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Prophetic Medicines

Prophetic Medicine refers to the actions and words (hadith) specifically of the Islamic prophet Muhammad with regards to sickness, treatment and hygiene, and the genre of writings undertaken primarily by non-physician scholars to collect and explicate these traditions. It is distinct from Islamic medicine, in that the latter is a broader category encompassing a variety of medical practices rooted in Greek natural philosophy. Prophetic medical traditions exhort humans to not simply stop at following Muhammad’s teachings, but encourage them to search for cures as well.

The literature of prophetic medicine thus occupies a symbolic role in the elucidation of Islamic identity as constituted by a particular set of relationships to science, medicine, technology and nature. There has historically been a tension in the understanding of the medical narratives: are they of the same nature as Muhammad’s religious pronouncements, or are they time-sensitive, culturally situated, and thus not representative of a set of eternal medical truths? This body of knowledge was fully articulated only in the 14th century, at which point it was concerned with reconciling Sunnah (traditions) with the foundations of the Galenic humoral theory that was prevalent at the time in the medical institutions of the Islamicate world. It is nonetheless a tradition with continued modern-day currency, as suggested by the online presence of resources on the genre.

Prophetic medicine is sometimes casually identified with Unani medicine or traditional medicine, although it is distinguished from some iterations of these and from scientific medicine most predominantly by the former being specifically a collection of advice attributed to Muhammad in the Islamic tradition. One would do well to note that medieval interpretations of the medical hadith were produced in a Galenic medical context, while modern-day editions might bring in recent research findings to frame the importance of the genre. In the hadith, Muhammad recommended the use of honey and hijama (wet cupping) for healing and had generally opposed the use of cauterization for causing “pain and menace to a patient”. Other items with beneficial effects attributed to Muhammad, and standard features on traditional medicine in the Islamicate world, include olive oil; dates; miswak as a necessity for oral health and Nigella sativa or “black seed” or “black cumin” and its oils. These items are still sold in Islamic centers or sellers of other Islamic goods.