Islam and Medicine

With Islam’s growing contributions to every part of academia, it’s no surprise that Muslim scholars did not leave advancements in medicine for their Western counterparts, either. Even Geoffrey Chaucer, an English writer and diplomat in the 14th century whose life’s work had very little to do with medicine, knew that Muslim medical scholars had influenced the study of the subject the most alongside the Greeks. Chaucer’s description of the physician from The Canterbury Tales lists off two medical scholars whose teachings had contributed to his status as an exceptional doctor: Razis or al-Razi and Avicenna or Ibn Sina.1

Al-Razi was a renowned clinician who headed hospitals in Samanid, Baghdad, and Rayy, the city of his birth. His most important contribution to medicine was his Comprehensive Book on Medicine, a kind of encyclopedia full of articles written by earlier scholars regarding illnesses and therapies, as well as descriptions of many of al-Razi’s own clinical cases. After al-Razi’s death in 925 A.D., the Comprehensive Book was made available to al-Razi’s students as a guide for studying medicine and became an important source for early Indian, Greek and Arabic medical writings. In fact, European physicians had been using the Comprehensive Book as early as 1279, when it was first translated into Latin under the title “Continens.”

Other books written by al-Razi include his work on smallpox and measles, an invaluable resource for Europeans beset with both diseases, as well as his other treatises on subjects as diverse as medical aphorisms (one-liners easy to remember for physicians) and diseases of children to diabetes and maladies of the joints.2

Ibn Sina is already renowned for having made remarkable advances in the fields of astronomy and mathematics, and his contributions to medicine were no less impressive. Said to have developed a keen interest in medicine when he was 17, this precocious physician had begun diagnosing and curing royalty across the Islamic Empire at an astonishingly young age. Of the 16 medical works Ibn Sina published in his lifetime, the most profound was known as the Qanun. This massive tome is divided into five different books. “The first deals with general principles; the second with simple drugs arranged alphabetically; the third with diseases of particular organs and members of the body from the head to the foot; the fourth with diseases which though local in their inception spread to other parts of the body, such as fevers and the fifth with compound medicines.” 3

Within the Qanun, Ibn Sina made observations that hinted at medical procedures now deemed normal practice by modern-day physicians. For example, he recommended that the best way to treat  cancer was to remove the infected, diseased tissue from the body as soon as its presence was detected. He also recommended testing drugs and potential treatments on animals before human use, and theorized on the connection between the physical condition of a patient and their emotions or psychological state.

The Qanun was translated into Latin as “Canon” in the 12th century and subsequently went through 15 more editions in Latin, one in Hebrew, and a partial copy in English. It served as the chief guide to medicinal practices in the West for many centuries after its translation.

Abu Al-Qasim Al-Zahrawi, or Abulcasis, is known in both the East and West as the “father of modern surgery.” The greatest surgeon of his time, he paved the way for modern surgical procedures and set the standards for surgeons during the European Renaissance. In his book, The Method of Medicine, Al-Zahrawi presented data about a variety of medical topics and introduced over 200 new surgical instruments that were not known by any surgeons in that age. He also addressed the social aspect of treating medical conditions, such as stressing the importance of a good doctor-patient relationship and treating all patients in the best way possible regardless of their social status. The Method of Medicine also addressed how to shut off blood vessels 600 years before Ambroise Pare, as well as introduced the information about obstetrics and treatment of dislocated shoulders that are now regarded as “Walcher position” and “Kocher’s Method” respectively. Al-Zahrawi is also the inventor of the surgical needle and first introduced it in The Method of Medicine as well. When the book was translated into Latin in the 12th century, it became a leading source in Europe’s medical studies and was a guide for doctors and surgeons throughout their practice.

Al-Zahrawi also specialized in cauterization, which is burning a part of the body to remove a growth, stop blood loss (such as during an amputation), or prevent the spread of an infection. He was also the first to think of using the natural fiber of animal intestines, which turns out to be the only material accepted and dissolvable by the human body, to stitch internal wounds – a method which is still practiced in surgery today. Additionally, Al-Zahrawi began the method of preparing medicines through sublimation and distillation.

As influential as Muslim medical scholars themselves may have been, the new innovation of the hospital was just as beneficial to modern medicine as their studies and treatises. In the Islamic Empire, hospitals were known as “bimaristans,” taken from the Farsi words “bimar,” meaning sick, and “stan,” meaning place. Al-Razi, or the “father of pediatrics,” was the first to discover the relations between bacteria and infections. When they learned that ailments were contagious, they created the hospital as a place to keep sick people separated and grouped them within the hospital according to their symptoms. In this way, they were able to effectively treat illnesses as well as keep them from spreading. The hospital’s primary purposes were to serve as a center for medical treatment and recovery, and act as a shelter for the mentally ill, aged, or retired persons who did not have family to care for them. Later, Al-Razi’s observations of bacteria and infections made way for the use of antiseptics.

The hospital as we know it was first built in Baghdad during the 9th century, with another five hospitals being built in the city within the following century. As hospitals spread throughout the Islamic Empire, they became more organized and advanced, seeming almost modern in their standards for order and patient care. Most hospitals separated patients by their illnesses and had designated wards for women and the mentally ill. There were even regularly-operating pharmacies, out-patient clinics, and a rotating board of physicians that would take turns managing the patients under their supervision.4

The world’s first psychiatric institutions and pharmacies emerged during the Islamic Golden Age as well.

Whether it was through their treatises on diseases and drugs or putting the proper treatment of medical patients into practice, the Islamic empire quickly became the leaders in the field of medicine, setting a standard for how the human body should be studied and cared for that the rest of the world still follows today.

1 Medieval Islamic Medicine, U.S. National Library of Medicine
2 Al-Razi, the Clinician, U.S. National Library of Medicine
3 Ibn Sina
4 Hospitals, U.S. National Library of Medicine