Herbal Healing Through Modern Translations
By Karima Burns
"Allah never inflicts a disease unless he makes a cure for it [Bukhari]."
In 610 A.D., when the Prophet Muhammad made this statement, herbalism became forever established as a respected method of healing in the Arab world. Three hundred and fifty years later, more than 700 herbs and their usages were listed in Avicenna's book The Canon of Medicine. Today, there are still hundreds of herbs commonly used, thanks to the channels in which they have been handed down to us - translation of classic works, passing down of tradition and records in the Hadith and Qur'an.
However, the translation of classic works is often taken for granted. In this age of information, many people do not even stop to consider that most of the classic literature we read today was originally in Latin, Greek or French; most having to be translated into English so we could enjoy and learn from them. Furthermore, the world of herbalism and medical translation is very challenging and complex. Translation of herbal literature often requires a person with an eclectic knowledge of many branches of science. Scholars like Averroes and Avicenna were philosophers, pharmacists and physicians as well as herbalists. This has meant that many translators hold university degrees in a number of areas just to be able to understand enough of the subject they were translating (Blair).
The second problem in translation is: language changes and grows over time. Different words may evolve and attain different meanings over time. To complicate matters further, many herbs have acquired various names and in most modern herb books you will find up to fifteen alternative names of herbs listed (Shook). In addition, even the script of a language changes. In Turkey, for instance, the official script of the country changed from Arabic to Latin, although the words remained the same. The third problem in translating herbal literature is that many books are handwritten so the translator must not only decipher the language used, but also the particular handwriting style of that scribe. Last, but certainly not the least, is that many books have been lost over the years. The Muslim world has seen at least three major devastations of literature in the past thousand years. In 1217 A.D., 1393 A.D. and again in 1920 A.D. books were burned and many original works were lost. The Western world has had to struggle
with the same problem (Blair). After Rome conquered Greece, for example, all that remained of Greek scientific literature was Pliny's Encyclopedia and Boethius's treatises on logic and mathematics (Tchanz).
However, thanks to the works of many dedicated translators, the uses of many herbs have been kept alive until now. Many herbs have not only been recorded in the Hadith and Qur'an, but also by herbalists from both the Western and Eastern world. It is both fascinating and educational to compare and contrast the ways in which various herbs have been used according to translated literature.
The following register lists a number of herbs that have endured in popularity in both the East and the West, along with how they have been used by the Prophet and various herbalists. When herbals are compared from the East and West and cross-referenced with the Qur'an and Hadith the most popular and enduring herbs appear to be: aloe vera, aniseed, basil, coriander, black cumin, fenugreek, frankincense, garlic, ginger, parsley, rose, sage, senna and thyme. To illustrate the common popularity of these herbs I will use the herb aloe vera as an example.
Aloe has had an interesting history in the Middle East. Madame Grieves relates to us in her Modern Herbal that, "The Muslims, especially those in Egypt, regard the Aloe as a religious symbol, and the Mussulman who has made a pilgrimage to the shrine of the Prophet is entitled to hang the aloe over his doorway. The Mahometans also believe that this holy symbol protects a householder from any malign influence. In the neighborhood of Mecca, at the extremity of every grave, on a spot facing the epitaph, Burckhardt found planted a low shrubby species of Aloe whose Arabic name, saber, signifies patience. This plant is evergreen and requires very little water. Its name refers to the waiting-time between the burial and the resurrection morning" (Grieves).
However, although these traditions became popular, the original usage of aloe by the Muslims was as a medicine. The Prophet said, "Aloes and wart-cress are a sure cure for an illness" (Hadith of Abu Daoud). Um Salma also reports that the Prophet saw her after she had applied some aloe juice to her face and he said, "It contracts the tissues and it can burn up your skin. Apply it if you wish at night and not during the day" (Abu Dawoud in the Sunan). Al-Suyuti stated that aloes heal swollen eyelids, clear blockages in the liver, drive out jaundice and gently soothe stomach ulcers (As-Suyuti). Discorides, a Greek herbalist said, " Aloe is useful externally for wounds, hemorrhoids, ulcers and hair loss (Discorides)." Madame Grieves, an 18th century European herbalist also used aloe. In her Modern Herbal she said of aloe, "The drug Aloes is one of the safest and best warm and stimulating purgatives to persons of sedentary habits and phlegmatic constitutions. An ordinary small dose takes from 15 to 18 hours to pro
duce an effect. Its action is exerted mainly on the large intestine, for which reason, also it is useful as a vermifuge" (Grieves).
Modern medicine confirms the usefulness of aloe. In his book, The Healing Herbs, Michael Castleman states that, "Scientific evidence of aloe's wound-healing powers were first documented in 1935 when an American medical journal reported the case of an American woman whose X-ray burns were successfully treated with aloe ... A European study suggests that aloe reduces blood sugar levels" (Castleman). Translation and discovery of more medical literature will probably turn up even more enduring herbs. However, using the previous example as a guide, we can confidently rely on the Hadith to provide us with instruction on herbal healing.