While most educated readers are familiar with Muhammad as a prophet and statesman, few are aware that he was also a master herbalist and the founding father of prophetic medicine. Known in Arabic as tibb nabawi or tibb al-nabi, prophetic medicine became the basis of tibb unani which literally means Ionian or Greek medicine, a broader form of phytotherapy which synthesizes aspects of ancient Arab, Greek, Persian, Ayurvedic, and Chinese medicine. Known in the West as Arabic, Islamic or Eastern medicine, Unani medicine is widely practiced throughout the Muslim world, from Morocco to India. Despite its popularity, Unani medicine is a branch of herbalism which little is known in the West. Like the Islamic religion, unfortunately, Islamic medicine suffers from an image problem outside of the Muslim world.
Since Islamic medicine originated in the Middle East, its repertoire of herbs is quite different from Western herbalism. The most common herbs in Western herbalism include alfalfa, Aloe vera, astragalus, bilberry, black cohosh, burdock, calendula, cascara sagrada, capsicum, chamomile, cranberry, dandelion, dill, dong quai, echinacea, evening primrose, fennel, fenugreek, feverfew, flax, garlic, ginger, ginseng, gingko biloba, goldenseal, grape seed, hawthorn, kava kava, licorice, marshmallow, milk thistle, papaya, parsley, passion flower, peppermint, psyllium, red clover, rosemary, sage, saw palmetto, senna, skullcap, slippery elm, soy, St. John’s Wort, thyme, valerian, vitex, witch hazel, yarrow, and yellowdock.
The most common herbs in Islamic herbalism include acacia, Aloe vera, aloeswood, Arabic gum, basil, belleric myrobalan, black seed, camphor, caraway, clove, coriander, cucumber, cumin, date, dill, fennel, fenugreek, fig, frankincense, garlic, ginger, gourd, grape, henna, jujube, jasmine, lemon, marjoram, mustard, myrobalan, myrrh, olive, plantain, pomegranate, purslane, quince, radish, red rose, saffron, sandalwood, senna, sesame seed, sumac, Syrian rue, tamarisk, violet, walnut, watermelon, wild rue, and wormwood. With some exceptions, most Westerners are unfamiliar with the varied medicinal uses of the majority of these herbs and plants.
The Unani pharmacopeia includes thousands of medicinal herbs. According to the Hamdard Pharmacopeia, the Unani and Ayurvedic systems share 681 herbs in common. Ibn Sina (c. 980-1037) mentions over 750 herbal preparations in his Canon. Hakim Sa‘id mentions 374 of them in the Hamdard Pharmacopeia. Dinawari (828 -896) describes more than 637 plants in his work. In his al-‘Aqaqir, Ibn al-Baytar (d. 1248) mentions over 1,400 plants, foods, and drugs, 300 of which were his own original discoveries. In his Jami‘ al-Mufradat, he deals with 2,000 drugs, of which 1,700 are herbs.
As specialists are well aware, the classic works on Unani and Ayurdevic herbalism include hundreds, and sometimes thousands of medicinal herbs. The Makhzanul Advia by Hakim Syed Mohammad, describes nearly 1,500 drugs. The Muheet-I Azzam by Hakim Mohammad Azam Khan deals with several thousands of drugs. The Khazaenul Advia by Hakim Mohammad Najmul covers 2,612 drugs. The Saligram Nighantu by Lala Saligram describes 1,574 drugs. The Dhanvantri Sanghita by Deodas Kashiraj describes approximately 400 herbs, while the Bhavaprakash of Bhavamisra details more than 600.
The National Formulary of Unani Medicine contains 440 formulations, including 342 herbs. The Indian Materia Medica by Dr. K.M. Nadkarni contains more than 2,671 herbs used in Ayurveda, Unani, and Siddha medicine. Indusyunic Medicine lists over 400 Unani herbs. According to The Ayurvedic Pharmacopoeia of India, “out of a total of over 15,000 plant species in India, about 2,000 are known to have medicinal properties” (xv). The Hamdard Pharmacopoeia of Eastern Medicine mentions thousands of herbs. The Encyclopedia of Indian Medicinal Plants includes over 2,000 medicinal plants from The Ayurvedic Formulary of India, the Ayurvedic Pharmacopeia of India, and The National Formulary of Unani Medicine. Finally, as the Classification of Unani Drugs confirms, “The Unani Materia Medica is a rich storehouse of thousands of drugs.”
In order to avoid any confusion, it is important to distinguish between prophetic herbalism and Unani herbalism. prophetic herbalism, it should be specified, relies exclusively on the herbal prescriptions of the Prophet and, for Shi‘ites, the Twelve Imams. Although Unani herbalism does embrace prophetic herbalism, it draws principally from Ionian or Greek medicine which additions from Persian, Ayurvedic, and Chinese medicine. While Unani medicine has a strong theoretical foundation based on balancing humors, the herbalism of the Prophet had not underlying medical theory: it was a pure form of phytotherapy. As Speziale confirms, “the original sayings of the Prophet himself do not directly mention conceptual elements of medical doctrine.” It was only later, due to the influence of Unani medicine, that the Greek concept of the humors was introduced into prophetic medicine.
As Kowalchik and Hylton explain, “Although the Arabs were initially quite empirical in their approach, drawing from Hippocratic principles, in the end, the Galenic concept of medicine, based on mechanical laws of anatomy, logic, and physiology, prevailed.” Galen, of course, believed that medical doctors needed to be guided by theory rather than observation. Guided by Avicenna, Arab physicians embraced the humoral theory, leading to a theoretical rather than evidence-based approach to medicine. The symbolic split between Galenic medicine and modern Western medicine can be traced back to Paracelsus (1492-1541 CE) who tossed Avicenna’s Canon of Medicine into the fire in 1527, signifying his break from Galenic medicine. Casting aside theory, Parecelcus insisted on the importance of experimental knowledge.
Besides the significant difference in size of their materia medica, prophetic herbalism and Unani herbalism appealed to different sectors of society. As Claudia Liebeskind explains, “prophetic medicine was aimed at a different audience from the technical Galenic texts. Whereas Unani medical writings were only appreciated by a small educated elite, hadith-based prophetic medicine appealed to the common man. Moreover, whilst Unani tibb was predominantly urban based, the overwhelming majority of the population lived in the countryside.”
While much of Unani medicine is more secular in character, “prophetic medicine…was always religious in character.” In fact, many religious Muslims rejected the secular nature of Greek medicine as heathen, and insisted on following prophetic medicine which is considered of divine origin, and the product of revelation. True knowledge, they believed, came from God, and not from Galen or Avicenna. The antagonism was accentuated by the fact that many practitioners of Greco-Arabic medicine were non-Muslims while most practitioners of prophetic medicine were religious scholars. The mosque became the center of prophetic medicine, while hospitals and universities became the center of Unani medicine. Although there were conflicts between both traditions, they were never totally independent, and overlapped with one another. Attempts to reconcile both traditions were made by Dhahabi (d. 1348), and al-Azraq (d. ), among others, who combined the herbal teachings of the Prophet along with those of Hippocrates and Avicenna.
Despite its popularity in the Muslim world, Islamic herbalism is a field which deserves greater attention than it has received in the Western world and the broader world health arena. In the past several decades, very few books have been published on Islamic herbalism in European languages. The most important material available includes translations of Ibn Sina, Ibn Butlan, al-Kindi, al-Samarqandi, al-Suyuti, al-Husayn and ‘Abd Allah ibn Bistam al-Nisaburi, and Ibn al-Jawziyyah, aimed primarily at scholarly audiences. While some books on prophetic herbalism are available in the English language, they tend to be completed by religious writers and are generally poorly written and researched, a difference more notable when contrasted with those completed by Western Orientalists and Arabic-speaking academics from the Islamic world.
If one were to peruse the shelves on healthcare and herbal medicine in libraries, book and health food stores, one would find titles dealing with the herbal traditions from Europe, the Americas, India, and China. One would be hard pressed to find references to Islamic, prophetic, Unani or Muslim medicine in any of these books, much less titles devoted entirely to this rich herbal tradition. Despite the popularity of Ayurveda and Yoga, Islamic herbalism and Sufi healing have a negligible presence in the alternative health care market in the Western world. This is a startling state of affairs considering that phytotherapy plays such a fundamental role in the Islamic world, where 80% of people rely on traditional medicines for primary health care, most of which involve the use of plant extracts.
In India, a country with a large Muslim minority, there are roughly 30,000 registered Unani practitioners, with many more practicing along hereditary lines. There are over 100 fully staffed Unani hospitals, close to one thousand Unani dispensaries, 40 colleges (including 7 offering post-graduate training), including one National Institute of Unani medicine at Bangalore which offers only post-graduate courses, as well as numerous regional and clinical research institutes. Almost 95% of prescriptions in India are plant-based in the traditional systems of Unani, Ayurveda, Homoeopathy and Siddha. In Pakistan 70 to 80% of the population, particularly in rural areas, uses complementary and alternative medicine. Unani medicine is also very popular in Afghanistan, Iran, Malaysia, the Middle East, the Maghreb, and Islamic Africa. The popularity of Islamic medicine in the Muslim world can be seen by the continued publication of classical works on prophetic medicine, as well as modern commentaries of these primary sources, in Arabic, Persian, and Urdu, as well as Western languages. The popularity of Unani medicine can also be seen in the global spread of institutions which provide training in this form of traditional tibb.
If Muslim medicine remains relevant, it is partially because it forms an integral part of Islam. The word Islam is derived from the Arabic root slm which means peace and submission. Muslims are enjoined to submit to God, and live in peace and harmony with nature. According to the Qur’an, Adam was made the Vicegerent (khalifah) of God on earth (2:30). In Islam, human beings are guardians of nature as they have been entrusted by God with the care of creation. As the Prophet explained, “The world is beautiful and green, and verily Allah has made you its guardians, and He sees how you acquit yourselves [of your responsibility.]” The Qur’anic attitude towards nature is one of reverence. According to Islam, God created the world in balance (al-mizan) and it is the duty of human beings to preserve that balance. While resources are to be used, they must always be honored, and must never be exploited as Allah warns against spreading corruption on earth (2:11; 2:27; 2:205; 3:63; 5:33; 5:64; 7:56; 7:74).
As far as Islam is considered, one cannot honor God without honoring his creation. The Qur’an compels Muslims to revere and respect nature, exhorting believers to reflect on nature in over 700 verses. The Qur’an describes believers as those who “walk upon the earth in humility” (25:63), reminding them that, “Greater indeed than the creation of man is the creation of the heavens and the earth” (40:57). As Imam ‘Ali al-Rida explained, “Worship does not consist in praying and fasting a lot, but in contemplating the creation of Allah.”
The Prophet promised people that they would be rewarded by God for taking care of the earth, “If any Muslim plants any plant, and a human being or an animal eats it, he will be rewarded as if he had given that much in charity.” According to Islam, the most noble field of work is agriculture as that was the occupation of the Prophets, Imams, and Saints. The Prophet also said, “Cultivate the soil and plant trees. By God, I know not of a better action than this.” According to Imam ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib, the Earth may be used, but it may not exploited. As he explained, “Partake of it gladly, so long as you are a benefactor, not a despoiler; a cultivator, not a destroyer.” Imam Ja‘far al-Sadiq prohibited people from destroying flora, saying: “Do not up-root fruit trees otherwise you will be tortured [in the grave].”
While the Qur’an is categorical concerning the coming of the Day of Judgment, Muslims do not espouse the ideology of annihilation. As far as Muslims are concerned, human beings are supposed to be the keepers and guardians of the Earth. As all living beings belong to God, it is only God who has the right to destroy them. Human beings have no more right to destroy the Earth than they have to destroy their own bodies. If the Earth is to be destroyed, it is to be destroyed in due time by the Divine. As a token of Islam’s appreciation for creation, Muslims must always nurture nature. As the Prophet said, “If the Day of Resurrection comes upon anyone of you while he has a seedling in hand, let him plant it.” As Almighty Allah explains in the Qur’an, He assigned the earth to all living creatures (55:10). For Muslims, even the earth has inalienable rights endowed by its Creator.
Considering the Islamic attitude of respect and reverence for nature, it comes as no surprise that the Qur’an points people to nature as the source of health and well-being. Almighty Allah instructs people to “Eat of the good things Allah has provided, lawful and good” (5:88; 2:168). For Muslims, food and medicine form part of the same continuum. They follow the adage of Hippocrates who said, “Let your food be your medicine, and your medicine be your food.” As far as Muslims are concerned, the key to good health can be found in the Qur’an and the Sunnah.
Since the Prophet was the embodiment of the Qur’an, his lifestyle is considered to have been exemplary in every regard. As proof that he practiced what he preached, and as evidence of the effectiveness of the prophetic diet and prophetic medicine, the Messenger of Allah lived to be 62 years of age.
While this may not seem much by modern Western standards, it should be recalled that the average lifespan in the Greco-Roman world ranged from 22-28 years of age. The average lifespan during the early Islamic Caliphate was significantly higher and averaged approximately 35 years of age for the members of the general population. The average lifespan of the scholarly class, however, which was composed of those who adhered most meticulously to the teachings of the Prophet, surpassed the maximum life expectancy of many modern nations: 84.3 years of age in 10th and 11th century Iraq and Persia, 72.8 years of age in the 11th century Middle East, 69-75 years in 11th century Islamic Spain, 75 years in 12th century Persia, and 59-72 years in 13th century Persia. Even though the average life expectancy for men is 66 years in Iraq and 69 years in Iran, the Grand Ayatullahs in the Shi‘ite seminaries in Najaf and Qum regularly live into the hundreds.
According to the Qur’an and the Sunnah, the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad and his Household, the cure for every illness is to be found in nature. This is precisely what the Prophet meant when he stated, “He who has put disease on Earth has also placed its remedy there,” “For every illness Allah created, He also created its cure (shifa’),” “For every disease, there is a remedy (dawa’), and when the remedy of the disease is found, he is cured, by the permission of Allah, the Glorious One,” and “Verily, Allah sent the disease and sent the cure, creating for every disease a cure from plants and honey, since both are curative.” Echoing the words of his forefather, the Prophet Muhammad, Imam Ja‘far al-Sadiq, said, “Allah has sent down the illness and the cure. He has not created an illness without making a cure for it.”
Islamic medicine is synonymous with natural medicine. The very word for drug in Arabic is ‘aqqar (plural ‘aqaqir) which means stump, shrub, seed, and is applied to roots, branches, and twigs. Although the word came to embrace drugs of all origins, its original meaning referred to drugs of natural origin. As Allah says in a hadith qudsi or sacred saying, “I will not heal you until you have received medical treatment.” As ‘Abbas Ahmad al-Bostani explains, “As mentioned before, when a person suffers a calamity and is sick, that person must seek natural medicine while requesting the help of Almighty Allah who makes medicine truly effective.” Hence, when the Prophet says “O servants of Allah, take medicine” and “Accept treatment and use medicine,” he was referring fundamentally to phytotherapy. In fact, the Prophet and the Imams only prescribed herbs for the treatment of illness, and warned their followers against some of the potential dangers of mainstream allopathic medicine.
As the Prophet stated, “It is not fitting to treat a sick person until disease overtakes health.” As Imam Musa al-Kazim warned, “Stay away from the treatment of physicians as long as you are well, for it is similar to building–a little leads to much.” The Imams used to say, “Avoid medications as long as your body can bear the illness. When it cannot bear the illness; then take medications.” Imam ‘Ali al-Naqi said, “There is no medication which does not stir up an illness, and there is nothing more beneficial for the body than withholding from it all except what it requires.” And Imam Ja‘far al-Sadiq said, “He whose good health overcomes his illness and then drinks medications has helped [his health to work] against itself.” Antibiotics, for example, may help destroy harmful bacterium. In doing so, however, they also destroy beneficial bacteria making one susceptible to subsequent infection.
While these sayings might give the impression that Islam is opposed to allopathic medicine, this is certainly not the case. Although they cautioned against excessive reliance on drugs, the Prophet and the Imams received medical treatment when required. Like all herbalists, they knew when plants were needed and when drugs and surgery were needed. Although they can benefit from herbal supplementation, major, and life-threatening, conditions always require immediate modern medical attention. If modern medicine is often more effective when it comes time to treating major illnesses, traditional medicine is often more effective in preventing minor problems from developing into major, life-threatening illnesses. As such, one cannot be said to be superior to the other. Both have an essential, but different, role to play in preventing illness and treating disease. This complementary approach, between the religiously based prophetic medicine and the more “secular” Greek medicine, has a long tradition in the Islamic world.
Islamic medicine, it must be recalled, became the guardian of Galenic medicine. In fact, it was the combination of prophetic and Galenic medicine, which came to be known as Unani medicine, which subsequently laid the foundation of modern medicine. It was largely through medical universities and bimaristans in Baghdad, Cairo, Córdoba, and Salerno, that Arabic-Islamic medicine spread throughout Europe. The Crusades also played an important role in the dissemination of Arabic-Islamic pharmaceutical expertise in the Western world. As Campbell admits, “the European medical system is Arabian not only in origin but also in its structure. The Arabs are the intellectual forbearers of the Europeans.”
Many Muslims, both past and present, have excelled in all areas of medical science following the Prophet’s promise that, “He who heals a Muslim obtains the mercy of Allah.” If anything, Islam opposes the myopic vision of modern medicine, which fails to appreciate the multiple dimensions of health, and pays undue attention to synthetic drugs as opposed to natural medicines. If anything, Islamic medicine represents the homeopathic dimension missing from modern allopathic medicine.
The integration of both traditional and modern health care is espoused by the World Health Organization: “In developing countries, where more than one-third of the population lacks access to essential medicines, the provision of safe and effective traditional and alternative remedies could become an important way of increasing access to health care. One way to ensure this is to integrate traditional medicine into the formal health system, thus ensuring better safety and adequate follow-up for patients.”
The Islamic view of health is completely consistent with the definition of the term provided by the World Health Organization: a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being. For a Muslim, spirituality, physical hygiene, a sound diet, regular exercise, discipline, strong family ties, wholesome entertainment, a healthy sex life, intellectual development, a strong work ethic, and harmonious social relations are all part of the Islamic way of life.
The founder of prophetic medicine and its foremost exponent was the Prophet Muhammad (d. 632), a master herbalist whose knowledge was passed to his daughter, Fatimah al-Zahra’, and the Twelve Imams of his Household: Imam ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib (d. 661), Imam al-Hasan al-Mujtaba (d. 670), Imam al-Husayn (d. 680), Imam ‘Ali Zayn al-‘Abidin (713), Imam Muhammad al-Baqir (d. 713), Imam Ja‘far al-Sadiq (d. 733), Imam Musa al-Kazim (d. 765), Imam ‘Ali al-Rida (d. 799), Imam Muhammad al-Taqi (d. 818), Imam ‘Ali al-Naqi (835), Imam Hasan al-‘Askari (d. 874), and Imam Muhammad al-Mahdi (b. 869), not to mention their many companions. Although the Prophet and the Imams never earned a living as phytotherapists, each was a master herbalist in his own right who promoted the study of medicine. In fact, the Prophet himself divided knowledge into two fields, ‘ilm al-abdan, the knowledge of medicine, and ‘ilm al-adyan, the knowledge of religion, equating the importance of medicine with that of the religious sciences. Manifesting the importance of medicine, Imam ‘Ali stated that, “The sciences are three: jurisprudence for religion, medicine for the body, and grammar for language.” The most distinguished herbalists from the Prophet’s Household included the Sixth and the Eight Imams: Ja‘far al-Sadiq–who pioneered the principles, rules, and science of medicine, teaching over 4,000 students–and ‘Ali al-Rida, the attributed author of the al-Risalah al-dhahabiyyah fi al-tibb [The Golden Treatise on Medicine], which is the oldest known work which synthesizes Galenic and pre-Islamic medicine into the Islamic medical tradition. Directly or indirectly, all of the great physicians of the Islamic world learned the medicine of Muhammad from one of the Twelve Imams. Research and tradition indicate that, “the greatest names of early Islamic physicians were Persians who were Shi‘ahs.” The Safavid period in particular was a golden age from Shi‘ite medicine. Despite the minority status of Shi‘ite Muslims in much of the Muslim world, “Shi‘ite medical literature spread to a certain degree throughout numerous parts of the Islamic world well into colonial and current times.” Although some Sunni herbalists suffered from the authorities’ attempts to impose control and “orthodoxy” on the vocation, Shi‘ite herbalists appear to have operated in a more supportive sphere. Since it had been taught by the Prophet and the Imams, herbal medicine was fully endorsed by the Shi‘ite scholars of Islam. As Shaykh al-Mufid expressed regarding traditional Islamic herbalism, “Medicine is correct (sahih), and knowledge of it is established (thabit), and is through revelation. The religious scholars have only taken it from the prophets.” In fact, until the 21st century, it was quite common for Shi‘ite Muslim religious scholars (‘ulama’) to earn their living as hakims or practitioners of herbal medicine. Great scholars of Islamic medicine include: Jabir ibn Hayyan (d. c.815), Abu Zakariyya’ Yuhanna b. Masawayh (d. 857), ‘Ali ibn Rabban al-Tabari (d. 870), author of Firdaws al-hikmah, the first medical encyclopedia, Hunayn ibn Ishaq (d. 873), Abu Hanifah Ahmad ibn Dawud al-Dinawari (d. 894-96), author of the six volume al-Nabat, describing 1,120 medicinal plants, Abu Bakr Muhammad b. Zakariyya’ al-Razi (d. 923), author of al-Hawi, a complete encyclopedia of medicine used by the European medical schools of the time, as well Sulayman ibn Hasan ibn Juljul al-Andalusi (d. 994), Abu al-Hasan ibn al-‘Abbas ibn al-Majusi (d. 994), and ‘Ali b. al-‘Abbas al-Majusi (d. 995), the author of Kitab al-Malaki, which is second only to the Qanun of Avicenna in importance. Other practitioners of Muslim medicine include Abu Yusuf al-Kindi (9th c.), Abu al-Qasim Khalaf ibn al-‘Abbas al-Zahrawi (d. 1013), known as Abulcasis, the author of The Book of Simples, an important source of later European herbals, and the Kitab al-tasrif, a thirty volume encyclopedia of medical practices, Ahmad ibn ‘Ali Miskuya (d. 1032), Abu al-Hasan ibn Ridwan ‘Ali ibn Ja‘far (d. 1067), Abu ‘Ali b. al-Husayn b. ‘Abd Allah ibn Sina or Avicenna (980-1036), as he is known in the West, whose Qanun or Canon of Medicine became the primary textbook for European medical schools until the mid-17th century, Abu Rayhan Muhammad ibn Ahmad al-Biruni (d. 1051), author of Kitab al-saydanah fi al-tibb, a multilingual herbal dictionary, and Ibn Butlan (d. 1066), whose translated work was widely distributed in medieval Europe. Other contributors to Islamic medicine include Abu Mutarrif ‘Abd al-Rahman ibn Muhammad ibn Wafid (d. 1075), Abu al-Salt al-Dani (d. 1134), Abu al-Fada’il Isma‘il ibn Husayn al-Jurjani (d. 1136), Ibn Rushd (d. 1198), Abu Marwan ‘Abd al-Malik ibn Zuhr (d. 1161), the author of one of the earliest pharmacopoeia, Abu Bakr Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Malik ibn Muhammad ibn Tufayl al-Qaysi (d. 1185), Ibn al-Baytar (d. 1248), the botanist and pharmacologist, who wrote several books discussing about 1,400 types of medicine, including some 300 plants from Mesopotamia, Arabia, India, and China, as well as ‘Ala’ al-Din ‘Ali b. Abu al-Hazm al-Qurayshi ibn al-Nafis (d. 1288), Najib al-Din Abu Hamid Muhammad ibn ‘Ali ibn ‘Umar al-Samarqandi (d. 1310), Qutb al-Din Mahmud ibn Mas‘ud al-Shirazi (d. 1311), Muhammad ibn al-Raqqam al-Andalusi (d. 1335), Abu al-Fadl ‘Abd al-Rahman ibn Abi Bakr Jalal al-Din al-Suyuti (d. 1505), Ibrahim ibn ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Azraqi (15th c), Dawud ibn ‘Umar al-Antaki (d. 1599), and Hajji Khalifah, the Ottoman bibliographer. As Hakim Said Mohammad has shown, Islamic medicine originates from the Prophet Muhammad and was further developed by Muslim herbalists throughout the ages. As Seyyed Hossein Nasr explains, “The ‘medicine of the Prophet’ is in a sense part and parcel of the prophetic sunnah with all that this participation implies.” Since the Prophet’s sunnah was pervasive, it could not neglect such an important area of life as that of health and medicine. As Nasr explains, the prophetic traditions concerning medicine were compiled during the early Islamic period. prophetic medicine remained distinct while interacting with Greek, Persian, and Indian medicine, producing a synthesis known as Islamic medicine. As Muhammad Hamidullah explains: “Medical works were translated from Syrian, Greek, Pehlevi, and Sanskrit, among other languages. Muslim physicians benefited from them. They tested the herbal treatments they contained and soon produced their own original works which were superior to those of the ancients since they were able to synthesize the wisdom from around the entire world: from the Greeks, the Indians, and even the Chinese.
The Sixth Shi‘ite Imam, Ja‘far al-Sadiq (702-765), was familiar with Ayurvedic medicine. It is related that an Indian physician read a book on Ayurvedic medicine in the court of al-Mansur (c. 754-775) while the Imam was present. When the Indian doctor offered to share his knowledge with the Imam, Ja‘far al-Sadiq replied negatively, asserting that he was the heir of a greater medical tradition. When the Indian physician asked what the Imam’s medicine consisted of, Ja‘far al-Sadiq responded that he treated hot diseases with cold medicine, cold diseases with hot medicine, humid diseases with dry medicines, and dry medicines with humid medicines, namely, the principle of contraria contrariis curantibus, namely, the opposite is cured with the opposite, found in Galenic medicine.
One of the first physicians to actually use Indian Ayurvedic sources in addition to Greek and Syriac ones was ‘Ali ibn Rabban al-Tabari (c. 810-855). His Kitab al-Firdaws or Book of Paradise relied on translations of key Ayurvedic sources, including the book of Caraka, the Suśruta of Vaghbata and of Madhavadakra.” Indian medical texts like the Pancatantra and others were first brought to Persia in the sixth century where they were translated into Persian, and eventually into Arabic. Not only were Indian sources available in the Arab world, Ayurvedic physicians were also employed in the courts of the Caliphs. It comes as no surprise, then, that “The Arab physicians of the tenth and eleventh centuries had a wide knowledge of Indian medicine, which they incorporated into their writings.”
Even Elgood admits that the “Arabian System of Medicine” grew from Bedouin medicine, the sayings of Muhammad, Greek medicine, Indian medicine, and probably Chinese medicine, “all incorporated into Arabian medicine, and more or less Islamized.” As Said explains, “Greek medicine was taken over by the Roman and then by the Arabs from whom, after its enrichment with Chinese and Indian medicine, it was taken over by modern Europe. The Muslim rulers introduced it into India and incorporated with it the native Ayurvedic medicine; this mixture is now known as Unani medicine or broadly speaking Eastern medicine.”
Far from being a stagnant replica of Greek medicine, “Arabian medical practice flourished, stirring changes and spurring advances.” Rather than remain rooted in its Greek origins, Unani medicine “got enriched by imbibing what was the best in the contemporary systems of traditional medicine in Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Persia, India, China, and other Middle and Far Eastern countries.” As Chevallier asserts, Arabic culture not only preserved the gains of the classical Greek and Roman period, it elaborated upon them.
Although it was influenced by many herbal traditions, “Unani pharmacology was influenced, more so than any other medical discipline, by sources from India and Persia.” The influence of Indian medicine on the Arabs and Persians actually dates from the time of the Prophet. As Castleman explains, “After 600 A.D., Ayurvedic healing influenced Arab medicine, which combined Greco-Roman, Middle Eastern, and Asian therapies. Arab physicians in turn introduced some Ayurvedic practices into Europe.” Biruni, Tabari, and Razi, among others, frequently quoted Indian medical compendiums originally written in Sanskrit. Not only did Unani medicine borrow from other traditions, other traditions borrowed from Unani medicine. In India, for example, “Unani medicine and Ayurveda have influenced each other, especially in the realm of materia medica.” As Hakim Said has shown, Ayurdevic medicine borrowed 127 herbs from Unani medicine. The similarity between both systems is evident when one considers that they use 681 herbs in common.
The claim of Ibn Khaldun and Irmeli Perho that prophetic medicine was invented by Muslim traditionists is unfounded. Pre-Islamic medicine employed a relatively narrow range of plants while prophetic herbalism uses approximately one hundred. Many of the herbs mentioned by the Prophet and the Imams were not readily available in Arabia and did not form a part of pre-Islamic Arab medicine. Herbs are mentioned hundreds of times in the Holy Qur’an and in the traditions of the Prophet, all of which pre-date the translation of Greek works on medicinal herbs. Hence, it makes no chronological sense to claim that the prophetic traditions regarding herbal medicine are of Greek origin.
Although John Lewis claims that, “The Arabs did little to change the learning they acquired from the Greeks,” the spread of Islam from Arabia to North Africa, Europe, Persia, and India, led to the introduction of Western, Ayurvedic, and Chinese herbs into the Unani repertoire of herbs. As Symons has noted, “a remarkable ‘green revolution’…followed the rapid spread of Islam in the seventh and eight centuries. This ‘revolution’ was based on the arrival of new crops (such as rice, hard wheat, sugar cane, watermelons, eggplants, spinach and lemons), increased cropping (four or more over a two-year period when there had previously been only one harvest), vastly developed irrigation, the strength of one language and a sophisticated culture with footholds on three continents, and impressive libraries and botanic collections.”
From both a culinary and medical perspective, the Muslims were not mere imitators: they were active appropriators. Rather than merely regurgitating foreign medical material, Muslims built upon it, introducing new herbs, and new applications which are not found in Greek, Ayurvedic, and Chinese medicine. If Dioscorides mentioned some 600 plants in De Materia Medica, “the Arabs added their own discoveries to the Greco-Roman texts, resulting in a compilation of more than 2,000 substances.” Although based on Galenic medicine, “the Unani system of medicine in India is largely different from that of old Greece.” Even though Arabic physicians considered it commendable to follow their Greek predecessors, “they not infrequently added numerous, substantial, and original observations and ideas of lasting value.” According to Hakim Said, Unani herbalism borrowed 105 herbs from traditional Arabic herbalism, 121 herbs from Ayurvedic herbalism, and 67 herbs were introduced by modern physicians.
Unlike contemporary synthetic drugs, herbal medicines have been used for thousands of years. Herbalists learned the properties of plants through observation, trials, tests, and, in some traditions, spiritual insight. Ancient researchers tested plants on animals, on themselves, and on others, carefully documenting their findings and transmitting them through oral and written tradition to their disciples. Avicenna, in particular, introduced clinical trials, randomized controlled trials, and efficacy tests in his Canon in the 9th century. It was an herbalist from al-Andalus, Abu al-‘Abbas al-Nabati, the teacher of Ibn al-Baytar, who introduced the experimental scientific method in the 13th century. He employed empirical techniques to test, describe, and identify medicinal herbs and used his findings to distinguish between unverified reports, and those that were supported by tests and observation. As a result of his efforts, herbal medicine eventually evolved into the science of pharmacology.
The Prophet Muhammad was well-aware of dangerous herbs and forbade their use. According to Mujahid, the Messenger of Allah prohibited people from taking harmful and potentially deadly medicine. Prohibited plants include toxic drugs such as saqmuniyyah (Convulvulus scammonia, L.), al-takuk (Euphorbia resin), shubrum (Euphorbia officinarum, L.), hanzal (Citrullus colocynthis, Schrad.), and ‘alqam (Ecballium elaterium, A. Richard). When the Andalusian herbalist Ibn Habib was asked his opinion regarding these herbs, he said that their use was prohibited and that they could only be used in cases of such extreme need that their use was made imperative. He also insisted that such substances should only be administered by a person of authority who was well-versed in medical treatment.
When the Caliph al-Ma’mun querried Imam ‘Ali al-Rida regarding medical matters, he responded, “I have of it, knowledge of what I have personally tested and came to know about its accuracy by experience and by the passage of time in addition to what I was told by my ancestors.” In many traditions, the Imams assured believers that the herbal combinations they prescribe have been “proved by experience.”
Al-Razi, who died in 925 C.E., argued that all drugs, even those known for their efficacy since ancient times, should be accepted or discarded only after experimental trials (al-tajribah). The Muslims, like the Europeans, Indians, and Chinese before them, only accepted medicinal herbs into their materia medica on the basis of empirical evidence. Biruni, for example, was the first Muslim to chronicle the discovery of tea and its therapeutic effects. Biruni explains that it was only after it had been tried and tested that tea leaves were entered into Chinese therapeutics. As Muhammad Hamidullah explains, Muslim herbalists “”tested herbal treatments” from Syriac, Greek, Pahlavi, Sanskrit, and other sources, before accepting them into Islamic medicine’s materia medica.
While clinical trials may substantiate, sanction, and even supplement traditional herbal wisdom, practitioners and patients of herbal medicine do not require them to be convinced. As both the Bible and the Qur’an explain, the creation of plants predates the creation of human beings. Anthropologists can testify that herbalism traces its origins to the dawn of humanity. Excavations of Neanderthal graves confirm that early human beings employed many of the medicinal herbs still in use today. Pollen sample taken at the Shanidar IV Neanderthal burial site in northern Iraq conclusively show the presence of cornflowers, grape, grounsel, hyacinths, mallow, St. Barnaby’s thistle, woody horsetail, and yarrow.
According to herbal traditions throughout the world, the knowledge of plants is divine in origin. Among the Hindus, it is believed that Ayurveda was a gift from the gods. In the Bible, God states, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food” (Genesis 1:30). In total, the Bible mentions approximately 150 medicinal plants. In the Qur’an, God says, “And the Earth We have spread out (like a carpet); set thereon mountains firm and immovable; and produced therein all kinds of things in due balance” (15:19). According to the Qur’anic account of human creation, God “taught Adam all the names” (2:31). The “names” in this verse may refer to the divine attributes, the names of the Prophet and his Household, and the names of all things, including plants and their properties. Besides the Qur’an, the hadith literature mentions over one hundred medicinal herbs.
With the decline and eventual downfall of the Roman Empire, Greco-Roman classics came dangerous close to disappearing. Thanks to the Arabic-Islamic patronage, however, ancient Greek medical works were translated into Arabic, and disseminated throughout the Muslim world by scholars, scientists, and translators like Hunayn ibn Ishaq (809-873) in such cultural centers such as the Bayt al-Hikmah in Baghdad, the Dar al-Hikmah in Cairo, and the School of Translators in Toledo. As Shankar and Manohar explain, “Before the end of the third/ninth century almost all the important Greek medical writings from Hippocrates to Galen and his commentators up to the first/seventh century were rendered into Arabic, either directly or from the Syriac versions. Further information was added to Arabic medical knowledge from Sanskrit, Coptic, and other sources.”
As a result of Islamic efforts, Greco-Arabic-Islamic medicine spread into Europe, laying the foundations of modern medicine. In its traditional form, Greco-Arabic-Islamic-Eastern medicine continues to flourish under the title of Tibb-e Unani or Tibb-e Islami in much of the Muslim world. In closing, we hope and pray that this presentation has fostered a greater appreciation and understanding of Islamic herbalism. Wa Allah yu‘tikum al-sihhah. [May Allah grant you the best of health].
Dr. John Andrew Morrow is the author of The Encyclopedia of Islamic Herbal Medicine (McFarland, 2011). Along with Charles Upton, he directs The Covenants of the Prophet Foundation, a 501 (c) 3 non-profit organization dedicated to promoting peace and justice according to the model of religious pluralism and interfaith friendship established by the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him and his progeny, in his Covenants, his Treaties, his Letters, his Sunnah, and the Holy Qur‘an.