The Origins of Islamic Medicinal Knowledge

“I prefer a short life with width, to a narrow one with length.” ~ Ibn Sina (Avicenna)

After Muhammed’s (a.s.) death in 632/11 the young Islamic movement moved up North and passed the borders of the Arab peninsula into Syrian-Byzantian territory and into the areas of what is known as the Sassanid or Persian empire. The early influences of these cultures on Islam, stretched into architecture, art, and in particular also into medicine and patient care in hospitals. The medical school and hospital to Gondeshapur in the South of what is nowadays Iran was the very foundations of early Islamic hospital culture also known as Bimaristans, a Persian word.

“It was under King Khosrau that the medical school and hospital to Gondeshapur became famous as a center for learning.”

If we trace Islamic medicinal, and indeed, the history of all modern medicine, back to pre-Islamic days we arrive at the Persian doctor Burzōē who brought vast medicinal knowledge from India to Iran, in particular in the areas of surgery and phytology (knowledge of plants and herbs). Burzoe was a doctor in the service of the Persian King Khosrau I (a.d. 531-579).  On the order of Emperor Khosrau Burzoe travelled to India to study and translate the Indian Panchatantra from Sanskrit into Pahlevi (Middle-Persian). The Panchatantra itself is a collection of fables, and it is said these fables form the very foundation of what is nowadays known as 1001 night and Grimm’s fairytales. While in India Burzoe also studied the highly sophisticated work of Indian physicans, and studied the Sushruta-Samhita, a vast medical text. It was also under King Khosrau that the medical school and hospital to Gondeshapur became famous as a center for learning.  Khosrau gave refuge to various Greek philosophers and Syriac-speaking Nestorian Christians (Nestorian Christianity became later known as “Church of the East”) fleeing religious persecution by the Byzantine empire. Muhammed (a.s) himself had a relative who was an Nestorian Christian who had found refuge in Mecca (Waraka ibn Nawfal). The Sassanids had long battled the Romans and Byzantines for control of present-day Iraq and Syria and were naturally disposed to welcome the refugees. Khosrau commissioned the refugees to translate Greek and Syriac texts into Pahlavi. They translated works on medicine, astronomy, philosophy, and useful crafts. They in particular also translated the texts of the Greek physicans Galen and Dioskurides whose influence later on reached deep into Islamic medicine.

Magnolia, 2019

Khosrau I also sent Burzoe  to invite Indian and Chinese scholars to Gondeshapur. These visitors translated Indian texts on astronomy, astrology, mathematics and medicine and Chinese texts on herbal medicine and religion.

The Islamic healing arts of the early period were composed of various sources reaching back into the knowledge of the Byzantine and Persian Empire, and Indian as well as Chinese influences, and Greek sources like Galen, and own observations and emperical knowledge. Drugs that were unknown to Galen or Diokurides were for example Camphor, Galgant, Styrax, Mastix and Zarnab. But also Arab culture itself brought it’s own unique medicinal knowledge into the mix, since they too had brought much unique knowledge from India, Egypt, Persia and Byzantine into pre-Islamic culture via the trading routes which they traveled as merchants in all directions.


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Posted in Islam & Psychiatry, Islamic Alchemical Traditions, Islamic Medicinal History, Islamic Medicinal Knowledge, Islamic Plant Medicine, Islamic Psychology, Islamic Spiritual Health, Islamic Trauma Treatment, Traditional Islamic Treatments and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , .

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