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The Middle Ages were for Europe, a time of intellectual stagnation, however, the

generalization of this period does not hold true when looking at Arab lands. Intellectual

institutions were flourishing, healthcare systems were implemented, and rulers were more

interested than ever before in the patronage of Islamic arts and sciences. During the

Middle Ages Muslim scholars and scientists made many advancements in the medical

field that were later transferred and adopted into to European society. Islamic medicine

owes much of its foundation to that of the ancient Greeks. Hellenistic thinkers such as

Euclids, Hippocrates, and most importantly, Galen, were the foundation for much of

Islamic medical thought. During the 8th century CE, only a handful of Greek works had

been translated, however, within a century later all of Galen’s works had been

painstakingly transformed into Arabic tongue.1 As Galen’s work spread throughout the

Dar al-Islam, his theories on topics such as humors, metabolism, digestion, and blood

flow permeated through the doctrines of Islamic medicine. The influence of Hippocrates

can also be seen in Islamic medicine, through the well-known Hippocratic Oath, that was

a required pledge of all Islamic physicians. Although Hippocrates was a key figure in the

development of Islamic medicine, his complete set of writings were never fully translated

into Arabic.2 With the translation of Greek works, Islamic scientists and physicians were

then ready to expand the original ideas and critic previous Greek writings based on their

own experiences.3 In Abu Bakr ar-Razi’s later work, he criticized parts of Galen’s

writings in his book, Doubts Against Galen.4

1
Manfred Ullman, Islamic Medicine (George Square, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1978), xi.
2
Ullman, 11, 15.
3
Paul Lunde, “Science: The Islamic Legacy” in Science: The Islamic Legacy (Washington D.C.: Aramco
Publishing, 2006), 5.
4
Azim A. Nanji, editor, The Muslim Almanac (Detroit, MI: Gale Research Inc., 1996), 202.
2

“The Arabic speaking intelligentsias of Baghdad were of course aware, through

their contacts with Greek speaking Muslims and Christians, of the great achievements of

classical scientists.”5 In 431 CE, Nestorian Christians faced persecution for their religious

beliefs and found a new home in Persia. With them came great knowledge of Greek

astronomy and medicine, both of which began to shape the Dar al-Islam. According to

some scholars, “there was therefore, no complete rupture between the late classical and

the Muslim world, as far as the scientific tradition was concerned.”6

The Umayyad Caliphate, which lasted from approximately 661-750 CE saw the

very first translations of Greek scientific writings into Arabic, however, it was not until

this caliphate was overthrown by the Abassid Caliphate that rapid developments in

Islamic medicine truly occurred. Under the Abassids, the Bayt al-Hikmah, or Royal

Library, was created in Baghdad and became a center for Islamic medical studies.7

During the late Abassid Caliphate, and of course after the caliphate’s overthrow of power

Muslim medicine survived under the patronage of rivaling princes and institutions of

learning, “which flourished even with the disintegration of the unitary empire and the

establishment of local dynasties and principalities8. Advances in surgical procedure and

licensing of physicians are just a few of the indicators of progress, which occurred during

this time. Another contributing factor for the advancement of Islamic medicine was the

process of papermaking, which had derived from the East. This invention was noticed by

the Arabs in 751 CE and instantly created a medium for the spread of Islamic medical

research and knowledge.9


5
Lunde, 3.
6
Lunde,4, 5.
7
Muhammad Salim Khan, Islamic Medicine (Boston: Routledge and Keagan Paul, 1986), 11, 14.
8
Nanji, 197, 198.
9
Paul Lunde, “Science in Al-Andalus” in Science: The Islamic Legacy (Washington D.C.: Armaco
Publishing, 2006), 21.
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There has been a debate among scholars as to whether the term Arabic

medicine, or Islamic medicine is the best title for the advancement of medicine in Arab-

speaking countries during the Islamic “Golden Age,” which lasted roughly from the

middle of the 6th century CE up until the beginning of the 14th century CE.10 While it is

true that many physicians of the time, such as ar-Razi and Ibn Sina were in fact Persians,

and not Arabs, their following of the Islamic faith is what identifies this advancement of

medicine as an Islamic achievement.11 Islamic physicians realized their moral

responsibility, and their duty to God in their profession. They followed the Hadiths and

the Koran in their practices. The Koran states that ‘“when I am ill, it is He who cures

me,’” thus physicians understood and believed their work to be truly the work of God.12

Though many of these physicians were not Arabic by birth, they did however, “live

within the sphere of Islamic culture and have helped in a most enduring way to shape this

[Islamic] culture and to give it its particular stamp.”13

A very instrumental figure in the transmission of Greek medical thought into the

Islamic World was Hunayn Ibn Ishaq. He was born the son of an apothecary in 808 CE,

who sent him to Baghdad, determined that he would study medicine.14 He translated

Galen and Hippocrates into Arabic under the patronage of various caliphs and elites. His

work shaped the Arabic language into a scientific language by introducing “analytical-

syntactical constructions, which made Arabic into an instrument capable of expressing

10
Richard C. Martin, editor, Encyclopedia of Islam and the Muslim World (New York: Macmillan
Reference USA, 2004), 445.
11
Manfred Ullman, Islamic Medicine (George Square, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1978), xi.
12
Abul Fadl Mohsin Ebrahim, Organ Transplantation, Euthanasia, Cloning, and Animal Experimentation
(Kano, Nigeria: The Islamic Foundation, 2001) 17.
13
Ullman, xi.
14
Paul Lunde, “Science in the Golden Age” in Science: The Islamic Legacy (Washington D.C.: Armaco
Publishing, 2006), 10, 11.
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complicated and abstract ideas.”15 He did not merely translate the works of others, but he

was the author of many medical sources as well. He is said to have completed at least

twenty-nine of his own medical writings. In his text, Kitab al-Mudkhal fi t-Tibb, Ibn

Ishaq explains the fundamental of Islamic Medicine and its problems.

One of the greatest classical Islamic physicians, Abu-Bakr Muhammad ibn-

Zakariyya’ar-Razi, was born in 865 CE to the city of Rayy, what is now Tehran. He, like

many of the physicians of the time, were accomplished in many areas of study. He was

instrumental in the development of Islamic society’s first hospitals, and was the director

for the both the hospital of Rayy and Baghdad.16 During his life he is wrote no less than

184 works, many of which were devoted to medical studies.17 He used animal

experimentation to introduce the idea of mercury compounds as a purgative. After his

death his pupils compiled and published twenty-three volumes of ar-Razi’s writings,

which is known as the Kitab al-Hawi. He probably never meant for them to be published,

for they were mostly material notes of his own observations during experiments, however

they proved useful for many future physicians.18 His most famous work is notably shorter

than much of his other writings, and is called de Pestilentia, which examined smallpox,

chicken pox, and measles. This work was a very valuable source in dealing with these

contagious diseases in both the Middle East and Europe.19 Ar-Razi has undoubtedly

achieved great works for the advancement of Islamic medicine, however, his uniqueness

can be attributed to his “open advocacy of experiment and observation.”20

15
Manfred Ullman, Islamic Medicine (George Square, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1978), 8.
16
Ullman, 43.
17
Lunde, 11.
18
Ullman, 43.
19
Richard C. Martin, editor, Encyclopedia of Islam and the Muslim World (New York: Macmillan
Reference USA, 2004), 446.
20
Paul Lunde, “Science in the Golden Age” in Science: The Islamic Legacy (Washington D.C.: Armaco
Publishing, 2006), 11.
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Abu-l-Qasim Jhalaf ibn-al- ‘Abbas az-Zahrawi lived from approximately 930-

1013 CE and was known for his work in the advancement of surgery as a field of Islamic

medicine.21 He became a physician in Cordoba under the patronage of Caliph ar-Rahman

III. During this time he wrote an extensive medical encyclopedia consisting of thirty

treatises. Al-Zahrawi’s most important contributions to Islamic Medicine, however, were

due to his expertise as a surgeon. His extensive knowledge of the human body and of

surgical skills is apparent in his text, Kitab al-Tasrif orThe Book of Concessions, which

served as an illustrated surgical guide for centuries to come.22 “As a result surgery, which

up till now had been left to cuppers and barbers, was thanks to Abu ‘l Qasim al-Zahrawi,

completely integrated into scientific medicine.”23

Working in the medical field in the same period of al-Zahrawi was arguably the

greatest physician of classical Islamic medicine. Abu-‘Ali al-Husayn ibn-‘Abd-Allah ibn-

Sina, is known today as the “‘prince of physicians,’” for the very fact that he shaped the

face of both Muslim and European medicine.24 In the year 980 CE Ibn Sina was born in

the city of Bukara, however, he spent much time traveling through Persia, until finally

settling in Jurjan. According to his own biography, he began practicing medicine as a

physician at age sixteen.25 His contributions to Islamic medicine are plenty, however he is

most famous for his extremely well read Qanun fi al-Tibb or Cannon of Medicine. This

five volume work is based off of the ideas of Greek thinkers, Galen and Hippocrates,

although Ibn Sina rarely quotes them directly. He did not develop any necessarily new

ideas, nor did he include any personal experiences with patients. It is interesting to note,

21
Martin, 447.
22
Muhammad Salim Khan, Islamic Medicine (Boston: Routledge and Keagan Paul, 1986), 14.
23
Manfred Ullman, Islamic Medicine (George Square, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1978), 44.
24
Khan, 14.
25
Manfred Ullman, Islamic Medicine (George Square, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1978), 45.
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that while Arabic was usually the language used for intellectual as well as religious

writings, Ibn Sina originally wrote his works in his native language of Perian, and they

were later translated into Arabic.26 His Qanun provided a base of knowledge for

physicians, which was used in Europe and the Middle East until the 16th century.27

Perhaps the most influential achievement of Islamic medicine was the creation of

the hospital as an institution of medical care. The idea for these hospitals was based on

the idea of a broad healthcare program developed by Walid B. Abdal-Malik at the

beginning of the 8th century CE. The first actual hospital was built during the Abassid

Caliphate by Harun al-Rashid in Baghdad in 745 CE.28 This hospital or bimaristan,

became the “cradle of the Baghdad school of medicine.”29 The institution and the

establishment of hospitals spread throughout Islamic societies. Caliphs would oversee the

building, and each hospital was open to the general public regardless of religion, sex, or

ethnicity. Medical staff, physicians, and patient care were funded through endowments

and charitable acts.30 The hospital also served as a place of intellectual learning with

physicians from all over the Arab world coming to give lectures on their studies.

Adudi Hospital in Baghdad, which was built in 982 CE, employed twenty-four

physicians and surgical specialists. A traveler who visited the hospital explained “‘it was

as large as a castle and had its own water supply from the Tigris River.’”31 The large

hospital in Cordoba also had running water, as well as separate wards for different types

26
Richard C. Martin, editor, Encyclopedia of Islam and the Muslim World (New York: Macmillan
Reference USA, 2004), 447.
27
Ullman, 46
28
Azim A. Nanji, editor, The Muslim Almanac (Detroit, MI: Gale Research Inc., 1996), 201.
29
Muhammad Salim Khan, Islamic Medicine (Boston: Routledge and Keagan Paul, 1986), 14.
30
Nanji, 202.
31
Azim A. Nanji, editor, The Muslim Almanac (Detroit, MI: Gale Research Inc., 1996), 202.
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of illnesses. Each of these facilities were open twenty-four hours a day and were

forbidden to turn any patient away without adequate medical treatment.32

Those on Arab soil were not the only individuals to profit from the Islamic

advancement of medicine in the Middle Ages. Europeans would soon acquire great

knowledge from their neighbors to the East. Due to various political, cultural, and

economic factors, Europe’s intellectual activity and exploration during the Middle Ages

had reached an incredible low. Ancient manuscripts and sources of intellectual thought

had been lost in the chaos. In contrast, during the Middle Ages Islamic medicine had been

flourishing. Through the translation of Arabic, the transfer of knowledge occurred to the

West occurred. By the 10th century CE, scientific works were being translated from

Arabic to Latin.33 The transfer of Islamic medical thought was transfused throughout both

Spain and Sicily, however many scholars note that “the Iberian Peninsula was the real

home of the scientific revival in the West.”34 There were enormous institutions of

translation in both Toledo and Catalonia. Because of the nature of its practicality and

utility, the subject of medicine was a very popular subject for translation in each of these

schools.

During the second half of the 11th century CE a man from modern-day Tunisia

contributed greatly to the spread of medical thought. Constantine the African translated

many Arabic copies of Greek work, enhancing the base of European medical knowledge.

This man supposedly traveled to Italy as a merchant, there he was converted to

32
Paul Lunde, “Science in the AL-Adalus” in Science: The Islamic Legacy (Washington D.C.: Armaco
Publishing, 2006), 23.
33
Paul Lunde, “The Bodleian Remembers” in Science: The Islamic Legacy (Washington D.C.: Armaco
Publishing, 2006), 30.
34
Franco Cardini. Europe and Islam (Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishers Inc., 2001), 90.
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Christianity and joined a monastery. He spent the reminder of his life rebuilding

European libraries through his translations of Arabic works.35

Many Islamic physician’s works were translated and read alongside the writings

of Greek thinkers. Ibn Sina, for example was considered second to only that of Galen and

Hippocrates themselves. His Qanun was copied no less than thirty-six times and was used

in European universities up until the 16th century CE.36 In Europe, with “the subsequent

major scientific advancements that came with Claude Bernard’s theory of the internal

milieu, van Leewnhoek’s discovery of the microscope, and other advances quickly

pushed medicine to a secular, empirical basis and the importance of the contributions of

the Arabic texts was largely forgotten.”37 Though, for various reasons the influence of

Islamic scientific studies has been largely forgotten, the advances of Muslim medicine

did in fact give way to these European developments, and essentially allowed for

intellectual exploration to occur in the West.

35
Manfred Ullman, Islamic Medicine (George Square, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1978), 53.
36
Ullman, 46.
37
Richard C. Martin, editor, Encyclopedia of Islam and the Muslim World (New York: Macmillan
Reference USA, 2004), 447.