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Islamic Culture and the Medical Arts


Specialized Literature

Large numbers of treatises were devoted to the diagnosis and treatment of a specific disease or to diseases affecting a particular part of the body. Ishaq ibn Hunayn, the son of the famous translator in Baghdad, composed an Arabic tract The Salutory Treatise on Drugs for Forgetfulness (Risalah al-Shafiyah fi adwiyat al-nisyan). Ishaq, who died in 910 (298 H), was a physician as his father had been, and he composed several medical tracts, though few are preserved today. The National Library of Medicine has one of two recorded copies of this particular treatise, and the present location of the second copy is unknown.

Handwritten page from The Salutory Treatise on Drugs for Forgetfulness by Ishaq ibn Hunayn. NLM MS A3 (part 2), folio 1b.


The Salutory Treatise on Drugs for Forgetfulness (Risalah al-Shafiyah fi adwiyat al-nisyan) written in the 9th century by Ishaq ibn Hunayn.
The copy is undated, but its script, paper and ink suggest that it was copied at the end of the 14th century.
NLM MS A3(part 2), fol. 1b


Ibn al-Kattani, who was in the service of a Spanish vizier in 1002 (393 H), wrote an Arabic treatise The Treatment of Dangerous Diseases Appearing Superficially on the Body (Mu`alajat al-amrad al-khatirah al-badiyah `ala al-badan min kharij). It was cited by later writers but thought to be now lost until a copy of it was discovered among the manuscripts now at the National Library of Medicine. Poisonous bites are the subject of much of the treatise.

A quite popular short treatise was the Arabic essay on haemorrhoids by the well-known Jewish physician and philosopher Abu `Imran Musa ibn `Ubayd Allah ibn Maymun al-Qurtubi, known in Latin as Maimonides. He was born and educated in Cordoba and was later in the service of Saladin, the Ayyubid ruler of Egypt at the time of the Crusades. Saladin was said to have not less than 18 physicians in his service, 8 of whom were Muslim, 5 Jewish, 4 Christian, and 1 Samaritan. Maimonides, who died in 1204 (601 H), composed several medical writings, all in Arabic but sometimes written in Hebrew characters.

Two handwritten pages of an Arabic treatise on haemorrhoids that is frame ruled.


A short Arabic treatise of 4 folios on haemorrhoids (Fi al-bawasir) by Maimonides (d. 1204/601 H).
The copy, in a Maghrib (North African) script, was made in 1826 (1241 H) by a scribe named Mahmud ibn Muhammad al-Ibi al-Hanafi.
NLM MS A90, fols. 1b-2a at the beginning of the treatise


Numerous other examples can be given of treatises devoted to specific ailments or groups of diseases. Particular classes of potential patients were also the subject of a number of treatises. Medicine for the Poor and the Destitute (Tibb al-fuqara' wa-al-masakin) was a manual of inexpensive and easily available remedies written in Arabic by Ibn al-Jazzar, who died in 980 (370 H). He was from a family of Tunisian physicians and a very devout Muslim, leading an austere life even though quite wealthy, making a religious pilgrimage every summer, ministering to the poor as well as the wealthy, and giving free medical consultations in his home.

First handwritten page of On the Management of Diseases for the Most Part Through Common Foodstuffs and Medicine Specified for the Use of Monks of the Cloister and Whoever is Far From the City by Ibn Butlan NLM MS A37, folio 1b.


On the Management of Diseases for the Most Part Through Common Foodstuffs and Medicine Specified for the Use of Monks of the Cloister and Whoever is Far From the City, an Arabic manual by Ibn Butlan (d. 1066/460 H).
Undated incomplete copy; possibly 18th century.
NLM MS A37, fol. 1b, open to start of manual


Treatises for travelers were a very popular form of medical literature. Ibn al-Jazzar also composed one that was later quite influential in Europe in its Latin version Viaticum peregrinantis. All such manuals discussed the diseases, fevers, and bites of poisonous insects and animals that could be encountered when traveling and the means of treating them in the absence of a doctor.

The Christian physician Ibn Butlan wrote an Arabic medical guide for monks residing in an isolated monastery which could also be of use to anyone away from urban medical care. The treatise had the long title On the Management of Diseases for the Most Part Through Common Foodstuffs and Medicine Specified for the Use of Monks of the Cloister and Whoever is Far from the City. Ibn Butlan, originally from Baghdad, visited Old Cairo about 1049 (441 H), after which he went to Constantinople before settling at Antioch in Syria and becoming a monk.

Medieval biographical dictionaries are among our most important sources for the lives and writings of early Islamic physicians, as well as accounts of early Greek physicians as they were known to medieval Arabic readers. Two of the most important for medical and scientific biographies were written in the 13th century. The biographical dictionary compiled by `Ali ibn Yusuf al-Qifti, who died in 1248 (646 H), covered 414 learned physicians, philosophers and astronomers, while the one by Ibn Abi Usaybi`ah, who died in 1270 (669 H), was exclusively concerned with physicians. Ibn Abi Usaybi`ah was born into a family of physicians in Damascus and in his day was a noted oculist practicing at the Nuri hospital there. Today, however, he is more readily associated with his book Sources of Information on the Classes of Physicians in which he gave the biographies of over 380 physicians. Curiously, his fellow student Ibn al-Nafis is not mentioned in this bio-bibliographical history, even though Ibn Abi Usaybi`ah devoted two chapters to his contemporaries in Syria and Egypt. We can only guess that there was a rivalry, and perhaps even personal enmity, between the two physicians. Medical biographies continued to be included in general biographical dictionaries or medical dictionaries. For example, a medical dictionary called The Sea of Gems (Bahr al-jawahir) was composed in 1518 (924 H) by Muhammad ibn Yusuf al-Harawi. Written partly in Arabic and partly in Persia, it was arranged alphabetically, covering anatomical and pathological terms and medicinal substances, as well as prominent physicians.

Handwritten page of Arabic script featuring the life of Dioscorides near the bottom.


The biographical dictionary (Ta'rikh al-Hukama') of 414 physicians and scholars written by `Ali ibn Yusuf al-Qifti (d. 1248/646 H).
Copy completed 25 January 1636 (16 Sha`ban 1045 H) by scribe Muhammad ibn Shaykh ..?..ibn Shaykh `Umar al-Akhrawi.
NLM MS A72, fol. 58b.
Life of Dioscorides begins near bottom of folio.



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