References to the importance of health and well-being can be found in the Koran and other teachings associated with Muhammad. Muslims were taught that the Koran was given to believers as ‘‘a guide and a medicine’’ and the restorer of both spiritual and physical health. In a literal sense, the Koran could actually be taken as a medicine by writing a passage from the sacred book on a cloth, washing out the ink, and drinking the wash water. Fragments concerning medical lore culled from the Koran and the ‘‘sayings and doings’’ (Hadith) of the Prophet were gathered together as the ‘‘medicine of the Prophet.’’ These sayings reﬂect Muhammad’s general approval of traditional Arab medicine, but later commentators apparently supplied additional maxims. Some of the medical maxims encouraged care of the sick and suggested broad prin- ciples of health, whereas others referred to particular diseases and health problems and medical or spiritual treatments.
One of the most widely quoted sayings of the Prophet is: ‘‘God has
sent down a treatment for every ailment.’’ Muhammad was also quoted as saying that valid knowledge was of only two kinds: ‘‘knowledge of faith and knowledge of the body.’’ The idea that stress induces diseases seems to be inherent in the saying that ‘‘excessive worry makes for physical illness in a person.’’ The sayings of the Prophet provided guid- ance on medical ethics and tradition, consolation of the sick, the evil eye, magic, amulets, and protective prayers. Some orthodox Muslims considered the medicine of the Prophet superior to secular medicine in providing care for the soul and the body.
Many of the Prophet’s medical sayings dealt with sensible eating and drinking to prevent disease. Others referred to the relationship between
suffering and sin. ‘‘A believer will suffer no sickness nor even a thorn to pierce his skin,’’ Muhammad declared, ‘‘without expiating one of his sins.’’ However, there was also the promise that sickness and suffering could confer religious merit, because Muhammad promised that ‘‘He who dies on a sickbed, dies the death of a martyr.’’ Another saying promised that a woman who died in childbirth gained the rank of a martyr.
Muhammad referred to natural causes of illness, the natural effects of medical treatments, and divine or supernatural aspects of illness. When God sent misfortune or disease as a test, the faithful could gain religious merit by bearing the trial patiently. Several passages suggest that the sick should bear their sufferings and call for a doctor only when the situation became unbearable. Thus, while natural medicine was not prohibited, some religious leaders were hostile and intolerant of secular studies, in general, and medicine, in particular. Traditionalists who wanted to preserve indigenous customs fought the inﬁltration of Greek ideas by attributing traditional beliefs to the Prophet. While Arab medicine during Muhammad’s lifetime was essentially Bedouin folk medicine, a few scholar-physicians of that period were already familiar with the principles of Greek and Indian medicine and may have success- fully prescribed such remedies for Muhammad.
Some theologians justiﬁed the acceptance of Greek medicine by
reminding the faithful that the Prophet had come to teach only the Sacred Law and not medicine or other practical matters. His allusions to medicine, therefore, were not part of divine revelation, but spon- taneous references to traditional folk remedies, such as henna for gout, camel urine for stomach problems, and antimony for eye disorders. Such folklore predated Islam and was neither religious nor scientiﬁc. On the other hand, if Muslims used a traditional remedy like honey, it could have a positive effect through the power of faith because Muhammad called honey a health-restoring food.
Although the Prophet unquestionably recommended cupping and the use of honey in treating certain illnesses, his position on cauteri- zation was ambiguous. On some occasions, Muhammad ordered the use of the cautery and even treated some of his wounded followers by cau- terization, but after admitting that cauterization could restore health, he reportedly prohibited its use. To rationalize the use of the cautery, commentators argued that the prohibition was only intended to stop practitioners from boasting that the cautery was a totally effective measure. Healers were expected to confess that all remedies worked only by God’s will. Muhammad forbade the use amulets that invoked supernatural agents, but he allowed the use to those whose contents were in keeping with the teachings of the Koran.
Over the years, books of ‘‘Prophetic medicine’’ were compiled by
theologians and religious leaders who hoped to counter the growing inﬂuence of Greek medicine. Nevertheless, Greek philosophy, science,
and medicine eventually captivated Arab physicians and scholars, resulting in the formation of the modiﬁed Greco-Arabic medical system that continues to ﬂourish as yunani medicine. Finding a means of jus- tifying a scientiﬁc, even secular approach to medicine was a challenge to Muslim scholars, much as it had been to Christians. While the value of medicine was generally accepted, some theologians accused doc- tors of confusing the priorities of the common people by encouraging them to place physical health before religious values. However, Prophetic medicine, whatever the uncertainties of interpretation, clearly taught that ‘‘after faith, the art and practice of medicine is the most meritorious service in God’s sight.’’ Medical writers justiﬁed the study and practice of medicine as a form of religious service that was pleasing to God, as long as it relieved human suffering while acknowledging the primacy of faith.
By the end of the seventh century, under the leadership of the ﬁrst
four caliphs (successors to the Prophet), the Arabs had completed the conquest of Syria, Persia, and Egypt, and the process of assimilating Greek philosophy, science, and medicine into Islamic culture began. Thus, many sources of learning were available to Arab scholars. Muhammad had said: ‘‘Seek knowledge, even in China,’’ but it was originally the Persian city of Jundi Shapur that served as an intellectual magnet for Muslim scholars. The ancient city of Jundi Shapur provided a uniquely tolerant and peaceful meeting point for the study of the philosophical and medical traditions of Persians, Indians, Nestorians, Zoroastrians, Jews, and Greeks. The scholars of Jundi Shapur began the monumental task of assembling and translating Greek texts, including those of Hippocrates and Galen.
After the triumph of the Abbasid caliphs in 750 and the establish-
ment of Baghdad as the capital of the Islamic Empire, the Hellenization of Islamic culture accelerated rapidly. Baghdad and Cairo developed into independent centers of scholarship. The library established in Cairo in 988 was said to house well over one hundred thousand volumes. In
1258, the Mongols conquered Baghdad and its great libraries were destroyed. So, many manuscripts were thrown into the river that,
according to one observer, the Tigris ran black, red, and green with ink. Another chronicler said that the river was so thick with manuscripts that one could walk across it.
At the school for translation established during the reign of the
Caliph Al-Ma’mun (813–833), many of Galen’s medical and philosophi- cal works were translated into Arabic. One of the most important trans- lators was Hunayn Ibn Ishaq (809–875), a scholar who was often heard reciting Homer in Greek as he walked the streets of Baghdad. Hunayn translated works by Galen, Hippocrates, Dioscorides and composed summaries, commentaries, and study guides for medical students. The ancient version of the ever-popular student ‘‘cram book’’ was a popular genre among Arab scholars; hundreds have survived.