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The Revival of Prophetic And Herbal Medicine
Apr 1, 1996


The example of Prophet Muhammad, upon him be peace, is explicitly commended in the Qur’an as the best pattern for believers to follow. Therefore, the practice and precepts of the Prophet have been a source of legal judgements and general guidance in the affairs of Muslims since the earliest days of Islam, a source which supplements and is second only to the Qur’an. Since health is so important a part of human well-being, it is not surprising that Muslims over the centuries devoted so much effort to recording and reflecting upon what the Prophet taught about maintaining good health, preventing and curing diseases and ailments.

The most widespread book on ‘Prophetic Medicine’ was that written by Ibn Qayim al-Jawziyiah (691-751AH / 1293-1351). But there are scores of manuscripts on the subject in world libraries and museums. After a preliminary study, I found references to some forty different books (some published, most manuscripts, some lost) with the title ‘Prophetic Medicine’. In his 1985 paper on Islamic heritage, S. Abdullah al-Habashi of Yemen mentioned 23 monographs by different authors on plagues and infectious diseases - I could add a further 16 on the same subject. He went on to write a book on infectious diseases as related to Prophetic Medicine, with a Foreword by the late Sheikh al-Azhar. ‘Abd al-Halim Mahmud.

Recently, the number of publications on Prophetic Medicine as a whole or on different areas of it has been growing rapidly. There are many books and articles, referenced with ahadith (sayings) of the Prophet on the curative properties of honey, black seed (Nigella Sativa), senna (Casiacutifolia), henna (Lawsonia Inermis), aloes (Aloe Vera), garlic and onions, olive oil, etc.; on the positive health benefits of breast feeding, and of the Islamic practices of fasting, prayers, ablution, cleaning the teeth and mouth, etc. Doctors in particular have been very active in elucidating the relevant ahadith and their importance to health promotion and disease prevention. Papers are published almost weekly on Islamic teachings related to health concerns, for example on food and drink (prohibition of excess, of pork, blood, and intoxicant drugs like alcohol), on circumcision, on sexuality and marriage (particularly with regard to the spread of sexually transmitted diseases such as AIDS).

There is growing interest, too, reflected in the volume of publications, in spiritual medicine which treats psychological ailments believed to be produced by evil jinn (evil spirits). Die treatment usually includes reciting particular chapters or verses of the Qur’an, certain supplications attributed to the Prophet, and making incantations.

Current issues in medical ethics from an Islamic perspective have also received a great deal of attention in recent times. There are literally hundreds of articles, books and doctoral dissertations on organ transplantation, brain death, new methods of procreation including test-tube babies and surrogacy, abortion, contraception, cloning and genetic engineering.

Traditional Medicine

As lbn KHaldun observes in his famous Muqaddimah, the pre - Islamic Arabs used a sort of folk medicine based on herbs and plants tested by experience and handed down. At the time of Prophet Muhammad, there were surgeons adept at treating wounds, abscesses and other minor operations, and also some renowned physicians like al-Harith ibn Kalada of Ta’if who had travelled to Jundishapur (near Ahwaz in Iran) to gain more knowledge. The Prophet asked his cousin Sa’d ibn Abi Waqqas to consult al-Harith when Sa’d fell ill after the conquest of Makkah in 8AH(630).

Cupping, venesection and cautery were all common pre-Islamic treatments endorsed by the Prophet with some reservation against cautery. Cupping with blood-letting was definitely encouraged by him and there are tens of ahadith related to this procedure. It is interesting to note that cupping and cautery are still widely practised in Arab countries, especially among villagers and Bedouins.

Recently, Dr. Mansoor Suliman of the medicine faculty of King Abdul Aziz University, Jeddah, published a paper on ‘The myth and reality of treatment by cautery’ in Alternative Medicine (1986, 1(3), pp.237-40). He studied 500 patients treated with cautery and modern techniques for different ailments. He found that cautery was useful in treating diarrhoe where 45% of those cauterized showed marked improvement. Cautery was useless for jaundice, haemolytie blood diseases, respiratory diseases, other infectious diseases and cancers, though it was helpful in stopping bleeding. Diathermy (cautery) is also used in modern medicine to treat epistaxis, cervical erosion, to stop bleeding during operations, and to remove warts and other skin tumours. There are also different types of modern heat therapy e.g. infrared and laser therapy.

Cupping and blood-letting were used widely in the past to treat different ailments e.g. hypertension, polycythemia, and even heart failure. Modern medicine rarely, if ever, resorts to such measures.

The pre-Islamic Arabs believed in supernatural forces such as evil spirits, the evil eye and so on, and sought to counter them with spells, amulets, talismans and other animistic practices. The Qur’an (see 72.6) deplored all such rituals of seeking refuge from evil spirits as a pseudo-worship and therefore a sort of polytheism. The Prophet Muhammad scorned superstitious beliefs. Al-Bukhari records his saying: ‘There is no Adwa (i.e. contagion) [except by the will of Allah]; no Safar [the pagan Arabs believed that Safar, the last month in the lunar calendar, can cause malady. Safar could also refer to huge ‘snakes’ that dwell in the abdomen of some people and cause serious disease]; no Ha’ma [i. e, vengeful ghosts of the dead that hover around the living].’ And Tirmidhi records the Prophet saying: ‘Whoever wears an amulet has relapsed into shirk (polytheism). Whoever goes to a fortuneteller or a divine and asks him about anything, his prayers extending for four nights will not be accepted.’ In another hadith, he said: ‘Magic spells, amulets and the like are shirk.’ Polytheism is considered in Islam the worst of sins, the one that will never be pardoned by God until the person repudiates all forms of polytheism and reverts to pure, original monotheism. The Muslim should have faith in God alone, in whose control lie the causes of health and disease, life and death, in fact of all things, small or large.

Diseases and ailments are considered in Islam as a type of tribulation which expiates sin. Those stoics who forbear to complain and endure in dignity are rewarded in this world and on the Day of Judgement. Al-Bukhari, Muslim and Ibn Hanbal record the Prophet’s saying: ‘Never a believer is stricken with discomfort, hardship, illness, grief or even anxiety but that his sins are expiated.’ However, the Prophet also always urged Muslims to seek remedies for their ailments: ‘O servants of God, seek medical treatment, for God has established a remedy for every malady, clear to whoever knows it and unclear to whoever does not know it’ (recorded by Ahmad ibn Hanbal). In another hadith (in al - Bukhari),he said: ‘0 servants of God! seek remedy for He who established the malady has already created its cure and remedy.’

Muslims are thus encouraged by their religion to search for cures and new modalities of treatment, and apply them if they prove successful. Islam exhorts Muslims to keep healthy as health is one of God’s most precious gifts. Islamic teachings which prohibit alcohol, intoxicants, fornication, adultery and consumption of pork, blood or carrion, and which, at the same time, command cleanliness by frequent ablutions and baths with water, frequent daily cleaning of teeth, physical exercise, are all most beneficial to the maintenance of individual and public health.

The teachings of the Prophet Muhammad radically changed the mode of life, beliefs and customs of the pre-Islamic Arabs. The Muslim became a shining pearl in the jahiliyya community, as lie was chaste and clean inside and outside. Islam inspired Muslims to search for knowledge and wisdom. The Prophet said: ‘Search for knowledge and wisdom even as far as in China’, as China was the farthest country known to Arabs.

Once Islam became established as a civilization and empire, the medical sciences and wisdom of different nations were translated into Arabic and then incorporated in the traditional medicine.

Greek medicine, most notably the works of Hippocrates and Galen, received great attention. They were translated mainly during the rule of the ‘Abbasid Caliph al-Ma’mun (late 8th and early 9th century). The four humours were at that time accepted as the basis of medical theory. Both theory and practice flourished and were developed enormously not least in the area of the design and administration of hospitals - by some of the greatest figures In medical history, such as al-Razi (in the West known as Rhazes, d.925), Ibn Sina (Avicenna, d. 1037), at-Zahrawi (Abuleasis, d. 1013), Ibn al-Nafis (d.1288), ‘Ali ibn al-’Abbas al-Majusi (Haly Abbas, d.994) among many others. Within the same inclusive Islamic civilization, there were also many non-Muslims who achieved eminence for their encyclopaedic learning and skill as physicians, the best known being the Jewish philosopher, Musa ibn Maimun (Maimonides), the Christians Bakhtishisha who worked for the Caliph Harun al-Rashid, and Hunayn ibn Ishaq who worked for Caliph al-Mutawakkil and had been the chief translator of Galen, Hippocrates, Plato and others.

The Muslim and non-Muslim physicians, pharmacists, surgeons, opthalmologists etc. wrote huge works in Arabic and added their wisdom, knowledge gained by experience and experimental procedures, to the previous knowledge gained from the ancient Greeks and other peoples.

Although some of the original works are no longer extant, a huge amount of this Islamic medical knowledge contained in books and manuscripts is still accessible in many libraries and museums. Also, many of the original works were translated into Latin and thence into European vernaculars and provided the basis of modern medicine after the intellectual renaissance of Europe: the Latin texts of Arabic originals can still be read.

The Islamic world suffered from internal feuds and wars resulting in its weakness and gradual disintegration. The Mongols and Tartars (under Genghis Khan and Hulagu) dealt crushing blows to Islamic civilization in the eastern part of the empire from Samarkand to Baghdad and beyond towards Egypt. In the western domains of Islam, Christian Spaniards not only rebelled against Muslim overlords, they set about systematically removing Muslims and their civilization front the Iberian peninsula despite eight centuries of mutual tolerance between Muslims, Jews and Christians under Islamic rule: Granada fell in 1492.

The Islamic world became intellectually stale and very little innovative scientific work was produced. Even the great medical works such as those of lbn Sina, al-Zahrawi, lbn al-Nafis etc. were not kept alive except in isolated centres. Exceptionally, in the Indian subcontinent lbn Sina’s al-Qanun (Canon) continued to be the standard text for physicians with additions front ancient Hindu medicine. This style of healing is still active in India and Pakistan and known as Unani medicine, its practitioners being known as hakims rather than doctors.

In the Arabic-speaking world, by contrast, only a few people could read and understand al-Qanun or other great works, the later physicians depended on the Tazkarat Dawud of Dawud al-Antaki, a work quite inferior to the writings of Ibn Sina or al-Mansuri or al-Razi. With further passage of time, many of the traditional healers and physicians were unable to read and understand even Tazkarat Dawud. Many reverted back to animistic practices including the prescription of amulets, charms and talismans which are all prohibited in Islam.

The growing interest over the last two decades in herbal medicine has made it a profitable subject area for publishers. Some of them have begun to publish abridged versions of the works of Ibn Sina. Indeed, there are almost weekly additions to the popular literature on herbal medicine, most of it containing nothing new. However, there are a few physicians (mostly Western-educated) both in Arab countries and else where who have published the results of modern researches in pharmacology and biochemistry. The work of Dr Hassan Shamsi Pasha in this field is a good example. Also, many centres have sprung up in the Arab world for the study of traditional and Islamic medicine which organize conferences and symposia to encourage and enable new research in this field.


A lot of work has been going on to revive both traditional herbal medicine and Prophetic medicine in many Arab and Islamic countries. There is, however, a great need to improve on traditional medicine and integrate it with the national medical system. The majority of physicians and pharmacists, trained in Western medicine, lack even rudimentary knowledge of traditional medicine and are therefore hostile towards it. This negative attitude will not disappear unless the medical curricula in universities include training in traditional and Prophetic medicine. Equally, there is a need to educate herbalists and practitioners of traditional medicine to improve their standards of understanding and their techniques in preparing and prescribing traditional remedies.