The Islamic achievements in medieval medicine were groundbreaking. While medieval European medicine was still mired in superstitions and the rigid Catholic teachings of the Church, the advent of Islam in the 7th century A.D. gave rise to impressive growth and discoveries in many scientific fields, especially medicine. Islamic scholars and doctors translated medical texts from all over the known world, including the Greeks and Romans, Persians and Indians. They not only gathered this knowledge and translated it into Arabic (and later into Latin), they added their own medical observations and methods. Islamic doctors developed new techniques in medicine, dissection, surgery and pharmacology. They founded the first hospitals, introduced physician training and wrote encyclopaedias of medical knowledge.
Before the 12th century in Europe, medical practice was stalled—there were few new discoveries, and, as the Church considered disease a punishment from God, doctors could do little for their patients. However, when new translations, books, observations and methods from the Islamic world gradually became known in the 12th century, Western medicine finally moved forward. Ideas, insights and methods from Islamic doctors brought many new advances to European medicine, essentially forming the basis of modern medicine as we know it today.
Islamic Achievements in Medieval Medicine: Translations
In the 7th century, Arab and Persian scholars began translating medical texts from Greek, Syriac, Sanskrit and Pahlavi into Arabic, and from Arabic into Latin, thus saving those texts from disappearing entirely. During the 8th century in Baghdad, Islamic scholars and doctors translated the works of the Roman doctor Galen, as well as Persian and Indian medical texts. As these doctors translated medical texts from around the known world, they also added their own observations, thus creating encyclopaedias of medical knowledge. Many Islamic medical texts, such as Ibn Sina’s Canon of Medicine, Al-Razi’s Libor Almartsoris and Al-Zahrawi’s Kitab al Tasrif became central to medical education in European universities for hundreds of years. (Westerners knew these doctors as Avicenna, Rhazes and Albucasis, respectively.)
Islamic Achievements in Medieval Medicine: Hospitals and Doctor Training
Rather than viewing disease as a punishment from God as the Christians thought, Islam looked at disease as just another problem for mankind to solve. The Prophet decreed that the sick and injured should be cared for, not shunned. The first medical center was established in Persia (Iran) in the 6th century; in the 800s, the great Islamic doctor Al Razi oversaw Baghdad’s Audidi Hospital, with its two dozen doctors on staff. By 1000, Baghdad had five public hospitals, and hospitals were founded in Cairo, Aleppo, Damascus and Al-Andalus. These early Islamic medical centers would be recognizable as hospitals today: they had wards for different diseases, outpatient clinics, surgery recovery wards and pharmacies. They also functioned as medical education centers for doctor training.
Islamic hospitals pioneered the use of antiseptics such as alcohol, vinegar or rose-water in cleaning wounds. Everything was to be kept as clean as possible—in stark contrast to the near total lack of sanitation and cleanliness in Christian lands at that time. Muslim doctors were familiar with the use of opium as an anaesthetic during long surgeries and for extracting teeth.
Islamic Achievements in Medieval Medicine: Blood Circulation and Anatomy
While Westerners credit William Harvey for discovering blood circulation in 1616, pulmonary circulation had already been described by the Arabic doctor Ibn Al-Nafis 300 years before. While his knowledge was incomplete, Al-Nafis knew that the heart had two halves and that blood passed through the lungs when traveling from one side of the heart to the other. He also realized that the heart is nourished by capillaries.
Besides his description of the circulatory system and the heart, Al-Nafis advocated dissection as a means of truly learning anatomy and physiology, although he also writes that he didn’t perform dissections because of his strict Muslim beliefs. He described his observations on the brain, nervous system, bone structure and gall bladder and more in his great medical encyclopaedia Al-Shamil. Unfortunately, not many of Al-Nafis’ writings were translated into Latin, leaving Christian doctors befuddled regarding basic anatomy until much later.
Islamic Achievements in Medieval Medicine: Infectious Diseases
Islamic medicine recognized that some diseases were infectious, including leprosy, smallpox and sexually transmitted diseases. To these, the great Islamic doctor Avicenna added tuberculosis and described how contagious diseases spread and necessary methods of quarantine.
Islamic Achievements in Medieval Medicine: Surgery and Surgical Instruments
The 10th century Arabic doctor Al Zahrawi established the basis of surgery in Al-Andalus in Cordoba, where he worked as a doctor for the Caliph Al-Hakam II. He wrote a great medical treatise, the Kitab al-Tasrif, a 30-volume book of medicine and surgery. Al Zahrawi invented over 200 surgical instruments, many of which are still used today, including forceps, scalpel, surgical needle and retractor, specula and catgut sutures.
Islamic Achievements in Medieval Medicine: Pharmacies
Islamic pharmacies, called saydalas, began at the same time as the hospitals, in the late 700s, as part of the Islamic health care system. While Western apothecaries sold ground mummies, dried dung and other strange substances as well as herbs and spices, Muslim pharmacists focused on empiricism—they used substances that showed a positive effect on the patients. In other words, if an herb, spice or other ingredient worked by assisting a sick person to heal, it was used. As Islamic pharmacology evolved, the great Muslim doctors like Al Razi, Avicenna and Al kindi discovered many healing substances for their pharmacies.
Arab pharmacies were government-supervised to ensure the purity and overall quality of the medications, which were weighed in verified scales and labeled correctly. Pharmacies began to spread throughout the Muslim world during the 9th century onwards, whether connected to a hospital or standing alone. Al-Nifas, besides his work on the circulation system, also developed a system of dosage for medications using mathematics.
As Islamic medical knowledge and methods began to filter into Western medieval medicine during the 12th century, so did their treatments for specific diseases. New healing substances were added to Western apothecaries while certain Western medicines, such as theriac, moved into Arab countries due to the growing Arab-European trade.