Botany, Herbals and Healing In Islamic Science and Medicine

The scholars of Islamic culture worked extensively in the combined fields of botany, herbals and healing. Several scholars contributed to the knowledge of plants, their diseases and the methods of growth. They classified plants into those that grow from cuttings, those that grow from seed and those that grow spontaneously. Great Muslim figures such as Al-Dinawari, Ibn Juljul and Ibn al-Baytar made great progress in the field, as this article demonstrates. Muslim botanists knew how to produce new fruits by grafting; they combined the rose bush and the almond tree to generate rare and lovely flowers. The royal botanical gardens contained an endless variety of plants, indigenous and exotic, cultivated for their brilliant foliage, their delightful fragrance, or their culinary and medicinal virtues. In particular, they dealt with plants in a variety of ways, which included their study from a philological perspective, but most importantly for their curative and healing properties.

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FSTC Research Team*

Table of contents

1. Plants in Islamic scholarship

2. Herbs and Healing in Islamic Scholarly Tradition

3. Al-Dinawri the founder of Arabic botany

4. Botanical contributions from the Western Islamic tradition

4.1. Ibn Juljul
4.2. Ibn Samjun
4.3. Ibn Al-Wafid
4.4. Al-Ghafiqi
4.5. Al-Idrisi
4.6. Al-Qalanisi
4.7. Ibn Sirabiyun and Ibn al-Suri

5. Ibn al-Baytar

6. Medicinal Plants and their Actions

6.1. Syrups
6.2. lohochs
6.3. Decoctions

7. Conclusion

8. References


The Qur'an provided the initial impetus for the investigation of herbs by Islamic writers, for plants are named in the depiction of Paradise and are used as signs of the Creator's power and majesty [1].

Inspired by their faith, Muslims worked extensively in this area. Several scholars contributed to the knowledge of plants, their diseases and the methods of growth. They classified plants into those that grow from cuttings, those that grow from seed and those that grow spontaneously [2].

Figure 1a-b: Composite images illustrating the diversity of plants. (Source a - Source b).

Muslim botanists knew how to produce new fruits by grafting; they combined the rose bush and the almond tree to generate rare and lovely flowers [3]. The royal botanical gardens contained an endless variety of plants, indigenous and exotic, cultivated for their brilliant foliage, their delightful fragrance, or their culinary and medicinal virtues [4].

In particular, they dealt with plants in a variety of ways, which included their study from a philological perspective, but most importantly for their curative and healing properties. This latter function of plants is the focus of the second half of this article, following a review of the Muslim approach to plants from other perspectives.

1. Plants in Islamic scholarship

Considerable information about herbs is contained in medieval Islamic literature, where plant life is closely associated with philology, medicine and agronomy. In addition, plants were discussed in philosophical, magical, encyclopaedic and geographic works [5].

Since al- Al-Asma'i (740-828 C.E.), author of the famous Kitab al-nabat wa-'l-shajar, to eliminate doubt concerning the correct meaning of a botanical term, the philologists described the plant, including the names of its different parts as well as the synonyms which refer to it. Among these synonyms are the names which the plant carries during its different stages of growth [6]. As for systematics, all kinds of different systems may be encountered, ranging from the simple alphabetical order to divisions according to practical use; divisions into trees, flowers, and garden vegetables; into trees (including shrubs) and plants, with a further subdivision of the latter group; trees may also be subdivided according to the edible qualities of the skins and kernels of their fruit [7].

Many of the Muslim early philological works are lost, such as that of Al-Shaybani (d. ca. 204/820), Ibn Al-Arabi (d. 231/844), Al-Bahili (d. 231/845) and Ibn as-Sikkit (d. 243/857), but their works, however, are extensively quoted in later books by Abu Hanifa Al-Dinawari, Ibn Sidah [8] and others.

As a result of the wide geographical spread of Islam and extensive travel within its territories, adding information from Middle Eastern, Indian, and North African sources, there emerged a rich botanical literature in which Muslim authors sought to determine the true significance of the plants and to establish their synonyms. Progressively, the enlarged plant terminology supplemented and often replaced the older Arabic nomenclature [9].

Figure 2: Two sample pages from Ibn al-Baytar's treatise Jâmi mufradat al-adwiya wa-'l-aghdiya. Suleymaniye Library, Ayasofya, MS 3748. Read: Nil Sari, Food as Medicine in Muslim Civilization.

Ibn Hajjaj, in his Sufficient, covered the subject of botany, combining it with grammatical considerations [10]. In several literary works of belles lettres, Al-Djahiz and Ibn Qutayba described curious aspects of plants. In the scientific field, the chemical corpus of Jabir ibn Hayyan discussed herbs used in the composition of elixirs [11]. Abu Ubaid al-Bakri wrote a treatise on the plants and trees of Andalusia [12], whilst the anonymous ‘Umdat al-tabib fi ma'rifat al-nabat li-kull labib was a pioneering attempt at the classification of plants by genus (jins), species (naw') and variety (sanf), which surpassed all previous classifications [13]. The well know Andalusian philosopher Ibn Bajja (Avempace, d. 1138,) was also interested in botany. In Kitab al-nabat (liber de Plantis), he dealt with the physiology of plants and emphasised their infinite variety. He divided plants into the perfect and imperfect (those lacking the main organs), and also wrote on their reproduction cycles [14].

Muslim scholars were fully conscious of the fact that the plants distribution is profoundly modified by the changes of topography and difference in the character of the soil. Accordingly, they distinguished a number of plant types according to whether the plant is found in deserts and wilderness, on mountain tops, on the river bank, on the sea-shore, in lakes, in hollows, in sandy soil, in alkaline soil or in good soil [15]. Thus it is clear that the majority of the plants grow on the surface of the earth but a few of them grow in water, like cane, rice, narcissus and some species of reeds. Among the plants are those which grow on the surface water such as sea weed and green moss [16]. Another type of plant is that which grows on trees such as creepers, and another still is that which grows on hard rocks, such as Khadra' al-dimam (a thorny bush) [17].

Ibn Juljul of Cordova is appreciated for his personal, local knowledge, and ability to locate the geographic origin of plants. On Sasaliyus (Seseli), he says: `I have frequently seen it in Galicia.' On Fu (Valeriana), he declares that he has seen it often, and it grows plentifully in the mountains around Toledo [18]. On Qurrat al-'ayn (Nasturtium or Sium), he states ‘this small bush is plentiful in our area' (‘indana) [19]. He saw it mostly at the foot of the mountains of Cordova, and has often collected it there and stored it for use. In the article on Thaisiya (Thapsia), Ibn Samjun reports on the authority of Ibn Juljul and Ibn al-Haytham, "among our learned men" (min ‘ulamd'ina) that it comes from the Maghrib, from Fez and other places; Ibn Juljul says that it is imported from there to Cordova [20].

Kruk points out that a very interesting part of mediaeval Islamic botany is found in the work of scholars who discuss botanical problems of a more general nature. Such discussions may also be found in a theological context, where they serve as proof of God's wisdom. For instance, Al-Ghazali (d. 505/1111) [21] describes creation, from the heavens down to the plants [22]. Another example is Ibn al-Nafis' minute description of how the different parts of plants develop from the seed [23]. Most important, however, in this respect are the natural philosophers, who discuss subjects such as the place of plants on the scale of living beings; the concept of species, and the measure in which species were fixed or variable; reproduction, including spontaneous and artificial generation, the latter belonging to the field of magic and alchemy; the measure of sensibility of plants; and the functions of their different parts [24]. Extensive references to plants and flowers are not only found in Bedouin poetry, but also in later poetry, especially in the genres of rawdiyat, rabi'iyat and zahriyat, that is poems concerning gardens, springs and flowers [25].

Figure 3a-d: Arabic botanical manuscript from the 15th century arranged in alphabetical order with illustrations of plants in vivid colours at Princeton University Library, MS 583H. © Princeton University Library, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections. See the electronic edition of the manuscript.

Muslim travellers, for their part, provided a very rich account on the nature, variety, location, and above all the origin of various plants. Their writings compose a precious literary heritage. Together with the relevant writings of other experts in various fields, these text constitute the first extensive and systematic botanical survey of vast and diverse lands. The Cordova physician Al-Ghafiqi was born in Ghafiq, a town near Cordova in 1165. In his travels through Spain and North Africa, he collected plants, giving their names in Arabic, Latin and Berber, precisely and accurately [26]. Abu Zakariya, another botanist and agriculturist, worked in Seville in the latter part of the 12th century. His treatise on agriculture, known as Al-Filaha, was the outstanding medieval work on the subject [27]. He consulted Greek and Arabic authorities, and got much of his material from the study of husbandry in Spain itself. He discussed five hundred and eighty-five plants and described the cultivation of some fifty fruit trees. He made new observations on grafting and discussed the properties of soil and methods of fertilizing it [28].

The Moroccan traveller Ibn Battuta (d. 1377) described in his Rihla the fruit of Isfahan (apricots, quince, grapes, watermelons, coconut) and the fruit trees of India (the mango tree and sweet orange). In Malabar, he draws attention to cinnamon and the Brazil nut; in the Maldives, he observes the coconut tree, the palm tree, the lemon tree and others, whilst in Java, his attention is caught by benzoin, camphor and clove amongst others [29].

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Figure 4: Front cover of Ibn al-Baytar (d. 646 H / 1248 AD): Tafsir kitab Diyasquridus fi al-adwiya al-mufrada (A Commentary on Dioscorides' Materia Medica), edited by Ibrahim Ben Mrad (Carthage (Tunisia): Bayt al-hikma, 1990).

Botanical data may be found in encyclopaedias, such as those of Al-Qazwini and Al-Nuwayri, and geographies, such as those of Al-Biruni and Al-Idrîsî [30]. A lost treatise of Al-Idrîsî on Materia Medica has been discovered in Constantinople. It contains a description of 360 simples (medicines, generally vegetable, containing only one ingredient), and is very important, if not from the medical, at least from the botanical point of view [31]. There is also the impressive account of Egyptian flora by ‘Abd al-Latif al-Baghdadi, who visited Egypt in 1203 [32].

2. Herbs and Healing in Islamic Scholarly Tradition

One of the major uses of plants and herbs was for healing purposes. In Egypt, more than anywhere else, the population has retained the tradition of seeking healing by means of simples, the knowledge of whose healing powers have been transmitted from generation to generation [33]. Everyone understands their health problems and what is needed to cure them, be they simples from the animal vegetable or mineral worlds [34]. A cure is sought from a druggist; a physician is only consulted when matters reach levels of high gravity [35]. Throughout the Muslim world, the method of obtaining drugs for the treatment of the sick varied considerably at different times and places [36]. In some instances the patient was told what drugs to get with instructions as to how the medicine should be taken; in others he was given a prescription that had to be filled out by the pharmacist; in many instances the physician compounded the prescription from his own supply of drugs and sold it to the patient. Too often the pharmacist recommended a remedy after hearing the patient's complaint, without examining him. However, in the latter part of the Abbasid period, the well-to-do patient was given a prescription that had to be filled out by the pharmacist. When treating a nobleman or a person of high rank, the physician was supposed to take a draught of the medicine in his presence as a guarantee that it was a safe remedy [37].

During the latter part of the Abbasid period and the Western Caliphate, Muslims made real contributions to the knowledge of organic and inorganic medicinal remedies, as well as their compounding of these remedies [38]. The separation of the medical from the pharmaceutical professions was started by the Abbasids, largely due to the advances that had been made in Materia Medica and the knowledge of compounding drugs. The large hospitals in Iraq had a pharmacist on their staff, and a well-equipped pharmacy, where drugs were compounded and the physicians' prescriptions were filled [39]. In these pharmacies drugs and spices were stored [40]. Amongst the Baghdadi scholars was Masawaih al-Maradini, a Jacobite Christian doctor from Mardin in Upper Mesopotamia, who lived first in Baghdad and then under the reign of Caliph Hakim in Cairo [41]. He became famous, at least in the Latin West, for his pharmacopoeia, which was divided into several sections, dealing with correctives to medicines, simple purgative remedies, composite medicines and lastly medicines intended for specific individual diseases [42].

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Figure 5: Rare manuscript copy of book of simple drugs attributed to Ibn al-Baytar, held in The Royal Library, Copenhagen Cod. Arab. 114 folio 2b. In fact the manuscript is a copy of Kitâb Taqwîm al-Adwiyah fî mâ-shtahara min-al- a'shâb wa-l-aqâqîr wa-l-aghdhiyah (Book for determining medicaments of those herbs, medical plants and nourishments which are publicly known) by Ibrâhîm ibn Abî Sa'îd al-Maghribî al-'Alâ'î, who wrote it in the middle of the 12th century. (Source).

The dominant feature, however, is that nearly all drugs were derived from plants, with a much smaller proportion of animal and mineral origin [43]. Abul-Abbas, of Seville, was the first to apply the principles of botanical science —previously principally devoted to agriculture— to the purposes of the apothecary and the physician [44]. Regulation of diet was an important recommendation, together with respecting the first principle of medicine, that is the preservation of health preceded the medicinal use of plants, and respect of the second principle, the restoration of health when it was lost or weakened [45]. However, there was no very clear dividing line between food and medicine, and many plant products might well fall into both categories [46].

Al-Dinawari (d. 895 A.D) might well be termed the ‘father of Muslim botany'. His work was, in good Arab tradition, a poetic anthology about plants, but this did not prevent it from containing serious scientific descriptions of exact terminological precision. Medieval doctors and pharmacists had to know it by heart in order to gain the authority to practice [47].

Earlier than Al-Dinawari, were Al-Kindî and Al-Tabari. Al-Tabari's (d. 855) encyclopaedic work entitled Firdaws al-Hikma (The Paradise of Wisdom), although including many other sciences such as climatology, astronomy and philosophy, devotes an important section to botany. Al-Kindî (ca. 800-ca. 866), however, was an innovator in the production of a herbal manual with the main objective of teaching useful botanical pharmacology, as well as toxicology and medicines gained from minerals [48]. His Aqrabadhin (Medical formulary) includes 222 recipes employing at least 319 substances known to Muslim pharmacology in the 9th century [49].

As is generally the case with early Islamic scientists (Jabir Ibn Hayyan, Hunayn Ibn Ishaq and others), the Greek influence is clearly visible for example with Ibn Wahshya (860-ca. 935). As in Byzantine pharmacy and medical botany, Scarborough notes, there is little separating the lore of the farm from medical herbalism, and there is little that divides toxicology from folklore in the Kitab al-sumum wa-'l-tiryaqat (Book of poisons and antidotes) attributed to Ibn Wahshiya [50]. However, the same author was also responsible for Al-Filaha al-nabatiya (Nabatean Agriculture), the first comprehensive encyclopaedia on plants and agriculture [51], which is comprehensively summarised by Fahd [52]. Fahd provides a succinct and yet immensely informative summary of a complete classification of plants derived from the