Today, we often take hospitals for granted, but there actually was a time when these institutions did not exist. People considered illnesses as supernatural occurrences and cures were similarly deemed to be the result of spiritual interventions.
On the other hand, Prophet Muhammad (sa) has reportedly said: “Seek medication, because Allah has created a medication for each disease except senility.” (Abu Dawood, At-Tirmidhi and Ibn Majah) Islam, furthermore, taught human beings that they were free from the original sin, leading Muslims to believe in the inherent goodness of humans; this modern outlook enabled scientists to study disease in a matter-of-fact manner. Therefore, as explained by Michael Hamilton Morgan in “Lost History, the Enduring Legacy of Muslim Scientists, Thinkers and Artists”: Muslims believed that “disease [had] specific, scientifically based physical causes. It [was] not a punishment visited on men from God.”
This empirical worldview led to the invention of the hospital, as we know it today. Indeed, the modern hospital has its roots in the Bimaristans, as established by the Abbasids in Baghdad. The first hospital was founded in 914 C.E. Another hospital was built in 918 C.E. at the behest of Caliph Muqtadir. Among the physicians here was the renowned ar-Razi (Rhazes).
“By the year 1000, five major hospitals [were] built in Abbasid Baghdad. These hospitals serve[d] multiple purposes, not unlike modern hospitals containing surgery centers, outpatient clinics, psychiatric wards, convalescent centers and even nursing homes. And quite often they [were] free to those in need,” writes Morgan. Soon, hospitals became common landmarks all across the Muslim world.
In fact, the very spirit behind the concept of hospitals was to provide ready care to anyone who seeks it, irrespective of gender, race, religion or status. Doctors treated and studied the patients, and documented their findings. This shows that the physicians were not only interested in curing their patients’ immediate ailments, but also in conducting important research which would then be published in the form of books. These texts, later translated into Latin, became the foundational tools for the rebirth of Europe and continued to be used for several centuries.
Such medical advances also led to the development of the field of pharmacology. As a result, the very first pharmacies were pioneered by Muslim doctors. According to Dr. Gustave le Bon: “Muslims invented the art of mixing chemical medicaments in pills and solutions, many of which are in use to this day, though some of them are claimed as wholly new inventions of our present century by chemists unaware of their distinguished history. Islam had dispensaries, which filled prescriptions for patients [free of charge], and in part of countries where no hospitals were reachable, physicians paid regular visits with all the tools of their trade to look after public health.”
In the end, the privileges we enjoy today have a rich history and a meaningful purpose –dating back to more than a millennium! Sadly, our current conditions belie our downhill spiral: our hospitals are either modern and expensive or unhygienic and cheap. It is high time that we re-instill our Islamic values not only in our practice of worship but also, by extension, in the social aspects of our lives – without discrimination.