Histories & Culture
History of Medicine

Arab and Muslim Contributions

Arab and Muslim contributions to medicine span ten centuries, from the 6th to the 16th. Arabic was the language of science in most of this period, it was the common denominator for the scholars of all regions of the Islamic world which stretched from India to Spain. There were medical centers in Baghdad, Alexandria, Damascus, and Andalusia.

In the early period until about 900AD, Arab scholars translated and added to scientific knowledge from Babylonian, Greek, Egyptian, Indian, and Persian civilizations. These in turn were much later translated to Latin through centers of learning in Italy, Sicily, and Andalusia, and from there knowledge spread to the rest of Europe.

Between 850 and 1350 AD, there were 4000 medical books written in Arabic.

Between 1300-1516 AD began the reverse translation phase when works in Arabic were translated into Latin.
Arab and Muslim scientists were the first to introduce figures, illustrations and tables in medical textbooks. They introduced mnemonics (in the form of poetry) to facilitate student learning.

They built hospitals affiliated to schools of medicine and initiated physician training programs, and they introduced qualifying examinations and licensure.
They stressed the principles of medical ethics based on Hippocratic, Jewish, Christian, and Muslim traditions.

“Medicine was non-existing before Hippocrates (who created it), dead before Galen (who revived it), scattered before Al-Razi (who collected it), and incomplete before Avicenna (who completed it).”
--An old Arab saying

Arab and Muslim physicians adopted and perpetuated the Greek theory of Four Humors as basis of disease, which says that a person is in a state of health when body secretions are in perfect balance, and a person is in a state of disease when body secretions are not in perfect balance. In this theory the components of the universe are: air, water, earth, fire.
The qualities of earth components are: heat, dryness, humidity, coldness.

Herbal and chemical methods of treatment were introduced and preferred to surgical methods. Human anatomical dissections were almost absent and surgery was not highly regarded. Avicenna described surgery as “a handcraft unworthy of medical honor.”

In the pre-Islamic & early Islamic period, to the end of the
Umayyad Dynasty (500-750 A.D.), translations of the first medical books into Arabic were made.

Prominent physicians included the surgeon Ibn Abi Ramtha and a female ophthalmologist, Zeinab Famous medical schools existed in Persia (Gundishapur) and Egypt (Alexandria). The first recorded academic contact of the Arabs with medicine begins with Al-Harith Bin Kilda,the cousin of the Prophet ,who crossed the wide stretches of the scorching desert between Arabia and Persia to enlist as a student in the School of Medicine at Gundishapur of Persia. He wrote a book “Al Muhawer”, (the dialogue) in which he describes medical discussions with Kisra al Shirwan.

Among his recommendations for longevity were early meals, light clothing, and moderate sex.

Abbasid phase from 750-900 A.D continued to be active in translation from Greek and Roman to Arabic, but with commentaries and additions by Arab & Muslim physicians Dar al- Hikma (House of Wisdom) was established in Baghdad in 832 AD by the Caliph Al Mamoun. It was the repository of Greek, Syriac, and Byzantine books of philosophy and medicine.
Center for translation, writing, and study. Translators were compensated by the weight of their manuscripts in gold. Hunayn Ibn Ishaq reportedly used large letters and triple or quadruple spacing on heavy weight paper to increase the weight of the manuscript.

Prominent physician were.
Hunayn Ibn Ishaq , Yuhanna bin Masaweh, al-Kahhal, Ali bin Saleh al-Tabari. Costa Bin Luqan (d.820 AD), who translated works on confusion, sudden death, and insomnia

The Late Abbasid Phase (900-1300 AD) was the golden age of Arab medicine. This is a phase of original contributions of Arab and Muslim scholars as compared to translation of previous centuries. There were many prominent physicians who made great original contributions to the science of medicine:
Al-Baghdadi, Ibn Jazla, al-Biruni, Muwafaq al-Din bin Abi Usaybah, al-Majusi, Ibn Sina, Ibn al-Nafis, al-Zahrawi, Abul Hasan al-Tabari.

Ibn Zuhr was one of the great Andalusia physicians, the author of “al-Taisir” ,a book on practical medicine with useful excerpts. He wrote clinical description of mediastinal abscess, from which he suffered personally, and left very careful record of his own symptoms.

References: Al-Mahi,T. Introduction to the History of Arabic Medicine,1959; Al-Kurdi,A,et al. Neuroscience 9:1,2004; Al-Mahi,T. History of Arab Medicine,1959; Haddad,S.I. History of Arab Medicine,1975

Contributed by Adel K. Afifi, MD, Professor of Neurology, University of Iowa.