Surgery

by Rabie Abdel-Halim Published on: 10th November 2021

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There can be little doubt that physicians and surgeons living in the lands of medieval Islamic civilisation made a significant contribution to the field of surgery. They developed new techniques and procedures, invented new instruments, and recommended new drugs...

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Note of the Editor: This article, “Surgery” written by Rabie E. Abdel-Halim, is Chapter 7, Pages 76-85, extracted from the book “1001 Cures: Contributions in Medicine & Healthcare from Muslim Civilisation” editor Peter Pormann, published by the Foundation for Science, Technology and Civilisation, UK (FSTC).

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Many physicians in the medieval Arabo-Islamic medical tradition wrote on surgery. They often did so either in surgical monographs or medical encyclopaedias and handbooks. Two earlier authors living in Muslim Spain were al-Zahrāwī (about whom more later) and Ibn Zuhr (whom we have already encountered above). Ibn Zuhr wrote a medical handbook, the Easy Guide to Therapy and Dietetics, in which he often touches on surgery. Another author from the Iberian peninsula was Muḥammad ibn ʿAlī ibn Faraj al-Shafra al-Qirbilyānī (from ‘Qirbilyān’, i.e. Crevillente near Alicante; d. 1322). He composed an independent book on surgery with the rhyming title The Book that Enquires Thoroughly and Establishes Firmly How to Treat Wounds and Swellings (Kitāb al-Istiqṣāʾ wa-l-ʾibrām fī ʿilāj al-jirāḥāt wa-l-ʾawrām). It is largely excerpted from al-Zahrāwī…

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Figure 1. Two patients in front of a physician, with some surgical instruments on the table. From De Materia Medica by Dioscorides.

Another, much more substantial monograph on the topic was written by the Christian physician Abū l-Faraj ibn al-Quff (1233–86). His large work on surgery is called The Mainstay in the Art of Surgery (Kitāb al-ʿUmda fī ṣināʿat al-jirāḥa). Ibn Abī Uṣaibiʿa (d. 1270) described it as ‘a book comprising twenty chapters, both theory and practice, in which all that a surgeon needs is mentioned so that he does not need anything else’ (ed. Müller 1882, vol. 2, 273–4). The first nineteen chapters deal with definitions, anatomy, the physiology of simple and compound parts of the body, the aetiology of diseases requiring surgery, general surgical principles, and surgical management in various parts of the body. The twentieth and last chapter is arranged in the form of a ‘pharmacopoeia (aqrabādhīn)’, listing recipes for compound drugs used by surgeons…

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Figure 2. Surgical instruments are illustrated in a Hebrew translation of al-Zahrāwī’s Surgery.

By far the most famous of the Arabo-Islamic surgeons, however, is al-Zahrāwī, known in the Western literature as Albucasis, Abulcasis, Bucasis (Latinized forms of his Arabic kunya, or cognomen, ‘Abū l-Qāsim’). He was an innovative surgeon who added many original contributions to surgery and medicine. His main work bears the rather long rhyming title The Arrangement of Medical Knowledge for One Who is Not Able to Compile a Book Himself (Kitāb al-Taṣrīf li-man ʿajiza ʿan al-taʾlīf. It consists of thirty treatises and represents an encyclopaedia of medicine and surgery. The thirtieth treatise (maqāla) is further divided into three books: book one ‘on cauterization’; book two ‘on the incision, perforation, and venesection, and wounds and the like’; and book three ‘on bone-setting.

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Figure 3. Surgical instruments from Fusṭāṭ (Old Cairo), 9th century.

At the beginning of book three, al-Zahrāwī addresses his readers in the following terms:

“You should know, my sons, that ignorant practitioners, laymen and those who have never turned the pages of a single book of the Ancients about it [sc. bone-setting], nor studied a single letter of it, arrogate this part of the art to themselves. For this reason, this section of the science has died out in our land, and I have myself found no one competent in it. So whatever skill I have, I have derived for myself by my long reading of the books of the Ancients and my thirst to understand them until I extracted the knowledge of it from them. Then through the whole of my life I have adhered to experience and practice. So now I have described to you in this book all that my knowledge has encompassed on the subject and that my experience has encountered; I have made it accessible for you and rescued it from the abyss of prolixity; I have reduced it to a brief outline; and have explained it most clearly. I have made for you many drawings of the instruments that are used in it, which is an adjunct to explanation, as I did in the two previous books. And there is no power save in God the High, the Great.” eds Spink/Lewis 1973, 676–7.

 

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