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Islamic Golden Age

Muslim medicine

Much of the classical learning passed to the Arab world with Arab conquests beginning in about 650 CE and resulting in a Muslim golden Age. Arabic learning was extremely popular in Christendom partly because of the fascination with the Arab prosperity that followed from the control of trade routes.

Best known work of this period is a herbal of over 650 species by the brilliant Arab scholar Avicenna (Ibn-Sīnā, c. 980-1037), many of these species were described here for the first time in his Canon of Medicine completed in 1025 and used throughout the Middle Ages.

Ibn Sina (c. 980 – 1037) was philosopher-physician connected to three centuries of intellectual thought: the Central Asian Arab dynasty of the Abbasids. In 750 CE the Abbasids replaced the Umayyads in what is present-day Iraq, founding Baghdad as the capital of an Islamic Empire. Here Greek and Latin works of art and science were translated into Arabic. The translators were scholars from captured lands – Jews, Nestorian Christians, Zoroastrians – who combined, and added to, the learning of Persia, India, the Middle East, Greece, Egypt and Rome. Indeed, almost all major scientific breakthroughs of the 9th and 10th centuries were made by scholars of the Asian Muslim courts.[1]

Scholars at the court of Abbasid kings included Hindu mathematicians who brought Arabic numeral notation. By 850 CE mathematician al-Khwarizm (derivation of the world ‘algorithm’) had combined Euclidian and Hindu maths to produce developments in algebra, trigonometry, linear and quadratic equations, tables of sines, tangents and cotangents, the use of zero and much more. Inventions included the plain and spherical astrolabe and creation of more accurate star charts with a Royal Observatory built in Baghdad. Trade brought with it geographic knowledge with its own scholarly community so that, by 850 CE, accounts of China were circulating in the Middle East. Among the leading physicians was Persian clinician al-Razi (865-925) whose medical encyclopaedia The Comprehensive Book on Medicine (Kitab al-Hawi fi al-tibb) known as the Hawi was popular for several centuries in both Europe and Asia.[1]

Books on the works of Plato, Aristotle, Ptolemy and others were read and debated in the cites of the Silk Road into Afghanistan, North Africa, Spain, Morocco, and Damascus this discussion stimulated by the papermaking that had originated in China, passing down the Silk Road and taken up by the Abbasids in around 750 CE, the Baghdad mills adding linen and cotton to increase suppleness.

This accumulation of learning was amassed in volumes shelved in the Baghdad Imperial Library, but also passed to capitals in the Middle East, Persia, C Asia and Spain as certain books became, in effect, the basis of educational curricula. Neoplatonist philosophy was espoused by three major Arab philosophers: al-Kindi (c.801-873), al-Razi (854-925), and al-Farabi (872-950)before the advent of the intellectual giant Ibn Sina (c. 980–1037).

Ibn Sina (Christianized to Avicenna) began his education with Porphyry’s Isogog on Aristotelian logic, Euclid’s Elements, then books on astronomy, natural science, and metaphysics, followed by those on medicine. He gained access to the Imperial Library as thanks for treating the king, who achieved a full recovery, remaining as court physician for four years. He is regarded, in general terms, as a Neoplatonist along with three other major figures in Arab philosophy: al-Kindi, al-Razi, and al-Farabi. He wrote at least 100 books, mostly on metaphysics, logic, and ethics but covering many other topics, the most extensive being his Canon of Medicine, completed in Esfahan, and based around body humours, a medical theory inherited from earlier times. For the botanist it is the extensive list of medicinal plants that stands out, including his work on teleology (‘intelligent design’). His works became familiar to Jewish, Muslim and European Christian scholars including Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274 CE), the Canon lasting, as a major contribution to medicine, for over 400 years and one of the first printed books in Europe in 1485, following the Gutenberg Bible by just 20 years.[1]

By 900 CE the great Greek herbals had been translated into Arabic and copies lodged in centres of learning in the Byzantine empire of the eastern Mediterranean including Byzantium, Damascus, Cairo and Baghdad which included the botanical and pharmacological lore of Persia, the great Indian medical classics, and the Orient.

In the 9th century a library with a large team of translators was set up in Baghdad with Hunayn ibn Ishaq as its head although the great translation centres were in Sicily and Toledo, often using Jewish scholars.

During this period Islamic science protected the classical botanical knowledge that had become neglected in the West. Muslim pharmacy, like the extensive herbal remedies used in China, thrived.

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