This is a 25 minute documentary from Al Jazeera about ancient medicine during the Islamic Golden Age, which dates from around the 8th – 13th centuries. What I find interesting about this documentary is that it not only explains some of the history of Islamic medicine, but also how it’s connected to the history of making books.

Before the link to the video are quotes to what I found to be interesting segments of the documentary. They’re labeled with the point of the video you can find them in, if you want to skip around.


It was during the Islamic golden age that medicine started to be treated as a true science with emphasis on empirical evidence and repeatable procedures. During that time, medical books were written. They became standard texts throughout the world for many hundreds of years.

Standing in one of the largest neo-natal units in the world at Hamad Hospital in Qatar, you would not immediately be able to draw a link between the pioneering medical research being conducted and the work of physicists from the 9th century. In this episode of Science in the Golden Age, theoretical physicist Jim al-Khalili guides us through a journey of discovery where he highlights the links between medical research in the Golden Age of Science during the 9th and 14th centuries and the modern practice of medicine today. At Hamad Hospital, a new treatment is being trialled for babies born with a neurological disorder called neo-natal encephalopathy. Senior consultant Dr Samawal Lutfi explains how the double blind placebo control method ensures the accuracy of the study.

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“This idea of a control group actually goes back 1000 years to a Persian physician by the name of Al-Razi who built the first hospitals in Baghdad, who was looking into the causes and treatments of meningitis and I believe he had not only his sample of patients, but he had a control group to which he wasn’t administering the treatment.”

6:25 “During the golden age, the dissection of human bodies was considered disrespectful. In the 17th century, William Harvey famously carried out his groundbreaking research into the circulation of blood and the function of the heart. But in 1924 an ancient document was discovered. This was a text written by Ibn al-Nafis, a 13th century Arab physician. In it he described the basics of pulmonary circulation, how blood doesn’t move across from one side of the heart to the other, but has to take the long way around. Around the body. This 400 years before Harvey.”

8:47 “For centuries the accepted view had been that of the renowned Greek physician Galen. Galen said that blood passes directly the right and left ventricles of the heart through tiny holes in the septum, the dividing wall that separates them. Ibn al-Nafis was the first to challenge Galen’s view. He established that there weren’t any holes so there had to be another way for blood to pass from right to left.”

9:55 “Galen said that there are holes in the septum. But if you open the right ventricle, like I’m doing now, it is solid. Ibn al-Nafis was absolutely right.”

10:12 “Ibn al-Nafis stated that the blood must first pass through the lungs where he said it mingled with air before it came back to the heart and was pumped around the body. Ibn al-Nafis’s description wasn’t one accepted at the time and it wasn’t until his manuscript was rediscovered in the 20th century that his work was universally recognized. It’s now part of the long history of medicine that continues to evolve today.”

11:28 “Early hospitals did exist in 8th and 9th century Baghdad, but these were little more than hostels for the sick offering care, but not much in the way of cure. However hospitals as we recognize them today, giving treatments and offering medicine for free, did begin to appear around the empire in cities such as Cairo and Damascus.”

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11:55 “In order for these hospitals to provide care, they needed a knowledge of medicines and surgery. The most important work of the golden age was written by the great 10th century philosopher and physician Ibn Sina, better known by his Latin name Avicenna. This is my personal copy of his great text The Canon of Medicine. The full work was a multi-volume group of texts that took on where the Greeks left off, physicians like Galen and Hippocrates. In this first volume, he describes human anatomy in great detail. And what I love is that he talks about things like the muscles of the face and then goes on to talk about the muscles of the forehead, the muscles of the eyeball, even the muscles of the eyelid. He then works his way through the entire human anatomy. In other texts he describes a surgery, other illnesses and their treatments. It’s medical knowledge as they understood it then. It contained a lot of superstition, but a lot of common sense as well. The point is, this text was so important it was still being used around the world over 500 years later.”

13:19 “During the golden age, herbal remedies weren’t an alternative to mainstream medicine. They were all they knew. And as the empire grew, travelers brought back new plants from far and wide so new drugs were discovered and administered.”

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Pide – typical turkish bread with nigella seeds

A doctor in Istanbul planted 26 medicinal plants based on the Canon of Medicine. One example from his garden is black cumin, nigella sativa, an antitoxin used for snake bites and rheumatism. The seeds now are used as a topping on Turkish pide bread.

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14:00  Wormwood, a remedy from a long time ago, is used to treat colds. “During the golden age, every hospital would have had an herb garden just like this. It was their drugstore. And it’s interesting that we’re hearing those same remedies are still prescribed and used in modern times.”
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The Islamic medical texts became easier to copy with the adoption of Chinese paper making. Because the manuscripts had to be created by hand, it created a great demand for calligraphers. The scholars of the golden age perfected paper making and simpler forms of calligraphy. Ibn Sina’s Canon of Medicine was translated into Latin and still in use into the 16th century, which then influenced people of the Renaissance.

“Science tends to be a good subject to bring different people from all over the world together because everybody is seeking new knowledge. So it’s a good platform to build connectivity and a kind of multi-cultural environment for everyone to talk and discuss these things.”

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