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Encyclopedia of Islamic Herbal Medicine

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“Encyclopedia of Islamic Herbal Medicine” by John Andrew Morrow

Reviewer: Guha, Martin

Affiliation: Maudsley Philosophy Group and former Librarian, King’s College London Institute of Psychiatry, London, UK

Full text: RR 2012/229 Encyclopedia of Islamic Herbal Medicine John Andrew Morrow McFarland Jefferson, NC

2011 ix + 225 pp. ISBN 978 0 7864 4707 7 £49.95/$55

This is a very specific book. Its subject matter is those herbs specifically cited in the Qur’än and the Sunnah (the teachings of the Prophet) as well as those mentioned by the Twelve Imäms considered by the Shï’ite Muslims to be divinely appointed as successors to the Prophet. This range of about a hundred herbs is the Pharmacopeia for Prophetic Herbalism. There is a wider Arabic/Islamic herbalism called Unänï, which uses a much wider range of herbs including those derived from pre-Islamic Arabic and Greek traditions, and also herbs from the Indian Ayurvedic and Chinese traditions. The Unänï tradition includes thousands of products.

The arguments in favour of Prophetic Medicine are the theological, that it is truly Islamic, and the practical, that it is practised by Imäms, and so is more widely available in rural areas. Unänï medicine has an academic background and is more concentrated in urban areas. In practice there is overlap and concepts and materials pass between the traditions.

Having discussed the theological issues the author then provided a good argument for herbal medicine and other alternative medicines, including Sufi approaches to care. He questions the need to do clinical trials on materials that have been used for a thousand or more years and argues for an integrated approach to medicine where herbs and modern medicine are used as appropriate. He also points out that tests on specific active ingredient do not necessarily test the effect of using the dried herb or a water extraction of the herb. The author outlines the considerable efforts made to identify the particular plant the Islamic texts are refereeing to. The translations in the past have not always been accurate and there is a tendency by translators to pick a locally known plant or animal as something similar. There are also changes in terminology over time, for example corn now means maize, so where the Prophet writes of corn he will have been writing about wheat or barley. Having only a hundred herbs to describe, the individual entries are long and detailed.

The English and Arabic names are given as the heading. The family and botanical name – or in cases like mustard the several botanical names – are given. This is followed by common names in various European languages as well of some of the common languages of Asian Muslims and standard modern Arabic. A safety rating is given, ranging from safe, which applies to most of the plants that are food plants, to deadly for products like camphor. The next section is the Prophetic Prescription, which details the references in the Holy Scripture to the plant and is uses and effects. There follows an extensive section on the identification of the plant material. The properties and use of the product are then described. If there are any modern scientific studies, trials, or test of properties of whole extracts or specific ingredients and the like, these are discussed. The individual accounts have notes referring to sources which are given a full reference in the bibliography There is an index, which amongst other things, provides access to details on specific disease and to specific countries.

This book would appear to have two markets. The first is amongst Islamic scholars and practitioners of Prophetic medicine and Unänï herbalism. For scholars who are not botanists this book will aid their study. Outside the Islamic community this book will be a source of new material on the herbal tradition, and the uses of specific plants. It will interest herbal practitioners from all herbal traditions and it will also interest those seeking botanical substances as models for new pharmaceutical products.

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