Medieval Muslim Medicine and Hospitals


10 Jul 2017

History of Science, Medicine

Eamonn Gearon

In this lecture, Eamonn Gearon discusses Muḥammad Ibn Zakarīyya al-Rāzī (d. ca. 925, known as Rhazes in Europe) and Ibn Sīnā (d. 1037, called Avicenna in Europe), each of whom are famous for their books on medicine.  As Gearon notes, their scholarship collected earlier materials and added research and organization that made these works basics for the study of medicine in Europe into the eighteenth century.

The video includes four major sections:  1) al-Rāzī; 2) Hospitals; 3) Ibn Sīnā; and 4) Conclusions.


The section on al-Rāzī provides biographical information, such as his early interest in music, and his growth as a critic of earlier (Greek) physicians, and his most famous works, “The Comprehensive Book of Medicine” and “A Medical Advisor for the General Public”.  Al-Rāzī is described as a rationalist whose ideas about the cause of illness conflicted with those of some religious thinkers.

The section on hospitals emphasizes their origin in Byzantine infrastructure around the Mediterranean basin.  Gearon also notes that as the Abbasid empire expanded, so too did government and private funding for hospitals, primary in cities.  The early physicians are described as being of various faiths.  Gearon speaks of “prophetic medicine”, which supposes that every disease has its cure, “with the exception of old age”.

The section on Ibn Sīnā, which tends to use his Anglicized name, Avicenna more, discusses his major work, the “Canon of Medicine”, a five-volume “encyclopedia” of medicine which was completed in 1025.  Gearon notes that Ibn Sīnā is known for “discovering” the possibility of air-borne diseases, as well as conducting research that mirrors that done by Carl Jung in the twentieth century.

The conclusion tends to set science and rationalism on one side, opposed by “theologians”.

This free sample from the for-profit “Great Courses” series, the 13th of the 24 in the larger series.

The Lecturer

Eamonn Gearon has published on Middle Eastern history, and seems especially interested in North Africa and the Sahel.  He holds a master’s degree from the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London.


Islam:  There is relatively little discussion of Islam here.  What there is seems to set “physicians”, who are constructed as scientists and rationalists, against “theologians”, who are, by implication, neither scientific nor rationalist, neither of which is necessarily true.  It should also be noted that charitable donations to hospitals was considered a a religious act.

Science:  Because the discussion here is of premodern medicine, it is not a matter of this information being scientifically accurate today.

History:  Gearon does an excellent job of presenting how medical knowledge passed across cultures in the Mediterranean basin, and how these particular scientists engaged theologians of their time.  However, the emphasis on European use of materials as being a standard for whether the material was important or not is considered problematic by many historians.  The maps typically focus on the Mediterranean basin, even when the region being discussed extends into Central and South Asia.