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Muslim Medicine: Translations of Ancient Arabic Texts

Very few of our books contain any Arabic, and most of those that do only have single terms scattered about in books written in English, German, or French, even when they are translations from texts originally in Arabic.

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Muhammad ibn Kassum ibn Aslam, al-Ghafiki. al-Morchid fi’l-kohhl [Le Guide d’Occ          Muhammad ibn Kassum ibn Aslam, al-Ghafiki. al-Morchid fi’l-kohhl [Le Guide d’Occ

Meyerhof’s translation of al-Morchid fi’l-kohhl by Al-Ghafiqi

Muhammad ibn Kassum ibn Aslam, al-Ghafiki. al-Morchid fi’l-kohhl [Le Guide d’Occuliste]. Translated into French by Max Meyerhof. 1933. Masnou-Barcelone: Laboratoires du Nord de l'Espagne, 1933.

BECKER M952 1933

Max Meyerhof, a renowned ophthalmalogist working in Egypt, published this translation of a twelfth-century occulist book in 1933. The title can be translated as The Right Guide to Ophthalmology which reflects the systematic way in which the author presents all available medical knowledge of the eye, though he starts with a long discussion of medicine and natural philosophy in general. Al-Ghafiqi, who died in 1165 CE, worked as an eye doctor in Cordoba when much of Spain was Muslim. The book shows that the physicians of the time had a complex understanding of the conditions of the eye and eyelids, which they treated with many different surgical procedures, ointments, and chemical medicines.   

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Title Page. Ibn Sina. Kitab al-Qanun fi al-Tibb. 1593.          Ibn Sina. Kitab al-Najat. 1593.

The Canon of Medicine [Al-Qanun fi al-Tibb] by Ibn Sina

Avicenna [Ibn Sina]. Kitab al-Qanun fi al-tibb (Romanized form). Romae: In typographia Medicea, 1593.

BECKER M952 1933 OS

One wonderful exception to the scarcity of Arabic books in the Becker Medical Library is the first Arabic edition printed in Europe of The Canon of Medicine (Kitāb ash-shifā) by Ibn Sina, which was also the first medical book printed in Arabic using a movable type printing press. Known in Latin as Avicenna for centuries, Ibn Sina was a Persian who had worked as a physician during the Abbasid period. He traveled widely in the Muslim world, moving often from patron to patron, and learned several languages, including Arabic, while still managing to write several of the greatest works of medicine of his time. Scholarship flourished in general in the Muslim world during the time of the Abbasids, which led to the creation of many outstanding scientific works. Like many of these books, The Canon of Medicine rests on a strong foundation of knowledge from Classical Greece, but the five volumes of Ibn Sina’s medical encyclopedia go far beyond the Greek medical tradition in the development of new ideas, such as the notions of sexually transmitted diseases, clinical trials, and neuropsychiatry.

Ibn Sina also stressed the importance of hygiene in maintaining health, documented the anatomy of the eye, and described tuberculosis as an infectious disease. This book advanced the field of medicine a great deal, and it remained a standard textbook in the universities of the Muslim and Christian worlds, including Catholic Europe, for several centuries.

Ibn Sina. Kitab al-Qanun fi al-Tibb. 1593.          Ibn Sina. Kitab al-Qanun fi al-Tibb. 1593.

The Medici Oriental Press published this volume in 1593 in Rome. Also known under its original name, Typographia Medicea, the press was established by Fernando I de Medici late in the 16th century to produce Arabic texts in their own language for scholars, as well as Christian religious works in eastern languages to help in the conversion of Muslims. This book was an unusual choice for the press in that Christians already had many copies of it in Latin, and it was just as popular in Arabic manuscripts. Perhaps the fact that the text existed as a full manuscript in Florence made it easy for Italian printers to produce as an edition.

The various readers who ended up owning this medical book obviously found great value in it over the centuries in any case. Several of them have marked the text with numerous notations and marginal additions.

The last portion of the volume contains Ibn Sina’s Kitab al-Najat (Book of Salvation) which is an abridgement of his huge book of philosophy.

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