Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Medieval Muslim Medicine

I knew that during Europe's Dark Ages, Islamic countries were in the midst of a cultural flowering; that the math and science that they preserved and developed sparked the explosion of science that started in the late Middle Ages and hasn't ended yet; and that the books that Arabic translators transmitted from Greece and Rome back to Europe led to the Renaissance. But I didn't realize just how advanced Muslim doctors were until I started researching it for my history unit on medieval Muslim culture.

Medicine was a central part of medieval Islamic culture, in large measure because the Qur'an and the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad encouraged it: "Make use of medical treatment, for Allah has not made a disease without appointing a remedy for it, with the exception of one disease, namely old age." Medical literature was not specialized in the sense that modern medical literature is, but was integrated with philosophy, natural science, mathematics, astrology, alchemy, and religion. Islamic medicine was built on tradition, primarily from Greece and Rome. Islamic scholars translated medical texts from Greek into Arabic, collated and collected them in systematic and comprehensive summaries and encyclopedias, and then produced new medical knowledge based on those texts; hundreds of medical works were also translated into Latin, introducing the Greek medical traditions to Europe in the late Middle Ages.

Following Muhammad's advice, Muslims made use of medical treatment, and it was widely available. Every major Arabic city had an hospital; the one in Cairo had over 8000 beds, with separate wards for fevers, ophthalmic, dysentery and surgical cases. The doctors who worked in these hospitals and the universities both treated patients and did medical research, with surprisingly modern results. Al-Rhazes, one of the most famous Muslim doctors, discovered the origin of smallpox and showed the existence of the immune system and how it worked. He found a treatment for kidney and gall stones, and explained the nature of various infectious diseases. He was the first to introduce the use of alcohol for medical purposes. He was also an expert surgeon and was the first to use opium for anesthesia. Another doctor, Ibn Sina, first recognized the contagious nature of tuberculosis and the spread of disease by water and soil; he described diseases caused by intestinal worms, and the surgical use of oral anesthetics. A surgeon, Al-Zahravi, performed many delicate operations, including caesareans, and was the first to use silk thread for stitching wounds; he developed many surgical tools that were used for centuries. He wrote a Medical Encyclopedia which contained 30 sections of surgical knowledge and illustrations of 200 surgical instruments, most of which he designed himself.

It took Europe nearly eight centuries to catch up to the medieval Muslim doctors.

1 comment:

Valli said...

I loved reading this....very interesting. It gives me something to chat about at work!

I may not leave a lot of comments, but I read your blog every day.