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The hospital is an invention that was both medical and social, and today it is an institution we take for granted, hoping rarely to need it but grateful for it when we do. Almost anywhere in the world now, we expect a hospital to be a place where we can receive ease from pain and help for healing in times of illness or accidents.

A long line of caliphs, sultans, scholars, and medical practitioners took ancient knowledge and time-honoured practices from diverse traditions and melded them with their original research to feed centuries of intellectual achievement and drive a continual quest for improvement. 

In the late ninth century, a leading physician, and polymath Muhammad Ibn Zakariya Al- Razi helped establish a bipartisan – hospital – in Baghdad staffed with 25 doctors, optometrists, surgeons, and bonesetters. The bipartisan served variously as a centre of treatment, a convalescent home for those recovering from illness or accidents, a psychological asylum and a retirement home that give basic maintenance to the aged and infirm who lacked a family to care for them. 

The bipartisan was but one important result of a great deal of energy and thought medieval Islamic civilizations put into developing the medical arts. There were medical schools and libraries where senior physicians taught students how to apply their growing knowledge directly with patients. Hospitals set examinations for the students and issued diplomas.

In early medieval Europe, the dominant philosophical belief held that the origin of illness was supernatural and thus uncontrollable by human intervention: As a result, the hospital was little more than hospices where patients were tended by monks who strove to assure the salvation of the soul without much effort to cure the body.

Muslim physicians took a completely different approach.

Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) says: –   

“God never inflicts a disease unless he makes a cure for it.” 

In the Islamic cities, which largely benefited from drier, warmer climates, hospitals were set up to encourage the movement of light and air. The first Muslim hospital was only a leprosarium – an asylum for lepers – constructed in the early eighth century in Damascus under Umayyad caliph Walid ibn Abd- al-Malik. Over the following decades, 34 more hospitals sprang up thought out the Islamic world, and the number continued to grow each year. 

In Egypt, the first hospital was built in 872 in the southwestern quarter of Fustat, now part of Cairo, by the Abbasid governor of Egypt, Ahmad Ibn Tulun.In the Iberian Peninsula, Cordoba alone had 50 major hospitals. Some were exclusively for the military and the doctors there supplemented the specialists who attended to the caliphs, military commanders, and nobles.

Islamic hospital was subdivided into departments such as systemic diseases, surgery, ophthalmology, orthopaedics’, and mental diseases. And it was usually further subdivided into sections dealing with fevers, digestive problems, infections and more. 

Hospitals were staffed also with a sanitary inspector who was responsible for assuring cleanliness and hygienic practices. In addition, there were accountants and other administrative staff to assure that hospital conditions – financial and otherwise – met standards. Medical staff salaries were fixed by law, and compensation was distributed at a rate generous enough to attract the talented.

To patients, the services of the hospital were free, though individual physician occasionally charged fees. Bimaristan were open to everyone on a 24 – hour basis. Special measures were taken to prevent infection. When taken to the hospital ward, patients would find beds with clean sheets and special stuffed mattresses ready. The hospital rooms and ward were neat and tidy with abundant running water and sunlight. 

Inspector evaluated the cleanliness of the hospital and the rooms daily. Patients were placed on a fixed diet, depending on condition and disease. The food was of high quality and included chicken, beef and lamb, and fresh fruits and vegetables.

Patients who were cured but too weak to discharge were transferred to the convalescent ward until they were strong enough to leave. Needy patients were given new clothes, along with a small sum to aid them in re-establishing their livelihood. In addition to the permanent hospital’s cities and major towns also had first aid and acute care centres.

Because one of the major roles of the hospitals was the training of physicians, each hospital had a large lecture theatre where students, along with senior physicians and medical officers, would meet and discuss medical problems in seminar-style.

There are instructions on diets and recipes for common treatments, including skin diseases, tumours, and fevers. Students were also instructed to note the colour and feel of the skin, whether hot, cool, moist, dry, or loose. Candidates were encouraged not only to study these earlier works but also to scrutinize them for possible errors.

Submitted by Maria Afzal, Hira Zaheer, Iza Kazmi and Khadija Kishwar, Date 17 January 2021.

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