Islamic Medicine

The period known as the Middle Ages in European history roughly corresponds to the Golden Age of Islam. Contacts between the Islamic world and the Western world began with conflict and misunderstanding and have generally persisted in this pattern ever since. Indeed, some scholars have called the concept of a historic Golden Age of Islam a myth used to create the illusion of a peaceful, multicultural Muslim world of learning, culture, and intellectual achievement. Ignorance of Islamic culture is obviously a perpetual source of danger in the modern world where about one in every five people is a Muslim, that is, a follower of Islam. Islam, the religion founded by Muhammad (570-632), literally means ''to submit to God's will or law.'' When Muhammad was about 40 years old, he received the call to Prophethood and a series of visions in which the Koran (Qu'ran) was revealed to him. By the time of his death, practically all of Arabia had accepted Islam and a century later Muslims had conquered half of Byzantine Asia, all of Persia, Egypt, North Africa, and Spain.

Early Western accounts of''Arabian medicine'' reflected the legacy of conflict rather than an analysis of Islamic medicine as a component of a system of faith and a means of dealing with the universal problem of illness. For many European scholars, Arabian medicine was significant only in terms of the role it played in preserving Greek literature during the European Dark Ages. Above all, Arabic texts and translation were credited with making Aristotle known in Christian Europe. Arabian medicine was understood as synonymous with Arabic medicine—Arabic being the language of learning throughout areas of the world under Islamic control. Thus, Arabic texts need not have Arab authors; Persians, Jews, and Christians took part in the development of the Arabic medical literature.

Written sources for the study of classical Islamic medicine come from a geographic area stretching from Spain to India and a time span of some nine hundred years. Just as the term Chinese medicine is broadly used with respect to medical practice in the countries that came within the sphere of China's influence, the term ''Islamic medicine'' is used to designate the system of ideas and practices that was widely transmitted with the Arab conquests. Islamic medicine was introduced into Arab countries in the ninth century and reached its peak during the European Middle Ages. Like Chinese medicine and Ayurvedic medicine, Islamic medicine, also known as yunani medicine (Greek-Islamic medicine), is a living system still respectfully studied and practiced by traditional healers.

Discussions of Arab achievements in science, medicine, and philosophy once focused on a single question: were the Arabs merely the transmitters of Greek achievements or did they make any original contributions? The question of originality is now regarded as essentially inappropriate when applied to a period in which the quest for empirical scientific knowledge was virtually unknown. During the Golden Age of Islamic medicine, physicians, philosophers, and other scholars accepted the writings of the ancients as truth, example, and authority, to be analyzed, developed, and preserved. Having no attachment to the doctrine of the primacy of originality and progress, medieval scholars saw tradition as a treasure chest, not as a burden or obstacle. Like their counterparts in the Christian West, scholars in the Islamic world had to find a means of peaceful coexistence with powerful religious leaders who took the position that knowledge could come only through the Prophet Muhammad, his immediate followers, and the Koran.

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