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History of Medicine

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

Islamic Culture and the Medical Arts

Prophetic Medicine

A genre of medical writing intended as an alternative to the exclusively Greek-based medical systems derivative from Galen was that called al-tibb al-nabawi, Prophetic Medicine. The authors were clerics, rather than physicians, advocating the traditional medical practices of the Prophet Muhammad's day and those mentioned in the Qur'an over the medical ideas assimilated from Hellenistic society, thereby producing a guide to medical therapy acceptable to the religiously orthodox. Therapy consisted of diet and simple drugs (especially honey), bloodletting, and cautery, but no surgery. Other topics included fevers, leprosy, plague, poisonous bites, protection from night-flying insects, protection against the evil eye, rules for coitus, theories of embryology, proper conduct of physicians, and treatment of minor illnesses such as headaches, nosebleed, cough and colic. It was prohibited to drink wine or use soporific drugs as medicaments. The treatises also provided numerous prayers and pious invocations to be used by the devout patient, with the occasional amulet and talisman, and they were particularly popular in the 13th to 15th centuries, with some still available today in modern printings.

Folio 17b of NLM MS A79 featuring the beginning page of a treatise on prophetic medicine by al-Dhahabi.

A treatise on Prophetic Medicine by al-Dhahabi, who died in 1348 (748 H).
A Syro-Egyptian copy completed on 19 August 1464 (14 Dhu al-Hijjah 868 H).
NLM MS A79, fol. 17b

Folio 1b of MS A41 featuring an illuminated opening in gilt and opaque watercolors, with text framed in gold and ink lines and important words highlighted in blue.

An illuminated presentation copy of the treatise on Prophetic Medicine by Jalal al-Din al-Suyuti (d. 1505/911 H).
Illuminated opening in gilt and opaque watercolors, with text framed in gold and ink lines and important words highlighted in blue.
Timurid, late 15th or early 16th century.
NLM MS A41, fol. 1b

In contrast to many writers on the topic, the historian and theologian al-Dhahabi, who died in 1348 (748 H), attempted greater reconciliation of the traditional medicine of Arabia and the revelations of the Prophet Muhammad with the ideas and terminology from the Greek-based system, and he frequently cited Hippocrates and Galen as well as medieval Islamic physicians. On the other hand, the popular treatise by the religious scholar Jalal al-Din al-Suyuti, who died in 1505 (911 H), was based almost exclusively upon what was known of the practices current in the days of the Prophet, derived from the Qur'an, the reports about the Prophet (called hadith), and the practices of the early Muslim community.

Although a considerable number of Prophetic Medicine treatises were written, we do not have the name of any medical practitioner known for practicing this type of medicine. The reason for this, of course, may well be that our written sources are for the most part skewed toward the Greek-based system and omit details of other practices.

The treatises on Prophetic Medicine appear to have been addressed to the same audience as the Islamic plague tracts. Both types of writings were especially popular in the 13th and 14th centuries and later. The plague tracts have as their primary focus the collection and interpreting of various traditions (hadiths) which were considered relevant to the concept of infection and dealt with the proper social reaction to contagion. They also attempted some medical explanations and remedies for plague and sometimes a history of plagues up to the time of composition. They, like the treatises on Prophetic Medicine, were written for the most part by religious scholars, although a few were composed by writers trained both as physicians and theologians.

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Last Reviewed: December 15, 2011