Rafed English

Historical Background of Islamic Medince

In order to understand the milieu in which Islamic medicine was born, one has to understand the salient events in the advent of Islam and a few events just preceding the Islamic era. Arabia which was a large area covered mostly by an arid desert that was roamed by nomadic tribes of Bedouins. Certain communities had been established where the trade routes intersected and water was available. Mecca was along the Yaman- Damascus trade route. It was considered a holy city and a sanctuary. The Kaaba or house of worship was replete with idols of different gods each representing a tribe or community.

These Bedouins had their own tribal moral or ethical codes of conduct and idolatry was in practice. Blood feuds were common and attacking caravans along trade routes was a way of life. Sacrifices were often offered to appease the gods and burying of live female children was common practice. Family feuds were common and settling scores in order to uphold tribal honor led to frequent bloody encounters in which many people were killed.

Women and children were treated as 'chattels' or private possessions and became the property of the winner. This era of Arabia is frequently referred by Muslims as 'Jahilliya' or age of ignorance. Islam was not only to bring dramatic changes in the religious practices of these warring nomadic tribes but also unite them into an unprecedented social and cultural nation that very quickly was to develop into a strong political entity, with its own system of administration, justice, and military power, all under one leadership.

The first leader of the Islamic State was no doubt the Prophet of Islam, Mohammed but then his four successors called the 'Pious Caliphs' were to quickly consolidated and expand the nation. Within one hundred years of coming into existence, the Islamic empire had spread from Spain in the west, to China in the east, and encompassed in its midst, the whole of northern Africa ,Egypt, Syria, Palestine, Transjordan ,Central Asia and parts of western India. Later it was to be even carried further by the Muslim merchants to the shores of the far east including the Malaysian peninsula, the islands of the East Indies and Indonesia.

In its early era and for several centuries, the Islamic empire was centrally governed by a leader or 'Caliph' and administered by provincial governors. The first four Caliphs were elected democratically but the later the Caliphate became dynastic. Later still a western Caliphate was established in Spain. In later history the Islamic Nation was to break up into various kingdoms, as the provincial rulers become more autonomous and independent of the center and was ultimately to be overrun by the Sejluk Turks who were the forerunners of the Ottoman empire.

It was during the early Caliphates of the 'Ummayads' and the 'Abbasids' that the maximum development of Islamic Medicine took place. It was also during this time and under the patronage of these Caliphs that the great physicians both muslim and non-muslim thrived, accumulated the wealth of medical knowledge and cultivated a system of medicine that was to be later called 'Islamic Medicine'.

The early era of Islamic Medicine and the School of medicine at Jundishapur:

Jundishapur or 'Gondeshapur' was a city in Khuzistan founded by a Sasnid emperor Shapur I (241-272 AD) before the advent of ISLAM.It was to settle Greek prisoners, hence the name 'Wandew Shapur' or 'acquired by Shapur.' In present day western Persia the site is marked by the ruins of Shahbad near the city of Ahwaz. The town was taken by Muslims during the caliphate of Hadrat Umar, by Abu Musa Al-Ashari in (17 AH/738 AD ). At this time it already had a well established Hospital and Medical school.

Many Syrians took refuge in the city when Antioch was captured by Shapur I. In fact the latter nicknamed the city 'Vehaz-Andevi Shapur' or 'Shapur is better than Antioch.' The closing of the Nestorian School of Edessa by Emperor Zeno in 489 AD led to the Nestorians fleeing from there and seeking refuge in Jundishapur under patronage of Shapur II, which got an academic boost as a result.

The Greek influence was already predominant in Jundishapur when the closing of the Athenian school in 529 AD by order of the Byzantine emperor Justinian drove many learned Greek physicians to this town. A University with a medical school and a hospital were established by Khusraw Anushirwan the wise (531-579 AD) where the Greeco-Syriac medicine blossomed. To this was added medical knowledge from India brought by the physician vizier of Anushirwan called 'Burzuyah.'

On his return the latter brought back from India the famous 'Fables of Bidpai', several Indian Physicians, details of Indian Medical Texts and a Pahlavi translation of the 'Kalila and Dimma.' Khusraw was even presented a translation of Aristotleian Logic and philosophy. Thus at the time of the Islamic invasion the school of Jundishapur was well established and had become renowned as a medical center of Greek, Syriac and Indian learning.

This knowledge had intermingled to create a highly acclaimed and state of the art Medical school and hospital. After the advent of Islamic rule the University continued to thrive. In fact the first recorded Muslim Physician Harith bin Kalada, who was a contemporary of the Prophet acquired his medical knowledge at medical school and hospital at Jundishapur.

It is likely that the medical teaching at Jundishapur was modeled after the teaching at Alexandria with some influence from Antioch but it is important to note that 'the treatment was based entirely on scientific analysis, in true Hippocratic tradition', rather than a mix-up with superstition and rituals as was the case in Greek 'asclepieia' and Byzantine 'nosocomia'.

This hospital and Medical Center was to become the model on which all later Islamic Medical Scools and Hospitals were to be built .The School none the less thrived during the Ummayid caliphate and Sergius of Rasul'ayn translated medical and philosophical works of both Hippocrates and Galen into Syriac.These were later to be translated into Arabic casting an everlasting imprint onto all the future of Islamic Medicine.

It was during the Abbasid Caliphate that Caliph al-Mansur the founder of the city of Baghdad invited the then head of the Jundishapur School to treat him. This physician was Jirjis Bukhtyishu, a Christian whose name meant 'Jesus has saved'. He treated the Caliph successfully and got appointed to the court. He however did not stay permanently in Baghdad returning to Jundishapur before his death, but the migration to Baghdad had begun. Thus his son Jibrail Bukhtishu established practice in the city and became a prominent physician.

Another family that migrated from Jundishapur to Baghdad was the family of Masawayh who went at the invitation of Caliph Harun-ul-Rashid and became a famous Ophthalmologist. Most famous amongst his three sons who were physicians was Yuhanna ibn Masawayh (Mesue Senior). He wrote prolifically and 42 works are attributed to him. By this time second half of 2nd century after hijra (8th century AD) the fame of Baghdad began to rise as also the political power of the caliphate. Many hospitals and medical centers were established and tremendous intellectual activity was recorded. This culminated into the period of Islamic Renaissance and the golden era of Islamic Medicine of which description is given under a separate section.

The resources for development of Islamic Medicine: The Bait-ul-Hikma or 'The House of Wisdom':

'Bait-ul-Hikma' or House of Wisdom was founded in 214 AH 830 AD by the Caliph Al-Mamun an Abbasid Caliph. Ibn Al Nadim, who was the son of a bookseller and whose famous catalogue of books 'Firhist of Nadim' tells us of many of the Books of his time, relates this story of the Caliph: Aristotle appeared in the dream of the learned Caliph and told him that there was no conflict between reason and revelation. The Caliph thus set about searching for books and manuscripts of the ancient Greek philosophers and scientists. He sent an emissary to the Byzantine Emperor to get all the scientific manuscripts that were apparently stored in an old and dilapidated building. After initially turning him down the emperor granted him his request. Among the emissaries sent to select the works was the first director of the house of wisdom Salman, who was the one that led the delegation.

.Others in it were al Hajjaj Ibn Matar, Ibn al Batrik.They brought back with them many Greek scientific works and manuscripts. Translations of all of these was immediately started.However the translation of the medical works of the Greeks had started earlier during the reign of Caliph Harun al Rashid, with the building of the first hospital under the Caliph's patronage.

Ibn Nadim lists 57 Translators associated with he House of Wisdom. The one's who formed the first delegation to the Byzantine King have already been named. Other famous ones are as follows:

1. al Hajjaj ibn Yusuf ibn Matar completed translation of Euclid's elements. Other Greek authors including Aristotle, Archimedes, Pythogras, Theodesius, Jerash, Apollonius, Theon and Menelaus all were translated.

2. Muhammad ibn Mujsa al-Khwarizimi born in Khiva systematically explored arithmetic and al-gebra. The latter derived its name from his discourse: 'Kitab al-Jabr wa al-Muqabla.' Algebra was derived from the second letter and meant 'bone setting' a graphic description of operations on solving quadrantic equations.

3. The knowledge of geometry flourished and with it architecture and design. Ibn Khaldun was later to describe geometry as a science that 'enlightens the intelligence of man and cultivates rational thinking.'

4. Mamun's court astronomer was Musa ibn Shakir. His three sons Muhammad, Ahmad and al-Hassan devoted their lives to the search of knowledge. They exemplified the Prophetic traditions and dicta: 'Seek learning even if it be in China.' 'The search for knowledge is obligatory on every Muslim.' 'The ink of scholars is worth more than the blood of martyrs.'

5. The works of these learned men or 'Sons of Musa" were exceptionally creative. They wrote on: celestial mechanics, the atom, the origins of earth, Ptolemic universe, the properties of the ellipse, Planes and spheres, The knowledge of geometry served in practice to create canals, bridges and architectural designs.

6. Muhammad ibn Musa on one of his travels met Thabit ibn Qurra. The latter was master in three languages. Greek, Syraic and Arabic and soon got appointed to become the court astrologer to Caliph al-Mutadid. He was invaluable addition to the House of Wisdom. In 70 original works he wrote on every conceivable subject including mathematics, astronomy astrology, ethics, mechanics, physics, philosophy, and published commentaries on Euclid, Ptolemy, and other Greek thinkers and philosophers.

7. The two sons of Thabit ibn Qurra also became famous. Sinan was a famous physician in Baghdad. He was director of several hospitals and was court physician to three successive caliphs. His son Ibrahim also became a prominent scientist. He invented sundials and wrote a special treatise on this subject on this subject.

8. The greatest medical mind in the House of Wisdom was Hunain ibn Ishaq. Born in Hira Hunain was the son of an apothecary. He soon translated entire collection of Greek medical works including Galen, Hippocrates. Hunain was an extremely gifted and talented translator. From being just a literal translator he tended to be more scientific and duly interpreted the original text by cross reference, annotation and citing glossaries. His original contributions included 10 works on ophthalmology which were extremely systematic. He rose to the highest honor by being appointed the director of the House of Wisdom by Caliph al Mutawakkil.

9. Qusta ibn Luqa was another accomplished translator and scholar. He has 40 original contributions to his credit. He wrote on diverse subjects such as 'mirrors, hairs, fans, winds, logic, geometry and astronomy to name a few.

10. Yuhanna ibn Masawaih (Mesuse senior) was an early director of the House of Wisdom. He served under four caliphs. Al Mamun, al-Mutassim, al-Wathik and al-Mutawakkil. He wrote about medical especially gynecological problems.

11. The effect of the House of wisdom was tremendous. Islamic Science, philosophy, art and architecture all felt its effects. Agriculture, Government, prosperity and economic wealth were the benefactors. It ultimately was responsible to produce figures like Al-Kindi, Al-Farabi, some of the greatest thinkers, scientists and philosophers of Islam. Also some of the greatest Islamic Physicians had available to them all the knowledge of ancient Greece, Syria, India and Persia available to them and in turn they contributed by their astute observation and originality. The giants of Islamic Medicine and their achievements are described elsewhere.

Adapted from the book: "Islamic Medicine" by: "Husain F.Nagamia"

Share this article

Comments 0

Your comment

Comment description

Latest Post

Most Reviews