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Medicine and Health in Medieval Arabic Poetry: An Historical Review

Rabie E Abdel-Halim


This review of medieval Arabic medical poetry is based on our study of the two major classical biographical encyclopedias: "Uyoon Al Anbaa Fi Tabaqaat Al Atibbaa" ("Essential Information on the Classes of Physicians"), authored by the 13th century scholar Ibn Abi Usubiaa, and "Al-Shier wa Al Shoaraa" (Poetry and Poets) by the ninth century Ibn Qutaiba. Several other primary medieval sources were also studied. Medically-related verses in all these sources have been collected and classified. Illustrative examples of each category have been translated and are presented here. Pre-Islamic suspended odes that have survived exemplify the Arabs' mastery in composing and reciting poetry; poetry was their most celebrated literary genre. In addition to their eloquence and artistic value, these odes remain a reliable historical record of the social, political and cultural life of the time. A number of poems refer to health and illness with vivid descriptions of medical examination and treatments. After the advent of Islam, poetry reflected the new faith and its effect on the hearts as well as the minds of the people, urging them to seek and increase their knowledge. The ensuing intense scientific movement entailed no conflict between the humanities and natural sciences. Concurrent with the revival of various sciences during the Islamic Golden Age, a new theme of Arabic poetry flourished with the appearance of a tradition of didactic poems, composed by medical scholars, for use in educating and training medical students. Meanwhile, Arabic poetry also dealt with ethical, social and humanitarian aspects of medical care.     

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