Traditional medicine through the ages in Middle East

Traditional medicine in the Middle East can be broken down into four sub-categories: medicines of the prophet, physicians, Arabs and elders.

Nigella seeds / black seed. Getty Images
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Traditional medicine in the Middle East, which is studied at the Zayed Center for Herbal Research, can be broken down into four categories: the Prophet, Physicians, Arabs and Elders, says professor Maha Barakat, the director general of Health Authority – Abu Dhabi.

The Medicine of the Prophet (Teb Al Nabawi)

This concerns Quranic references to healing, in addition to what the Prophet Mohammed practised to treat ailments.

The Prophet said: “Allah, the Exalted, has let no disease exist without providing for its cure, except for one ailment, namely, old age.”

Some commonly referenced natural remedies include honey, which is well-known for its ability to aid the healing of wounds, and fenugreek or helba, which can help people with respiratory issues.

The Prophet particularly praised the black seed (cumin or Nigella Sativa), and recommended it for strengthening the immune system: “There is healing in black seed for all diseases except death.”

The natural remedies used by the Prophet were well-documented by theologist and spiritual writer Ibn Qayyim Al Jawziyyah (1292 to 1350).

Muslims around the world continue to follow the Prophet Mohammed’s health advice.

The Medicine of the Physicians (Teb Al Atebba)

This category is the legacy of history’s greatest early physicians, upon which much of modern medicine is built.

It includes contributions from the likes of Hippocrates (460 to 370BC), known as the father of modern medicine, Avicenna (Ibn Sina) and Abu Bakr Al Razi (AD865 to 925), known in the West as Rhazes, and renowned for his work on diseases, including smallpox and measles. He is also referred to as the father of paediatrics.

Other pioneers in this category include Ibn Al Baitar (AD1197 to 1248), an expert in the fields of pharmacy and botany; Ibn Al Nafis (1213 to 1288), who is most famous for being the first to describe the pulmonary circulation of the blood; and Dawud Al Antaki (1534 to 1599), the blind Syrian physician known for his books on medicine, including treatment for syphilis.

The Medicine of the Arabs (Teb Al Arab)

This category overlaps with the Medicine of the Physicians, with the addition of techniques that originated in the region, including cupping or hijama.

“This technique involves removing secretions from the skin under vacuum suction, and patients find relief for many symptoms, including aches and pains,” says prof Barakat.

“Still used today (including in the United States and Europe), it was once performed using large, hollow animal horns, due to the lack of glass vacuum cups.”

In recent years, the Ministry of Health and Prevention has regulated complementary and traditional medicine. The Ministry urges residents to exercise caution when opting for cupping therapy, and to make sure it is carried out at an authorised medical centre and directly supervised by a licensed medical team.

Previously, it was not uncommon for hijama to be practised in homes or herbal shops.

Another technique that was once popular in the region, but has long fallen out of use in favour of less painful and effective modern techniques, is cautery or wasam. This involves an expert healer briefly touching a specific area of skin related to an ailment with a very fine, heated wire.

“In the same way acupuncture is known to relieve pain, so many in the UAE would swear to the effectiveness of this ‘wasam’ in immediately relieving pain, and these individuals – now in their 60s and older – bear a tiny scar from this procedure from their youth as a testament,” says prof Barakat.

The Medicine of the Elders (Teb Al Awajeez)

Staff at the centre are hoping to gather this unwritten knowledge, which has been passed down verbally from generation to generation, but is in danger of being lost as society changes.

“Up until recently, there has always been an elder in each UAE family who knew what to do,” says prof Barakat, “from detailed knowledge of which dates are best used with turmeric [curcum] for a paste to apply to a swollen joint, to which fine powder of seeds/resins/herbs should be applied to disinfect and heal a fresh wound, to what to drink to soothe symptoms of a cold.”