Islam’s Advancements in Anatomy

Human bodies have been a mystery to mankind since the earliest of creations.  The functions of its parts – from the intricacies of its hands and feet to the mission of the heart – have been in the limelight for centuries and advancement in this field is unyielding.  Medical sciences have taken an important part and we have become dependent on the theories found in our textbooks, many of which originated during the Islamic Empire.

Our current understanding of the human body takes its root in its analogy with animal structures.  The Greek physician Galen is credited with shifting the focus from the comparison of animals with humans to the understanding of human structure and function as its own using the existing field of anatomy.  The early dictionaries defined anatomy as “cutting of flesh from the bones” or “the expounding upon a question and thus exposing an obscurity.”  Knowing the Islamic views on the sacrilege of creation, it is important to understand its views regarding dissection of human bodies.  As evidence dictates, there were no legal or religious strictures banning the practice for educational purposes.  Instead, many Muslim scholars praised the study because it demonstrated Allah’s (SWT) wisdom and design.  The human body was not only viewed as an anatomical structure but was also studied for it being one of the wonders of the world.  Ibn Rushd even stated, “Whoever has been occupied with the science of anatomy has increased his belief in God.”

Islam expanded on Galen’s anatomical writings with detailed descriptions and new observations.  Because he presented his materials in a theological manner – signifying divinity – it was well received amongst Islamic physicians.  Much of the Islamic approach to anatomy concerned the depiction of the human skeleton. Muscles, nerves, and arteries are among several of the Islamic illustrations.  Other illustrations included bones, nerves, blood vessels, cartilages, membranes, ligaments, hair, and nails. However, one development which had no previous origin was the anatomy of a pregnant woman, which was first depicted by Ibn Ilyas. It demonstrated an “oval gravid uterus having the foetus in a breech or transverse position.” Another notable scholar is Abd al-Latif al-Baghdadi, who developed a description of the bones of the lower jaw and the sacrum in 1200 AD.

One of the Muslims’ most profound contributions to anatomy was the determination of the movement of blood through the lungs by the Syrian physician Ibn al-Nafis in 1242 AD.  His description of the blood movement was distinctive from Galen who illustrated a passage connecting the ventricles. However, Ibn al-Nafis discovered that the blood in the right ventricle of the heart must reach the left ventricle through the lungs.  This formulation of the pulmonary circulation was made three centuries before that of the first Europeans, Michael Servetus and Realdo Colombo who were born in the 1500s.

The Islamic Empire propelled the study of anatomy to greater distances with detailed descriptions and discoveries. Islamic scholars of the time brought the world closer to further solving the puzzle of the human body and its intricacies.  With every step in seeking knowledge, there is a reminder for the future from Allah (SWT) in the Holy Qur’an: “For every (revealed) tiding there is a term set for its fulfillment and in time you will come to know (its secret)” [6:67].

Savage-Smith, Emilie; Ming, F. Klein-Franke and Zhu,. “Ṭibb (a.).” Encyclopaedia of Islam, Second Edition. Edited by: P. Bearman , Th. Bianquis , C.E. Bosworth , E. van Donzel and W.P. Heinrichs. Brill, 2009. Brill Online.