ISTANBUL UNIVERSITY / DE AGOSTINI PICTURE LIBRARY / G. DAGLI ORTI / BRIDGEMAN IMAGESA- pharmacist prepares medicines to treat a patient suffering from smallpox in this illustration from a 17th-century Ottoman manuscript of Ibn Sina’s Canon of Medicine.
The professional who is specialized in the collection of all drugs, choosing the very best of each simple or compound, and in the preparation of good remedies from them following the most accurate methods and techniques as recommended by experts in the healing arts.
–Abu al-Rayan al-Biruni, c. 1045 CE
Al-Biruni’s definition of the pharmacist could have been written today. Along the road from sympathetic magic and shamanism to scientific method, much trailblazing was carried out over a few centuries by scholars, alchemists, physicians and polymaths of the Muslim Middle East, and their rules, procedures and expectations are, to a great extent, practiced almost universally today.
“In the West and the Middle East, early medicine as a whole was primarily a fusion of Greek, Indian, Persian and later Roman practices that had progressed over the better part of a millennium. Texts on medications were common, but most of thesemateria medica were simply lists of plants and minerals and their various effects. By the start of the seventh century ce Europe and much of the Near East had weakened culturally, and those achievements of Hellenistic arts, sciences and humanities that had not been erased were on an intellectual endangered-species list.
“By mid-century, the rise of Islam brought with it a new thirst for knowledge. This openness to discovery began the saving and, eventually, the expansion of much of what the classical world had lost. Nowhere was this truer than in the ﬁeld of health, where medical practitioners took guidance from several hadiths (hah-DEETH), or sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, such as this related by Bukhari: “God never inﬂicts a disease unless He makes a cure for it.” Similarly, Abu Darda narrated that the Prophet said, “God has sent down the disease and the cure, and He has appointed a cure for every disease, so treat yourselves medically.” Such words placed the responsibility for discovering cures squarely on the medical practitioner.
Within a century of the death of the Prophet in 632 ce, one of the earliest systematic approaches to drugs was under way in Damascus at the court of the ruling Umayyads. Snake and dog bites, as well as the ill effects of scorpions, spiders and other animals, were all causes of concern, and the poisonous properties of minerals and plants such as aconite, mandrake and black hellebore were exploited. As with most most areas of medicine at the time, Greek physicians Galen and Dioscorides were considered the ancient authorities, and building off their works, Muslim writers discussed with particular interest poisons and theriacs (antidotes).
PICTURES FROM HISTORY / BRIDGEMAN IMAGES. This page from Kitab al-Diryaq (The Book of Antidotes), a 13th-century guide to medicinal plants, also from Iraq, highlights the role of botany in early Islamic pharmacy.
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