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 Revival of Islamic Medical Tradition    by Seyyed Hossein Nasr

(This paper is based on the Al-Razi Memrial Lecture delivered by Professor Seyyed Hossein Nasr at an international conference on Islamic medicine organised by the International Institute of Islamic Medicine in Orlando, Floria, USA on March 14-16, 1994. It was subsequently published in the Journal of the Islamic Medical Association of North America. The paper has great contemporary relevance and is reproduced here with grateful acknowledgement to Professor Nasr and the Journal.)

Rayy, where al-Razi came from, was a great Islamic city in his time, but it is now a small town outside of Tehran. I could not claim any knowledge of medicine, except from what I have read of Islamic medicine, if it were not for my father, who is buried in Rayy, and grandfather being physicians, and because of my love for the subject. Though an amateur speaker on this subject, I do know something about Islamic science, and it is interrelated to Islamic medicine.

Seyyed Hossein NasrIslamic Medicine is Islamic medicine. It is not Muslim medicine, it is not Arabic medicine, it is not medicine that happened to be cultivated by Muslims. The term “Arabic medicine,” which unfortunately has been promoted now for 40 years by UNESCO and other Arab nations, does a great disservice to Islamic civilisation. As an Iranian, I have always spoken as a member of Islam and not as an Iranian. I have never used the words “Iranian medicine” or “Iranian philosophy” in the books I have written. The authors of the first four great compendia, which defined Islamic medicine (i.e. al-Tabari, al-Majusi, al-Razi, and ibn-Sina), were all Persians. The great Arab physicians came somewhat later, especially in Egypt and Syria. Then, of course, we have all the later development of Islamic medicine, which mostly took place in, of all places, the subcontinent of India. Each time the Persians conquered India, they left the beset physicians there, especially at the time of Nader Shah, which facilitated a major revival of Islamic medicine. It is not accidental that Hakim Mohammed Said, a foremost authority on traditional Islamic medicine comes from Karachi, in the Indian subcontinent, and not from Khorasan. There is a historical reason for that. Therefore, we must stick to the term “Islamic medicine” because it covers the whole Islamic world. It was the endeavour of Arabs, Persians, Turks, and others who today are called Pakistanis, Indians, Uzbeks, as well as other people. Also, for a much more profound reason, Islamic medicine is “Islamic,” not because it was cultivated by Muslims, but because it is related to the Islamic world view. In that sense it is Islamic, even if non-Muslims, such as Hunayn ibn Ishaq, a Christian Arab, contributed to it. Thus, if Christians, Sabaeans, Jews, or others contributed to the rise of Islamic medicine, that is fine, but in the world view, the structure was something that is related deeply to the ethos of Islam. Not only in practice does it emanate partly from “al-Tibb al-Nabawi” (Prophetic medicine) and “al-Tibb al-Ja’fari,” and other religious sources of medicine, but it is related to the intellectual understanding of what is the human being, what is health, what is the purpose of life, what is the relationship between eating and illness and health and living, what is the relationship between mental health, spiritual health and physical health. All of these issues and the understanding as to what constitutes the human being do not come from either Greek philosophy or from the Arabs or Persians or anybody else, but from the Qur’an and Hadith and by the great physicians of the later centuries.

Having said this, the question comes up: Why should this be revived, why should we revive Islamic science and medicine, why spend effort on it? This will take me too far afield. I have been a kind of pioneer shouting in the wilderness for 40 years now. Thanks to Allah, I have been joined by many other voices.

Islamic science and Islamic medicine are not only chapters in Western history. It is true that without al-Zahrawi, or the Canon of ibn Sina there would not have been Western philosophy or Western science as we know them. We would be doing a great injustice to Islamic civilization and to the whole of humanity if we continue to think of Islamic science and Islamic medicine as chapters in Western civilization. It is also a very important part of the way the world looks upon itself today. The Islamic world stands out because it does not want to follow what is called the “New World Order,” which in reality is a Western order imposed upon the world. If Muslims look at their own great contributions as simply contributions to another civilization, which happens to be all-powerful, they are really misunderstanding what Islam can contribute.

It is extremely important to understand that the way we extol Western science and Western medicine as the criteria of excellence through which we judge our own excellence, is the undoing of our own self-confidence. A civilisation must look upon itself from its own point of view. If it ever looks upon itself from another point of view, it dies. The great “sclerosis,” which has taken over the Islamic world for a century and during which we have been shouting about science, science, science and we are not doing anything, is precisely because we made ourselves an appendix to Western thought. Therefore we cannot function as an independent civilisation.

I am, first of all, not at all belittling the contribution of Islamic science to the West. I would be the last person who would want to belittle this. I do not call Islamic science, and especially Islamic medicine, simply chapters in the history of medicine in the West, which is very glorious from one point of view, but extremely inglorious from another, in which on the one hand, you will have the great success that you see before you every day, on the other hand, the health of the society as a whole is going down. Pretty soon, the Rockefellers will be the only ones who can afford going to the doctor. It is modern medicine’s commercialization, its refusal to take upon the totality of the human being, its compartmentalization of man’s body into parts and all of the other things, which, in fact, have caused a large number of people in America, which has the most advanced modern medical science and technology, to look for alternative medicine. Why is it that so many Americans are going elsewhere, and where is Islam in this? Why is it that you have now alternative Chinese medicine and schools of acupuncture in every city in the United States? We have two new schools of Ayurvedic medicine in Washington. After Dr. Chopra’s books, in the city where I live (Washington, D.C.), you can actually go to a place where they are training clinicians to practice Ayurvedic medicine. Where is Islamic medicine? Islamic Medicine for a long time has been claimed to be simply a little baby of Western medicine. It does not offer itself as an “alternative,” and there will never be the practice of Islamic medicine in this country unless it is given as an alternative, a holistic way of looking at the whole human body, soul, and mind within the context of faith in relationship to diet, what we think, what we do, how we act, and the totality of human life.

I am very sorry if I speak so categorically, but somewhat angrily, about why in everything, even the propagation of non-Western medicine in the United States, we are at the tail end. Tibet has only 4 million people. How many centers of Tibetan medicine are there in the United States and how many centers of Islamic medicine? I will say nothing more. The reason for that is precisely a kind of matrix, a kind of world view, which we adopted in the late 19th century, forced down upon our throats by a certain colonial way of thinking, which is still very much around. Colonialism did not only come with a flag on top of a fort in Delhi with British soldiers inside, but it came from what is inside the mid of humans and has prevented us from being able to realize the remarkable achievements of Islamic medicine on its own level. Also, for the sake of God, we should stop glorifying the European Renaissance, which was the beginning of the rebellion of Western man against God. All these things that we are happy about–secularism and atheistic humanism–where do they come from? They come from the Renaissance. The people in the West really laugh at us when we say how glorious Islam is because it contributed to the Renaissance. This is an absolute contradiction. It is like saying how wonderful Islamic medicine is because it helped the propagation of AIDS in America. Intellectually, it is totally absurd. We were trained by British and French teachers in the 19th century that the Renaissance was a glorious period for man. It was not. It was a period in which the West turned away from all other civilisations of the world, a period in which it decimated larger parts of Africa, a period in which it killed millions of people where you and I are standing right now. This land belonged to the Seminole Nation of Indians who were forced to march from here to Kanas. Four-fifths of all of their people died. Right here in Orlando, where we have these Mickey Mouses and things like that around, one cannot overlook the truth, one cannot overlook human history. We Muslims should never take pride that we contributed to the rebellion of man against God. What we contributed to is Renaissance science and especially 17th century science, which then took Islamic science out of its context and put it somewhere else. You can believe two and two is four and become an atheistic modern physicist, but you can also say two and two is four and become a ‘Umar al-Khayyam, who did not miss a prayer all his life. Therefore, the purpose of the revival of Islamic medicine in America today and also of Islamic science, which is much more difficult, is precisely in order to fill a vacuum. Why do we not have Unani, ibn Sina’s, or Islamic herbal collections here in the United States? It has very little to do with FDA. Every American city is full of Chinese shops, full of Chinese herbs. Now, in big cities like New York, you can get Ayurvedic herbs and Tibetan medical herbs, but you cannot get the products of Hamdard Foundation from Karachi or Delhi. It is my goal to try at least to bring this to the attention of these eminent doctors in this room today who have not only faith in Islam, but a desire to revive their own medical tradition, the Islamic medical tradition.

Every system of medicine is related to cosmology, that is, philosophy as to what constitutes the cosmos. There is no science without a philosophy of science. Every science makes an assumption as to the nature of reality, an assumption as to the nature of what is known. It is even more so in medicine because it deals with a particular subject, which also is living. It has elements of life and of consciousness. These things are more complicated than a piece of cobalt or quartz crystal that can be analyzed in a crystallography laboratory. Cosmology is always involved in any investigation related to life.

The revival of Islamic medicine or Islamic science will always involve or revolve around Islamic cosmology. Is the universe created by God? If created by God, does He have control over the universe? Does the universe have meaning? Do its functions point to a particular purpose and plan? We simply cannot be ambiguous and say that we will not answer these questions. Science is based on particular assumptions as to the nature of reality.

Western science, of which I know just a little, has a philosophy based upon certain assumptions made in the 17th century, which penetrated deeply into medicine, and, in a sense, looked upon the human body as a complicated machine. The books of Descartes and Dale, the famous French philosophers, who first wrote the book, Man, the Machine, have left a mark upon mainstream medicine in which the human body is taken to be a sum of physical and chemical processes. The sum is never greater than its parts. That is a philosophical assumption. Certainly in medicine, which deals with life, functions, interrelatedness, and organic relations, where unbelievable and remarkable things occur and predictions are made that do not always come our right, someone was supposed to have lived only 6 more months and he is still alive 10 years down the road; whereas another person who is healthy drops dead. Nevertheless, this philosophy behind it is that of mechanism, an atomism, and is still around as a kind of atomistic conception of the world.

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