Unani medicine is ancient Greek medicine that has evolved within the Muslim world. The Unani medical system flourished in Persia and India. The Unani system is sometimes called Hikmat or Unani-Tibb. Its medical practitioners are called Hakims.

Unani medicine is ancient Greek medicine that has evolved within the Muslim world for the past 13 centuries (Unani is an Arabic spelling of Ionian, meaning Greek).

Greek medicine, greatly simplified for presentation here, was based on the concept of balancing body humor. They either fell out of balance, which might yield diseases (depending on circumstances) or were restored to balance to heal diseases. The system involved four elements, thus differing from the Ayurvedic system of three doshas and the Chinese system of five elements. The original Greek and the resulting Unani systems involve these four elements: earth, air, water, and fire; along with four natures: cold, hot, wet, and dry; and four humors: blood (which is hot/wet), phlegm (cold/wet), yellow bile (hot/dry), and black bile (cold/dry).

Unani medicine, like Western medicine (which also arose from the Greek background) owes its origination to Hippocrates (460-377 B.C.) and his numerous followers. Other Greek medical masters, such as Dioscorides and Galen, who we recognize as the forerunners of Western herbal medicine, are also considered founders of Unani medicine.

The adoption of Greek medicine into the Islamic culture was depicted by Husain F. Nagamia MD, Chairman International Institute of Islamic Medicine, and former President of the Islamic Medical Association, as arising in the ancient city of Jundishapur (near Baghdad). The timing of events is described in relation to rule of caliphs, the civil and religious leaders of Muslim states, who are considered to be successors of Mohammed:

Jundishapur (or ‘Gondeshapur’) was a city in Khuzistan founded by a Sasnid Emperor Shapur I (241-272 A.D.) before the advent of Islam. It was to settle Greek prisoners….The town was taken by Muslims during the caliphate of Hadrat Umar, by Abu Musa Al-Ashari in 738 A.D. At this time it already had a well established hospital and medical school.

It was during the Abbasid Caliphate (754-775 A.D.) that Caliph al-Mansur, the founder of the city of Baghdad, invited the then head of the Jundishapur School to treat him. This physician was Jirjis Bukhtishu, a Christian whose name meant ‘Jesus has saved.’ He treated the Caliph successfully and got appointed to the court. He did not stay permanently in Baghdad, returning to Jundishapur before his death, but the migration to Baghdad had begun. Thus, his son Jibrail Bukhtishu established his practice in the city and became a prominent physician [he was invited to head the first Islamic hospital, built under the direction of the Caliph]. Another family that migrated from Jundishapur to Baghdad was that of Masawayh, who went at the invitation of Caliph Harun-ul-Rashid (786-809 A.D.) and became a famous ophthalmologist. Most famous amongst his three sons who were all physicians was Yuhanna ibn Masawayh (known as Mesue Senior in the West). He wrote prolifically and 42 works are attributed to him [he also translated the Greek works into Arabic]. By this time (the 8th century A.D.) the fame of Baghdad began to rise as did the political power of the caliphate. Many hospitals and medical centers were established and tremendous intellectual activity was recorded. This culminated into the period of Islamic Renaissance and the golden era of Islamic Medicine….. One of the largest hospitals ever built was the Mansuri Hospital in Cairo, completed in 1248 AD under the rule of the Mameluke ruler of Egypt, Mansur Qalaun….The Mansuri Hospital had its own pharmacy, library and lecture halls. There was also a mosque for Muslim patients and a chapel for Christian patients.

The most influential historical figure in this golden era of Unani medicine was Avicenna (980-1037 A.D.), born in Kharmaitan. He began studying medicine at the age of 13 and started treating patients three years later. He gained a very good reputation, such that the ruler of the Samanid Empire (in what is now Iran), Nuh ibn Mansur (reign: 976-997A.D.), sought him out to treat an illness that was unsuccessfully treated by his court physicians. Avicenna was successful and stayed on as court physician; however, the Empire soon fell, and Avicenna became a wandering physician and teacher. Eventually, he moved to Hamadan (in west-central Iran), where he worked as a court physician. He began writing several works on philosophy and medicine, and, through further political upheaval, ended up in Isfahan, where he was able to complete his books. He died soon after, while serving as a court physician on a military campaign back to Hamadan, suffering an illness he was unable to cure. His writings included diverse subjects such as mathematics, astronomy, geology, and logic. His most important medical work was The Canon of Medicine (Qunun), which remained a valued text throughout Europe and the mid-East for several centuries after his death.

Avicenna‘, Ibn Sina was indeed a true polymath with his contributions ranging from medicine, psychology and pharmacology to geology, physics, astronomy, chemistry and philosophy. He was also a poet, an Islamic scholar and theologian.

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