Post 64: Science & Islam: Medicine

There has been a bit of a gap in posts, but I had been doing a series of post inspired by Ethan Masood‘s book Science & Islam. I’m coming towards the final topics now, but certainly not to the least of them. Medicine could perhaps be picked out as one of the greatest achievements of Islamic science. While some parts of science could come into conflict with religion, the treatment of the sick had a pretty easy start in the Islamic world – Muhammad himself said to make use of the best methods out there. This was seized on with some enthusiasm and, while it was far from the first culture to have hospitals and charitable institutions, advanced hospitals were common.

The hospitals would welcome everyone – rich or poor, young or old, regardless of sex or religion. They also served a variety of functions. They were a place for medical treatments, a place to recover, a place to retire in old age, a place for the mentally ill. They could also be places for study and the largest hospitals in Cairo, Baghdad and Damascus are known to have had lecture rooms. Great scholars like Al-Razi (a familar name from previous posts) would work with patients and develop their ideas on subjects like anatomy and disease.

However, we should start at the beginning. As with so much that we’ve covered, the scholars of the Islamic world did not start from nothing, but instead they built on the work of older Greek, Roman and even Indian physicians and philosophers.  In this vein, they did not invent the idea of hospitals but Arab hospitals flourished and became very advanced for their time period. The leading figure in pre-Islamic medicine was the Roman doctor Galen, but Greeks like Dioscorides and Hippocrates were also popular.

Even when the discipline was first translating these and finding its feet, it could be active and creative. Hunayn ibn Ishaq, one of the most successful 9th century translators of the Greek texts, presented some of his translations in the form of teaching manuals aimed to lead beginning students gradually into the topic. He would also become well known for his detailed work on Ophthalmology (the study of the eye). This would have required Ibn Ishaq to be a top notch surgeon as well as a great translator.

But soon Al-Razi began to challenge the ideas of Galen, particularly in areas like anatomy. The significance of this becomes apparent when compared to the Christian world, even centuries later. I recently wrote a post of Paracelsus, who was also a great challenger to the works of older scholars. Paracelsus not only met stiff resistance from established academics, but also struggled to develop a rigorous system of experiments and ideas to replace the old way of thinking. He did stress the importance of practical experience – but the likes of Al-Razi managed to combine hands on experience with an early scientific method and philosophy. Really, Al-Razi deserves an entire series of posts all to himself. He identified diseases like smallpox and measles.  He conducted medical trials on blood-letting – giving an early precedent for how such investigations could be conducted. He wrote on medical ethics.

Another familar name, Ibn Sina also deserves a lot of attention. He put together a document known as the Canon of Medicine in the early eleventh century which would be used for over six centuries. Even though some of his ideas were outdated, he gave a general classification of diseases and description of how to effectively develop and test pharmaceutical treatments. It perhaps isn’t as groundbreaking as the work of Al-Razi or al-Majusi (another 10th century physician), but it was very well structured and perfect for use as a teaching text.

It’s often said that William Harvey discovered the workings of the circulatory system in the 17th century, but he wasn’t the first. In the 13th century Ibn Al-Nafis gave a detailed description as a criticism of Ibn Sina and Galen. I don’t speak arabic myself, but an english translation is well worth seeing a sample of – the clarity is brilliant, and such a contrast to the cryptic ramblings of European physicians.

One of the great advantages that Islamic science had was the wide variety of interests, and the medical developments would surely have been lessened without theories of optics or the invention of new tools. Al-Zahrawi was a surgeon in Al Andalus who cataloged surgical instruments, how to use them and when to use them. It was a teaching manual written in a clear and concise style, so that future students could learn as accessibly as possible. And they would do exactly that for at least five centuries after he died. Again, it’s not just the work itself that impresses me, but also the attitude.

However, things were not all positive. The Sufi theologian al-Ghazali would write a criticism of Ibn Sina called The Incoherence of Philosophers essentially promoting asceticism and slamming the arrogance of doctors. In reaction to both the Sufis and the physicians, an alternative known as the Prophet’s Medicine sprang up led by Al-Jawziyya (of the strict Hanbali school). He was not impressed with Ghazali’s ideas but did not trust the changes in contemporary medicine. This used traditional remedies: often herbs or diet based on quotes from the scriptures. With such an untouchable source, there would be none of that awkward constant improvement and experimental verification that mainstream medicine was attempting – sounds a lot like alternative medicine today, and indeed it still exists in parts of the Middle East.


One thought on “Post 64: Science & Islam: Medicine

  1. This is an excellent post! Since “the attacks” educating people on the contributions to math, science, medicine, and a bunch of other disciplines by Middle-Easterners and believers of Islam is definitely needed. I think it was Baghdad that was the place for education while Europe was in the Dark Ages. If it hadn’t for these people, how long might we have to wait for math, science, and medicine to re-emerge and improved upon?

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