domingo, 20 de noviembre de 2016


Picture of a 12th-century illustration depicting a doctor treating wounds

How Early Islamic Science Advanced Medicine

The growth of Islam in the seventh century sparked a golden age of scientic discovery. Building on the wisdom of ancient civilizations, Muslim doctors pushed the boundaries of medical science into bold new places.

The most important institution for imparting knowledge about medicine and other disciplines was the madrassa, a school built in, or alongside, a mosque. Many madrassas became highly specialized academies, often with close links to hospitals. Notable hospitals were in Cairo, Harran (in modern-day Turkey), and Baghdad, where students would often visit patients to observe their treatment at the hands of qualified doctors, in much the same way as medical interns and residents do today. A basic part of theoretical training was learning summaries in verse form, such as Avicenna’s Poem of Medicine. There were also question-and-answer drills on medical compendia, such as the Paradise of Wisdom, compiled by Ali ibn Rabban al-Tabari around 850.
By the 900s, drawing from a growing body of Greek, Persian, and Sanskrit works translated into Arabic, Islamic medicine quickly became the most sophisticated in the world. Christians, Jews, Hindus, and scholars from many other traditions, looked to Arabic as a language of science. Doctors of different faiths worked together, debating and studying with Arabic as the common tongue.
A romanticized engraving of the 11th-century scholar Avicenna, who provided a strong theoretical framework for medicine. 
The Abbasid Caliphate of Baghdad enjoyed a long period of intellectual experimentation that lasted throughout the 10th and 11th centuries. Among its many glittering figures was Al-Razi, known in Latin as Rhazes, a Persian pharmacologist and physician who ran the hospital in Baghdad. But the brightest star in the Baghdad firmament was undoubtedly the extraordinary Ibn Sina, known in the West as Avicenna. Already a doctor at age 18, his great volume Al-Qanun fi al-Tibb—Canon of Medicine—became one of the most famous medical works of all time, and an extraordinary exercise in the bringing together of different disciplines and cultures. Avicenna’s attempt to harmonize the medical practices of the Greek thinker Galen with the philosophy of Aristotle reveals the multiple nature of the debt owed to Muslim scholarship, which did not merely revive Greek authors, but stimulated new patterns of thought for the centuries ahead. The reconciling of practical science, thought, and religion ensured Canon was studied by European medics until the 18th century.


At the westernmost limits of the Islamic world, Muslim Spain was also undergoing a period of scholarly development. By the 10th century, Córdoba was the biggest, most cultured city in Europe, described by some as “the Ornament of the World.” The city was also a great center of study and exploration.
Essential volumes in any scientist’s library were preserved in Córdoba. For instance, De materia medica—On Medical Material—the classic treatise of Dioscorides, written at the time of the emperor Nero in the first century A.D., was translated into Arabic in Córdoba, on the orders of Caliph ’Abd al-Rahman III. This practical study of the medicinal qualities of plants and herbs, including a study of cannabis and peppermint, was now accessible to more scholars than ever before.


Scheherazade and the king. Illustration from an 1895 edition of One Thousand and One Nights
Sexual intercourse is an important part of marriage in the Muslim faith, and medical works on the subject reflect that belief. A genre of medieval text known as kitab al-bah—books on the libido—explored both reproduction and eroticism as well as embryology, obstetrics, and pediatrics. Issues of sexual health were also addressed, with attention given to sexual disorders, impotence, and loss of desire. Authors also covered aphrodisiacs and substances that decreased libido. These treatises fascinated the British traveler and scholar Richard F. Burton, who collected copies for study in Britain. Burton also translated the great Mideastern classic One Thousand and One Nights, a work whose sexual frankness delighted lovers of Arabic culture—but scandalized Victorian England.
One of the caliph’s brilliant courtiers, the surgeon Al-Zahrawi, also known as Abulcasis, compiled the Al-Tasrif—The Method of Medicine—a 30-volume encyclopedia that documented accounts of his and his colleagues’ experiences in treating the sick and injured: surgical instruments, operating techniques, pharmacological methods to prepare tablets and drugs to protect the heart, surgical procedures used in midwifery, cauterizing and healing wounds, and the treatment of headaches. It also drew upon the work of previous scholars, such as seventh-century Byzantine medic Paul of Aegina. Translated into Latin in the 12th century, Method was a foundational medical text in Europe well into the Renaissance.
The 12th century saw the emergence of the work of the outstanding Ibn Rushd—known in Christendom as Averroës—and the Jewish physician and thinker Moses Maimonides. Both men reflect the strong ties between philosophy and medicine during the Islamic golden age. Averroës, author of some of the greatest commentaries of the Middle Ages on Aristotle and Plato, was also personal physician to the caliphs. Moses Maimonides became the personal doctor of Saladin, the Muslim champion against the Crusaders. Among Maimonides’s many works was his Moreh Nevukhim, or Guide for the Perplexed, a masterwork attempting to reconcile religious belief with philosophical inquiry.
Pilgrims to Mecca returned home with this copper bowl, thought to bestow healing properties to water drunk from it. Faithful Muslims put their trust in both Allah and the doctor’s skill. 


While writing about medicine predominated in Islamic culture, the practice of medicine made great progress as well. New treatments were developed for specific ailments, including a revolutionary treatment to treat cataracts. The 10th-century physician Al-Mawsili developed a hollow syringe to remove cataracts via suction; the technique has improved with time, but the basic premise of the procedure remains sound to this day. Ibn Isa, a 10th-century scholar from Iraq, wrote perhaps what was the most complete book of eye diseases, the Notebook of the Oculist, detailing 130 conditions. The book was translated into Latin in 1497 followed by several more languages, allowing it to serve as an authoritative work for centuries.
The greatest advances in surgery of the era were detailed by Al-Zahrawi who invented a wide range of instruments: forceps, pincers, scalpels, catheters, cauteries, lancets, and specula, all carefully illustrated in his writings. His recommendations on pain-reduction techniques, such as the use of very cold sponges, were followed by Western medics for centuries. One of his greatest innovations was the use of catgut for stitching up patients after an operation, a practice that is still in use today.


One of the most lasting contributions of Islam was the hospital. Funded by donations called waqf, public hospitals treated the sick, provided a place to convalesce and recover, housed the mentally ill, and provided shelter to the aged and infirm. Jewish and Christian doctors, in addition to Muslim physicians, worked in these institutions. Hospitals allowed the poorest to benefit from the knowledge of outstanding doctors: Beggars in Baghdad might be operated on by Rhazes, the great surgeon of the city hospital.
As was increasingly the case in Christian Europe, great cities in the Muslim world competed to house such institutions, hoping to attract the best teachers and books. The Ahmad ibn Tulun Hospital, one of the first of its kind, was built in Cairo between 872 and 874. Perhaps the best known hospital of the Islamic world, Al-Mansuri Hospital, was also built in Cairo, by the sultan Qalawun in 1285. Four wards, each one specializing in different pathologies, were reputed to house thousands of patients. The buildings surrounded a courtyard cooled by fountains.
Study and education were also important components of Muslim medical culture, and hospitals affiliated with universities educated the next generation of physicians. Founded in the 12th century, the Syrian Al-Nuri Hospital in Damascus was one of the leading medical schools of its time, complete with an impressive library donated by the ruler Nur al-Din ibn Zangi. Much like medical students of today, scholars learned from mentoring by experienced doctors. Hospitals featured large lecture halls where talks and readings of classic manuscripts would be held.
The teachings at these universities provided the foundation for the great medical advances to come, which all stand on the shoulders of the extraordinary discoveries and practices from Islam’s golden age.
A specialist in Islamic History, Víctor Pallejà de Bustinza is an Associate Professor of Humanities at the Pompeu Fabra University, Barcelona, Spain.

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