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Arabic Medicine

Major work in ophthalmology

Early Arabic (Islamic) medicine built on the legacies left behind by Greek and Roman physicians, and was strongly influenced by Galen and Hippocrates. Most medical literature from both Greece and Rome was translated into Arabic, and later adapted to include their own findings and conclusions. Islamic scholars were experts in gathering data and placing them in order so that readers could find them easier to understand and search through various texts. They turned many Greek and Roman writings into summaries and encyclopedias.

From 600BC to 700 AD, people generally believed that Allah (God) would provide treatment for every illness. By 900 AD, Islamic medicine had become a science in its own right. As people became more interested in health, Islamic doctors strived to find healing procedures that looked at the natural causes and potential treatments or cures. The medieval Islamic world produced some of the greatest medical thinkers in history; they also made advances in surgery, built hospitals, and welcomed women into the medical profession.

Arabic physicians


Muhammad ibn Zakariyā Rāzī (pictured, known as Al-Razi, 865 - 925) was a Persian physician, chemist, alchemist, philosopher and scholar. He was the first to distinguish measles from smallpox and discovered kerosene, as well as several other compounds. He became chief physician of Baghdad and Rey hospitals.

He wrote a book called "The Diseases of Children" and was probably the first physician to define paediatrics as a separate field of medicine. He was also an accomplished ophthalmologist, being at the forefront in diagnosing and treating eye conditions. He was the first doctor to write about immunology and allergy, probably discovered allergic asthma and was the first person to explain that fever is part of the body's defence against infection. He was a pharmacist, writing extensively on the subject. Many devices are attributed to him, including spatulas, flasks, mortars, and phials.

Ibn Sina

Abū ʿAlī al-Ḥusayn ibn ʿAbd Allāh ibn Sīnā (known as Ibn Sina or Avicenna, c980 -1037) was a Persian polymath and a prolific writer. 240 of his books and articles still exist today, of which 40 focus on medicine.

Perhaps the best known is Avicenna's Canon of Medicine (pictured) which consisted of five encyclopediac volumes. Originally written in Arabic, it was later translated into several languages, including Hebrew, English, French and German. It is considered one of the most famous and influential books in the history of medicine, and set the standards for modern medicine in both the Islamic world and in Europe.

Read more about Avicenna's Canon of Medicine

Women in medicine

Male members of Arabic households did not like having their wives, mothers & daughters being examined by male physicians, unless it was a life-or-death situation. As a result, female doctors were trained in large numbers. According to the writings of the "medicine of the prophet", men could still treat women and women could treat men, even if this meant exposing the patients' genitals when circumstances made it necessary.


Islamic society was the first to build public hospitals open to all social classes, called bimaristans ("houses of the sick" in Persian), they were carefully managed both financially and organisationally. Surgery was carried out exclusively in hospitals but, because there were no effective anesthetics, sophisticated operations were impossible although and doctors often used opium to induce sleep before operations. Many procedures were learnt from Greek or Roman texts and surgery was rarely practiced outside hospital, because of the very high death rate.

Read more about public hospitals (bimaristans)

Procedures carried out included:

  • ophthalmology - doctors treated patients with cataracts and trachoma;
  • cauterisation (burning of flesh) - to prevent infection and stem bleeding from wounds;
  • bloodletting - to restore the balance of humors, blood would be drained from a vein; and
  • wet-cupping (pictured) - a small incision was made on the skin to draw blood and then a heated cupping glass was placed over it.

The end of the line ...

Eventually, the Islamic civilisation constructed by the Arabs went into decline. First the Mongols devastated Baghdad (in 1258), then the Ottoman Turks conquered large parts of the Arab world and brought them into their new empire. As a result, the flow of medical ideas from the Islamic world came to a halt but, fortunately, the legacy of Islamic medicine remains to this day.

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Allah    Avicenna    cataracts    cauterisation    cupping    hospital    ophthalmology    paediatric    trachoma