Muslim Doctors as Progenitors of Modern Healthcare

Al-Zahrawi blistering a patient in the hospital at Cordova.
Albucasis blistering a patient in the hospital at Cordova. Oil painting by Ernest Board. Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC BY

The great healthcare success stories have often been associated with developments in Europe. We celebrate, and rightly so, the work of scientists such as Alexander Fleming and Ernst Chain. The moral principle that healthcare must be available freely at the point of need has been traced to the establishment of Britain’s National Health Service in 1948 by Clement Attlee’s government, the Liberal reforms under David Lloyd George and the social welfare system of Otto von Bismarck in Germany.

Yet it is often forgotten that both the scientific basis for modern medicine and the ideological backbone of the welfare state have significantly earlier forefathers in the Middle East. Islamic hospitals, born in 8th century Baghdad but spreading quickly across Cairo and Damascus, provided high quality health care sustained by endowments known as waqfs.

Rich and poor alike would be treated free of charge since Muslim societies are bound with honour to care for the infirm, turning away no one.

It was explicitly stipulated that patients were to be cared for until full recovery and that no time limit could be imposed upon hospital stays. It is also known that men and women received care of the same standard and there is evidence of women entering the medical profession at least as early as the 12th century.

The successful recovery of Al-Mansur Qalawun, a Mamluk prince, at the Nuri Hospital in Damascus provided an important boost and a powerful champion. Upon his ascension to the Egyptian throne, he founded the al-Mansuri hospital in Cairo ‘for the benefit of my equals and my inferiors, for the soldier and the prince, the large and the small, the free and the slave, for men and women’.

Medieval Muslim surgery had little in common with the crude and primeval craft that many would expect. Considerable work was undertaken in the treatment of physical trauma, fractures and dislocations. Notable here is the work of Ibn Sina, author of a pivotal textbook known as the Canon which would tower over the medical world for centuries.

Neither were Muslim pharmacists charlatans, peddling pseudoscientific cure-alls and superstition. Standards were strictly enforced by rigorous inspectors and pharmaceutical treatises that would fertilise medical research throughout Europe.

Vaccines can also be traced to the Turkish practice of inoculating children with cowpox in order to prevent the development of smallpox. The idea would be transported to Europe by a Lady Montagu, the British Ambassador’s wife, in the 1710s long before the famous work of Edward Jenner.

From the 10th century onwards, Muslim ophthalmologists developed pioneering treatments for glaucoma and cataracts. It was Ammar al-Mawsili, an Iraqi eye surgeon, who developed a hypodermic syringe which would treat cataracts using a suction process thus laying the groundwork for present-day treatment of the condition.

The medieval polymath Ibn al-Haytham’s contribution to the study of optics was revolutionary and had a lasting impact well into the early modern age. He also became a proponent of the scientific method well before the advent of Renaissance scientists.

Muslim healthcare would earn the admiration of all travellers and even crusaders. Muslim specialists would play an important role in establishing similar institutions in Europe, including Italy’s Salerno hospital. Both in ideological and scientific terms, medieval Islamic healthcare exerted a vital influence upon the world of medicine.

Many medical practitioners today stand firmly on the shoulders of their forefathers in the Middle East. Indeed, the traveller Ibn Jubayr described Muslim healthcare as among ‘the finest proofs of the glory of Islam’.