The Influence of Islamic Medicine on Contemporary Understanding and Practice

Humzah Khan - Apr. 5, 2024 - 6 min read - #Science

Islamic scientists are pillars in our contemporary understanding of medicine which stemmed from the rich legacy, pioneering and innovation during the Islamic Golden Age. The Golden Age marks a time of exponential growth in insight within medicine thanks to the myriad of contributions that continue to resonate today. Among the hallmarks of this period are the establishment of an ideal ethical framework, the dissemination of medical literature on a global scale, the fostering of an environment conducive to free inquiry, and the pivotal role played in laying the groundwork for further development in the Renaissance.

Islamic physicians were heavily influenced by Hippocrates (Greek) and Galen (Roman). Vast amounts of Greco-Roman medical texts were translated and compiled into Arabic to be studied and developed. Via these translated encyclopaedias and summaries Western doctors learnt about Galen and Hippocrates’ work. For example, Ibn Sina (Avicenna) wrote “Canon of Medicine'', which was revolutionary - a series of five books containing all medical knowledge at that time. Being translated into Latin (along with its clear presentation, summaries and organisation) allowed for a smooth dissemination of medical knowledge to the West, as a manuscript and in the printed form. “Canon of Medicine” is the most influential medical text of the Middle Ages, and guided medical education for centuries. Similarly, Al Razi (Rhazes) turned to the scientific method when being the first to differentiate between smallpox and measles (as well as many other groundbreaking findings). Although his findings were written in “A treatise on the smallpox and measles” and translated into Latin, European physicians continued to blur these two diseases until recently. Many other influential individuals (including Ibn Nafis and Al-Zarawi) also contributed to the advancement of medical understanding and practice, who will be explored in future publications.

Islamic doctors were guided by the Quran and Hadith (prophetic traditions) in constructing what was the first ever ethical medical practice framework that surprisingly reflects how we do ethics today. Islamic teachings and ethics are deep believers of patient confidentiality. Regardless of their social status or background, Islamic doctors had a duty to maintain the privacy and dignity of their patients. This commitment to confidentiality went beyond professional ethics, as it was in light of trust, respect and compassion for Muslims .The expectation of patients was that they could have confidence in their physicians who would ensure that any personal information remained with them while still protecting sensitive details from unauthorised exposure. The idea is an ethical one which later led to other forms of health-care communications including doctor-patient relationship agreements on confidentiality as well as current medical regulatory frameworks. The Prophet Muhammad (sws) said: “There is no belief for him who is not trustworthy.” This is an extremely powerful statement as it suggests that one who is not trustworthy has no place in Islam, one of many examples where patient confidentiality was evidently derived from.

Informed consent, or "ijazah" in Arabic, is another principle championed by Islamic medicine that remains integral to modern medical practice. Informed consent entails obtaining the explicit permission of the patient or their guardian before administering any medical treatment or intervention. Physicians were required to fully inform patients about the nature of their condition, the proposed treatment options, potential risks and benefits, and any alternative courses of action available. This empowered patients to make informed decisions about their healthcare, in accordance with their own values, beliefs, and preferences. The concept of informed consent reflects the Islamic emphasis on autonomy, justice, and accountability in healthcare, ensuring that patients are active participants in the decision-making process and have the right to exercise control over their own bodies and health outcomes. This all sounds familiar because in modern medical practice, informed consent has become a keystone of medical ethics and legal standards, guiding healthcare providers in their interactions with patients and reinforcing respect for patient autonomy and self-determination.

Informed consent and patient confidentiality being practised in the Middle Ages was alien in comparison to the rest of the world, demonstrating how Islamic medical ethics served as a pioneer and founded the contemporary ethical following of today.

A significant difference Islamic Medicine had, and Western Medicine later adopted, in the Middle Ages was the promotion of free inquiry and rational thought. Inquiry has always been urged in Islamic teachings which juxtaposes Western Society, who were run by the - highly influential - Church and dictated what the population would believe. A prime example being Galenic Medicine being accepted by the Church of England as a result being dogma. Galen disapproved of dissection like the Church also. This was despite Galenic Medicine containing many flaws which are now known, predominantly due to Galen’s work being based on animal anatomy. This led to 1500 years of stagnant medical advancement in Britain as anyone who decided to challenge Galen’s practice was punished. Clearly, one can see how a society which penalises free inquiry won’t prosper - it took individuals like Andreas Vesalius to illegally research the human anatomy for change to reignite during the Renaissance.

Islamic civilisation was characterised by a spirit of intellectual curiosity and openness to diverse sources of knowledge. Scholars were renowned for their commitment to empiricism and rational inquiry, challenging prevailing dogmas and superstitions in pursuit of truth. Their works synthesised and expanded upon existing knowledge. The emphasis on free inquiry and rational thought within Islamic scientists created a fertile intellectual environment where scholars from diverse backgrounds could engage in interdisciplinary dialogue and exchange ideas. This cross-fertilisation of knowledge fostered a culture of innovation and discovery, leading to breakthroughs in various fields including medicine but also astronomy, mathematics, and philosophy. This also contributed to the fact that whilst the West were at one of their lowest points in the Middle Ages, Islamic society was undergoing its ‘Golden Age’. Moreover, the promotion of rational thought within Islamic society paved the way for the critical evaluation of medical texts and the establishment of medical schools and academies where students could engage in scholarly debate and hands-on learning. This educational infrastructure not only preserved and transmitted medical knowledge but also contributed to how medicine is taught today.

In conclusion, the influence of Islamic medicine on contemporary understanding and practice is profound and far-reaching. Rooted in a legacy of innovation and ethical integrity, Islamic scientists carved models which began a domino of growth with a global impact. Heading the dissemination of medical literature, promoting critical thinking and free inquiry all helped to better world health. Most fascinatingly, the ethical framework pushing for doctor-patient relationships, informed consent and patient confidentiality all mirror what doctors practise today, showing the ingenuity of Islamic physicians over a thousand years ago.