Islamic Medicine

The Islamic world was a fountain of medical knowledge and advancement during the Medieval era. From there sprang many new ideas and theories about all areas of medicine, with many of their advancements not being replicated in Europe for several centuries.

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Table of contents

    So, who were the key figures in Islamic Medicine? What did they achieve? How did their work contribute to the understanding of health and medicine in Medieval Europe? Let's dig into this - doctor's orders!

    Islamic Medicine History

    The great advances in medicine in the Islamic world came during the period known as the Islamic Golden Age. It lasted from around the 7th Century CE to the mid-13th Century CE. During this period, there were many advances in technology, science, politics, and economics that had a profound effect on the Medieval world.

    Did you know? The Islamic Empire was very, very large! At its height, it is estimated to have stretched from Spain to the Western borders of China, encompassing North Africa and Northern India.

    The Islamic Empire was ruled by a single person known as the Caliph. Many of the Caliphs were greatly interested in science, medicine, and technology and so allowed and actively encouraged the studying of these subjects.

    Islamic Medicine Umayyad Caliphate StudySmarterFig. 1 - A map of the Mediterranean and Middle East c.750 CE. The light green area represents the land ruled by the Umayyad Caliphate

    Caliph Harun al-Rashid and the Grand Library of Baghdad

    One of the most famous Caliphs was Harun al-Rashid. He ruled the Islamic Empire from 786 CE until his death in 809 CE. He is not remembered as being a particularly great or kind ruler, but he was a huge patron of the arts.

    One of the most significant developments during al-Rashid's rule was the creation of the Grand Library of Baghdad, also known as the Baghdad House of Wisdom. He founded it to collect texts and manuscripts from all over the world, including the collection of Greek and Roman manuscripts, which were then translated into Arabic. This was important for two reasons:

    • The Grand Library provided a place where Greek and Roman texts could be saved and preserved after the fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th century CE.
    • Included with these manuscripts were the works of scientists like Hippocrates and Galen - you probably know these names, as they were central to medicine in Medieval Europe.

    The Spread of Islamic Ideas to Europe

    Islamic ideas gradually spread over to Europe during the Medieval era. This happened for a couple of reasons.


    The preservation of texts in the Grand Library of Baghdad meant that in the 11th and 12th centuries, merchants brought these Arabic texts back to Europe. They were then translated, thereby spreading Islamic knowledge of medicine into Europe.

    The Crusades

    The spread of Islamic medical knowledge was also helped by the Crusades.

    The Crusades

    A series of Holy Wars that took place in 1095-1291 CE between the Catholic Church and the Islamic Empire for control of the Holy sites in the Middle East, namely Jerusalem. There were at least eight crusades that took place.

    The Crusades ended in victory for the Muslims and defeat for the Christians. However, it also increased the wealth of the Catholic Church and expanded movement and trade between Europe and the Middle East.

    Crusaders would return from the Middle East with scrolls and texts filled with knowledge from the Islamic Empire, which was then put into use in Europe.

    Public Health in the Islamic World

    In addition to learning about medical theory and inventions in the Islamic world, it is also useful to look at public health in the Islamic world, especially when compared to that of Medieval Britain.

    In general, the Islamic world was a lot cleaner and more hygienic. The table below illustrates the main differences between public health in the Islamic world and Britain in the Medieval era.

    IssueMedieval BritainIslamic Empire
    Public Health Facilities
    • Not much infrastructure to aid public health.
    • There were bathhouses, but they were not available to everyone.
    • Public toilets did not clear sewage away effectively.
    • Had a working sewage system to pipe sewage away from towns and cities.
    • Had public bathhouses.
    • Hospitals did exist, but they acted as resting places for travellers or ill people, not as places where people were treated for an illness.
    • Hospitals existed as places to treat people and train new doctors.
    Mental Health
    • Not understood - thought to be a punishment from God, the only way to get rid of it was through prayer.
    • Understood not as a punishment from God but rather as an illness that the individual had no control over. Patients were treated with more compassion.
    General Hygiene
    • People kept a very basic level of personal hygiene.
    • Baths were a luxury not everyone could afford, and even those who could did not bathe regularly (i.e. more than once a month).
    • Bathhouses were available.
    • They had irrigation systems and dams which allowed for clean water to be piped to cities for people to use.

    Key Figures

    There were several key influential figures in the history of Islamic medicine. Below are a few names that you need to remember!

    Father of Islamic Medicine

    Ibn Sina, known in Europe as Avicenna, was one of the most influential Islamic scholars of the Medieval period. He wrote some 450 works on philosophy and medicine and is regarded as the father of Early Modern Medicine. His most important works were 'The Canon of Medicine', published in 1025 CE, and 'The Book of Healing', published in 1027 CE.

    The Canon of Medicine

    'The Canon of Medicine' is by far Ibn Sina's most influential work. Essentially, it was a huge medical encyclopedia, which brought together medical knowledge from across the Islamic and European Empires, and covered practically every facet of medical knowledge, from diseases and remedies to anatomy and surgery.

    Islamic Medicine Canon of Medicine StudySmarterFig. 2 - Drawing of the human skeleton from Ibn Sina's Canon of Medicine

    It was an enormous achievement. The Canon of Medicine became the main textbook for learning medicine for the next 600-700 years, only being replaced in the 17th century.


    Al-Zahrawi's work earned him the title of the 'Father of Surgery'. He invented new surgical tools and techniques, which continued to be used all over the Middle East and Europe for hundreds of years. He also wrote a large encyclopedia of medicine called 'The Method of Medicine', a.k.a. the 'Al-Tasrif', in which he detailed his theories.

    Islamic Medicine Al-Tasrif page StudySmarterFig. 3 - A page from the Al-Tasrif, detailing surgical instruments

    Here is a list of some of his most important achievements:

    • The use of cauterisation to help close and heal wounds.
    • How to use ligatures to stop bleeding.
    • New ways to perform surgery on the eyes, ears, and throat.
    • Was the first to describe an ectopic pregnancy.
    • The setting of dislocated bones and fractures.
    • The removal of bladder stones.


    The use of extreme heat to seal up a wound by burning the tissue.


    Small pieces of string or fabric that were used to tie up blood vessels during surgery.

    Ectopic Pregnancy

    When an embryo implants somewhere other than the uterus, leading to an unviable pregnancy.

    These were all ideas that would not be thought of in Europe until several centuries after Al-Zahrawi's death. His contributions to surgery and anatomy were considerable.


    Al-Razi was an Islamic scholar, philosopher, and scientist who is most famous for his work on children's diseases.

    Islamic Medicine Al-Razi portrait StudySmarterFig. 4 - Portrait of Al-Razi

    He had two famous works; his 'Comprehensive Book of Medicine', a.k.a. 'Kitab al-Hawi fi al-tibb', which was a study of medicine compiled with his own theories and thoughts. The other was his 'Treatise on Smallpox and Measles', a.k.a. 'Kitab al-Judari wa al-Hasbah'. In this treatise, he was the first to differentiate between the two diseases.

    He also published the first known work on diseases in children. It was a description of diseases that occurred in children from newborns to toddlers and described symptoms and remedies.

    Ibn Nafis

    Ibn Nafis lived during the 13th century, a lot later than the other scientists we have discussed. His main contribution was to the theory of blood circulation. He challenged Galen's theory of how blood flowed around the body and instead claimed that blood flowed from one side of the body to the other through the lungs.

    Although it was not fully accurate, it was more accurate than Galen's theory. Ideas about circulation like this would not appear in Europe until the early 17th century with the work of William Harvey.

    Islamic Medicine Achievements

    We have already run through some of the achievements in Islamic medicine by looking at the key figures. Below, these achievements are summarised along with a more general overview of the most important advancements in medicine made in the Medieval Islamic world.

    • In surgery, Islamic surgeons used cannabis and opium as anaesthetics and vinegar, mercury, and alcohol as antiseptics.
    • Islamic physicians developed processes in alchemy that could be used to make new drugs and medicines.
    • They developed hospitals as places where people would be treated for illnesses, and physicians would be trained.
    • Many Greek and Roman texts from the likes of Galen and Hippocrates were translated into Arabic and incorporated into Islamic medical knowledge.

    Islamic Medicine Influence

    Islamic medicine was hugely influential in the Medieval period. Islamic scientists and physicians made progress in nearly every area of medicine, and their discoveries formed the basis of medical knowledge and practice both in Europe and the Middle East well into the Early Modern period.

    Did you know? In Medieval Europe, physicians trained and worked from the combined knowledge of Greek, Roman, and Islamic scholars.

    Many of the theories that Islamic scholars came up with, whilst not always entirely accurate, would not be reproduced in Europe until several centuries later, during the Renaissance and Early Modern eras. This demonstrated the sheer advancement of the Islamic world during the Medieval period.

    Islamic Medicine - Key takeaways

    • Medical studies in the Islamic Empire flourished in the Medieval period.
    • Greek and Roman texts were translated into Arabic by Islamic scholars and stored in libraries, preserving them. They were then spread to Europe later by merchants and the Crusades.
    • Public health in the Islamic world was generally better than in Medieval Britain. Cities were cleaner, water sources were less contaminated, and there was better access to facilities for hygiene.
    • Key figures in Islamic Medicine were: Ibn Sina, Al-Razi, Al-Zahrawi, and Ibn Nafis. Much of their work was used for centuries after their death in the Islamic world and in Europe.
    • Islamic medicine also produced new drugs and medicines, developed hospitals, and new surgical techniques.
    • Advancements in medicine in the Islamic world had a huge influence on Europe. Their knowledge, along with that of the Greeks and Romans, was the foundation of Medieval medicine.


    1. Fig. 1 - Caliphate in 750 ( by Constantine Plakidas ( licensed under CC BY SA 4.0 (
    2. Fig 2. Skeleton system., Avicenna, Canon of Medicine (,_Avicenna,_Canon_of_Medicine_Wellcome_L0040291.jpg) by Wellcome Images ( licensed under CC BY SA 4.0 (
    3. Fig 4. Portrait of Rhazes (al-Razi) ( by Wellcome Images ( licensed under CC BY SA 4.0 (
    Frequently Asked Questions about Islamic Medicine

    What medicine did Islam invent?

    Islamic physicians invented many groundbreaking medical tools, most prominently by AL-Zahrawi in his book the Al-Tasrif. Islamic medical techniques also included the use of opium and cannabis as anaesthetics and vinegar, mercury, and alcohol as antiseptics. Islamic methods were often way ahead of their time in comparison to Medieval Europe and Britain.

    What is the achievement of the Islamic medicine?

    Islamic medical scholars made several important discoveries. For example, Al-Zahrawi invented many new surgical tools and techniques, like cauterisation and ligatures; Al-Razi produced comprehensive work on children's diseases, an Ibn-Nafis wrote more accurate theories of blood circulation. 

    How important is the Islamic medicine?

    Islamic medical achievements were incredibly important. Along with the work of Hippocrates and Galen, they provided foundational medical theory for the Medieval and Early modern period in Europe.

    What is the history and origin of the Islamic medicine?

    Islamic medicine thrived during the Islamic Golden Age, from the 7th to mid 13th centuries CE. It was then transmitted to Europe via merchants and through the crusades.

    What is an example of the Islamic medicine?

    Ibn-Sina wrote a book called the Canon of Medicine, which was a comprehensive study of all medical knowledge available at the time. It was used as a textbook for medical students until the 17th century.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    What was the name of the period in which lots of advancements happened in the Islamic World?

    What process did Islamic physicians use to create new drugs and medicine?

    What did the Islamic Empire help preserve?


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