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History of Arabian physicians

Anatomical learning, thus neglected by European nations, is believed to have received a temporary cultivation from the Asiatics. Of these, several nomadic tribes, known to Europeans under the general denomination of Arabs and Saracens, had gradually coalesced under various leaders; and by their habits of endurance, as well as of enthusiastic valour in successive expeditions against the eastern division of the Roman empire, had acquired such military reputation as to render them formidable wherever they appeared. After a century and a half of foreign warfare or internal animosity, under the successive dynasties of the Omayyads and Abbasids, in which the propagation of Islam was the pretext for the extinction of learning and civilization, and the most remorseless system of rapine and destruction, the Saracens began, under the latter dynasty of princes, to recognize the value of science, and especially of that which prolongs life, heals disease and alleviates the pain of wounds and injuries. The caliph Mansur combined with his official knowledge of Moslem law the successful cultivation of astronomy; but to his grandson Mamun, the seventh prince of the line of the Abbasids, belongs the merit of undertaking to render his subjects philosophers and physicians. By the directions of this prince the works of the Greek and Roman authors were translated into Arabic; and the favour and munificence with which literature and its professors were patronized speedily raised a succession of learned Arabians. The residue of the rival family of the Omayyads, already settled in Spain, was prompted by motives of rivalry or honourable ambition to adopt the same course; and while the academy, hospitals and library of Bagdad bore testimony to the zeal and liberality of the Abbasids, the munificence of the Omayyads was not less conspicuous in the literary institutions of Cordova, Seville and Toledo.

Notwithstanding the efforts of the Arabian princes, however, and the diligence of the Arabian physicians, little was done for anatomy, and the science made no substantial acquisition. The Koran denounces as unclean the person who touches a corpse; the rules of Islam forbid dissection; and whatever their instructors taught was borrowed from the Greeks. Abu-Bekr Al-Rasi, Abu-Ali Ibn-Sina, Abul-Qasim and Abul Walid ibn Rushd, the Rhazes, Avicenna, Abulcasis and Averroes of European authors, are their most celebrated names in medicine; yet to none of these can the historian with justice ascribe any anatomical merit. Rhazes has indeed left descriptions of the eye, of the ear and its meatus, and of the heart; and Avicenna, Abul-Qasim and Averroes give anatomical descriptions of the parts of the human body. But of these the general character is, that they are copies from Galen, sometimes not very just, and in all instances mystified with a large proportion of the fanciful and absurd imagery and inflated style of the Arabian writers. The chief reason of their obtaining a place in anatomical history is, that by the influence which their medical authority enabled them to exercise in the European schools, the nomenclature which they employed was adopted by European anatomists, and continued till the revival of ancient learning restored the original nomenclature of the Greek physicians. Thus, the cervix, or nape of the neck, is nucha; the oesophagus is meri; the umbilical region is sumen or sumac; the abdomen is myrach; the peritoneum is siphac; and the omentum, zirbus.

From the general character now given justice requires that we except Abdallatif, the annalist of Egyptian affairs. This author, who maintains that it is impossible to learn anatomy from books, and that the authority of Galen must yield to personal inspection, informs us that the Moslem doctors did not neglect opportunities of studying the bones of the human body in cemeteries; and that he himself, by once examining a collection of bones in this manner, ascertained that the lower jaw is formed of one piece; that the sacrum, though sometimes composed of several, is most generally of one; and that Galen is mistaken when he asserts that these bones are not single.

See also: History of anatomy



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