ISLAMIC MEDICINE

12 May

The  period  known  as the  Middle  Ages in European history  roughly corresponds  to the Golden  Age of Islam. Contacts  between the Islamic world and the Western world began with conflict and misunderstanding and  have  generally  persisted  in this  pattern ever since. Indeed,  some scholars  have called the concept  of a historic  Golden  Age of Islam  a myth  used  to  create  the  illusion  of a  peaceful,  multicultural Muslim world  of learning,  culture,  and  intellectual  achievement.  Ignorance  of Islamic culture is obviously a perpetual  source of danger in the modern world where about  one in every five people is a Muslim,  that  is, a fol- lower of Islam. Islam, the religion founded  by Muhammad (570–632), literally  means  ‘‘to submit  to  God’s  will or  law.’’ When  Muhammad was  about  40 years  old,  he  received  the  call  to  Prophethood and  a series of visions in which the Koran  (Qu’ran)  was revealed to him. By the time of his death,  practically  all of Arabia  had accepted  Islam and a century  later  Muslims  had  conquered  half of Byzantine  Asia, all of Persia, Egypt, North  Africa, and Spain.

Early Western accounts of ‘‘Arabian medicine’’ reflected the legacy

of conflict rather than an analysis of Islamic medicine as a component of a system of faith and a means of dealing with the universal problem  of illness. For  many European scholars, Arabian  medicine was significant only in terms of the role it played in preserving Greek literature  during the European Dark  Ages. Above all, Arabic texts and translation were credited  with  making  Aristotle  known  in Christian  Europe.  Arabian medicine was understood as synonymous with Arabic medicine—Arabic being  the  language  of learning  throughout areas  of the  world  under Islamic  control.   Thus,   Arabic   texts  need  not   have  Arab   authors; Persians,  Jews,  and  Christians  took  part  in  the  development   of  the Arabic medical literature.

Written sources for the study of classical Islamic medicine come from a geographic area stretching from Spain to India and a time span of some nine hundred years. Just as the term Chinese medicine is broadly used with respect to medical practice in the countries that came within the sphere of China’s  influence,  the term  ‘‘Islamic medicine’’ is used to  designate  the system of ideas and practices that  was widely transmitted with the Arab conquests.  Islamic  medicine  was introduced into  Arab  countries  in the ninth century and reached its peak during the European Middle Ages. Like Chinese medicine and Ayurvedic medicine, Islamic medicine, also known as yunani medicine (Greek-Islamic medicine), is a living system still respect- fully studied and practiced by traditional healers.

Discussions of Arab achievements in science, medicine, and philos- ophy  once  focused  on  a  single question:  were the  Arabs  merely  the transmitters of Greek achievements or did they make any original con- tributions? The  question  of originality  is now  regarded  as essentially inappropriate when applied to a period in which the quest for empirical scientific knowledge was virtually unknown.  During  the Golden Age of Islamic medicine, physicians, philosophers, and other scholars accepted the writings of the ancients as truth,  example, and authority, to be ana- lyzed, developed, and preserved. Having no attachment to the doctrine of the primacy  of originality  and  progress,  medieval scholars  saw tra- dition as a treasure  chest, not as a burden  or obstacle. Like their coun- terparts  in the Christian  West, scholars in the Islamic world had to find a  means  of peaceful  coexistence  with  powerful  religious  leaders  who took the position  that knowledge could come only through  the Prophet Muhammad, his immediate  followers, and the Koran.

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