Health & Medicine

How Arab Medicine Found a New Home in Medieval India

It is clear that the early Arab medicine described by the Prophet, and practiced before and during his lifetime, was very much alive and influential throughout the time of Yūnānī medical manuscript production and study in India.

Credit: zeyneeep/Flickr, CC BY 2.0 (yūnānī)

Credit: zeyneeep/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

When Greek medical texts were transmitted and translated in the ʿAbbasid capital of Baghdad in the ninth and tenth centuries, they paved the way for original Arabic medical sources which built off Greek humoural theory (the four humours: blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile; in Arabic: dam, balgham, ṣafrāʾ, and sawdāʾ). The most famous of these sources is Ibn Sīnā’s (d. 1037) Qānūn, Latinised to Avicenna’s Canon. The Qānūn is often cited as the foundation of what became known as Yūnānī Ṭibb, or Greek medicine, hearkening back to its use of Greek humoural theory as the basis of aetiology, diagnosis, and treatment. With the movement and transmission of texts such as the Qānūn, the study and practice of Yūnānī Ṭibb flourished and adapted to new surroundings.

While Yūnānī medicine has a long history in the Islamic world, popular medicine also drew enthusiastically on other traditions. Practices included the use of amulets, local knowledge of flora and their medicinal properties, prayer, and al-Ṭibb al-Nabawī, or Prophetic medicine. This last is characterised by the use of folk remedies, medical traditions cited in the Qur’an, and, most notably, the use of medical ḥadīth, or sayings of the Prophet Muḥammad, which were collected in book form.

Both al-Ṭibb al-Nabawī and Yūnānī Ṭibb had a large following in the Islamic world, and still do to this day. India is a perfect example of the staying power of these kinds of medicine. When Yūnānī arrived in South Asia, scholars and intellectuals fleeing the Mongol invasions of the thirteenth century brought with them medical knowledge based on Arabic sources, beginning a medical tradition which would adapt and thrive from the period of the Delhi Sultanate (1206-1516) into the modern day. Knowledge of al-Ṭibb al-Nabawī also accompanied these scholars to India. Today, Yūnānī colleges are supported by the Indian government, and medical practice in the region is a mixture of the traditions that flourished there, including Yūnānī, Ayurveda, al-Ṭibb al-Nabawī, and allopathy (often called Western medicine).

Yet, too often, the medical traditions are discussed separately, without mention of the ways in which they influenced one another, particularly in regard to Yūnānī‘s adoption of treatments from al-Ṭibb al-Nabawī. Even a cursory glance at the sources, however, can tell a reader how these medical traditions interacted and shaped each other over the centuries. A study of Yūnānī manuscripts and their reception gives a clearer picture of that mix of Yūnānī Ṭibb and al-Ṭibb al-Nabawī during such earlier periods as the Mughal empire, showing that the different bodies of knowledge in fact interacted.

One way to better understand the reception of these texts and the interactions of these medical traditions is to study the marginal notations in the premodern manuscripts. These notes are a window into the thoughts of the readers themselves: they refer to other medical sources, describe prescriptions the readers used and knew to be beneficial, and relate the realities of the medical traditions in practice. One single manuscript can have marginal notations with references to Galen, Ibn Sīnā and the Prophet Muḥammad, all concerned, for example, with the best remedy for toothache. These notes, therefore, tell us a great deal about the usage and understanding of the text at hand.

The major medical encyclopaedia of Najīb al-Dīn al-Samarqandī (d. 1222), al-Asbāb wa alʿ-ʿAlāmāt (The Causes and the Symptoms), and its attendant commentaries follow Yūnānī medical theory. Copies of both the commentaries and the original work number in the hundreds in the Indian manuscript collections, not far behind Ibn Sīnā’s Qānūn and its commentaries. Al-Samarqandī’s sources come from medical greats such as al-Rāzī (d. 925), al-Majūsī (d. 994), and, of course, Ibn Sīnā, but unlike the five-volume medical compendium that is the Qānūn, al-Samarqandī’s al-Asbāb wa al-ʿAlāmāt is a handbook of medical diagnoses and treatments that was meant for personal use, to be referred to and utilised in practice. Other medical scholars, such as Nafīs b. ʿIwad al-Kirmānī (flourished 1437) and Muḥammad Akbar Arzānī (flourished 1700) took up the text and wrote major commentaries on it, in Arabic and Persian respectively. I now turn to an Indian manuscript of al-Kirmānī’s Sharḥ [commentary of] al-Asbāb wa alʿ-ʿAlāmāt in an effort to shine light on the interactions of Yūnānī Ṭibb and al-Ṭibb al-Nabawī.

Al-Kirmānī dedicated this Sharḥ to his patron, the Timurid ruler Ulugh Beg, in whose royal court he was a physician. Copies of the Sharḥ can be found all over India, and are even more common in the region than al-Samarqandī’s original text, upon which the commentary is based. The Raza Library in Rampur, Uttar Pradesh holds six manuscripts of al-Kirmānī’s Sharḥ al-Asbāb wa alʿ-ʿAlāmāt, ranging in date from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries and covering the transition of power from the Mughals to the British Raj. One particular manuscript, No. 3999 (Raza Library, Acc. No. 4195 M), is an eighteenth-century copy of al-Kirmānī’s Sharḥ, and its margins are littered with explanations, prescriptions, and references to other medical sources, mostly in Arabic. While some notes offer quotes from Galen or Ibn Sīnā, others refer to the works of al-Samarqandī himself. What makes this manuscript important to the study of Yūnānī and Prophetic medicine’s interactions, however, are the many notations citing early Islamic and, in some cases, pre-Islamic medical advice.

The margins of fourteen folios exhibit references to the Prophet’s advice and actions in the realm of medical practice. These various ḥadīth are reported by a total of twelve different companions and members of the Prophet’s family, and they showcase Muḥammad’s own knowledge of the region’s flora and their medical benefits, as well as the traditional folk medicine of the Arabian peninsula. For example, the mid-point of al-Kirmānī’s Sharḥ advocates the use of medicaments to rid the body of excess fluid to relieve dhāt al-janb, or pleurisy, which is an inflammation of the tissue lining the lungs and the chest cavity. The marginal note on this page relates the report of Zayd b. Arqam, a companion of the Prophet, who says that Muḥammad named zayt (oil) and wars (memecylon tinctorium, a Yemenite dye-yielding plant) as treatment for pleurisy (MS. No. 3999, f. 166b). Similarly, while al-Kirmānī explains al-Samarqandī’s definition of kulf, or freckles, as localised changes of colour in the face to shades of black or red, the ḥadīth states that Umm Salama, one of the wives of Muḥammad, related that the Prophet spoke of the use of wars (seemingly, a common medicament at the time) to coat the affected areas of the face in order to counteract these spots (MS. No. 3999, f. 336a). Here, these marginalia serve to underscore the accuracy of the lessons of the text’s author, but they also give more specificity to how the ailment should be treated.

One additional notation is worth noting because it predates Islam: it is attributed to Luqmān the Ḥakīm (literally, wise man), a pre-Islamic sage who is mentioned in the Qur’an. His treatments (Elaj-e-Lokmani, or “treatment of Lokman”) are still practiced today in an orally-transmitted medical tradition in Eastern India, particularly Bengal. Luqmān’s medical advice, like the ḥadīth of the Prophet, recalls the medicine practiced in Arabia at the time. The notation before the text begins prescribes a treatment using gharghara (a gargle) and julāb (julep, a fruit- or petal-infused drink) for problems originating in the stomach (f. 1a, MS 3999) and is written in Persian. The Arabic note following it describes the above treatment’s source, denoting Luqmān the Ḥakīm as its originator. This reference to a pre-Islamic sage’s medical advice brings to the fore the Arabian medicine upon which al-Ṭibb al-Nabawī is based. These references reveal the thoughts of the manuscript’s reader, and force the scholar to question the boxes to which these medical traditions have often been assigned.

It is clear that the early Arab medicine described by the Prophet, and practiced before and during his lifetime, was very much alive and influential throughout the time of Yūnānī medical manuscript production and study in India. The treatments explained in al-Kirmani’s Sharḥ must have reminded the reader of the Prophet’s own medical advice. He may have written these thoughts down as a memory aide, for future readers of the text, or to underscore the benefits of these remedies. Whatever the reasoning behind these notations, the margins of this particular Yūnānī manuscript show that there was an awareness of al-Ṭibb al-Nabawī in the study of Yūnānī Ṭibb, and the two were not at all mutually exclusive.

This article originally appeared on the JHI Blog and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.