First Islamic Public Hospital Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Doctors and physicians of the early Islamic Empire provided medical attention to the ruling class and those who could afford their care. The poor often resorted to using leeches, herbs, or magic to find relief, until the first Islamic public hospital opened to all who needed medical treatment, changing the face of medicine.

Summary of Event

In the pre-Islamic Middle East, popular medicine centered around magical charms, incantations, medicinal herbs and plants, ashes, and leeches as cures for illness caused by evil spirits. According to pre-Islamic medical lore, both jinn, or evil spirits, and al-ayn, the evil eye, were the cause of illness, fevers, madness, infection, children’s diseases, and epidemics. When afflicted by an illness or infection, common people often visited barbers, who would use leeches to bleed out evil spirits, or they patronized herbalists for infusions to expurgate the afflicting spirit. If leeches or herbs did not help, people would seek out the magic of diviners, seers, or charmers for help in ending their suffering and warding off future illness. Learned doctors and physicians were retained by those who could afford them; they were not available to the common people. [kw]First Islamic Public Hospital (809) [kw]Islamic Public Hospital, First (809) [kw]Hospital, First Islamic Public (809) Hospital, Islamic public Medicine;Muslim Iraq;809: First Islamic Public Hospital[0860] Iran;809: First Islamic Public Hospital[0860] Syria;809: First Islamic Public Hospital[0860] Health and medicine;809: First Islamic Public Hospital[0860] Organizations and institutions;809: First Islamic Public Hospital[0860] Social reform;809: First Islamic Public Hospital[0860] Rāzī, al- Avicenna Hārūn al-Rashīd Jibrāl ibn Bukhtishu

As Islam developed into a formalized faith, traditional medicine came under fire because of its animistic bent. The jinn was not something that could coexist with a monotheistic faith in which Allah was the progenitor of all things, including diseases. Islam taught that Allah sent no malady without also sending a cure. The Qur՚ān does remark on ablutions before prayer, the practice of proper hygiene, dietary practices, and honey’s power to heal but it says nothing about medicine and medical practices. Until the early ninth century, knowledge of internal medicine was almost nonexistent in the Islamic world.

At age twenty-two, Hārūn al-Rashīd Hārūn al-Rashīd became the ՙAbbāsid ՙAbbāsids[Abbasids] caliph in Baghdad and ruled until his death in 809. His reign was marked by peace and a great cultural renaissance, which included a major acceleration in translations of non-Islamic works into Arabic. Dhimmis (Christians and Jews who were believers in God but who refused to accept the prophethood of Muḥammad, and who were protected minorities of Islam) translated philosophical and medical texts, including the works of Galen and Hippocrates, from Greek and Syriac into Arabic. Translations;Greek to Arabic Translations;Syriac to Arabic Once Arabic doctors had access to this information, they were eager to build on it. So was Hārūn.

In 805, Hārūn commissioned the first public Islamic hospital and had it set up in his city. Hospitals were initially inspired by the precedent of sick-relief services offered in Christian monasteries. Although Hārūn had a court physician, Jibrāl ibn Bukhtishu Jibrā՚īl ibn Bukhtishu , a Christian doctor from Jund-i-Shapur, he was aware that his subjects had little recourse beyond leech keepers and seers.

Ibn Bukhtishu, brought the knowledge of monastic sick-relief services and information gleaned from his time studying in Jund-i-Shapur to Baghdad and his patron. By the early ninth century, Jund-i-Shapur, near the ancient city of Susa (now Shūsh) in southern Persia, had become a meeting place for Arab, Greek, Syrian, and Jewish intellectuals. An academy and hospital existed at Jund-i-Shapur and it became famous as a seat for the exchange and acquisition of scientific knowledge. Hārūn appointed Ibn Bukhtishu as the new hospital’s first director. The hospital was completed in 809.

The Baghdad hospital was set up along the same lines as the academy and hospital at Jund-i-Shapur. The new hospital included wards for different physical and mental diseases, and surgery, dispensary, library, and lecture rooms. It became the hub of medicine and the center for the rise of Islamic medical training and study. It also served as a model for the later hospitals in both Baghdad and other Muslim cities such as Damascus.

In the Islamic Empire, medicine was taught in the madrasas, the Qur՚ānic schools, as an art rather than as solely a form of knowledge. Students apprenticed with master physicians to learn the art of medicine. The new public hospital combined the apprenticeship method along with classroom studies. Study in the new hospital was keyed to mathematics, logic, and Galen’s work on medicine. The Qur՚ān prohibited dissection as a violation of the dead, so students had to rely on Galen’s writings and illustrations in their study of anatomy.

In the public hospital, students could observe and describe the course of many different diseases. Apprentices made the rounds with their masters. Physicians used patients to illustrate diseases, problems, symptoms, and cures. Chief physicians and surgeons lectured to both students and graduates at the hospital. They used a variety of manuals, available in Arabic for the first time, as they lectured. Students had to master their texts by memory. They also had to participate in classroom work. They sat with their master doctor, who posed questions and explained complex concepts.

At the end of their apprenticeships, students had to pass a rigorous examination given by the master physicians; licenses were issued based on the results. No man could legally practice medicine without passing an examination and receiving a diploma. The chief physicians of the hospital also inspected and regulated leech keepers (who were mostly barbers), druggists, and orthopedists.


Research and practice at Islamic public hospitals led to profound medical discoveries, methods, and techniques, including cauterization, the diagnosis of stomach cancer, the development and use of antidotes for poisoning, the treatment of eye diseases, the understanding that the bubonic plague could spread through clothing, the use of anesthetics, cataract surgery, and humane treatment for the mentally ill. Doctors and physicians also developed new surgical techniques, produced new drugs from medicinal plants, and came to understand the chemistry and effects of drugs.

Two of the greatest medical minds of the Islamic Empire trained at the Baghdad hospital: al-Rāzī Rāzī, al- and Avicenna Avicenna . Al-Rāzī, a philosopher and physician, was the first to diagnose the difference between smallpox and measles. He developed the discipline of pharmacology and wrote a multivolume encyclopedia of medicine that became a critical medical text in the Islamic Empire and in Medieval Europe.

Avicenna, also a physician and philosopher, wrote a canon of medicine that became the main medical textbook in Europe until sixteenth century. Through research at the hospital, he discovered the contagious nature of tuberculosis and developed an understanding of how disease can spread through contamination of soil and water.

Soon after the first public hospital opened in Baghdad, dozens of hospitals began to appear in other major Islamic cities. The foundation laid by the hospital in Baghdad fostered the growth of modern medicine in medieval Europe as well.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bakar, Osman. The History and Philosophy of Islamic Science. Cambridge, England: Islamic Texts Society, 1999. Discusses questions of methodology, doubt, spirituality and scientific knowledge, the philosophy of Islamic medicine, and how Islamic science influenced medieval Christian views of the natural world.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bonner, Michael, Mine Ener, and Amy Singer, eds. Poverty and Charity in Middle Eastern Contexts. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2003. A collection that includes the chapter “The Functional Aspects of Medieval Islamic Hospitals,” which looks at how concerns of poverty and charity were addressed in Islamic hospitals. Bibliography, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bos, Gerrit. “Ibn al-Jazzar on Medicine for the Poor and Destitute.” Journal of the American Oriental Society 118, no. 3 (July-September, 1998). Traces the world of Islamic medicine and medical care during the Middle Ages through a history of a literary genre called “medicine for the poor.” Uses the tenth century Islamic medical treatise, “Medicine for the Poor and Destitute” as an example of this type of literature. Bibliographical footnotes.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Conrad, Lawrence I., et al., eds. The Western Medical Tradition: 800 B.C. to 1800. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995. A history of medicine in the West and Middle East, including a chapter on the Arab-Islamic medical tradition. Maps, bibliography, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Durant, Will. The Age of Faith: A History of Medieval Civilization—Christian, Islamic, and Judaic—From Constantine to Dante: A.D. 325-1300. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1950. The author’s extensive work includes an in-depth look at the practice and development of medicine in the early Islamic empire. Part of the author’s Story of Civilization series. Illustrations, maps, bibliography, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Johnstone, P. “Traditions in Arabic Medicine.” Palestine Exploration Quarterly 107 (1975): 23-37. This article provides a good overview of the medical traditions in the Islamic world and their origins.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Nasr, Seyyed Hossein. Islamic Science: An Illustrated Survey. London: World of Islam Festival, 1976. A carefully researched photographic record of the tools of Islamic science. Provides an overview of the development of science in the Islamic world, including the development of medicine, pharmacology, and hospitals.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Porter, Roy. The Greatest Benefit to Mankind: A Medical History of Humanity. New York: W. W. Norton, 1997. A comprehensive history that includes an examination of Islamic medicine and hospitals and their practices and origins. Bibliography, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rahman, Fazlur. Health and Medicine in the Islamic Tradition: Change and Identity. Chicago: ABC International, 1998. A brief survey on Islamic medical practice and health care in the context of religious faith. Discusses the concept of prophetic medicine. medical ethics, sexual ethics, and Islamic attitudes on death and dying. Bibliography, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ullmann, Manfred. Islamic Medicine. 1978. Reprint. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1997. This short work provides an overview focusing on the impact of the translation of Greek medical texts into Arabic on the practice of medicine in the Islamic world. Bibliography, index.

Categories: History