The Islamic world inherited a large body of medical and scientific knowledge from the Greeks and Romans. To this foundation, Islamic physicians and scholars added new knowledge and experience. In order to encompass all this information, Islamic scholars created encyclopedias of medical knowledge and practice. With this genre of medical literature, they organized a vast array of sources into a logical and accessible format, "user-friendly" to teacher and student alike. Through these encyclopedias and compendia, Islamic scholars corrected errors of transmission, contributed their own experience to medical tradition, and satisfied the universal need for intellecual coherency.
Although Greek, Roman, Hellenistic, and Islamic knowledge was communicated by handwritten manuscripts long before the printing press or other modern technologies were invented, medical and scientific authors wrote many and often long works of scholarship. Since these books could be hundreds of pages long, they were often expensive to copy, impracticable to carry, and difficult to refer to in the course of a busy and mobile practice. For these reasons, abridgements or summaries (epitomes) of larger medical works were much in demand.
The Islamic world inherited a large body of medical and and scientific knowledge from the Greeks and Romans. The resulting body of knowledge was unsystematic, sometimes contradictory, and usually in need of adaptation to new circumstances of time and place. For example, Greek, Roman, and Hellenistic physicians practiced within an environment dominated by Mediterranean geography and climate. Islamic scholars, on the other hand, practiced in a large area that included the Mediterranean litoral but also stretched across highly varied environments from North Africa and the Iberian pennisula to India. Moreover, Islamic physicians and scholars added new knowledge and experience. For these reasons Islamic scholars needed to prepare many and extensive medical commentaries.
Arabic didactic verse was intended to provide an accessible and easily remembered summary of a particular field of knowledge. Medical poetry became a popular device for learning simple concepts of therapeutics and regimen, because the rhyming quatrains enabled the student or practitioner to quickly retain the basic ideas. Numerous medical treatises (as well as essays on other topics such as grammar, divination, navigation, or astronomy) were rendered into verse to help students memorize basic concepts. The poems were usually written in rajaz verse, which is a kind of iambic meter whose pattern of syllabic repetitions produces a jingling sound that is particularly easy to remember. This poetic form of instruction was immensely popular in medieval literature and numerous examples are preserved today, some of them written by very prominent figures. Most examples, however, remain in manuscript form and are unpublished, for the use of didactic poetry to teach serious subjects such as medicine has long fallen out of fashion and has not attracted much attention from historians.
The most well-known Arabic didactic medical poem was that called simply "A poem on medicine" (Urjūzah fī al-ṭibb) written by Ibn Sīnā (Avicenna). Judging from the large number of manuscripts preserved today, it was especially popular, and it inspired a number of commentaries, including an important one by the Spanish physician Ibn Rushd (Averroes). A copy of Ibn Sīnā's poem as well as three subsequent commentaries are preserved at NLM. The commentaries include the popular one written in Spain by Ibn Rushd, a rather rare one written in the 15th century by Mūsá ibn Ibrāhīm al-Baghdādī, and a unique copy of a hitherto unknown commentary written earlier in the same century by ‘Alī ibn ‘Abd Allāh ibn Haydūr. The collection at NLM also has three additional didactic medical poems attributed to Ibn Sīnā, in addition to a poem sometimes ascribed to Ibn Sīnā that was described earlier in the section on Hippocratic medicine, titled "An Elegant Poem on the Twenty-five Premises of Hippocrates" (Urjuzah latifah fi Qadaya Ibqarat al-khamsah wa-al-‘ishrun), summarizing the pseudo-Hippocratic treatise on prognostics. Seven other authors are represented by their medical poetry, including the 12th-century Persian physician al-Jurjānī and the well-known 13th-century Cairene astronomer al-Marrākushī (both in unique manuscripts) as well as the leading 14th-century vizier of Granada, Lisān al-Dīn Ibn al-Khaṭīb. There are also 11 anonymous examples of medical didactic poetry in the collection. An anonymous versification of the Qānūnchah of al-Jaghmīnī (MS P 25 item 5), a versification by Qiwām al-Dīn Muḥammad al-Ḥasanī of the Qānūnchah (MS A 86 item 1), and a poem on sexual hygiene by al-Nakhshabī have been or will be discussed elsewhere (MS P 24 item 1).
For Arabic didactic poetry in general see Safa' Khulusi, "Didactic verse" in Religion, Learning and Science in the ‘Abbasid Period, eds. M.J.L. Young, J.D. Latham and R.B. Serjeant (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1990), pp. 498-509. For a study of 9th- to 10th-century poems concerned with therapeutic blood-letting (fasd, in Arabic), see Julian Ashtiany Bray, "Third and Fourth Century Bleeding Poetry", Arabic and Middle Eastern Literatures, vol. 2 (1999), pp. 75-92.
Large numbers of treatises were devoted to particular medical topics. Human anatomy was the subject of a number of treatises, many of them illustrated. For ophthalmology there developed an extensive specialist literature. Diagnosis and prognosis, especially through the examination of pulse and urine, were the topics of several monographs. The techniques of bloodletting (phlebotomy), cupping, and cauterization also formed topics of special interest. Dictionaries of medical terms were also composed, as well as histories of physicians, which included biographies, with lists of compositions, for not only Islamic physicians and learned men, but also earlier Greek figures. Perhaps most surprising of all were the production of monographs concerned with the medical care appropriate to specific social groups -- for example, the poor and destitute or a monastic community of Christian monks.
A large number of Arabic and Persian treatises were devoted solely to the therapeutic treatment of diseases. These discourses were usually devoid of any discussion of general medical principles or discussions on anatomy. They would present the symptoms of a condition followed by procedures for treating it, usually accompanied by some recipes for compound remedies.
Many of these therapeutic manuals presented procedures for treating all the ailments then recognized. The books were usually arranged so that the ailments and their treatments are presented in order from head to foot according to the location of the condition, with additional sections for those complaints not specific to one part of the body, such as skin diseases and fevers. One of the most popular of the general therapeutic manuals, judging by the large number of copies preserved today, was a short essay written in the late 9th or early 10th century by al-Rāzī (Rhazes) in which he presented treatments for conditions which he claimed could be cured in one hour's time. NLM has a copy of this Arabic treatise as well as a Persian translation. Also in the collection are two therapeutic manuals composed in the 16th century, one from the 17th century, and two from the early 19th century. In addition, NLM has two anonymous and undated general therapeutic treatises
There were also numerous therapeutic manuals that focused on specific ailments, such as fevers, or hemorrhoids, or stomach complaints, or pain in the joints. NLM has an important copy of a treatise on combating forgetfulness by the 9th century scholar Isḥāq ibn Ḥunayn as well as a unique copy of a treatise on skin diseases written in the 11th century by Ibn al-Kattānī. The treatise by Ibn Sīnā (Avicenna) on colic is preserved in many copies, of which NLM has one example. Hemorrhoids was a topic of considerable concern to medieval populations, and NLM has a copy of a treatise written on the topic by Maimonides in the 12th century and another on the topic composed in the 16th century by al-Qawṣūnī. The treatise concerned with pain in the joints by al-Samarqandī, who died in 1222, is also represented as well as an 18th-century treatise on the treatment of fevers by al-Shābūri. There are two anonymous and in addition, untitled tracts, one on fevers and one on vomiting, in the collections.
A third type of therapeutic manual composed in medieval Islamic lands consisted of procedures and remedies that a particular practitioner had found useful in the course of his work. The compilations are not usually well-structured treatises, and they do not cover all the recognized ailments but rather only those of special interest to the compiler. In this type of therapeutic manual the remedies are usually specified as "tested" or "tried and true" (mujarrabat, in Arabic). So common is this designation, mujarrabat, that it has been used as a label for the entire category of compiled medical experiences. In many instances such collections will include (to varying degrees) folkloric and magical practices. Of this type of therapeutic guide, NLM has a 17th-century treatise by Muḥammad ibn Thālib al-Shīrāzī and another by one Muḥammad ibn Khamrah, whose dates are unknown. Small, anonymous collections of mujarrabat recipes and procedures are often encountered in manuscript collections, and NLM has three such anonymous collections.
The topics of dietetics, regimen, and hygiene occupied many medieval medical manuals. The majority of such manuals were general guides to regimen. There were, however, a number of treatises devoted to particular aspects of regimen and hygiene, such as dental hygiene, or regimen for travelers, or cosmetics, or sexual hygiene. The latter was an especially large category of writings, and this is reflected in the rather large number of treatises on the topic that are in the NLM collections. Dietary advice and discourses on foodstuffs also form a separate category, although that topic was also a part of most treatises on regimen and hygiene to some extent or another.
In addition to two Arabic treatises on general hygiene, by Ibn Jazlah (d. 1100/492) and by al-Anṭākī (d. 1599/1008), and an anonymous tract on methods of washing, NLM also has two poems that concern hygiene and regimen, both catalogued with the medical poetry. One is a Persian versification of a treatise called Hifz al-sihhah (The Maintenance of Health) and may well be based on a treatise by Ismā‘īl ibn al-Ḥusayn al-Jurjānī (d. c. 1136/531); see (MS P 25 item 3). The second is an anonymous Persian poem on regimen occuring in the same manuscript, (MS P 25 item 8).
For a general discussion of medieval Arabic treatises on hygiene, regimen, and diatetics, see Ullmann, Medizin, pp. 190-203.