Islam has treated the field of medicine with great care for it addresses one of the most significant needs of human beings. While medicine has been prioritized over the centuries as a field to be mastered, it is a religious necessity for the umma (Muslim community) to train sufficient number of doctors in order for the rest of the Muslims to be exempt from responsibility. The principles applied in the conduct of medicine are also valid for any science deemed useful for the individual and the community.
Any Muslim accepts the fact that the two main sources of Islam, the Qur'an and the sunna (practices of the Prophet), cannot be separated from one another. It is in these sources that the principles reigning over each stage of human life are located. Considering the fact that medicine deals fundamentally with man, it becomes natural for the Qur’an and the sunna to devote much concern to this field.
Through various means, the Qur’an draws attention to the fact that the human being consists of soul and body. Two types of illnesses follow this course: spiritual and physical. The Qur’an and hadith (Prophetic Traditions) that are accepted as the genuine interpretation of the Qur’an lay stress on the causes and results of both types of illnesses. The illnesses of qalb (soul, the spiritual heart) appear in forms of doubt and hesitation, or carnal desire and deviaton which are enumerated in the Qur'an. This first kind usually triggers the physical illnesses and its remedy resides in believing in Allah and His Messenger, and maintaining a life in line with His principles. The intake of medication is not related to this specific problem, for the relief of the souls is only possible through sincerely remembering Allah.
The illnesses related to the body also find their place in the Qur’an. A considerable part of the fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) provisions serve to answer questions such as the way a sick person shall make wu’du (ritual ablution before prayer), perform salat (ritual daily prayer), fast, among other issues, in accordance with the type and degree of his/her illness.
The cure for such physical illnesses is also demonstrated through particular basic principles; to protect one’s health, to abstain from harmful things, and to refrain from religiously forbidden desires and fancies.
This type of sensitivity is crucial in a religion that is going to remain valid until the Day of Judgment. The basic structure of Islamic medicine operates through healthy man and healthy society. One of the primary goals, in this sense, is attaining a society of healthy people both physically and spiritually. Moreover, it is pivotal to avoid any kind of risk that threatens human health. That is why our practices in medicine have to be considered in light of the permissible and prohibited elementspertaining to our diet and behavior.
Time cannot wear away the rules set forth by the Qur’an and sunna. This key principle is also applicable in the field of medicine. Despite all precautionary measures, we may inevitably confront an illness that necessitates us to seek remedies. The Qur’an contains many verses concerning shifa (healing). While Prophet Muhammad, upon him be peace, searched for and underwent treatment in case of an illness, he recommended the same thing to those seeking advice and pointed to general methods of treatment.
Just like in other fields, the Companions followed the Prophet’s advice on medicine. Caliph ‘Umar’s behavior during the military expedition to Damascus is a good example in this context. In response to army commander Abu Ubaydah’s informing him of the plague in Damscus, ‘Umar convened what can be described as a ‘health council,’ composed of the Prophet’s Companions. Following the Prophet’s hadith, “If you hear about an outbreak of plague in a land, do not go there; but if plague breaks out in a country where you are staying, do not run away from it,” he decided not to enter Damascus.
A strong knowledge base and firm principles lie at the heart of the medicine of the Prophet. Like in other fields, a firm stance has been adopted against superstition and erroneous beliefs. The authentic narrations on the subject of medicine are always such that they can perpetually constitute key themes for research. Some hadith that were formerly difficult to grasp have been elucidated in later centuries together with the advancement of the sciences. Therefore, it is more reasonable to leave hadith whose meaning we cannot quite comprehend to time, instead of approaching it with doubt or refuting it altogether. How would it be possible to know that a hadith, presently unclear, cannot be interpreted more accurately in the future? It is through such reflections that competent scholars of various disciplines have to turn to the study of the medicine of the Prophet.
The Prophet’s medicine encompasses recommendations along the general lines of hygiene and the medical sciences. In addition to such general recommendations as not entering and abandoning a place of epidemic, keeping our body, food and environment clean, avoiding waste and maintaining a healthy diet, the Prophetic traditions include issues such as consulting the most qualified doctors in cases of illness, steering clear of unqualified professionals and striving in the way of overcoming the illness.
Recalling the mention of there being no illness without a cure, the Prophetic traditions seem to encourage medical research. Researching methods of treatment are also encouraged. In addition to the Prophetic Traditions mentioning methods of treatment, there are also those prohibiting a treatment that entails haram (the religiously forbidden). Among the former, that is the mentioned means of treatment, are taking medication, donating blood and bandaging the wound. Many natural sources, such as plants, are indicated as means of treatment. There are also some authentic narrations stating that some illnesses were cured by reciting certain verses of the Qur’an (rukya). Yet, in spite of all of the measures taken, the patient may not recover. Therefore, it is accepted that there is a link between medicine and fate which is extremely crucial for the spiritual ease and contentment of a believer.
The major factor for the development of the science of medicine in Islamic communities is the health policies of the Prophet. One encounters many a scholar named as physicians. The field of the history of Islamic medicine can thus pose one of the most expansive areas of research. Since the beginning, Prophetic Traditions on medicine have drawn the attention of many scholars including the hadith experts who, in turn, attempted to collect and categorize the related traditions. Among the authors of the six well-known hadith collections, known as al-Kutub al-Sitta, there are those which have devoted a separate book or chapter to tibb al-nabawi (medicine of the Prophet). For example, Bukhari devoted two separate chapters in his celebrated books, Kitab-al-Tibb (The Book of Medicine) and Kitab al-Marza (The Book of Diseases). Abu Dawud also prepared a Kitab-al-Tibb. Tirmizi dedicated a chapter for medicine in his work known as Jami’. Ibn Maja also mentioned medical subjects in his book. Although they did not assign separate books or chapters, writers like Imam Muslim and al-Nasai mentioned Prophetic Traditions on the subject of medicine in different contexts.
Due to their general characteristics, narrations about medicine are again scattered in the musnads, which are among the works of the first era. For example, Abu Dawud Tayalisi (204/819)’s rearranged book of medicine is a separate chapter in his Musnad. The Musnad of Ahmad ibn Hanbal (240/854) contains many traditions on medicine. We also come across many scattered Prophetic traditions and chapters on medicine in works preceding the period of al-Kutub al-Sitta; namely the Muwatta of Imam Malik (179/795) and Musannaf of Abdurrazzaq ibn Hammam (210/825).
It can be observed that the subject of medicine was not neglected in the hadith collections of the following periods either. Kitab-al-Tibb is a separate chapter in Sharh al-Sunna of al-Baghawi (516/1122). Kitab-al-Tibb is also included in the voluminous work of Ibn al-Athir (606/1209), Jami' al-'usul. The same chapter can be encountered in Majma‘ al-Zawaid by al-Haitham (807/1404). Moreover, another book of zawaid, Al-Matalib al-‘Aliyah by Ibn Hajar Asqalani (852/1448) refers to the subject. Finally, in a collection of later periods, Kanz al-Ummal, the author combines 508 Prophetic Traditions in separate sections discussing Kitab-al-Tibb.
Aside from forming substantial chapters of voluminous books of hadith, there are separate books of medicine generally named tibb al-nabawi and they are encountered in the early periods.