Tue 26 Jun 2007
[Illustration: Miniature illustrating the treatment of a patient, Serefeddin Sabuncuoglu. Jarrahiyatu’l-Hâniya. Millet Library, Ali Emiri, Tib 79.
In the 7th century Muhammad set in motion one of the world’s great religions, Islam. As an Arabian prophet, Muhammad spoke of the same God known to Jews and Christians for centuries. The message received by Muhammad, and revered today by over a billion Muslims, is contained in the Arabic Qur’an. Although the focus of this scripture is on the spiritual health of mankind, there are also numerous statements regarding physical health and emotional wellbeing. Muhammad himself often spoke regarding medicine and diet, and his words are accepted as authoritative only beneath the level of God’s revelation in the Qur’an. As Muslim scholars in later centuries encountered the medical traditions of classical Greece, Syriac tradition, and India, they compared this indigenous knowledge with the Qur’anic view of man and the prophet’s statements about health. Eventually, a specific literary genre called the “Prophet’s Medicine,” or al-tibb al-nabawi in Arabic, came into existence. In the texts of this genre Muslim scholars tried to merge the most accepted and current scientific knowledge about medicine with the folklore of Muhammad’s Arabia.
Medieval Islamic scholars preserved, in large part, the medical knowledge of classical civilization at a time when Western scholarship was dimmed under the so-called Dark Ages. In the early 9th century A.D. the caliph al-Ma‘mun sponsored the translation of numerous Greek and Syriac medical texts, including over 100 written by the famous Greek authority, Galen. It is easy, as some scholars have done, to focus mainly on the role that Muslim scholars played in transmitting earlier medical knowledge without paying due attention to original contributions from medieval Arab physicians, scholars and herbalists. However, by the year 1350 A.D. some 4000 medical books had been written in Arabic. Indeed, Arabic was so much the lingua franca of medical school that even in the 17th century the Englishman William Harvey, who discovered the principle of circulation of blood, learned Arabic in order to read important Arabic medical texts. He would have been heartened to note that some four centuries earlier a certain Ibn al-Nafis was the first to accurately define pulmonary circulation. Arabic texts were the first to describe smallpox, peptic ulcers, hay fever, hemophilia, tuberculosis, among other major diseases. Arab surgeons invented catgut and popularized the use of alcohol as an antiseptic, along with cotton bandages. To write a history of medicine over the past fifteen hundred years would include many centuries when Muslim physicians were the primary contributors.
But what of the medical knowledge at the time of Muhammad, Islam’s prophet? The genre of the Prophet’s Medicine gives us a mixed view, having been written after the influence of other medical traditions and several centuries after the beginning of Islam. Yet the statements attributed to Muhammad point to a rich folklore and a herbal tradition well documented in later texts. There may not have been any hospitals or medical schools in 7th century Mecca, but there were certainly many men and women with ideas on how to stay healthy and how to cure certain diseases. As is true of any folk scientific tradition, it is necessary to sort through the customs to separate the practical from the fanciful. Unlike today, most people at this time firmly believed in occult powers and magic was for a long time an ever-present part of the medical folklore. But the same was also true for common sense and experience. Since there are parts of this “folklore” genre which have scientific value, it is worth working through the mixed information to see what still might be of value today.
It is not surprising that Muslims looked to the wisdom of the prophet Muhammad for the practical application of ideas about maintaining body and soul. The ideas in the Qur’an, which were regarded as God’s truth, were supplemented by statements Muhammad and his early followers made. These statements were codified in the collections of traditions, which attempted to establish which statements had been reliably reported and which had not. These large collections sometimes contained a specific chapter on medicine. In many cases, however, traditions relevant to health and medicinal treatment were scattered in various chapters. So it was inevitable that eventually scholars with a medical focus would collect appropriate traditions into a single text.
Some of these books were probably learning tools for advanced students, such as the collection of forty traditions extracted from the Sunan of Ibn Majah by the 13th century scholar ‘Abd al-Latif al-Baghdadi. Such a text was meant to be memorized by the student. In the case of al-Baghdadi’s text this was especially propitious because Muhammad once said that whoever memorized forty traditions would have an intercessor on the day of judgment. This collection begins with the most fundamental of all traditions for the Muslim serving a just and merciful God. Muhammad asserted that God never sends a disease without also sending a cure. This was not only a comfort to those who were afflicted by disease but also an impetus for doctors and scientists to seek cures.
Taken as a whole, the forty traditions arranged by al-Baghdadi provide a summary of the range of subjects covered in the genre of the prophet’s medicine. There are prescriptions against drinking wine, descriptions of fevers, dietary advice for the sick, the medicinal value of certain herbal plants and foods, problems of aging, discussion of specific diseases, recommendations for body lotions and skin treatments, and directions for cupping and scarification. If a student already knew his medicine, this would be a useful summary. For the novice it would no doubt stimulate the appetite for further study. All in all it was clear that religious knowledge and medicine went hand in hand.
It is not clear when the idea of writing books specifically on the medicine of the prophet took hold. The information itself had been available in tradition collections and encyclopaedic works on the sciences. There were, of course, technical medical treatises and translations of interest primarily to physicians and scholars. But the literary genre of al-tibb al-nabawi had a more popular appeal combining religious and scientific prescriptions with practical advice on everyday health problems. There was certainly no mass-market orientation in the age before printing, but the subject would have been relevant and of interest to a wide section of the population. In that it promoted high regard for Muhammad, there was a strong religious argument for knowing the information by heart. Many of the practical prescriptions were based on existing folklore and thus not far removed from traditional practices throughout the Middle East.
One of the earliest recorded texts on the prophet’s medicine was compiled for the Caliph al-Ma’mun, who reigned from A.D. 833-842, by ‘Ali al-Riza, but this text has not survived. ‘Abd al-Latif al-Baghdadi, who died in A.D. 1231, wrote a major text entitled Medicine from the Book and the Life of the Prophet (Al-Tibb min al-Kitab wa-al-Sunna). Al-Baghdadi was a widely travelled man and an inquisitive scholar. On a trip to Egypt he once saw more than 2000 skulls of famine victims near Cairo. His personal examination of these skulls led him to correct a mistake in Greek anatomy, when he discovered the unity of the lower maxilla. He was also the author of a major medical text on diabetes.
In the 13th century A.D. two more more famous texts were composed. One was by Muhammad ibn Ahmad al-Dhahabi, a prolific scholar who also compiled an Islamic History in 36 volumes. This widely traveled authority, of Turkoman origin, eventually became a respected professor in Damascus. A near contemporary was Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziya, whose rendition is better known since it was published in Cairo at the end of the 19th century and has been reprinted numerous times since then. The most popular text, at least according to the number of copies that are to be found in manuscript libraries, appears to be that of Jalal al-Din al-Suyuti, who lived in Egypt in the latter half of the 15th century. Al-Suyuti was a child prodigy in religious terms, having memorized the Qur’an by age eight. All of the surviving texts are virtually the same, having simply been copied by each succeeding scholar. This was the standard academic practice in the medieval academy and should not be looked at in the same way as plagiarism holds in academic circles today. The idea was to provide accurate transcription of past information rather than to be creative.
To be continued
Daniel Martin Varisco
This excerpt was originally published as “The Prophet’s Medicine: Part 1,” The World & I, 9/12:262-271, December, 1994.