Interview with Professor Nil Sari

by Kaleem Hussain Published on: 1st March 2009

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Professor Nil Sari Akdeniz, the head of the History of Medicine and Ethics Department of Istanbul University at the Cerrahpasha Medical School since 1983, is a world famous historian of Islamic medicine in general and of medical knowledge and practices in the Ottoman Empire and in modern Turkey in particular. In the following unpublished interview, carried on by Dr Mehrunisha Suleman in Istanbul in 2004 on behalf of FSTC and updated in February 2009 by Professor Sari, she expounds her opinion on some issues relating to Muslim Heritage, science and Islam, and her passion as a historian of medicine.


Note of the editor

In this interview performed in 2004 on behalf of FSTC and never published before, Professor Nil Sari chatted in Istanbul with Dr Mehrunisha Suleman, from Cambridge, UK. The interview was revised and updated by Professor Sari in February 2009.


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Figure 1: Professor Nil Sari with her Professorship formal dress.

Professor Nil Sari (Akdeniz) has been the head of the History of Medicine and Ethics Department of Istanbul University at the Cerrahpasha Medical School since 1983. She published extensively on various subjects related to the Islamic medicine in general, and of medical knowledge and practices in the Ottoman Empire and in modern Turkey in particular, including Holistic medicine, the influence of Islam on Medical practice and women dealing with health during the Ottoman period. She has won many prestigious prizes including the medal of the International Society for the History of Paediatric Surgery.

I had the rare opportunity to meet her in Istanbul and ask her opinion on some issues relating to Muslims and science. The following is a synopsis of her thoughts.

1. It is a duty upon every Muslim to seek knowledge. This primarily refers to knowledge of the religion. However, does Islam encourage knowledge in other fields like that of science?

The study of science and nature is one of the basic aims of being a Muslim. In the Quran there are verses that say look into nature and you will find what God has ordered. For instance: “Do they not look at the birds, held poised in the midst of (the air and) the sky? Nothing holds them up but (the power of) Allah. Verily in this are signs for those who believe” (Quran 16:79). Science allows the exploration of nature and is a means of gaining knowledge of what is happening around us, and its practice is a duty upon every Muslim.

Figure 2a-b: Professor Nil Sari during her presentation at the International Conference 1001 Inventions: Discover the Muslim Heritage in our World organised by FSTC in Manchester on 8 March 2006.

2. Why did the early Muslims do well in science but appear to have declined during the Ottoman period, as told by Western Historians?

I published in Turkish on this very question. After analysis, it has not yet been criticised by any contemporary scholar. Recently I translated it into English. After studying thousands of archive documents from the Ottoman period, one can conclude that the Ottoman rulers had a very high regard for science, especially medicine. The scholars of that time also held the same opinion. So, the reasons for the decline were not due to the discouragement of science but especially because of problems such as language.

The Ottoman world was composed of different tribes who spoke different languages. Sources written in Turkish start from the seventh century on, however for the Muslim Turks the Arabian language was considered to be the language of science as was Persian to some extent – like Latin was considered to be the language of science in the West. Many Turkish speaking Muslim people lived in Iran, Iraq, Syria and Egypt and from the 10th century on they contributed to literature written in Arabic and Persian. Following the 11th century, Turkish was spoken widely in Anatolia, and in the Balkan area from the 14th century on. However, those Turkish medical practitioners who were not scholars but layman, could not learn Arabic well, because methods of teaching languages were not established extensively then. This was a great problem for the Ottoman medical practitioners in Anatolia, as it meant they could not understand Arabic medical literature well. So, from the 14th century on Ottoman medical manuscripts began to be written in Turkish and translated into Turkish. When you read the forwards of these medical manuscripts or translations you see phrases where the writers give reasons for writing in Turkish, because Turkish was not accepted as a scientific language then. The reasons given were an apology for their less scientific approach. Turkish practitioners needed manuscripts to work from, and as most of them did not understand Arabic well they had to have work written in Turkish. Also, some Turkish physicians went to other Arabic speaking countries like Egypt and practised medicine there. They then returned to cities like Istanbul and taught the medicine written in Arabic.

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Figure 3: Professor Nil Sari with the staff of FSTC, including Dr. Okasha El Daly, Prof. Mohammad Abattouy and Dr. Salim Ayduz, during the International Conference History of Science among Arabs and Muslims organised by the University of Sarjah, UAE, in March 2008.

Another problem that occurred with language regarded what happened before the period of the Renaissance in Europe and that prepared it. The European people started to translate the Arabic medical literature into Latin and into their own languages, like German, French and English. This form of translation continued until the 19th century. In the Ottoman world, however, Turkish speaking people and non-Turkish speaking Muslim people did not understand the European languages. The Greeks, the Armenians and especially the Jewish population knew these European languages well, but no concerted effort was organised to translate science and medicine from European languages into Turkish and Arabic.

The first contact of the Ottomans with European medicine was when a large Jewish population was invited by the Sultans to Istanbul, from Spain and other European countries. However, these Jewish people did not know Turkish. Maybe only long years after their migration their children and grandchildren were able to translate the manuscripts properly into Turkish. They, unfortunately, lost the contact with the European world that their parents and grandparents had, so the knowledge was not passed on.

In the modern period, the Muslims did not know other languages and were, therefore, unable to translate works bringing the product of the new knowledge. This meant the transfer of science was insufficient. Even in the 19th century, there was a weak knowledge of European languages among the Muslims. The result was that science, medicine and various fields of knowledge knew a great progress in Europe from the 17th century, while in parallel the Muslim tradition lost progressively its previous brilliancy and declined.

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Figure 4: Professor Nil Sari during the opening ceremony at Amasya Conference in front of Amasya’s Dar al-Shifa gate.

One of the major reasons for the difference in progress between the Muslim world and Western Europe is the substantial difference in their methods of approach in gaining scientific information. Traditionally, Ottoman medical practitioners were disturbed to practice new and unknown methods in the treatment of patients. This unwillingness causing conservatism, from time to time, was a precaution because of fearing harming the patient. The responsibility to use the valid medical knowledge in treatment is nowadays an important norm of morality and law, too. It is not possible to progress in science without experimentation, which means harming nature less or more. There are examples of this evaluation in numerous pieces of the Ottoman literature. In order to make a new discovery, the Europeans throughout history and until recently had fewer qualms about harming something in the process, than do Muslims. For example, effects of drugs are studied in mammals by testing them on monkeys and dogs, often resulting in the fatality of the organism – the same happens with human subjects or patients. It was impossible for a Muslim to carry out an experiment on a human being. There are many phrases written by Ottoman physicians, which say that you should not experiment on humans and you should not harm the human. If you have such a value it is very hard to progress in the field of medicine.

In the 19th century, however, there was a positivistic approach under which the Ottoman physicians started such experiments on animal and human subjects and patients, and they did find new scientific facts. In my work, I am in the process of gathering these scientific discoveries. The different system of values between the Turks and the Europeans led to their different advancements. We do, however, have some major and minor contributions from the Turkish physicians, in the second half of the 19th century and early 20th century, when they changed their scientific approach.

3. Did Ottoman science ever reach a pinnacle? If so, when do you think this took place?

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Figure 5: One of the marvellous mosque illustrations of Nil Sari.

During the Ottoman period there were some interesting discoveries introduced into the medical world. There were some very famous physicians and surgeons whose work, unfortunately, has been very poorly studied. For example, one Turkish scholar named Sherafeddin Sabuncuoghlu translated Al-Zahrawi’s work and also added new knowledge and experiences, such as medicines and surgical techniques, to his translation. However, if no research is done of these works nothing can be known. There are many unknown physicians and medical literature of the Ottoman period that have only been discovered recently.

A problem facing the investigation of these manuscripts is that the Turkish alphabet has been changed and the scientific methodologies as well. This makes the understanding of the manuscripts more difficult. Expert medical historians have to study these manuscripts in order to highlight the discoveries within them, and then only will we be able to know their true contribution.

4. What is the best method by which one can research the contributions of Muslims to science, especially those of Muslim women?

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Figure 6: Illustration of a mosque relief from Tire Museum, drawn and coloured by Nil Sari.

A big project must be started in this field. Firstly, a list should be drawn up of the manuscripts to be studied. Young people must start to read and transcribe such manuscripts. The Western medical historians have read and published most of their basic medical work. We have not done this. Our scholars and our state do not have such an aim, because there is no profit to be earned from this. It is important that affluent people support such projects.

The best method is to co-operate with specialists who know Arabic, Turkish, and Persian etc. and are thus able to translate the various written works. Reading and translating manuscripts is a hard work and requires a great deal of time and experience; therefore, working with specialists in the field is essential.

Women did not have a very active role in science in the Muslim world, nor in the Western world in the past. They did, however, have a very important part to play socially. Funding of mosques, schools, hospitals and fountains for the public, on many occasions, were provided by Muslim women. So they contributed to the social life of people rather than to science itself. It is, therefore, very difficult to find the scientific contribution of Muslim women. However, even in the Western world women only began to contribute to science in the 19th century. If you consider admission of women into Western schools and those in Turkey, you can see they were admitted into Turkish schools much earlier.

5. Why is there a general trend where patients are choosing complementary or holistic medicine as a means of healing, rather than contemporary medicine?

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Figure 7: The cover page of Amasya Selçuklu Osmanli Mimarisi ve Bezemeleri. Ord. Prof. Dr. Süheyl Ünver Nakishanesi Yorumuyla. Amasya Valiligi yay., Ist., 2007.

Contemporary medicine is very cold. The relationships are not humane and are too technical. The buildings and the aggressive methods do not provide a healing environment that is essential for a patient. Even though there is a move towards improving the practice, there is still a lot that needs to be changed.

Also, the people who search for other methods are those that are not cured by contemporary methods, e.g. cancer patients and those who suffer from other chronic diseases. People need to hope for treatment, and contemporary medicine gives so to say no hope to the patient. In Christianity and Islam, hopefulness is an important element. I think there will be a fight in the near future between truthfulness and hopefulness. Our brain is in control of our emotions and of our innate healing systems. So, if we do not believe in the treatment there is little hope of being treated.

Alternative medicine is, however, very hard to categorise. This is because it is hard to obtain statistical data about its success, as each practice is unique. Every procedure is different in order to provide the correct therapy for each subject. Therefore, the process of repeating and proving results is more difficult.

In my opinion, if contemporary medicine is to change, women rather than men will bring it about. When women in the past were treating people in the Eastern and Western world it was very different, until the 19th Century when men entered the field aggressively. Women then were not admitted into the medical field. If they were also permitted to become medical practitioners, contemporary medicine would have had a very different outcome. One can say that in general men are the cause of the “coldness” of contemporary medicine.

6. Now that we are part of the birth of the 21st century, in amidst a plethora of technological advances, where do Muslims stand in the field of science?

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Figure 8: The cover page of Kayseri Selçuklu Osmanli Mimarisi ve Bezemeleri. Ord. Prof. Dr. Süheyl Ünver Nakishanesi Yorumuyla. Dogus Ofset Matb. Ltd. Sir., Kayseri 2007. 2008’de Belediye 2 Baskiyi yapti.

This varies from country to country in the Muslim world. Areas that are overcome by wars do not have the chance to advance. The political wars should end, firstly, in the Islamic world. When there is war and poverty there will be no science and art. You need peace and money for science and art to develop. You also need time. There are many political problems and opposing beliefs in the Muslim world. In contrast to this, the people in the West have similar values and beliefs. In Turkey there are Eastern and Western values, which are always disputed, even in the universities. So, changes must take place in order to provide the correct platform on which scientific research and development can be carried out in the Muslim world.

Young people today are more interested in Western entertainment rather than science and literature. They are more concerned with money and being rich, and they choose their professions according to this. Many young people do not have ideals like trying to make progress in the field of science. If the youth do not have such goals it will not aid the future of scientific research.

In order to provide a cultural asset to the dissemination of science, we created a museum on Islamic Medical History at the University of Istanbul, at the Cerrahpasha Medical School, which is open to the public and can be visited. Other future projects I am working on include the study of Ottoman herbal medicine and Islamic values of Medical ethics.

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