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Islamic Medicine: Saving Lives Since the Eighth Century

European depiction of the Iranian doctor Muhammad ibn Zakariya al-Razi (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

It was World Health Day on 7 April, a pivotal date in the calendar that we’re sure you remembered to celebrate to the fullest. You’re probably still feeling smug about it, you health-conscious hero. We know you scrapped that junk food and laced up those trainers, ran a half-marathon then blitzed a delicious kale smoothie. Of course you did. Because it was World Health Day. Remember?

But if for some reason you forgot it was World Health Day, no problem, because we’re here to honour the event for anyone who may have missed it. How? By looking back on Islam’s incredible contribution to medical science.

Back in the Middle Ages, when much of Europe was lobbing rotten veg at petty criminals, jousting, or dying of bubonic plague, the Islamic world was making pioneering strides in the field of healthcare and medicine. The motivation behind this was Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) himself, who once said: ‘Make use of medical treatment, for Allah has not made a disease without appointing a remedy for it, with the exception of one disease: old age.’

Compelled by these words, early Muslim physicians spent the Islamic Golden Age (8th to 15th centuries) figuring out how to care for the sick. Much of their work was aided by the Zakat, a tax that funded their studies as well as the construction of hospitals. There is evidence that these hospitals existed as far back as the 8th century.

While there were many intellectuals who played a part in this groundbreaking medical research, there’s one name that consistently pops up when you look into the subject: Muhammad ibn Zakariya al-Razi. Widely considered the father of Islamic medicine, al-Razi spent much of his life (850 – 923) pioneering new medical practices and effective forms of healthcare. He wrote over 200 books about medicine, though he is perhaps best known for hanging dead animals around different parts of Baghdad to see where the meat would rot the slowest. His theory was that this would indicate the location to build a hospital where patients had the best chance to recover (which is a nice way of saying ‘not die of gangrene in scorching Iraqi heat’). We guess there were a lot of gnarly injuries back then.

While this meat-hanging practice may not have stood the test of time, there’s one al-Razi theory that has. He is thought to be the first physician to examine the causes of disease, not just the symptoms. Imagine if you had an infected finger. Back then, most doctors would probably just cut it off, whereas al-Razi would attempt to determine the cause of the actual infection, i.e. the blood. Although often true, many of his theories were never practiced, largely because of the era’s distaste for human dissection. Still, his thoughts arguably acted as a precursor for preventative healthcare, a field that’s resulted in important stuff like vaccines, anaesthetic, and not dying of old age at 34.

World Health Day has come and gone. But the next time you benefit from modern healthcare, spare a thought for al-Razi and the Golden Age of Islamic medicine.

Things would be very different were it not for the research carried out in this era.

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