A Brief History of Islamic Medicine

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Islamic Medicine
Staff member
By Imam Ibn al-Qayyim al-Jawziyya
Translation and Emendation
by Shaykh Muhammad Al-Akili

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

This sea of knowledge which flowed for nearly four centuries was halted later on by the Mongolian invasion of the Eastern Caliphate and the eclipse of the Western Caliphate in Spain.
Traditional Islamic medicine is highly eclectic, and it was built upon the earlier medical knowledge, including, Indian, Persian, Roman, Greek, and Syrian. The initial phase of the development of Islamic medicine concentrated on the translation of Greek, Persian and Nestorian works into Arabic. This was known as Madrasatu- Shurrãh al-Ighrïqiyeen (The School of the Commentators of Greek Works) whose masters translated almost all of the Greek works on medicine and science. In fact, Muslims are credited with preserving much of the work of Galen and Hippocrate, among others, and Europe first knew about Greek medicine from Arabic translations.
Following the phase of rapid acquisition of Greek and Persian sciences, a new generation of Muslim scientists emerged with their own original concepts and contributions to medicine, and the work of such scholars as Avicenna, al-Rãzi, and others dominated the European medical schools for several centuries.

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

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

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

Muslim physicians stressed both clinical and basic medicine in their teaching. Medical students were required to be competent in basic sciences, and to have adequate knowledge of the works of the authorities in medicine such as Galen, Hippocrate, and al-Zahrawi among others. Medical knowledge was codified in writing so that clinical tests could be evaluated to a limited extent, and students were examined in the basic sciences. Only those who passed were allowed to take the clinical tests, and certification in medicine required adequate knowledge in both fields.
The ‘Abbasid Caliph al-Muqtadir (d. 908 C.E.) designated an eminent physician, Sannan Ibn Thãbit (d. 976 C.E.) to examine all physicians and to license those who qualified to practice medicine. However, court physicians and renowned physicians were exempted.

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