History of Islamic Medicine and Herbal Remedies

Learn about the history of Islamic medicine, how it has influenced Western medicine and some natural herbal remedies used in the Middle East.


| November/December 1998



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A depiction of Pedanius Dioscorides offering a plant, representing knowledge, to a student. Dioscorides was a first-century Greek physician whose book on plant medicine, De Materia Medica, was used for centuries in both Islam and Europe and is still quoted today. This ­illustration is from a thirteenth-century Ottoman copy of the Dioscorides work.

Illustration by Giraudon/Art Resource/Topkapi Palace Museum

Walk along the narrow twisted alleyways of a Middle Eastern souk, or marketplace, past the displays of wicker baskets, abas, knives and gold jewelry. Eventually you’ll round a corner and be pleasantly overwhelmed by the sights and smells of herbs and spices piled high in the stalls and shops. Bright orange saffron, terra-cotta cinnamon, dark green thyme and dozens of other herbs weave a carpet of diverse patterns, while the sweet odors of cloves and cardamom waft through the air.

In the Middle East, herbs are not only used to flavor food. Many also are used as medicine, based on recipes and formulas derived from careful observation and experimentation performed more than a thousand years ago by Islamic scientists and scholars. In fact, without the work of medieval Muslim pharmacists, much of what we take for granted in Western medicine might have been lost forever.

From the Arabian Sands

In the middle of the seventh century, Europe was mired in intellectual stagnation. Barbarians from Germany and Asia had destroyed libraries and, with them, irreplaceable manuscripts collected over centuries. The achievements of a thousand years of Hellenistic civilization in the arts, sciences, and humanities had been erased in a few short decades of destruction.

During this time, European medicine was severely restricted and conducted in an atmosphere where pain, suffering, and illness were seen as expressions of Divine will and beyond human intervention. Hospitals offered compassion, but little else, and the Church outlawed surgery. The works of Aristotle, Galen, Hippocrates and Dioscorides were unknown. What passed for scholarship consisted of written commentaries on the works of illustrious predecessors who couldn’t be challenged or questioned.

For Europe it was the Dark Ages. But while Europe lost, and then forgot, its intellectual heritage, a new force emerged from the sandy wastes of the Arabian Peninsula.

The spread of Islam was a great historical watershed, one that continues to reverberate thirteen centuries after the cry of the first muezzin, the Muslim caller of daily prayer. In less than a century, the Muslims, driven by passion and fervor, swept aside the Byzantine ­empire, overthrew the centuries-old Persian dynasty, and reached into India and France, beginning an unprecedented era of growth in all branches of learning.





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