Medicine Before Islam

In order to comprehend the contributions of the Arabs to medicine, we must have in our minds a picture of the condition of medicine before they arrived on the scene. Generally speaking, two elements are required for medical practice: manpower and hospitals.

A. Manpower before Islam. There were medical centers in different parts of the world which were later either underthe control of the Arabs or inluenced by them. For exampie, in Syria, medicine was advanced and was greatly influenced by the Byzantine civilization which affected also the economic and administrative systems (Hammarneh 1962). From the fifth century on, Greek was the language of learning in Syria. The knowledge of the Arabs of the Greek civilization was mainly through the Syrian scholars who translated it into Arabic. In Egypt, Alexandria was another center for culture. The Arabs came into contact with both the ancient Egyptian and Greek civilizations through the Egyptian scholars. In Persia, there was a medical school in a city called Jundi-Shapur in which medicine was highly developed (Fig. 1). The Abbasi Caliphs during the 8th century encouraged the Persian physicians to translate medical literature from the Persian language into Arabic, to build medical centers in Baghdad, the capital of their empire, and to run newly built hospitals. With further expansion east, the Arabs through contacts with India and China, obtained ideas and methods, not only in medicine, but also in mathematics, chemistry, philosophy, etc.

B. Hospitals before Islam. Hospitals, as we now know them, were probably not present. True, there were places forthe sick to stay, but these were mainly temples or buildings adjoining temples that were run by priests. Gods were supposed to play a major role in the art of healing. For example, the Goddess Toueris was the Egyptian symbol of fecundity who was the protectress of the pregnant and parturient. She was shown as a standing pregnant hippopotamus carrying the hieroglyph meaning protection in one paw and the sign of life in the other. Small figures of Toueris were popular as amulets (Speert 1973). In those days, sanctuary, prayers, incantation, and hypnosis were integral parts of the therapy