Saturday, November 11, 2006

islam and natural healing

I've been thinking about health recently (both my own and that of people close to me) and so I went to my bookshelf and dusted off my copy of "Natural Healing with the Medicine of the Prophet" (a translation of an older work by Imam Ibn Qayyim Al-Jawziyya 1292-1350 CE).

The whole concept of "Islamic medicine" is intriguing for the most part, but also has its limitations.

If we stick strictly to the Quran and hadith there are a number of texts which give some sort of medical advice but it is not clear that this constitutes a totally comprehensive and detailed medical theory. For example:
And your Lord revealed to the bee saying: Make hives in the mountains and in the trees and in what they build: Then eat of all the fruits and walk in the ways of your Lord submissively. There comes forth from within it a beverage of many colours, in which there is healing for men; most surely there is a sign in this for a people who reflect. (16:68-69)

or the famous hadith from Bukhari:
Abu Huraira, God be pleased with him, narrated in the correct prophet traditions that God's messenger (saaws) said: "Use this black seed regularly, because it has a cure for every disease except death"

Imam Al-Jawziyya's work also includes many other hadith (of varying degrees of authenticity) with assorted bits of advices on matters health and illness (texts on food, drink, sleep, cupping, spiritual aspects of healing and related subjects).

From a modern perspective, some of this material is challenging. As Muslims do we have to accept all of it (for example blood-letting) as sound medical advice, or can we sift through some of it and say it is not really "prophetic" but merely reflects the ordinary fallible medical knowledge which was in circulation at the time of the prophet (saaws)?

Moreover, when "Islamic medicine" was developed, doctors took the prophetic elements and inserted them into a matrix of Greek medical knowledge (e.g. Galen and Hippocrates) and so Al-Jawziyya's text also assumes the four humour theory which was current in Europe during the Middle Ages. (The resulting mix of Graeco-Arab ideas is sometimes called Unani medicine and is similar to Aryuvedic medicine. Both are still practiced today in some communities).

It makes me wonder to what extent is it possible to take the truly "prophetic" aspects of Islamic medicine and come up with a truly Islamic wholistic system? Or are we left with a few isolated remedies which are culled from the Quran and hadith and are then tossed into the context of another system (whether modern, metaphysical or alternative)? Is the answer different if we are talking about mental health as opposed to physical health?

I found the following links on the above subject but I'm not a doctor. I'm including these pages because they are interesting and topical but if you are sick and need help you should go see a qualified expert (however you define that) for advice.

The Medicine of the Prophet: A Message Par Excellence by Dr. M. Iqtedar Husain Farooqi
CrescentLife: Health & Healing: Islamic Perspective
Dr.Sharif Kaf Al-Ghazal: Islamic Medicine Online
Wikipedia: unani
Medicine of the Prophet
The Sufi Enneagram Website


Anonymous said...

Assalamu Alaikum,
Thoughtful post. I have never thought about Prophetic medicine in this way... especially the part about mental health.

Hood said...

you bring up some good points that are applicable to many other areas of life as well.
it seems that the general principle of the base ruling on things being permissibility and allowance is turned inside out.

The whole question is did Islam come to replace existing systems or correct them and guide to what is best?

Those that think the former tend to become dogmatic in their approach to finding everything in Islam and then giving it an "Islamic" label.
This approach may allow for a distinct identity to form but contains a disconnect from reality.
I've known some people that, in thier refusal to use "un-islamic" or non-prophetic medicine sat at home pouring honey and black seed oil on their relatives private parts while the poor lady was going through a miscarraige, because hey, blackseed is a cure for every illness.

Abdul-Halim V. said...


thanks.. i didn't say much about it but i definitely am more optimistic about the possibility of creating multiple "Islamic" systems of psychology. Sufis definitely have developed pretty extensive systems for changing behavior and categorizing different mental/spiritual states.

In modern times, Naim Akbar and Laleh Bakhtiar come to mind as very different kinds of Muslim psychologists and I'm sure there are are more people out there...

Hood: I think your criticism is pretty valid and I would suggest the right course is somewhere in the middle. On the one hand, I'm not anti-conventional medicine and when I'm sick I'm more likely to go to my corner drug store and get some pills and I probably wouldn't try to find someone to do a bloodletting or go looking for some camel urine.

On the other hand, I wouldn't say that Islam has absolutely nothing to say about medical issues or healthy living.