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Volume 13, Number 5May 1962

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Golden Age Of Muslim Medicine

A wave of enlightenment swept through the healing arts of medieval Islam.

At a time when Europe still believed sick people were possessed by devils, the practice of healing became an art in Arabia. Custodians of Greek and Roman science, the Arabs blended the best of Syrian, Persian and Indian medicine during the ninth to eleventh centuries. So esteemed was medicine that physicians enjoyed such rare privileges as dining with the caliph, remaining seated in his presence and treating members of the royal family. Some even became court officials. Early in the period, no man was more respected than Johannitius, the "shaikh of translators," credited with translating some 200 works of Aristotle, Galen and Hippocrates. The most original clinician was Rhazes. Popular because of his pleasing bedside manner, Rhazes was a busy practitioner, hospital head and consultant. Yet he found time to pen over 235 tracts. More than 300 years after his death, his famous "al-Hawi" was one of nine books in the Paris medical school library. Rhazes was followed by the brightest star of all—Avicenna. The unorthodox, argumentative physician wrote a comprehensive "Canon of Medicine" that was the medical Bible for six centuries. Despite the brilliance of Rhazes and Avicenna, surgery remained suspect until Albucasis, "Islam's greatest surgeon," raised its stature. Many of his procedures and instruments have been refined only slightly to this day. Avenzoar, working in Spain, was first to detect throat cancer; and in Cairo, Alhazen diagramed the intricacies of the eye. These men and others created a body of medicine matchless in its scope and lasting impact.

Perhaps because Arabia Felix supplied the world with exotic herbs and spices, pharmacy reached new heights under the Arabs. Even today the term "Arabian medicine" means cure by natural methods, and as far back as Rhazes the Arabs be lieved that no other remedy should be prescribed when a physician could heal through diet. Not content to use only native "materia medica," they scoured the globe for other medicinals. From the Hindus they borrowed aconite and mercury, and expeditions returned with senna, camphor, sandalwood and tamarind. These substances—as well as ambergris for cramps, colchicum for arthritis, borax as a dentifrice—were in common use. Avicenna listed some 760 drugs that came from Arab laboratories, where raw drugs were evaporated, filtrated, crystallized and distilled. Some drugs were rendered more palatable by mixing them with syrups, gums and fruit rinds. Early Arab physicians compounded their own medicines, but when drugs became highly diversified, pharmacology came into being. The Arabian pharmacist, like the doctor, was universally renowned for his knowledge and integrity. Rigidly supervised by "muhtasibs," inspectors appointed by the caliphs to keep watch over ccupations relating to public health, pharmacy developed into a revered profession second only to medicine. The two went hand in hand to create a golden age in Muslim medicine.

This article appeared on pages 8-11 of the May 1962 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for May 1962 images.