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.
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.
SCHOLARLY WORKS IN SPAIN
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.
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.