Prophetic Medicine- A Message par Excellence

The Prophet Muhammad laid down the foundation for a social order in which every member of society was advised to maintain a healthy life, physically, psychologically, and spiritually.

By Dr. MIH Farooqi

The Traditions (Sunnah) of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) are rich in advice and instructions on such matters as hygiene, sanitation, and treatment of disease through the use of medication. Referred to as Al-Tibb Al-Nabawi (prophetic medicine) by Muslims the world over, about 50 prophetic traditions on specific ailments and their remedies have been grouped together under the chapter referred to as Kitab-al-Tibb (the book of medicine) in the well-known collections of Hadith (Prophetic Sayings) by Bukhari, Muslim, Abu Dawud, At-Tirmidhi and many others.

Also, more than 300 traditions on aspects of hygiene, cleanliness, habit of eating and drinking, etc. find mention in these same collections under different heads of  Kitab al-Mardha, Kitab al-Asharuba, Kitab al-‘Atama, Kitab al-libas, Kitab al-Janaiz, Kitab al-Salam, Kitab al-Masaqaat, Kitab al-Adab. All these traditions, which number about 400, constitute what is referred to as Prophetic Medicine, and can be found together in the classic books of Ibn al-Qayyim Aljouzia (8th century Hijrah), Abu Nu`aim (5th century Hijrah), Abu Abdullah al-Dhahbi (8th century Hijrah), and Abu Bakr ibn al-Sani (4th century Hijrah). Most of these original Arabic treatises have been translated into English and other languages.

Islamic Foundations of Well-Being

The Prophet Muhammad laid down the foundation for a social order in which every member of society was advised to maintain a healthy life, physically, psychologically, and spiritually. No aspect of life was to be disregarded.

As a matter of fact, there are several such sayings in which the Prophet laid great stress on medicine and discouraged seeking help through amulets, relics, and charms. For instance, the Prophet once said, “There is a remedy for every malady and when the remedy is applied to the disease, it is cured.” This and several such hadiths have been described in Bukhari, Muslim, Tirmidhi and Abu Dawud.

Once the Prophet was asked by one of his companions, “Is there any good in medicine?” To this, he emphatically replied, “Yes.” As a result, Islamic teachings make it the duty of every society or group of people to conduct research and discover the remedy for diseases that afflict human beings. The concept of incurable diseases is thus alien to Islam.

Changing Age-Old Attitudes

There were several occasions when the Prophet visited the sick, and after enquiring about the ailments advised to take the medicine prescribed from experienced physicians. On several occasions he advised the sick to approach Harith bin Kalda, a well-known Jewish physician of Thaqif (a place near Madinah, Saudi Arabia where the Prophet resided at the time). On one particular occasion the Prophet visited Sa`d ibn Abi Waqqas who had suffered a heart attack. When the Prophet placed his hand on the chest of Sa`d he felt great relief, but the Prophet cautioned him and said, “You’ve had a heart attack and therefore should consult Harith Bin Kalda, who is the expert physician.” It is these and many other similar occasions that greatly changed the attitude of the Arabs towards diseases. Arabs, during the pre-Islamic period, depended mainly on invoking supernatural aid or different deities for the treatment of disease.

Hopelessness, despondency, dejection and frustration on account of serious disease and pain are against the spirit and tenets of Islamic medical ethics.

The Prophet Muhammad, realizing the consequences of infectious epidemics, advised his companions that, “When you hear about a break of plague in any area, do not enter there and when it has broken in a land where you are, then do not run way from it (and thus spread it elsewhere).” On the basis of this hadith, Muslims considered precaution and vigilance against infectious epidemics as the command of God.

The Prophet also opposed charms and incantations as a form of remedy for diseases. On some occasions, however, when physical remedy (medicine) was not available, he allowed, mainly for psychological reasons, the recitation of an incantation that has definite meaning. He also declared the victims of epidemics such as cholera and the plague as martyrs. This was a great consolation for those who suffered from it and realized the fatal consequences.

The Prophet always cautioned physicians to take extreme care in treating their patients and warned those not well-versed in the skill of medicine not to attempt treating the ill lest they might be held responsible for any complications. Quackery is, therefore, forbidden in Islamic medical ethics.

The Prophet Muhammad advised his followers to always care for their health, and whenever they were ill, whether seriously or otherwise, consoled them and told them not to feel that they were victims of the wrath of Allah. “Disease,” he said, “is not the wrath of Allah, because Prophets also suffered great pains, much greater than ordinary people.” Imagine what a solace these sayings would have provided to the followers of Islam.

Hope as Medicine

There are many Prophetic hadiths in Bukhari, Muslim and others that show that people were accustomed to go to the Prophet regularly and tell him about their ailments. He would advise them to resort to medicine first and then pray to God to get rid of the disease. On several occasions he would himself suggest certain medicines. For instance, in case of loss of appetite he frequently advised his followers to take Talbina, a preparation made from barley (Hindi, Jau). For constipation he used to recommend the use of Senna (Senna alexandrina; Hindi Sanai Makki). He was also in favor of regular use of honey (Hindi, Shahed) for keeping fit. Similarly, for different ailments he would advise the use of Olives (Olea Europaea; Hindi, Zaitun ), Black cumin (Nigela sativa; Hindi, Kalonji)), Chicory (Cichorium entybus; Hinidi, Kasni), Fenugreek (Trigonella foenum-graecum), Ginger (Zingiber officinale; Hindi, Adrak, Sonth), Marjoram (Origanum vulgare: Hindi, Marzanjosh), Saffron (Crocus sativus; Hindi, Kesar, Zafaran), Vinegar (Hindi, Sirka) etc. Hadiths on these medicines and others show the concern of the Prophet for the welfare and good health of his followers. For even apparently small matters like drinking water, eating food, and keeping clean and tidy, he also gave advice. He is noted to have said, “Cleanliness is half of faith.”

Some of the hadiths on Black cumin (Nigela sativa Linn.- Hindi Kalonji), Senna (Senna alexandrina syn., Cassia angustifolia)  , and Watercress(Nasturtium officinale;Hindi  Jarjir) are very thought provoking. For instance, the Prophet is reported to have said that, “Black cumin is a remedy for every disease except death.” The Prophet expressed similar views on the efficacy of Senna and Cress.The style and language of these hadiths are a clear indication of the fact that the Prophet placed great stress on medicines. These hadiths also put emphasis on confidence building of the ill towards their diseases and agonies suffered. Very rational advice was given that none should be disheartened by the intensity and duration of the disease because remedies have been provided by nature. They were also advised not to be afraid of impending death.

Once during the time of the Prophet, a person committed suicide as he could not bear the agony of his disease. The Prophet condemned the act and refused to participate in the last rites. Thus, hopelessness, despondency, dejection and frustration on account of serious disease and pain are against the spirit and tenets of Islamic medical ethics, as shown by the tradition of the Prophet.

Charms and amulets were shunned by Islam

There are several authentic hadiths, according to which people were said to come to the Prophet for spiritual remedies for their illnesses and that of their kith and kin. The Prophet, of course, prayed for them, but only after suggesting remedies in the form of medicines. Often he would advise the patients to consult the best physician in the area. On one occasion a lady came to the Prophet with her child who was bleeding because of a throat infection. He admonished her and advised her to treat the disease by using the extract of Costus (Sassuria costus; Hindi, Kuth) and Pseudo-saffron (Flemingia grahhmiana; Hindi Warus). Similarly, once his wife complained of an abscess on her finger. The Prophet suggested an application of Sweetflag (Acorus calamus) on the fingers and then asked her to pray to Allah for recovery. There was also an occasion when a scorpion bit the Prophet himself. He immediately asked for hot water to which salt was added. The hot solution was poured on his bitten fingers while he recited Qur’anic verses.

These occasions and Prophetic hadiths led Muslims to believe in the rationale of using medicine rather than resorting to charms and incantations. On several occasions he exhorted them not to depend on supernatural methods of healing. He is also reported to have said, “charm is nothing but a work of Satan.”

Although the Prophet on one hand gave suitable advice to his followers on earthly affairs when such situations were brought to his attention, on the other hand he tried his best to create confidence in them so that they could act according to their own experience and opinions. Once, while withdrawing his advice given earlier on the cross pollination of date palm he said, “Whenever I command you to do something related to religion, do obey. And if I command you something about earthly matters, act on your own also (experience).”

Putting Prophetic Medicine Into Proper Perspective

In recent years, several books on Prophetic Medicine have been published, particularly in India and Pakistan, which do not project the true essence of the Prophet’s message. For instance, the author of a recently published book entitled Tibbe Nabwi Aur Jadid Science (Prophetic Medicine and Modern Science), claims that Prophetic treatment of heart attack by eating seven dates, as was suggested to Sa`d ibn Abi Waqqas, should still be preferred over modern by-pass surgery for the disease, provided people have faith in the treatment of the Prophet. The learned author failed to understand that the Prophet, while suggesting to Sa`d to take dates as temporary relief, also advised him to consult the expert physician Harith bin Kalda for treatment. There are several errors in the botanical identification of the drugs mentioned by the Prophet. In most of the said  books, Bihi (Hadith, Safarjal), Luban (Hadith, Laban), Kundar (Hadith, Kundar), Oud (Hadith, Oud alhindi), Warus (Hadith, Varus) and Camphor (Hadith, Kafur) etc. have been identified with botanical names that are completely incorrect.

As a matter of fact, it is not desirable to consider the Prophet’s traditions on medicine as similar to the prescription of a physician. In this connection, the opinion of Ibn Khaldun (14th century AD) is highly relevant and realistic. He says, “The Prophet’s mission was to make known to us the prescription of the Divine Law and not to instruct us in medicine of the common practice of ordinary life” (Muqqaddima). In his opinion, even very authentic hadiths cannot be taken as a mere medicinal prescription, which is the duty of an experienced physician. He says, however, that “with sincere faith, one may derive from them [hadiths] great advantage though this forms no part of medicine as it is properly called.” To emphasize his point of view, Ibn Khaldun refers to occasions when the Prophet tried to create confidence in his followers by advising them to take their own judgments in worldly affairs.

Prophetic medicine can be called a new turn in the history of medicine, and according to Ibn Al-Qayyim, “Physical treatment is the Sunnah of the Prophet.Prophetic medicine is an understanding for those people who consider the disease as a divine predestination and treat it as a sin. Prophetic medicine is the name of the order that the Messenger of Allah, peace be upon him, gave to humans to find new ways in the field of medicine.

Prophetic medicine is a message par excellence. It is an advice to keep a healthy body and soul and to have faith in both physical and spiritual treatment. It is a command to us to strive hard to find newer medicines and newer remedies. It is a warning to those who consider diseases as the will of God for which no remedy is needed. It is an admonition for us to keep away from so-called spiritual treatment based on superstitions like sorcery, amulets, and charms.

What Non- Muslim Western Scholars of Eminence say about Prophetic Medicine  and status of Medicine before Islam.

Western historians accept the truth and feel that the sayings of the Holy Prophet benefited humanity by reviving medical science in Europe. The so called Arab Medicinepartially based on forgotten Greek medicine and the works of Muslim physicians like “Al Qanun”(Canon) and “Al-Hawi” (Continents), Avicenna (Abi Sina ) and Rhazes (Zakaria Razi) respectively,had been taught in European medical universities for more than six hundred years.

In the opinion of Douglas Guthrie (A History of Medicine, 1945), great advances in medicine made by Muslims during the Middle Ages were mainly due to the impact of the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad. Guthrie writes, “Had not the Prophet Muhammad himself said, ‘O Servant of God, use medicine, because God hath not created a pain without a remedy for it?” Guthrie failed to quote the source of this important prophetic saying, but it is obvious that he was referring to the famous hadith from Tirmidhi (one of the six most important collections of prophetic traditions).

Illness was considered divinely ordained and treating it was unnecessary, a mindset prevalent in the Roman  Empire. It is said that a massive malaria epidemic killed a large population of the Roman Empire. Millions of people were paralyzed mentally and physically. The structure of the empire began to collapse, but no physical method was adopted to control the situation. Because doing so was considered against God.

It is important to note that during the 7th century and earlier in all areas of Africa and Asia where the Romans or Byzantines ruled, there was a strong hatred of medicine and the use of medicine for a disease were considered inappropriate from a religious point of view. Controlling the disease or getting rid of it was not the job of the physicians, but it was the duty of priests, magicians or religious leaders living in places of worship. Some European historians have written that for several hundred years after the fall of the Roman Empire, the Church interpreted Greek medical knowledge as heathen and called it atheism and allowed only spiritual treatment for the treatment of diseases.

In terms of treatment, the condition of Europe was worse than the condition of Persia, Iraq, Syria and Egypt. There was no other way to get rid of the disease except magic and sorcery, the vices of ignorance, bigotry, cruelty, magic, sorcery and amulets were common. (Donald Campbell, Arabian Medicine, 1926).According to Campbell, the main reason for the aversion to knowledge in Europe was the role of the Church. So he writes that: The Christian Church helped further degrade the intellectual level (environment) of Europe. After mentioning the environment of ignorance in Europe, Campbell compares Christianity and Islam in terms of medicine in these words: “During the days when the Christian world was going through a dark period, the scholars of Islam started showing amazing activity in the science of medicine”.

George Sarton’s views echo Campbell’s sentiments. He writes that: Before Islam, medicine meant magic and not real medicine. Well known de Boer writes: Muslims cleansed science from obsolete beliefs.

Source: Medicinal Plants in the Traditions of Prophet Muhammad (10th Ed. 2019) by Dr. M.I.H. Farooqi, Lucknow, India – Email:; Mobile: +91 9839901066

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