Islamic Contributions to Medicine
By Haneme Idrizi
“”Whosoever killeth a human being for other than manslaughter or corruption in the earth, it shall be as if he had killed all mankind, and whoso saveth the life of one, it shall be as if he had saved the life of all mankind.” – Qur’an 5:32.
Within a century after the death of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), the Muslims not only expanded their empire beyond Arabia but also led the way in scientific innovations that would forever influence the practice of medicine. By the ninth century, Islamic medical practice had advanced from talisman and magicry to hospitals with wards, licensed doctors, and pharmacies. While major European cities were places of mud and pestilence, Baghdad and Cairo had remarkably advanced hospitals open to all regardless of sex, economic status, or religious affiliation. Unjustifiably, this vital period in the history of medicine is commonly diminished or overlooked and many remain ignorant to all of the Islamic contributions in the fields of pharmacy, microbiology, medical education, and hospital administration.
The development of Islamic concepts and practices of health are inextricably interwoven into the general body of the religion (Islamic Medicine, 6). The first revelation received by the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) in 610 A.D. established knowledge as a central focus in Islam, ‘Read in the name of thy Lord who created human beings from clots of blood. Read! Your Lord is the most bounteous who has taught the use of the pen. He has taught human beings what he did not know’ (Qur’an 16:58-59). With this revelation, the ignorance-based society of ancient Arabia that was plagued by female-child infanticide, alcoholism, and unsanitary health practices was replaced by a remarkably modern society that valued the importance of education (Islamic Medicine, 7).
The Qur’an gave to these people general guidelines and rules concerning nutrition, cleanliness, marital relations, and child rearing-topics that were all new to them (Islamic Medicine, 8-9). The Messenger (pbuh) stressed the importance of sound health amongst his followers and gave specific instructions on various aspects of healthcare such as therapeutics and proper treatment of the sick. In a large part due to the teachings of the Prophet (pbuh), the science and profession of pharmacy developed to an outstanding degree in the Arabia (Contributions to Islam to Medicine, 45). As Ezzat Abouleish states in his Contribution of Islam to Medicine, “The Arabic materia medica became so rich and new drugs and compounds were introduced because the Muslims had contact with almost all the known world at the time” Chemistry became an advanced science, and there were means and a need for specializations such as pharmacy” (Contribution of Islam to Medicine, 47).
Muslim doctors were far more advanced compared to their European counterparts, and they had a systematic approach to treatment. The patient was first treated with physiotherapy and diet and only after these failed were drugs utilized. They were well aware of the interactions between drugs and were cautious to use simple drugs first. Their vast and detailed pharmacological knowledge was a result of the rigorous licensing tests all physicians were required to undergo, unlike any other physicians in the world during this time (Islamic Medicine: 1000 years ahead of its time, 1).
As Islam began to spread, its followers began to develop a tradition of health and well-being that continues to be practiced in the Islamic world today. One tradition that is still heavily emphasized in Islamic life is cleanliness and personal hygiene. Islam instructs all Muslims to approach Allah (swt) in prayer five times a day with bodies and clothes spotlessly clean. Sick or healthy, it is an Islamic obligation to perform some form of prayer even if one must do so mentally while lying down in bed. As a result of this religious requirement, hospitals in Muslim societies had to provide patients and employees with a plentiful water supply and bathing facilities. This emphasis on constant cleanliness established a more sanitary hospital environment that one could find in Western Europe. In addition, famous Muslim physicians such as Al-Razi and Ibn Sina heavily stressed the importance of cleanliness. Legend has it that when Al-Razi was asked to choose a site for a new hospital in Baghdad, he first deduced which was the most hygienic area by observing where the fresh pieces of meat he had hung in various parts of the city and where they had decomposed least quickly (Islamic Medicine: 1000 Years Ahead of its Time, 5).
During the Umayyad rule that lasted from 661-750 AD, the translation of ancient medical works began and the sharing of medical knowledge gained even more importance. Specifically, the Muslim-controlled areas of Cordoba and Granada in Spain became centers of learning. The emphasis on knowledge and religious tolerance found in Islamic Spain provided a perfect location for the advancement of medicine. It was during this golden era of medicine in Spain that the practice of surgery began to flourish.
Abu-Al-asim Al-Zahrawi of Cordoba, best known to the world as Abulcasis, is one of the most celebrated of Muslim surgeons. He wrote mainly four books in his lifetime. One of them, “Al-Tastif Liman Ajiz’an Al’Talif” is described by many medical scholars today as one of the best medieval surgical encyclopedias. In fact, the book was used in Europe until the 17th century. He was one of the first physicians to stress the importance of the basic sciences, a sentiment echoed in the halls of all modern day medical schools. Al-Zahrawi wrote, “Before practicing, one should be familiar with the science of anatomy and the function of the organs so that he will understand them, recognize their shape, understand their connections, and know their borders.”
Among the many things Al-Zahrawi is credited for include being the first to describe the ligature of arteries, using cautery and wax to control bleeding, and developing the lithotomic position for vaginal operations. During the time of Al-Zahrawi, surgery in the Islamic world became a respected specialty practiced by reputable physicians (Medieval Islamic Medicine, 45).
The Abbasid period, which immediately followed the Umayyad period, saw major developments in the practice of medicine. The most significant event was the founding of the Baghdad Hospital in 186 AD on the banks of the River Tigris. The Baghdad Hospital, a major metropolitan hospital and the center of the Baghdad School of Medicine was founded in one of the oldest suburbs of the city known as Karkh (Islamic Medicine, 15). All the great physicians and surgeons of the day lectured and practiced at the Baghdad Hospital.
The most famous physician who practiced there was the celebrated clinician and master of Arabic medicine, Al-Razi. Al-Razi was born Abu-Bakr Muhammed Ibn-Zakaria Al-Razi in a suburb of Tehran in 841 AD. He became the chief physician of the Bimartistan Hospital and the court physician of the Caliph. Al-Razi is known for the several books he published that were translated into Latin, French, Italian, Hebrew, and Greek (Contribution of Islam to Medicine, 10). One of his most famous books, Al-Mansuri, is composed of ten treatises that dealt with all aspects of health and disease. He defined medicine as the “art concerned in preserving healthy bodies, in combating disease, and in restoring health to the sick.” He thus is credited with being one of the first physicians to address the areas of public health, preventative medicine, and the treatment of disease.
The significant contributions Islam made in the advancement of medicine simply cannot be ignored. Muslim physicians are not only responsible for preserving the works of past physicians such as Galen and Hippocrates, but they also added to earlier achievements of medicine. All of these contributions helped shape the medicine that is practiced today.
References: Abouleish, Ezzat, “Contributions of Islam to Medicine” islam-usa.com.
Ibrahim, B. Syed, “Islamic Medicine: 1000 years ahead of its time.
Khan, Muhammad Salim. Islamic Medicine. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1986.
Ridwan, Ali ibn. Medieval Islamic Medicine. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984.