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Year : 2013  |  Volume : 14  |  Issue : 1  |  Page : 43-46  

The Air of History Part III

Department of Cardiology, Heart Hospital, Hamad Medical Corporation, Doha, Qatar

Date of Web Publication13-Feb-2013

Correspondence Address:
Rachel Hajar
Director, Non-Invasive Cardiology, Department of Cardiology, Heart Hospital, P.O. Box 3050, Doha
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

DOI: 10.4103/1995-705X.107125

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How to cite this article:
Hajar R. The Air of History Part III. Heart Views 2013;14:43-6

How to cite this URL:
Hajar R. The Air of History Part III. Heart Views [serial online] 2013 [cited 2023 Apr 1];14:43-6. Available from: https://www.heartviews.org/text.asp?2013/14/1/43/107125

The Golden Age in Arab Islamic Medicine An Introduction

The contributions of Islamic scientists in the various fields of knowledge from the 8 th to the 16 th centuries were astonishing. After the 16 th century, however, the Islamic world experienced several tumultuous events that contributed to its political and economic decline leading to poverty in many Islamic countries. These events were the Crusades, Mongol invasions, natural disasters, loss of international trade, the capitulations of the Ottoman Empire to Western interests, and the rise of European imperialism. [1],[2]

The famous Arab historiographer and historian, Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406) said: "Science thrives only in affluent societies."[2] This is so true. History has repeatedly shown that science has indeed flourished only when an empire or a nation became mighty and rich, because it depends on the infrastructure provided by the existence of affluence.

In the 7 th century, Islam emerged from the desert of the Arabian Peninsula, conquering the old Egyptian, Persian, Roman, and Near Eastern Empires. [3] Islam integrated elements of these cultures into its own, and between the 7 th and 12 th centuries, it became the center of a brilliant civilization and of a great scientific, philosophic, and artistic culture. [4] Its language was Arabic, but it absorbed and added its culture to the heritage of Greece, Rome, Judaism, Christianity, and the Near East. [5] The medieval Islamic world spanned the outer edge of the Latin world, in Spain, Sicily, and North Africa, and surrounding Byzantium in Egypt, Palestine, and Syria. [3],[6]

Medicine was a central part of medieval Islamic culture. Islamic medicine was built on the legacies left behind by Greek and Roman physicians and scholars. [7] Islamic physicians and scholars were strongly influenced by Galen and Hippocrates, as well as by the Greek scholars of Alexandria, Egypt. Islamic scholars translated their voluminous writings from Greek into Arabic and then produced new medical knowledge based on those texts. In order to make the Greek tradition more accessible, understandable, and teachable, Islamic scholars ordered and made more systematic the vast and sometimes inconsistent Greco-Roman medical knowledge by writing encyclopedias and summaries. [7] It was through reading Arabic versions that Western doctors learned of Greek medicine, including the works of Hippocrates and Galen. Medieval and early modern scholars in Europe drew upon Islamic traditions and translations as the foundation for their medical enterprise. For example, Canon of Medicine (an encyclopedia of medicine in five books, which presented a clear and organized summary of all medical knowledge of the time) by Ibn Sina (Avicenna in the West) was translated into Latin and then disseminated in manuscript and printed form throughout Europe. During the 15 th and 16 th centuries alone, the Canon of Medicine was published more than 35 times. It is the most influential medical book of the Middle Ages. Besides Ibn Sina, the other Arab Islamic physicians who contributed to medical knowledge and influenced medical thinking in the West were Al Razi (Rhazes), Ibn Nafis, and Al-Zarawi. Their contributions and important discoveries will be discussed separately in subsequent issues of the journal.

Some historians of science refer to the period from the 8 th to the 16 th centuries as the Islamic golden age. While the rest of Europe was plunged in darkness and learning stagnated, scientific activity in the Muslim world during this period was phenomenal. Some scholars prefer the term "Arab science" because most of the documents were written in Arabic, which was the lingua franca of the region. However, not all the scientists were Arabs and not all were Muslims.

The significant centers of learning at that time were Baghdad, Damascus, Cairo, and later Cordoba, Spain. Scholarly institutions and schools developed in these cities and were staffed with scholars of the highest caliber who were dedicated in gathering information and developing new schools of thought. Ancient dogma was avidly and voraciously read, digested, tested, and questioned. There were also academic hospitals, libraries, and observatories. [6],[7]

A feature of these institutions was the emergence of polymaths (hakims or sages), that is, scholars who worked in a large number of different areas. Al-Razi, Ibn Sina, and Ibn al Nafis were polymaths. They wrote on vast and diverse fields that included physiology, medicine, ophthalmology, embryology, psychology, philosophy, law, and theology. The most important scientists of Islamic civilization have been the polymaths and their role in the transmission of the sciences was central. [6],[7]

The hakim was most often a poet and a writer, skilled in the practice of medicine as well as astronomy and mathematics. These multi-talented sages, the central figures in Islamic science, elaborated and personified the unity of the sciences. They orchestrated scientific development through their insights, and excelled in their explorations as well. [6],[7]

The traditional perspective of historians such as Bertrand Russell (1872-1970, British philosopher, mathematician, historian, and social critic) is that "Islamic science, while admirable in many technical ways, lacked the intellectual energy required for innovation and was chiefly important as a preserver of ancient knowledge and transmitter to medieval Europe."[8],[9] Other historians, however, hold the opposite view that a Muslim scientific revolution occurred during the Middle Ages. [9]

As someone interested in the history of medicine, I tend to believe those who say that a Muslim scientific revolution occurred during the Middle Ages. During that period, Muslim scientists discovered the principles of flight, defined the theory of vision, originated trigonometry, pioneered quantitative chemistry, and began to uncover the mysteries of the universe, as well as made numerous discoveries in medicine. [11] Arab physicians is Spain made remarkable contributions in the fields of astronomy, agriculture, botany, medicine, and surgery. The achievements of Muslims during the golden age of their civilization and their transmission to Europe through Spain were responsible for the renaissance of Western Europe. The Arab historian, Philip K. Hitti in his book History of the Arabs, wrote: "Muslim Spain wrote one of the brightest chapters in the history of medieval Europe."[12]

The discoveries and achievements of those Muslim scientists are truly breathtaking, and one wonders a lot why Arab science flourished during that period in history. Authorities of the period list certain influences: [10],[11],[13]

  • The positive influence of the Islamic faith which fosters learning and knowledge and this greatly contributed to the blossoming of a culture of free inquiry and rational scientific thinking. Judging by the events in our modern world, it may be difficult to comprehend that knowledge and reason are central to the Islamic way of life, but the Islamic faith considers both very important for understanding this world and the Divine.
  • The introduction of zero and the decimal point to the world from Hindu numeral system.
  • Translation and understanding the work of ancient scholars from China, India, Egypt, and Greece.
  • Establishment of learning institutions including mosques, madrasahs, teaching hospitals, and Houses of Wisdom, notably the House of Wisdom in Baghdad which became the center for the translation of Greek scientific works into Arabic.
  • The strong support of the Caliphs for science, medicine, and philosophy. The Caliph al-Ma'mun of Baghdad, who founded the House of Wisdom in Baghdad, wrote to the Byzantine emperor asking his permission to obtain a selection of old scientific manuscripts stored and treasured in Byzantium. When the emperor agreed, al-Ma'mun sent a number of scholars who selected books from those they found and brought them back to Ma'mun, who ordered them to translate the works. The first Arabic translations of the medical works of Galen and Hippocrates were made by the official translator of the second Abbasid Caliph, al-Mansur, builder of Baghdad. These sparked the interest in medicine so characteristic of Islam.
  • Respect with which men of learning were treated in the Islamic society.
  • The universal use of Arabic language at all levels of society throughout the Islamic world.
  • The vast extent of the Islamic world at its peak encouraged exchange and assimilation of ideas among peoples of differing cultures. At its peak, the Islamic world spanned Spain in the west to China and India in the east, southward into Africa and northward into Eastern Europe.

"Seek knowledge even if it is in China."

-Prophet Muhammed

   References Top

1.Zachariah M. The Golden Age of Islam. Available from: http://www.irfi.org/articles/articles_401_450/golden_age_of_islam.htm [Last accessed on January 15, 2013].  Back to cited text no. 1
2.Al-Hassan AY, Ahmed M, Iskandar AZ, editors. Epilogue to Science and Technology in Islam, Part II, UNESCO, 2001.  Back to cited text no. 2
3.Glubb JB. The Great Arab Conquests, Hodder and Stoughton, 1963, Prentice-Hall, 1964.  Back to cited text no. 3
4.Porter V. Islamic Tiles. London: Brtish Museum Press; 1995.  Back to cited text no. 4
5.Brend, Barbara. Islamic Art. London: British Museum Press; 1992.  Back to cited text no. 5
6.Sarton G. Introduction to the History of Science. Florida, USA: Krieger Pub Co; 1975.  Back to cited text no. 6
7.Pormann PE. Medieval Islamic Medicine. Washington, DC, USA: Georgetown University Press; 2007.  Back to cited text no. 7
8.Russell B. History of Western Philosophy. USA and United Kingdom; 1961.  Back to cited text no. 8
9.Available from: http://www.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Western_Philosophy_(Russell) [Last accessed on January 15, 2013].  Back to cited text no. 9
10.Mann H. Science and Mathematics in Medieval Islamic Cultures. Available from: http://www.islamawareness.net/maths/science_and_math.html [Last accessed on January 15, 2013].  Back to cited text no. 10
11.The Golden Age in Islam. Available from: http://museum.kaust.edu.sa/docs/KAUST_Leaflet.pdf [Last accessed on January 15, 2013].  Back to cited text no. 11
12.Hitti PK. History of the Arabs Revised: 10 th Edition. Hampshire RG21 6XS, UK: Palgrave Macmillan; 2002. [Last accessed on January 15, 2013].  Back to cited text no. 12
13.Smith ES. Medieval Islamic Medicine. Islamic Culture and the medical Arts, 1994. Available from: http://www.nlm.nih.gov/exhibition/islamic_medical/islamic_02.html. [Last accessed on January 15, 2013].  Back to cited text no. 13

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