Medieval Islamic Medicine By Peter E. Pormann and Emilie Savage-Smith (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2007. 223 pages.)

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Daniel Martin Varisco



One of the acknowledged contributions to late medieval western education
was the tradition of Islamic medicine, both for its role in preserving earlier
Greek medical knowledge and, as the authors of this book demonstrate, for
innovative and creative advances in medical diagnosis, treatment, and patient
care. Pormann and Savage-Smith provide an informative overview of the
history of medicine in the Islamic world, from the Prophet’s sayings to the
period of extensive contact with European colonialism. Their work supplements
and updates the slim volume ofManfred Ullmann, to whom this book
is dedicated, entitled Islamic Medicine (Edinburgh University Press: 1976). Consciously avoiding a sweeping history of a vast scientific field, the
authors narrate a readable story of Islamicmedicine and provide suggestions
for further reading at the end of each chapter. Without question, this volume
can be considered the best and most critical introduction to the field and a
guide for future research.
One of the most important critical issues probed is the impact of Greek
medicine, especially as mediated through Byzantine sources, on the emergence
of a distinctive “Islamic” approach to medicine. The synthetic corpus
of the Hippocratic writings and the works of Galen formed the holistic basis
for the scientific development of medical theory (chapter 2), including the
humoral system, diet, pharmacology, disease diagnosis, anatomy, and surgery.
The authors also discuss other currents of medical knowledge, from the
Alexandrian medical curriculum to the knowledge found in Sasanid Persia,
Syriac Christian sources, India, and even unto China. The translation of non-
Arabic texts was a major contribution, but “Greek medicine as well as some
elements of other medical traditions were transformed and not merely given
permanent right of abode as aliens, they were assimilated, adapted, and
finally adopted in the truest sense of the word into Islamic society” (p. 37) ...

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