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

Islamic Culture and the Medical Arts


On the 30th of November 1094 AD (or to be more precise, the 19th of the month Dhu al-Qa`dah in the year 487 of the Muslim era), a scribe in Baghdad completed a copy of an Arabic treatise by one of the most important medieval physicians and clinicians -- Abu Bakr Muhammad ibn Zakariya' al-Razi, who worked in Baghdad in the previous century and was later known to Europe as Rhazes. This manuscript is the oldest volume in the National Library of Medicine (NLM) and the third oldest Arabic manuscript on any medical topic known to be preserved today.

The present exhibition is both a celebration of the 900th anniversary of this important manuscript and an opportunity to highlight the nature and achievements of the medical profession in Islamic culture from the 9th to the 19th century.

The core of the exhibition is a selection of 39 volumes from the Islamic manuscript holdings at NLM. The bulk of the Islamic medical manuscripts at NLM -- that is to say, 129 of the volumes -- were acquired in 1941 from Abraham S. Yahuda, a Biblical scholar and orientalist who had come to the U.S. as a refugee. Most of his large collection of Islamic manuscripts were acquired by Princeton University, but the Army Medical Library purchased the medical items by means of a bequest from William F. Edgar, a physician who in 1849 had taken a wagon-train over the Oregon Trail and settled in California. In the 50 years since the main group of manuscripts was purchased, an additional 22 manuscripts have been acquired from various sources. As a result, NLM now has 105 Arabic, 33 Persian, and 13 Turkish manuscripts, bring the total to 151 volumes. Many of these volumes, however, contain a number of treatises, so that the collection actually comprises 351 individual medical treatises. Detailed catalog records of the Arabic and Persian manuscripts are now available on NLM's online catalog, LocatorPlus.

The exhibition was supplemented with some printed books and Latin manuscripts from NLM, as well as artifacts on loan from the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore and the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. Items were also borrowed from the private collections of Dr. Ahmad Younis and Mohamed Zakariya. Photographs of manuscripts from the Bodleian Library in Oxford, the Freer Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and the Clendening Library at the University of Kansas Medical Center, Kansas City, were also displayed. The kind cooperation of these institutions is gratefully acknowledged.

In preparing the exhibition and the accompanying brochure, we have had the generous and enthusiastic assistance of many people. The calligrapher Mohamed Zakariya designed the poster announcing the original exhibit. This image was reproduced on the cover of the accompanying brochure, and appears as the title decoration for this online version of the exhibit. His inspiration for the design was the frontispages that are a distinctive feature of Bulaq printings of Arabic texts. In 1821 the Egyptian government established a printing press in Bulaq, a suburb of Cairo, and for the rest of the 19th century it was the most important Arabic press, responsible for modern printings of many classical Arabic medical texts. A video on Islamic calligraphy, with Mohamed Zakariya demonstrating some techniques, was available for viewing at the exhibition. This online multimedia version of the exhibit includes a section which contains the complete narrative along with selected static images and video extracts from the original video production. To Dr. Ahmad Younis, now of Bethesda, Maryland, we owe a debt of gratitude for his tireless efforts on behalf of the project.

Without the generous support of the League of Arab States, the U.S.-Arab Chamber of Commerce, and the Arab-American Physicians of the Washington Area, the present exhibition and brochure would not have been possible.

And last, but by no means least, I must express my thanks to Anne Whitaker of the History of Medicine Division, who had the unenviable task of taking my ideas and instructions, prepared a great distance away, and transforming them into the exhibition and brochure that you now see. While she bears no responsibility for whatever errors or omissions I have made, her uncomplaining and highly professional work is responsible for the exhibition and brochure coming to fruition.

It is hoped that through this effort more people will come to realize the important role in the history of medicine that Islamic medicine has played and will become aware of the artifacts of that important medical tradition that now reside in the collections at NLM.

A Note Regarding Dates: The Muslim calendar is a lunar one of 354 days beginning from the day of the Emigration (Hijrah) of the Prophet Muhammad from Mecca to Medina, which occurred on the 16th of July 622 of the Christian calendar. Consequently, Muslim dates do not correspond directly to those of the Christian era (AD) commonly used today in Europe and the U.S. In the following essay, when specific dates are given, the first will be that of the Christian calendar and the second that of the Muslim era, designated by H (for Hijriyah referring to the Emigration of the Prophet). For example, the date 787 (171 H) refers to 787 AD, which is roughly equivalent to 171 of the Muslim calendar. General references to a century rather than a specific year refer to centuries of the Christian era. For example 9th century refers to the years 800-899 AD (or 184-287 of the Muslim era). The designation AD will be used only when there is need to distinquish a date from an earlier BC date.

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