Banner featuring Arabic calligraphy in dark blue ink above the words Islamic Medical Manuscripts at the National Library of Medicine written in burgundy ink.

Catalogue: Medical Monographs

Blue arrow pointing to the right Anatomy and Physiology

Systematic human anatomical dissection was no more a pursuit of medieval Islamic society than it was of medieval Christendom. It seems clear from the available evidence, however, that there were no explicit legal or religious strictures banning it. Indeed, 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.

Knowledge of human anatomy in medieval Islam was firmly based on the anatomical writings of Galen, who flourished in the 2nd century AD, and who to a large extent argued from analogy with animal structures. Galen's writings were available in the Islamic world through the translation of unayn ibn Isāq and his collaborators. Galen presented the material in a highly teleological manner, with constant emphasis on structure and function demonstrating the design of the Creator, and this approach found a receptive audience amongst Islamic physicians and philosophers. NLM has an important copy of the Arabic translation of Galen's most important treatise on physiology, On the Usefulness of the Parts, (MS A 30.1). In addition, NLM has copies of the Arabic versions of Galen's treatise On Bones for Beginners and On the Anatomy of Muscles (MS P 26, item 3) (MS P 26, item 4).

There were two noteworthy contributions made to the history of anatomy and physiology by medieval Islamic writers: One was the result of chance observation: ‘Abd al-Latif al-Baghdadi (d. 1231/629) was able to improve the description of the bones of the lower jaw and sacrum following the discovery of some skeletons during a famine in Egypt in 1200. The second was the description of the movement of blood through the pulmonary transit by the Syrian physician Ibn al-Nafīs (d. 1288/678). Ibn al-Nafīs composed a very popular epitome of the Canon of Medicine by Ibn Sīnā (Avicenna) which he called the Mūjiz. In addition, however, Ibn al-Nafīs also wrote a commentary on the Canon in which he criticized Sīnā for spreading his discussion of the anatomy over several different sections of the Canon. Ibn al-Nafīs subsequently prepared a separate commentary on just the anatomical portions, and it was in this latter 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, sometimes called the 'lesser circulation', was made three centuries before Michael Servetus (d. 1553) and Realdo Colombo (d. 1559), the first Europeans to describe the pulmonary circulation. A subject of debate amongst historians is whether Ibn al-Nafīs's commentary on the anatomy in the Canon was available through translation to European physicians. It is known that Ibn al-Nafīs's commentary on the last part of the Canon, concerned with compound remedies, was translated into Latin by the Renaissance physician Andrea Alpago (d. 1522) and published posthumously in 1547. The possibility remains that Ibn al-Nafīs's commentary on the anatomy might have been transmitted through unpublished translations.

Because the discussions of anatomy are scattered throughout the huge Canon of Medicine by Avicenna (Ibn Sīnā), with the anatomy of a particular organ discussed only in the section concerned with diseases particular to that organ, these anatomical portions of the Canon were often copied out and compiled as a separate treatise. Two manuscripts in the NLM collection illustrate this interest in the anatomical portions of the Canon: (MS A 56, MS A 27, item 1). In both copies the margins contain extracts from the commentary written by Ibn al-Nafīs on the anatomical portions of the Canon; the extracts are slightly more extensive in MS A 27 than in MS A 56.

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 or, occasionally the ventricles of the brain. For examples, see the diagram of the ventricles or cells of the brain illustrated in Kitāb al-Manūrī fī al-ibb (The Book of Medicine for Mansur) by al-Rāzī in NLM (MS A 28, fol. 15b), or the cranial sutures illustrated in the copy of the Canon on Medicine by Avicenna in (MS A 53, fol. 11b detail), or the marginal diagram of the upper jaw and teeth in the commentary by ‘Alī al-Jilānī on the Canon of Avicenna (MS A 62, fols. 60a), or the diagram of the eye and visual system from a copy of Ibn al-Nafīs's epitome of the Canon preserved in NLM (MS A 43, fol. 50a), or another schematic diagram of the eye and visual system from a copy made in 1407 of a commentary on Ibn al-Nafīs's epitome by al-Āqsarā’ī in NLM (MS 67 fol. 167b). In a Persian manuscript now at NLM, a copy of Mufarri al-qulūb composed in the early 18th century by Muammad Akbar known as Muammad Arzānī, there are small diagrams of cranial sutures as well as diagrams of the ventricles of the brain and also the eye and optic nerve (MS P 13, fols. 29a, 45b, and 263a).

No anatomical illustrations of the entire body are known to have been produced in the Islamic world before those that usually accompany the Persian-language treatise Tashrī-i badan-i insān (The Anatomy of the Human Body) by Ibn Ilyās (fl. ca. 1390). NLM has two important copies of this treatise (MS P 18 and MS P 19), which was also commonly called "Mansur's Anatomy" (Tashrī-i Mansurī) because Ibn Ilyās' full name was Manūr ibn Muammad ibn Amad ibn Yūsuf Ibn Ilyās. One of the NLM copies, (MS P 18) is the earliest dated copy known to be preserved, made by a scribe resident in Isfahan called asan ibn Amad Ardistani in 1488 (984 H).

Another important anatomical manuscript at NLM is what appears to be the only anatomical treatise written in Egypt in the 18th century by an encyclopedist named Amad ibn ‘Abd al-Mun‘im al-Damanhūrī (MS A 54).

NLM also has a number of anonymous anatomical treatises or groups of anatomical drawings. On the last folio of one copy of a commentary by al-Kāzarūnī (d. 1357/735) on Ibn al-Nafīs's popular epitome of Avicenna's Canon of Medicine called the Mūjiz, MS A 61, a later hand has started copying the opening of an anonymous Persian treatise on anatomy. Only the start of the unidentified treatise is preserved; for details see the full catalogue entry for (MS A 61).

The remaining anonymous anatomical items in the NLM collections will be catalogued in the following sections. They include a bloodletting figure and a venous figure, probably drawn in the 18th century but based on earlier models (MS P 5 fol. A); six early-modern anatomical drawings showing some European and Indian influences (MS P 20, item 2), and two anonymous Arabic anatomical and physiological treatises, MS A 76 and MS A 21, the latter concerned especially with the function of speech.

For further reading on anatomical knowledge in the medieval Islamic world, see E. Savage-Smith, "Tashrih" [anatomy] in EI (2nd ed.), vol. 10, pp. 354-356; and E. Savage-Smith, "Attitudes toward dissection in medieval Islam", Journal for the History of Medicine, vol. 50 (1995) pp. 68-111; and F. R. Maddison and E. Savage-Smith, Science, Tools, and Magic [Khalili Collection of Islamic Art, 12] (Oxford: Oxford University Press and London:Azimuth Editions, 1996), Vol. 1, pp. 14-24.

Welcome Getting started Medieval Islam Catalogue Bio-bibliographies Glossary Abbreviations Credits About the Author Concordances A 1 - A 29 A 30 - A 59 A 60 - A 89 A 90 - A 92 P 1 - P 29 Authors, Translators & Commentators Copyists & Illustrators Owners & Patrons