Islam And Medicine – A Historical Background

By Dr. Yousuf U. Syed, M.D.MPH.



The Holy Prophet Muhammad (s), who emphasized the need for learning once said : “ The ink of the scholar is more holy than the blood of the Martyr”. This had a phenomenal effect on his follower and evoked in them passion and love for knowledge , which in short time made them the pioneer in the world of science and Medicine as well as in other faculties. The teachings of the Prophet of Islam (s) enshrined in the hearts of Arabs veneration for learned people and respect for the place of worship and learning . Recognizing the importance of translating Greek work into Arabic, to make them more widely available , the Abbasid caliph Harun al- Rasheed and his son al- Ma’mun sponsored a translation department in Bagdad – The Bayt al-Hikmah or the house of wisdom. Starting in the eight century , that sent agents throughout Muslim and non- Muslim lands in search of scholarly manuscripts in every language , rendered into Arabic, these precious documents established a solid foundation for the Muslim science and Medicine.

The Holy Quran says: “For every disease, there is a cure” – thus the Muslim physicians saw themselves as healers and preservers of health, rather than passive witness to events with supernatural causes. The Muslim doctors developed the Bimaristan, later simply Maristan, the forerunner of the modern hospital, open to all, it welcomed patients to be treated for and recover from a variety of ailments and injuries including mental illness.

The largest maristans were attached to medical schools and libraries, where physicians were taught, examined and as today, licensed like the hospital, pharmacology as a profession is also an Islamic innovation.

In the maristan, trained pharmacists prepared and dispensed remedies. Their pharmacopeias detailed the geographical origin, physical properties and methods of applications of everything found useful in the curing of disease. By Caliph al-Ma’mun’s time, the pharmacists were, like doctors, licensed professionals required to pass demanding examinations, and to protect the public from incompetence – government inspectors monitored the purity of their ointments, pills, elixirs, suppositories and inhalants.

In Al-Andulas (Muslim Spain), the intellectual counterpart of Bagdad with its capital at Cordoba attracted the world’s attention with its 70 libraries, 900 public baths, 300 mosques and 50 maristans were available to all of its one million residents. Cordoba’s University, founded in the eighth century, was a premier center of learning and its library had 225,000 volumes (at that time the library of the University of Paris held some 400 volumes). It drew scholars from all over Europe; one of them, Gerbert of Aurillac, later became Pope Sylvester the Second, who replaced cumbersome Roman Numerals with today’s Arabic numbers. While the western Islamic world produced hundreds of insightful and brilliant men, a few only are mentioned here, who stand at the pinnacle of medicine during that era—and their influence is still felt today.

Al-Zahrawi (Albucasis), known as the father of surgery, wrote – Kitab al Tasrif li-man ‘Ajizja an al- Ta’lif ( The arrangement of Medical knowledge), a compendium of 30 volumes on Medicine, Surgery, Pharmacy ,and other health topics, compiled during the 50 years of his career; its last volume, the 300 pages on surgery, was the first book to treat surgery as a separate subject and the first illustrated surgical treaties, covering ophthalmology, obstetrics , gynecology, military medicine, urology, orthopedics, and more—it remained a standard surgical reference in Europe until the late 16th century. He produced diagrams of more than 200 surgical instruments – his best known inventions were the syringe, the obstetrical forceps , the surgical hook, and needle, the bone saw, and lithotomy scalpel – all these items are in use today in much the same form.

Abu Marwan Abd al-Malik Ibn Zuhr (latinized to Avenzoar) became the first Muslim scientist to devote himself exclusively to medicine, and his several major discoveries were chronicled in his books – Ki tab al- Taysir fi’l- Mudawat wa i-Tadbir ( practical manual of treatment and diet) and treatises on Psychology and other items. Ibn Zuhr proved that scabies is caused by the itch mite, and that it can be cured by removing the parasite from the patient’s body without painful treatments associated with the four humors. This discovery sent a shudder through the medical science of the time. Ibn Zuhr also wrote that diet and lifestyle can help a person avoid developing kidney stones … He gave the first accurate description of neurological disorders , including meningitis, intra cranial thrombophlebitis and mediastinal tumors, and he made some of the first contributions to what become modern neuropharmacology. He provided the first detailed report of cancer of the colon. Ibn Zuhr was the first to explain how to provide direct feeding through the gullet or rectum in cases where normal feeding was nor possible – a technique now known as parenteral feeding .

Ibn Zuhr established surgery as an independent field by introducing a training course designed specifically for future surgeons before allowing them to perform operations independently .. He differentiated the role of a general practitioner and a surgeon, drawing the metaphorical red- line at which a physician should stop during his management of a surgical condition, thus further helping define surgery as a medical specialty. He was among the first to use anesthesia, performing hundreds of surgeries after placing sponge soaked in a mixture of Cannabis, Opium , and Hyoscyamus ( henbane), over the patient’s face. He saw to it that both his daughter and granddaughter went into medicine, thus he became a pioneer in different way , these women began a tradition in Muslim world that accepted female as medical doctors, 700 years before John Hopkins University graduated the first American female physician in 1800 A.D.

Ala al- Din Abu al- Hassan Ali ibn Hanza al Qurashi also known as Ibn al-Nafis, a brilliant physician, the first Muslim cardiologist, who at the age of 29 years became the chief physician at the 8,000-bed Al- Mansouri Hospital. He published many books on anatomy, described the earliest explanation of pulmonary–circulation of blood. Ibn al-Nafis went on to show that the wall between the right and left ventricles of the heart is solid and without pores, thus disproved Glen’s teaching that the blood passes directly from right to the left side of the heart . Ibn al-Nafis than correctly stated that the blood must pass from the right ventricle to the lungs, where it filters into the pulmonary vein to mix with air and then to the left atrium and finally onward to the rest of the body .It was the first time anyone was able to explain how air entered the blood. He also hinted at the existence of Capillary Circulation – indeed , it was he and not William Harvey, some four centuries later, who discovered the circulatory system.

Indeed, it was the work of Muslim scholars, scientists and physicians and legacy of discoveries upon which today’s Western Medicine is founded.


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