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The Arab medical sciences

A mediaeval Arab medical consultation

A French illustration from Al Zahrawi's medical text

Ibn Sina, the Prince of Medicine

A page from an Arabic version of Ibn Sina's Canon

An Italian version

An illustration from Gerard de Cremona's translation.

Although originally written in Persia in the 11th century, Ibn Sina's Canon of Medicine was quickly embraced by the Arab world. After its Latin translation, it remained a key medical text in Europe for 500 years, as seen in various editions above

The Cairo mosque-hospital at Kalaun, depicted in the 19th century

Caliph Al Mamun, patron of the 9th century Al Audidi Hospital in Baghdad

Arab physicians in discussion at the pharmacy

An Iraqi physician drawing blood


The way early Arab medicine developed should be contrasted to how medicine evolved in Christianity up until the Renaissance. While Christian Rome and Byzantium inherited the rich Graeco-Roman medical legacy of thinkers like Hippocrates and Galen, after the fall of Rome in 476, Dark Age Europe increasingly tended towards a fatalistic view of suffering and disease, further tempered by superstition about curses and God's punishment for man's sins sent down in the form of disease and affliction.

Many historians point to the explicit tradition of fact-based, scientific medicine as articulated by the Prophet himself (pbuh). First, the concept of 'sinful' mankind seems not as strong in Islam as in early Christianity. Disease was seen by Arabs and other Muslims as one more problem to be solved, not a curse from God or a trial to be endured so one would be assured of entering Paradise.

Consider these statements on health and medicine attributed to the Prophet (pbuh):

"There is no disease that Allah has created, except that He also has created its treatment."

"Make use of medical treatment, for Allah has not made a disease without appointing a remedy for it, with the exception of one disease, namely old age."

The Prophet (pbuh) was also credited with articulating several specific medical treatments, including the use of honey, cupping, and cauterisation. He spoke about the contagious nature of leprosy, sexually transmitted disease, and the animal disease known as the mange. But most importantly, whereas other societies usually stigmatised and feared the sick and afflicted, at best isolating them and at worst leaving them somewhere to die, the Prophet (pbuh) and early Islam had a very compassionate and forgiving view of the sick.

As in other fields, the earliest Arab-Muslim medical efforts were devoted to translating the medical wisdom of older civilisations, beginning in the late 700s in Baghdad with the works of the Roman physician Galen as well as advanced medical writings from Persia, including the great pre-Islamic medical centre at Gundishapur.

Gundishapur is credited with having developed the first truly modern hospital, where patients actually went to be healed and cured, rather than prayed over as they suffered a slow and inevitable death as in Dark Age Europe.

The first major Arab-Muslim healer was the chemist Al Razi, who turned to medicine at about age 30, perhaps to find cures for his injuries suffered during alchemical experiments, especially eye ailments. His first inspiration was the Roman physician Galen.

Galen had pushed Roman medical knowledge as far as it could go in that time, undertaking innumerable vivisections of live animals to see how their organs functioned, as well as dissections of human cadavers.

Al Razi was especially troubled by Galen's theory of the humours, which just didn't hold up to examination. There seemed a lot more going on inside the human body than those four humours. And so he would write around 865:

"I prayed to God to direct and lead me to the truth in writing this book. It grieves me to oppose and criticise the man Galen from whose sea of knowledge I have drawn much. Indeed, he is the Master and I am the disciple. Although this reverence and appreciation will and should not prevent me from doubting, as I did, what is erroneous in his theories. I imagine and feel deeply in my heart that Galen has chosen me to undertake this task, and if he were alive, he would have congratulated me on what I am doing. I say this because Galen's aim was to seek and find the truth and bring light out of darkness. I wish indeed he were alive to read what I have published."

Al Razi would write as many as 184 papers and articles on subjects ranging from his doubts about Galen to the first known distinction between smallpox and measles, the discovery of allergic asthma, the discovery of fever as the body's defence mechanism, medical ethics, using opium as a treatment for depression, the first medical handbook for common people, and paediatrics.

Al Razi would also theorise about the connection of the soul and state of mind to the physical health of the body, suggesting that someone with mental and emotional disturbances would be more vulnerable to infection and chronic ailments.

Al Razi's medical insights would be translated into Latin several centuries after his death. By the late 1200s, mediaeval Europeans were beginning to stir out of their long Dark Age sleep and for a century were captivated by the writings of Al Razi - who by then had been given the Latin name Rhazes.

About eight decades after Al Razi, a brilliant healer named Al Zahrawi laid the foundation of modern surgery while working in the Umayyad imperial compound outside Cordoba.

Because all records were destroyed in the civil wars that marked the end of the Umayyad reign in Spain, hardly any facts about Al Zahrawi's personal life remain. What does survive is his 30-chapter Kitab al Tasrif, a compendium of this man's medical knowledge and genius. A century and a half after his death, it would be translated into Latin and have even more impact than the work of Rhazes. Al Zahrawi's Latin name was Albucasis.

His discoveries would continue to resonate into the 21st century, first for his invention of about 200 medical instruments, many of which are still in use - such as the obstetrical forceps, scalpel, surgical needle, surgical retractor, specula, and the use of catgut for internal suturing. But he was also exceptional for innovating surgical procedures like mastectomies, orthodontia, repairing fractures, and using ligature for suturing arteries instead of cauterising them.

Another Muslim healer would follow in the Arabic tradition and even eclipse the great Al Zahrawi, this one a Persian working exclusively in Persia. This man was Ibn Sina. Europe and the Arab world would come to know him as Avicenna, the Prince of Medicine, and the single most important influence on Islamic and Western medicine for about 500 years.

Ibn Sina was consummately gifted. He is reputed to have memorised the Qur'an by age 10, Aristotle's Metaphysics several years later (he claimed to have read it 40 times), and had become a practising physician by age 16.

Ibn Sina's greatest motivation was his burning intellectual curiosity for the world, and the world beyond, not social status or financial security. By the age of 20, he had turned down his ruler's offer to become court physician, preferring only the right to study as much as he wanted in the ruler's royal library.

A political upheaval overthrew the ruler and Ibn Sina began a long life of wandering Persia in search of a secure patron who would allow him to indulge in his medical and scientific research. Unfortunately, political instability and Ibn Sina's harshly arrogant manner meant he was constantly changing jobs.

But despite his unending struggle, he was able to gradually systemise Islamic understanding of the medical sciences in such a way that not only was the Arab and Islamic world forever indebted, so also was Europe and the West.

Although Ibn Sina is credited with writing as many as 450 papers and books in a dozen fields, the work that continued to resonate most powerfully was his Canon of Medicine written around 1025, a 14-volume work that was for 500 years Europe's most influential medical source book. The Canon was a combination both of the collected medical wisdom of other writers as well as his own observations and research. Although it provided a window into forgotten Greek medicine, its greatest value was in the modernistic approach it took to a field riddled with false theory and ignorance.

It could be argued that Ibn Sina was the first to formally explain the experimental method in medicine, the spread of contagious diseases, the use of quarantine, clinical trials, psychiatry, and psychotherapy. He also seems to be the first to show that tuberculosis was a contagious disease, as well as to identify diabetes.

According to some sources, the Canon was the first documented explanation of modern medical methods like the randomised clinical trial, and the first modern set of comprehensive rules for testing new drugs.

His deeper research into the mind-body connection, and the mental or spiritual source of physical ailments, was built on the first intuitive work of men like Al Razi. But Ibn Sina went further, beginning the first documented forays into what we today would call psychotherapy, 900 years before Sigmund Freud.

One account says that a young man had come to him with a condition that looked very much like consumption. He was literally wasting away. But Ibn Sina could find no signs of a cancer or other disease that would indicate some physical explanation.

He conducted a series of interviews or conversations with the young man. As Ibn Sina spoke certain key words and phrases, he was also checking the man's pulse and found it became elevated around certain terms. Thus it gradually emerged that the patient was in love with a woman back in his home village. For whatever reason he had never expressed this to her, and the unfulfilled desire was sapping him of his energy.

Ibn Sina gradually concluded that the source of the young man's physical condition was his unexpressed love. He suggested that the patient go to the object of his affections and profess his love to her. The young man did this, the girl agreed to marry him, and the patient swiftly recovered his vitality.

As far as we know this was the earliest documented account of the use of word association in psychoanalysis, which modern medicine credits to Carl Jung 900 years later.

While medical thinkers like Al Razi, Al Zahrawi and Ibn Sina are closely tied to their innovations through their writings, many of the great breakthroughs of Arab medicine were collective undertakings and are difficult to identify with any single author or inventor.

This is particularly true with key Arab-Muslim institutions like the modern insane asylum, the public hospital, free medical care, and the pharmacy. The modern hospital itself was not an Arab invention, but Arabs and their partners made it a public institution and spread it around the world.

Isolated healing temples and places for the sick had existed in many older cultures including around the Mediterranean and across Asia. But with few exceptions they were unable to offer real cures in the modern sense. Often their method was a mixture of magic or religion with means of making one feel better, if only briefly.

But in 6th century pre-Islamic Persia, a true hospital called a bimaristan or 'sick place' was built in the city of Gundishapur, complete with surgery, pharmacy, and outpatient treatments. This came to the attention of the Arabs, in particular Caliphs Harun Al Rashid and his half-Persian son Al Mamun, and they set about replicating these institutions across their realm.

Harun invited a doctor from the bimaristan in Gundishapur to open the first bimaristan in Baghdad. Al Razi was later commissioned with overseeing the Audidi Hospital in Baghdad, in the mid 800s. He applied his evolving understanding of sanitation and infection to find the best location possible. He hung raw meat in various parts of the city to see comparative rates of decay, and where the meat lasted longest, there he put the hospital.

Audidi had more than two dozen doctors including surgeons, eye specialists, and physiologists.

By the year 1000, Baghdad alone would number five public hospitals when there were none in all of Europe. Hospitals would also be found in Cairo, Damascus, Aleppo, North Africa, and Al Andalus. These centres would offer surgery, outpatient clinics, mental wards, convalescent centres, and even nursing homes.

One of the greatest hospitals would be Al Mansuri in Cairo, which was reported to have as many as 8,000 beds and annual revenues of one million dirhams. Al Mansuri was a true public hospital because it was charged with offering treatment to anyone, rich or poor, including the indigent who could not pay at all.

The Arab establishment of humane mental wards and insane asylums was especially futuristic and important. The Arab world, in line with the teachings of the Prophet (pbuh) and others, never stigmatised the mentally afflicted, seeing mental illness as one more disease that might be cured. Europe and the West did not develop a modern non-judgmental view of mental illness until the 19th and 20th centuries.

Arab pharmacies were another important invention. Although other cultures offered various potions and herbs for sale, it was rare to find cures that really worked. People were just as inclined to faith healing and magic as to 'healing' substances, because they were all equally ineffective. But the evolution of modern evidence-based pharmacology under thinkers like Al Razi, Al Kindi and Ibn Sina created a new class of substances that really worked.

Arab pharmacies were known as saydala, and the first one seems to have been at Harun al Rashid's hospital in Baghdad built in the late 700s. Within half a century saydala were spreading throughout the caliphate. These remedies were often fabricated right on the spot at in-house laboratories. More importantly, they were overseen by government inspectors to make sure they were pure, not out of date, measured in verified scales, and correctly identified.

Al Razi would even introduce the concept of generic drugs for the poor, while Al Kindi would also seek to identify cheaper alternative treatments for those who could not afford expensive drugs.

The same kind of modern pharmacies selling remedies that really worked would only begin to appear in Italy in about the 12th century, fuelled largely by the growing trade between Arabs and Europeans.

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