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Arabic Medicine in the World of Classical Islam: Growth & Achievement

The Religions and Public Life program at the Kenan Institute co-sponsored a two-day symposium on Arabic medicine in the medieval period that began with a tour of Duke University Libraries’ collection of medical books from the period and was followed by a keynote address by noted scholar of Medieval Islamic medicine, Cristina Álvarez Millán (UNED, Madrid). 

Dr. Millán emphasized the role of Muslim scholars and practitioners of medicine played in organizing and elaborating on the Greek and Roman medical knowledge that had passed down from Antiquity.  In so doing, Dr. Millán argues, Islamic societies bequeathed essential resources to Western centers of medical knowledge, like Montpellier in France, that established the Western tradition of medicine.

Dr. Millán’s talk provided an overview of medical advances and innovations in the medieval Muslim world from the 10th century to the 14th century, a period dominated by rival Muslim dynasties in al-Andalus (modern day Spain and Portugal), North Africa, and the area around Iraq and Iran.  One great strength of Islamic societies in this period was that, in their bid for political prestige, political rivals in these regions patronized scientific production and vibrant collaborative traditions among medical philosophers and practitioners that saw knowledge about human health transmitted across trading networks from East to West.

Some of the knowledge about medicine exchanged in this way would be familiar to people today: surgical charts, new drug treatments based on plant extracts, and treatment protocols for vulnerable populations (the poor and migrants).  Some Muslim scholars, like Averroes of al-Andalus, were more interested in theoretical aspects of wellness, while others, like Abu Bakr al-Razi of Baghdad, became famous for their clinical practice.  Indeed, Dr. Millán made clear throughout her talk that Arabic medical practitioners cared deeply about their patients: adhering to the principles of the Hippocratic oath and adjusting drug treatments so that they tasted and smelled better.

Throughout the talk and discussion period, Dr. Millán acknowledged the difficulties of studying the evolution of medical practice and theory during this period.  Not many case studies exist from which to accurately pinpoint medieval diseases and those records we do have come from a group of well-known physicians who tended to the political elite of the time.  Thus, a fuller understanding of the social history of medicine (doctor-patient relations, for example) elude us especially with regard to middle-class and poorer groups in society.