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Prophetic Medicine

Ahmed Ragab
The Encyclopedia of Islamic Bioethics What is This? A comprehensive reference work covering the major issues in Islamic bioethics, including medicine, clinical practice, genetics, theology, and Islamic law.

Prophetic Medicine


Throughout the medieval and early modern period, many scholars—of ḥadīth, Islamic law, and other religious sciences—produced volumes on medicine that were considered part of a corpus known as “Prophetic medicine” (Ṭibb al-nabiyy or al-Ṭibb al-nabawī). The most famous of these authors include Ibn Qayyim al-Jawzīyah, al-Suyūṭī, and al-Dhahabī, among others. Some historians date the beginning of this literature as early as the ninth century, pointing to the appearance of a volume entitled Ṭibb al-Aʿimmah (The Medicine of the Imams), and to another treatise known as al-Risālah al-Dhahabiyyah (The Golden Treatise), which was attributed to Imam ʿAlī al-Riḍā (d. 819), who presumably composed it at the request of the ʿAbbāsid caliph al-Maʾmūn (Savage-Smith, et al., 2010). All of these volumes, with the exception of The Medicine of the Imams and The Golden Treatise (both of which relied almost entirely on traditions of Shīʿite Imams and not of the Prophet Muḥammad himself), collected and commented on various Prophetic traditions that discussed issues related to medicine and healing. At times they explained how these traditions corresponded to Galenic learned medical knowledge; at other times they addressed controversial issues in medical practice, such as using prohibited materials—for example, alcohol—as treatment. In almost all of these volumes, authors attempted to justify medical practice on the basis of the sunnah, articulating why the ill should seek cures. While traditional modern historiography argued that Prophetic medicine was a reaction to the spread of Galenic/Greek medicine and a sign of resistance to this knowledge by “conservative scholars” (Perho, 1995), a closer look at this literature and its history shows that it was actually embedded within the traditions of Galenic/Greek medicine. Far from challenging these traditions, scholars and authors of Prophetic medicine linked Galenic/Greek medical knowledge to the Prophetic corpus, providing pietistic rules and traditions for the practice of medicine and the performance of being ill.

Relevance to Bioethics

Although volumes on Prophetic medicine engaged with a number of ethical questions that concerned medical practitioners and patients at the time, their discussion of these questions was limited in scope and influence. On one hand, the fact that the majority of medical practitioners at the time were non-Muslim reduced the potential influence of Prophetic sayings and Islamic religious views of medical ethics. Bioethical discussions in these volumes followed the lead of other texts produced by physicians and repeated many of the ethical maxims that these physicians expressed. Many of these ethical writings were produced by non-Muslim physicians and relied on the Hippocratic and Galenic traditions in their ethical thinking, with texts like the Hippocratic oath playing a major role in guiding ethical thinking. Volumes on Prophetic medicine focused also on questions that concerned Muslim patients. One of the more famous issues they discussed is the legality of a Muslim being treated with prohibited materials such as alcohol, where authors responded on both sides of the question. The degree to which the views expressed by these authors influenced patient behavior or doctor-patient relationships is hard to judge, seeing that the vast majority of patients were illiterate and would not have had access to these writings. One should think of these discussions not as influential ethical writings in and of themselves, but rather as expressions of social debates about specific issues and concerns. In this context, writings on Prophetic medicine did not attempt to provide legal statements, as fatāwā did for instance, but rather sought to represent the more pietistic (largely ideal) answer to these debates, which may or may not have been followed by many of this literature’s own readers. In other words, Prophetic medicine literature functioned in a space parallel to that of ethics and law, engaging with some of their important questions yet from a pietistic rather than legalistic standpoint.

Prophetic Medicine in the Medieval Period

Some historians argued that this tradition aimed at reviving a local or native Islamic medical tradition using the diagnostics and pharmacopeia found in ḥadīth sources to challenge the dominant Galenic practice, which was seen as foreign and connected to philosophical sciences (Elgood, 1962; Perho, 1995). In the same vein, other scholars explained that this tradition witnessed its apogee under the care of scholars like Ibn Qayyim who were known for their animosity to rational sciences, and during a period that presumably witnessed the decline of these sciences—namely, the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. This argument holds, therefore, that Prophetic medicine signified the dominance of more conservative religious scholars (particularly scholars of ḥadīth) and their animosity toward the sciences of the ancients; as such, Prophetic medicine was a symptom of the increasing Islamization of medical practice, an Islamization that both increased (or attempted to increase) the ranks of Muslim practitioners and added an Islamic identity to the practice itself (Lewicka, 2012).

However, there is no evidence that Prophetic medicine was ever a practical tradition. There are no records of any practitioners; nor was Prophetic medicine mentioned in market inspectors’ (hisbah) manuals as a practice to be monitored by the market inspector (muḥtasib). There is also no mention of Prophetic medicine in the endowment (waqf) documents of hospitals (bīmāristāns). These texts are particularly important because they were all composed by religious scholars and officials, who (according to the previous argument) would be more receptive to and protective of such a tradition. As such, the lack of mention of Prophetic medicine in these writings reveals that there was no such practice in the marketplace or in hospitals. Additionally, the received pharmacopeia present in these texts is similar, though not identical, to Galenic and non-Galenic pharmacopeia used by patients and physicians in the region (see Chipman and Lev, 2010; Lev, et al., 2008). Recently, Dimitri Gutas demonstrated what other historians have argued before: Far from seeing a decline in the rational sciences, the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries represented some of those sciences’ highest moments—what Gutas calls “the golden age of Arabic philosophy” (Gutas, 2002; Fancy 2010). Although calls for having more Muslims engage in medical practice were quite common during this period, there is little evidence that they led to any changes. Evidence suggests that the practice continued to be dominated by non-Muslims well into the seventeenth century (Ragab, 2015).

Medieval compendia on Prophetic medicine should be understood within a larger process of the textualization of medical practice. In this process, the translation of Greek Galenic sources and their spread in the medical environment allowed for the rise of new strata of learned medical practice; these, however, did not exist alone nor act as a substitute for other forms of unlearned and oral traditions. The majority of medical practitioners, especially those practicing in rural areas or among poorer patients, were illiterate and followed the different traditions that had existed in these regions for centuries. Prophetic medicine texts are part of this emerging textual environment and should be viewed as part and a manifestation of the Galenization of this learned medical landscape—not as a response to this Galenization. In fact, writings on Prophetic medicine hardly questioned any of the premises of Galenic practice. Instead, these writings foregrounded Galenic practice by linking it to local, traditional, and oral pharmacopeia, potentially contributing to further Galenization of the medical environment. As such, these volumes were part of the development of medical thought, expanding the Galenic pharmacopeia and linking it with local materials.

These writings should also be understood within the history of ḥadīth and sunnah. By virtue of their authors, as well as of their methods of collection and verification, these books were part of the intellectual and social development of ḥadīth sciences and of the sunnah (Brown, 2007). On one hand, these volumes were yet another manifestation of the emerging role of ḥadīth scholars who engaged in various attempts at collecting and categorizing ḥadīths, and at normalizing the knowledge of ḥadīth and impressing its importance on the intellectual environment. On the other hand, they were part of the development of sunnah, which gradually emerged as a lived and textual record of Prophetic practice. The sunnah engendered layers of piety and commitment based on emulating such practices.

Prophetic Medicine in the Modern Period

The story of Prophetic medicine does not end in the medieval or early modern period. French scholar Nicolas Perron, who worked at the Cairo medical school built by Mehmet Ali (c. 1825) and then at the French medical school in Algiers, edited and translated al-Suyūṭī’s book of Prophetic medicine in 1860 (al-Suyūṭī, 1860). These newly edited and printed texts played significant roles in debates about Islam, science, and modernity—debates led by figures such as Jamāl al-Dīn al-Afghānī and Muḥammad ʿAbduh. Yet, the zenith of modern resurgence of this literature can be traced to the 1970s and 1980s, when emerging Islamist revivalist movements and growing media exposure of figures like Muṣṭafā Maḥmūd or Muḥammad Mutawallī al-Shaʿrāwī paved the way for new engagement with these materials, bringing them face to face with modern medicine and attempting to understand them anew in light of modern medical knowledge and practice (Salvatore, 2000; Ragab, 2012). The recovered pharmacopeia—as well as the pietistic nature that imbued the process of popularizing these books—created a new cultural iconography that linked specific items (like honey) to the Prophetic heritage and the practice of piety. These cultural phenomena also modified the pietistic and ethical landscape of medical practice in the region.

In their modern reincarnations, books on Prophetic medicine were part of larger textual environments that engaged the connection between Islamic canonical and religious traditions, on one hand, and modern science, on the other. These new textual environments include writings on the scientific interpretations of the Qurʾān as one of their most important genres. Contemporary editors of Prophetic medicine texts were increasingly interested in proving that Prophetic traditions matched (and for some, anticipated) modern medical knowledge and technology. As such, they attempted to present what they thought to be a scientific basis for Prophetic recommendations. In this same vein, they ran into traditions that seemed to contradict modern medical knowledge and attempted to explain away or even reject the authenticity of these traditions as part of a process of reconciling inherited Prophetic tradition with modern medical knowledge. In their modern editions, the ethical components in these volumes lost their importance and became irrelevant to the major intellectual project of these modern editors. For instance, discussions about the use of alcohol in treatment or on bloodletting and its connection to ritual purity were either entirely neglected (and sometimes removed) or flattened (removing the details of discussions and debates and leaving blanket statements such as “any treatment made of a prohibited material is prohibited”). This is not entirely surprising as many of these questions were only relevant to specific treatment modalities that are no longer important, if at all available.

Summary and Conclusion

Volumes on Prophetic medicine represented an important textual phenomenon where scholars of ḥadīth engaged with medical knowledge collecting and explaining Prophetic traditions and practices in light of contemporaneous medical knowledge. These volumes did not represent any practical traditions: There is no evidence at all of the existence of practitioners of Prophetic medicine in the marketplace, hospitals, or any other site of medical practice. Medieval scholars writing on Prophetic medicine did not see their work as an attempt to defend Prophetic traditions against medical knowledge or prove the veracity of these traditions by showing their concordance with scientific knowledge. Instead, they viewed medical and scientific knowledge as a useful tool to understand these traditions. When contradictions between Prophetic practice and known medical practice arose, authors either explained these contradictions, showed their preference to the Prophetic practice, or rejected the Prophetic practice, considering it part of an Arabian tradition more suitable to people living in desert areas and not necessarily for the urban population that comprised their readership. Gradually, these writings represented a manifestation of sunnah, allowing pious Muslims to emulate some of these Prophetic practices, especially those related to prevention, as part of showing their pietistic practice.

The rise in popularity of these texts during the Islamic revivalist movement of the 1970s and 1980s aimed at significantly different goals and was part of a distinct intellectual program. New editions of these texts are part of larger projects aimed at proving the concordance of Islamic traditions with modern scientific knowledge in order to both defend these traditions against detractors and prove their veracity. Authors aimed at explaining how these Prophetic traditions corresponded or anticipated medical knowledge. In cases of disagreement, they attempted to explain away these disagreements, reject the authenticity of the Prophetic tradition, or introduce doubts to the scientific information (Ragab, 2011). At another level, some of these writings were used to create a parallel medical tradition that is based on herbal and other natural ingredients mentioned in the medieval volumes of Prophetic medicine. Some of these materials became well known and connected to the Prophet, rendering their use a sign of piety in and of itself. These materials include honey and the black seed among other materials ubiquitous in Prophetic traditions.


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