Book Review–Medieval Islamic Medicine

Peter E. Pormann and Emilie Savage-Smith, Medieval Islamic MedicineWashington: Georgetown University Press, 2007. Pp. xiii, 223. $29.95.

Medieval Islamic medicine has often been dismissed as a “conduit” that enabled the medical knowledge of the ancient Greeks to reach the Renaissance Europeans, according to Peter Pormann and Emilie Savage-Smith in the introduction to their new survey on the subject (1). That enduring characterization may be attributed to the work of the German scholar Manfred Ullmann, whose book Islamic Medicine (1978) was one of the earliest Western surveys of the topic. Ullman posited that medieval Islamic physicians appropriated the medical knowledge of the ancient Greeks and did little to advance the field. Pormann and Savage-Smith dedicate their recently published work,Medieval Islamic Medicine, to Ullman with an epigraph that reads, “We are like dwarfs perched on the shoulders of giants, so that we can see more, and farther away, than they…” (vi). They then set out to turn Ullman’s theory on its head.

Medieval Islamic Medicine is a much-needed introductory survey text and an ambitious undertaking: the medieval Islamic period spans nine centuries of history as well as a territory that reaches from Spain in the west to India in the east. The glue binding these lands and centuries together is the reign of the Prophet Muhammad continued by his successors and the empire’s lingua franca, Arabic. The book overcomes the organizational challenges posed by such enormous geographical and chronological scopes by organizing its material into five major topics that comprise the subjects of the book’s chapters: the emergence of Islamic medicine, medical theory, the physician’s role, medical practice, and popular medicine. Throughout these five chapters, Pormann and Savage-Smith address two major themes: the primacy of the Arabic translation movement and, more importantly, Islamic physicians’ dynamic relationship with the medical literature they inherited from the ancients.

Early on, Pormann and Savage-Smith highlight the unique nature and importance of the 9th-century translation movement, during which the medical literature of antiquity was rendered into Arabic. The movement sparked the development of a unique Islamic medical tradition reflecting a blend of cultural influences, among which that of the ancient Greeks dominated. Bedouin, Persian, and Syriac medical practices adopted by the Arabs were themselves influenced by the Greeks. Syriac scholars, fluent in Greek, were among the most important translators of ancient texts. The Islamic state, or caliphate, devoted considerable time and resources to the translation movement; Pormann and Savage-Smith offer several reasons why the caliphate chose to do so. The Abbasids, who founded Baghdad’s prolific Bayt al-Hikma translation workshop, were Persians, not Arabs, and had a vested interest in cultural diversity. Second, the Abbasids wanted to forge a link to their Sassanian predecessors, who had previously adopted Greek ideas. The caliphate was also conquering lands where the medical heritage was already Greek. Finally, elite scholars were attracted to “Greek thought in its own right.” Pormann and Savage-Smith thus make it clear that the translation movement was of significant import in shaping the Islamic caliphate’s identity and unifying the empire.

Pormann and Savage-Smith do an excellent job of characterizing Islamic physicians’ relationship with the ancient literature and weaving the story of this relationship through their text. The reader comes away with the notion that Islamic physicians didn’t simply translate the ancient texts but engaged with them on several levels. On the most fundamental level, they directly borrowed from the ancients, incorporating, for example, the ideas of humoral pathology and pneuma into their medical philosophy. They added Greek diagnostic tools, such as pulse and urine examination, to their repertoires and copied surgical techniques and didactic methods, too.

Pormann and Savage-Smith’s book also demonstrates how the Arabs expanded on the knowledge found in Greek texts, critiqued it, systematized it, and made it widely available for the first time. Islamic physicians expanded on Greek knowledge by adding surgical techniques and treatments, for example, to the literature. Inspired by ancient formularies, they developed a rich literature on drugs and their uses. Greek works gave them catalogues of diseases and symptoms; the Arabs added to these, notably describing in writing for the first time smallpox, measles, and certain afflictions of the eye. Their extensive writings on the latter effectively established an entirely new subfield of medicine, ophthalmology.

The Arabs were also critical of the Greek literature, challenging assertions they found in ancient texts. Ibn al-Nafis, for one, noted that Galen was wrong about the circulation of blood through the heart. Al-Bagdadi pointed out that Galen had described the structure of the bones in the jaw and the sacrum incorrectly. And Al-Zahrawi concluded that tracheotomies, described but not recommended by the Greeks, were in fact safe to perform.

Finally, engaging with Greek literature even further, Arab scholars illustrated, systematized, re-organized, summarized, and disseminated it. They merged it with theories and practices from Syriac, Persian, and Indian medical traditions, giving it a life and relevance it had likely never before possessed. Furthermore, the Arabs made the summation of medical knowledge integral to the practice of medicine, compiling compendia and encyclopedias that became the authoritative texts of their time and of centuries to follow. Pormann and Savage-Smith’s descriptions of the various ways in which Islamic physicians actively engaged with the body of medical knowledge from antiquity thus provides ample evidence to suggest that medicine was significantly advanced during this time.

Pormann and Savage-Smith effectively demonstrate that the medieval era was much more than a period of mere cribbing from the Greeks; however, they simultaneously and perhaps inadvertently reinforce the idea that medieval Islamic medicine was little more than a conduit for Greek ideas to reach the Renaissance. “The history of medieval Islamic medicine is in essence the history of the origins of early modern Western medicine,” they state in their introduction (3). In Chapter 1, they characterize Islamic medicine as “largely a continuation and further development of the Greek medical tradition” (24). When crediting Islamic physicians with innovation, they often do so in terms that relate their accomplishments back to what the Greeks had done: “Islamic physicians brought into the pharmacopoeias new medicine substances unknown to Greek physicians” (120). Their chronology places major events in the “East” (their quotation marks) adjacent major events in the “West,” reiterating the notion that medieval Islamic medicine merits attention not in its own right but only for what it reveals about medical traditions of the West (202-05). Pormann and Savage-Smith thus subtly undermine their own assertion that Islamic medicine did little more than channel “Western” medicine from the ancient Greeks to Renaissance Europeans.

Pormann and Savage-Smith’s text suffers another, lesser weakness: it assumes a fairly firm footing in the history of medieval Islam on the reader’s part, which may make it inaccessible to a broad audience. In this book, a glossary of key terms could have helped to address this problem.

Pormann and Savage-Smith may fall just short of setting medieval Islamic medicine on its own two feet, but Medieval Islamic Medicine is a valuable and succinct survey of a subject worthy of greater attention than it has thus far received. The volume successfully depicts a vibrant, multicultural episode in the development of the field of medicine, and Pormann and Savage-Smith’s writing suggests many diverse and rich histories beneath the surface of their survey.

Elena Conis


Elena Conis received her masters’ degrees in public health and journalism from the University of California, Berkeley. She is currently a Ph.D. student in the Department of Anthropology, History, and Social Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco.

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Book Review–Medieval Islamic Medicine by Elena Conis is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

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