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 Revival of Islamic Medical Tradition    by Seyyed Hossein Nasr

There must be something much more. It must be related also to our soul. Why is it what whenever this body does something, it will affect me entirely? The Qur’an keeps coming back to the significance of the body. Why do we make ablutions? There must be a relationship between the body and the soul. All of us who make ablutions, we know that we have a kind of Inshirah (inner pleasure) inwardly. You have a kind of Farah, a joy that takes place within the soul when you make your ablution. What does that have to do with us? Islam has a philosophy of the body. This philosophy of the body must be part of the present-day discourse that is going on very vociferously. A few months ago, I gave a series of lectures at the University of Birmingham on religion and the order of nature. A book, which will shortly be published by the University of Oxford and called “Religion and the Order of Nature” has a chapter by me on the wisdom of the body. I was very ashamed because everybody asked, where do you read about this from Islamic sources? Except for Arabic and Persian and other sources, I had nothing to give them. Where is our Islamic response to what is the meaning of the body? What is the relationship of the body to the soul when it was discussed all the way from al-Razi and ibn Sina to the highest levels by the Sufis, like al-Ghazali and others? Why is it that the Prophet said that the health of the body is so important? Why is cleanliness described as half of the religion? The body is just going into the earth. If it is something more than that, what is it?

We need to develop the Islamic philosophy of the body upon which medicine must always place itself. The respect for the person, the respect for the individual as a unique locus of Divine creative power needs to be brought into focus. That is why Muslims, like Christians, were against the dissection of the body precisely because they felt the body represented itself as a unique Divine creation. All of these issues have to be worked out.

We have to rewrite the history of Islamic medicine from the Islamic point of view. Islamic medicine does not stop with the Mongol invasion. It is still going on. Baha-ullah, the great Safavid physician, discovered whooping cough in the 17th century. Many Indian doctors have had several discoveries in the last two centuries. There are thousands of unbelievably large Islamic medical manuscripts in the Indian medical libraries. Most are in Persian; others are in Urdu and Arabic. We rely a great deal on the work of great Western historians of science. They rendered a great service, especially in the late 19th and 20th centuries, and include Max Meyerhoff, George Sarton, Sudof, and those great historians like Widerinann. They were only interested in Western medicine and so left the last 700 years untold. We must be able to write our own history of medicine. This history is not only interesting from an historical point of view; it is interesting from a medical point of view as well. Why is it that we do not have an exhibition of Islamic medicine as part of Western medicine? We do not have, as yet, one single serious book in any Islamic language on the history of Islamic medicine. Of course, there are books on al-Razi and ibn-Sina. That is too easy because there are more than 1,000 articles on ibn-Sina in English, French, and German. All we have to do is to regurgitate that into Arabic or Persian, and there it is. We may have some research of our own, but the matrix has been wrong. What you have to do is attach the present revival of Islamic medicine, and even the practice of Western medicine in Islamic countries, to the Islamic medical tradition and try to create a kind of organic bond in between. I have seen physicians in the Islamic world–in Turkey, Egypt, and Iran–who are extremely westernised. They are very fine doctors, but culturally they are totally German, French, or English. They have no problem with drinking, they never pray, but they also treat patients very well, and they are excellent surgeons. They are not attached in any social and human way to the tradition of Islamic medicine.

Furthermore, we need to make available the manuscripts written by Muslim scientists and physicians over the centuries.

I have been working with Shaikh Ahmed Zaki Yamani in Saudi Arabia who has founded Al-Furqan Foundation, which produced a four-volume survey of Islamic manuscripts. We worked for seven years on this project and now we finally know where all the important collections of Islamic manuscripts are located. We believe there are about 2 million titles written by Muslims, not manuscripts, but 2 million titles, which is fairly incredible.

No civilisation has produced so many manuscripts. Among those there are, probably about 50,000 to 100,000 manuscripts deal with some aspect of science. How many of them pertain to medicine in particular, I do not know yet. We do know that these are actual titles of books, not the number of manuscripts. Tens of thousands of works were written, of which only a couple thousand are now read.

Finally, we must extract the knowledge based upon those Islamic principles that underlie Islamic medicine from the point of view of not positivism and some kind of gross scientism, but from the Islamic point of view. There should be no fear if you are going to revive Islamic medicine to acknowledge that the body is a mysterious thing, it does obey the laws of chemistry and physics and biology, but sometimes it does not. There are interrelations between body and other substances. I have called the Nafs a substance and not simply an accident in a philosophical sense or a thing or an object. The Nafs is a being created by God and so is the Ruh. These interact with each other in ways that are not very well known, but nevertheless you must try to know them. We must not repudiate any positive discovery that is made in other schools of medicine, but we must repudiate the positivism that it is based upon. We have a new gadget called magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). You can discover many tissues that might be cancerous or any other problem of the body that we could not do before. Even then, the patient is not simply those images on the wall. A single human being can never be reduced to any parts, as I said before. To avoid that, we are always bringing out the view of wholeness, which in fact, everybody talks about today. This bring me around to the last point, and that is the possibility of practicing Islamic medicine in America today, in contrast to Egypt, Syria, Iran, or Pakistan.

First, this possibility exists because the monopoly of the mainstream Western medicine may collapse, despite its tremendous political power, the Congress and lobbies, and the whole way the American political system works. There are simply too many people who are not satisfied with the segmented view, extremely successful from one point of view but extremely unsuccessful from another. They are looking for a way of being treated as humans. That is, they do not want to be cured at the expense of being dehumanised. Therefore, other types of medicine are coming in. Western medicine is fighting an uphill fight. It is possible now to practice Islamic medicine no less than acupuncture or Ayurvedic or Tibetan or other forms of medicine that are catching on like wildfire. I am not only talking about the extreme wing of California, a new-age culture. You go to any American city now. The main establishment is forced to accept that, even insurance companies now pay for acupuncture. I think Islamic medicine has a very good opportunity that was not here 20 years ago and is not going to be here 20 or 30 years from now. Now is the right moment to try to actually put this into practice and perhaps try to establish one place in America where people would actually be teaching Islamic medicine. There are now several schools of Ayurvedic, Tibetan, and Chinese medicine, as well as 500 schools of acupuncture.

Another important element in the practice of Islamic medicine in America today is the question of ethics. It only took 35 years for American medicine, which had continued to present many of the old values of traditional medicine gong back to Hippocrates-- respect for the patient, selflessness, and so forth--to lose most of it. I know some of the most famous American medical school deans. I was having dinner with one of them and he said the main reason for the loss in ethics is that up until the 1950s, we got students through medical schools who primarily wanted to serve others. That was their main motive in life. From the 1960s on, we got students who want to become rich. We have to change the type of students who apply to medical school. When I was a student at Harvard University, the beset medical doctor or a famous surgeon would make about twice as much as the winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics or Chemistry. Everybody talks about ethics and commercialisation, which are going to have a deep and profound effect. In fact, if they go on, the whole society will collapse. You cannot spend one seventh of all your income on health matters. What if you do not live to be 180 years old. You have to stop somewhere and we all know that. The Clinton plan failed because it was ideological. Other plans are going to come. Sooner or later we know that we have to reintroduce ethics into medicine. Islam can play a very important role because Islamic medicine was never divorced from ethics. A Muslim physician was always the Hakim. The word Hakim is a very respected term that means a person with a divine name in the Islamic world. We have to be able to bring back medical ethics through Islamic medicine.

Finally, this is going to have the most important effect upon the image of Islam in the West.

Islamic medicine is a very important instrument for the reintroduction of the true face of Islam in the West if you have a body and people who will not succumb to the temptations of making money like some of these Chinese doctors who come from Peking and make $10,000 a day practicing acupuncture. I asked one, “What are you doing?” He said, “I am supporting a whole hospital in Beijing.”

I think it will also have a very important political effect on the Islamic world. For the next decade or two, one of the best fields to introduce Islam into American and Europe is Islamic medicine. We have a tradition of some 1,300 years behind us, which will allow us to revive one of the most rich Islamic traditions, one that is related to Islam, to the Islamic Shari’ah, and of course, to the most important of all, the word of God and the Prophet.

(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.)

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