A Foundation of Western Ophthalmology in Medieval Islamic Medicine

A Foundation of Western Ophthalmology in Medieval Islamic Medicine

By Daren Lin

The University of Western Ontario Medical Journal, Vol.78:1 (2008)

An Arabic manuscript, dated 1200 CE, titled Anatomy of the Eye, authored by al-Mutadibih.

Abstract: The conquests of Muhammad starting in the 7th century led to the spread of Islam and the teachings of the Qur’an, a theology believing that genuine health and happiness is the natural state of existence. While medieval Europe rejected the medical knowledge of the pagan Greeks, the early Islamic world was eager to assimilate and expand the Hellenistic medical teachings, emerging as the collector and preserver of Western medicine. For ophthalmology, an especially extensive literature developed. The prevalence of eye diseases in the Islamic lands resulted in particular interest in their skilful diagnosis and treatment. Using principles of clinical observation, many ocular diseases were described or classified for the first time. Intricate surgical excision with an array of minute instruments was used in the treatment of several external diseases of the eye such as pannus and pterygium. Suction removal of cataracts using a hollow needle was also described. Their advances in the knowledge of optics, anatomy, and physiology of the eye became major contributions to modern ophthalmology. Latin translations of the extensive Arabic literature on ophthalmology influenced late medieval Europe, and many of these contributions of early Islamic empire remain today. Medieval Islam made these advancements because it eagerly encouraged knowledge and physician thinkers from all cultures.

Three civilizations emerged from the fall of Rome in 476: the Byzantine Empire, the Early Medieval West, and Islam. The Islamic empire emerged as the sole preserver of the classical knowledge of ophthalmology and added contributions that are still significant today. The Islamic empire was able to achieve its great contribution to ophthalmology because of unique cultural conditions within its borders during its establishment and its golden age.

When Arabia was split into many different tribes in 622, Muhammad founded his ideal community in Medina, where religion and state became one. Muhammad gave specific instructions on various aspects of health, treating people himself, stressing that genuine health is the natural state of existence. With the prevalence of disease, medicine became a central part of medieval Islamic culture.

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