Skip Navigation Bar
 

Decorative calligraphic page header featuring orange Arabic script for Islamic Culture and Medicine

Islamic Culture and the Medical Arts


Anatomy

Systematic human anatomical dissection was not a pursuit of medieval Islamic society any more than it was in the contemporaneous Christian lands. Many scholars in Islam lauded the study of anatomy, primarily as a way of demonstrating the design and wisdom of God, and there are some references in medical writings to dissection, though to what extent these reflect actual practice is problematic. There were, nonetheless, two noteworthy contributions made to the history of anatomy and physiology by medieval Islamic writers -- namely, the improvement in the description of the bones of the lower jaw and sacrum by `Abd al-Latif al-Baghdadi (d. 1231/629 H) following the chance observation of skeletons during a famine in Egypt, and the description of the movement of blood through the pulmonary transit by the Syrian jurist-physician Ibn al-Nafis,who died in 1288 (687 H).

NLM MS A27 folios 11b and 12a which are handwritten in Arabic script using black ink. The folios are a discussion of the heart and there are marginal annotations containing extracts from the commentary.

The anatomical sections of the Canon of Medicine by Ibn Sina (d. 1037/428 H) assembled by an anonymous compiler into one volume.
Notes in the margins include quotations from the commentary on the anatomy of the Canon written by Ibn al-Nafis (d. 1288/687 H), who is referred to as al-Qurashi, the name by which earlier writers knew him.
Copy completed by unnamed scribe on 13 July 1584 (5 Rajab 992 H).
NLM MS A27, fols. 11b-12a. Open to discussion of the heart.


In addition to his popular epitome of the Canon of Medicine by Ibn Sina, Ibn al-Nafis also composed a commentary on the Canon in which he criticized Ibn Sina for spreading his discussion of anatomy over several different sections of the Canon. Ibn al-Nafis consequently prepared a separate commentary on just the anatomical portions, and it was in this commentary that he explicitly stated that the blood in the right ventricle of the heart must reach the left ventricle by way of the lungs and not through a passage connecting the ventricles, as Galen had maintained. This formulation of the pulmonary circulation was made three centuries before Michael Servetus (d. 1553) and Realdo Colombo (d. 1559), the first Europeans to describe the pulmonary circulation.

NLM MS P19 folio 5a which is a handwritten page with a diagram of the cranial suture (upper illustration), drawn in red and black ink, and a schematic diagram of the bones of the upper jaw (maxilla) with the positions of the teeth indicated.


Diagrams of cranial sutures (above) and the bones of the upper jaw (below).
From The Anatomy of the Human Body (Tashrih-i badan-i insan) written in Persian at the end of the 14th century by Mansur ibn Ilyas.
Undated copy, probably 15th century.
NLM MS P19, fol. 5a


Knowledge of anatomy in medieval Islam was firmly based on the anatomical writings by the 2nd-century Greek physician Galen, who to a large extent argued from analogy with animal structures. All the major Arabic and Persian medical encyclopedias had sections on anatomy, summarizing the Galenic anatomical concepts. These were occasionally illustrated with schematic diagrams of the eye or the cranial sutures or the bones of the upper jaw. No full-page anatomical illustrations of the body are preserved from the Islamic world before those which accompanied the Persian treatise composed by Mansur ibn Muhammad ibn Ahmad ibn Yusuf ibn Ilyas, descended from a Shiraz family of scholars and physicians. His illustrated treatise, often called `Mansur's Anatomy,' was dedicated to a grandson of Timur (Tamerlane) who ruled the province of Fars from 1394 to 1409 (797-811 H). It consists of an introduction followed by 5 chapters on the 5 `systems' of the body: bones, nerves, muscles, veins and arteries, each illustrated with a full-page diagram. A concluding section on compound organs, such as the heart and brain, and on the formation of the fetus, was illustrated with a diagram showing a pregnant woman.

Hand drawing of a nerve diagram, with figure viewed from the back, with the head hyperextended so that the mouth is at the top of the page. The pairs of nerves are indicated by colored inks.


Nerve diagram, with figure viewed from the back, with the head hyperextended so that the mouth is at the top of the page. The pairs of nerves are indicated by colored inks.
From The Anatomy of the Human Body (Tashrih-i badan-i insan) written in Persian at the end of the 14th century by Mansur ibn Ilyas.
Copy undated, probably 15th century.
NLM MS P19, fol. 11b


Hand drawing of a muscle figure, shown frontally, with extensive text denoting muscles.


Muscle figure, shown frontally, with extensive text denoting muscles.
From The Anatomy of the Human Body (Tashrih-i badan-i insan) written in Persian at the end of the 14th century by Mansur ibn Ilyas.
Copy completed 8 December 1488 (4 Muharram 894 H) by Hasan ibn Ahmad, a scribe working in Isfahan.
NLM MS P18, fol. 20a


Hand drawn page featuring the venous system, with figure drawn frontally and the internal organs indicated in opaque watercolors


The venous system, with figure drawn frontally and the internal organs indicated in opaque watercolors.
From The Anatomy of the Human Body (Tashrih-i badan-i insan) written in Persian at the end of the 14th century by Mansur ibn Ilyas.
Copy completed 8 December 1488 (4 Muharram 894 H) by Hasan ibn Ahmad, a scribe working in Isfahan.
NLM MS P18, fol. 25b


Historians have noted the similarity between 5 of the 6 illustrations accompanying this Persian-language treatise and certain early Latin sets of anatomical illustrations. This similarity is particularly evident in the diagram of the skeleton, which in both the Latin and Islamic versions is viewed from behind, with the head hyperextended so that the face looks upward and with the palms facing backward -- in a posture, some have noted, suggestive of a dissection table. All the figures are in a distinctive squatting posture. The earliest Latin version dates from the 12th century while the earliest dated Islamic set is one of the two now at the National Library of Medicine, completed 8 December 1488 (4 Muharram 894 H).

The origin of this anatomical series, which clearly predates the Timurid treatise by Mansur ibn Ilyas, remains a puzzle. There are nearly 70 preserved sets of the Islamic full-page anatomical diagrams, of which about two-thirds are associated with copies of the treatise by Mansur ibn Ilyas. The sixth figure in the Islamic series, the pregnant woman, has no parallel in the earlier Latin series and was probably a contribution by Ibn Ilyas himself. It was constructed from the arterial figure without the labels and superimposed with an oval gravid uterus having the foetus in a breech or transverse position.

Hand drawn figure of a pregnant woman.


The figure of a pregnant woman.
From The Anatomy of the Human Body (Tashrih-i badan-i insan) written in Persian at the end of the 14th century by Mansur ibn Ilyas.
Copy completed 8 December 1488 (4 Muharram 894 H) by Hasan ibn Ahmad, a scribe working in Isfahan.
NLM MS P18, fol. 39b


Hand drawn skeleton, drawn in red and black ink, viewed from behind with the head hyperextended so that the face looks upward.


The skeleton, drawn in red and black ink, viewed from behind with the head hyperextended so that the face looks upward.
From The Anatomy of the Human Body (Tashrih-i badan-i insan) written in Persian at the end of the 14th century by Mansur ibn Ilyas.
Copy completed 8 December 1488 (4 Muharram 894 H) by Hasan ibn Ahmad, a scribe working in Isfahan.
NLM MS P18, fol. 12b.
Earliest recorded copy.



Previous Section | Table of Contents | Next Section