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Encyclopedia of Islamic Herbal Medicine

Encyclopedia of Islamic Herbal Medicine by John A. Morrow. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company; 2011. Paperback, 235 pages. ISBN 978-0-7864-4707-7. $55.00.

The Encyclopedia of Islamic Herbal Medicine is comprised of 2 major sections that work well to provide an overall background in herbal medicine, followed by monographic descriptions of specific herbs used in the Arabian Peninsula during and before the time of Prophet Muhammad. The herbal medicine background is included in the introduction while the herbal monographs constitute the main body of the text. The book ends with descriptions of the technical terms included in the text and a general bibliography to augment the specific bibliographies included with each herb. There is also a short note on Arabic letters and their English transliteration at the beginning of the book. Except for its cover illustration, the encyclopedia does not have any pictures or figures. The book is printed in a high-quality, 2-column format on acid-free alkaline paper. The cover artwork is a collective picture of 10 of the herbs included in the encyclopedia.

In the 26-page introduction, the author provides a comprehensive summary of most of the essential concepts with which readers need to be familiar. This section starts by defining and differentiating among such terms as Prophetic, Islamic, Unani, Galenic, and Greek and Western medicine. It also describes the current global status of herbal medicine and the Islamic perspective on such medicine. The discussion then proceeds to controversial issues within the field of herbal medicine and the conflict between tradition and progress, or the “holistic” versus “atomistic” approach to medicine. The author extends the discussion to include the role of experimentation and testing in empirical medicine practiced by renowned Muslim scholars during their times. Presentation of the names of some Muslim scholars, however, should have followed a format of associating the Arabic/Persian name with the Western one to maximize the benefit and to minimize confusion, since they markedly differ in the respective literature (e.g., Avicenna is the Western name of the eleventh century Persian scholar Ibn-Sina).

The introduction also covers the relationship between science and spirituality and, in this respect, responds to controversial ideas about Prophetic medicine, which constitutes the foundational material for this book. In addition, the introduction describes the origins and inter-relationships of herbalism in major civilizations such as China, India, Greece, Arabia, Persia, Europe, and the Native Americans. There is also a simplified attempt to correlate the pharmacological effects of herbs with those of single entity medicinal products. Safety was also included in this section as a commonly addressed issue whenever herbal medicines are compared to modern therapeutic agents.

The last section of the introduction emphasizes the medicine practiced by Prophet Muhammad on 1 hand and the 12 Shi’ite Imams on the other, as its foundation and as the ongoing theme of the encyclopedia. It also provides an overview of the contents, format, literature sources, as well as sources of errors and confusion in some of the old literature utilized in compiling the book. With its own bibliography of more than 100 cited references, the introduction stands alone as a rich and informative section whose value would have been enhanced by the inclusion of section headers to clearly define the various topics at hand.

The bulk of the book — the encyclopedia section — comprises 97 chapters, or monographs, each discussing 1 herb in some detail. The average length of each monograph is about 2 pages, and it includes the English and transliterated Arabic names in the title. For each herb, its monograph includes the botanical origin (Latin binomial and family), common names (in various languages), safety rating, Prophetic prescription (his telling and practice), issues in herbal identification, properties and traditional uses, modern scientific studies (the most prominent ones), and notes (an average of 17 cited references per monograph). The herbs included in this encyclopedia range from commonly known medicinal herbs, such as aloe (Aloe vera, Liliaceae), garlic (Allium sativum, Alliaceae), ginger (Zingiber officinale, Zingiberaceae), and senna (Senna alexandrina, Fabaceae), to somewhat exotic ones (native to Arabia) such as black seed (Nigella sativa, Ranunculaceae), colocynth (Citrullus colocynthis, Cucurbitaceae), myrrh (Commiphora myrrha, Burseraceae), and miswak (Salvadora persica, Salvadoraceae).

Interestingly, more than half of the included herbs are edible vegetables, fruits, or nuts, such as banana (Musa paradisiaca, Musaceae), cucumber (Cucumis sativus, Cucurbitaceae), eggplant (Solanum melongena, Solanaceae), olive (Olea europaea, Oleaceae), and almonds (Prunus dulcis, Rosaceae), whose medicinal values are adequately presented. The progression from Prophetic to traditional to scientific practices related to the mentioned herb significantly contributes to the unique nature of each monograph included in this encyclopedia. It also provides each monograph with a nice blend of aromas brought out by the combination of historical, traditional, and scientific facts in a style that is easy to read and enjoy. Two minor noticeable issues in all monographs are the absence of herb names in the original Arabic alphabet (especially with the presence of the transliteration table showing Arabic letters at the beginning of the book) and some incomplete journal names in the Notes section.

Overall, the content appropriately reflects the author’s knowledge and authority in the area of Islamic religion, tradition, and history as well as a strong command of the challenging Arabic language. This work is not merely a translation of old text. It is a serious and extensive effort to link the past with the present and to establish a continuum based on our expanding knowledge in life sciences. As such, the Encyclopedia of Islamic Herbal Medicine may appeal not only to readers of history, religion, and traditional medicine but also to scholars and researchers in the areas of modern phytotherapy, pharmacognosy, and phytopharmacology. Those involved in drug discovery may also find new clues about sources for potential natural product compounds. It is a welcome contribution to the growing Western library on herbal medicine from the rich and largely unexplored realms of the East.

—Ehab A. Abourashed, PhD Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences College of Pharmacy Chicago State University Chicago, IL