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Tag: medicine


Eye to Eye, not to be confused with EYE SPY

Is this a wild coincidence, or a message to me from the Universe?

(Another Tahir Shah, also obsessed with eyes).


As a side note, the paperback edition of EYE SPY should be out in the next 6-8 weeks. In the meantime, I’ve set up a contest on Goodreads to give away 6 signed advance copies on July 25th. That means that if you win a copy, you’ll have it before the book is available for purchase.

Enter now for a chance to win:

May 30, 2013 Posted by tahir in Books

New Release: Three Essays


I’m very pleased to share with you the release of these three essays. Those who have read Eye Spy will be especially interested in the essay on cannibalism. They are all currently available online as individual purchases, and the three essay bundle will be available very soon.

The Legacy of Arab Science 

The Kumbh Mela: The Greatest Show on Earth 

Cannibalism: It’s Just Meat 


Medical Breakthroughs

Medical breakthroughs and developments during this golden age are too extensive to list here. But they included:

1.    The first inoculations against smallpox.

2.    The existence of micro-organisms, especially bacteria, centuries before the invention of the microscope.

3.    Dentistry, and pioneering work on dental fillings (although god help some of the patients, for example, Ibn Sina suggested that arsenic be boiled in oil and used to fill teeth!).

4.    Caesarean sections and pain control.

5.    Antiseptics – from tenth century purified alcohol (an Arab discovery itself) was being applied with lint dressings to wounds.

6.    Cataract surgery, which used the first hollow metallic hypodermic needles and glass suction tubes in about 1000 AD.

7.    Hundreds of steel medical tools, such as scalpels, were pioneered (a result of sword-making breakthroughs, Damascene steel).

8.    The first psychiatric hospital, built in Baghdad in 705 AD.

9.    Music Therapy, including 10th century Persian music theorist al-Farabi, whose book Meanings of the Intellect, discussed the effect of music on the soul.

10.And for the first time specific diseases were isolated and studied, including diabetes, meningitis, and cancer, as well as rabies, smallpox, and forms of plague.




During the Abbasids’ Golden Age, the first true hospitals were created, including free public ones in Baghdad and elsewhere in the region. The main difference from the ‘sleep temples’ and asylums of the Classical era was that these hospitals were designed to treat and heal, rather than merely to isolate the infected and the sick. The idea was something of a revolution within itself, and later spread to Europe, along with pharmacology, taken back West by the Crusaders.

         These hospitals featured competency tests for doctors and surgeons, grading for purity and strength of pharmaceuticals, and separate wards for people with similar contagious diseases, as well as the first real autopsies. Patients from different religions were treated, and the surgical staff were Christians and Jews as well as Muslims. There were female doctors and nurses for the first time as well.

         The rise in cheap paper and literacy meant that everything could be written down and passed to other cities along the pilgrimage routes, for others to master. Great books were amassed from all the new knowledge. These eventually found their way into Europe and were translated into Latin… although only the Latin-speaking elite could understand them. They included pioneering works like the 30-volume medical encyclopaedia, the ‘Kitab al-Tasrif’, (The Book of Concessions), written by al-Zahrawi, and published in the year 1000 AD. It was used for centuries in both East and West.

And Ibn Sina’s The Canon of Medicine (c. 1020 AD), is still regarded as one of the most important medical textbooks of all time. It was used at the University of Montpellier’s medical department as late as 1650 AD, and was even used across until even later China.

         Dozens of Renaissance and later medical breakthroughs had already been accurately described by the Arab polymaths. Blood circulation, for instance, usually credited to the 17th century English physician, had been published by Ibn al-Nafis  in the 13th century.



Peer Review

Peer Review was first described by al-Rahwi, working in Damascus in the ninth century AD. In his ‘The Ethics of the Physician’, he states that the physician must always make duplicate notes of a patient’s condition on every visit. He said this was important so that when the patient has been discharged or has died, one set of notes can be given to a local medical council, to ascertain whether satisfactory medical care was provided. It was the start of lawsuits for medical malpractice… something that many a legal service may have wish was never invented at all.



Scientific Method

Scientific Method includes the use of controlled experimentation, and the idea of quantifying results, to distinguish between competing scientific theories. What’s interesting is that this scientific method took off in a big way and was used across the board, and is still used by all scientists today.

         The first ‘modern’ medical experiment is known to have been carried out by al-Razi in the tenth century, when he was working out where to build his hospital in Baghdad. He hung pieces of meat all over the city and observed where the meat decomposed least quickly. It was there that he built the hospital.




Just like the Classical world before and the so called Renaissance Men after, the golden age of Islam was championed by polymaths, whose works rival those of Aristotle, Da Vinci or Newton.

The Arab polymaths arrived in the Renaissance under their Latinised names. For example,

1.    Ibn Sina was Avicenna

2.    Ibn Bajjah was Avempace

3.    Ibn Hayyan was Geber

4.    Ibn Rushd was Averroes

5.    Al-Kindi was Alkindus

6.    Ibn al-Haytham was Alhazen

They were so important because they used breakthroughs in one area to push forward knowledge and understanding in another. Indeed, ‘Polymathy’ is a method that has almost been lost in the West, and is only now being rediscovered – so called ‘interdisciplinary’ study. (e.g. Stanford University’s new Bio-X Program, which brings together biologists, computer scientists, medical scientists and engineers, who learn from each other’s fields). The scientists and Polymaths from the golden age worked on areas of science which are familiar to us all, and are still being studied in schools and universities today, with the same scientific method.



The Arab Contribution

In the sciences, the Arabs took Classical work and breakthroughs and refined them, as well as developing their own fields of study from scratch. Their contribution was profound, and is often sidelined or completely forgotten in the Occident. And very often it was centuries ahead of its time. For example: The Arabs under the Abbasids and others constructed the first hospitals and lending libraries, gave the first academic degrees, and treated mental patients with music (more than a millennia before our idea of music therapy); they invented the fountain pen (because a tenth century Sultan wanted a pen that would write when he was ready), the camera obscura, water clocks, hydraulics, decryption of codes, and soap. 

They wrote about the concept of evolution, environmentalism, classification (mineral, animal, vegetable), scientific method and peer review… and refined all sorts of other things that are so key to our world, like paper as we have seen, the ‘Indian numbers’, and the massive mathematical breakthrough of ZERO.

They made contributions in almost all the sciences: mathematics, botany, chemistry, psychology, philosophy, engineering, physics, agriculture, astronomy, metallurgy, medicine and zoology.