Arabian Drugs in Early Medieval Mediterranean Medicine

By King, Anya | The Journal of the American Oriental Society, January-March 2019 | Go to article overview

Arabian Drugs in Early Medieval Mediterranean Medicine


King, Anya, The Journal of the American Oriental Society


Arabian Drugs in Early Medieval Mediterranean Medicine. By ZOHAR AMAR and EFRAIM LEV. Edinburgh Studies in Classical Islamic History and Culture. Edinburgh: EDINBURGH UNIVERSITY PRESS, 2017. Pp. xiv + 290, ills. $125, [pounds sterling]80.

The general theme of this volume is the expansion of the ancient pharmacopoeia in medieval times. The authors thus grapple with two interrelated subjects: how the "new" substances, mostly from South and Southeast Asia, ended up in the Near East and how Islamicate pharmacology facilitated their spread within the Mediterranean world. By attempting to collapse both subjects into one book, the authors may not have done full justice to either; nevertheless, the book has value in that it calls attention to the importance of the Islamicate role in the development of Western pharmacology and provides an overview of the new materia medico and associated problems. Photographs of many of the substances are a welcome addition.

The authors have made many contributions to the ethnobotany and ethnopharmacology of the Middle East, and the book under review contains much that has appeared in their earlier publications. The most significant overlap is with Practical Materia Medica of the Medieval Eastern Mediterranean (Brill, 2008). To offer one example, in their treatment of myrobalan, which in Arabian Drugs in Early Medieval Mediterranean Medicine (henceforth Arabian Drugs) is discussed as the first "Arabian" substance (pp. 83-88), some phrasing is taken over verbatim, or almost verbatim, from the Brill publication (pp. 218-21); both discussions contain different elements, however. The Brill work gives a lengthy list of documentations of myrobalan in Geniza documents--this is absent in Arabian Drugs, which, however, draws on a more extensive range of Islamic medical and pharmacological literature. At the same time, the presentation of main pharmaceutical uses in the work under review does not systematically compare to the uses attested in the Geniza documents mentioned in the previous volume. Arabian Drugs also gives a far more detailed survey of the different varieties of myrobalan. In short, both books are necessary to appreciate the authors' understanding of the substances. Overlap can be found with several of their papers as well, such as "Watermelon, Chate Melon and Cucumber: New Light on Traditional and Innovative Field Crops of the Middle Ages" (Journal asiatique 299 [2011 ]: 193-204). which material is repeated on pp. 51-57 of Arabian Drugs; "Trends in the Use of Perfumes and Incense in the Near East after the Muslim Conquests" (Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society 3rd ser., 23 [2013]: 11-30), cf. pp. 129-61; and "Most-Cherished Gemstones in the Medieval Arab World" (Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society 3rd ser., 27 [2017]: 377-401), cf. pp. 162-90.

The phrase "Arabian Drugs" used throughout leads one to expect that the discussed drugs will be from Arabia, but, of course, this is not true for the vast majority of them. The words new and Arabic are qualified by quotation marks sometimes, e.g., "new 'Arabic' substances" (p. 49). The authors remark on the relative contribution of the different cultural components in early medieval pharmacology. For them, the "Greek medical heritage" and "Indian medical heritage" are cornerstones. They characterize Islamic pharmacology as a "melting pot" in which "the physicians of the Galenic school versus those of the Indian and Zoroastrian schools" participated. When they address the Iranian tradition, they frequently collapse the Indian tradition into it. Both the Indian tradition and its adaptation in Iran deserve far more attention than given, both in the early chapters and in their treatment of individual substances. For India, in particular, there is a vast corpus of medical literature that can illuminate the pharmacological uses of materia medica introduced into Islamicate medicine and allow for comparison and the tracing of pharmacological and medical influences; yet no serious attempt has been made in Arabian Drugs to incorporate it. …

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