Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Islamic medicine

Man with white beard reading or teaching from book

During the expansion of the Empire of Islam and its ensuing Golden Age, physicians from Spain to Samarkand advanced the medical sciences by reviving existing Greek medicine and adding their own innovations.1 There were many prominent physicians, dating back to the days of the Prophet himself. Often associated with hospitals or schools of pharmacy, some were members of the important Academy of Jundi-Shapur in south-west Persia.2 Distinguished physicians worked at the Umayyad court in Damascus, but the great flowering took place later at the Abbasid capital of Baghdad, especially during the reign of Harun al Rashid and his successors.

We select here the most prominent physicians, and reference those written about in this journal, designating them by their Latinized as well by their Arabic names:

Mesua (Yalhya ibn Masawaih, c. 777–857), was a Persian or Assyrian who became director of a hospital in Baghdad and personal physician to four caliphs. He wrote an important anatomy book called Kitab at-tashrih, and also composed medical treatises on fevers, leprosy, headache, eye diseases, melancholy, diet, as well as a set of aphorisms called Axioms of medicine.

Man in turban treating eye of young boy

Joannitius (Hunayn ibu Ishaq el Ibadi, 809–873), director of the House of Wisdom in Baghdad, probably the most well-known and industrious translator of his era, translated more than one hundred manuscripts from Greek. He knew the four major languages of his time: Greek, Syriac, Persian, and Arabic, and has been called “the sheikh of the translators.” He is credited with an immense number of translations on medicine, philosophy, astronomy, and mathematics.

Rhazi (Abu Bakr Muhammad ibn Zakariya al-Razi, 865–925),1,3 the most learned physician of his time, was born near present-day Teheran and became director of a hospital in Baghdad. Author of an eight-volume encyclopedia of medicine, he also contributed to chemistry, physics, biology, and philosophy. He distinguished smallpox from measles, described allergic asthma, and is considered one of the fathers of pediatrics.

Al Kindi (c. 801–c. 873),1 the “Philosopher of the Arabs,” was physician and also mathematician. In Baghdad, he oversaw the translation of Greek scientific and philosophical texts into Arabic, and wrote on metaphysics, ethics, logic, psychology, medicine, pharmacology, mathematics, astronomy, astrology, and optics, and also on perfumes, swords, jewels, glass, dyes, zoology, tides, mirrors, meteorology, and earthquakes. He introduced the Indian numerals to the Islamic and Christian world, and developed a scale to allow doctors to quantify the potency of their medication.

Haly Abbas (Ali ibn al-‘Abbas al-Majusi, or Masoudi, 982–994), was a Persian1 physician and psychologist. He is remembered for his textbook on medicine and psychology, the Kitab al-Maliki or Complete Book of the Medical Art.

Albucasis (Abu Al-Qasim Khalaf Ibn Al-Abbas Al-Zahrawi, 936–1013 AD),4 born near Cordova in Spain, was one of the most renowned surgeons of the Muslim era, also skilled in using simple and compound remedies and therefore known as the “Pharmacist Surgeon.”3 His greatest contribution is the Kitab Al-Tasrif, a thirty-volume encyclopedia of medical and surgical practice, with books on cauterization, incision, perforation, venesection, wounds, and bone-setting.

Al Hazen (Hasan Ibn al-Haytham, c. 965–c. 1040)1 came from Basra but lived in Cairo under the Fatimid Caliphate. Scientist, mathematician, astronomer, and philosopher, he made significant contributions to optics, astronomy, mathematics, meteorology, visual perception, and the scientific method. He discussed spherical and parabolic mirrors, lenses and vision. He believed that a hypothesis must be proven by experiments and was honored in medieval Europe as the “Second Ptolemy” or “The Physicist.”

Avicenna (Ibn Sinna, 980–1037)5-7 was born near Bukhara and remembered for his Canon of Medicine. He had been characterized as “one of the most extraordinary men ever to grace this earth,” one the “giants of medieval times,” and “the prototype of the successful physician who was at the same time statesman, teacher, philosopher, and literary man.” His impact on medicine in the West lasted until well into the seventeenth century, and apart from medicine and philosophy, he also made significant contributions to mathematics, physics, astronomy, psychology, geology, religion, music, and poetry. In his lifetime he was a legend and his name still evokes awe.

Avenzoar (Abumeron, or Abu Merwan Abd-al-Malik ibn Zuhr, beginning of twelfth century), was a member of a family of distinguished physicians, and wrote Al Teysir, a medical work believed to show more practical experience than the writings of Avicenna, that was translated into Latin and reprinted several times.

Man in turban

Averroes (Ibn Rushd, 1126–1198),8 born in Cordova, Spain, is most famous for his General Principles of Medicine, which included commentaries on Galen and Avicenna, and for centuries was an established textbook in European countries. In its Latin translation as The Colliget, it was used at the University of Padua as a scholastic book for instruction in medicine. He was much in favor of anatomy and dissection, and wrote about Parkinson’s disease, stroke, and sexual and erectile dysfunction. In therapeutics he relied on a combination of oral drugs and diet, and studied the treatment of poisons and venoms by the appropriate antidote.

Ibn al-Nafis,9 born in Syria in 1213 before moving to Egypt, he worked at the Al-Mansouri Hospital in Cairo and became chief physician and personal physician to the Sultan. He rejected the long-held dogma of Galen that blood passed from the right ventricle to the left through pores in the interventricular septum, rather than through the pulmonary circulation. He also described the coronary circulation, the cranial nerves, the anatomy of the gall bladder and the eye, and also wrote on law, theology, philosophy, sociology, and astronomy.

Maimonides (Moses bin Maimon, or Abū Umran Mūsā ibn Maymūn ibnʿUbayd Allāh, 1135–1204), a Hebrew rabbi and Torah scholar, was also a preeminent physician and astronomer. Born in Spain, he moved to Cairo and became a practicing physician. His fame as a physician spread rapidly, and he became the court physician to the sultan Saladin. He also continued a private practice and lectured before his fellow physicians at the state hospital.

References and further reading in Hektoen International

  1. Philosophy of science and medicine series – VI: Islamic science by Philip R. Liebson
  2. The medical university of Jundi-Shapur by Andrew Miller
  3. Muhammad ibn Zakariya al-Razi by Ramin Sam
  4. Abulcasis, the pharmacist surgeon by Fadlurrahman Manaf
  5. Avicenna, the prince of physicians by Shireen Rafeeq
  6. Ibn Sīnā cures a prince who thinks he is a cow by Alan S. Weber
  7. Episteme and translation in an annotated copy of the Canon of Medicine by Ibn Sīnā (Avicenna) by Adam Komorowski and Sang Ik Song
  8. Ibn Rushd (Averroes), medieval polymath
  9. Ibn al-Nafis and the pulmonary circulation

GEORGE DUNEA, MD, Editor-in-Chief

Fall 2018



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