Arabic Medicine: Preservation & Promotion
A Millennium of Achievement
Burns, S.P. and Fulder, S. Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine,  Vol 8 pp 407-410 (2002)


In the West we tend to look to the East for medical systems that are genuine alternatives to Western modern medicine.  It is generally held that Chinese medicine, which has become familiar to us in recent years, and Ayurvedic Medicine, which is less well known outside South Asia, are major and complete medical systems in their own right, with their own theories, world views, diagnostic and therapeutic practices and materia medica. It is to them that we go looking for novel therapies. But there is another medical system to rival them, right on our doorstep. It is Arabic medicine, or as it is sometimes described, Arabic/Hippokratic medicine.


It is the major local traditional medicine of many millions of Muslims in a huge area stretching from Morocco to Turkestan. It has its own methods of diagnosis, a rich theoretical basis, and a large herbal materia medica.  In countries such as Syria, Egypt and Pakistan, it is very much alive, with large number of practicing therapists (‘hakims’) who practice in an informal manner alongside the Western medical system. They are often the first call for common daily life health problems.  Yet not much is known about Arabic medicine in the West, and not much effort is made towards the exploration of its concepts and novel remedies, or their importation into the Western world: herbal companies tend to go East, or to Africa or the Amazon to look for new remedies. This lack of interest is despite, or perhaps because, the concepts and the materials are much closer to those currently existent in the West.  Concepts that are basic to western natural medicine such as the restorative and cleansing effects of bitters, heating and cooling remedies, elimination as a method for restoration of immunity, relationships between herbs and human constitution, are derived from Arabic medicine. This closeness may be the reason for the current lack of interest, for many assumes that all that can be learnt from Arabic medicine has already been learnt. But it is sobering to remember that modern medicine in the 19th. Century thought that it knew all that was on offer from the prior herbal tradition, and today we know how mistaken this view was.


It was the Arabs who, over a thousand years ago, helped preserve, promote and further develop the medicine and cultural accomplishments of the Greeks and Romans, which is the basis of Western civilization and medicine.  Their role was vital because in the early medieval period in Europe, for five centuries, medical knowledge and advancement languished and was largely forgotten although some was preserved in Christian monasteries. This period  ‘the dark ages’ was typified by the destruction of libraries and suppression of Greek and Roman philosophies and practices, a result of the barbarian invasions but also the anti-Hellenic and anti-Roman policies of the Christian Church and royalty.


In the seventh century, with the establishment of Islam (about 632) Arab tribes conquered much of the civilized world. Their empire extended from Persia in the east to Western France in the west. The empire lasted until the 13th Century.  Cordoba was captured by Ferdinand II of Castile in 1236 and Baghdad was sacked by Mongols in 1258. For the five centuries of Arab rule a new intellectual age flourished. Several major seats of learning with new libraries and universities were founded.


Three caliphates had been established. Cordoba was in the west, in Spain, Cairo in Egypt and the Middle East, and in the eastern part of the empire, in Mesopotamia, Baghdad. The Arabs made extensive translations of Greek and Roman texts to which they often added their own commentaries and observations. These texts ultimately became the basic works in Western medical schools and provided a continuous medical tradition extending from the ancient Greeks. The Arabs not only preserved the knowledge of the ancient materia medica but added their own indigenous substances, as well as accumulated experience and theory. The Arabs also wrote original texts, some of their observations and aphorisms are still learned and appreciated.


Translation and writing was not their only accomplishment, the Arabs established an efficient hospital system. They also developed and brought pharmacy and chemistry into medical practice.


The caliphates of Cordoba and Baghdad produced the most famous healers. In Persia, one of the most important Arab physicians was Abu Bakr Muhammad ibn-Zakaria al-Razi, (986 953). Known as Rhazes in the West, he was the greatest clinician of his time. Over half of his 237 books were on medical subjects. Another Persian was the most influential Arab contributor to medicine, abu-Ali al-Husayn ibn-Sina, (980-1037) known as Avicenna (a Latinized version of his name). His influence extended for almost six centuries, and continues until today within traditional Arabic medicine practitioners. His five volume text, al-Quanun (the Canon) was used as the main medical treatise until the 17th century in European schools. As late as 1650 it was still used at France’s noted Montpellier and Louvain medical schools.  The Canon coordinated the teachings of Hippocrates, Galen and Aristotle. Along with Galen’s works it dominated medical thinking. The Canon’s first four books consisted of works on hygiene, medicine, diseases, surgery, pathology, and contagious diseases. The fifth book described the preparation of medication and was the standard materia medica for centuries.


In the eleventh century Cordoba arose as the seat of major learning and produced medical luminaries such as Avenzoar (1113-11620), son of a Jewish physician, and Averroes (1126-1198). The next great influence on medical learning was the Jewish Talmudist and physician Moses ben Maimon, ”Maimonides” (1135-1204). His works profoundly influenced Arab, Jewish as well as Christian thought. His books: Medical Aphorisms and the Guide to the Perplexed are still referred to. The Arab and Jewish physicians provided a significant service to medicine by their works. When the Jews were dispersed throughout Europe by the persecutions of the Islamic Almohades Dynasty in Cordoba, they spread Arab medicine and science throughout Europe.