An Untold Story: The Important Contributions of Muslim Scholars for the Understanding of Human Anatomy

by Malak A. Alghamdi, Janine M. Ziermann, Rui Diogo Published on: 5th June 2020

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It is usually assumed that Galen is one of the fathers of anatomy and that between the Corpus Galenicum and the Renaissance there was no major advance in anatomical knowledge. However, it is also consensually accepted that Muslim scholars had the intellectual leadership from the 8th/9th to 13th centuries, and that they made remarkable progresses in numerous scientific fields including medicine. So, how is it possible that they did not contribute to advance human anatomy during that period? According to the dominant view Muslim scholars exclusively had a passive role: their transmission of knowledge from the Greeks to the West. Here we summarize, for the first time in a single paper, the studies of major Muslim scholars that published on human anatomy before Vesalius. This summary is based on analyses of original Arabic texts and of more recent publications by anatomists and historians, and on comparisons between the descriptions provided by Galen and by these Muslim scholars. We show that Arabic speakers and Persians made important advances in human anatomy well before Vesalius. The most notable exception concerns the muscular system: strikingly, there were apparently no advances made by Muslims nor by Westerners for more than 1000 years. Unbiased discussions of these and other related issues, and particularly of the mainly untold story about the major contributions of Muslim scholars to anatomy, are crucial to our knowledge of the history of anatomy, biology and sciences, and also of our way of thinking, biases and prejudices.

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Note of the Editor: This article was originally published as: “An Untold Story: The Important Contributions of Muslim Scholars for the Understanding of Human Anatomy”, Anatomical Record, volume 300, issue 6, 986-1008 pp., 2017.

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Figure 2. of the veins from the skeletal system illustrated from Mansur’s Anatomy book dated 1261 Hijri (Khalili etal., 2010). (Source)

The Greeks incorporated medical and clinical anatomy theory from the Egyptians, which, in this sense, did play a key role in paving the way for the development of the anatomical sciences (Loukas et al., 2011; Standring, 2016). Galen (129-~199 AD) and Aristotle are usually considered the fathers of anatomy (Russel, 1916; Singer, 1957; Leroi, 2014). Yet Galen’s human anatomy was often wrong, because he never dissected humans, at least not to the public knowledge. The culture of human dissection developed mainly in the Christian West, in contrast to the Greco-Roman culture of the dead body, in which the human corpse was considered impure (Park, 2006). In fact, Galen based his descriptions of human anatomy on dissections of animals such as sheep, oxen, pigs, dogs, bears, and particularly the “Barbary ape”, an Old World monkey (Macaca sylvanus) that has a vestigial tail and thus superficially seems like an ape in this respect (Singer, 1957, 1959; Cole, 1975). Because the anatomy of this monkey is very different from that of humans, particularly concerning soft tissues such as muscles (Diogo and Wood, 2012), factual errors abounded in Galen’s descriptions of human anatomy. For instance, he did not describe the two most peculiar muscles of the human forelimb, the flexor pollicis longus and extensor pollicis brevis, as distinct muscles (more examples given in SI Table 1). Moreover, apart from such accurate descriptions of macaques that are inaccurate for humans, he inaccurately described features that are similar in humans and macaques, contributing to further errors about human anatomy. For example, he did not recognize the extensor carpi radialis brevis and longus as separate muscles (SI Table 1).

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Figure 3. Ibn al‐Haytham’s (965–1040) diagram of eye anatomy from his book of optics (Kita‐b Al‐Manazir ) (Reproduced with permission from Daneshfard etal. J Med Biogr, 2016, 24, 227–231). (Source)

 

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Figure 4. Full‐length figure of the skeletal system illustrated from Mansur’s Anatomy book (1394–1409) (Ibn Ilyas, 1709). (Source)

More known to the general public are Galen’s inaccuracies about the human skeletal system, which are also clearly based on observations of other animals, for example his descriptions of left and right lower jaws, a separate premaxilla, seven distinct sternal segments, and the coccyx with five pieces (Cole, 1975). His inaccuracies also refer to human body systems and to functional morphology and physiology. For instance, he stated that air enters the heart directly from the lungs, and that blood passes from one side of the heart to the other through the septum between these ventricles (Singer, 1957, 1959). These errors had crucial repercussions for anatomy in particular, and biology and science in general, because Galen so impressed the people of his time and of succeeding ages that for centuries his works were regarded as almost infallible (Singer, 1957, 1959).

The immense respect in which the name and work of Galen were held during centuries is partially related to the fact that, although he remained a pagan, he believed in one God and developed the idea that every organ in the human body was created by a God in the best possible form and for its perfect use, an idea that fitted in well with that of Christianity (Cunningham, 1997). However, despite its inaccuracies, the work of Galen profoundly increased the knowledge of human anatomy, and was also the basis for the Fabrica of Vesalius (1543). This latter work is often seen by historians as a “corrected and expanded version” of the Corpus Galenicum (Cole, 1975: 42). According to Cole (1975: 42), the “tendency to see nothing in Galen but his errors reveals a lack of knowledge and understanding, and is just as wrong as was the servile faith which for centuries proclaimed his infallibility”.

Figure 5.  Timeline of Muslim scholars from 7th–13th century AD. The lower row shows the years in Hijri , that is, after the Islamic calendar. (Source)

 

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Figure 6. Full‐length figure of the muscular system illustrated from Mansur’s Anatomy book (1394–1409) (Ibn Ilyas, 1709). (Source)

This short introduction to Galen’s work is crucial for the context of this paper because the dominant idea that is often defended in most textbooks is that “after Galen we encounter no biological activity for centuries” in Western literature, the “revival of anatomy” thus happening mainly with Vesalius (1514-1564) (Singer, 1959: 63-64, 98). However, these textbooks do recognize that in the 8th/9thC the intellectual leadership passed to the Muslim scholars and remained with them until the 13thC (e.g., Singer, 1957, 1959; Hehmeyer and Khan, 2007). But they mainly argue that Muslim scientists saved the Greek knowledge from total destruction by translating many scientific books, including numerous medical books, rather than by discovering new facts (e.g., Persaud, 1984; Muazzam and Muazzam, 1989).

The translating stage was very active during the 8thC, encouraged by the Caliph (ruler) Harun Al-Rashid (786–809), who designed Bayt Al-Hikma (The House of Wisdom) in Baghdad during the Golden Islamic Age (7th–15th or 16thC), and who was culminated under his son Al-Ma’mun. Arab, Persian and Christian scholars, like Hunayn ibn Ishaq who translated more than 129 works of Galen, were part of this educational institute (Meyerhof, 1926; Savage-Smith, 1995).

Many historians have started to recognize, in the last decades, that the traditional (19thC) view of history about the “Middle Ages” – i.e. that this period between the demise of Rome and the Renaissance mainly lacked innovation – is not correct. Historians of science, however, tented to retain this idea for a longer time, but in the last few decades this has also begun to change.

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Figure 7. A diagram that can be commonly found in the books of Muslim scholars showing the cranial sutures (Reproduced with permission from Contadini, Arab painting: text and image in illustrated Arabic manuscripts, 2007, 90, Brill). (Source)

They have adopted a broader outlook, recognizing various forms of exchange and circulation of knowledge among different geographical and cultural regions, and that Arabic speakers as well as Persians made major contributions to biological knowledge (e.g., Newman, 1998; Roger, 2000; Syed, 2002; Ihsanoglu, 2004; Tibi, 2006; Pormann and Savage-Smith, 2007; Abdel-Halim, 2008; Russel, 2010; Gotthard, 2012; Jurgen, 2012; Campbell, 2013; Yarmohammadi et al., 2013a, b; Dalfardi et al., 2014a, b, c; Ziaee, 2014).

However, the contribution of Muslim scholars for human anatomy in particular continues to be mainly an untold story for the broader public. Most recent works (e.g., Persaud et al., 2014) on the Muslim contribution to Science concern medicine, and the few focusing on anatomy are often very specific and/or published in specialized journals about a single Muslim scholar, about a very short period of time, and/or about a single region (e.g. Persia: Shoja and Tubbs, 2007). As a result, there is not even a single, accessible work that provides a review of all key Muslim scholars that had worked on human anatomy before Vesalius (1543), as we do here.

The main question we want to address in this paper is therefore the following. Were Muslim scholars able to build and improve anatomical knowledge using translations of the Greek books as a foundation? To discuss this question, we offer a detailed literature review that includes: 1) recent literature on this subject; 2) analyses of the original literature by Muslim scholars who published works on human anatomy before Vesalius (1543); and 3) a detailed comparison between the descriptions of Galen and those of the Muslim scholars, listing the specific nerves (Table 1) and muscles (SI Tables 1-3) reported by these scholars and by Galen (see also text below)…

Link for the full text: https://anatomypubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/ar.23523

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