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The Encyclopedia of Islamic Herbal Medicine by Dr. John Andrew Morrow: A Book Review


By Roberto Vertutti

      The Encyclopedia of Islamic Herbal Medicine (McFarland, 2011) by Dr. John Andrew Morrow focuses on the foundational phytotherapy of the Prophet Muhammad and the Twelve Imams. Although the terms “Islamic medicine,” “Muslim medicine,” and “Arabic medicine” are rather broad, and embrace both prophetic medicine (tibb nabawi or tibb al-nabi) and Unani medicine, which is Islamized Greek medicine, the current work focuses exclusively on the herbal prescriptions taught by the Prophet Muhammad and the Twelve Shiite Imams. To be precise, Dr. Morrow’s work is a presentation of the medicine of Muhammad.

Little known outside of the Muslim world, Islamic herbalism, in its expanded Unani form, represents one of the three great medical traditions of the world. It was only in the past two centuries that modern Western medicine joined Chinese, Ayurveda, and Unani as one of the major medical traditions. Since the present work deals only with the herbal prescriptions of the Prophet Muhammad and the Twelve Imams, and does not take into consideration pre and post-Islamic Greek medicine, it cannot be considered an encyclopedia of Unani medicine. Dr. Morrow’s encyclopedia is a work of prophetic medicine which is supplemented by references from various herbal traditions from across the world.

The result of ten years of research, The Encyclopedia of Islamic Herbal Medicine has been peer-reviewed by an academic and scientific committee composed of numerous scholars and scientists. The committee included Arabic, English, French, German, and Spanish language professors and linguists, as well as professional translators, who ensured the accurate identification and translation of the herbs in question. It also included master herbalists, medical doctors and specialists, traditionally trained Muslim scholars, as well as professors of Arabic and Islamic Studies with expertise in the history of Islamic medicine.

The Encyclopedia of Islamic Herbal Medicine aims to awaken interest in Islamic herbalism in the Western world, and renew interest in this alternative form of medicine in the Eastern world. In so doing, the encyclopedia corrects creeping errors of identification of original plant substances at the time of the Prophet. Considering that the majority of material available on Islamic herbalism comes from Sunni sources, the author’s comprehensive coverage of Shiite sources makes an important contribution to the manuscript. At the time of writing, there was only one work on the medicine of the Imams in the English language. In the past, the Shiite contribution to prophetic medicine was entirely ignored. As such, Dr. Morrow’s encyclopedia makes a significant contribution to our understanding of Islamic medicine as a whole on the basis of both Sunni and Shiite sources. As if this were not sufficient, the work contains many prophetic traditions which are translated for the first time into the English language.

It is unfortunate that sectarian differences between Sunnis and Shiites, and religious strife between Muslims, Jews, Christians, and Hindus, have impeded the study of Islamic herbalism as one cohesive whole. Unfortunately, there are books on Islamic herbalism which draw solely from Sunni sources, and others which draw solely from Shiite sources. There are Sunnis who reject medical traditions simply because they are recorded in Shiite sources. Likewise, there are Shiites who reject medical traditions simply because they are recorded in Sunni sources. However, as the author appreciates, Islamic herbalism should not be subjected to sectarian differences. Islamic herbalism is a major medical tradition which is open to all. There is nothing whatsoever in the concepts or practice of Islamic herbalism that would cause it to be restricted to Muslims. The history of Islam shows that its medical colleges and hospitals were used and operated by people of all faiths. Hence, the religious affiliation of the herbalist is absolutely irrelevant. In fact, some of the greatest herbalists in the Islamic world were Jews and Christians.

Although Islamic herbalism is rooted in the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad and the Twelve Shiite Imams, the author does not engage in proselytizing for the Shiite cause or the larger Islamic cause. Unlike other scholars who only study a small slice of Islam, Dr. Morrow studies Islam in its totality. Hence, his works always include Sunni, Shiite, and Sufi sources. In fact, it is arguably impossible for any academic to write anything authoritative about any Islamic subject without taking into consideration these various traditions. Besides manifesting prejudice, the rejection of Shiite sources violates basic standards of academic objectivity.

As the author makes explicitly clear, The Encyclopedia of Islamic Herbal Medicine is not a book on religion: it is a book on medical herbalism. The author’s intention is to present the contributions made by the Prophet and the Imams to the field of herbalism. However, since the author is dealing with the medicine of Muhammad and the Imams from his Household, he simply cannot present their contributions outside of a religious framework since in Islam there is no distinction between religion, politics, medicine, and science. Although Islamic herbalism is the obvious product of Islam, one does not have to a Muslim in order to benefit from it in the same way one does not have to be a Hindu to benefit from Ayurvedic medicine or a Taoist or Buddhist to benefit from Chinese medicine.

This being said, it is not necessary to embrace the theoretical or philosophical framework of Islamic medicine in order to benefit from its herbal prescriptions. Martial arts, for example, were developed as a religious discipline by followers of the Shinto, Buddhist, Taoist, Confucian, and Muslim faiths. In order to practice martial arts, it is not necessary to embrace their philosophical foundations. You would be hard pressed to find any karate or tae kwon do instructor in the Western world who teaches the religious dimensions of martial arts. As a Ninja Master once told me: “The spiritual aspect won’t help you on the street.” Likewise, whether one believes in Islam or not has no bearing on the pharmacological properties of medicinal herbs.

Even though the author has given proper coverage to Shiite traditions on the subject of Islamic herbalism, he never attempts to tip the scales on the side of the Shia when it comes to the development of Islamic medicine. On the contrary, the author has simply presented a balanced picture on the subject, acknowledging the Shiite contributions others have ignored, in a fresh departure from the biased, Sunni-sided studies produced in the past. The author’s pluralistic perspective, however, will surely have its detractors among extremist-minded individuals who ironically ignore that Avicenna, the father of Islamic herbalism, was an Ismaili Shiite.

Besides rejecting the author’s use of Shiite sources, there are those who will object to his use of the term “Islamic medicine,” calling into question its very existence. According to some scholars, there is no such thing as “Islamic medicine.” In this estimation, Islamic medicine is simply Greek medicine. Such individuals assert that the Arabs and the Muslims did nothing more than organize Greek medical material, contributing nothing new. While there is no doubt that Unani medicine is based on Greek medicine, it also includes herbal prescriptions from the Prophet Muhammad and, for Shiites, from the Twelve Imams. While Unani medicine is an Islamized form of Greek medicine, prophetic herbalism, which is studied in this encyclopedia, is authentically Islamic, being the product of the Prophet and the Imams from His Household.

      With nearly one hundred individual herb profiles, and over one thousand five hundred medical and religious references, the Encyclopedia of Islamic Herbalism represents a major reference source on the subject. The author, who is proficient in English, French, Spanish, and Arabic, and has reading comprehension of all Romance languages, has relied on primary and secondary sources in Arabic, as well as secondary sources in English, French, Spanish, and German. He has cited all the primary Arabic sources on the medicine of the Prophet and the Imams, many of which were obscure and had never been translated into English before. The herbal traditions from the Prophet and the Imams are all drawn from primary Arabic sources. Although the author cannot conceivably claim to have cited every single secondary source on the subject, with over one thousand five hundred references, he has demonstrated manifest mastery of the subject matter.

With its coverage of over one hundred herbs, the Encyclopedia of Islamic Herbal Medicine is one the single largest compilation of ahadith [traditions] on the subject of prophetic herbalism, surpassed only by works in Arabic, Persian, and Urdu. Although many Westerners are familiar with European herbalism, and perhaps some aspects of Ayurvedic herbalism, most of them are unfamiliar with the herbs employed in traditional Islamic herbalism. Although complete data on these herbs is available in the Hamdard Pharmacopoeia and the Unani National Formulary of India, these are not the most readily accessible and easily readable works on the subject. Combining tradition and modernity, Dr. Morrow’s work is written in a style that will appeal to both scholarly and lay readers.

Unlike other works on Islamic medicine, the work contains professionally translated traditions which are rendered into grammatically, orthographically, and idiomatically correct English. With few exceptions, the works on prophetic herbalism in English are written in poor English, are full of spelling mistakes, and do not adequately convey the sense of the Arabic originals. Rather than appeal to Western readers, such works create a sense of cynicism towards the scholarly and scientific value of all things Arabic and Islamic.

The Encyclopedia of Islamic Herbalism is also the only compilation of prophetic traditions on herbalism in English, or any other European language, which draws from both Sunni and Shiite sources. Arabic works by Sunni authors draw only from Sunni sources. It is only some Shiite works in Arabic which draw from both Shiite and Sunni sources. In a refreshing departure from most classical and modern works on Islamic medicine, which simply cite Greek sources, Avicenna, and other ancient authorities, the author has supported Islamic herbalism by means of modern scientific studies. While this may be viewed as a break from tradition, the book was written with a Western audience in mind as opposed to the narrow Muslim audience towards which most books on prophetic medicine are aimed. As such, the author draws from a multitude of herbal traditions, mostly Western, Unani, Ayurveda, Chinese, and at times, Native American. The prophetic prescriptions should satisfy traditional religious readers while the wealth of scientific documentation should certainly satisfy scientists.

Although the author has avoided referring to Avicenna, he has a great deal of admiration for the father of modern medicine and medical pharmacology, and the most influential medical authority in history. His Canon of Medicine was the main medical text in some Latin American countries well into the late 1800s and early 1900s. Although all medicals doctors are indebted to Avicenna for having provided the foundation of modern medicine, his work is no longer used in medical school with the exception of courses on the history of medicine.

While it was a long-lived work, the Canon of Medicine has long been dated due to the major advances in medical science over the course of the past couple of centuries. If one reads Avicenna, and other classical works on medicine, one realizes how much they misunderstood about the human body and disease: the issue of reproduction is but a simple example. During medieval times, medical doctors only had a very general understanding of diseases and their causes. They did not have the specificity that science has today.

Although he is claimed by Unani herbalists as the “founder” of their tradition, Unani medicine is simply Islamized Greek medicine. Although Avicenna (980-1036 CE) revived Greek medicine, the main founders of Greek medicine were Hippocrates (c. 460 BCE-c. 370 BCE), Galen (129- 200/217 CE), and Dioscorides (c. 40-90 CE). If anything, Avicenna represents a bridge between ancient and modern medicine. He was breaking from tradition and religion while moving towards a more scientific and secular understanding of medicine. Unfortunately, many herbal “purists” believe that herbalism should be stagnant, as opposed to a living, vibrant, developing tradition. This is the worst of medical fundamentalism.

In order to tie past with present, the author provides a brief overview of the history of Islamic medicine in general and prophetic medicine in particular. Many Orientalists argue that there is no such thing as “Islamic” medicine and that Unani medicine is merely Greek medicine. They argue that the Muslims contributed nothing to the material, merely reorganizing it. They also argue that the herbal prescriptions of the Prophet Muhammad are all false, having been invented by traditionists on the basis of Greek material.

In order to debunk the argument that the Prophet’s herbal traditions are spurious, the author demonstrates that the herbs in question are mentioned in the Qur’an and the Sunnah and that they all pre-date the translation of Greek works on medicinal herbs. The translation of Greek and Latin works commenced during the reign of Caliph al-Mansur (754-775 CE) when he constructed the Dar al-Hikmah or House of Wisdom in Baghdad. The works of Imam ‘Ali al-Rida (d. 819 CE), Imam Ja‘far al-Sadiq (d. 765 CE), Imam ‘Ali (d. 661 CE), and the Prophet Muhammad (d. 632 CE) predate the large scale translation of Greek medicinal works into Arabic. The claim that the traditions on prophetic herbalism were produced after the translation of Greek medicinal works is inaccurate from an historical point of view. As a result of his historical overview, the author makes a strong argument for the recognition of the Prophet Muhammad and the Twelve Imams as master herbalists, dimensions of their persons which are rarely acknowledged.

Although herbal medicine is generally safe, some herbs are potentially perilous. Unlike others, the author has been especially responsible in this regard. The manuscript contains a disclaimer that warns readers of the dangers of self-diagnosis and self-prescription. In his introduction, Morrow stresses that readers should consult their medical doctor or a qualified herbalist prior to taking any herbs. For each dangerous herb, the author has included warnings in the sections on “Properties and Uses” and “Scientific Studies.” In order to err on the side of caution, the author has included a section titled “Safety Rating” at the top of each chapter.

Sincerely concerned about safety, the author is critical of authors like M.I.H. Farooqi who have essentially encouraged the use of deadly herbs.  Farooqi, for example, says that Narcissus bulbs are a very mild poison. This is simply irresponsible. While Narcissus tazzetta contains a mild poison, ingestion of other types of Narcissus can cause sudden death. Other Muslim herbalists have presented dangerous herbs and metals, like mercury, without any warning of any sort. Many of these works are widely distributed in the Muslim community, sold in mosques and Islamic bookstores. Many Muslims follow these books with blind faith, risking their health and even lives. Some authors, like Hakim Chishti, have advocated the use of cannabis and opium. Although they both have medicinal uses, they are highly addictive and subject to legal restrictions in many countries. Considering the epidemic of opium addiction in Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan, it is unconscionable to encourage the use of such a substance.

Importantly, the Encyclopedia of Islamic Herbal Medicine addresses many important issues regarding the identification of herbs mentioned by the Prophet and Imams and corrects mistakes made in this area. This is particularly the case with camphor, pumpkin, squash, and other plants. Besides properly identified herbs which have been misidentified, the author identifies many ambiguous herbs known only by their Arabic name, but never associated definitively with actual plants. Although there already exists a comprehensive National Formulary for Unani medicine, which identifies the herbs in Arabic, Persian, Assamese, Bengali, English, Gujarati, Hindi, Kannada, Kashmiri, Malayalam, Marathi, Oriya, Punjabi, Sanskrit, Tamil, Telegu, Urdu, this work is generally only consulted by herbalists. Many of the most popular books on Islamic herbalism circulating in the Muslim community include misidentified herbs. It is sincerely hoped that the Encyclopedia of Islamic Herbal Medicine will soon come to supplant the sloppy literature circulating on the subject.

As the single largest reference source on prophetic herbalism in the English language, the Encyclopedia of Islamic Herbal Medicine is sure to serve as an essential point of departure for subsequent studies. Rather than having to hunt down dozens of books on prophetic herbalism which are mainly in Arabic and difficult to obtain, future students and scholars can refer to my work and find all the traditions they need. The author has greatly facilitated the task for future students, scholars, and scientists who are interested in Islamic herbalism but who do not have access to the original Arabic language sources.

By combining the major herbal traditions of the world, Western, Unani, Ayurvedic, Chinese, and Native American, the Encyclopedia of Islamic Herbal Medicine is sure to appeal the widest audience possible. Unlike certain herbal “purists” and “fundamentalists” who believe only in the virtue of their own particular herbal tradition, the author demonstrates a great deal of respect for all herbal traditions. By combining traditional herbalism with modern scientific studies, the work may appeal to colleges of naturopathic medicine as it bridges Eastern and Western herbalism within a modern, scientific framework. As a result of its scientific focus, which demonstrates the medicinal properties of many herbs, the work may stimulate further interest and research in medicinal herbs.

Dr. Morrow’s Encyclopedia of Islamic Herbal Medicine is a most valuable contribution to our understanding of the medicine of the Prophet Muhammad and the Twelve Imams. The work will most certainly contribute to the growth and development of Islamic herbalism in the Western world at a time when it is more relevant than at any time in the past. Besides encouraging general health and well-being, it is hoped that the work will help foster a sense of stewardship over Mother Earth. As herbalists from East and West have always understood, human beings depend on nature for their sustenance and survival. Without fresh air, clean water, and the preservation of the environment and its biodiversity, it is not only our health that is endangered: it is our very survival as a species and the planet in which we live.

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