Huff Post: Exploring Islam’s contribution to public health has been an astounding journey for me. Working across the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia in Muslim majority countries, I’m amazed at not only the history of Islamic theology in contributing to our modern day understanding of public health, but also its potential to improve its practice. Yet, what is puzzling is that very little attention is given to the relationship between Islam and public health, especially in academia. Practices of good hygiene and nutrition, disease prevention, and infectious disease control— recognized as hallmarks of public health today, were supported over 1400 years ago through the teachings of Islam.
The impact of Islam and medicine is documented in the life and scholarly contributions of the likes of Ibn Sina, Al-Razi, Ibn al-Nafis, Ibn Zuhr, and al-Zahrawi (Albucasis), as well as in European medieval texts that utilized their works. While the 14th century Arab polymath, Ibn Khaldun in his renowned text Muqaddimah, recognized that “God did not send the Prophet Muhammad to teach us medicine but to teach us religious law,” it is from within Islam’s spiritual foundation and mandate to pursue knowledge that scientific thought flourished(1) and advances in public health can be traced.
Perhaps more than any other intervention, none has been simpler and more effective than improving sanitation and hygienic practices. Improving poor hygiene, inadequate quantities and quality of drinking water, and lack of sanitation facilities prevents many communicable diseases and has helped increase life spans across the world.
Centuries before the Sanitary Movement of Europe, Prophet Muhammad taught Muslims “cleanliness is half of faith.”(2) This hadith alone encompasses the breadth and depth with which a significant number of hadiths elaborate on the idea of cleanliness. From extolling the benefit of washing hands before and after eating to dental hygiene, from access to clean water to personal hygiene acts, such as “clipping or shaving the pubes, cutting the nails, plucking or shaving the hair under the armpits and clipping (or shaving) the moustache” were understood as not only acts that benefit the body, but also bring a Muslim closer to God. (3)