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  • La medicina araba: L’Arte medica nei Califfati d’Oriente e d’Occidente
  • Emilie Savage-Smith
Luciano Sterpellone and Mahmoud Salem Elsheikh. La medicina araba: L’Arte medica nei Califfati d’Oriente e d’Occidente. Milan: Ciba Edizioni, 1995. vi + 344 pp. Ill. L 70,000.00 (+ L 50,000.00 for shipping).

This profusely illustrated volume issued by Ciba-Geigy is intended to introduce the general reader to the innovations and achievements of medieval Islamic medicine. The authors (a clinician and a linguist) set out to demonstrate the falseness of historical perspectives, such as those held by Charles Daremberg and Francesco Puccinotti, that assert that the sole contribution of Arabic medicine was acting as a custodian of earlier Western (Greek) medicine until it could be transmitted again to Europe.

The book begins with the role of Greek medicine, and in particular the Nestorian Christian communities established in the sixth and seventh centuries in the Near East. The first four chapters concern the translators and early physicians of Islam, while chapters 5 through 13 deal primarily with individual figures including Rhazes, Avicenna, Albucasis, Avenzoar, Averroes, Ibn But*l̄a n (here called Ibn Bat*l̄a n), and Maimonides. Chapter 14 is on professionalism and hospitals, while chapter 15 (the longest) takes up topics: anatomy, physiology, pathology, obstetrics, pediatrics, mental illnesses, pharmacology, and surgery. The final chapter is devoted to a treatise by Qust*̄a ibn L̄u q̄a (d. 912) on medical regimen and hygiene for the pilgrim to Mecca, which is given attention out of all proportion to its importance—due, no doubt, to the recent publication of an edition and translation of the treatise.

This volume has the merit of citing Latin writers to remind the reader of the influence of medieval Arabic medicine upon European thinking, while the frequent quotation of writers such as Dante Alighieri and Petrarch gives an interesting perspective to the material. However, much of the text is a catalog of names and treatises with a pastiche of quotations, accompanied by statements of innovations, some of which do not reflect recent scholarship. The authors seem particularly unaware of recent German studies. Such a general survey is necessarily dependent upon secondary literature, but the authors have avoided giving any specific sources for their statements, including direct quotations. The sole exception is the citation of “(Dols, 1987)” on p. 216 in the discussion of hospitals, but when readers turn to the bibliografia essenziale at the end of the volume they will find not one entry for Dols. The bibliography is woefully inadequate for someone wishing to pursue an idea or trace the source of an assertion.

One of the most distressing features of the book is the illustrations (dominantly Latin), for which no credits are given and very little information supplied as to subject matter. Latin, Indian, Persian, Hebrew, and Turkish illustrations, both medieval and very modern, are mixed indiscriminately. With no identification of the date or place where an illustration was produced, the reader has no idea of its age or even its cultural milieu. Modern sketches or “portraits” are given of figures for whom we possess no information regarding their appearance. In the case of manuscript illustrations, very seldom is the treatise identified, and when information is given, it is often unreliable; figure 40, for example, is not from Maimonides’ treatise on Aphorisms. [End Page 106]

Surveys of such a large scale are difficult to accomplish with uniform success. Surely the stated goal of the project is achieved in that the authors amply demonstrate to a general reader that there is more to medieval Islamic medicine than reworked Greco-Roman medicine. The volume is marred, however, by insufficient documentation of some of the claims to originality, and by the lack of proper integration and identification of the visual material.

Emilie Savage-Smith
Wellcome Unit for the History of Medicine Oxford

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