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

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Signs of Traditional Arabic and Islamic Medicine in Yemen

Islamic history gives us a glimpse into early practices of Arabic and traditional medicine in Yemen, especially among Christian communities in the region such as Najran. In the year 10 A.H. the Prophet Mohammad had an encounter with a Christian delegation from Najran who mocked and disputed his vocation. They resisted and disagreed with his doctrine concerning the nature of god and Jesus, which posed a threat to their beliefs and missionary purpose. Islamic scholars attribute the descent of many of the pivotal Quranic verses that define Islam’s relationship with Christianity to this encounter and its controversies. The Prophet sensed the significance of this meeting, which is one of the reasons Najran was among the first conquered territories and where he later signed the Najran Pact.

References of Medicinal Practice

To begin with, we will go through the references found in the works of Ibn Abi Shaybah (Imam Abu Bakr), who wrote that the Prophet (PBUH) recommended the use of Indian Costus (al-Qist al-Hindi) to treat ailments and said, “Some of the best treatments lie in cupping and the Indian Costus Root.”[1] According to Ibn Hajar al-Asqalani[2] (1372-1449), Indian Costus reached the Arabs through Dhofar in Yemen. Other Islamic sources mention the presence of Yemeni healers in Hijaz through the story of the Sahabi (Companion) Mo’aqib al-Dousi who had contracted leprosy. Omar ibn al-Khattab asked all those around him who knew of medicine, until one day he met two men from Yemen and asked them, “Do you have any medicine for this righteous man?”[3] According to this account they were able to treat him. Leprosy is in fact mentioned in ancient South Arabian inscriptions[4]: tgdmm (?????).   

The treatment involved using the fruit of palm dates, Root of Aristolochia bracteolata, Pulp of Citrullus colocynthis, and soaked henna leaves.[5] Although the source does not mention the name or tribe of these two men, history books name a number of pre-Islamic healers, most of whom were from Yemen.

Ibn Hisham

Ibn Hisham (d. 833) writes about Amru bin Tabban, the brother of the Himyarite king Abu Karib Ibn Ḥassan bin Tabban, who once fell ill: “When Amru ibn Taban arrived to Yemen, he was unable to sleep and suffered from acute insomnia. After some time he was no longer able to endure the exhaustion and asked healers, oracles and clergymen about his ailment.”[6]  This event is mentioned in a late book on Shiite heritage by Faraj al-Mahum, who wrote that, “a man belonging to Yemen who had a bodily affliction had called upon his oracles to offer advice on what had befallen him.”

Ibn Abi Shaybah

Ibn Abi Shaybah (775 AD – 849 AD) briefly mentions the presence of healers in present day Yemen in a story about one of the Tābi’een, Al-Rabee bin Quthaim (d. 682 AD). One day he fell ill and was asked if he would like to receive help. The ascetic remembered the Quranic verse 25:38, {And [We destroyed] ‘Aad and Thamud and the companions of the well and many generations between them.} He thought about their attachment to worldly life and the lure of its pleasures, and responded, “There were the ill and the healers amongst them, neither those were treated from their ailments, nor who treated them remained.”[7]  The  tribes of ‘Aad and Thamud are believed to have originated from the region of Hadhramaut of present-day Yemen.

Artwork by Abeer al-Hadrami


Al-Serafi, who lived at the beginning of the tenth century AD, mentions Socotra in a collection of observations documented by an Omani traveler named, Al-Nadhar bin Maimon. Maimon, who lived in Basra towards the end of the eighth century AD, had wrote in an account on his journey, “In the sea there is an island known as Skwṭra (Socotra), where a variety of native cactus species grow. It is near the land of Africa and the land of the Arabs, and most of its people are Christians.[8]

Al-Serafi believed that the Greek philosopher Aristotle was behind the dominance of Christianity in Socotra. When he received news that Alexander the Great had conquered Persia, “he wrote him to request an island in the sea known as Skwṭra. In the letter, Aristotle argued that the island contained a species of cactus that has great medicinal value and contains a laxative effect. He suggested that the natives should be relocated and that Greeks should be sent to live there and trade with the islands’ valuable plants throughout the Levant, Rome, and Egypt.” Later, when Christianity was embraced by the Romans in 313 AD, it is believed that the people of the island followed.

Regardless of the authenticity of this account, and whether or not Aristotle knew of Socotra, the story still reveals the importance of the flora and fauna of Socotra in early medicine.

Ibn Juljul

In his major book, Ṭabaqat al-Aṭibba wal-Hukama (Generations of physicians and Wise Men), written in 377 AH, Ibn Juljul mentions a medical school (Madrasa) in Yemen where Arabs would travel to study. The reference appears in the context of his writing about the Arab physician, al-Harith Ibn Kalda al-Thaqafi, where he wrote, “He learned and practiced medicine in the lands of ​​Persia and Yemen. During his time there he studied pharmaceutical sciences and also learned to play oud.”[9] Dr. Khaled al-Ḥadidi deduces that al-Harith bin Kalda did not travel to Persia until “after he had returned from Yemen, and by then he was already an accomplished physician who had established his theoretical work as we can deduce from his debate with Khosrow II.” The conclusion seems believable especially since he left Yemen at an old age and was already known in the field when he met Khosrow II. The long debate between them is recorded in history books[10] and documented by Kalda himself in a book titled, Dialogues in Medicine.[11]

Wahb Ibn Munabbih

Wahb Bin Munabbih (655-738 AD), a tabi’i from Yemen, refers to the possibility that the knowledge of medicine among Yemenis corresponded with the classic four elements in ancient Greece. In his book, Kitāb al-Tījān fī mulūk Ḥimyar, he writes, “Philosophers have claimed that God created man from four elements, four natures” and then goes into detail on these elements with a medical approach.[12]In a later work, he writes, “It can be found in the Torah that when I created Adam, I made his body from four elements and then made them a legacy in his son that continues until judgement day: Earth, Water, Air, and Fire”. [13]

What makes us stop at this reference is the reality of the time period that Wahb Ibn Munabbih lived in. He was born only twenty years after the death of the Prophet Mohammad, and he died in Sana’a at the beginning of the 200 AH,[14] that is, before the spread of the term “philosophy” in Islamic thought. It is believed that his use of the word “philosophy” in the previous quote, is considered to be the first time that the word appears in Islamic sources, that is if we exclude Kalila wa Dimna as a translated book.

Taking that into account, I disagree with al-Hadidi’s earlier assertion that the Yemen Medical School was completely different from what was known at the time, and that they did not believe nor practice the four elements of the Greek.[15] On the contrary, Wahb Ibn Munabbih mentions the Greek theory, in addition to what historian al-Qaftani said about the Jundishapur School, “they prefer their treatment and their method over that of Greece and India.”[16]

Abd al-Qahir al-Baghdadi

Abd al-Qahir al-Baghdadi (980-1037 AD) believed there was evidence that Yemeni philosophy existed in the Himyarite Kingdom. In a paragraph on the nature of animals, he writes:

“Physicians and philosophers wrote about the nature of animals in their work, and Aristotle Thales as well wrote about animal classifications. These philosophers mentioned nothing that was not derived from Arab thinkers who existed prior to the period of Western philosophy, they belonged to the tribes of al-Qaḥtaniyah, al-Jurhumiyah, al- Ṭasmiya and other Ḥimyarite tribes.” [17]

Ibn Abi Uṣaibia

In a book titled, Uyūn ul-Anbāʾ, Ibn Abi Uṣaibia (1203-1270 AD) writes that ancients believed that Chaldeans’ witches and sorcerors were the pioneers of medical sciences, “some however say that medicine originated  from Yemeni witches.”[18] This is of course a legendary tale, but what is interesting is that the influence of Yemeni medicine was perceived as significant, and of a certain value that it is attributed to the emergence of medicine in the world.


Medicine in Pre-Islamic Arabia (Jahiliyyah)

Sources that point to the existence of early medicine in Yemen, also fortunately mention names of a number of well known physicians at the time. They appear in the context of a variety of issues of interest to early Islamic historians. Below is a list of these twelve pre-Islamic physicians, along with information on their origins according to their lineage, where they settled, as well as their religious background.

Pre-Islamic Yemeni physicians

1- Zuhair bin Janab al-Himyari, was a physician, knight, and priest from the Yemeni tribe of Quda’a, who lived to an old age.[19] Little was written about his religious affiliation, but the historian Jawad Ali believes he was associated with Abraha, and therefore may have been a Christian, especially that many among the tribe of Quda’a, which Zuhair belongs to, had embraced Christianity.[20]

2- Ḍimād bin Tha’labah Al-Azdi[21]  was a friend of the Prophet Mohammad during Jahiliyyah. During that time, he came to Mecca and heard that the infidels of Quraysh were saying that Muhammad was mad, and thought he could heal him. Later he approached the Prophet (PBUH) and said, “O Muhammad, I can heal from miasma (bad air). So, if you want, I may treat you.”21

Al-Azdi’s first name means “dressing or bandage” in Arabic, which implies that he may have received this name in reference to his medical practice. The origins of his name puts his location in Yemen, since historically the singular word “Ḍimād” was mentioned in the Sabaean inscription (CIH 315) ??? meaning truce as well as in the inscription (Faq’as 17).[22] It appears that a number of other figures received first names that suggest their involvement in medicine, such as Rufaida Al-Asalmiyya, which means “compression” in Arabic, and Shifa’a bit Abdallah, which means “healing.” The above names have an obvious reference to medicine and healing, while others are more general, such as Ḥuḏaym, which means “skilled,” in medicine.

3- Ibn Ḥuḏaym,  was from Bani Tayyim al-Rabab (the tribes of Tayyim were located in Yemen, in the region of Tihama), he was known for his skills in medicine and his name became synonymous with feeling well.[23] It is said that he was more knowledgeable in medicine than Al-Ḥarith bin Kalada[24], and his name was found in an engraving on an agate ring, written as “Ḥḏmm” (RES 3492), together with the Feminine name ???? “Ḥḏmt” (Ḥuḏaymah?)  in the inscription (Mift 00/33).

4- Al-Shamardal Ibn Qabbāth Al-Ka’bi Al-Najrani was among the Bani Al-Ḥarith bin Ka’b delegation from Najran who met with the Prophet Mohammad. The only evidence we have of him being a physician is a sentence he said addressing the prophet, “I was a priest during the pre-islamic time, and I was a man of medicine.”[25]

5- Al-Ḥarith bin Ka’b, as he is referred to in some sources, and others is unnamed, is described as a physician from Bani Al-Ḥarith bin Ka’b who was present at the time of Omar bin Al-Khattab’s death[26]. The sons of Al-Ḥarith bin Ka’b are part of the tribal confederation of Maḏ’haj, and they were all Christians[27] . actully the leadersof the Christian community of Najran. [28]

6- Shaq Bin Anmār[29]  is a well known priest from the tribe of Anmār, and was also a physician among a few in his tribe as mentioned by Ibn Juljul.[30] He practiced medicine even though his fame comes from being a priest rather than a healer. Perhaps this was due to the parallels between the two practices, so that it was perceived as one. Shaq’s name is often mentioned in association with the Yemeni priest Sateeḥ bin Rabīʿ bin Al-Uzd. [31]

Little is known about Sateeḥ’s medical practice, possibly because he was not a real character. In folktales he is described as having no bones in his body other than his skull, that he always lays flat on the ground, and if he wants to move, he could be folded like a rug from his feet to his neck. The description is fantastical and most likely refers to a puppet or paper doll that was used by priests and attributed a character and voice, in order to manipulate people.

The confusion that Al-Sijistani shared when he wrote about Sateeḥ’s origin confirms this interpretation: “We do not know who he is.”[32] There is historical evidence that Arab priests used such methods, and Al-Jahiz wrote that “Musaylimah al-Kadhdhāb” (Musaylimah the liar) made a flying object of paper to delude people that he is an angel flying in the sky. [33]

Artwork by Abeer al-Hadrami

Pre-Islamic physicians Beyond Yemen

It appears that were very few physicians from outside of present day Yemen during the Jahiliyyah. The four names we were able to obtain are:

1 – Rabāḥ or Riyāḥ bin Ajlah or Kaḥlah, is the priest of Yamama[34]. During his time Christianity reached the villages and tribes of the region[35].

2- Al-Ablaq Al-Sa’di is the priest of Najd. Both were once referenced by Orwa bin Hizam, who wrote, “I made an aphorism for the priest of Yamama and Najd if they heal me.” [36]

3 – Ibn Abi Ramtha al-Tamīmi was a physician during Prophet Mohammad’s time. He came from a family of medicine, and worked with his hands, as well as performing sutures[37]. Al-Tamīmi is mentioned in a long conversation with the Prophet, where he told him, “I am a healer, and my father was a healer, and we are people of medicine. There is not a drop of sweat or bone in the body that is obscure to us[38]. It is unclear whether his saying, “we are people of medicine,” means his immediate family, or a the Tamim tribe in general.

Christianity appears to have been prevalent among al-Tamīmi tribe, according to Al-Harith bin Ka’b’s will, where he said, “There are no more Arabs who remained in the religion of Jesus Mary’s son, other than myself and Tamim bin Mur” [39] (and the tribes of Tamim were partly located in Yemen).

4- Abda ibn al-Ṭabīb al-Tamīmi[40] was a known poet who was also from Bani Tamīm. He lived during Jahiliyya, some sources say that he was Ethiopian[41], and was likely Christian. There is little information on his practice of medicine, but there are verses in which he describes himself as a physician:

If you ask me about women  

I have knowledge of their medication[42]

And he said:

I cease harm with sharp praise

I am to the ignorance of the ignorant a curer[43]


The figures mentioned above, in addition to Al-Ḥarith bin Kalada who studied in Yemen and his son Al-Nadher bin Al-Ḥarith, make a total of twelve physicians during Jahiliyya. Louis Sheikho indicates that al-Ḥarith bin Kalada was also a Nestorian Christian[44].

It is worth noting that some Yemeni regions, such as Tihama and Dhofar, still use Cautery in the form of a cross shape, called “cross stroke”, or “Ṣawb Shaqaf” in the ancient Dhofari language. There is still a strong belief usefulness of this method for treatment. Louis Sheikho also mentions similar customs that are still practiced today among communities in Bahrain. [45]




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




[1] Ibn Abi Shaybah. The Musannaf of Ibn Abi Shaybah, 23677

[2] Dhafar is a well known city on the coast of Yemen, and the port through which Indian Costus arrived in the country. (Ibn Hajar al-Asqalani. Fatih al-Bari. 1/414).

[3] Ibn Saad. al-Tabaqat Al-Kobra, 4/88

[4] Sabaic Dictionary. p49/4 GDM. Inscription code: CIH 126

[5] al-Mikhlafi, Aref Ahmed. Al-Tibb fi al-Yaman al-Qadim, 120-121

[6] Sirat Ibn Hisham, 1/29

[7] The Musannaf of Ibn Abi Shaybah, 5/32

[8] Abu Zaid al-Sirafi. Rihlat al-Sirafi. (Abu Dhabi: Cultural Foundation, 1999), 87

[9] Ibn Juljul. Ṭabaqat al-Aṭibba wal-Hukama (Generations of physicians and Wise Men), 54

[10] al-Hadidi, Khalid. La bud min Sana‘a, 51-52

[11] Ibn Abi Usaybiyah. Oyoun al-Anba fi Tabaqat al-Atibba (A Literary History of Medicine), 167. Here, I would like to extend my thanksl to Dr. Nazar Ghanim for pointing this reference out to me.

[12] Wahb ibn Munabih. Kitab al-Tijan fi muluk Himyar. 11-12

[13] Ibn Qatiba. Oyoun al-Akhbar. 2/73; Ibn Abd Rabbih. al-Aqd al-Farid. 7/256; Wahb ibn Munabih. Kitab al-Tijan fi muluk Himyar. P.11

[14] Jawad Ali. al-Mafsal. 1/84

[15] al-Hadidi, 56

[16] al-Qifti. Akhbar al-Ulama, 106

[17] Abu Mansur al-Baghdadi. al-Farq bayn al-Firaq, 295

[18] Ibn Abu Usaybiyah, 12

[19] al-Sijistani. al-Moameron wa al-Wasaya, 10

[20] Jawad Ali. al-Mafsal. 8/19; Originally found in al-Kamel fi al-Tarikh by Ibn al-Athir, 1/455

[21] Ibn al-Athir. Asad al-Ghaba. (Dar al-Kotob al-Ilmiya, First Edition, 1994), 3/56; Mohamad Hussain al-Farah. Yamaniyoun fi Mawkib al-Rasoul. (Sanaa: Ministry of Culture), 1/34

[22] Aleryani, Mutahar. al-Mujam al-Yamani fi al-Luqah wal-Turath, 576; Sabaic Dictionary, 41

[23] al-Bayhaqi. Dala’il al-Nubuwwah (The Signs of Prophethood), 35

[24] Abu Fadhl al-Maydani. Mujama al-Amthal, 1/441; al-Zamakhshari. al-Mustaqsi, 1/220

[25] Ibn Hajar al-Asqalani. al-Isaba fi Tamyiz al-Sahaba, 3/289

[26] al-Tabari. Tarikh al-Tabari (History of the Prophets and Kings), 4/193

[27] Ibn Hamdun. al-Tadhkira al-Hamdunia, 3/341

[28] Jawad Ali, 11/417

[29] Muhammad Shukri al-Alusi. Bulugh al-Irab fi Ahwal al-Arab: Shaq Bin Anmār.

[30] Ibn Juljul, 54

[31] Ibn al-Kalbi. Nasab Ma’ad wa-Yaman al-Kabir, 2/477

[32] al-Sijistani, 1

[33] al-Jahiz. Kitab al-Hayawan, 4/441. Many thanks to Tariq al-Azzam for this clever reference.

[34] Jawad Ali, 12/349

[35] Jawad Ali, 12/197

[36] al-Jahiz, 7/436

[37] Ibn Abi Usaybiyah, 170

[38] Ibn Hanbal. Musnad Imam Ahmad Ibn Hanbal, 7118

[39] Ibn Hamdun, 3/341

[40] Ibn Hajar al-Asqalani. al-Isaba fi Tamyiz al-Sahaba, 5/87

[41] Ibn Yahya Baladhuri. Ansab al-Ashraf (Genealogies of the Nobles), 12/390

[42] Ibn Abd Rabbih, Al-ʿIqd al-Farīd 7/111

[43] al-Jahiz, 12/390

[44] Sheikho, Louis. al-Nasranyya wa Adabuha bayna Arab al-Jahyylia, 168

[45] Ibid, 28

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