The Golden Age of Medicine: A walk through history in the Muslim world

Leyal Khalife

The field of medicine, specifically, wouldn’t have taken shape as early as it did without these Muslim scholars.

In a land far far away – OK not so far if you think about it – a golden age of scientific discovery enlightened the world, putting science, specifically medicine, as we know it today on the map.

Much of the credit can arguably go to the growth of Islam in the 7th century, as it sparked a golden age of science which ultimately pushed the limits of the latter to a new level. The impact of Islamic civilization on western science, technology, and medicine between the years 800 and 1450 is often forgotten.

Modern society glorifies the idea that advancements in the field of science are inherently Western. The European Renaissance and Enlightenment are often the center of discussion when talking about the origins of the field. Our pop culture is not void of Western references either as pioneers like Newton, Darwin, and Einstein are often honored for their works. This is not to say we shouldn’t value their work, but doesn’t the Arab and Muslim world deserve a fair representation of the discoveries they unraveled during their peak?

After all, Muslim scholars wrote about the theory of evolution about 900 years before Darwin was even born. But who’s counting the years, right?

With the spread of Islam during the 7th century came the expanse of the Arabic language as well. Arab scholars were known for translating philosophical and scientific works from Greek, Syriac, Pahlavi, and Sanskrit into Arabic. Muslim doctors also translated the texts of Greek and Roman doctors.

With the establishment of the House of Wisdom in Baghdad in 830 – which became a study center for scholars – by a famous caliph, al-Mamun, came a spike in translations of texts into Arabic, making the language the most valuable tongue for the sciences for many centuries, studies have revealed. During the 11th century, these Arabic editions were then translated into Latin and circulated all over Europe. Had that not been the case, who knows where Europe would’ve been standing in terms of science and philosophy.

Aside from the growth of the language, Arab and Muslim scholars left behind their discoveries in various scientific fields like mathematics, astronomy, chemistry, and medicine. Arab physicians and scholars paved the way for medical advancements, both in terms of techniques and establishment of structures we see in modern-day hospitals. One such example is the use of alcohol as an antiseptic.

Enter Ibn Sina (980-1037), the Persian scientist who laid out the principles of modern medicine. In his revolutionary book The Canon of Medicine, Sina introduced advanced drug designing methods considered by scholars to be ages ahead of his time. His techniques, practices, and ideas contributed massively to what is now known as Western medicine. His book was used as the standard medical textbook for European doctors until the 17th century.

Enter Al-Zahrawi (936-1013), the Arab pioneer who established the foundation of modern surgery which was enormously influential in the West. Many of his innovative surgical instruments and techniques are still used to this day.

Al-Zahrawi invented the syringe, forceps, surgical hook and needle, bone saw, and lithotomy scalpel. He also invented surgical treatments for the urethra, ear, and esophagus. He was the first physician to describe ectopic pregnancy and identify the genetic nature of hemophilia. He also wrote a 30-volume encyclopedia of medical practices called Kitab Al-Tasrif.

Enter Ibn Al-Nafis, a 13th-century Arab physician who wrote about the circulation of blood 300 years before this reached the West.

Enter Ibn Al-Haytham, the Iraqi pioneer who is considered the first experimental physicist. He is known for establishing the modern scientific method of making hypothesis and running experiments more than 150 years before European scientists came to know it. Al-Haytham wrote extensively on the universality of science and the necessity of providing empirical proof and evidence for scientific theories through experimentation which he himself did. Although he contributed to multiple disciplines, his greatest achievement was establishing modern optics in the Book of Optics and correctly explaining for the first time in history how the process of vision occurs, which he proved through his experiments.

The Arab and Muslim world was filled with scientists that helped advance the field of medicine. Without them, we wonder how/if the field would’ve evolved in the same way.

Ibn Al-Haytham

It is also worth noting that many of the first and most advanced hospitals in the 8th century arose in Arab cities — notably Baghdad and Cairo.

In the former, a hospital was built in 805, housing both a medical school and library. It differed from medieval Christian hospitals in that its aim was to medically treat patients, not just look after them. Another such medical center was the Ahmad ibn Tulun Hospital, founded in 872 in Cairo. 

These hospitals were largely secular, meaning they provided aid to anyone in need. And then similar types of hospitals were established in other Muslim countries.

In al-Qayrawan, the Arab capital of Tunisia, a hospital was built in the 9th century; others were later established in Saudi Arabia’s Mecca and Medina.

Ottoman hospitals grew in Turkey in the 13th century, but when it came to the establishment of hospitals in Islamic Spain, for example, they were relatively late. The earliest possibly built hospital there was in 1397 in Granada.

The field of medicine, specifically, wouldn’t have taken shape as early as it did without these Muslim scholars. Yes, a lot has changed over the centuries. Many advancements in the field have washed away old methods, but that doesn’t mean the field’s history is not important. It’s just as important as the present and the future. Just remember that.

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