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Arabian Influence

The fame of these great thinkers and writers in philosophy and in

medicine came to be known not only through the distribution of their

books long after their death, but during their lifetime, and in

immediately subsequent generations, ardent seekers after knowledge, who

were themselves afterwards to become famous by their teaching and

writing, found their way into the Arabian dominions in order to take

advantage of the
educational opportunities afforded. These were better

than they could secure at home in Christian countries, because the

process of bringing culture and devotion to literature and science into

the minds of the Northern nations, who had replaced the old Romans in

Europe, was not yet completed. Bagdad and Cordova were the two favorite

places of educational pilgrimage. The names that are most familiar among

the scholars in the Middle Ages in Europe are those of whom it is

recorded that they made long journeys in order to get in touch with what

the Arabs had preserved of the old Greek civilization and culture. Among

them are such men as Michael Scot or Scotus, Matthew Platearius, who was

afterwards a great teacher at Salerno; Daniel Morley, Adelard of Bath,

Egidius, otherwise known as Gilles de Corbeil; Romoaldus, Gerbert of

Auvergne, who later became Pope under the name of Sylvester II; Gerard

of Cremona, and the best known of them all, at least in medicine,

Constantine Africanus, whose wanderings, however, were probably not

limited to Arabian lands, but who seems also to have been in Hindustan.

We are rather prone to think that this great spirit of going far afield

for knowledge's sake is recent, or, at least, quite modern. As a matter

of fact, one finds it everywhere in history. Long before Herodotus did

his wanderings there were many visitors who went to Egypt, and many more

later who went to Crete, and many more a few centuries later who went to

the shores of Asia Minor seeking for the precious pearl of knowledge,

and sometimes finding it without finding the even more precious pearl of

wisdom, whose worth is from the farthest coasts.

To the Arabs we owe the foundation of a series of institutions for the

higher learning, like those which had existed around them in Asia Minor

and in Egypt at the time they made their conquests. Alexandria,

Pergamos, Cos, Cnidos, Tarsus, and many other Eastern cities had had

what we would call at least academies, and many of them deserved the

name of universities. The Arabs continued the tradition in education

that they found, and established educational institutions which

attracted wide attention. As we have said, the two most famous of these

were at Bagdad and at Cordova. Mostanser, the predecessor of the last

Caliph of the family of the Abbassides, built a handsome palace, in

which the academy of Bagdad was housed. It is still in existence, and

gives an excellent idea of the beneficent interest of this monarch and

of other of the Abbasside rulers in education. Its fate at the present

time is typical of the attitude of the Mohammedans towards education.

Though the building is still standing, the institution of learning is no

longer there. As Hyrtl remarks, it is not ideas that are exchanged in it

now, but articles of commerce. It has become the chief office of the

Turkish customs department in Bagdad.

These institutions of the higher learning, founded by the Arabs, at

first as rather strict imitations of the museums or academies of Egypt

and Asia Minor, gradually changed their character under the Arabs. Their

courses became much more formal, examinations became much more

important. Scholarship was sought not so much for its own sake, as

because it led to positions in the civil service, to the favor of

princes, and, in general, to reputation and pecuniary reward. Formal

testimonials proclaiming education, signed by the academic authorities,

were introduced and came to mean much. Lawyers could not practise

without a license, physicians also required a license. These formalities

were adopted by the Western medieval universities to a considerable

degree and have been perpetuated in the modern time. Undoubtedly they

did much to hamper real education among the Arabs by setting in place of

the satisfaction of learning for its own sake and the commendation of

teachers the formal recognition of a certain amount of work done as

recognized by the educational authorities. There was always a tendency

among the Arabs to formulate and formalize, to over-systematize what

they were at; to think that new knowledge could be obtained simply by

speculating over what was already acquired, and developing it. There are

a number of comparisons between this and later periods of education

that might be suggested if comparisons were not odious.

The influence of Arabian medicine on modern medicine can, perhaps, best

be judged from the number of words in our modern nomenclature, which,

though bearing Latin forms, often with suggestion of Greek origins,

still are not derived from the old Latin or Greek authors, but represent

Arabic terms translated into Latin during the Renaissance period. Hyrtl,

without pretence of quoting them all, gives a list of these which is

surprising in its comprehensiveness. For instance, the mediastinum, the

sutura sagittalis, the scrobiculus cordis, the marsupium cordis, the

chambers of the heart, the velum palati, the trochanter, the rima

glottidis, the fontanelles, the alae of the nose, all have their present

names, not from original Latin expressions, but from the translation of

Arabic terms. For all such words the Greeks and Romans have quite other

expressions, in which the sense of our modern terms is not contained.

This has given rise to many misunderstandings, and to many attempts in

the modern times to return to the classic terminology rather than

preserve what in many cases are the barbarisms introduced through the

Arabic, but it is doubtful whether any comprehensive reform in the

matter can be effected, so strongly entrenched in medical usage have

these terms now become.

Freind, in his History of Medicine, already cited, calls attention to

the fact that the Arabs had an unfortunate tendency to change by

addition or subtraction of their own views the authors that they

studied, and wished to translate to others. This seems to have been

true even of some of the most distinguished of them. Of course, the idea

of preserving an author's text untouched, and making it clear just where

note and commentary came in, had not yet come to men's view, but quite

apart from this the Arabs apparently often tried to gain acceptance for

their own ideas by having them masquerade as the supposed ideas of

favorite classic authors.

Another unfortunate tendency among the Arabs was their liking for the

discussion of many trivial questions. Hyrtl, in his volume on Arabian

and Hebrew Words in Anatomy,[6] declares that it is almost incredible

how earnestly some trivial questions in anatomy and physiology were

discussed by the Arabs. He gives some examples. Why does no hair grow on

the nose of men? Why does the stomach not lie behind the mouth? Why does

the windpipe not lie behind the esophagus? Why are the breasts not on

the abdomen? Why are not the calves on the anterior portion of the legs?

Even such men as Rhazes and Avicenna discuss such questions.

It was this tendency of the Arabs that passed over to the Western

Europeans with Arabian commentaries on philosophy and science, and

brought so many similar discussions in the scholastic period. These

trivialities have usually been supposed to originate with the

scholastics themselves, for they are not to be found in the Greek

authors on whom the scholastics were writing commentaries, but they are

typically Oriental in character, and it must be remembered that during

the twelfth and early thirteenth centuries, at least, Greek philosophy

found its way largely into Europe in Arab versions, and these

characteristically Arabian additions of the discussion of curious

trivial questions came with them and produced an imitative tendency

among the Europeans.

As a rule the more careful has been the study of Arabian writers in the

modern time, particularly by specialists, the clearer has it become that

they lacked nearly all originality. Especially were they faulty in their

observations; besides, they had a definite tendency to replace

observation by theory, a fatal defect in medicine. The fine development

of surgery that came at the end of the Arabian period of medicine in

Europe could never have come from the Arabs themselves. Gurlt has

brought this out particularly, but it will not be difficult to cite many

other good authorities in support of this opinion.

Hyrtl, in his Thesis on the Rarer Old Anatomists,[7] says that the

Arabs paid very little attention to anatomy, and, of course, because of

the prohibition in the Koran, added nothing to it. Whatever they knew

they took from the Greeks, and especially Galen. Not only did they not

add anything new to this, but they even lost sight of much that was

important in the older authors. The Arabs were much more interested in

physiology; they could study this by giving thought to it without

soiling their hands. They delighted in theory, rather than in


While we thus discuss the lack of originality and the tendency to

over-refinement among the Arabian medical writers, it must not be

thought that we would make little of what they accomplished. They not

only preserved the old medical writers for us, but they kept alive

practical medicine with the principles of the great Greek thinkers as

its basis. There are a large number of writers of Arabian medicine whose

names have secured deservedly a high place in medical history. If this

were a formal history of Arabian medicine, their careers and works would

require discussion. For our purpose, however, it seems better to confine

attention to a few of the most prominent Arabian writers on medicine,

because they will serve to illustrate how thoroughly practical were the

Arabian physicians and how many medical problems that we are prone to

think of as modern they occupied themselves with, solving them not

infrequently nearly as we do in the modern time.