After the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632 the armies of Islam swept out of the Arabian Peninsula. Within fifty years they had overrun all the territory conquered by Alexander the Great nine hundred years before. Within one hundred years their empire extended from Spain to India and from Egypt to the Caspian Sea in the north. The Caliphs then set about consolidating their empire, building a new capital of Baghdad in 762. This was strategically located on the fertile plain of the river Tigris, away from the reach of marauding armies, yet on the lucrative trading route of the Silk Road to China. The centre piece of the new capital was The House of Wisdom (Bayt al-Hikma), a combination of publishing house, library and research institute. This became the focus of a vigorous expansion of knowledge in all of the sciences including medicine.
One of the great achievements of this new society was the development of the hospital. In Islam there was a moral imperative to treat the ill regardless of their financial status. Called Bimaristans, from Persian words meaning ‘place of the sick’, hospitals soon became a feature of cities throughout the Islamic world, with Baghdad alone having five. A good deal is known about their organisation. The Bimaristans were well financed through a series of waqfs or charitable trusts, endowed by wealthy individuals and rulers. The hospitals were usually built as four vaulted halls or iwans in a cruciform pattern, each with a fountain to provide clean water and baths. Off each iwan were side rooms for storage, pharmacy, living quarters for staff and a library. There were special halls for female patients, dedicated areas for the mentally ill and for those with ailments prevalent in the area – such as diarrhoea and eye complaints. At its foundation the largest hospital in Baghdad had twenty-five doctors, including eye specialists, bone setters and pharmacists. They were assisted by a large number of male and female attendants who saw to the patients’ basic needs. Overall was a politically appointed non-medical administrator.
The Bimaristans had several other notable innovations. In addition to providing medical treatment, they were convalescent homes for those recovering from illness, a retirement home for those aged or infirm who did not have families to look after them, as well as facilities for care of the insane. Some provided poets and musicians to entertain the patients. There were outpatient clinics and provision of a small stipend for patients on discharge until they could return to work. The attending physicians were expected to conduct regular patient rounds and to teach medical students.
The name ‘Islamic’ should be viewed as a cultural rather than as a religious term in referring to the medicine of this era. While Islam was the dominant faith, many others such as Nestorian Christians, Jews, and Persian Zoroastrians practiced medicine and attained high administrative office in the Empire of the Caliphs. They shared a common cultural view which prized cleanliness and learning; and were united by an Arabic language which through the translation activities of the Bayt al-Hikma had become a subtle and flexible instrument of scientific activity. One can only imagine the horror with which they viewed the Crusaders who emerged from the Dark Ages of the West and arrived in their lands in the eleventh century.
If you are in Dunedin on Thursday 27 April, you can hear more about this topic at a public lecture, details of which are below.
Otago Medical School Alumnus Association
2017 History of Medicine Series
Professor Terence Doyle
Department of Medicine
‘Aladdin’s Lamp in the House of Wisdom’
Baghdad, built in 762, became an unrivalled intellectual centre between the collapse of the Roman Empire and the dawn of the Renaissance. Successive enlightened Caliphs, like Harun al-Rashid (of The Thousand and One Nights), promoted the study of Medicine and Science; and built a system of hospitals extending from Iraq to Spain, in what was the Islamic Golden Age.
Room G30, Hunter Centre, Great King Street, Dunedin
(Opposite the Dental School)
Thursday 27 April 2017 at 5.15pm
This is a Public Lecture. All are welcome to attend.
Professor Terence Doyle teaches in the Dunedin School of Medicine (University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand) and is a doctor at Dunedin Hospital.