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Catalogue: Prophetic Medicine

Blue arrow pointing to the right A Note on Prophetic Medicine

In addition to the Greek-based medical systems advocated by physicians such as al-Rāzī and Ibn Sīnā (Avicenna), there was also an alternative genre of medical writing called al-ibb al-nabawī, or 'The Medicine of the Prophet' or 'Prophetic Medicine'. The authors were clerics rather than physicians, and they advocated the traditional medical practices of the Prophet Muammad's day and those mentioned in the Qur'an in preference to the medical ideas assimilated from Hellenistic society, thereby providing a guide to medical therapy that was acceptable to the religiously orthodox.

The therapy recommended in these treatises included 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 of coitus, theories of embryology and anatomy, the proper conduct of physicians, and the treatment of minor illnesses such as headaches, nosebleeds, cough, colic, and sciatica. There was a prohibition against the use of wine and soporific drugs as medicaments. The treatises also provided numerous prayers and pious invocations to be used by the devout patient, with designs for the occasional amulet and talisman.

Treatises on Prophetic Medicine were particularly popular in the 13th to the 15th century, with some still available today in modern printings. We know of a considerable number of treatises on al-tibb al-nabawi, but we do not have the names of any who were known for practicing this type of medicine. The reason for this may be that our written sources are for the most part skewed toward the Greek-based system and omit details of other practices. It is evident that treatises on Prophetic Medicine flourished for centuries alongside those of the Greek-based humoral tradition, and it would seem that treatises on al-ibb al-nabawī were not considered detrimental to, or competitive with, medical practices based primarily upon Hellenistic humoral medicine.

The popularity of the topic is illustrated by the relatively large number of manuscripts at the National Library of Medicine. There are eleven treatises concerned with Prophetic Medicine representing nine different authors. The earliest is that by the historian and legal authority al-Dhahabī (d. 1348/748), whose treatise circulated in two versions, both of which are at NLM. From the next century two authors are represented, al-anawbarī (d. 1412/815) and Jalāl al-Dīn al-Suyūī (d.1505/911). NLM has copies of two treatises on the topic by al-Suyūī, one of which is a famous book on the subject that is still in print today. From the 16th century NLM has a unique and possibly autograph copy of a treatise on the topic by usayn ibn Ibrāhīm ibn Walī ibn Nar ibn usayn al-anafī. The 17th century is represented by two authors: al-Qalyūbī (d. 1659/1069) and al-Simillāwī (fl. 1698/1110). Two 18th-century writers represented in the collection are al-Naysābūrī (fl. 1750/1163) and al-Tāfilātī (d. 1777/1190), and one author, Ibn al-Mīlaq, is otherwise unknown and even his dates are uncertain.

For Prophetic Medicine (al-ibb al-nabawī), I. Perho, The Prophet's Medicine: A creation of the Muslim traditionalist scholars [Studia Orientalia, 74) (Helsinki, 1995); Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya, Medicine of the Prophet, translated by Penelope Johnstone (Cambridge: The Islamic Texts Society, 1998); Islamic medical wisdom: The ibb al-a'imma, tr. Batool Ispahany and ed. by A.J. Newman (London, 1991); Ibn Habib, Mukhtasar fi al-tibb, ed. C. Alvarez de Morales and F. Giron Irueste (Madrid, 1992); M. Dols, Majnun: the madman in medieval Islamic society (Oxford, 1992), pp. 211-60; L. Conrad, 'Medicine: traditional practice', in The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World, ed. J.L. Esposito (New York/Oxford, 1995), vol. 3, pp. 85-91; Fazlur Rahman, Health and Medicine in the Islamic Tradition: Change and Identity (New York,1987) [see review in History of Science, vol. 26 (1988) 418-25]; J.C. Bürgel, 'Secular and Religious Features of Medieval Arabic Medicine', in Asian medical systems, ed. C. Leslie (Berkeley, CA, 1976), pp. 41-62; and G. Bos, 'The Miswak, an aspect of dental care in Islam', Medical History, vol. 37 (1993) pp. 68-79.

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