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Was al-Harith bin Kalada the Source of the Prophet’s Medical Knowledge?

The physician al-Harith bin Kalada was born in the middle of the 6th century in the tribe of Banu Thaqif in Ta’if. Some historians maintain that he received his medical education at the Jundishapur medical school where he learnt the teachings of Aristotle and Galen.[1] According to these historians:

“The major link between Islamic and Greek medicine must be sought in late Sasanian medicine, especially in the School of Jundishapur rather than that of Alexandria. At the time of the rise of Islam Jundishapur was at its prime. It was the most important medical centre of its time, combining the Greek, Indian and Iranian medical traditions in a cosmopolitan atmosphere which prepared the ground for Islamic medicine.”[2]

Following this narrative some historians and commentators believe the Prophet Muhammad plagiarised Aristotle’s and Galen’s accounts of the developing human embryo via bin Kalada, and sought medical advice from him.[3] This is unfounded for various reasons.

1. Claiming the Prophet sought medical advice from bin Kalada neither implies nor stipulates the fact that he copied bin Kalada’s work. The onus of proof is on the one who is making the claim. From a historical perspective there is no direct and explicit evidence that indicates the Prophet manufactured his views on embryology via bin Kalada.

2. Early historical sources on the Prophet’s life illustrate and emphasise the integrity of his character. He was not a liar and to assert as much is indefensible. The presumption that he copied bin Kalada, while maintaining the Qur’an to be the word of God, is therefore inconceivable. He was known even by the enemies to his message as the “Trustworthy”.[4]

Further proof of the Prophet’s reliability and credibility is enforced and substantiated by the fact that a liar usually lies for some worldly gain, but the Prophet rejected all worldly aspirations, and suffered tremendously for his message.[5] He rejected the riches and power he was offered to stop promulgating his message. Significantly, he was persecuted for his beliefs; boycotted and exiled from his beloved city, Makkah; starved of food; and stoned by children to the point where his blood drenched his legs. His wife passed away and his beloved companions were tortured and persecuted.[6] The late Emeritus Professor in Arabic and Islamic Studies W. Montgomery Watt in Muhammad at Mecca explores this:

“His readiness to undergo persecution for his beliefs, the high moral character of the men who believed in him and looked up to him as a leader, and the greatness of his ultimate achievement – all argue his fundamental integrity. To suppose Muhammad an impostor raises more problems than it solves.”[7]

3. It is generally believed that bin Kalada graduated from the Persian medical school at Jundishapur. However, the existence of such a school has recently been questioned by a number of leading historians. For instance David C. Lindberg in his book The Beginnings of Western Science highlights the legendary status of the school:

“An influential mythology has developed around Nestorian activity in the city of Gondeshapur [Jundishapur] in south-western Persia. According to the often-repeated legend, the Nestorians turned Gondeshapur into a major intellectual center by the sixth century, establishing what some enthusiasts have chosen to call a university, where instruction in all of the Greek disciplines could be obtained. It is alleged that Gondeshapur had a medical school, with a curriculum based on Alexandrian textbooks, and a hospital modeled on Byzantine hospitals, which kept the realm supplied with physicians trained in Greek medicine. Of greatest importance, Gondeshapur is held to have played a critical role in the translation of Greek scholarship into Near Eastern languages and, indeed, to have been the single most important channel by which Greek science passed to the Arabs. Recent research has revealed a considerably less dramatic reality. We have no persuasive evidence for the existence of a medical school or a hospital at Gondeshapur, although, there seems to have been a theological school and perhaps an attached infirmary. No doubt Gondeshapur was the scene of serious intellectual endeavour and a certain amount of medical practice —it supplied a string of physicians for the Abbasid court at Baghdad beginning in the eighth century— but it is doubtful that it ever became a major center of medical education or of translating activity. If the story of Gondeshapur is unreliable in its details, the lesson it was meant to teach is nonetheless valid.”[8]

Roy Porter, a social historian of medicine, raises the contention if whether a medical school actually existed there. Porter in his book The Greatest Benefit to Mankind: A Medical History of Humanity writes:

“Jundishapur was certainly a meeting place for Arab, Greek, Syriac and Jewish intellectuals, but there is no evidence that any medical academy existed there. Only in the early ninth century did Arab–Islamic learned medicine take shape.”[9]

4. Historians such as Manfred Ullman and Franz Rosenthal are skeptical about the material referring to bin Kalada. They refer to him as a legendary figure,[10] which has literary allusions to characters of fictitious creation. Professor Gerald Hawting, in his essay The Development of the Biography of al-Harith ibn Kalada and the Relationship between Medicine and Islam, writes:

“In these latter sources the information about al-Harith is fragmentary, references to his profession as a doctor are not consistent and, where they occur, tend to be incidental, and there seems to be little information about the nature of his medicine or detail about his life.”[11]

From this perspective, using unreliable or inconclusive historical narratives concerning bin Kalada’s “profession as a doctor” serve to weaken the argument that the Prophet copied the 7th century physician.

5. There appears to be no evidence of a major medical school in either the 6th or 7th century. The academic medic and historian Plinio Prioreschi in his book A History of Medicine highlights that there are no Persian sources that substantiate the claim that Jundishapur played a significant role in the history of medicine.[12]

6. There are historical reports stating that bin Kalada converted to Islam and was considered a companion of the Prophet. Ethnographer and linguist, William Brice in his book An Historical Atlas of Islam, writes:

“He was converted to Islam and had acquired the status of one of the Prophet’s Companions.”[13]

Lecturer and novelist, Abubakr Asadullah expresses a similar position:

“According to nearly all traditional sources, the first known Arab physician was al-Harith ibn Kalada, a graduate of Junishapur and a Jewish convert to Islam, a contemporary of Prophet Mohammad.”[14]

In light of this, the Prophet copying bin Kalada is highly improbable as it is irrational to assert that an educated physician would convert to Islam, and follow the Prophet’s message, had he known or suspected the Prophet of copying his work on embryology. However, it must be noted that there is uncertainty as to whether bin Kalada embraced Islam and reports relating to his conversion are not authentic.[15]

7. The traditional sources that elaborate on bin Kalada also convey information relating to the Prophet, including his miracles and the supernatural eloquence of the qur’anic discourse. One of these sources is Ta’rikh al-Rusul wa’l-Muluk.[16] It underlines various aspects of the life and character of the Prophet including his truthfulness. Since this source is used for sound historical information, insight, and as a point of reference on bin Kalada, reason necessitates that it also be viewed as reliable with regard to its discussion on the unquestionable integrity of the Prophet. Therefore, to accept the historical sources that elaborate on bin Kalada would be tantamount to accepting the truthfulness of the Prophet, thereby undermining any claim of copying and plagiarisation.

8. Bin Kalada was from al-Ta’if, a town which came into contact with Islam only in the 8th year of the Islamic calendar, and it was during this period that Islamic historical sources first mention the phycisian. Therefore, it would be impossible to suggest the Prophet Muhammad copied Bin Kalada’s views on the developing human because chapter 23 of the Qur’an and its verses referring to embryology had already been revealed by the time Bin Kalada met the Prophet Muhammad.[17]

9. The link between bin Kalada and the Hellenistic tradition is doubted by historians. Gerald Hawting explains that due to the scientific tradition in the Golden Age, historians and biographers of the time sought links to established institutions such as Jundishapur, to associate Islam with the science of the day:

“In this context… [Hawting sees]… a motive for the elaboration of the links of al-Harith ibn Kalada with Persia and its Hellenistic tradition.”[18] In view of this, whether bin Kalada had any formal link to Galen’s and Aristotle’s view on the development of the human embryo remains inconclusive and so adopting the plagiarisation thesis via bin Kalada does not carry much weight. For a lengthy discussion on this topic please refer to Khalid al-Khazaraji’s and Elias Kareem’s essay Was al-Harith bin Kaladah the Source of the Prophet’s Medical Knowledge.”[19]

[1] M. Z. Siddiqi. Studies in Arabic and Persian Medical Literature. Calcutta University. 1959, page 6 – 7
[2] H. Bailey (ed). Cambridge History of Iran, vol 4. Cambridge University Press 1975 pages 414
[3] A. A. Khairallah. Outline of Arabic Contributions to Medicine. American Press, Beirut. 1946, page 22
[4] Martin Lings. Muhammad: his life based on the earliest sources. 2nd Revised Edition. The Islamic Texts Society. 1983, page 34
[5] Ibid, page 52
[6] Ibid, pages 53 – 79
[7] W. Montgomery Watt. Muhammad at Mecca. Oxford. 1953, page 52
[8] David C. Lindberg. The Beginnings of Western Science. University Of Chicago Press. 1992, pages, 164-165
[9] Roy Porter. The Greatest Benefit to Mankind: A Medical History of Humanity. Fontana Press.1999, page,94.
[10] M. Ullman. Die Medizin im Islam. Leiden ad Cologne. 1970, pages 19-20; F. Rosenthal, apud his translation of Ibn Khaldun’s Muqaddima, II, 373.
[11] The Islamic World: From Classic to Modern Times. Edited, C. E. Bosworth et al. Darwin. 1991, page 129
[12] Plinio Prioreschi. A History of Medicine. 2001, page 369.
[13] William Charles Brice. An Historical Atlas of Islam. Brill. 1981, page 355
[14] Abubakr Asadulla. Islam vs. West: Fact or Fiction? A Brief Historical, Political, Theological, Philosophical, and Psychological Perspective. iUniverse. 2009 , page 76
[15] See Ibn Athir’s Usud al-Ghabah fi Ma’rifat as-Sahabah
[16] Tabari. Ta’rikh al-rusul wa’l-muluk, ed. M. J. Goeje et al. (Leiden, 1879-1901), I, 2127-28, page 1116
[17] This chapter is a Meccan which means that the verses were revealed before the migration (hijrah) to Medina. The conquest of Ta’if occurred after hijrah. The Qur’an: A New Translation. Oxford University Press. 2005, page 215
[18] Ibid, page 137
[19] http://islampapers.files.wordpress.com/2011/10/was-al-harith-bin-kaladah-a-source-of-the-prophet_s-medical-knowledge_version_0-40.pdf retrieved 3 October 2011, 08:46.