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 The Contribution of Islamic Civilization to Medicine    by Farid Sami Haddad (MD, FACS)


The main sources of our study can be grouped in two categories: Arabic medical manuscripts, and secondary sources. Arabic medical literature is unbelievably vast and extensive. We do not know the exact number of medical books written during the Islamic era; but the number was undoubtedly very large. For example, the library of Mustansiriyya University in Baghdad contained 80,000 volumes. The library of Cordoba during the reign of al-Hakam (796-831) contained 600,000 volumes, and its catalogue alone comprised 44 volumes. The Fatimid library in Cairo contained 2,000 000 volumes. The library of Tripoli, which was burnt by the Crusaders, had 3,000000 volumes.

Most hospitals had their own libraries. Ibn al-Mutran (d.1191), the famous physician of Damascas who served as a personal physician to the Emperor Saladin, employed two full time scribes who copied books for him. When he died, he left a library consisting of over 13,000 volumes. Another famous physician had 40 scribes who copied books for him. My rough estimate is that the number of important medical books written during the Islamic era over a period of 870 years is about 4,000. If all of these books were available today and if one were to read them at the rate of one book a week, it would take some 80 years just to read all of them, to say nothing about making a careful study of them. Unfortunately, only a small proportion of this treasure house of Islamic medicine has survived the ravages of time. Some of these books have come down to us either in their original form or in Latin translations. The bulk of what remains from this rich and valuable heritage is in the form of manuscripts, waiting to be printed and translated.

Arabic medical manuscripts which have survived the vicissitudes of time number about a thousand. They are scattered all over the world and are preserved in the world's great libraries, such as Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris, the British Museum in London, the Beatty Collection in Dublin, and other great repositories of Arabic medical manuscripts in Cairo, Istanbul, Damascus, Munich, Milan, Boston, Washington, New York, Rome, Bologna, Cleveland etc. Other Arabic medical manuscripts remain hidden in lesser known and smaller collections, which often have no printed catalogue. The location of still others remains, for all practical purposes, unknown. Perhaps less than a hundred of the extant manuscripts have so far been printed and a lesser number have been translated into modern languages.

My late father Dr Sami I. Haddad (1890-1957), who was Professor of Surgery at the Medical School of the American University at Beirut, had a deep interest in the history of Arabic medicine. He devoted a great deal of his time, energy and resources to the collection and study of Arabic medical manuscripts. He also wrote several articles on the subject in Arabic, English and French. Starting in 1930, he collected over 400 Arabic manuscripts, out of which 123 pertained to medicine. In 1984, I published, with H. H. Biesterfeldt from Germany, the Catalogue of the Arabic Medical Manuscripts in the personal library of my late father. Before the publication of this catalogue in 1984, these 123 Arabic medical manuscripts were practically unknown except to a handful of scholars. There are hundreds of such unknown private collections in different countries. New catalogues of Arabic medical manuscripts are being constantly published, as a result of which our knowledge of the contributions of physicians during the Islamic era is continuously expanding.

Until very recently, I was not sufficiently aware of the great and voluminous contributions of the celebrated Andalusian physician Ibn Zuhr. In 1983, his book Al-Taysir was published for the first time in Damascus. When I acquired a copy of this printed edition, I avidly read it and was greatly fascinated by the clarity of Ibn Zuhr's expression, the wide range of his learning and experience and the richness of his contributions.

The second source of our information relating to the medical contribution of Islamic civilization is in the form of reference works written by eminent historians, both in Arabic and in modern European languages. The following table provides a overview of such works.

Title Author Date
Al-Fihrist Ibn al-Nadim 987 AD
Tarikh al-Hukama Al-Qifti 1227
Uyun al'anba fi Tabaqat al- Atibba Ibn Abi Usaybia 1257
Kashf al-Zunun Haji Khalifa 1658
Geschichte der Arabischen Aerzte Wustenfeld 1840
Histoire de la Medicine Arabe Lucien Leclerc 1876
Iktifa Van Dyke 1897
Geschichte der Arabischen Literatur Brockelmann 1898
Mujam al-Matbuat Sarkis 1927
Arabian Medicine Browne 1921
Arabian Medicine Campbell 1926
Die Medizin im Islam Manfred Ullmann 1970

Pre-eminent among all of these references is undoubtedly the great work Al-Anba fi Tabaqat al-Atibba [The Sources of Information about the Categories of Physicians] by the celebrated historian of Islamic medicine, Ibn abi Usaybia, written around 1257 AD. It contains the biographies of over 400 physicians. The book is a veritable mine of information about physicians, their books and clinical experiences as well as anecdotes

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