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

Contributions by non-physicians

In earlier times, students of medicine travelled far and wide in pursuit of medical knowledge. In the Islamic era, students flocked to the great centres of learning like Damascus, Baghdad, Cairo, Cordoba and Seville. Ibn al-Bitar travelled from Malaga in Andalusia to Tangiers, North Africa, Egypt and Damascus, collecting medicinal herbs during his travels, which later provided the sources for his famous encyclopaedic work.

Following the battle of Jaybar (628 AD), Caliph Umar set up an institution called Waqf (foundation or endowment for the poor, slaves and travellers), and endowed it with some properties he had acquired in the battle, with the stipulation that these properties should neither be sold nor transmitted by inheritance. This precedent has been followed since the time of Umar till the present times. The institution of Waqf has had a profound impact on the course of Islamic civilization. Large funds and estates became available, thanks to this institution, for the establishment, administration and maintenance of innumerable charitable institutions, such as mosques, schools and hospitals. Supported by large endowments, scores of public hospitals (bimaristan) came up in Muslim cities. One of these hospitals, built by the Emperor Nuruddin Zangi in 1156 AD, has survived the ravages of time and has now been made a museum.

The site on which a hospital was to be built was carefully chosen. It is said that when Al-Razi's advice for the selection of a site for a proposed hospital in Baghad was sought, he sent some of his men to the different quarters of the city and instructed them to hang half of the carcass of a sheep. He then regularly observed, over several days, the carcasses to detect any sign of decay. The site where the meat showed the least signs of deterioration and putrefaction was selected for the hospital.

A number of medical schools were set up with prescribed medical curriculum, clinical apprenticeship (what we today call residency), a system of medical licensing, and various forms of clinics such as ambulatory clinics and clinics for prisons.

Non-physicians also made important contributions to medical subjects. I will mention the contribution of a relatively late historian, Al-Qalqashandi from Cairo, who made the earliest reference to sleeping sickness in his encyclopaedic book Subh al-A'sha around 1418. The view that the earliest reference to sleeping sickness was made by a British naval surgeon Atkins in 1721 is no longer acceptable. Al-Qalqashandi made his observation 300 years earlier. The relevant passage in Al-Qalqashandi's text reads as follows: "The demise of the king of Mali was brought about by sleeping sickness which is a disease that frequently befalls the inhabitants of those countries, especially their governors, whereby sleep overtakes one of them in such a manner that it is hardly possible to awaken him. The Sultan remained in this state for two years until he died in 775 (1373 AD)."

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