Medieval Islam

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Islamic Medicine
Staff member
Islamic cultures are among the most interesting, complex, and dynamic in the world. At the same time, they are among the least known in the West. From its dramatic rise in the seventh century A. D. to the present, Islamic civilization has covered a large part of the globe, incorporating many subcultures and languages into its orbit, and vigorously engaging the peoples around it.

Medicine was a central part of medieval Islamic culture. Disease and health were of importance to rich and poor alike, as indeed they are in every civilization. Responding to circumstances of time and place, Islamic physicians and scholars developed a large and complex medical literature exploring and synthesizing the theory and practice of medicine. This extensive literature was not specialized in the sense that modern medical literature is. Rather, it was integrated with learned traditions in philosophy, natural science, mathematics, astrology, alchemy, and religion.

Islamic medicine was built on tradition, chiefly the theoretical and practical knowledge developed in Greece and Rome. For Islamic scholars, Galen (d. ca. 210 AD) and Hippocrates (5th century BC) were pre-eminent authorities, followed by Hellenic scholars in Alexandria. Islamic scholars translated their voluminous writings from Greek into Arabic and then produced new medical knowledge based on those texts. In order to make the Greek tradition more accessible, understandable, and teachable, Islamic scholars ordered and made more systematic the vast and sometimes inconsistent Greco-Roman medical knowledge by writing encyclopedias and summaries.

Islamic medicine drew upon Hellenic medical tradition to form its own. Likewise, medieval and early modern scholars in Europe drew upon Islamic traditions and translations as the foundation for their medical enterprise. It was through Arabic translations that the West learned of Hellenic medicine, including the works of Galen and Hippocrates. Of equal if not of greater influence in Western Europe were systematic and comprehensive works such as Avicenna's Canon of Medicine, which were translated into Latin and then disseminated in manuscript and printed form throughout Europe. During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries alone, the Canon of Medicine was published more than thirty-five times.

As noted earlier, medieval Islamic medicine was not an appendage of Islamic culture but rather immersed in it. This means, among other things, that Islamic medicine participated fully in the Islamic traditions of book-making, including calligraphy, illustration, paper making, and binding.

Because copying the Qur'an was an act of piety, calligraphy for even non-religious subjects came to be more than the mere reproduction of texts--it was and is a form of applied and even fine art, engrossing readers and writers alike.

Islamic illustration practices tended to be adopted from the Byzantine and Persian cultures and to have an ambivalent and particularly complex history within Islamic culture.

Islam learned paper making from China but made the fateful decision to use linen as the raw material for paper, rather than mulberry bark, or other organic matter. The transfer of Chinese technology and the innovation in the use of linen provided a writing material more economical than parchment and more durable than papyrus. It was from Islam that the rest of the world learned to make paper from linen.

Except for the paper manufacturing, binding is the Islamic book craft least studied historically. Until more research on it is done, we can say that Islamic craftsmen and artists developed characteristic book-binding forms, most of which were functional--providing protection to paper and ink--with some being decorative, at times of a very high order.
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