The medicine of medieval Islamic civilization was primarily derived from Greek medicine, particularly the writing of Hippocrates and Galen. Among the significant contribution of Islamic civilization to medicine was the establishment of the hospital to treat patients and train physicians, although hospices for the sick, the poor, and the travellers had existed since the Byzantine times.
Hospitals were established by caliphs, court officials, and wealthy individuals. Hospital revenue, derived from endowments under the control of a board of trustees, provided for the salaries of the medical staff as well as provisions for the patients. Endowments were religiously motivated, for charitable acts are greatly emphasized in the Qur’an.
The first hospital in the Muslim world was established in Baghdad by Harun al-Rashid (r. 786-809); it was modeled after the bimaristan (hospital) in Jundishapur – an ancient city founded in 260 which was a major centre of scholarship and science. Its medical school, hospital, pharmacology laboratory, observatory, and library influenced subsequent civilizations. The Adudi hospital, founded in 982 by the ruler Adud al-Dawla in Baghdad, employed physicians as well as specialists such as ophthalmologists, surgeons, and orthopedists.
During the Fatimid period (909-1171), hospitals were well equipped with food and medicine for the apothecary shop, and had lecture halls to teach health professionals. In Al-Fustat (Old Cairo) there was a generously endowed hospital, Al-Bimaristan Al- ‘Atiq, also known as the ‘Upper’ as compared to a later one, located downtown, called the ‘Lower’ (built in 957). With a well-furnished library, lecture halls, and bath-halls for men and women, the Upper hospital continued its services to the community’s health and educational needs for almost four centuries.
The Fatimid dynasty reached its zenith after moving the seat of administration from Tunisia to Cairo. Its Caliphs generously encouraged learning and a number of prominent physicians thrived during this era, making valuable contributions to the development of modern science.
Building on the tradition of caring for the sick and promoting preventive measures, Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah Aga Khan III established several medical centres and maternity homes in the Indian subcontinent and East Africa. Mawlana Hazar Imam reflected on the trajectory of medical advancement:
“We can trace that pathway back a thousand years – to the great hospitals that were founded in Cairo by my ancestors, the Fatimid Imam-Caliphs of Egypt. More recently, we remember the founding – some 53 years ago – of the Aga Khan Hospital here in Nairobi. That event was part of the Platinum Jubilee of my late grandfather, Sir Sultan Muhammad Shah.”*
Continuing the tradition of providing good health care, Mawlana Hazar Imam established the Aga Khan Health Services (AKHS) under the aegis of the Aga Khan Development Network. The AKHS, “operating over 200 health facilities including nine hospitals, is one of the most comprehensive private not-for-profit health care systems in the developing world”**.
* Remarks made at the Inauguration of the Heart and Cancer Centre, Aga Khan University Hospital, Nairobi, July 25, 2011. Speech at Press Centre, AKDN
**Aga Khan Health Services
Alnoor Dhanani, Muslim Philosophy and the Sciences, The Muslim Almanac Edited by Azim A. Nanji, Gale Research Inc. Detroit, 1996
Compiled by Nimira Dewji