The Muslim World’s Contributions to Medical Science, Part III

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Abū ʿAlī al-Ḥusayn ibn ʿAbd Allāh ibn al-Ḥasan ibn ʿAlī ibn Sīnā, Avicenna in Latin, was born on the 22nd of August, 980. He is among the most celebrated and famous Muslim medical scientist and physician.He is regarded as the father of modern medicine and also as the prince of all physicians, Avicenna holds such a great place in different fields of science that even a millennium after his death his ideas are discussed in class rooms. His efforts for which he is fondly remembered are in the realms of philosophy and medicine but besides these two branches of knowledge, he also made significant contributions in astronomy, alchemy, geography, geology, psychology, mathematics, physics, poetry, logic, and Islamic theology. In fact, he was a great seeker and disperser of knowledge. Everything in nature interested him and he performed his research on everything.

“Avicenna wrote a large number of medical works in Arabic and also a few in Persian, including treatises on particular diseases, as well as poems summarizing the basic principles of medicine. His masterwork, however, is the Cannon of Medicine (al-Qanun fi al-Tibb), which is certainly the most widely read and influential work of Islamic medicine.” [1]

The Cannon is a comprehensive medical encyclopedia comprising of five volumes. The first volume first contains four treatises, the first of which examines the four elements (earth, air, fire, and water). The first treatise has description of anatomy also. The second treatise is on etiology (cause) and symptoms. The third volume discusses issues like hygiene, health and sickness, and the inevitable death. The fourth volume is mostly on therapeutic nosology (classification of disease) and a general overview of regimens and dietary treatments. The volume two of Cannon is list of medical substances with details on their general properties. The third volume of Cannon contains details on diagnosis and treatment of diseases specific to one part of the body. The fourth volume is on the diseases that are not specific to certain organs. It covers the diagnosis and treatment of conditions covering multiple body parts or the entire body. The fifth volume of Cannon is a big formulary of compound remedies. This volume along with second volume offer important compendia of about 760 simple and compound drugs. The Cannon became the main part of syllabus on medicine in Medieval European universities and it was reprinted several times in different languages. Avicenna described medical theory and practice in Cannon in such a way that this book holds authoritative status on Islamic medicine for all times.

“Avicenna possessed much clinical insight, and is given credit for the first description of several drugs and diseases, such as meningitis, which he was the first to describe correctly. But it is essentially for his penetration and his understanding of the philosophical principles of medicine, on the way one hand, and his mastery of the psychological treatment of physical ailments , or of psychosomatic medicine as it is called today, on the other hand, that he is celebrated.”[2].

His description of cardiac diseases was presented systematically and logically for the first time in history of medicine. He was the first to give a description of carotid sinus hypersensitivity, which presents with vasovagal syncope. He also made contributions in Pulsology and presented correct explanation of pulsation.

“Since the second half of the twelfth century when the Canon of Avicenna was translated into the Latin in Toledo in Spain, gradually, the Avicenna medicine dominated the atmosphere of the Western medicine. Since then, most of the medical works of Avicenna has been translated into different languages and also hundreds of scientific and research works were written about his medicine. The fame and scientific dominancy of Avicenna in the Western lands was to the extent that he was named as Emir (Ruler) of the Physicians and his book of Canon was termed as the Medicine Bible…The first university in the Europe which put the book of Canon formally as the base of its medical education was the University of Bologna (the oldest European university) in Italy in the 13th century. Other European universities in which teaching the book of Canon was presented in their educational programs were Leuven in Belgium, Mont-pellier in France and Krakow in Poland. When in the 14th century, the first faculty of medicine in the Krakow University of Poland was established, the works of Avicenna were the bases of educational materials. It was envisaged in the approved curriculum of the mentioned faculty (approved in 1536) that the students of medicine should study parts of the first and the fourth book of Canon for their theoretical and practical courses.” [3]

Avicenna’s influence extends into modern medical practice. Evidence-based medicine, for example, is often presented as a wholly contemporary phenomenon driven by the double-blind clinical trial. But, as medical historian Michael McVaugh pointed out, medieval physicians went to great pains to build their practices upon reliable evidence. Here, Avicenna played a leading role as a prominent figure within the Greco-Arabic literature that influenced such 13th-century physicians as Arnold of Villanova (c. 1235–1313), Bernard de Gordon (fl. 1270–1330), and Nicholas of Poland (c. 1235–1316). It was Avicenna’s concept of a proprietas (a consistently effective remedy founded directly upon experience) that permitted the testing and confirmation of remedies within a context of rational causation. Avicenna, and to a lesser extent Rhazes, gave many prominent medieval healers a framework of medicine as an empirical science integral to what McVaugh called “a rational schema of nature. “Indeed, without Avicenna, much knowledge would have been lost. Furthermore, his resilience over the centuries belies Villanova’s conclusion. Lecturing in 1913, Canadian physician and professor of medicine Sir William Osler described Avicenna as ‘the author of the most famous medical text-book ever written.’ Osler added that Avicenna, as a practitioner, was ‘the prototype of the successful physician who was at the same time statesman, teacher, philosopher and literary man.'” [4]

1. Science and Civilization in Islam by Seyyed Hussein Nasr

2. ibid

3. The Place of Avicenna in the History of Medicine ,Avicenna J Med Biotechnol. 2009 Apr-Jun, by Jamal Moosavi

4. Encyclopedia Britannica (Online Edition)

Editor’s note: Islamic Insights is honored to host a series on “The Muslim World’s Contributions to Science” by esteemed guest columnist Brother Asad Raza. His column will feature contributions from Muslims in different science fields. This article is focused on the great scholar, Ibn Sina. 

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Asad Raza

A stimulated mind. An avid reader. An IT professional. A beleiver in Deen e Hanifa : "Then set your face upright for religion in the right state-- the nature made by Allah in which He has made men; there is no altering of Allah's creation; that is the right religion, but most people do not know--"(30:30)

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