Islam envisioned itself as an all-embracing framework of human life. No activity of the individual or community was alien to it. Islam is a scientific and a progressive religion. It directs its adherents to learn, gain knowledge and master the arts and sciences to the contemporary world. Two of the greatest Muslim scientists who embraced these directives of Islam in their work and achieved great heights were the Islamic philosopher-physician Avicenna and El Zahrawi, sometimes referred to as the ‘father of surgery’. This report aims to highlight some of their greatest achievements in science – many of which became the foundation for modern western scientific theories and practices.
Avicenna (born Ibn Sina) was an Islamic philosopher and physician. Apart from his medical texts, he is best known for his attempts to synthesize Islamic theology and Greek philosophy (Syed, 2003, p. 122). His work led not only to the preservation of the works of Plato and Aristotle, but his philosophical works also became a benchmark for others who struggled with the relationship between religious revelation and relational ideas.
Avicenna was born in 980 to a scholarly family in Bukhara in what is now modern Uzbekistan. His home was frequently the site of lively scholarly discussion sponsored by his father. By age 10, Avicenna had already memorized the Quran, the holy book of Islam. As a teenager, he studied logic and philosophy and by 18, he was an expert in Islamic law and medicine. As a result of successfully treating Prince Nuh ibn Mansur, Avicenna was granted access to the royal library containing the writings of the ancient philosophers. At about this time, he also found a copy of Metaphysics by the Islamic philosopher, Al-Farabi, an interpreter of Aristotle, which made a profound impact on him. By the age of 21, Avicenna was recognized as a philosopher, physician and legal expert.
After the death of his father, Avicenna wandered throughout present day Iran. He held several important royal posts, including that of vizier (a representative of the court) and court physician in Hamadan, which allowed him both a comfortable existence and the freedom to pursue his philosophy with students. In 1022, when the royal family was overthrown, Avicenna was banished for heretical thought (Goodman, 1992, p. 42). He fled to Esfahan, once again becoming a court official. During this time, he completed over 200 treatises, a medical work, The Book of Healing, and a collection of personal reflections, Book of Devotions and Remarks.
Avicenna’s greatest theological contribution came in his synthesis of Islamic doctrine and Greek philosophy. He argued that the created world is not inherently necessary but is the result of the creative will of an absolute being and its spiritual emanations. This “indirect” manner of creation prevents the absolute from controlling creation and allows for the appearance of evil. He thereby correlated the Islamic concept of contingency (all that exists in the world depends on the intelligent will of a creator) with the Aristotelian idea of the first cause. For Avicenna, the first cause was Allah (Avicenna & Inati, 1984, p. 24- 32).
Avicenna died of colic in 1037. Ironically, his death was hastened by his aggressive treatment of his own illness.
Avicenna’s synthesis of Greek philosophy and Islamic thought proved to be a stimulus for later Islamic philosophers as well as for Christian theologians for the medieval period. His emphasis on the works of Plato and Aristotle also contributed significantly to their preservation for later generations.
Avicenna’s thinking instigated an intense debate among later Islamic philosophers. The mystics Sana’I (d. 1150) and Jami (d. 1492) both vigorously blamed Avicenna as a corruptor of the faith. The religious philosopher Al-Ghazali (1058 – 1111) challenged Avicenna from a more scholarly perspective. Specifically, he rejected the concept that Allah deals only indirectly with creation. For al-Ghazali, Allah dealt directly with creation and was involved in particular aspects of life. In all cases, Avicenna seemed to have compromised the revelations of Allah by substituting for them human concepts.
Other Islamic thinkers, however, embraced and extended Avicenna’s synthesis. Inb al-Arabi (d. 1240) seems to have been the first to integrate philosophy and theology with mysticism. The most important supporter of Avicenna was the Spaniard, Averroes (1126 – 1198), who became a staunch defender of Avicenna, even though he critiqued some of the formers
interpretation of Aristotle.
In the West, Avicenna’s integration of rational Greek philosophy and theology became a foundation for Scholasticism. Although Augustine of Hippo (354 – 430) had already suggested such a connection, the medieval theologians had access to the Greek philosophers thanks to the work of Islamic scholars. Moreover, many of Avicenna’s basic ideas, such as the distinction between essence and existence and the identification of God as the first cause, inspired the work of many philosophers who followed, both Muslim and Western. His writings directly influenced many medieval theologians. Thomas Aquinas (1224 – 1274) embraced Avicenna’s concept of God as the necessary being. For Duns Scotus (1266 – 1274), Avicenna became the theoretical point of departure for his own synthesis of faith and reason.
William of Ockham (c. 1285 0 1347) built on Avicenna’s thought to defend logic itself as an independent entity. Roger Bacon (c. 1214 – 1293) thought Avicenna the greatest philosopher since Aristotle. In his Inferno, Dante Alighieri (1265 – 1321) even places Avicenna in Limbo along with other great non-Christian writers.
Finally, Avicenna is also valued as a scientist. His work is considered to be an important part of the foundation for the scientific revolution.
Sometimes referred to as the “father of surgery”, El Zahrawi (936 – 1013), also known as Abu-Al Quasim Khalaf ibn’ Abbas El Zahrawi, was a court physician. He was best known for his early and original breakthroughs in surgery as well as medicine (Ramen, 2006, p. 42).
Al-Tarif, El-Zahrawi’s greatest work was his medical encyclopedia which set the standards for surgery for the next few centuries. His encyclopedia of medicine, called Al-Tarif, contained about 30 volumes, which illustrated over 200 different types of surgical instruments. He also classified all types of fractures, including his famous descriptions of skull fractures caused by blows from swords. His detailed account of how to strip varicose veins is essentially the same procedure used today. He advocated that, before practicing, all physicians should understand basic science, anatomy, and physiology in order to prevent mistakes that could result in the death of patients. Al-Tarif was first translated by Gherard of Cremona into Latin, in the Middle Ages.
Al-Tarif, also deals in details with the anatomy and physiology of the human body and includes notes of important surgery. His discussions contain original observations of historical interest. He elaborated on the causes and symptoms of diseases and their treatment and theorized both on the upbringing of children and youth, with emphasis on their mental and physical health, and on the care of the aged and the convalescent. The encyclopedia also discusses the preparation of pharmaceuticals and therapeutics, covering such important aspects of these specializes areas as emetic and cardiac drugs, laxatives, geriatrics, cosmetology, dietetics, material media, weights and measures, and drug substitution ( Jundi & Zahoorul, 1982, p. 142 – 151).
After this monumental treatise was translated El Zahrawi had a great influence on surgery in the West. His improved techniques and instructions injected new life into a somewhat neglected branch of the health sciences. The French surgeon Guy de Chaulac in his Great Surgery, completed about 1363, quoted al-Tarif more than two hundred times. El Zahrawi was also praised by Pietro Argellata, who died in 1423, as “without doubt the chief of all surgeons”. The French surgeon Jacques Delechamps [1513 – 1588] made extensive use of al-Tarif in his elaborate commentary confirming the great prestige of El Zahrawi in medical circles throughout the Middle Ages and up to the Renaissance.
El Zahrawi performed many delicate operations, including removal of the dead fetus and amputation. El Zahrawi was the inventor of several surgical instruments, of which three are notable: ( i ) an instrument for internal examination of the ear. ( ii ) an instrument for internal inspection of the urethra, and ( ii) an instrument for applying of removing foreign bodies from the throat. He focused in curing sickness by cauterization and practiced the procedure to as many as fifty distinctive operations. El Zahrawi was also a very well-respected authority in dentistry, and people came from all over for his advice. His writings contain intricate diagrams of various surgical instruments used in dentistry, besides comprehensive descriptions of surgical procedures performed by him. He also specialized in the extraction of teeth and replacement with artificial ones.
El Zaharawi was the only ancient writer on anatomy that had described the instruments used in each particular operation. To him we owe the invention of the eprobang, an elastic rod tipped with sponge, for dislodging extraneous substances from the gullet. Another instrument of his own, was that for operating in fistula lachrymalis, which he explained, as also the needle used by the Oriental surgeons for cataract. The knife, which he calls alnessil, and used in the section of a vein, as distinct from puncture, is by some presumed to be our common lancet, – a term the French borrowed from the ancient Gauls. The myrtle and olive knives, so called from resembling in shape the leaves of these plants, were employed for blood-letting by incision. For opening veins in the forehead use was made of the fosserium, said to resemble the phleme for bleeding cattle, and which required percussion to make it penetrate the skin.
Avicenna, & Inati, S. C. (1984). Remarks and admonitions. Mediaeval sources in translation, 28-. Toronto, Ont., Canada: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies.
Goodman, L. E. (1992). Avicenna. Arabic thought and culture. London: Routledge.
Jundī, A. R., & Zahoorul Hasan, H. M. (1982). Proceeding of the Second International Conference on Islamic Medicine. Bulletin of Islamic medicine, vol. 2. [Dawlat al-Kuwayt]: Islamic Medicine Organization.
Ramen, F. (2006). Albucasis (Abu al-Qasim al-Zahrawi): Renowned Muslim surgeon of the tenth century. Great Muslim philosophers and scientists of the Middle Ages. New York: Rosen Pub. Group.
Syed, M. H. (2003). Islam and science. New Dehli: Anmol.