1902 Encyclopedia > Medicine > Arabian Medicine

(Part 17)

Arabian Medicine

The rise of the Mohammedan empire, which influenced Europe so deeply both politically and intellectually, made its mark also in the history of medicine. As in the parallel case of the Roman conquest of Greece, the superior culture of the conquered race asserted its supremacy over their Arab conquerors. After the Mohammedan conquests became consolidated, and learning began to flourish, schools of medicine, often connected with hospitals and schools of pharmacy, arose in all the chief seats of Moslem power. At Damascus Greek medicine was zealously cultivated with the aid of Jewish and Christian teachers. In Baghdad, under the rule of Hárún el Rashíd and his successors, a still more flourishing school arose, where numerous translations of Greek medical works were made. The names of Mesua, or Yahyá ibn Másawaih (ob. 243 A.H., 857-8 A.D.), celebrated for his knowledge of drugs, and Honein ibu Ishalk el ‘Ibádí (ob. 873) or Joannitius, the translator and commentator of Hippocrates and Galen, belong to this period. Certain writings of Joannitius, translated into Latin, were popular in the Middle Ages in Europe, and were printed in the 16th century. At the same time the Arabs became acquainted with Indian medicine and Indian physicians lived at the court of Baghdad. The Islamite rulers in Spain were not long behind those of the East in encouraging learning and medical science, and developed culture to a still higher degree of perfection. In that country much was due to the Jews, who had already established schools in places which were afterwards the seats of Moslem dominion. From the 10th to the 13th century was the brilliant period of Arabian medicine in Spain. (FOOTNOTE 805-1)

The classical period of Arabian medicine begins with Thazes (Abú Bakr Mohammed ibn Zakaríyá el-Rází, 313 A.H., 925-26 A.D), a native of Ray in the province of Dailam (Persia), who practised with distinction at Baghdad; he followed the doctrines of Galen, but learnt much from Hippocrates. He was the first of the Arabs to treat medicine in a comprehensive and encyclopaedic manner, surpassing probably in voluminousness Galen himself, though but a small proportion of his works are extant. Rhazes is deserved remembered as having first described small-pox and measles in an accurate manner. Haly, i.e., ‘Alí ibn el- ‘Abbás (ob. 994), a Persian, wrote a medical text-book, known as the "Royal Book, " which was the standard authority among the Arabs up to the time of Avicenna, and was more than once translated into Latin and printed. Other writers of this century need not be mentioned here; but the next, the 11th century, is given as the probable though uncertain date of a writer who had a great influence on European medicine, Mesua the younger of Damascus, whose personality is obscure, and of whose very existence some historians have doubted, thinking that the name was assumed by some mediaeval Latin writer. The work De Simplicibus, which bears his name, was for centuries a standard authority on what would now be called materis medica, was printed in twenty-six editions in the 15th century and later, and was used in the formation of the first London pharmacopoeia, issued by the College of Physicians in the reign of James I. Either to the 10th or the 11th century must be referred the name of another Arabian physician who has also attained the position of a classic, Abu’l Kásim, or Abulcasis, of El-Zahra, near Cordova in Spain. His great work, Altasríf, a medical encyclopaedia, is chiefly valued for its surgical portion (already mentioned), which was translated into Latin in the 12th century, and was for some centuries a standard if not the standard authority on surgery in Europe. Among his own countrymen the fame and position of Abulcasis were soon eclipsed by the greater name of Avicenna (Ibn Siná).

Avicenna (see vol. iii. p. 152 sq.) has always been regarded as the chief representative of Arabian medicine. He wrote on philosophy also, and in both subjects acquired the highest reputation through the whole of Eastern Islam. In Mohammedan Spain he was less regarded, but in Europe his works even eclipsed and superseded those of Hippocrates and Galen. His style and expository power are highly praised, but the subject-matter shows little originality. The work by which he is chiefly known, the celebrated "canon," is an encyclopaedia of medical and surgical knowledge, founded upon Galen, Aristotle, the late Greek physicians, and the earlier Arabian writers, singularly complete and systematic, but is thought not to show the practical experience of its author. As in the case of Galen, the formal and encyclopaedic character of Avicenna’s works was the chief cause of his popularity and ascendancy, though in modern times these very qualities in a scientific or medical writer would rather cause him to become more speedily antiquated.

In the long list of Arabian medical writers none can here be mentioned except the great names of the Hispano-Morrish school, a school both philosophically and medically antagonistic to that of Avicenna. Of these the earliest is Avenzoar, or Abumeron, that is, Abú Merwán ‘Abd el-Malik Ibn Zohr (1113-62), a member of a family which gave several distinguished members to the medical profession. His chief work, Al-Teysír (facilitatio), is thought to show more practical experience than the writings of Avicenna, and to be less based upon dialectical subtleties. It was translated into Latin, and more than once printed, as were some of his lesser works, which thus formed a part of the contribution made by the Arabians to European medicine. His friend and pupil AVERROES of Cordova (q.v.), so well known for his philosophical writings, was also an author in medical subjects, and as such widely read in Latin. The famous Rabbi MAIMONIDES (q.v.) closes for us the roll of medical writers of the Arabian school. His works exist chiefly in the original Arabic or in Hebrew translations; only some smaller treatises have been translated into Latin, so that no definite opinion can be formed as to their medical value. But so far as is known, the independent and rationalistic spirit which the two last-named writers showed in philosophy did not lead them to take any original point of view in medicine.

The works of the Arabian medical writers who have been mentioned a very small fraction of the existing literature. Three hundred medical writers in Arabic are enumerated by Wüstenfeld, and other historians have enlarged the list (Haeser), but only three have been printed in the original; a certain number more are known through old Latin translations, and the great majority still exist in manuscript. It is thus evident that the circumstance of having been translated (which may have been in some cases almost an accident) is what has chiefly determined the influence of particular writers on Western medicine. But is is improbable that further research will alter the general estimate of the value of Arabian medicine. There can be no doubt that it was in the main Greek medicine, modified to suit other climates, habits, and national tastes, and with some importance additions from Oriental sources. The greater part is taken form Hippocrates, Galen, Dioscorides, and later Greek writers. The Latin medical writers were necessarily unknown to the Arabs; and this was partly the cause that even in Europe Galenic medicine assumed such a preponderance, the methodic school and Celsus being forgotten or neglected. In anatomy an physiology the Arabians distinctly went back; in surgery they showed no advance upon the Greeks; in practical medicine nothing new can be traced, except the description of certain diseases (e.g., small-pox and measles) unknown or imperfectly known to the Greeks; the only real advance was in pharmacy and the therapeutical use of drugs. By their relations with the further East, the Arabs became acquainted with valuable new remedies which have held their ground till modern times; and their skill in chemistry enables them to prepare new chemical remedies, and form many combinations of those already in use. They produced the first pharmacopoeia, and established the first apothecaries’ shops. Many of the names and many forms of medicines now used, and in fact the general outline of modern pharmacy, except so far as modified by modern chemistry, started with the Arabs. Thus does Arabian medicine appear as judged from a modern standpoint; but to mediaval Europe, when little but a tradition remained of the great ancient schools, it was invested with a far higher degree of originality and importance.

It is now necessary to consider what was the state of medicine in Europe after the fall of the Western empire and before the influence of Arabian science and literature began to be felt. This we may call the pre-Arabian or Salernitan period.


805-1 See Dozy, Cat. Cod. Or. Lug. Bat., ii. 296.

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