PROPHETIC MEDICINE

12 May

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,

PROPHETIC MEDICINE

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.

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