Imam Dr Zijad’s Corner: Islam’s Gifts: The Foundation of Renaissance (Part 3)

Medical Science

Since the science of medicine is important to human welfare, its advancement has been continuous from the ancient times. Diverse civilizations contributed to its progress to the present days. Islamic civilization is an important link in the chain of the progress. Medicine is one of the branches of science in which Muslims excelled the most. Thus it could be said that it is, indeed, one of the most famous facets of the Islamic civilization.

Muslims readily adopted all available knowledge in the field of medicine from the medical lore of the Greeks, Persians and Egyptians. Muslim scientists then furthered its development. The greatest contributions of Muslim medical scientists to Europe of the Middle Ages, besides establishment of hospitals, clinical observation of diseases, creativity in the field of optics, were in the encyclopedia field. It is worth mentioning some of the famous names of Muslim scholars of early times who contributed to the world of medical knowledge:

Al Razi or Rhazes (865-925 C.E.) wrote an important and immense encyclopedia of medicine in nine volumes – Al Hawi (The Large Comprehensive or Continens Liber) which remained among the most essential medical references in Europe for 600 years. Al Hawi sums up the knowledge that Muslims learned from Greek, Persian and Hindu sources as well as knowledge developed by Muslims. Al Razi’s writings were translated and published in Sicily in 1279 C.E. His treatise on measles and smallpox was also translated several times until the 18th century and according to Sarton many contributions to gynecology, obstetrics and ophthalmic surgery can be traced back to Al Razi.

Ibn Sina or Avicenna (980-1037 C.E.) was another great Muslim intellectual named by compatriots and contemporaries the Shaikh al Ra’is or Leader of Wise Men. He is the greatest philosopher-scientist of Islam and its most influential figure in arts and science. Ibn Sina gifted the world and humanity with the final codification of Greco-Arabic medical thought – a five volume work called “Qanoun or Canon (Precepts) of Medicine” which dealt with physiology, hygiene, pathology, therapeutics and Materia Medica. This work was translated into Latin by Gerard di Cremona in the 12th century and became the most authentic textbook of medicine in the Middle Ages together with Al Razi’s work, Al Hawi. Another important work of Ibn Sina is his monumental encyclopedia Kitab al Shifa (On Healing).

The influence of Ibn Sina on both East and West was immense. In the Muslim world, his spirit has dominated the intellectual activity of all later periods while his philosophy and medicine have continued as a living influence to the present day. In the West, he became known as the Prince of Physicians and dominated medical science for centuries while his scientific, philosophical and theological views left their mark upon many important figures such as Albertus Magnus, St. Thomas Aquinas, Duns Scotus and Roger Bacon.

From the 12th to the 17th centuries, Ibn Sina’s work served as a bible for the medical science in the West. His writings were the basis of medical standards at French and Italian universities. Some of his works were translated and reprinted in Latin and Hebrew, including editions that were published in the 18th century.

Abul Qasim of Cordoba made an enormous influence upon the development of European surgery down to the renaissance. Ibn Rushd’s contributions to the field of neurology and neuroscience, ophthalmology and surgical instruments were exceptional. Ibn Zuhr’s (or Avenzoar) contributions included works on Bronchotomy, dislocations and fractures as well as treatment of skin diseases. Psycho-pathology and psychological treatment and the demonstration of the circulatory system were discoveries of Ibn al Nafees of the 13th century nearly 300 years before the time of William Harvey to whom these discoveries are mistakenly attributed today.

During the Golden Age of Islamic Civilization, Muslims established permanent hospitals and clinics and sent mobile medical teams to remote and small locations. Permanent hospitals had two wings based on gender. Hospitals had elaborate administrations, including a Physician-in-chief, and two departmental chiefs as well as support staff of nurses, cleaning and food services. Food was served to patients in covered trays and some hospitals had gardens to grow fresh vegetables and fruits for hospital use. Human and artistic touch was part of the healing process and entertainment for patients was also included as a psychological element in their treatment. There is evidence that medical care, including hospitalization, was free and available to the public. Hospital care was open to the general public, and was not limited to citizens but also to foreigners, travelers, merchants, and visitors. All patients admitted to hospitals received the needed care, plus clean and new clothes and enough financial support to live until they were able to resume their lives or careers.

(…to be continued in the next e-newsletter – part 4)