Medical Image Slideshow

Arabic Influence on English Language in Medicine

Arabic Influence on English Language in Medicine


Routes for the Linguistic Transfer

English Medical terms derive their Arabic etymology via many routes e.g. translation of Greek books and reversed translation of Arabic books; Islamic presence in Europe; Crusaders/European presence in the Levant; Trade; British empire and Muslim colonies, all provide mediums for linguistic cross-fertilisation. Despite Humanists efforts to purify the language of Science by casting out all Arabic terms (Biology is exclusively Greek and Latin), many Arabic terms survived.

Arabs left indelible imprints in Anatomy, such as nucha (from Arabic nucha'a), saphinous (safin), cephalic and basilic veins (al bazili, the draining) and cephalic vein (kafili, the sponsoring), cornea (carania), ass (asst), abdomen (al-batan), pupil (bu'bo), and eye (ein). In chemistry and pharmacology there are drug (deriaq or teriaq), camphor, cassia, cloves, myrrh, senna. Arabs discovered soap, alcohol, alkali, natron salts, sherbet, borax, elixir, odour, talc, syrups, juleps, lozenge, tragacanth (as a demulcent) Arabs manufactured many instruments e.g. catgut, cautery (cau'ee), catheter (catha tair or feather's quill).

Anglo-Arabic linguistic exchange in Medicine, health and food is a fascinating aspect in history of Medicine. There are myriad of routes for Arabic influences namely: Translation of Greek books into Arabic and reversed translation of Arabic books into Latin. Islamic presence in Europe has led to cultural influence via Andalusia (Spain) for 8 centuries (710-1492) and Mediterranean islands (Sicily, Cyprus, and Malta) for more than 5 centuries. Arab contributions in "gracious living" and literature had fired Europe imagination; Shakespeare was aware of Arabic culture in Spain as illustrated in his play "Othelo",the Moorish Nobleman (1). Crusader wars for 200 years (1095-1291) and European presence in the Levant provided a direct contact with Arabs in their homeland. Crusaders themselves, introduced into English and French, many Arabic words. The religious zeal of Spanish Reconquest/Inquisition Tribunals (in 492) and Humanists movement (after poet Ariosto-"umanisto") opposing Scholars (using Arabic texts) aimed at purifying language of Science by casting out all Arabic terms. Trade led to adoption by Europeans of many features of Islamic culture, including sampling of Arabic words. Arab contribution to agriculture led to development of irrigation systems and growth of new products in Europe. The mineral wealth of Spain was processed to make various scientific gadgets and elaborate metallic vessels and pressure cookers (Cata Plana)(1). British empire interest in spices trade provided a medium of contact with its Muslim colonies (much of Europe's livestock had to be slaughtered before each winter, spices were used to preserve meat in cold winter). Linguistic influence can be studied according to 3 phases of metamorphosis in Arabic Medicine:

I. PHASE OF TRANSLATION (from Greek into Arabic)(2) Abbasid Caliphs acquired Greek books from Romans and offered an equivalent weight of the translated book in gold. The famous Doctors of time: Jurjis Ibn Jibrail, Yuhannah Ibn Masawayh and Hunayn Ibn Is'haq Al-Ibadi, at special request of successive Caliphs in Baghdad: Abu Ja'afar Al-Mansoor (754-775 AD), Haroun Al-Rashid (786-809 AD) and Al-Mamoon (813-833 AD) respectively, undertook the commitment of translating all Greek books into Arabic on unprecedented scale(3).


In Anatomy the assertion that Islam forbids dissection is untenable; Qur'an states:"And in yourselves, Can ye then not see? "Al-Thari'at, verse 21. Monkeys were dissected by Yuhannah Ibn Masawayh in 830(4,5). Deer Dissection by Ibn Tufail as revealed in his book "Hai Ibn Yakthan" (1185) was translated into Latin as "Philosophus Autodidactus" by Mirandola (1494) and Pocock (1671). Dofoe's "Robinson Crusoe", Kipling's "Jungle Book" and Burroughs' "Tarzan" are probably corruptions of Philosophus Autodidactus(6). Dead pregnant mothers were dissected by Rhazes and Albucasis. Human dead bodies were dissected by Ibn Al Nafis(10). Arabs left indelible imprints in Anatomical terms e.g. nucha (from Arabic nucha'a, pertaining to spinal cord), saphinous (safin, the conspicuous), cephalic and basilic veins (al bazili, the draining) and cephalic vein (kafili, the sponsoring), cornea (carania), and ass (asst), mesentery (mesareeq), cornea (cara'nia), abdomen (albadan/albatan), pupil, and eye(7).

In Physiology Systemic blood movement was described by Haly Abbas Al-Majusi (prior to 994)(8) 6.5 centuries before Harvey's description in 1628. Capillaries discovery by Haly and Ibn Al-Quff (1233-1286)(9) 4 centuries prior to M. Malpighi's discovery in 1661. Pulmonary circulation was described by Ibn Al-Nafis (1211-1288)(10) 3 centuries before Michael Servetus report in 1553)(11). In Pharmacology Arabs developed the science of chemistry as applied to medicine. They not only invented the apothecary or pharmacy, but developed new vehicles including tablets, paste, sherbet, syrups (from Arabic sharab, a sweetened medicine) and juleps (or attractive), lozenge, and the use of tragacanth as a demulcent. They invented procedures of medical importance e.g. distillation, saponification, calcification and artificial ice-making. They built hospitals in principal cities and established leather and paper industry to spread education. They introduced and promoted the use of camphor (from Arabic kafoor used for smell and message), cassia, cloves, myrrh, senna and mercury (extracted from cinnabar). In Food and Health there are plethora of Arabic names such as guava, dates banana, apricot, orange, tangarine, lemon, sultana. They discovered soap (from Arabic sapoon), alcohol (alghol, mind suppressor), alkali (or kali rich in potassium, that is why the symbol for potassium is K not P), natron salt (that is why the symbol for sodium is Na not So), borax (from Arabic borac), elixir (exeer, a rejuvenating essence), talc (talq, a body powder), henna (a hair dye) and odour (ottor, a perfume), coffee (qahfa), sugar (sukkar), candy (kand), amber (amber), saffron (za'afran, a food colouring), carthamus (or bastard saffron), cumin, coriander, rice, aubergines, artichokes, cotton, woad and madder. They also manufactured special cabinets for drug safekeeping and storage. Indeed the word drug is derived from Arabic (deriaq or teriaq). Arabic numbers, fractionation and decimal system facilitated the drug dosage communication(12,13).


In Microbiology Islam considered leprosy and plague as infective diseases and advised quarantine principle for plague control. When Rhazes was asked to locate the newly founded Al-Mu'tadidi Hospital (after Caliph name), he hanged peices of meat in various corners of the city and the place the meat last to become rotten was selected for the hospital foundation. Arabs named common cold an influenza (from Arabic Anf-alanza or goaty runny nose); they used the crushed rotten bread for Tonsillitis, thus unwittingly discovered antibiotics before Alexander Fleming. Methods for skin cleansing in trauma, compound fracture and prior to surgery included the use of Alcohol (discovered by Rhazes); soap and water (Initially, Arabs discovered the frothy cleaning ability of Lotus or Christ's thorn leaves with water); cotton, rose oil and egg white for compound fractures (before reduction); and the use of Water and Honey.

"Arabian Nights" (Sir R. Burton) contains reference to anaesthesia by inhalation. Theodoric of Bologna(1206-1298), whose name is associated with the "soporific anesthetic Arabic sponge", got his information from Arabic sources(14).

In Instruments Albucasis(15) described more than 100 instruments which do not appear in extant classical writings and which may therefore be regarded as his own. Arabic instruments include dissection and cutting tools (true scissors, tonsil guillotine, the concealed knife and its case for opening abscesses); ligatures (guitar strands were first used by Rhazes for wound closure, but Albucasis was the first to invent and use catgut; he also used linen, silk and Ant jaws as mechanical clips for bowel suturing); caustic substances and cautery for haemostasis; trocars (for paracentesis); catheters (for drainage in urinary retention. The word catheter is derived from Arabic Catha Tair, bird's quill a hollow tube with attenuated end used for writing); gauze (from Arabic Gazza where it was manufactured); bandages made of various textile materials for wound dressing or as a tourniquet in snake bites; wicks were also used in abscess cavities. Leather bulb syringe (from Arabic Zarrag, a goat stomach wrapped on silver tube) was used for rectal enema. Proctoclysis was invented by Avenzoar (8 centuries before J Murphy in 1908) for preoperative feeding of soup and yougart infused via rectum with the aid of an invented enema ; urethral dilator, sound and lithotrite used by Albucasis; gypsum (from Arabic Gyps, a powder hardened by water was first used by Arabs in fractures, splints were also made of pomegrenades tree wood); snares (from Sinnara for removal of nasal polyps, enlarged tonsils, varicose veins and piles); tracheostomy (first mentioned by Rhazes, performed by Avenzoar on goats and executed by Albucasis on one of his maids successfully); oesophageal intubation with narrow silver tubes was used by Avenzoar for feeding; vaginal speculum and obstetric forceps (anticipate Chamberlain's); and glasses and optics. Command of anatomy, anaesthesia, antisepsis and instruments made abdominal surgery and caesarian section feasible events (2,16).


Arabs' original contributions reached the zenith in the Abbasid golden era (754-1258) and dominated Europe at medieval ages. Haly Abbas' "Liber Regius"(8); Albucasis' "Al Tasrif" (15); Avicenna's "Al Canon"(17) were translated into Latin by translators such as Constantinus Africanus (1020-1087); Gerard of Cremona (1114-1187); and Faraj Ibn Salim (Moses Farachi) who in 1279 started translating Rhazes "Liber Continens" (23 Volumes) during his lifetime(18). During Renaissance period, most medical knowledge was available only in Arabic texts. Circa 1400, professor Mondino of Bologna influenced by Arabs, risked church excommunication for suggesting that a better knowledge could be obtained from human dissection than reading Galen's books!

Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1516 AD), inspired by Arab texts to dissect a human cadaver. Andreas Vesalius(1514-1564), father of modern anatomy dissected human cadavers. Fluent in Arabic, he wrote "A Commentary on the fourth Fen of Avicenna", followed by his baccalaureate thesis, "Paraphrase on the Ninth Book of Rhazes" in 1537 long before his masterpiece, "De Humani Corporis Fabrica Libri Septem in 1543(19).



1. Watt W M. The Influence of Islam on Medieval Europe. Islamic Surveys No. 9. Edinburgh University Press. 1987.

 2. Al-Fallouji: History of Laparotomy for Military Trauma according to the Original Arabic Manuscripts. Proceedings of 34th International Congress on the HISTORY OF MEDICINE held in Glasgow (4-8 September) 1994: Pp 1-6.

 3. Al Fallouji: History of Surgery of the Abdominal Cavity:  Arabic Contributions. International Surgery Sept 1993;78:3:236-8.

 4. Rhazes (Abu Bakr Al-Razi). Differential Diagnosis (Kitab Al-Forook Bain Al-Amradh) in one volume. Alepo University Press. Edited by Dr S Kataya 1978 (in Arabic).

 5. Al Fallouji: History of Arab Surgery. Part I: General Considerations. Emirates Medical Journal 1992;10:174-7.

 6. Al Fallouji: History of Arab Surgery. Part II: Arab-Islamic   Influence on Europe. Emirates Medical Journal 1992;10:250-4.

 7. Al Fallouji: History of Arab Surgery. Part III: Basic Sciences in Surgery. Emirates Medical Journal 1993;11:132-6.

 8. Haly Abbas (Ali Ibn Abbas Al-Majusi). Liber Regius in 2 volumes(Kamil Al Sina'at or Al Kitab Al Malaki). Undated and unknown publishers, the manuscript is present in Damascus and Beyrouth Reference Libraries (in Arabic).

 9. Ibn Al-Quff. Kitab Al-Omda Fil Jiraha in 2 volumes. Hyderabad Al-Dakan,India: Dairatul Ma'arifil Osmania, 1356 A.H.(in Arabic)

 10. Ibn Al Nafis. Synopsis of Dissection in The Law of Medicine (Kitab Shar'h Tashreeh Al-Canon) in one volume. Reviewed by Salman Kataya and Paul Gallionji. Cairo: Al-Hai'a Al-Mas'ryia Al-Amma Lil-kitab, 1988. (in Arabic).

 11. Ulmann M. Islamic Medicine. Islamic Surveys No. 11. Edinburgh University Press, 1978. Pp 34-35.

 12. Skinner H A. "The Origin of Medical Terms" (2nd Edition).   Baltimore: The Williams & Wilkins Company, 1961. Pp 25, 38-39.  

 13. Ibn Abi Usaybia (1269-1303).News Eyes on Doctors Classification (Uyun Al Anba Fi Tabaqat Al Atibba) in one volume. Beyrouth: Dar Maktabat Al-Hayat, (no date)(in Arabic).

 14. Al-Fallouji: Arabs were skilled in anaesthesia. British Medical Journal April 12th, 1997;314:1128

 15. Albucasis: On Surgery and Instruments. A definitive edition of the Arabic text with English translation and commentary by M Spink and G Lewis in one volume. London: The Wellcome Institute of The History of Medicine, 1973.

 16. Al Fallouji: Arabic Caesarian Section- Islamic History and Current Practice. Scottish Medical Journal February 1993;38:3-4.

 17. Avicenna (Abu Ali Al-Husain Ibn Abd Allah Ibn Sina). Al-Canon Fil Tibb in 3 volumes. New reprint by offset from Boulak edition. Beyrouth: Dar Sadir. (Undated) (in Arabic).

 18. Rhazes (Abu Bakr Al-Razi). Liber Continens (Kitabul Hawi Fi't-Tibb) in 23 volumes. Edited by The Bureau based on the unique   Escurial Ms. (Nos. 810 & 813), Madrid. Hyderabad Al-Dakan, India: Dairatul Ma'arifil Osmania, 1961. (in Arabic).

 19. Crombie A C: Augustine to Galileo, The History of Science A.D. 400-1650. London: Falcon Educational Books, 1952. Pp 23-30.