Stories - Major Works on Herbal Medicine from a Thousand Years Ago

Front cover of Ibn al-Baytar (d. 646 H / 1248 AD): Tafsir kitab Diyasquridus fi al-adwiya al-mufrada (A Commentary on Dioscorides’ Materia Medica), edited by Ibrahim Ben Mrad (Carthage (Tunisia): Bayt al-hikma, 1990).
(Source: Botany, Herbals and Healing In Islamic Science and Medicine by Muslim Heritage )

Stories - Major Works on Herbal Medicine from a Thousand Years AgoAn illustrated page from a 15th-century Arabic botanical treatise (Source: 1001 inventions: The Enduring Legacy of Muslim Civilization, 3rd edition, Page 178)

Major Works on Herbal Medicine[1] from a Thousand Years Ago

Herbal medicine was not seen as an alternative medicine but was very much a part of medical practice. There are records from Egypt, Mesopotamia, China, and India that reflect a tradition that existed before we discovered writing. In the West, the first “herbal” (a book listing and explaining the properties of herbs) was Greek and written in the fourth century BCE by Diocles of Carystus followed by Crateuas in the first century CE. The only work that has survived, De Materia Medica, was written in 65 CE by Dioscorides. He remains the only known authority among the Greek and Roman herbalists.

As the Muslim lands grew, merchants, scholars, and travellers came across exotic plants, trees, seeds, and spices previously unknown to them. They collected and brought back a huge number of samples of raw ingredients, along with knowledge and information about their use, combing the world and its harshest of environments, going as far afield as the steppes of Asia and the Pyrenees. The leaning for observation and the wide use of paper meant that on-the-spot detailed recording of their journeys could be made.[2]

With this vast amount of data and material, coupled with their scientific medical knowledge, many new traditional and herbal medicines became available. All these discoveries meant that a large amount of information was recorded in large works.

Stories - Major Works on Herbal Medicine from a Thousand Years AgoClockwise from top left: A vine from a 15th-century Arabic botanical treatise. An illustration from Dioscorides’ De Materia Medica depicts the physician handing his student a mandrake root, which was regarded as a highly effective medicine. A botanical species from a treatise by Ibn al-Baytar of Málaga. The tapping of a balsam tree as shown in a 15th-century Persian manuscript. (Source: 1001 inventions: The Enduring Legacy of Muslim Civilization, 3rd edition, Page 179)

Translation of Dioscorides’ Materia medica

An Eastern translation of Dioscorides’ Materia medica by Istifan b. Basil had arrived to Cordova. The problem of this translation was that Istifan had been unable to identify many names of plants and had limited himself to transliterate the Greek name into Arabic characters. Successive negotiations of the caliph Abd al-Rahman III with the Byzantine emperor produced the arrival to Cordova: 1) a Greek codex of Dioscorides’ book; 2) a Byzantine monk, named Nicholas, who was an expert botanist. A commission was created in order to identify all the plants mentioned by Dioscorides. Ibn Juljul acted as a kind of secretary of the commission and wrote the final report in which the names of the plants were given in multiple languates (Greek, Latin, Romance, Arabic etc.)[3] He added many new substances such as tamarind, camphor, sandalwood, and cardamom. He also identified many new plants and their properties, along with their medicinal values for treating various diseases.[4]

Stories - Major Works on Herbal Medicine from a Thousand Years AgoThe 13th-century treatise by Ibn  al-Baytar of Málaga depicts different botanical species – the example at left is from the manuscript Al-Kafi and at right from the manuscript Al-Filaha. The treatise gives the physiolog of plants and descriptions of their sowing environment as well as their maintenance. (Source: 1001 inventions: The Enduring Legacy of Muslim Civilization, 3rd edition, Page 180)

Collection of Simples, Medicinal Plants and Resulting Medicines

Stories - Major Works on Herbal Medicine from a Thousand Years AgoA parade of syrup makers, Surnâme-i Hümayun, year 1582. (Source: Food as Medicine by Nil Sari)

Ibn Samajun, who died in 1002, wrote Collection of Simples, Medicinal Plants and Resulting Medicines.

This was a classification of plants and their medical properties based on the work of his predecessors. Also in the 11th century, Ibn Sina in his Canon listed 142 properties of herbal remedies.[5]

Al-Andalus played a major role in botanical studies. In Córdoba, Toledo, and later in Seville, the first royal botanical gardens of Europe made their appearance.

Initially they were pleasure gardens, but they also functioned as trial grounds for the acclimatisation of plants brought from the Middle East.[6]

Botany, the scientific study of plants, and the use of plants in medicine went hand in hand.

While men like Abu Hanifa al-Dinawari, called “the father of modern botany,” were compiling vast lists of plants in books like his A Treatise on Plants, others, like Al-Razi, the tenth-century medical scholar, used colchicum as a drug for the treatment of gout.[7]

The Book of Simple Drugs

Al-Ghafiqi, who died in 1165, wrote The Book of Simple Drugs. It was exceptionally accurate and was republished by Max Meyerhof in Egypt in 1932.[8]

Stories - Major Works on Herbal Medicine from a Thousand Years AgoTwo views from Kitab al-filaha of Ibn al-Awwâm: (a) manuscript page and front cover of the Spanish translation edition  by Joseph Antonio Banqueri (Madrid: Imprenta Real, 1802).  The Kitab al-Filahah al-Andalusiyah (The Book of Andalusian Agriculture) by Abu Zakariya Yahya ibn Muhammad ibn al-Awwam al-Ishbili (d. 1185) consists of 35 chapters dealing with agronomy, cattle and poultry raising, and beekeeping. It deals with 585 plants; explains the cultivation of more than 50 fruit trees; and includes many valuable observations on soils, manures, plant grafting, and plant diseases.
Gleanings from the Islamic Contribution in Agriculture by Jaser Abu Safieh )

Dictionary of Simple Remedies and Food

Stories - Major Works on Herbal Medicine from a Thousand Years AgoBronze statue of Ibn al-Baytar in his birthplace, Benalmádena on the seaward side of Castillo Bil Bil, near Malaga (Source)

In the 13th century, Ibn al-Baytar of Málaga wrote Dictionary of Simple Remedies and Food, which studied 3,000 different plants and their medical properties.[9]

A very simple but major breakthrough that was made during Muslim civilisation in herbal medicine was watching how the herb affected the patient; this highlights the role of experimentation and observation in the Muslim world at that time.

Modern medicine uses many such herbals, at least partially, in the treatment of a variety of diseases, including some forms of cancer, obesity, certain types of diabetes, sexual malfunctions among men and women, liver diseases, skin problems, and countless others.

These all have been objects of research in recent years, and the findings are highlighted in the most recent work by Bashar Saad and Omar Said in their work Greco-Arab and Islamic Herbal Medicine.[10]

Stories - Major Works on Herbal Medicine from a Thousand Years AgoCumin and dill from an Arabic book of samples, ca. 1334 (Source: Agriculture in Muslim Civilisation by Salah Zaimeche)

Get the full story from 1001 Inventions: The Enduring Legacy of Muslim Civilization Reference (4th  Edition) Annotated. 


[1] We are deeply indebted to Professor Bashar Saad for reviewing this and the following section. Any errors are ours.
[2 I. R. and L. L. Al-Faruqi, The Cultural Atlas, op. cit., 328.
[3] We owe the preceding paragraph to our estimed colleague and friend, Professor Julio Samso, who once more corrected one of our errors.
[4] For Spanish Muslim herbalists, see Max Meyerhof, “Esquisse d’Histoire de la pharmacologie et de la botanique chez les Musulmans d’Espagne,” Al-Andalus 3 (1935), 1-41
[5] See T. Fahd, Botany and agriculture, in Encyclopedia of the History of Arabic Science Vol. 3, R. Rashed, ed. (London and New York: Routledge, 1996), 813-52.
[6]  A. Watson, Agricultural Innovation, op. cit., 117-18.
[7]  B. Silberberg, “Das Pflanzenbuch des Abu Hanifa Ahmed ibn da’ud al-Dinawari. Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte der Botanik bei den Arabern,” dissertation, Breslau, published in part in Zeitschrift fur Assyriologie 24 (1910), 225-65, 25 (1911), 38-88.
– Al-Dinawari, Abu Hanifa, Le Dictionnaire botanique d’Abu hanifa al-Dinawari…., compiled according to the citations of later works, M. Hamidullah, ed., Cairo, coll. Institut Francais d’Archeologie Orientale, textes et traductions d’auteurs orientaux, V.
[8] J. Scarborough, Herbals, in Dictionary of Middle Ages, op. cit., Vol. 6, 179.
[9] Juan Vernet and Julio Samso, Development of Arabic Science in Andalusia, in Encyclopaedia, Vol. 1, Rashed, ed., op. cit., 243-76, at 271-72.
[10] Bashar Saad and Omar Said, Greco-Arab and Islamic Herbal Medicine (Wiley, 2011), especially chapter 12.

Stories - Major Works on Herbal Medicine from a Thousand Years Ago“Ibn Sayyar al-Warraq’s Tenth-century Baghdadi Cookbook” by Nawal Nasrallah A full range of five sub-divided indexes, including the medical terms, recipes, and advice….. (Source).