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Great Arabian Physicians

In order to understand the place of the Arabs in medicine and in

science, a few words as to the rise of this people to political power,

and then to the cultivation of literature and of science, are necessary.

We hear of the Arabs as hireling soldiers fighting for others during the

centuries just after Christ, and especially in connection with the story

of the famous Queen Zenobia at Palmyra. After the destruction of this

> city we hear nothing more of them until the time of Mohammed. During

these six and a half centuries there is little question of education of

any kind among them except that at the end of the sixth century, the

Persian King Chosroes I, who was much interested in medicine, encouraged

the medical school in Djondisabour, in Arabistan, founded at the end of

the fifth century by the Nestorian Christians, who continued as the

teachers there until it became one of the most important schools of the

East. It was here that the first Arab physicians were trained, and here

that the Christian physicians who practised medicine among the Arabs

were educated.

Among the Arabs themselves, before the time of Mohammed, there had been

very little interest in medicine. Gurlt notes that even the physician of

the Prophet himself was, according to tradition, a Christian.

Mohammed's immediate successors were not interested in education, and

their people mainly turned to Christian and Jewish physicians for

whatever medical treatment they needed. When the Caliphs came to be

rulers of the Mohammedan Empire, they took special pains to encourage

the study of philosophy and medicine; though dissection was forbidden by

the Koran, most of the other medical sciences, and especially botany and

all the therapeutic arts, were seriously cultivated.

Until the coming of Mohammed, the Arabs had been wandering tribes,

getting some fame as hireling soldiers, but now, under the influence of

a feeling of community in religion, and led by the military genius of

some of Mohammed's successors, whose soldiers were inspired by the

religious feelings of the sect, they made great conquests. The

Mohammedan Empire extended from India to Spain within a century after

Mohammed's death. Carthage was taken and destroyed, Constantinople was

threatened. In 661, scarcely forty years after the hegira or flight of

Mohammed, from which good Mohammedans date their era, the capital was

transferred from Medina to Damascus, to be transferred from here to

Bagdad just about a century later, where it remained until the Mongols

made an end of the Abbasside rulers about the middle of the thirteenth

century. At the beginning the followers of Mohammed were opposed to

knowledge and education of all kinds. Mohammed himself had but little.

According to tradition, he could not read or write. The story told with

regard to the Caliph Omar and the great library of Alexandria, seems to

have a foundation in reality, though such legends usually are not to be

taken literally. Certainly it represents the traditional view as to the

attitude of the earlier Moslem rulers to education. Omar was asked what

should be done with the more than two million volumes. He said that the

books in it either agreed with the Koran, or they did not. If they

agreed with it they were quite useless. If they did not, they were

pernicious. In either case, they should be done away with, because there

was an element of danger in them. Accordingly, the precious volumes that

had been accumulating for nearly ten centuries, served, it is said, to

heat the baths of Alexandria for some six months--probably the most

precious fuel ever used. Fortunately for posterity, the edict was not

quite as universal in its application as the story would indicate, and

exceptions were made for books of science.

In the course of their conquests, however, the Mohammedan Arabs captured

the Greek cities of Asia Minor. They were brought closely in contact

with Greek culture, Greek literature, and Greek thought. As has always

been the case, captive Greece took its captors captive. What happened to

the Romans earlier came to pass also among the Arabs. Inspired by Greek

philosophy, science, and literature, they became ardent devotees of

science and the arts. While not inventing or discovering anything new,

like the Romans they carried on the old. Damascus, Basra, Bagdad,

Bokhara, Samarcand all became centres of culture and of education. Large

sums were paid for Greek manuscripts, and for translations from them.

Under the famous Harun al-Raschid, at the end of the eighth century,

whose name is better known to us than that of any others, because of the

stories of his wandering by night among his people in order to see if

justice were done, three hundred scholars were sent at the cost of the

Caliph to the various parts of the world in order to bring back

treasures of science, and especially of geography and medicine. It is an

interesting historical reflection that the Japanese and Chinese are

doing the same thing now.

The Arabs were very much taken by the philosophy of Aristotle, and it

became the foundation of all their education. Greek thought, as always,

inspired its students to higher things. Soon everywhere in the dominions

of the Caliphs, philosophy, science, art, literature, and education

nourished. Medicine was taken up with the other sciences and cultivated

assiduously. Freind, in his Historia Medicinae, says that the writings

of the old Greeks which treated of medicine were saved from destruction

with the other books at Alexandria, for the desire of health did not

have less strength among the Arabs than among other nations. Since these

books taught them how to preserve health, and were not otherwise

contrary to the laws of the Prophet, that served to bring about their

preservation. Freind also calls attention to the fact that grammars and

books which treated of the science of language were likewise saved from

destruction. Besides the library, the Arabs, after their conquest of

Alexandria in the eighth century, came under the influence of the

university still in existence there.

In the West, in Spain, the Arabs enjoyed the same advantages as regards

contact with culture and education as their conquest of the Eastern

cities and Alexandria brought them in the East. While it is not

generally realized, Spain was, as we have pointed out, the province of

the Roman Empire in the West that advanced most in culture before the

breaking up of the Empire. The Silver Age of Latin literature owes all

of its geniuses to Spain. Lucan, the Senecas, Martial, Quintilian, are

all Spaniards. Spain itself was a most flourishing province, and under

the Spanish Caesars, from the end of the first to about the end of the

second century, increased rapidly in population. Spain was the leader in

these prosperous times, and the tradition of culture maintained itself.

When Spain became Christian the first great Christian poet, Prudentius,

born about the middle of the fourth century, came from there. He has

been called the Horace and Virgil of the Christians.

The coming down of the barbarians from the North disturbed Spain's

prosperity and the peace and culture of her inhabitants, but it should

not be forgotten that the first medieval popularization of science, a

sort of encyclopedia of knowledge, the first of its kind after that of

Pliny in the classical period, came from St. Isidore of Seville, a

Spanish bishop.

There has been considerable tendency to insist that Spanish culture and

intellectuality owe nearly all to the presence of the Moors in Spain.

This can only be urged, however, by those who know nothing at all of the

Spanish Caesars, the place of Spain in the history of the Roman Empire,

and the continuance of the culture that then reached a climax of

expression during succeeding centuries. On the contrary, the Moors who

came to Spain owe most of their tendency to devote themselves to culture

and education to the state of affairs existent in Spain when they came.

There is no doubt that they raised standards of education and of culture

above the level to which they had sunk under the weight of the invading

barbarians from the North, and Spain owes much to the wise ruling and

devotion to the intellectual life of her Moorish invaders. All the

factors, however, must be taken together in order to appreciate properly

the conditions which developed under the Arabs in both the East and the

West. The Arabs invented little that was new in science or philosophy;

they merely carried on older traditions. It is for that that the modern

time owes them a great debt of gratitude.