Impact on the West


Modern medicine is very close to Islamic medicine due to the early transfers of Muslim medicine to the Christian West.[1] Jacquart’s summarises the main translations of Islamic medical works.[2] The pioneer of such translations was Constantine the African  (d. ca.1087), from Tunisia  initially, who spent his later life in Italy between Salerno and Monte Casino. Constantine took with him medical works of the school of Al-Qayrawan , Tunisia, including those by Ibn al-Jazzar (d.1009) and by earlier doctors of al-Qayrawan. Constantine translated such works on diets, the stomach, melancholy, forgetfulness and sexual intercourse.[3] They had Latin  translations such as Chirurgia, ‘prognostica,' ‘De pulsibus,' ‘De instrumentis,' ‘practica' (in 12 books), ‘Liber graduum,' De stomachi et instestinorum infirmitatibus,' ‘Liber de urina,' and a number of others.[4] Constantine also made the partial translation of Ali Ibn Abbas (Al-Madjusi) al-Kitab al-Malaki into Latin called The Pantegni. Stephen of Antioch, a Pisan, trained in the school of Salerno, also translated in Antioch the work by Ali Ibn Abbas. This translation is found in many manuscripts with two early editions printed at Venice in 1492 and at Lyons in 1523.[5] It was in Toledo  and the South of France, though, in the 12th century and after, where the bulk of medical translations were made. Ibn al-Wafid's treatise on drugs was translated by Gerard of Cremona, and into Hebrew by Jacob of Capua. Gerard of Cremona also translated Kitab al-Tasrif of al-Zahrawi. The influence of al-Tasrif was considerable, Guy de Chauliac quotes al-Zahrawi abundantly, Roger of Parma, Lanfranc and Saliceto were also heavy borrowers.[6] The arrangement of the work, the clear diction, and lucid explanations, all contributed to its great success.[7] Al-Mosuli's works on eye diseases were translated into Hebrew by Nathan ha'Me'ati, who also prepared a complete Hebrew version of Ibn Sina 's Qanun. Ibn Sina's Arjuza and Ibn Rushd's commentary on it were translated into Hebrew by Ayyub and Moses ben Tibbon, and from Hebrew into Latin by Armengand. Other translations during the 12th and the 13th centuries included Ibn Rushd's Kulliyat (Colliget: complete works)-a medical encyclopaedia- translated by Bonacossa.[8]


The Islamic influence persisted in medicine as in other sciences for the subsequent centuries, and this despite the humanists and Classical inspired Renaissance writers, who rose in rebellion against such Islamic influence, as will be examined in the final part of this work, and as Whitty remarkably outlines.[9] Specialist texts were heavily influenced by Islamic writers-diagnosis from urine, or ocular surgery would be examples.[10] Islamic medicine made few contributions in relation to particular new diseases like syphilis, or the new surgical problem of dealing with gunshot wounds, but overall, the majority of people in England, for instance, were treated according to principles which were heavily, and directly, derived from Islamic medicine until at least the middle of the 17th century.[11] Even those who could not be treated by physicians would often be given drugs which were Arabic in origin, as the Pharmacopoeia Londinensis amply demonstrates.[12]


A major problem relating to this issue of transfer concerns the assertion found amongst mainstream historians that the translations from Arabic in the 12th century aimed at the recovery of the Greek-Ancient learning. This is a gross fallacy. The medieval Western translators, who were behind the rise and renaissance of Western Christendom, and the authors of the largest translation effort in history, from Arabic into Latin , in the 12th-early 13th century, were not interested in the Greek-Ancient material but in Muslim learning. Whether Adelard of Bath, who talked of his Arab masters,[13] or Daniel of Morley who compared Paris’ scholars to asses, and who rushed back to Toledo  in Spain to dwell amongst ‘Arab’ books,’[14] or Gerard of Cremona who pitied the Latin for the poverty of their learning compared to the Muslims,[15] or Robert of Ketton, who speaks of ‘ the depths of the treasures of the Arabs,’[16] all sought Islamic learning. They thought very little of Ancient learning. Raymond of Marseilles, for instance, in 1140, says ‘that students of astronomy were compelled to have recourse to worthless writings going under the name of Ptolemy and therefore blindly followed; that the heavens were never examined, and that any phenomena not agreeing with such books were simply denied.’[17] The same attitude was held in regard to medicine. Stephen of Antioch who translated the Liber Regalis of Al-Madjusi, even learned Arabic in order to advance from "the naked beginnings of philosophy," and he proposed, if the favour of God should permit, to go on from his study of the things of the body to "things far higher, extending to the excellence of the soul," more specifically, "more famous things which the Arabic language contains, the hidden secrets of philosophy."[18] Perhaps he was thinking of works by Ibn Sina , to which his medical interests might have led him.[19] For Stephen and for most of the translators from Arabic the idea of Greek sources at this date was secondary, and the impact of Byzantium was much less than that of the Arabs, especially in Spain.[20]


Just as the intentions of the medieval scholars have been misrepresented by modern historians, medieval and later Islamic breakthroughs have also been misrepresented by these same historians through wrong attributions. Vaccination, for instance, wrongly attributed to Jenner (1749-1823). The method of vaccination was known to the Ottoman Turks  long before Jenner, under the name of Ashi (engrafting), which they had inherited from old Turkic tribes; the nomads used to inoculating their children with cowpox taken from the breast of cattle. This kind of vaccination and other forms of variolation were introduced into England by Lady Montagu, wife of the English ambassador at Istanbul between 1716-1718. She had come across the Turkish  practice and became greatly interested in it, even consenting to have her son inoculated by the Embassy surgeon Charles Maitland.[21] The story went, as Armesto explains, that whilst the father of the boy took no notice, his mother professed her ease; yet the six year old was covered in pustules, with swollen arms, dry mouth, and an urgent fever.[22] It was the spring of 1718 in Istanbul, where his parents had come on a mission from London, the boy’s mother was Lady Mary Wortley Montague, and she had volunteered him as a guinea pig in an experimental inoculation against smallpox. The embassy physician described the technique: ‘She put the child to so much torture with her blunt and rusty needle that I pitied his cries.’[23] Yet the experiment was merciful success, and when London was threatened with epidemic in 1721, Lady Mary repeated it on her daughter, converting society to the practice in consequence.[24] Previous efforts by savants to introduce vaccination had been ‘regarded as virtuoso amusements;’ now, however, ‘Lady Mary fulfilled an ambition she had conceived as a patriotic duty, on seeing an inoculation performed at Adrianople, ‘to bring this useful invention to England.’[25] A scientific work was submitted to the Royal Society in 1724 by the Montagus’ family physician in Istanbul, and inoculation was adopted both in England and in France nearly half a century before Jenner.[26] It may seem ironic, Armesto observes, that one of the great benefits spread by modern and Western science should have originated as a Turkish folk remedy.[27]


A similar problem of misattribution relates to the matter of pulmonary circulation.  The Syrian medical scholar Ibn Al-Nafis (1210-1288) described it in his Sharh al-Qanun, a Ms. which can be found in a number of examples in Berlin, Paris, Bologna, Beirut, Damascus , the Escurial (Spain), Istanbul, and Oxford.[28] His commentary was consulted by his contemporary Ibn al-Quff, who explained the basic principles of the modern theory of the lesser or pulmonary circulation.[29] How Ibn-al-Nafis came to discover the pulmonary circulation, according to Meyerhof, was a happy hypothesis.  Whipple disagrees with this, pointing to the definite statements that Ibn al-Nafis makes on the actual anatomy of the heart and the interventricular septum.[30] Three centuries after the discovery of the pulmonary circulation by Ibn Al-Nafis, others: Michael Servetus, Realdus Columbus, Carlo Ruini, Andrea Cesalpino, and Francois Rabelais claimed the same results.[31] Ibn al-Nafis’ discovery is also 350 years earlier than  Harvey’s who was credited with it. In 1957,  Latham noted how Ibn Al-Nafis understood the fallacy of Galen's theory of invisible channels between the ventricles, and explained that blood was purified in the lungs where it was refined on contact with the air inhaled from the outer atmosphere.[32] The role of Ibn al-Nafis in the said discovery can be found well explained in two doctoral theses, the first, and pioneering one, by the Egyptian, Mohy ad-Din at-Tatawi, held at the German University of Friburg in 1924,[33] the second, held at Paris in 1951, incorporating some new detail, was published by A.K. Chehade.[34] Despite such well founded works, mainstream Western history still refuses to acknowledge Ibn al-Nafis’ role. Wilson, for instance, asserts that the Christian doctors made the discovery independently.[35] Which is odd, considering that all of them made the same discovery in the space of a few years, soon after the translation of Ibn al-Nafis treatise by Alpago (in the second decade of the 16th century),[36] soon after the arrival of Ibn al-Nafis’ work in Padua, and all such writings being often nearly word for word repetition of Ibn al-Nafis.[37] Mowry, for his part, held:

‘This was Galen's theory. It persisted unchanged and unchallenged down to the Renaissance (by Vesalius-Columbus).’[38]

Which is false, for, as shown above, and as amply detailed in his work referred to already, Ibn al-Nafis did challenge Galen profusely, and built his theory in complete opposition to Galen’s.


It is worth ending this heading with the sort of confused and confusing, contradictory statements in relation to the role and impact of Islamic science, which are made by most historians. Here the culprit is Campbell. First, he says:

‘His (Al-Zahrawi’s) surgical teaching, which was a distinct advance on the surgery of the travelling mountebanks, retarded the progress of surgery in the Latin  West, as it produced a tendency to rely on the anatomical doctrines of Galen rather than on actual dissections. The blame for this cannot be laid entirely on Albucasis as the mental attitude of the scholastics of Latin Europe was one  that leaned on the wisdom of the ancients, and thus it was that Albucasis’ opinion of Galen’s anatomy was readily assimilated by the West.’[39]

Campbell, then, in the following page, holds:

‘The chief influence of Albucasis on the medical system of Europe was that his lucidity and method of presentation awakened a prepossession in favour of Arabic literature among the scholars of the West: the methods of Albucasis eclipsed those of Galen and maintained a dominant position in medical Europe for five hundred years, i.e long after it had passed its usefulness. He, however, helped to raise the status of surgery in Christian Europe; in his book on fractures and luxations, he states that ‘this part of surgery has passed into the hands of vulgar and uncultivated minds, for which reason it has fallen into contempt.’ The surgery of Albucasis became firmly grafted on Europe after the time of Guy de Chauliac (d.1368).’[40] 

[1] See: D. Campbell: Arabian Medicine; E.G. Browne: Arabian Medicine (Cambridge University Press; 1962).

[2] D. Jacquart: The Influence of Arabic medicine in the Medieval West, in the Encyclopaedia (Rashed ed), op cit, pp 963-84. Table pp: 981-84.

[3] C. Burnett: The Introduction of Arabic Learning ; p. 23.

[4] D. Campbell: Arabian Medicine, op cit; 123.

[5] C.H. Haskins: Studies, op cit, p. 131 fwd.

[6] R.H. Major: A History of Medicine; op cit; p. 252.

[7] Ibid.

[8] For details on translations, see G.Sarton: Introduction, op cit; Vol 2; pp. 167 ff.

[9] C.J. M. Whitty: The Islamic Impact on Medicine; op cit.

[10] For example, Anon: Here begyneth the seyuge of uryns (London, 1525).

[11] C.J. M. Whitty: the Islamic Impact on medicine; op cit; p. 52.

[12] N. Culpeper: A Physicall Directory, or, a Translation of the London Dispensatory Made by the College of Physicians in London (London; 1649).

[13] D. Metlitzki: The Matter of Araby in Medieval England (Yale University  Press, 1977),  p.13.

[14] Daniels Von Morley Liber de naturis inferiorum et superiorum; ed Sudhoff; p. 32; in D. Metlitzki: The Matter; op cit; p. 60.

[15] M.I. Shaikh: extract from ‘Penzance Manuscript; 'The International Conference of Islamic Physicians’ Contribution to the History of Medicine (International Institute of Islamic Medicine.) June 26-30, 1998; The International Convention Centre Birmingham, U.K.

[16] H. of Carinthia: De essentiis; ed and tr C. Burnett (Leiden; 1982), p. 70.

[17] J.L. E. Dreyer: Mediaeval astronomy; in Toward Modern Science; R.M. Palter ed (The Noonday Press; New York; 1961), Vol 1, pp 235-256; p.243.

[18] N. Daniel: The Arabs and Medieval Europe; op cit; p. 264.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Chambers Compact: The Great Scientific Discoveries  (1991), pp 209-10.

[22] F. Fernandez-Armesto: Millennium (A Touchstone Book, Simon and Shuster; New York; 1995), pp. 275-6.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Chambers Compact: The Great Scientific Discoveries ;  op cit; pp 209-10.

[27] F. Fernandez-Armesto: Millennium;  op cit; pp. 275-6.

[28] A. Whipple : The Role; op cit; p. 48.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Ibid.

[31] M. Meyerhof: Ibn Nafis et sa theorie sur la petite circulation; ISIS 23. pp. 100-20.

[32] The Sunday Times 9 June 1957. See also Journal of History of Medicine, Vol 12 (1957), pp 248-283.

[33] M. Meyerhof:  La Decouverte de la circulation pulmonaire par Ibn an-Nafis; in Bulletin de l’Institut d’Egypte; XVI pp. 33-46; Meyerhof, who en passant, does not fail to acknowledge the pioneering achievement of Tatawi (at p.34). 

[34] A.K. Chehade: Ibn an-Nafis et la decouverte de la circulation pulmonaire (Paris and Damascus ; 1955).

[35] L. G. Wilson: The problem of the discovery of the pulmonary circulation; in Journal of History of Medicine; vol 17;  (1962) pp 229-44.

[36] F. Micheau: La Transmisison a l’Occident Chretien: Les traductions medievales de l’Arabe au Latin ; in  Etats; Societes et Cultures; op cit; pp. 399-420; pp. 417-8.

 [37] M. Meyerhof: Ibn Nafis et sa theorie; op cit.

[38] B. Mowry: From Galen's (b.130-d.200) Theory to William Harvey's theory: A case study in the Rationality of scientific theory; Studies in History and Philosophy of Science; Vol 16; pp 49-82; at p. 51.

[39] D. Campbell: Arabian; op cit; p. 87.

[40] Ibid; p. 88.