occupational therapy were also employed. These therapies were highly developed, with special choirs and live music bands providing daily entertainment to the patients through singing, music, and light-hearted performances.
The incomparable Abu Zayd Ahmed ibn Sahl Balkhi, a towering figure of his time, was an embodiment of knowledge, wisdom, and enlightenment, especially in the realm of psychotherapy and psychology in general. Hailing from the province of Balkh, in the Greater Khorasan region, he was born in the year 850 CE and was a disciple of the renowned philosopher al-Kindi.
Abu Zayd’s contributions to the fields of geography, mathematics, medicine, psychology, and science have left an indelible mark on the annals of history. He was a trailblazer in his approach to understanding the human mind and its afflictions and is widely regarded as the first to recognize that mental illness could have both psychological and physiological roots. Through his seminal work Masalih al-Abdan wa al-Anfus (Sustenance for Body and Soul), he introduced the world to the four primary emotional disorders of fear and anxiety, anger and aggression, sadness and depression, and obsessions.
In addition to his groundbreaking work in psychology, Abu Zayd, who was also a disciple of the great al-Kindi, also established the “Balkhī school” of terrestrial mapping in Baghdad and wrote extensively on geography, mathematics, medicine, theology, politics, philosophy, poetry, Arabic grammar, astrology, astronomy, mathematics, biography, ethics, sociology, and many other disciplines. The al-Fihrist of ibn al-Nadim lists over sixty books and manuscripts attributed to him, each a testament to his tireless pursuit of knowledge and his unwavering commitment to the advancement of humanity and its wellbeing.
Abu Zayd was also a visionary in his understanding of the connection between physical and mental health, and was the first to advocate for the importance of “mental hygiene”. He introduced the concepts of al-Tibb al-Ruhani (spiritual and psychological health) and Tibb al-Qalb, or mental medicine, and criticized the medical practitioners of his time for their narrow focus on physical illness at the expense of mental health. He drew inspiration from the verses of the Holy Qur’an and the sayings of the blessed Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) and argued that the health of the body and soul are inextricably linked, and that true health can only be achieved through a harmonious balance of both.
Moreover, in the realm of psychotherapy, al-Balkhi was the first to differentiate between neurosis and psychosis, and the first to classify neurotic disorders and develop cognitive therapy to treat each of these disorders. He identified fear and anxiety, anger and aggression, sadness and depression, and obsession as the four emotional disorders that characterized neurosis. He further classified depression into three types: normal sadness, endogenous depression, and reactive clinical depression.
Al-Balkhi, being a trailblazer in the fields of psychotherapy, psychophysiology, and psychosomatic medicine, also recognized the interdependence of body and soul, and the dual causes of mental illness, both psychological and physiological. He wrote that an imbalance in the body can lead to physical symptoms such as fever and headaches, while an imbalance of the soul can result in mental symptoms such as anger, anxiety, and sadness.
Al-Balkhi was also the first to write about phobia, which he referred to as Faza’a. He described the disorder as an extreme fear that resulted in increased anxiety levels, causing a person to become disoriented and unable to make decisions. Instead of resorting to medicine or bloodletting, al-Balkhi recommended a technique of gradual exposure to the object or situation causing the fear, known as reyadat al-nafs.
The great al-Balkhi also delved into the sensitive topic of sexuality, exploring various sexual attributes and their effects on individuals. He emphasized the dangers of remaining abstinent and the physical ailments that could result from it, as well as recommending a specific diet and refraining from certain medications to treat sexual impotence.
In conclusion, the legacy of Abu Zayd al-Balkhi continues to inspire and guide us even today, and his contributions to the fields of psychology and medicine are a testament to his unwavering dedication to the pursuit of knowledge and the betterment of humanity.
Conclusion of Part II
So, dear reader, let us pay homage to the brilliant minds of the early Islamic world who, by blending the imperfect wisdom of the Greeks with the divine knowledge of Islam, created a legacy of innovations that continues to inspire and guide us to this day.
Verily, the annals of history have chronicled the countless contributions of the enlightened minds of the Muslim world since the birth of Islam. To enumerate all the works of these scholars and scientists would take an entire lifetime and yet, we shall still make an effort to highlight a few of their most prominent achievements.
Jabir ibn Hayyan, master chemist, Abu Ja’far ‘Abdallah al-Mansur, founder of the magnificent city of Baghdad and patron of scholarly translations, Harun al-Rashid, with his unwavering support for science, art, and literature, Ibrahim al-Fazari and al-Khwarazmi, leading mathematicians and astrologers of their time, and the Brethren of Purity, a secret society that left an indelible mark on history with their 52 epistles, to name a few. These minds, along with Muhammad ibn Aslam Al-Ghafiqi, ibn Hazm, Abu al-Majd ibn Abi al-Hakam, Abu Jafar ibn Harun al-Turjali, ibn Tumlus, ibn Tufail, Nur ad-Din al-Bitruji, and the countless other brilliant Andalusian minds that we didn’t get a chance to talk about in greater length, plus the many more from other parts of the Muslim world, have all left their mark in history. Furthermore, we cannot forget to mention the memorable contributions of our women; one of those, Fatima al-Fihri, opened a whole new chapter of cultural and intellectual contributions in the annals of Islamic history, especially in the whole of the Maghreb region.
But, before all of these, there stands the greatest contribution to humanity – the teachings of the blessed Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). These teachings form the foundation of a proper way of life, as prescribed by God, and serve as the basis for all other aspects of life, be it trade, science, or sport. By adhering to and mastering the sunna, or the way of life of the Prophet, one becomes qualified to excel in a variety of crafts and hobbies, all while living in accordance with the divinely prescribed way of life.
Following in the footsteps of the Prophet (peace be upon him), his companions (may God be pleased with all of them) carried on the sunna and taught others how to live a proper life, with the ultimate goal of attaining eternal bliss in the hereafter. By following this path, one can lead a life of fulfillment and purpose, for they are living in accordance with the praise of God.