Prophetic Medicine: An Old Prescription for a New Era
By Dr. Hossam Arafa
A genre of medical writing intended as an alternative to the exclusively Greek-based medical systems derived from Galen was that called at-tibb an-nabawi or "Prophetic Medicine." The authors were clerics, rather than physicians, who advocated traditional medicine as mentioned in the Qur'an and as practiced during the life of Prophet Muhammad. It concerned the medical ideas assimilated from Hellenistic society, thereby producing a guide to medical therapy acceptable to the religious.
Therapy consisted of diet and simple medications (particularly honey), bloodletting and cauterization, but no surgery. Topics covered included fevers, leprosy, plague, poisonous bites, protection from night-flying insects, protection against the evil eye, rules for coitus eruptus, theories of embryology, proper conduct of physicians, and treatment of minor illnesses such as headaches, nosebleeds, cough and colic. It was prohibited to drink wine or use soporific drugs as medicaments.
The treatises also provided numerous prayers and pious invocations to be used by the devout patient, with the occasional amulet and talisman, as they were particularly popular between the 13th and 15th centuries. Some are still available today in modern prints.
In contrast to many writers on this topic, the historian and theologian adh-Dhahabi, who died in 1348 (748 H), keenly attempted to combine the traditional medicine of Arabia and the revelations of the Prophet Muhammad with the ideas and terminology from the Greek-based system. He frequently cited Hippocrates and Galen as well as medieval Islamic physicians.
On the other hand, the popular treatise by the religious scholar Jalal ad-Din as-Suyuti, who died in 1505 (911 H), was based almost exclusively upon what was known of medical practices during the time of the Prophet. It was derived from the Qur'an, traditions of the Prophet known as Hadith, and the practices of the early Muslim community.
Although a considerable number of Prophetic Medicine treatises were written, we do not have the name of any medical practitioner known for practicing this type of medicine. The reason for this, of course, may well be that our written sources are for the most part skewed towards the Greek-based system and have omitted details of other practices.
The treatises on Prophetic Medicine appear to have been addressed to the same audience as the Islamic tracts on the plague. Both types of writings were especially popular in the 13th and 14th centuries, and later. The plague tracts have as their primary focus the collection and interpretation of various hadith that were considered relevant to the concept of infection and the appropriate social reaction to contagious diseases. They also attempted to offer some medical explanations and remedies for the plague, and sometimes a historical documentation of the plague up to that time . They, like the treatises on Prophetic Medicine, were mainly written by religious scholars, although a few were composed by writers trained both as physicians and theologians.
Most Commonly Documented Prophetic Remedies
Henna (scientifically known as lawsonia inermis) has been well known for a long time in the Muslim world. It is extensively grown in India and Sudan, and is used mainly for cosmetic purposes. The plant is sometimes called the "Magic Plant" because it has a great healing effect, contains many healing substances like tannine and other glue-like substances, and it has an anti-microbial and an anti-viral effect. It is natural, inexpensive, and has no known sides effects when taken orally. Indications for its use are as follows:
- Burns: It is very effective when applied to a first or second degree burn. It:
-reduces fluid loss from the burn site, which is important if the area is large.
-has an anti-microbial effect, and so reduces the risk of infection.
-sticks on the wound site until healing is complete.
-is easy to apply either in paste or powder form.
-is inexpensive and easily available.
- Healing Properties: Henna promotes wound healing, especially chronic wounds and ulcers. The main cause of this is not known, but it may be its nourishing effect on the wound and its anti-microbial properties.
- Anti-Hemorrhage Effect: Henna has proven to be efficient in the management of nose bleeding (epistaxis), providing a long-lasting cure. One dose is generally sufficient. It is more successful than cauterization, which normally has to be repeated and cannot guarantee that there will not be a recurrence of bleeding. The only side effect of henna here is that it can cause slight sneezing. Henna can be used at other sites like a bleeding duodenal ulcer or oesophageal varicose veins, with no known side effects. Its anti-bleeding effect may be due to its coagulation or local burning properties.
- Anti-Viral Effect: Henna has an anti-viral effect. This is evident in its treatment of warts (particularly those that are resistant to liquid nitrogen treatment), Herpes Simplex (applied as a powder, it dries the vesicles at the site, prevents ulceration and crust formation, and prevents secondary infection). This benefit of henna is very promising, and should be explored further. It can also be used to treat AIDS.
This plant is found throughout India in the form of bushes, with blue flowers, that reach a height of approximately half a meter. It originally came from Turkey and Italy, and was brought to India by physicians to be cultivated. The seeds are black and triangular in shape, have a strong pungent smell, and contain a considerable amount of oil.
It is incorrect that Arabs learnt about its benefits from Greeks because, before the advent of Islam, there is no record of its use. Its therapeutic use was initiated after Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) mentioned its efficacy and its potential to cure. Abu Hurayrah states, "I have heard the Messenger of Allah (pbuh) say that there is cure for every disease in black seeds except death."
Khalid Ibn Sa`ad states that he was traveling with Ghalib Ibn Jabr when he (Ghalib) fell ill during the journey. Ibn Abi Ateeq (nephew of Ayesha) came to meet us. On seeing the distressed one, he took five or seven black seeds, ground them, mixed them in olive oil and dropped them into both his (Ghalib's) nostrils. Ghalib Ibn Jabr became healthy with this treatment.
Ayesha told us that the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) stated that there is cure in black seeds for all ailments except sam. I asked him, "What is sam?" He said, "Death."
Chemical Composition: The seeds contain 1.5 % volatile oil and 37.5 % non-volatile oil. In addition to this albumen, sugar, organic acids, glucoside, melanthin, metarbin and bitter substances are also found. The glucoside is toxic in nature; hence its in large doses and for a prolonged period may be harmful.
Its therapeutic uses are as follows:
- Zahbi stated that it removes the obstruction of any part of the body, expels the gases and strengthens the stomach.
- It is emmenagogue, lactogogue and a diuretic.
- It is an anti-helminthic, if taken with vinegar and useful with chronic colds.
- Its inhalation is beneficial in the treatment of common colds.
- Its oil is effective with alopecia (hair loss).
- Half a teaspoon, if boiled in water, is helpful for asthma and alleviates the toxic effects of bee and wasp stings.
- Continuous use of the seeds is effective for mad dog bites.
- Paralysis, facial palsy, migraine, amnesia and palpitations are also ailments which benefit from it.
- It can also be used as an expectorant and antipyretic.
- It normalizes the secretions of the stomach and pancreas. This is very effective in the treatment of Diabetes Mellitus.
- It expels stones in the kidney and bladder if taken with honey.
- It is effective in jaundice when taken with milk.
- Its powder, when taken with water, is good for hemorrhoids.
- If black seeds are boiled in vinegar and then applied to the teeth and gums, it reduces inflammation and pain of the gums.
- It is also reported that its fine powder is effective if applied in the early stages of cataracts.
- Black seed is also used for skin disorders.
- The oil is also effective in earache.
The olive, a sign of peace and friendship throughout the world, is described in the Holy Qur'an in Surat At-Teen.
Found extensively in Asia minor, Palestine, Greece, Portugal, Spain, Turkey, Italy, North Africa, Algeria, Tunisia, the state of California in America, Mexico, Peru and southern Australia, the olive plant stretches up to three meters in height. Its leaves are bright green and very attractive; and its fruits are bright bluish or violet in color. Although olives consumed straight from the plant are very nutritious, they are not usually eaten due to their metallic taste. A pickled version is consumed largely in Europe. Olives are preserved in vinegar and imported from Spain, Italy, France, Turkey and Greece, and are favored in Europe and Arab countries. Olive oil is a good preservative for other foods such as sardines and other fish.
The use of olives goes back to ancient times. Vessels full of olive oil have been found, among other articles, during the excavation of ancient Egyptian graves. According to the scholars of Hadith, when the Great Flood subsided, the first thing to be seen on the earth was an olive tree.
According to Tirmidhi and Ibn Majah, Sayyid Al-Ansari narrated that the Prophet (pbuh) said, "Eat olive oil and massage it over your bodies since it is a holy (mubarak) tree."
According to Ibn Al-Juzi, Zanbi, Alqama Ibn Amir narrated that the Prophet (pbuh) said, "There is olive oil for you; eat it, massage it over your body, since it is effective for hemorrhoids." Basoor reported that Aqba Ibn Amir narrated that the Prophet (pbuh) stated, "You have the olive oil from this Holy (mubarak) tree; treat yourself with this, since it cures the anal fissure." Abu Na'im reported that Abu Hurayrah narrated that the Prophet (pbuh) stated, "Eat the olive oil and apply it (locally), since there is cure for seventy diseases in it, [and] one of them is leprosy."
Olive oil has a place in pharmacology in the U.S.A. and Britain. Both of these countries have attributed prime importance to olive oil in the treatment of various ailments, and have fixed standard parameters to evaluate its purity.
It contains palmatic acid, oleic acid, linoleic acid, steanic acid, myristic acid and glycerides. In this case, it is not dissolved in water but in alcohol, ether, chloroform and liquid paraffin.
The adulterant very often used in the olive oils found on the market is the seeds of the tea plant, arachis oil. Sometimes machine gun oil and refined machine oil are also found in it.
According to Ibn Al-Qayyim, the red colored oil is better than the blackish one. Its therapeutic uses are:
- It gives exuberance to the facial complexion.
- Prevention against poisons.
- Regulates the digestive process.
- Expels intestinal parasites.
- A good tonic, making the hair healthy, shiny and makes it stronger. Adds luster.
- A massage of olive oil with ordinary salt over the gums is a remedy for several diseases of the gums and teeth.
- Local application of olive oil or the water extracted from the crushed olive oil leaves is effective on boils, rashes and itching.
- Chronic ulcers and boils, which are difficult to heal, are healed with olive oil when applied locally.
- According to Zahbi, it strengthens the hair and body; hence can be used as a good tonic and for delaying the aging process.
- It helps raise a low libido.
- A combination of normal saline and olive oil is highly effective in burns.
- A soak of olive leaves in water is effective against mouth and lip ulcers, and dermatitis due to allergies.
- The concentrated watery solution of the extract of olive leaves and fruits is very effective against dental cavities and leukoplaquea in the mouth.
- This solution is applied along with vinegar for alopecia to enhance hair growth.
- It is also stated that the local application of this extract removes the scars of small pox and boils.
- Ground olive seeds mixed with butter is effective on brittle nails. -
- Pickles prepared from olives are a good appetizer, and stop constipation.
- Its crushed leaves can be applied locally to check excessive perspiration.
- The water extracted from the leaves along with honey is used for ear drops and is effective in various ear ailments. The oil procured by burning the wood of the olive branch is effective against all fungal infections, e.g., ringworm, tenia, versicolor in addition to eczema, psoriasis, dandruff and alopecia.
- Applying olive oil on the scalp is highly effective against dandruff.
- It causes hair growth and reduces hair loss. The application of olive oil in the eyes relieves inflammation.
- A massage of olive oil all over the body tones up the muscles and organs, and relieves muscular pain.
- Some physicians also advocate a massage of olive oil for epilepsy.
- It relieves the sciatica and arthritis.
- It heals the sinuses and fistuli very quickly.
- If taken internally, 25ml of olive oil mixed with 250ml of barley water is highly effective against chronic constipation.
- It is a good diuretic; hence is used in ascites.
- It removes kidney stones.
- In view of the research carried out in the U.S. and Britain, one concludes that it is good nourishment, particularly for kidney ailments where an intake of nitrogen containing protein is contraindicated.
- We mentioned already that the Prophet (pbuh) stated that it is a good remedy for anal fissure. Hence, patients were advised to take two spoonfuls of olive oil at bedtime and an ointment was applied on the fissure locally before sleeping and in the morning. The ointment is prepared from eight spoonfuls of olive oil and two spoonfuls of ground henna leaves.
- Its combination with other prescribed drugs of Prophetic Medicine is a good remedy for psoriasis and eczema.
- The impressions of several doctors practicing in Middle East and North Africa reveal that gastro-intestinal cancer is not detected among those who are used to consuming olive oil. Japanese doctors also endorse this, and have the opinion that olive oil prevents the incidence of cancer in the gastro-intestinal tract.
A variety of oral hygiene measures have been performed since the dawn of time. This has been verified by various excavations throughout the world where toothpicks, chew-sticks, twigs, linen strips, birds' feathers, animal bones and porcupine quills were recovered.
Those that originated from plants, although primitive, represent a transitional step towards the modern toothbrush. About 17 different plants have be used as natural instruments of oral hygiene.
The most widely used twig since early times is the Siwak or Miswak. The stick is obtained from a plant called salvadore persica that grows around Makkah and in the Middle East in general. Although there is no reference to the use of the siwak in the Qur'an, there are several hadith mentioning the benefits of siwak in maintaining oral hygiene; hence, it has been used widely among Muslims since the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). In this respect, our Prophet (pbuh) can be considered among the first dental instructors of proper oral hygiene.
Composition: Salvadora persica is a small tree or shrub with a crooked trunk that is seldom more than one foot in diameter. It has scabrous and cracked bark, and is whitish with pendulous branches. The root bark is light brown and the inner surfaces are white. It has an odorlike cress, and its taste is warm and pungent.
To ascertain its chemical composition, the air-dried stem bark of salvadora persica was extracted with 80% alcohol and then ether, and underwent exhaustive chemical procedures which indicated that it is composed of trim ethylamine, an alkaloid which may be salvadorine, chlorides, high amounts of fluoride and silica, sulfur, Vitamin C and small quantities of tannins, saponins, fiavenoids andsterols.
Repeated use of siwak during the day produces an unusually high level of oral cleanliness. It has been proven that plaque is formed immediately after eating. After 24 hours, it starts to act on the teeth. However, it can be eliminated through meticulous tooth-brushing.
Proper oral hygiene should be taught by dentists, but it requires a person's time and dexterity. Among those Muslims who ritually practice the use of siwak, rigid oral hygiene by a dentist may not be required.
Siwak and other twigs can be effective in removing soft oral deposits. They can even be promoted as effective instruments in oral health and dental programs for the population at large.
There is evidence that salvadora persica contains antibacterial properties. Some other components are astringents, detergents and abrasives. These properties encourage some toothpaste laboratories (Beckenham, UK, Sarakan Ltd.) to incorporate powdered stems and/or root material of salvadora persica in their products. Although commercial powders may be highly efficient in plaque removal, their use has been shown in a survey to cause a high incidence of gingivitis. Plaque eradication is essential, but it should not be in a manner that creates negative side effects for other tissues.
In conclusion, siwak and powdered siwak are excellent tools for oral cleanliness. They are highly recommended in preventive dental health programs in Muslim countries. Recommendations should be made to manufacturers of toothpaste to include the powdered form of siwak in an abrasive form of toothpaste.