What Is Islamic Medicine?

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Islamic Medicine
Staff member

The name "Islamic Medicine " is in use again.. denoting more than historic connotations. A movement of "Islamic Medicine" has erupted in Kuwait, which until the time of writing has held two international conferences on Islamic Medicine and is itself being legally transformed into the "international Organization of Islamic Medicine". Private money has been donated to establish its headquarters (Centre of Islamic Medicine) in Kuwait, and widespread international response arose to affiliate to or link up with the Organization.

In the books on HIstory of Medicine, "Islamic Medicine" refers to the progress of medical knowledge that took place during the Islamic era of human civilization. During that period that started from the late seventh century almost to the seventeenth, Islamic civilization was "the" civilization. If human progress is likened to a a chain, then Islamic civilization on the one hand and the Renaissance and contemporary civilization on the other are adjacent rings. Without its timely appearance that link could have never materialized, and humanity might have had to start all over again in more than one field of knowledge. The Islamic era was a bridge over the gap that has come later to be called the European dark ages.

The early times of Christianity, the times of martyrdom and persecution and the need to live as an underground fraternity, were drastically terminated when Experor Constantine embraced Christianity and Christianity become the official state reiligion. The oppressed on one day became the masters of the next, and the change was followed with an aftermath of strong emotionalism. During the process the power of the Church grew so much that it dominated all aspects of life. Although tending the poor and the sick and the rise of monastic medicine constituted Christian traditions (following the example of Jesus who aroused the dead, healed the sick and touched the lepers), Medicine as a whole soon became a religious affair and therefore taken into the monopoly of the Church. Religious furvor and church authority confined medical practice to the realm of faith-healing, the use of incantations and hand laying and visiting the shrines of patron saints to whom some sort of medical specialization was accorded, depending on the site in their body which had received torture or fatal injury at their martyrdom. Because St. Agatha had her breasts cut with iron tongs she was declared patron saint for women with breast cancer, and because St. Erasmus used to be tortured by putting a bowl containing burning coal on his head, he became patron saint and healer of headache. In this atmosphere not only did quacks abound and flourish, but scientific progress was impossible. Medicine was branded as a godless science because it did not follow in the ways of God.. and whereas a pinch of dust from the shrine of a saint would be good treatment for a number of diseases, seeking the help of a doctor would amount to heresy. In the same spirit older books containing all fruits of Greek civilization were sought and burnt, apart from the little that was smuggled an dhidden by the few monks who were aware of the tragedy. A rare exception was the writings of Galen, because he had expressed the view that the body was the vessel containing the spirit.. and when the body died the spirit did not. This view coincided with Christian teaching, and this lead to the overprotection by the Church of all Galenic teachings which nobody dared to challenge for one thousand years.

Such was the prevailing climate in Europe when Islam started and its holy book - the Quran started with the word: "Read!". What followed is history a glimse of which will be further revealed in the next chapter of this book.

To revisit and rewrite History is good in several ways. To Muslims to read their history is like connecting a tree to its roots. Without this process a tree is merely a log of wood but no shade or fruit or fragrance or indeed life. It seems that for centuries Muslims were denied access to their past, thanks to both despotism and colonialism. Orientalists were on the whole more interested in their political, intellectual and psychological warring against Islam than in seeking the truth and revealing it intact. It is only recently that the human race became sober to the fact that the only opts it faces are peace or annihilation, and that peace cannot be founded on lies. The Western gender role of superman is thinning out .. and the notion is dying of "We, versus the others".. "We" representing all that is good in the past, present and future, and "them" the straight opposite. In one generation the pride over being colonialist has given way to a feeling of shame of the near past. Even the scourge of the "Crusades" that has lurked over the West and brainwashed it for so many centuries is not as taken for granted as it has always been. Many more people today than St. Francis of Assissi in his day are beginning to realize that Christianity was one thing and the Crusades were another. Many western writers are now appaled at the atrocities committed by troops who related themselves to Christ. .and the emerging knowledge of the fact that the "crusades" were colonialist and not religious wars is already alleviating old prejudices and bitterness. Even the Catholic Church has declared that information about Islam has to be reviewed and corrected. . and called for an Islamic-Christian dialogue.

It is no wonder that time is opportune to review history..including History of Medicine.

"Islamic Medicine", however, is not a matter of History only. It is also a matter of Medicine! Islamic Medicine is a medicine with a faith. It cannot disengage itself from the teachings of Islam especially those that relate in one way or another to matters directly bearing on health and illness, personal hygiene, communal hygiene, nutrition, physical fitness, sex life, aspects of reproduction, menstruation, pregnancy, lactation, infectious disease and so on. Islam is an all encompassing code of behaviour and many of its relgious "do's" and "dont's" have to be observed by the Muslim physician treating Muslim patients.

Given our current medical curricula and text books, there is a feeling that something is missing in the preparation of our medical student to be the Muslim doctor if only to Satisfy a need of the society.

On the applied side, there is concerted effort to look up the items of the pharmacopoea contained in the writings of authorities of the Islamic era and restudy them by means of modern scientific methodology and equipment. Studies are already underway, and more than one funding agency have expressed their support. There seems to be good potential in that direction. .spurred probably by known high iatrogenicity of synthetic drugs, and by the need to probe other ways to tackle hitherto obstinate illnesses such as cancer .

Last but not least, reference should be made to the train of new achievements in scientific discovery and biomedical technology. Vast strides have been made and more will follow at an accelerating pace. The test-tube babies technology has brought into reality situations never known to mankind before, and not covered by time honoured rules of maternity, paternity and inheritance. Breaking the genetic code was followed by the technology of recombinant DNA and genetic engineering with all its welcome and unwelcome potentialities. Organ banks, embryo banks and banks of frozen cadavres in safe deposit awaiting later thawing are no more science fiction. Choic of fetal sex, cloning, gene manipulation and pharmacologic control over personality are with us or knocking at our door .

With all these scientific spoils old codes of behaviour are supplanted by new. .and old ideologies are clearing their way to modern ones. As far as Muslims are concerned, new situations have arisen that do not lend themselves easily to the four sources of jurisprudence: the Quran, the Prophet's traditions, analogy and consensus. New Islamic rulings have to be formulated. Since knowledge has indeed advanced beyond the comprehension of the specialist jurist all by himself, a joint effort is mandatory on the part of Muslim jurists and scientists all alike. Modern times emphasize the need for an Islamic Code of Medical Ethics. .or else the profession -and ineed all humanity -will drift into deep waters under the sole mercy of solid, cold and achievement- oriented academic progress alone.
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