Greek Medicine Was Fundamentally Changed by Its Encounter with Islamic Culture.??™ Is This Statement Accurate

???Greek medicine was fundamentally changed by its encounter with Islamic culture.??™ Is this statement accurate

The expansion of empires or cultures across new lands will always impact on the daily lives of a conquered population. Religious, social, political and economic differences may change the fundamental elements of society. Arguably, one the most important of these is medical practice. With the expansion of the Islamic world across the ancient Hellenistic empire in 750 CE the adoption of the Greek, Hippocratic humoural medical system was one that changed the Islamic approach to medicine fundamentally. This essay will discuss whether the cultural encounter fundamentally changed existing Greek medical theory. To understand this properly we will discuss and define the Greek medical fundamentals, examine whether the translation process had a large enough impact to change fundamentals and whether the Islamic culture itself was unable to adopt all the Greek ideas, in their original form, based on the strict Muslim cultural code.

Although there have been many significant Greek practitioners including Galen of Pergamum and others, ???the most influential theory was devised by Hippocrates??? (Brunton p. 151). It was his humoural medical theory that will define ???Greek medicine??™ for this essay. ???Hippocratic medicine was based on four humours: blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm… the humours exhibited four fundamental qualities ??“ they are hot, cold, wet or dry… a healthy body was one in which the different humours were in balance… summed up in one of the Hippocratic texts:
Health is when these constituents [the humours] are in due proportion to one another… Pain is experienced whenever one of these is deficient or in excess or isolated in the body and is not blended with all the others.??™ (Quoted in Nutton, 2004, p. 82), (Brunton p.152-153).
Disease ???was treated with drugs, diet and changes in lifestyle??™ to reflect the balance in humour. From the devising of the system to the medicines prescribed to treat ailments, ???the key characteristics of Greek medicine are that it is systematic (humours explain both health and disease, which are determined by following a logical set of rules) and rational (most disease has natural, not supernatural causes). (Brunton p. 157).

The extent of the Hellenistic empire meant that humoural medicine was practiced from ancient Greece, through the middle east and north east Africa. ???From the seventh century CE, humoural medicine spread even further with its adoption in the Islamic world.??™ expanding the exposure from the boarders of India to Spain. The expansion of the Islamic world coincided with an economic growth with large Muslim cities, such as Baghdad, becoming ???a cultural melting pot, attracting traders and scholars from across the Islamic world??™. The expansion brought Islamic scholars in contact with the Greek language and Greek ideas. Huge numbers of medical manuscripts were translated, especially those of Hippocrates and Galen (Brunton p. 157-158). Translation will always incur inaccuracies and interpretation. The cost of translation was high and often only parts of transcripts where copied, pages may go missing or be destroyed. Muslim scholars did their best to avoid miss translation even when faced with Greek words that had no Arabic translation, by creating new Arabic words by transliterating Greek words. As time went on, accuracy in translation increased, however few examples of translations of the same Greek text by more than one Islamic scholar have survived, suggesting the early translations may be less accurate. Although some minor mistakes may have been made during translation, it is unlikely that miss pronunciation or confusion of words would affect any fundamental Greek medical ideas or theories.
More likely to affect the core ideas and fundamentals of Greek medicine was the intentional modification of texts to make them fit Islamic culture. ???references to Greek Gods were routinely deleted from texts and replaced by Allah… remedies using alcohol, or materials taken from pigs… were dropped from Islamic pharmacy??™. So Islamic writers did change Greek manuscript.

Along side the rise of Greek medicine in the Islamic world was previous medical practice. This was mainly trial and error medicines although also incorporated Magic, believing that supernatural sources caused illness. These where treated with amulets and charms. This was referred to as ???folk medicine??™ and had no theoretical framework. With the rise of Islam, a religious medicine developed, modelled on the acts and sayings of the prophet Muhammed. This sometimes absorbed elements of Greek practice (Brunton p. 160).

Not all Greek texts where translated, thus subtly reshaping the body of Greek medical knowledge. (Brunton p. 160). However, scholars who had their entire works translated, such as Galan, based much of their work on Hippocrates and the humoural system. Also they adopted the Greek Systematic and Rational research approach, therefore the fundamentals of Greek medicine where still passed on.

The motivation of the translator was vital in the accuracy of the transcript. In order for a scholar to be wealthy enough to afford document to be translated, it is likely that he was involved in upper echelons of the Islamic society, were social, political and economic factors of the greater populous will be crucial in influencing there scholarly motives. At an early stage of an empire, built on Islamic principals, religion is a powerful motivator. Therefore, the more politically encouraged the sponsor of the translation, the more scope there may have been for Islamic re-interpretation.

But did these changes and emissions change the fundamentals of Greek medicine Islamic writers did change manuscripts to suit the culture, however, some more fundamental than others. For example, the input of Allah in place of the names of Greek Gods is unlikely to have changed fundamental principals, as supernatural influences had no impact on the theoretical framework of Greek medicine. However, in the same vein, the introduction (through previous Islamic habits) of religious medicine does challenge fundamental, Systematic and Rational approach taken by the Greeks.

In summary, the encounter of Islam with Greek medicine exposed the Hippocratic humoural system to a great number of people. This exposure required translations and teaching through many different languages and to cultures of existing medical procedures. The changes that naturally occurred through mistranslation and misinterpretation may have affected simple daily treatment or minor administration of medicine, but the fundamental application remained. As translations became more accurate this factor became less problematic. A major impact and change on the Greek medical system, was the intentional adaptation of Greek manuscript, during translation, to fit the strict Islamic culture. However, although these meant physical differences in the manuscripts and the omission of certain medicines, the fundamentals principals remained intact. The only fundamental challenge to Greek medicine was that of Religious and Magical medical practice. The use of supernatural causes of illness and disease treated with folk medicine goes against the Systematic and Rational principals that define Greek medicine. Since this practice worked along side Greek medicine and not incorporated into it, I conclude that the encounter of Islam did not fundamentally change Greek medicine.


The Open University (2008), Deborah Brunton, From Greece to the Middle east to Europe: The Transmition of medical KnowledgeI, AA100 The Arts Past and Present, Cultural Encounters.

Nutton, V. (2004) Ancient Medicine, London, Routledge.