Prophet Muhammad’s traditions are rich in advice on hygiene, sanitation, and treatment of disease through the use of medication.
Referred to as Al-Tibb Al-Nabawi (Prophetic Medicine) by Muslims the world over, about 50 prophetic traditions on specific ailments and their remedies have been grouped together under the chapter referred to as Kitab-al-Tibb (the book of medicine) in the well-known collections of Hadith (prophetic sayings) by Bukhari, Muslim, Abu Dawud, At-Tirmidhi, and more.
Also, more than 300 traditions on aspects of hygiene, cleanliness, eating and drinking, etc. find mention in these collections.
All these traditions, which number about 400, constitute what is referred to as Prophetic Medicine, and can be found together in the classic books of Ibn al-Qayyim Aljouzi (8th century Hijrah), Abu Nu`aim (5th century Hijrah), Abu Abdullah al-Dhahbi (8th century Hijrah), and Abu Bakr ibn al-Sani (4th century Hijrah). You can find these original Arabic treatises in English and other languages as well.
Islamic Foundations of Wellbeing
Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) laid down the foundation for a social order. He advised every member of the society to maintain a healthy life; physically, psychologically, and spiritually. He didn’t disregard any aspect of life.
In the opinion of Douglas Guthrie (A History of Medicine, 1945), medieval Muslims doctors’ advances were due to Prophet Muhammad’s traditions. Guthrie writes, “Had not the Prophet Muhammad himself said, ‘O Servant of God, use medicine, because God hath not created a pain without a remedy for it’”?
Guthrie failed to quote the source of this important prophetic saying. But, it’s obvious that he was referring to the famous hadith from Tirmidhi.
As a matter of fact, there are several such sayings in which the Prophet laid great stress on medicine. He discouraged seeking help through amulets, relics, and charms.
The Prophet once said, “There is a remedy for every malady and when the remedy is applied to the disease, it is cured.”
This and several such hadiths are there in Bukhari, Muslim, and Abu Dawud.
A companion has once asked the Prophet, “Is there any good in medicine?” To this he emphatically replied, “Yes.”
As a result, Islamic teachings make it the duty of every group of people to conduct research and discover the remedy for diseases that afflict human beings. The concept of incurable diseases is thus alien to Islam.
Changing Age-Old Attitudes
There were several occasions when the Prophet visited the sick. And after enquiring about the ailments, he advised to take the medicine of experienced physicians.
On several occasions he advised the sick to approach Harith bin Kalda, a well-known Jewish physician of Thaqif (a place near Madinah, Saudi Arabia where the Prophet resided at the time). On one particular occasion the Prophet visited Sa`d ibn Abi Waqqas who had suffered a heart attack.
When the Prophet placed his hand on the chest of Sa`d he felt great relief, but the Prophet cautioned him and said, “You’ve had a heart attack and therefore should consult Harith Bin Kalda, who is the expert physician.”
It is these and many other similar occasions that greatly changed the attitude of the Arabs towards diseases. Arabs, during the pre-Islamic period, depended mainly on invoking supernatural aid or different deities for the treatment of disease.
The Prophet Muhammad, realizing the consequences of infectious epidemics, advised his companions that, “When you hear about a break of plague in any area, do not enter there and when it has broken in a land where you are, then do not run away from it (and thus spread it elsewhere).”
On the basis of this hadith, Muslims considered precaution and vigilance against infectious epidemics as the command of God.
The Prophet also opposed charms and incantations as a form of remedy for diseases. On some occasions, when medicine wasn’t available, he allowed, mainly for psychological reasons, the recitation of an incantation that has definite meaning.
He also declared the victims of epidemics such as cholera and the plague as martyrs. This was a great consolation for those who suffered from it and realized the fatal consequences.
The Prophet always cautioned physicians to take extreme care in treating their patients. Also, he warned unskillful practitioners of treating the ill lest they become responsible for any complications. Quackery is, therefore, haram in Islamic medical ethics.
The Prophet Muhammad advised his followers to always care for their health, and whenever they were ill, whether seriously or otherwise, consoled them and told them not to feel that they were victims of the wrath of Allah. “Disease,” he said, “is not the wrath of Allah, because Prophets also suffered great pains, much greater than ordinary people.” Imagine what a solace these sayings would have provided to the followers of Islam.
Hope as Medicine
There are many hadiths in Bukhari, Muslim and others of people visiting the Prophet to ask about their ailments. He would advise them to resort to medicine first and then pray to God to get rid of the disease.
On several occasions he would himself suggest certain medicines. In case of loss of appetite he frequently advised his followers to take talbina; a preparation made from barley. For constipation he used to recommend the use of senna.
He was also in favor of regular use of honey for keeping fit. Similarly, for different ailments he would advise the use of olives, black cumin, chicory, endive fenugreek, ginger, marjoram, saffron, vinegar, and watercress.
Hadiths on these medicines and others show the concern of the Prophet for the welfare and good health of his followers. For even apparently small matters like drinking water, eating food, and keeping clean and tidy he also gave advice. He said, “Cleanliness is half of faith.”
Some of the hadiths on black cumin, senna, and watercress might be provoking. For instance, the Prophet is reported to have said that, “Black cumin is a remedy for every disease except death.”
The Prophet expressed similar views on the efficacy of senna and cress.
The style and language of these hadiths are a clear indication that the Prophet placed great stress on medicines. These hadiths also put emphasis on confidence building of the ill towards their diseases and agonies suffered.
Very rational advice was given that none should be disheartened by the intensity and duration of the disease because remedies have been provided by nature. He also advised not to be afraid of impending death.
During the time of the Prophet, a person committed suicide as he couldn’t bear the agony of his disease. The Prophet condemned the act and refused to participate in the last rites.
Thus, hopelessness, despondency, dejection and frustration on account of serious disease and pain are against the spirit and tenets of Islamic medical ethics.
Charms & Incantations: Thing of Past
There are several authentic hadiths, according to which people were said to come to the Prophet for spiritual remedies for their illnesses and that of their kith and kin.
The Prophet, of course, prayed for them, but only after suggesting remedies in the form of medicines. Often he would advise the patients to consult the best physician in the area.
On one occasion a lady came to the Prophet with her child who was bleeding because of a throat infection. He admonished her and advised her to treat the disease by using the extract of costus and pseudo-saffron.
Similarly, once his wife complained of an abscess on her finger. The Prophet suggested an application of sweet flag on the fingers. Then, he asked her to pray to Allah for recovery. There was also an occasion when a scorpion bit the Prophet himself.
He immediately asked for salty hot water. The hot solution went over his fingers while he recited Qur’anic verses.
These Prophetic hadiths led Muslims to use medicine rather than incantations. On several occasions he exhorted them not to depend on supernatural methods of healing. He has also said, “charm is nothing but a work of Satan.”
The Prophet gave suitable advice to his followers on earthly affairs. Yet, he created confidence in themselves to act according to their own experiences.
Once, while withdrawing his advice given earlier on the cross pollination of date palm he said, “Whenever I command you to do something related to religion, do obey. And if I command you something about earthly matters, act on your own (experience) and (do remember) I am a human being.”
Putting Prophetic Medicine Into Perspective
Several books on prophetic medicine don’t project the true essence of the Prophet’s message. For instance, the author of “Tibbe Nabwi Aur Jadid Science” (Prophetic Medicine and Modern Science), claims that Prophetic treatment of heart attack by eating seven dates, as was suggested to Sa`d ibn Abi Waqqas, should still be preferred over modern bypass surgery for the disease, provided people have faith in the treatment of the Prophet.
The learned author failed to understand that the Prophet, while suggesting to Sa`d to take dates as temporary relief, also advised him to consult the expert physician Harith bin Kalda for treatment.
As a matter of fact, it isn’t desirable to consider the sunnah on medicine as similar to a physician’s prescription. In this connection, the opinion of Ibn Khaldun (14th century AD) is highly relevant and realistic.
He says, “The Prophet’s mission was to make known to us the prescription of the Divine Law and not to instruct us in medicine of the common practice of ordinary life” (Muqqaddima).
In his opinion, even very authentic hadiths can’t be mere medicinal prescription; which is the duty of a physician.
He says, however, that “with sincere faith, one may derive from them [hadiths] great advantage though this forms no part of medicine as it is properly called.” To emphasize his point of view, Ibn Khaldun refers to occasions when the Prophet tried to create confidence in his followers by advising them to take their own judgments in worldly affairs.
Prophetic medicine is a message par excellence. It’s an advice to keep a healthy body and soul and to have faith in both physical and spiritual treatment. It is a command to us to strive hard to find newer medicines and newer remedies.
It’s a warning to those who consider diseases as the will of God for which no remedy is important. It is an admonition for us to keep away from superstitious treatments like sorcery, amulets, and charms.