Tuesday , December 7 2021

Remedies – Muslim HeritageMuslim Heritage


In all nations, medicine is considered to be the noblest craft because it preserves the health of healthy people and repels illness among those who are ill. In almost all these ancient civilisations, there was a close association between medicine and sorcery which lasted for centuries. Sorcery can be defined as a study of how the human soul may become prepared to exercise an influence upon the world of elements without any aids or with the aid of celestial entities (powerful charms and talismans)…

1001 Cures


Note of the Editor:  We are pleased to announce the publication of Dr Rabie E. Abdel-Halim’s 1001 Cures: Introduction to the History of Islamic Medicine as the second in the series of 1001 Cures books with this article “Remedies” from Chapter One, Pages 26-32, published by the Foundation for Science Technology and Civilisation (FSTC).


1001 Cures

Figure 1. An 18th Dynasty (1500 BCE) Epitaph showing a priest named Ruma making an offering, with his wife and son behind him. One of his limbs is shorter and greatly wasted, most probably indicating an old poliomyelitis Reference No. 13, Guiart and Reuter, p. 55).

In general, these civilisations were concerned with protection from ailments (as prevention is better than cure), through attention to the following measures:  cleanliness of the body with frequent baths and shaving of heads and body hair, utter perineal hygiene,  mostly vegetarian food, mild purgation monthly on three successive days (in ancient Egypt), rubbing with ointment, gymnastics, abstention from alcohol and separation of sick individuals from healthy people.[1],[2]

Meanwhile, medications were understood and administered by priest physicians since medicine was thought to be the prerogative of the priests who were answerable to the gods. In fact, the functions of doctors and priests were inseparable as treatment with medication depended on recorded medical experiences and had to be given with prayers, rituals and a number of magical practices in order to ensure its value and its full effect. Hence, medicine was established in the temples and sanctuaries of gods or in their vicinity.[3],[4]  Our current understanding of the ancient Egyptians’  knowledge of medicine comes from a small number of medical papyri: the Edwin Smith Papyrus, Ebers Papyrus and Berlin Papyrus.[5], [6], [7], [8] The medications used constituted a list of substances of vegetable, animal and mineral origins. Many of these substances were of unknown therapeutic value such as ingredients like blood, fats, animal excreta and visceral parts of birds,  mammals and reptiles. However, some substances were of unquestioned medical value, and are still recognised as being of value today after millennia of experience,  such as castor oil, colocynth, senna, iron, copper salts, root of pomegranate, turpentine, aloe, mint, myrrh,  cumin, coriander, dill, caraway, fenugreek, cedar, colchicum, gentian, milk, honey and opium.[9],[10],[11],[12]

1001 Cures

Figure 2. Drawings from the Tomb of Bani Hasan in Minia, 3300 BCE showing two men with deformity of the foot and another with deformed legs possibly from old rickets (reference: Kanawati, N. and Evans, L., Beni Hassan, vol. 6: The Tomb of Khety, Wallasey, 2020), p. 110)

In medical papyri, it is sometimes difficult to match up specific recipes for remedies with particular ailments. Hence, it cannot be claimed that such sources offer any special scientific advancement in the art of healing. Most probably they are just simple compilations of medicaments based mainly on individual observations and practices.

1001 Cures

Figure 3. Statue of King Mentuhotep II, 11th Dynasty, showing a grossly swollen leg and feet, most probably due to elephantiasis (Reference 13, Guiart and Reuter, p. 57).

In addition, in the Egyptian papyri it is difficult to be sure of any identification of the described diseases as they only give symptoms without descriptive examination, except in the case of a diagnosis of tuberculosis, since the symptoms described are coughing, blood in the phlegm, loss of weight and excessive sweating, all suggestive of the disease. However, other diseases, polio (Figure 1), such as rickets (Figure 2),   and filariasis (Figure 3), dwarfism (Figure 4), smallpox (Figure  5), Pott’s disease (Figure 6), are recognisable from drawings, photographed statues and mummies.[13]

However, in India and other South Asian countries,  Ayurveda, dated to 3000 BCE, represents an ancient system of traditional medicine. It is composed of herbal preparations classed as brain topics which were occasionally combined with different quantities of other compounds as supplements. Ayurvedic medicine is based on a holistic view of treatment which is believed to cure human diseases through the establishment of equilibrium in the different elements of human life:  body, mind, intellect and soul. Some recent research suggests that Ayurvedic multi-herbal preparations may have some role in the modern treatment of neurodegenerative disorders.[14]

Ayurveda was in full practice in the 6th century BCE when the great physicians of ancient India, Sushruta and Charaka were practising and developed eight different subspecialties of medical treatment: surgery, internal medicine, ear nose and throat, paediatrics, toxicology, spiritual healing, health and longevity.

Also, contrary to the Ancient Egyptians, the Indian physicians pointed to an aetiological cause for ailments other than demons; a physiological concept that the body is permeated and activated by the three humoral elements, namely air, phlegm and bile. So, harmony in these elemental substances was thought to bring health while imbalance between them brought disease.

Figure 4. Mummy of Rameses V, 20th Dynasty (1196– 1070 BCE) showing scarring on most of the face, neck and upper chest, probably due to old smallpox,  Figure 5. Drawing of a statue of the dwarf prince Khanum Hutub, 5th Dynasty (2700 BCE), with a normal upper half of the body and very short lower half Figure 6. Lateral view of the cadaver of a priest from ‘Āmūn temple, 21st dynasty (1100 BCE) showing a hunch back (kyphosis) due to a diseased thoracic vertebra, most probably tuberculosis (Pott’s disease)

In addition, Sushruta, in his Samhita encyclopaedic writing, made surgery a vital part of the general art of healing. His knowledge of anatomy may have been derived from dissecting young children, under the age of two. In ancient India, China and Japan,  human bodies over two years old are sacred in death and must not be violated by dissection.[15] Furthermore,  Indian physicians of the time were prominent in nose reconstruction.

References[1] Guiart J. and Reuter L. Al-Ṭibb wa Al-Ṭaḥnīṭ Fī ‘Ahd alFarāʿinah. op. cit., (1), pp. 96–101.
[2] Jayne W.A., The Healing Gods of the Ancient Civilizations. op  cit. (6), pp. 40–41.
[3] Guiart J. and Reuter L., Al-Ṭibb wa Al-Ṭaḥnīṭ Fī ‘Ahd alFarāʿinah. op. cit. (1), pp. 27–30.
[4] Margotta R., The Hamlyn History of Medicine, op. cit. (3),  pp. 8–9.
[5] Guiart J. and Reuter L., Al-Ṭibb wa Al-Ṭaḥnīṭ Fī ‘Ahd alFarāʿinah.op. cit. (1), pp. 31–36.
[6] ‘Ancient Egyptian Medical Papyri’. Ancient Egypt Fan. [Online] Available at: http://indigo.ie/~marrya/papyri.html.
[7] Garrison Fielding H., An Introduction to the History of Medicine. op. cit. (4), p. 49.
[8] Major R.H., A History of Medicine. op.cit. (8), pp. 44–49.
[9] Guiart J. and Reuter L., Al-Ṭibb wa Al-Ṭaḥnīṭ Fī ‘Ahd alFarāʿinah, op. cit. (1), pp. 31–36.
[10] Garrison Fielding H., An Introduction to the History of Medicine. op. cit. (4) p. 49.
[11] Major R.H., A History of Medicine, op.cit. (7), pp. 44–49.
[12] Dawson W.R., Magician and Leech, op. cit. (6), pp. 112–113.
[13] Guiart J. and Reuter L., Al-Ṭibb wa Al-Ṭaḥnīṭ Fī ‘Ahd alFarāʿinah, op. cit. (1), pp. 55–69.
[14] Ven Murthy M.R., Ranjekar P.K., Ramassamy C. and Desphande M., ‘Scientific basis for the use of Indian ayurvedic medicinal plants in the treatment of neurodegenerative disorders:  ashwagandha’. Cen Nerv Syst Agents Med Chem, 2010, 10. pp.  238–246.
[15] Zimmerman L.M. and Verith I., ‘Surgery of the Orient. India:  Sushruta’. In: Great Ideas in the History of Surgery. San Francisco, California: Norman Publishing, 1993, pp. 56–67.


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