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The Medicine of the Prophet: A Message Par Excellence

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  1. administrator Islamic Medicine

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    The Medicine of the Prophet: A Message Par Excellence
    The traditions (sunnah) of the Prophet Muhammad (may the peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) are rich in advice and instructions on such matters as hygiene, sanitation, and treatment of disease through the use of medication. Referred to as Al-Tibb Al-Nabawi (prophetic medicine) by Muslims the world over, about 50 prophetic traditions on specific ailments and their remedies have been grouped together under the chapter referred to as Kitab-al-Tibb (the book of medicine) in the well-known collections of Hadith(prophetic sayings)by Bukhari, Muslim, Abu Dawud, At-Tirmidhi, and more.

    Also, more than 300 traditions on aspects of hygiene, cleanliness, habit of eating and drinking, etc. find mention in these same collections. All these traditions, which number about 400, constitute what is referred to as prophetic medicine, and can be found together in the classic books of Ibn al-Qayyim Aljouzi (8th century Hijrah), Abu Nu`aim (5th century Hijrah), Abu Abdullah al-Dhahbi (8th century Hijrah), and Abu Bakr ibn al-Sani (4th century Hijrah). Most of these original Arabic treatises have been translated into English and other languages.

    Islamic Foundations of Well-Being

    The Prophet Muhammad laid down the foundation for a social order in which every member of society was advised to maintain a healthy life, physically, psychologically, and spiritually. No aspect of life was to be disregarded.

    In the opinion of Douglas Guthrie (A History of Medicine, 1945), great advances in medicine made by Muslims during the Middle Ages were mainly due to the impact of the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad. Guthrie writes, “Had not the Prophet Muhammad himself said, ‘O Servant of God, use medicine, because God hath not created a pain without a remedy for it’”? Guthrie failed to quote the source of this important prophetic saying, but it is obvious that he was referring to the famous hadith from Tirmidhi(one of the six most important collections of prophetic traditions).

    As a matter of fact, there are several such sayings in which the Prophet laid great stress on medicine and discouraged seeking help through amulets, relics, and charms. For instance, the Prophet once said, “There is a remedy for every malady and when the remedy is applied to the disease, it is cured.” This and several such hadiths have been described in Bukhari, Muslim, and Abu Dawud.

    Once the Prophet was asked by one of his companions, “Is there any good in medicine?” To this he emphatically replied, “Yes.” As a result, Islamic teachings make it the duty of every society or group of people to conduct research and discover the remedy for diseases that afflict human beings. The concept of incurable diseases is thus alien to Islam.


    Changing Age-Old Attitudes

    There were several occasions when the Prophet visited the sick, and after enquiring about the ailments advised to take the medicine prescribed from experienced physicians. On several occasions he advised the sick to approach Harith bin Kalda, a well-known Jewish physician of Thaqif(a place near Madinah, Saudi Arabia where the Prophet resided at the time). On one particular occasion the Prophet visited Sa`d ibn Abi Waqqas who had suffered a heart attack. When the Prophet placed his hand on the chest of Sa`d he felt great relief, but the Prophet cautioned him and said, “You’ve had a heart attack and therefore should consult Harith Bin Kalda, who is the expert physician.” It is these and many other similar occasions that greatly changed the attitude of the Arabs towards diseases. Arabs, during the pre-Islamic period, depended mainly on invoking supernatural aid or different deities for the treatment of disease.

    The Prophet Muhammad, realizing the consequences of infectious epidemics, advised his companions that, “When you hear about a break of plague in any area, do not enter there and when it has broken in a land where you are, then do not run way from it (and thus spread it elsewhere).” On the basis of this hadith, Muslims considered precaution and vigilance against infectious epidemics as the command of God.
    The Prophet also opposed charms and incantations as a form of remedy for diseases. On some occasions, however, when physical remedy (medicine) was not available, he allowed, mainly for psychological reasons, the recitation of an incantation that has definite meaning. He also declared the victims of epidemics such as cholera and the plague as martyrs. This was a great consolation for those who suffered from it and realized the fatal consequences.

    The Prophet always cautioned physicians to take extreme care in treating their patients and warned those not well-versed in the skill of medicine not to attempt treating the ill lest they might be held responsible for any complications. Quackery is, therefore, forbidden in Islamic medical ethics.

    The Prophet Muhammad advised his followers to always care for their health, and whenever they were ill, whether seriously or otherwise, consoled them and told them not to feel that they were victims of the wrath of Allah. “Disease,” he said, “is not the wrath of Allah, because Prophets also suffered great pains, much greater than ordinary people.” Imagine what a solace these sayings would have provided to the followers of Islam.

    Hope as Medicine

    There are many Prophetic hadiths in Bukhari, Muslim and others that show that people were accustomed to go to the Prophet regularly and tell him about their ailments. He would advise them to resort to medicine first and then pray to God to get rid of the disease. On several occasions he would himself suggest certain medicines. For instance, in case of loss of appetite he frequently advised his followers to take talbina, a preparation made from barley. For constipation he used to recommend the use of senna. He was also in favor of regular use of honey for keeping fit. Similarly, for different ailments he would advise the use of olives, black cumin, chicory, endive fenugreek, ginger, marjoram, saffron, vinegar, and watercress. Hadiths on these medicines and others show the concern of the Prophet for the welfare and good health of his followers. For even apparently small matters like drinking water, eating food, and keeping clean and tidy he also gave advice. He is noted to have said, “Cleanliness is half of faith.”

    Some of the hadiths on black cumin, senna, and watercress are very thought provoking. For instance, the Prophet is reported to have said that, “Black cuminis a remedy for every disease except death.” The Prophet expressed similar views on the efficacy of senna and cress.
    The style and language of these hadiths are a clear indication of the fact that the Prophet placed great stress on medicines. These hadiths also put emphasis on confidence building of the ill towards their diseases and agonies suffered. Very rational advice was given that none should be disheartened by the intensity and duration of the disease because remedies have been provided by nature. They were also advised not to be afraid of impending death.

    Once during the time of the Prophet, a person committed suicide as he could not bear the agony of his disease. The Prophet condemned the act and refused to participate in the last rites. Thus, hopelessness, despondency, dejection and frustration on account of serious disease and pain are against the spirit and tenets of Islamic medical ethics, as shown by the tradition of the Prophet.


    Charms and Incantations: A Thing of the Past

    There are several authentic hadiths, according to which people were said to come to the Prophet for spiritual remedies for their illnesses and that of their kith and kin. The Prophet, of course, prayed for them, but only after suggesting remedies in the form of medicines. Often he would advise the patients to consult the best physician in the area. On one occasion a lady came to the Prophet with her child who was bleeding because of a throat infection. He admonished her and advised her to treat the disease by using the extract of costus and pseudo-saffron. Similarly, once his wife complained of an abscess on her finger. The Prophet suggested an application of sweet flag on the fingers and then asked her to pray to Allah for recovery. There was also an occasion when a scorpion bit the Prophet himself. He immediately asked for hot water to which salt was added. The hot solution was poured on his bitten fingers while he recited Qur’anic verses.

    These occasions and Prophetic hadiths led Muslims to believe in the rationale of using medicine rather than resorting to charms and incantations. On several occasions he exhorted them not to depend on supernatural methods of healing. He is also reported to have said, “charm is nothing but a work of Satan.”

    The Human Prophet

    Although the Prophet on one hand gave suitable advice to his followers on earthly affairs when such situations were brought to his attention, on the other hand he tried his best to create confidence in themselves so that they could act according to their own experience and opinions. Once, while withdrawing his advice given earlier on the cross pollination of date palm he said, “Whenever I command you to do something related to religion, do obey. And if I command you something about earthly matters, act on your own (experience) and (do remember) I am a human being.”

    Putting Prophetic Medicine Into Perspective

    In recent years, several books on prophetic medicine have been published, particularly in India and Pakistan, which do not project the true essence of the Prophet’s message. For instance, the author of a recently published book entitled Tibbe Nabwi Aur Jadid Science (Prophetic Medicine and Modern Science), claims that Prophetic treatment of heart attack by eating seven dates, as was suggested to Sa`d ibn Abi Waqqas, should still be preferred over modern by-pass surgery for the disease, provided people have faith in the treatment of the Prophet. The learned author failed to understand that the Prophet, while suggesting to Sa`d to take dates as temporary relief, also advised him to consult the expert physician Harith bin Kalda for treatment.

    As a matter of fact, it is not desirable to consider the Prophet’s traditions on medicine as similar to the prescription of a physician. In this connection, the opinion of Ibn Khaldun (14th century AD) is highly relevant and realistic. He says, “The Prophet’s mission was to make known to us the prescription of the Divine Law and not to instruct us in medicine of the common practice of ordinary life” (Muqqaddima). In his opinion, even very authentic hadiths cannot be taken as a mere medicinal prescription, which is the duty of an experienced physician. He says, however, that “with sincere faith, one may derive from them [hadiths] great advantage though this forms no part of medicine as it is properly called.” To emphasize his point of view, Ibn Khaldun refers to occasions when the Prophet tried to create confidence in his followers by advising them to take their own judgments in worldly affairs.

    Prophetic medicine is a message par excellence. It is an advice to keep a healthy body and soul and to have faith in both physical and spiritual treatment. It is a command to us to strive hard to find newer medicines and newer remedies. It is a warning to those who consider diseases as the will of God for which no remedy is needed. It is an admonition for us to keep away from so-called spiritual treatment based on superstitions like sorcery, amulets, and charms.

    This article is an edited version of a chapter from a book by the author entitled “Medicinal Plants in the Traditions of Prophet Muhammad.”
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