Medieval Islamic Medicine
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Medieval Islamic Medicine

Islamic doctors
From an Ottoman manuscript, two doctors
telling the pharmacist how to make
different medicines

Doctors made big scientific advances in medicine during the Islamic empire. Islamic doctors began by collecting all the medical observations and logic of Hippocrates and his followers, and Galen, combined with the work of the Indian doctors Sushruta and Charaka, whose books were translated into Arabic about 750 AD.

With this background, Islamic doctors went on to much more practical observations and managed to find some useful cures for some diseases. Medieval Islamic doctors were especially good at treating eye infections and eye problems like cataracts.

Another big achievement of Islamic doctors was that they started the world's first hospitals, where you could keep sick people apart from healthy people to keep diseases like smallpox and measles from spreading.


The importance of Islamic medicine

One famous doctor was al Tabari, a Persian in the early 800s AD who wrote a huge medical encyclopedia, listing all the different diseases and their treatments. One of al Tabari's students was al Razi (or Rhazes), who was from Persia (modern Iran). Al Razi was born about 850 AD, and he wrote a book about measles and smallpox. This is our first description of measles, and explains how it is different from smallpox. However, Al Razi doesn't seem to know about inoculation, even though doctors in India were already inoculating people.

man cutting a woman's arm to let out blood
Bloodletting (Seljuk period, Iran, ca. 1250 AD)

Al Razi also explained that a fever was not part of the illness, but the body's way of fighting the illness (even though many doctors continued to think that fevers were caused by having too much blood, and they kept right on bleeding people to cure the fever).

Another famous doctor was Ibn Sina, known in Europe as Avicenna, who was born in Bukhara (modern Uzbekistan), about 980 AD. Ibn Sina may have been the first doctor in the world to see that tuberculosis and smallpox were catching, even though he didn't really know about germs, because they're too small to see without a microscope.

Maimonides, who was Jewish and not a Muslim, was the sultan Saladin's doctor in the 1100s AD. Maimonides' book about medicine became very famous. It emphasized prevention - living a healthy life so you wouldn't get sick. Maimonides recommended that people eat lemons, which were new then, and made lemons more popular all around the Mediterranean Sea.

Another famous doctor from the Islamic Empire was called Ibn al-Nafis. He was born in Damascus, Syria, but he worked mainly in Egypt in the 1200s AD. Among other things, Ibn al-Nafis was the first scientist to describe how blood goes from your heart to your lungs to get air and then distributes the air all over your body. (The Roman doctor Galen had suggested some ideas, but Ibn al-Nafis showed that Galen's ideas were wrong). About the same time, Ibn al-Quff, working in Damascus (Syria) figured out how the blood gets from the arteries to the veins through tiny capillaries.

Learn by doing: visit somebody in a hospital
More about Maimonides

Bibliography and further reading about Islamic medicine:

More about Islamic Science
More about the Islamic Empire
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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter.
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