Contributed by: Irshad Siddiqui MD
Abridged and Excerpted from Lost Islamic History : Reclaiming Muslim Civilization from the Past by Firas Al Khateeb
Common misperceptions about the history of medicine include the belief that it was mostly guesswork until the past few hundred years.Mental images of charlatan medical “experts” selling their phony cure-alls come to mind when thinking about medicine before the twentieth century. In actuality, however, there exists a long medical tradition in the Muslim world that was based on earlier Greek knowledge that emphasized empirical study and clinical professionalism. While this is lost in the modern popular imagination, there still exist writings from some of the greatest medical minds the world has ever known who lived and practiced in the Muslim Golden Age. Their work points to an era of medical enlightenment and advancement that forms the basis of modern medicine.
Muslim advances in medicine picked up where the ancient Greek physician, Galen, left off. Galen was the giant of this field in ancient times. This second century CE physician and philosopher wrote extensively on medicine, and supported the theory that the body is composed of four humors: blood, black bile, yellow bile, and phlegm. According to him, diseases were caused by an imbalance of these fluids in the body. The first to critically challenge the ideas of Galen was Muhammad ibn Zakariya al-Razi, who lived in the ninth century. In his bluntly titled Doubts About Galen, he concluded that physical ailments could not simply be attributed to an imbalance among the humors or to punishment from God as Middle Age Europeans believed, but to certain external and internal factors that must be resolved in order to treat the problem. Along these lines, he developed specific and effective cures for common problems such as coughs, headaches, and constipation. But he was not limited to simply treating the symptoms or physical causes of ailments. His giant medical encyclopedia, The Virtuous Life, extolls the importance of dedication to the field of medicine and constant improvement and learning. His works were widely disseminated, and helped guide future generations of physicians in the Muslim world and Europe for centuries.
The next great Muslim physician, and perhaps the most well-known, was Ibn Sina, known as Avicenna in Medieval Europe. He applied the rational approach to science that Muslims were taking in other fields to medicine, giving him insight that others, including al-Razi, lacked. Based on years of clinical observation and scientific study, he concluded that diseases can be spread through air, water or soil. Furthermore, each disease had unique characteristics and thus must be treated in a unique way. He was one of the first to promote experimental medicine, and in his monumental work, The Canon of Medicine, he insisted that drugs be tested under controlled conditions and not be trusted simply based on theory. Drugs that were not universally effective, or could not be proven to actually treat a disease meant nothing to him, as he believed medicine was a science of observation and rationalism, not mysticism and luck. His Canon became the standard textbook for anyone desiring to learn about medicine in the Muslim world and beyond. European medical schools relied on Latin translations of it into the seventeenth century, and, in the Yuan Dynasty (thirteenth- and fourteenth-century), it was translated into Chinese by the sizeable Muslim community in China. It is easy to understand why the Canon enjoyed such widespread popularity and reverence. Ibn Sina’s greatest work was not simply a handbook of common ailments and cures. It was a complete medical encyclopedia. Descriptions can be found in it of anesthesia, breast cancer, rabies, toxins, ulcers, kidney disease, and tuberculosis.
The Renaissance saw a move to translate hundreds of Arabic texts into Latin in the great cultural and scientific centers such as Padua and Bologna. Europeans were able to further advance the knowledge of giants such as al-Razi and Ibn Sina, who advanced the knowledge of Galen and Hippocrates. Today’s medical knowledge and institutions come largely from the West, but are based on the earlier Muslim medical tradition, which in turn was based on ancient Greece. The clash of civilizations narrative that is promoted by extremists on both sides of modern conflicts neglects examples of cross-cultural intellectual traditions such as this.