The terms Islamic or Arabic medicine are, as often noted, misleading. Many of the physicians who lived and worked in pre-modern Islamic societies were neither Muslim nor Arab, and the shortcomings of defining multi-ethnic and culturally varied regions in religious terms are obvious, let alone its ideological implications (1). Yet, the use of anatomical representations in the medical traditions developed in the Islamic world is determined, to a great extent, by religious concerns.
The Arabic term for anatomy –later adopted in Persian and Ottoman Turkish– is tashrīḥ, which literally means “dissecting”. Ironically, the medieval sources contain very little references to human dissection, since this practice was regarded as contrary to religious principles. (2) The anatomical paradigm to which these physicians adhered was Galenic and the opinions of Galen were rarely questioned. As Maimonides said when discussing Galen’s works on anatomy, no physician had practiced dissection after him. To this limitation, with obvious consequences for the knowledge of the internal organs, we should add yet another religious constrain: the prohibition of human representation, defended by a relevant number of Muslims scholars.
As a consequence, anatomical representations in pre-modern Islamic societies are rare. Most of them are connected to a single pictorial tradition inaugurated by Manṣūr ibn Ilyās in the 14th century and were used in medical works that were produced and circulated in the Eastern Mediterranean and Middle Eastern Islamic lands.
(1) See the introduction to Peter Pormann and Emilie Savage-Smith (2007)
(2) For a discussion on this topic see Emilie Savage-Smith (1995).
Peter Pormann and Emilie Savage-Smith. 2007. Islamic Medicine. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
Emilie Savage-Smith, “Attitudes towards Dissection in Medieval Islam,” Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences 50/1 (1995): 67-110.
Emilie Savage-Smith. 2007. “Anatomical Illustrations in Arabic Manuscripts”, in Anna Contadini (ed.), Arab Painting: Text and Image in Illustrated Arabic Manuscripts (Leiden and Boston: Brill) 147-159.
Ynez Violé O’Neill. 1977. “The Fünfbilderserie – A Bridge to the Unknown” in Bulletin of the History of Medicine 51 (1977): 538-549
Andrew Newman. 1998. “Tašrīḥ-i Manṣūrī: Human Anatomy between the Galenic and Prophetical Medical Traditions” in Ž. Vesel, H. Beikbaghban, and B. Thierry de Crussol des Epesse (eds.), La science dans le Monde Iranien à l’époque islamique (Tehran: Institut Français de Recherche en Iran): 253-272.