Iranian Journal of Pharmaceutical Research (2004): Supplement 2:
2nd International Congress on Traditional Medicine and Materia Medica
The legacy of Islamic world in modern medicine and science
School of Pharmacy, Shaheed Beheshti University of Medical Sciences, Tehran, IR Iran
The legacy of the Islamic world in medicine and natural science is the legacy of Greece, increased by many additions, mostly practical. Rhazes, the Iranian, was a talented clinical observer, but not a Harvey. Abd al-Latif, the Arab, was a diligent seeker in anatomy, but in no way to be compared to Vesalius. The Muslims possessed excellent translations of the works of the Hippocratic Corpus and of Galen. All, even the long theoretical explanations of the latter, were well understood and well rendered by such intelligent and polyglot scholars as Hunayn. But the additions of the Islamic physicians refer almost solely to clinical and therapeutic experience. The theory and the thought of the Greeks were left untouched and treasured up after careful systematization and classification. It must be remembered that Muslims were strictly prohibited from dissecting either human bodies or living animals. Thus experiment was practically impossible in medicine, so that none of Galen's anatomical and physiological errors could be corrected. On the other hand, they received some impetus from the experience of Iranian, Indian, and Central Asian scholars concerning particular lines of treatment, operations, and the knowledge of drugs and minerals. This knowledge helped them to make progress in chemistry, although we are, as a matter of fact, not yet sufficiently informed to be able to state what is the share of Greece and what that of the Orient in the development of alchemy.
In other sciences some of the best Greek works were unknown to the Muslims, as, for example, the botany of Theophrastus. Their own share in this branch is a considerable one, but again, of purely practical importance. The Muslim scholars, although acute observers, were thinkers only in a restricted sense. It is the same in zoology, mineralogy, and mechanics. The glory of Muslim science is in the field of optics. Here the mathematical ability of an Alhazen and a Kamal al-Din outshone that of Euclid and Ptolemy. Real and lasting advances stand to their credit in this department of science.
When Islamic medicine and science came to a standstill, about 1100, they began to be transmitted to Europe in Latin translations. The state of monkish medicine in Europe at that period is vigorously described by Charles Singer in his Short History of Medicine: “Anatomy and Physiology perished. Prognosis was reduced to an absurd rule of thumb. Botany became a drug list. Superstitious practices crept in, and Medicine deteriorated into a collection of formulae, punctuated by incantations. The scientific stream, which is its life-blood, was dried up at its source.”
This article reviews the lives and works of those mostly unknown translators who played an important role in transmission of Islamic science and medicine to Europeans. In the end, to see how this Muslims legacy in architecture of modern science and medicine was important for westerners, I am pointing to the beautiful quotation made by Sir Thomas Arnold in his Legacy of Islam: “Looking back we may say that Islamic medicine and science reflected the light of the Hellenic sun when its day had fled, and that they shone like a moon, illuminating the darkest night of the European middle ages; that some bright stars lent their own light, and that moon and stars alike faded at the dawn of a new day-the Renaissance. Since they had their share in the direction and introduction of that great movement, it may reasonably be claimed that they are with us yet”.