The new materia medica of the Islamicate tradition: the pre-Islamic context.

Author:King, Anya


A great many new substances entered the pharmacopoeias inherited from Graeco-Roman times when medieval Europe began to assimilate the work of the Arab-Islamic pharmacologists and physicians. These substances represent great changes that occurred, supposedly, in Islamic times, in both the medical practice and the diet of Europe and the Near East. Specialists in the history of pharmacology know of a vast array of substances introduced into the pharmacopoeias of the medieval world through the agency of Islamicate medicine. (1) Most of these new substances are products of lands beyond the frontiers of Islam, which were imported for use in the Islamic world. The bulk of these substances are plant products of South, Southeast, and Eastern Asia, but some animal substances are also included, most famously musk and ambergris. They include agricultural crops such as new varieties of citrus and sugarcane, drugs such as the myrobalans and rhubarb, spices such as nutmeg and cloves, and perfumes such as ambergris, camphor, and musk.

It is commonly accepted that the Near Eastern discoveries of these new drugs occurred in Islamic times, by way of the thriving Islamic trade with South and Southeast Asia and China.2 The exact chronology and other details of the introduction of many of these substances into the Near East, however, are much less clear than their later path into Europe. Some substances appear not only in pre-Islamic Arabic poetry but also in Late Antique Greek and Latin sources, confirming that while their use was canonized in Islamic medicine, they were known in the Near East prior to the rise of Islam. Thus, a causal relationship between the emergence of Islam and the introduction of these new materia medica is problematic. By the time the first extant large-scale pharmacological works in Arabic were prepared during the ninth century, the canon of substances in Islamic medicine was already essentially fixed, though there would be, of course, additions over the centuries.

Recently, scholars have been reexamining many aspects of agriculture and pharmacology in Islamic times. In a critical article about Andrew Watson's Agricultural Innovation in the Early Islamic World, Michael Decker argues that Watson overlooks evidence for the existence in pre-Islamic times of the crops that he attributes to the Islamic period. Decker focuses on a limited number of examples--durum wheat, Asiatic rice, cotton, and the artichoke--but he emphasizes the general importance of the pre-Islamic heritage in the so-called Islamic Agricultural Revolution. (3) This topic is germane to the present paper not only because the edible crops were discussed by the pharmacologists; it illustrates the importance of looking deeper into the pre-Islamic heritage for new botanical knowledge beyond the imported crops that had come to be cultivated in the Near East.

In order to examine this corpus of new drugs in more detail, I investigate in this article the terminology employed in the Arabic pharmacopoeias of the tenth century and then survey the earliest evidence for the spread of these new drugs into the Near East. Through consideration of the Arabic vocabulary used for these new substances, I hope to underscore the critical role the cosmopolitan culture of the Sasanian empire (224-651) played in their introduction into the Near East. I will also consider the chronology of the arrival of these new substances. I propose that the traditional narrative of an expansive Islamic society encountering new cultures in Asia and promoting trade on a hitherto unseen scale fails to adequately account for the centuries of pre-Islamic Persian experience in the Indian Ocean and Central Asia and for internal developments within South and Southeast Asia. Despite the relative paucity of sources for pharmacology in the period between Dioscorides and Galen and the beginnings of Islamic pharmacology in the ninth century, traces can be found in literature that muddy the simplicity of the traditional narrative and suggest that the adoption of many new substances of Asia by Islamicate medicine has roots stretching back into pre-Islamic times.

One other prefatory point is that I will be concerned with the medicine practiced under Islamic, particularly 'Abbasid, rule, and not specifically with medicine practiced by Muslims alone. (4) Many of the most important physicians of the eighth and ninth centuries were neither Arabs nor Muslims--they were Persians (and other Iranians) and Jews, working for Muslim patrons. (5) Likewise, the linguistic hegemony of Arabic within the sciences shaped the structure of pharmacological discourse in the Near East in Islamic times, and most of the pharmacological and medical works of the ninth century onward were written in Arabic, (6) or translated from Greek into Arabic by the Syriac- (Aramaic-) speaking Christians of Mesopotamia, whose culture had developed in a highly multicultural Mesopotamian setting under Sasanian Persian rule. (7) Thus, the so-called Islamic medical heritage has a complex background that is best described as Islamicate, to borrow Marshall G. S. Hodgson's term.


    It would be difficult to catalogue all the elements in Islamicate culture that derive from Further Asia--both because these elements themselves are so diverse and because the sources that might be used for such a work are perhaps even more diverse--but pharmacological literature is one of the obvious places to look, as it draws upon a huge range of natural substances produced in specific locations. At the outset it must be noted that premodern pharmacological literature has a much broader scope than the modern conception of pharmacy would lead one to expect. In premodern societies all substances to be introduced into or around the human body were evaluated for their medicinal properties. This included not only what we would understand as drugs, but also food and beverages, and even cosmetics and perfumes. The goal of therapy was to maintain a proper equilibrium between the bodily humors; thus, substances were assessed according to abstract qualities of heating or cooling, or moistening or drying. Depending on the patient's physical condition, a physician would recommend a diet to balance out these humors. If, for example, a patient was suffering from an ailment that was believed to have its roots in the humor of phlegm, which was cold and moist, a regimen of heating and drying foods, aromatics, and drugs would be prescribed.

    In such a system, it is obvious that the pharmacological literature would include a great deal of information on foods and aromatics as well as "drugs" narrowly conceived. This pharmacological literature is vast in scope and one of the greatest triumphs of Islamic civilization. It is built upon the foundation created by the Greek physicians, especially the master herbalist Dioscorides (fl. ca. 40-80) and the physician Galen (d. 215), as well as the large corpus of writings that circulated under his name. But its base is considerably more widespread. Martin Levey analyzed the pharmacological corpus along the lines of etymology in his study of al-Kindis Aqraihadhin. (8) He concluded that 31% of its names of materia medica derived from the legacy of ancient Mesopotamian pharmacology as transmitted by later intermediaries such as Aramaic or Persian; 23% came from Greek; 18% from Persian; 13% from Indie; 5% from Arabic itself; and 3% from Egypt. The etymological origins of the remaining 7% could not be determined. Levey's work covered the entire corpus of pharmaceuticals mentioned by al-Kindi, both substances known to ancient Greek medicine and later introductions. When we survey only the supposedly new introductions of Islamic times, a somewhat different pattern emerges and we see an even greater role for Persian culture. This should not be surprising, given the centuries of Persian rule in Mesopotamia and Persian influence even in Arabia itself.

    The work of early medieval Islamic physicians consisted of much more than merely transmitting this corpus. They had to incorporate into it a vast number of substances unknown in Greco-Roman times. Rather than surveying this literature (the work of lifetimes), the present article makes use of a little treatise by an Andalusian physician named Ibn Juljul (d. 384/994), which catalogues sixty-one substances missing, as far as the author could tell, from the authoritative work of Dioscorides. (9) These substances are mostly plant products, but several animal and mineral substances are mentioned as well. Not all of the substances were unknown in classical times; confusion about the exact nature of some ancient plants already existed in medieval times. Indeed, a few substances bear Greek names that had shifted in meaning to refer to newly imported substances from Asia as well.

    It is important to stress that most of these substances are attested in the earliest Arabic pharmacological and medical writings of the ninth century, including works by 'Ali b. Rabban al-Tabari (d. after 240/855), (10) Ibn Masawayh (d. 243/857), (11) Sabur b. Sahl (d. 255/869), (12) and Ya'qub b. Ishaq al-Kindl (d. after 256/870). (13) Many are also paralleled in the so-called Syriac Book of Medicines, a composite work of uncertain date and authorship that contains many parallels to Arabic pharmacological texts. (14)

    In this article, these items of materia medica are numbered according to the numbers assigned in Dietrich's edition, which also contains detailed commentary on each of these substances. He gives extensive references to the relevant pharmacological literature both in his work on Ibn Juljul and in his other writings. In the interests of space, I have not reproduced his data on the identity of these substances but have followed his identifications in almost all cases. It is desirable to avoid too much precision in identifications because modern...

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