Avicenna’s Medicine: A New Translation of the 11th-Century Canon with Practical Applications for Integrative Health Care by Mones Abu-Asab, Hakima Amri, and Marc S. Micozzi. Rochester, VT: Healing Arts Press; 2013. Hardcover, 462 pages. ISBN: 978-159477432-4. $35.00.
The Qanûn fi’t-tibb (Canon Medicinae) by the Arabic-speaking Persian polymath Ibn Sina (ca. 980-1037 CE) — commonly known by his Latinized name, Avicenna — is one of the largest encyclopedias of medicine produced during the Middle Ages. In five books, it covers a spectrum of medical activities from theoretical analyses of the human body to the treatment of ailments.
The Qanûn fi’t-tibb circulated in manuscript form all across the Arabic Empire and has been translated into many different languages. The Latin translation was printed as early as 1472, and several forms of the text were printed until the late 17th century. Generations of physicians in Western European universities used it as a textbook from the 11th to mid-16th centuries, and, later, in the Arabic world, it replaced the Kitab Al-Hawi of El-Razi. However, despite its former prominence in medical education, the Qanûn fi’t-tibb has not been thoroughly studied from a modern medical viewpoint and it is still largely misunderstood among non-Islamic health professionals and scientists.
In Avicenna’s Medicine, Mones Abu-Asab, a senior scientist with the National Institutes of Health; Hakima Amri, a physiologist, biochemist, and molecular biologist; and Marc S. Micozzi, an ethnomedical physician, present the results of their analysis of the first book of the Qanûn. After two introductory chapters (“Why Revisit a Thousand-Year-Old Book?” and “Concepts of Unani Medicine”), the authors — two of whom are native Arabic speakers — offer an English translation of Avicenna’s first book, divided into four “Arts” as in the original Arabic version. In these sections, the authors include a translation of the fundamental notions of Unani medicine, the names of diseases and plants, and the terms of relevant body parts. Any other item of the Arabic medical lexicon is followed by its original Arabic equivalent, written both in the Arabic alphabet and its transliteration in the Roman alphabet. Whenever necessary, the text of the sections ends with notes, tables, explanations, and commentaries by the authors. The work concludes with an epilogue, a substantial Arabic-English glossary of technical terms, a short bibliography, and a detailed English analytical index.
This original translation by the authors will likely replace other available English translations, most of which have been made on the basis of translations into other languages. Although the authors have scrupulously analyzed technical terms before translating them, they give readers the option to double-check their translations and interpretations by providing the original Arabic terms in the text. Similarly, the authors usefully introduce the work by a general overview of the major principles of Unani medicine, which goes beyond a traditional scholarly presentation and provides the keys of their interpretation of the Qanûn. These general notions are further explained in the conclusion of the lessons whenever appropriate. Instead of imposing a general, overarching explanation, this step-by-step progression through the text allows readers to be transformed into students of Avicenna and his interpreters, making it possible for 21st-century readers to gradually absorb the master’s teachings lesson by lesson.
The most original and interesting contribution of the work is the authors’ interpretation of Avicenna’s approach to medicine. Without entering into the technicalities of this interpretation, it is a vigorous defense of a holistic approach not so much to medicine, but to human health. (Fittingly, Hakima Amri is a co-founder and co-director of the Complementary and Alternative Medicine Graduate Program at Georgetown University, whereas Marc S. Micozzi is the founding director of the Policy Institute for Integrative Medicine in Washington, DC.) Such an approach has a direct impact on the understanding of the Qanûn. A good example is the authors’ definition of Avicenna’s physiological humors: “... they are not the whole constituents of the blood fluids or solids, but rather the nutritional fraction of them that is available to the tissues for sustenance and growth.” The authors read the Qanûn with the instruments of present-day knowledge and translate Avicenna’s system on this basis. They do not anachronistically consider that Avicenna had a prescience of modern physiology, for example, but note that the Avicennian system corresponds to modern thought, although it is expressed in a different scientific language.
The authors summarize this idea in the epilogue: “The strength of Unani stems from its compatibility and harmony with the modern theory of biological evolution... .” And, as a consequence, they write, “Modern biomedicine needs to examine the concepts of Unani because high-resolution and high-throughput instruments are not substitutes for good concepts that are within the right biological framework... .”
A book like this is extremely timely. Apart from offering a modern English translation with a medical reading of the Qanûn that was lacking in available literature, it is a brilliant illustration, on a solid scientific basis, of what a traditional medical system can bring to 21st-century medicine and medical debates. It is certainly not an easy reading, but one that requires a pen in hand and time to reflect upon the ideas expressed within. This exercise of interpretation is a good introduction to traditional medicine thinking that will be of interest to students, scholars, and the intellectually curious. Let’s hope that the authors will continue scrutinizing the Qanûn and provide additional analyses and interpretations of its other five books, including information on Avicenna’s treatment of medicinal plants.
—Alain Touwaide, PhD Scientific Director, Institute for the Preservation of Medical Traditions Research Associate, Smithsonian Institution Washington, DC