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ISLAMIC MATERIAE MEDICAE AND THEIR INFLUENCE UPON THE WEST: A STUDY OF SOME ASPECTS
Hakim Mohammed Said and Dr. Kamal Mohammad Habib
PAKISTAN

While reflecting upon the history of medicine, itself a compost of several factors round which the patina of ages long past has collected, and no matter how much we might try to rasp the surface, the history of the origins of some of the elements that have shaped medicine stand irretrievably lost. One of the principal factors in this compost relate to drugs. Nevertheless, even in the face of the evidence available to us, it is possible for us to reconstruct some of the contributions made to medicine and its history both by Muslim physicians and historians. For example, we may justifiably claim that the dictionary of the biographies of famous physicians compiled by Ibn-abi-Usaybi ah, the mediaeval Syria Arab historian and biographer, Uyun al-Anba fi Tabaqat al-Atibb, may well have anticipated the present-day dictionaries of national biographies and Who's Who in different disciplines. If Ibn-abi Usaybi h's comprehensive work were not the first to have addressed itself to the kind of discipline we have in mind, founded as it was upon the Arab quest for genealogy, the claim might have appeared unwarranted; but, since the Western interest in biography as and art is definitely in the proper sense a mediaeval phenomenon, biography in its classified form derives in a large measure from Islamic contributions to the subject.


We have referred to this aspect by way of a preamble only. Perhaps a more cogent instance we that of Islamic materiae medicae.

(i) Pre- and Post-Islamic Materiae Medicae


It was through the pioneering efforts of Arabs that The Greek Herbal of Pedanios Dioscorides was transmitted to mediaeval Europe. It was translated directly into Arabic without resort to a Syriac intermediate in 9th ceA.D. by a Nestorian, Istafan bin-Basil, also known as Stephanos. Another Nestorian of Syrian origin, and one of the greatest translators of all times, Hunayn ibn-lshaq al-Ibadi, improved upon this work, and wrote its redaction. But for these translations during the Abbasid era, which blazed an altogether new tradition, -Dioscorides' work would have been consigned to irredeemable oblivion. Even during the Medieval Age Dioscorides was remembered largely through aphorisms and the magical properties of drugs. Improved versions of this monumental work were made available from time to time, especially in the Western Caliphate.

While it is true that Dioscorides' attempt is the first integrated one in human history, how many of the drugs mentioned by him would be identifiable today? The genus of the plant, possibly yes; but what of the species? It has therefore been contended with some justification that at best only one-sixth of the drugs described by Dioscorides could be properly identified today.

The Muslim contribution to materiae medicae is of a twofold nature. One lies in the direction of the preparation of aqrabadhins or medical formularies and the other in the direction of discovering new drugs with therapeutic properties or investing known drugs with additional curative properties, as will be discussed later. The word, aqrabadhin, is itself a loanword from the Greek graphidon. The Greek word means a list or registry. In Arabic it became synonymous with a list or registry of drugs and prescriptions. This alone represents a very high water-mark of achievement insofar as the pre-Islamic Arab knew of only a few drugs, and these too simples. Considerable and unremitting clinical and pharmacological study must have gone to determine the overall effect of a polypharmaceutical and the synergistic properties of simples. And so we get two kinds of writings: those devoted to the materiae medicae and those describing polypharmaceuticals. Some Muslim physicians made aqrabadhins part of their medical works, e.g. Ibn-Juljul (possibly in the Tafsir, asma' al-adwiyal al-mufradah or An Exegesis of the Names of Drug Simples, now in Madrid, 233) and the Dhakhirah-i Khwarazmshahi (in Persian) by Sayyid Ismail Jurjani, the tenth book of the letter work comprising a medical formulary. Martin Levey has hypothesized that the aqrbadhin might have derived its origin form Galen's Die compositione medicamentorum... and further "that it persisted as a pharmacological form into the nineteenth century". The same writer who translated and edited the Aqrabadhin of Al-Kindi says in his introduction to the work:

...The manuscript lists many prescriptions without any definite
organization as to their medical purposes, kind of medicament, or any
other category. But internal evidence suggests that the manuscript was
arranged by the type of medicament, such as decoctions, pills,
ointments, and syrups. This type of arrangement for an aqrabadhin was a favourite one in early Muslim medicines.

Prior to thirteenth century A.D. several medical formularies, e.g. those by Sabur bin-Sahl (d.869 A.D.), al-Razi (d.925 A.D.), Ishaq bin-Hunayn (fi. 870-92 A.D.), Sa'id ibn-Hibbat Allah (d. 1101 A.D.), Al Tilmidh bin-Salamah (d.1165 A.D.), Al-Qalanisi (d.1194 A.D.), and Najib al-Din Samarqandi (killed by the Mongols during the sack of Herat in 1222 A.D.).

Just as in case of encyclopaedic biographies, so in the case of medical formularies, Europe began to adopt this form of medical writing three centuries after Al-Kindi. Pietro d' Abano (ca.1250-1316 A.D.) added a supplement in Latin to the medical formulary of Masawayh Al-Mardini (d.1015 A.D.), the original Arabic test of the work being no longer extant. This Latin version remained current almost for centuries, and Masawayh, in fact, came to be designated as pharmacopoerum evangelicta in Europe.

The first extant materia medica in Arabic -and also possibly one of the most original of all times -is by Abu-Hanifah Ahmad bin-Da'ud al-Dinawari (d.895 A.D.). It is rather unfortunate that it is extant from the radif alif to za. The work is characterized by linguistic finesse and excellence of observation. Al-Biruni's Kitab al-Saydanah fi al-Tibb follows the approach of Al-Dinawari. One characteristic feature of this approach is that the writer of a materia medica does not confine himself merely to descriptions of medicinal plants but seeks to establish the identification of the plant or drug from quotations from established writers and poets. Whereas Dioscorides made actual observations in his capacity as a physician in the army of the emperor Nero, Muslim writers of materiae medicae not only described the physical and therapeutic attributes of a drug, but fortified their conclusion regarding its properties from authorities. A random quotation from al-Biruni's Kitab al-Saydanah might perhaps explain this aspect graphically:

Al-arar. -The author of al-Mashahir says it is bahar al-barr. Abu-Hanifah writes that it is fragrant like tayyib al-rih [buphthalmus or buphthalmum (ox-eye)]. Asma i says it is bahar al-barr and has quoted a verse in support thereof (wafar metre):

Satiate thyself with the ox-eye of Najd. Thou shalt not have the fortune
to see it in Syria.

Another poet (in the Kamil metre) says:

White in the morning and pale in the evening like the ox-eye. Abu-Hanifah (further) writes: "It is wild bahar, very yellow, with broad buds. Iguanas and chamaeleons are excessively fond of it". Ibn Mandawayh says "One variety of this plant is lethal. It acts as a sternutatory when sniffed. Some varieties induce intoxication, whilst others are very pungent; they should be avoided".