A golden age of science and discovery happened well before what we tend to think of as the 'European' Renaissance. Way back in the 8th and 9th centuries, scientists, motivated by the growth of Islam, began making amazing achievements in the realm of medicine. A large number of these scientists were Muslim, whilst others were medics who were encouraged by the interest in learning and science that was stimulated by the spread of Islam throughout the Middle East and the south of Europe. Many of these achievements remain the foundation of much medical theory and practice. Below, you will find some of the wonderfully innovative treatments that were being discovered by medics over a millennium ago.

An ancient cure for morbid obesity

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In the 950s CE, king Sancho of Leon (in what is now northern Spain) was struggling to maintain control of his realm. His grandmother, Queen Toda Aznar, believed that this was due to her grandson's morbid obesity, and so she requested the finest medics in the land to find a cure. The cure was found by Hisdai ibn Shaprut, a physician of Jewish faith who worked for a nearby Caliph, the ruler of Cordoba. Hisdai ibn Shaprut devised a strict diet for Sancho, which slimmed him right down until he was able to get his kingdom back.

Early psychoanalysis

Early Muslim medics used various substances to create cures. They were well aware, for example, of the antiseptic properties of honey. However, one important aspect of their work could be described as psychological: getting to understand the causes of mental distress as well as physical pain. Dream interpretation, over a thousand years before Sigmund Freud wrote 'The Interpretation of Dreams' was right at the heart of this endeavour. One of the main treatises on dream interpretation in this period was written by Muhammad ibn Sirin, who lived in what is now Iraq.

Muslim medical schools: a hub of learning


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Famous medical schools were soon set up by Islamic scholars in various parts of the world, including in Cairo and what is now Turkey. These scholars drew in talent from all over what is now Europe, Africa and the Middle East and medics of all faiths, including Jewish and Christian medics, came to join them to pool their knowledge. Some of the most famous bright stars of this era were Al-Razi (a Persian medic who ran Baghdad's hospital) and Ibn Sina (who is often known as Avicenna in the West). Ibn Sina wrote a compendious work on medicine which is known as 'The Canon of Medicine'.

A continuous thread

Much Muslim work on medicine draws on even more ancient Greek sources by writers such as Hippocrates and Aristotle. As such, we can see this Islamic scholarship as forming a continuous thread with the classical Greek past and stretching forward right into the present. You may be surprised how much of our modern ideas about the body and mind (and everything from dieting to taking honey for a cold) are indebted to Muslim scholars way back in the 8th and 9th centuries.