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Greco-Arab and Islamic Herbal Medicine: Traditional Systems, Ethics, Safety, Efficacy, and Regulatory Issues

Greco-Arab and Islamic Herbal Medicine: Traditional Systems, Ethics, Safety, Efficacy, and Regulatory Issues by Bashar Saad and Omar Said. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley; 2011. Hardcover; 533 pages. ISBN: 978-0-470-47421-1. $142.00.

As its title suggests, Greco-Arab and Islamic Herbal Medicine intends to provide a comprehensive account of a school of traditional medicine that deserves its fair share of attention and understanding. To achieve this goal, the book includes 19 chapters followed by a short appendix that explains the origins and relevance of Latin binomial nomenclature of plants. Many monochrome figures, illustrations, portraits, and pictures are featured as well. Of these, the plant pictures are presented in two identical sets, with color images placed in the middle section and the same pictures, in black and white, distributed alongside their respective topics in the text. The sources of these pictures are not disclosed.

The first five chapters complement one another in outlining the origins and history of Arab-Islamic medicine and its interaction with its Greek counterpart, which resulted in the concept of Greco-Arab medicine. In these chapters, general definitions and historical timelines are introduced together with the contributions of such notable scholars as Abulcasis, al-Biruni, and Rhazes to various areas of medical and biological sciences. Later chapters of this section also highlight the translation efforts of Arabian scholars and the contributions of Arab-Islamic medicine, from the Dark Ages to modern medical practices.

Beyond the historical section, the book starts to wander among different topics, old and new, general and specific. For example, while chapters 6 and 8 focus on general natural products and specific medicinal plants/animal products of Arabia and the Mediterranean region (more than 30 are mentioned), Chapter 7 reverts to common modern and historical practices of Islamic medicine.  Chapters 9 and 10 further describe other plants of the Mediterranean region and beyond (Turkey, India, Pakistan, China, and northwestern Africa), as well as other established schools of traditional medicine such as Ayurveda, Unani, and traditional Chinese medicine. Chapters 11 to 14 discuss the concepts of biosafety and toxicology, including earlier practices of Arabian scholars, in addition to preclinical and clinical evaluation of herbal drugs, encompassing selected examples from the authors’ own research. Again, this sequence is disrupted with Chapter 15, which describes the ethics of Arabian medicine before the discussion of such general topics as extraction, isolation, and herbal drug development is resumed in chapters 16 and 18. Chapter 17, which should have been placed to follow Chapter 8 or 10, examines common edible crops and natural products used as therapeutic agents, e.g., honey, dates (Phoenix dactylifera, Arecaceae), olive oil (derived from Olea europaea, Oleaceae), figs (Ficus carica, Moraceae), and others. The main body of the book concludes with Chapter 19, which provides a summary of the global use, demographics, and regulatory issues of herbal medicines in the Arab/Islamic world, the United States, Europe, and the remainder of the globe. Each chapter includes a list of references (ranging from 12 to 116, and averaging 32 references per chapter) to support its content.

Considering its size and format, the book succeeds in drawing attention to its topic but it may leave the reader with a feeling of incomplete satisfaction, depending on how the included material is approached. In their efforts to maximize coverage and benefit, the authors reviewed a plethora of topics that span history, geography, modern practice, global regulation, fundamental concepts of pharmacology/toxicology, natural product isolation/identification, and drug discovery under one cover. This is the book’s strength and weakness as it attempts to be as comprehensive as possible, but fails to provide enough depth on certain topics — such as methods of natural product isolation and testing in drug discovery — whose inclusion was not essential considering that superior coverage exists elsewhere.

Thus, the most successful sections of the book are those that are most relevant to its main title (chapters 1 through 9, and 15), and where the authors’ knowledge truly shines. These chapters are highly recommended for priority reading. For those interested in specific medicinal herbs of the region, Chapter 8 contains the most comprehensive coverage and the most references (116 total) and illustrations (26 total) of all the book’s chapters.

Aside from its inconsistent pacing and organization, the book also suffers from frequent spelling and style errors that may be distracting at times. However, the authors are to be complimented for their comprehensive review of the literature and for the inclusion of a considerable number of references to provide the reader with resources for further investigation of the various topics presented.  The formula adopted in Greco-Arab and Islamic Herbal Medicine makes it appealing to a broad spectrum of readers on both regional and global levels. Better organization and focus of its content may further enhance the appeal and value of future editions.


—Ehab A. Abourashed, MS, PhDDepartment of Pharmaceutical Sciences, College of Pharmacy, Chicago State UniversityChicago, IL