Tuesday , December 7 2021

Surgery – Muslim HeritageMuslim Heritage


There can be little doubt that physicians and surgeons living in the lands of medieval Islamic civilisation made a significant contribution to the field of surgery. They developed new techniques and procedures, invented new instruments, and recommended new drugs…



Note of the Editor: This article, “Surgery” written by Rabie E. Abdel-Halim, is Chapter 7, Pages 76-85, extracted from the book “1001 Cures: Contributions in Medicine & Healthcare from Muslim Civilisation” editor Peter Pormann, published by the Foundation for Science, Technology and Civilisation, UK. The content of this chapter is relevant to the current pandemic environment around the world.


Many physicians in the medieval Arabo-Islamic medical tradition wrote on surgery. They often did so either in surgical monographs or medical encyclopaedias and handbooks. Two earlier authors living in Muslim Spain were al-Zahrāwī (about whom more later) and Ibn Zuhr (whom we have already encountered above). Ibn Zuhr wrote a medical handbook, the Easy Guide to Therapy and Dietetics, in which he often touches on surgery. Another author from the Iberian peninsula was Muḥammad ibn ʿAlī ibn Faraj al-Shafra al-Qirbilyānī (from ‘Qirbilyān’, i.e. Crevillente near Alicante; d. 1322). He composed an independent book on surgery with the rhyming title The Book that Enquires Thoroughly and Establishes Firmly How to Treat Wounds and Swellings (Kitāb al-Istiqṣāʾ wa-l-ʾibrām fī ʿilāj al-jirāḥāt wa-l-ʾawrām). It is largely excerpted from al-Zahrāwī…


Figure 1. Two patients in front of a physician, with some surgical instruments on the table. From De Materia Medica by Dioscorides.

Another, much more substantial monograph on the topic was written by the Christian physician Abū l-Faraj ibn al-Quff (1233–86). His large work on surgery is called The Mainstay in the Art of Surgery (Kitāb al-ʿUmda fī ṣināʿat al-jirāḥa). Ibn Abī Uṣaibiʿa (d. 1270) described it as ‘a book comprising twenty chapters, both theory and practice, in which all that a surgeon needs is mentioned, so that he does not need anything else’ (ed. Müller 1882, vol. 2, 273–4). The first nineteen chapters deal with definitions, anatomy, the physiology of simple and compound parts of the body, the aetiology of diseases requiring surgery, general surgical principles, and surgical management in various parts of the body. The twentieth and last chapter is arranged in the form of a ‘pharmacopeia (aqrabādhīn)’, listing recipes for compound drugs used by surgeons…


Figure 2. Surgical instruments illustrated in a Hebrew translation of al-Zahrāwī’s Surgery.

By far the most famous of the Arabo-Islamic surgeons, however, is al-Zahrāwī, known in the Western literature as Albucasis, Abulcasis, Bucasis (Latinized forms of his Arabic kunya, or cognomen, ‘Abū l-Qāsim’). He was an innovative surgeon who added many original contributions to surgery and medicine. His main work bears the rather long rhyming title The Arrangement of Medical Knowledge for One Who is Not Able to Compile a Book Himself (Kitāb al-Taṣrīf li-man ʿajiza ʿan al-taʾlīf. It consists of thirty treatises and represents an encyclopaedia of medicine and surgery. The thirtieth treatise (maqāla) is further divided into three books: book one ‘on cauterization’; book two ‘on incision, perforation, and venesection, and wounds and the like’; and book three ‘on bone-setting’…


Figure 3. Surgical instruments from Fusṭāṭ (Old Cairo), 9th century.



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