Medical Marvels in Medieval Islamic Civilization

The medieval Islamic civilization witnessed a flourishing epoch of scientific and medical achievements that left an indelible mark on the history of medicine. As Islamic influence expanded into various regions, Arab scholars played a pivotal role in translating and preserving ancient scientific texts, supplementing them with their own discoveries. These efforts not only enriched the pool of knowledge but also revolutionized medical practices. From groundbreaking surgical techniques and advanced hospitals to innovative pharmaceutical practices, the medieval Islamic era stands as a testament to the remarkable advancements that continue to shape modern medicine.

Translations of Medical Texts: As Islam expanded out of the Arabian Peninsula in seventh century AD, towards Syria, Palestine, Lebanon, North African and Iraq, Arab scholars come across scientific works from many older, established civilizations. These scholars translated works from Greek, Syriac, Pahlavi and Sanskrit into Arabic; thus, preserving scientific knowledge while additionally supplementing it with their own discoveries. While amalgamating and spreading this knowledge, they made important changes to the system of scientific recording such as adding illustrations and diagrams, replacing Roman numerals with the more efficient Arabic numeral system, and organizing text to make it more methodical and easier to understand and search. One famous scholar, Ibn-Sina, compiled the encyclopedia “The Canon of Medicine” which was used as the standard reference book for medicine up to the 18th century.

Hospitals and Medical Education: While hospitals were not an Islamic invention, Medieval Islam was responsible for their popularity and influencing these institutions greatly; in how they were run, how physicians were educated and changing the entire medical profession in general. Prior to the Islamic Era, most medical treatment was administered by priests inside religious buildings. While Islamic hospitals, known as Bimaristans, were not completely secular, they were progressive, inclusive and advanced institutions which mirrored modern day hospitals. They prioritized cleanliness, new technology, medical education and advanced procedures, and also aimed to treat people of all ages and socioeconomic backgrounds. Halls were designated for each type of disease; most importantly contagious and non-contagious diseases were separated. Personal and institutional hygiene was emphasized, including use of alcohol as an antiseptic. There were groups of physicians specializing in each disease, led by a chief physician. Exams were held for entering into the medical profession, which elevated and regulated the profession greatly.

 Pharmacies / Drugs: The field of pharmacology and the existence of pharmacies, called saydalas, were established during the Medieval Islamic period. Although treatment using compounds derived from natural materials was observed throughout the world, Islamic scientists applied the science of chemistry to medicine. Important figures such as Abū-Bakr Muhammad ibn Zakariya Al-Razi developed chemical apparatuses still used in pharmaceutical laboratories today such as, mortars and pestles, flasks, and vials. He also carefully recorded drug preparation processes such as distillation, evaporation and crystallisation. Islam pharmacology emphasized modern organic chemistry practices such purity and empiricism.

 Surgery: Islamic surgeons were known for performing and documenting previously unseen surgical procedures. They also documented the intricate tools they invented and used. Abū al-Qāsim Khalaf ibn al-‘Abbās al-Zahrāwī, known as the “father of surgery”, wrote Kitab al-Tasrif, an illustrated and detailed guide that taught generations of subsequent surgical students. He improved on methods of surgeries that decreased mortality rates, such as kidney stone removal. The invention of surgical tools that are still used today such as syringes, forceps, bone saws and plaster casts are attributed to al-Zahrāwī. He was also the first physician known to mark incisions on patients’ skin, which is standard procedure to this day. He also pioneered cauterization and suturing methods.



Written by: Gloria Chan