Our source: Muslim Heritage website
Book by Prof. Peter E. Pormann
Islamic civilisation developed a system of healthcare that, at its apogée, was envied by both friend and foe. Therefore, medicine evolved into a highly complex and variegated discipline from the 7th to the 21st century in the various lands of Islam……
Since physical well-being is of paramount importance in our lives, the pursuit of health is fundamental to human experience. Many civilisations have contributed to the development of medicine as a discipline, including those of Ancient Egypt and the Fertile Crescent, on which classical Greek culture drew when developing its own systems of medicine, science, and philosophy.
Islamic civilisation developed a system of healthcare that, at its apogée, was envied by both friend and foe. Therefore, medicine evolved into a highly complex and variegated discipline from the 7th to the 21st century in the various lands of Islam. Medicine transcended the confines of country and creed, as physicians from diverse religious, linguistic, and ethnic backgrounds shared in its scientific discourse. Islamic medicine also had a profound impact on surrounding cultures, notably European university medicine as it developed from the 12th century onwards. It survives today, in modified form, in many Muslim countries, and among Muslim communities across the world.
The present volume, 1001 Cures, aims to capture the dynamism and interest that existed in the medical tradition as it unfolded in the Middle East during the medieval period. In this introduction, I discuss some aspects of this multifaceted process by highlighting the various topics covered in the chapters of this book. At the end, I shall also talk briefly about the close link between medical traditions in Muslim civilisation and in Europe, which can only be understood in the context of their interconnectedness.
Islam emerged in the Arabian Peninsula. Among its desert-dwelling population, various medical techniques appear to have been known. Issues such as coughing (suʿāl), ophthalmia (ramad), and various injuries (often caused by tribal warfare) all figured in poems of the pre-Islamic and early Islamic periods, and the cures were often simple: camel urine and honey, for instance, had some prominence. In the two centuries before the emergence of Islam, the Arabs also came into contact with the two great empires of the time, the Sassanian and the Byzantine, as well as the Syriac-speaking Christians who often had to flee from religious persecution at the hands of their coreligionists who declared them to be heretics. Each of these communities possessed a quite sophisticated medicine, with that of the Greeks clearly standing out among the others.
Syriac-speaking Christians and the medical schools of Alexandria played a crucial role in one of the greatest enterprises in knowledge transfer: the Graeco-Arabic translation movement, the topic of the first chapter. Over the course of the 9th century, most available Greek medical texts were translated into Arabic, often via Syriac intermediary translations. The history of the translation movement from Greek into Arabic can be illustrated nicely by the example of Galen’s On Simple Drugs, which was twice rendered into Arabic. A certain al-Biṭrīq (fl. c. 754–75), about whom little is known, rendered the Greek in a rather paraphrastic way with many of the more technical terms left in transliteration. Fifty years later, Ḥunayn ibn Isḥāq (d. c. 873) and his circle had developed a highly refined translational style and further enhanced the medical terminology. When they translated On Simple Drugs into Arabic, they were able to express even extremely complicated medical ideas in sophisticated Arabic. In other words, the technical medical language, which had largely been shaped through the translation, had come of age. Translation continued to play a prom-inent role in the development of medicine, as medical knowledge permeated various cultures via Syriac, Hebrew, Latin, and Arabic well into the early modern period.
The theory known as ‘humoral pathology’ dominated medical discourse in the Islamic and the European worlds until the advent of germ theory in the second half of the 19th century, and Pauline Koetschet discusses this fundamental concept in the second chapter. According to humoral pathology, good health is dependent on a balance (iʿtidāl) of the four humours, blood (dam), phlegm (balgham), yellow bile (mirra ṣafrāʾ), and black bile (mirra sawdāʾ). Each of these four humours was thought to have two of the four primary qualities, hot or cold, and dry or moist. For instance, black bile was considered to be cold and dry, whereas blood was hot and moist. The belief was that when an imbalance in the four humours occurs, disease ensues. Therapy then aimed to restore the balance by removing excessive humours — for instance blood through venesection (faṣd) and cupping (ḥijāma) — and regenerate deficient humours — for example through consumption of a diet that produces blood or phlegm, and so on.
Following in the footsteps of their Greek forebears, physicians in the medieval Islamic world took an acute interest in anatomy (tashrīḥ), to which Nahyan Fancy devotes the next chapter. Like the Greek term anatomḗ, the Arabic tashrīḥ was ambiguous, denoting both the study of human physiology (what we nowadays call ‘anatomy’ in English), and dissection, the ‘cutting open’ of human and animal bodies, either dead (dissection) or alive (vivisection). Anatomy in the modern sense was a greatly esteemed pursuit. Not only did physicians repeatedly state that students must study it, but theologians such as al-Ghazālī (d. 1111) also prized it highly, since it made man understand God’s providence (ʿināyat Allāh). In other words, the wonderful structure of the human body shows God’s intelligent design. Although dissection was not regularly performed, there was no taboo against its practice on human bodies. We even have a number of famous cases where Muslim physicians challenge Galenic anatomy. In his commentary on the Canon by Ibn Sīnā (known as Avicenna in the Latin West, d. 1037), for instance, the physician and philosopher Ibn al-Nafīs (d. 1288) discovered the pulmonary transit: the fact that blood does not pass from the right ventricle of the heart to the left via an opening (manfadh) in the septum, but rather passes through the lungs.
Already in late antiquity, physicians divided medical practice into prophylactics and therapeutics. In the chapter on preventive medicine, Maḥmūd al-Miṣrī argues that Arab physicians paid greater attention to prevention than their Greek forebears. Diet or regimen (tadbīr) played a crucial role. Food obviously has a direct effect on one’s well-being, and foodstuffs were integrated into the system of humoral pathology and primary qualities. Some were seen to generate good humours such as blood, whereas others gave rise to diseases. Exercise was also recognised as preserving health. In this way, physicians manipulated the ‘six non-naturals’ to prevent a patient from becoming ill. The ‘six non-naturals’, as they were known — namely 1) the surrounding air 2) food and drink 3) sleeping and waking 4) exercise and rest 5) retention and evacuation, and 6) the mental state — also affected the health of a person. Too much exercise (under 3), for example, could cause excessive heat in the body, which had other physiological consequences; lack of sleep (under 4) could lead to health problems; and so on. Retention and evacuation referred to the bowel movement and urination of the patient, but could also take other forms such as sexual intercourse, during which semen is evacuated (in both men and women). Sexual hygiene evolved into a separate subject with monographs by authors such as al-Kindī (d. c. 870), Abū Bakr al-Rāzī (d. c. 925) and Avicenna.