Yemen’s lost Pre-Islam School of Medicine – Part I

This post is also available in: العربية (Arabic)

When books on Arab heritage discuss medical schools from the pre-Islamic era, we find that they mention in detail the Academy of Gondishapur in Persia and the Levant School, but neglect to mention medical education in Yemen, despite the fact that Yemen had made considerable progress that did not stop until after the Sasanian invasion. The general environment in Yemen was ready for the appearance of natural sciences, with its deep-rooted ancient civilization, which had language, writings, commerce, agriculture and architecture, and which had been home to Jews and Christians for many centuries. It also had links to Greek and Persian civilizations, in addition to older commercial links to the rest of the world. It is difficult to imagine a civilization like this not having any scientific, philosophical or religious heritage. However, the reality is that in Yemen we have not found any manuscripts, despite the number of stamp seals that were discovered in Yemen, which would rationally be used on paper. Where did this supposed heritage go? We assume that there are other lost Yemeni sciences, in the same way that Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406) once noted:

“Where are the sciences of Persia, which Umar ordered be erased after their conquest, and where are the sciences of the Chaldeans, Syriacs, and the people of Babylon? Where are the effects and results that they had, and where are the sciences of the Copts and those before them?”[1]

We add to these questions the following: Where are the sciences of Yemen? Medical knowledge, for example, in Yemen was not less than the level reached in Al Hirah, Alexandria or Damascus. The Arab boycott of heritage from before Islam, however, along with the displacement of the Arabic of Himyar by the Arabic of Quraish, the movement on the focus of civilization from the south of the Arabian Peninsula to its center, led to the effacement of the features of this heritage. The same happened with the heritage of the Nabateans (the Syriacs of the Mesopotamia) in Iraq. The geographic proximity of Yemen to the center of Islam and the early wars between Muslims and Yemenis (which were known as the Ridda Wars) are factors that also helped to efface this scientific heritage. Despite this, some sources suggest the existence of these kinds of sciences, and here we will try to document these mentions and link them together so that we can get a clearer picture of knowledge in the Arabian Peninsula before Islam in general, and Yemen specifically. Before discussing medicine in Yemen, however, we discuss an exciting and interesting matter: how the mention of Yemen has been erased from the manuscripts of books that we have.

ِArtwork by Abeer al-Hadrami

Removing Yemen from manuscripts

Anyone following Islamic manuscripts that address the beginning of Arab medicine will find a glaring omission – Yemen is not in most of these manuscripts. This might be because most historians, and especially medical historians, are Abbasids, who looked down on everyone before them. This included the Umayyads, who the Abbasids tried to discredit politically and incite people against them, taking advantage of the fact of their killing of Al-Hussein Ibn Ali (626-680) and attacking the Kaaba with trebuchets in 693 AD.[2] This could also be a part of the general cultural trend during the era of being liberated from some of the beliefs and practices related to the Jahiliyyah (the era before Islam). This is in addition to the populist conflicts that Yemenis were a party to, and what happened to them during these conflicts, including vilification and denial of their contributions to civilization. Al-Jahiz (776-869) mentions that Ibrahim bin Makhramah al-Kindi, a Yemeni, boasted to Ali Khalid bin Safwan (died 752), an Iraqi, in the court of the Caliph al-Mahdi (745-785), and al-Mahdi told Ibn Safwan: “Why don’t you speak?” – meaning why did he not respond to him. Ibn Safwan said: “What do I say to a people who are only tanner of hides, sewers of garments, trainers of monkeys, and riders of donkeys. A rat drowned them, a woman ruled them, and hoopoe led the way to them.”[3] There is evidence showing many defamations such as this from that period.

The first case of the omission of Yemen from manuscripts is in the book of al-Qifti al-Shaibani, a historian who died in the middle of the sixth century. He quotes Ishaq bin Hunain (830-911) regarding the beginning of the appearance of medicine in the world:

“There have been differences in opinion on who started studying medicine and who the first doctors were. Ibn Ishaq bin Hunain said, in his writings on history, that a people from Egypt devised medicine. Some people say that medicine was devised by magicians, some say the people of Babylon, some said the people of Persia, some said India, Yemen was also mentioned, and the Saqaliba were also mentioned.”[4]

However, when we go back to the book of Ishaq bin Hunain, who died more than two centuries before al-Qifti, we find the same statement but without Yemen! Did the scribe who copied the book omit Yemen by accident, or was this a purposeful act? If so, why? This is not the only case of Yemen being erased from scientific history.

The second case of omission is from the book of Tabaqat Al Atiba’a (Generations of Doctors) by Ibn Juljul, written in 377 Hijri. In this book, Ibn Juljul mentions that the famed Arab physician, Ibn Kaladah al- Thaqafi (died 635), studied medicine in Yemen:

“He studied medicine in Persia and Yemen, where he practiced and learned medicine. He was also known for playing the oud, which he also learned in Persia and Yemen.”[5]

Ibn Abi Usaibia republished this paragraph in his book, Sources of News, which was written in 640 Hijri (approx.), and he copied a lot from Ibn Juljul’s book. What is strange, however, is that we do not find Yemen in the sentence that was copied, which is omitted from the first part, relating to medicine. The sentence becomes: “He studied medicine in Persia and practiced there, learning about ailments and treatments, and he also played the oud, which he also learned in Persia and Yemen.”[6] The verifier of Ibn Juljul’s book realized this omission of Yemen from the sentence that was copied in Ibn Abi Osaibia’s book, and he noted this in the margins.

There are three remaining manuscripts of Ibn Abi Osaibia’s book around the world, two of which do not mention Yemen at all in the statement.[7] In the manuscript in Leipzig, Germany, the sentence is: “He studied medicine in Persia and practiced there, and he remained during the time of the Prophet of Allah.”

The verifier of the book addressed the intentional tampering that was carried out by the scribe copying this manuscript, and he struck out the name of the copier using black ink to hide his identity. The statement “In the Name of Allah, Most Gracious, Most Merciful, and Him We Invoke” was written in large font, unlike the rest of the copy. After verification, it was noticed that another statement was written underneath the statement mentioned above: “In the Name of God, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, a One God, Amen.” From this one can conclude that the copier was a Christian. The copier also removed the statement that Muhammad is God’s prophet and messenger, and wrote instead that “I bear witness that Moses is his servant and messenger.” The copier also removed the rest of the statement, which was a prayer for blessings upon the Prophet, his family, his companions, and his wives.[8]

ِArtwork by Abeer al-Hadrami

Al-Ibadiyoun doctors

Al-Ibadiyoun, or al-Ibad, are a group of people who lived in al-Hirah (south central Iraq) and developed it. They were settled Christian, urban dwellers. There are various theories on the origin of the word ‘al-Ibad’, and the theory that is presented by Father Georges Anawati (1905-1994) is that they were called al-Ibad, or the worshippers, because they were known to worship Allah. The name included various tribes that had a shared religion and lived in the same area, and the word became used for the Christians of al-Hirah and not any other Arab Christians.[9]

The al-Ibadiyoun were among the most cultured peoples of al-Hirah, and they gained mastery in industry, sciences and languages, especially Arabic and Persian. They were mostly fluent in the language of the people of Aram because they were Christians, and this language was holy to Christians because it was the language of religion. This is why they were prominent in al-Hirah, and this was the reason that the Persians chose their translators and those responsible for communication between them and the Arabs from among them. Most of the Christians in al-Hirah were of the Nestorian[10] sect, which was encouraged by the Persians in their country to spite the Romans.

The Academy of Gondishapur in Persia was a medical school established by Shapur I (215-270), a Sasanian King, to settle the prisoners of war from his battle with Byzantine Emperor Valerian in 285. There were, among the prisoners of war, Nestorian doctors who had escaped the persecution of the Byzantine Church, and King Shapur II (309-379) allowed them to practice in Gondishapur. King Shapur II established a hospital that featured their best physicians and, during the reign of Khosrow I (501-597), a medical school was added.[11] Teaching in it was done based on the Greek approach, according to al-Qifti.[12] Greek philosophical ideas came to them, and there is no doubt that they were influenced by them, and they transferred them to the Arabs. Medicine was one of the branches of philosophy, and studying medicine meant studying philosophy. Al-Hirah was one of the important centers of the Christian missionary movement among the Arabs, and, from al-Hirah, a group of missionaries went to Yemen and other parts of the Arabian Peninsula to spread Nestorianism and other sects of Christianity.

One of the kings of al-Hirah was Imru’ al-Qais (died 328), described by the Namara inscription as being a ruler of “all Arabs”, with the inscription specifying the tribes of Asad, Nizar, Midhhaj, Najran and Ma’ad.[13]

We noticed that some of the pre-Islamic doctors whose names have been passed down are from these tribes. Al-Harith bin Ka’b is from Midhhaj, al-Shamardal is from Najran, Zuhair is from Qudha’ah, which is sometimes said to be a part of Ma’ad, and Dhamad, Sateeh and Azdian, and the al-Ibadiyoun are an Azdi tribe.[14] These tribes specifically are the ones who became Christian, and some of the first Arab tribes who converted to Christianity are Midhhaj, some of Qudha’ah, and some of the Bani Tamim.[15]

ِArtwork by Abeer al-Hadrami

Muhammad ibn Ḥabīb al-Baghdadi (died 859) mentions, in his explanation of Diwan Jarir, that there were two men from the Taghloub tribe, from “Bani al-Tabib” (there is no group by this name, and he might mean Bani al-Dhubib), and they were called “al-Asyan”; one of them is named al-Ahmar.[16] Al-Asi, among the Arabs, means doctor, and the people of Taghloub were Christians. Sources say that there were Christian ‘doctors’ among the non-Arab speakers in the Arabian Peninsula, and that they had come as missionaries. They used their medical knowledge for this purpose, and they treated a number of the leaders and prominent members of tribes. This affected the patients, leading to them converting to Christianity.[17] Christian sources mention that the first time Christianity appeared in Yemen was during the fourth century, and it was brought by a missionary named Theophilos the Indian (died 364).[18] Theophilos was famous for his healing abilities, and he was called into the court of Emperor Constantius II and Empress Eusebia.

Possibly among these missionaries, who took advantage of their medical knowledge, is the “believing young boy”[19] who was mentioned in the exegesis of the Quran, specifically the al-Burooj Chapter, which told the story of Christian believers being burned in Najran before Islam. Ibn Hisham mentions that this Christian boy would call people to his religion in exchange for treating them, and the people responded to him “until there was not a single ill person in Najran”.[20] This made the Jewish King angry with the boy,  etc… If this assumption is correct, then the story of the boy shows that medicine had been abandoned in Yemen, to the point where the boy was able to astonish people and get them to change their religion by treating them. We understand from this story, if the details are correct and the conclusions are right, that medical knowledge was revived once again in Yemen and that this was because of the Christians coming into Yemen and bringing medical knowledge with them. Where did this medicine go, however? Where are the books that were produced? Where is the philosophical knowledge linked to it? We have a limited amount of information, but contemporary researchers, in books on Islamic heritage, are able to extract some of this knowledge from scattered poetry and stories.



Mohammed Atbuosh is a young Yemeni scholar interested in philosophy and Islamic thought.





[1] Ibn Khaldoun History, Dar Al-Fekr, second edition 1998

[2] Khalid Al Hudaydi, La Bud Min Sana’a, pg. 47

[3] Al Jahiz, Book of the Animals, 6/393

[4] Sources of News on the Generations of Physicians, pg. 12

[5] Ibn Juljul, Generations of Physicians, pg. 54

[6] Ibn Abi Osaibia, Sources of News on the Generations of Physicians, pg. 161

[7] The verifier mentioned that it was not included in the two manuscripts of Dar Al Kitab (182) and (1341), out of the eight manuscripts located around the world.

[8] Notes from the verifier, Dr. Aamer Al Najjar, on the book Sources of News on the Generations of Physicians (Dar Al Maaruf, Part 1, First Edition, 1996), pg. 105.

[9] Father Georges Anawati, Christianity and Arab Civilization, pg. 57

[10] Nestorian doctrine, or Nestorianism named after Christian theologian Nestorius (386–450), Patriarch of . It is the Christian religious belief rejecting the Council of Ephesus held in 431 AD.

[11] Medical Education in Islam, Dr. Abdullatif Al Badri (Journal of the Iraqi Academy of Sciences, Issue 1, 1 February 2001) pg. 65

[12] Al Qifti says about this school that they preferred their medicine and their method to the Greeks and Indians (News of Scholars, pg. 106)

[13] It is known as the Imru’ al-Qais Inscription, and it is believed to be from a period prior to Classical Arabic. It is dated 328 AD, and was written in late Nabatean script. It was found by French archaeologists at the beginning of the 20th century, in the village of Al Namar to the east of Jabal Al Arab in Syria.

[14] Jawad Ali, Al Muffassal, 5/171, 172

[15] Is’af Al Ayan fi Ansab Ahl Oman, pg. 31

[16] Jawad Ali, Al Muffassal, 12/166

[17] Diwan Jarir, Explained by Muhammad ibn Ḥabīb, (Cairo, Dar Al Ma’arif, 3rd Edition) 1/154, Louis Cheikho, Christianity and Its Literature, pg. 225

[18] Jawad Ali, Al Muffassal, 12/185, 16/46, 5/171

[19] Jawad Ali, Al Muffassal, 4/178, 219, 12/188

[20] Syriac Nestorian sources claim that a trader from Najran named Hanan or Hayan, during the reign of Yazdegerd I (399 – 420), made a trip to Constantine to trade, and then, from there, he went to al-Hirah, where he converted to Christianity. When he returned to Najran, he spread Christianity there until he was able to spread it among the people of Himyar. (Jawad Ali, Al Muffassal, 12/190)

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