Medicine - Unani

Unani medicine is a late arrival in the Indian subcontinent, compared to Ayurveda and Siddha. It came to the subcontinent with the Muslim invasions, in about 1100 AD, and is still largely practiced in Muslim communities. Unani medicine is closely linked to the Muslim emphasis on treating illnesses in hospitals. An Unani physician is known as a hakim.

Origins and beliefs

Watercolour painting of a hakeem with his servant carrying baskets.
A hakeem and his servant of the Unani system of medicine.

Unani medicine has a fascinating history, with its origins in ancient Greece. The name Unani derives from Ionia, reflecting its Greek origins. The principles of Unani medicine are those of the Hippocratic school of ancient Greece. They are based on four humours: blood, phlegm, black bile and yellow bile. Each humour was cold or hot, and wet or dry. For example, blood was hot and wet, phlegm wet and cold. The humours were produced during digestion. Ill health arose from disharmony of the humours. Medicines could re-establish the balance of the humours. For example, a 'hot' medicine would treat a 'cold' disease. As in Ayurvedic medicine, mind and body are seen as closely linked.

As Greek and then Roman civilisation declined, Greek medical texts survived in the Islamic courts of the medieval Near East. In the eighth and ninth centuries AD , many Greek texts were translated into Arab or Persian, forming the basis of Unani medicine. As in Ayurveda, memorising of key medical texts was important until recently. The best known author of Unani texts is ibn Sina, known in Europe as Avicenna (980-1037). In the Indian subcontinent Unani medical books were often in Persian, because it shares much vocabulary with Urdu, widely spoken by the Muslim population.

Herbal medicines

As with both Ayurveda and ancient Greek medicine, plants are the basis of the main drugs. Given the Greek origins of Unani, it is not surprising that Dioscorides' de Materia Medica, written by the Greek physician in about 70 BC, was the most important handbook for plant drugs. Plants are either used by themselves - simple - or in mixtures - compound.

Unani today

As with Ayurveda, the early interest of European colonisers declined, and western medicine became dominant in colonial government policy. However, the 1920s there was something of a revival in training. After independence in 1947, Unani colleges flourished in India and Pakistan, often integrating Unani and western medicine. Today some hakims seek further integration, whilst others prefer to stick closely to traditional Unani medicine.

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