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Unani system of medicine of India and its history
By Dr Irengbam Mohendra Singh
[This is the third and the last part of a lecture given by the author as the first Asian President of the British medical Association of the city of Bradford and Airdale, 20 years ago in 1999; the second part – The Ayurveda Medicine has already been published in this column.]
Unani (or Yunani) medicine (Unani-tibb) is an Arab name for Greek medicine. It became an indigenised Indian medicine since the 12th century CE. Muslim invaders (Muslim writers would like to call Muslim rulers of India) from the northwest brought their own physicians and established a Sultanate in Delhi (1206-1290). Later, under the patronage of the Mughal emperors it flourished in India.
There were five unrelated dynasties that ruled India from this sultanate: (1) Slave dynasty under General Qutb-uddin-Aybak; (2) Khilji dunasty; (3) Tughlaq dynasty; (4) Sayyid dynasty; and (5) Lodi dynasty.
During the pre-independent India, it was pursued by two families of Unani physicians viz the Aziza family of Lucknow known as Hakims of Jhaawai Tola and the Sharifi family of the eminent Hakim Ajmal Khan of Delhi. In independent India it was preserved and researched by Hakim Abdul Hameed, descendents of Hakim Majeed of the famous Hamdard Dawakhana in Delhi.
The first Unani physician who came to India was from Afghanistan (Herat). His name was Hakim Diya Uddin. He entered the Court of Khusrow Malik – the Ghaznawi ruler at Lahore in 1160 CE.
The Unani system is the same as the Greek system of philosophy of medicine, which began in Ionia in Greece at that time. Now Ionia is the west coast region of Turkey. The most useful contributors to Greek medicine were the great philosophers such as Pythagoras, Hippocrates, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle.
They believed that there are four humours (humors-American), meaning plant or animal body fluids, and four qualities. The four humours are (1) blood [dam], (2) phlegm [balgham], (3) white bile [safra] and (4) black bile (sauda]. The four qualities are (1) heat (2) cold (3) moisture and (4) dryness. Every person has an individualised humoural constitution in his healthy state. The alteration of these accrues to illness or disease.
Galen (131-201 BCE) drew these four qualities into four temperaments of people: 1. sanguine (sturdy and cheerful); 2. lethargic and emotional;  choleric (short- tempered and irascible); and 4. melancholic (depressive). Galen was a Greek physician who studied in the famous medical school in Alexandria in Egypt. He went to Rome and revived the ideas of Hippocrates and contemporary Greek doctors.
Prophet Mohammad was born in 570 CE and during the 7-9th century CE Islam flourished and the Greek medicine was further developed during the Arabian civilisation. In 431 CE the patriarch of Jerusalem, Nestorius was banished along with his followers for heresy as he propounded that Jesus was a demigod. That made Mary mother of human Jesus but not of God.
They immigrated to Persia and started medical schools there. These Christians translated Greek medical texts to Arabic.
Unani was developed during the 8th century CE by the Caliph of Mesopotamia (Baghdad). Sanskrit and Greek medical works were also translated under the
patronage of Caliphs Harun Rashid and Al Mansur. Two of its great physicians were Rhazes [Al-Razi 860-932] and Avicena [Ibn Sina 980-1037] .
Rhazes was a pharmacist and physician. He is especially famous for diagnosing measles as distinct from small pox. He also recognised the development of acquired immunity by recognising that individuals surviving small pox never get it again.
Avicena wrote over 450 treatises out of which 40 were on Medicine. His book, Canon of Medicine provides a complete system of medicine, based on the principles of Galen.
During the Muslim rule in India the Hakims began experimental research works and altered the system to adapt to the changing climate, the prevalent diseases and available rich flora of India. Later on, they experimented with minerals as well.
Unani medicine has become purely indigenous to India and though it lost its tempo during the British rule, has become widely used in India again, especially among the vast Muslim population. During the last couple of decades there has been a great upsurge of Unani medicine under the patronage of the government of India.
The popularity is largely due to a great man, Hakim Abdul Hameed. Under his directorship there is a massive Unani Pharmacological Industry known as Hamdard (sympathetic) Dawakhana in Tughlabad, New Delhi.
A new massive Jamia Hamdard University was established alongside for training of undergraduates and postgraduates. It was given the status of Deemed to be University by the Ministry of Human Resource Development on May 10 1989, and was inaugurated by the late Rajiv Gandhi on August 1 1989.
In India there are now 40 Unani colleges. There are 22 research institutes all over India. More recently, and very importantly, there has been awareness for safety and adverse drug reaction monitoring of herbal drugs in Unani (and Ayurvedic system), following the guidelines of the WHO.
Unani medicine (also Ayurvedic) is used as complementary medicine to allopathic medicine, in India.
After having studied both the systems of Indian medicine I have tried to distinguish between the two and have come to this conclusion in my own way that Unani medicine is basically based on four humours theory while the Ayurvedic medicine is based on five elements (panchbhoota) theory.
In both the systems herbal medicines with or without minerals are used. In the Ayurvedic system, names are in Sanskrit, whereas in Unani system, in Arabic or
Persian. There are many other common features except that Ayurveda owes its origin to ancient Indian culture while Unani, to Greece and Arabic cultures, which have become indigenised since its arrival to India.
Both depend for their diagnosis on a holistic approach and the examination of the pulse, more developed in the Unani medicine, because of the Muslim purdah system. The Unani system of diagnosis by simply feeling the pulse is very well documented as illustrated by the following true story.
This was about a blind nabbaz – a clinician who reads the pulse (nabz). This was from news coverage in The Times, London. This blind man was an elder brother of Dr Ansari who was a doctor of western medicine, in Delhi. Mahatma Gandhi and other Congress leader used to stay with him whenever they came to Delhi.
Dr Ansari took the blind nabbaz to London. The photograph in The Times showed the blind man with a famous surgeon and Dr. Ansai. The occasion was that the surgeon was going to perform an exploratory surgery as a growth was suspected in the abdomen.
The nabbaz felt the pulse of the patient on the right wrist and then on the left wrist for about five minutes each. He then wrote down on a piece of paper that the patient had a growth, giving its size and shape as well as its location in the intestine. The operation was performed and the nabbaz was proved right.
With this marvellous story I, like many other like-minded Indian and foreign medical people, feel that the Government of India should allocate a substantial budget for research and development of the Indian systems of medicine, to provide national health care for the teeming millions of India, especially in rural areas, rather than depend on very expensive Western medicines.
I am more grateful than I can begin to express to the great Hakim Abdul Hameed of the Hamdard Research Foundation, Tughlabad in New Delhi, who through my industrialist friend DD Puri, met us in his office in 1998 and kindly organised his staff to show us round the museum. I want to offer my gratitude in memoriam following his death in October 1998.
On the ground floor of the museum that is five floors high, there was a very impressive granite bust of surgeon Sushruta and the exhibit of the surgical instruments used by him during the Indus valley civilisation. There were labelled jars of drugs used by physician Charaka during the same period.
To my surprise, there was an ancient statue of the Vedic god of Medicine – Dhanawantry, of which I had no idea. It is depicted as an avatar of Vishnu with four hands, one hand holding medical herbs and the other a pot containing rejuvenating nectar (amrit).
There were over 50 Ph D’s, botanists, biochemists etc who were doing research work. A residential college for the Bachelor’s degree in Unani medicine (BuM) has been added. Within the compound is the World Islamic Centre. This is a fascinating place. It is a round building with each floor devoted to various subjects of Islam. There are cubicles for research scholars. The second floor is devoted to Islamic manuscripts.
Hakimji charged no consultation fee. He treated millions of people, rich and poor alike. The profits that came from the sale of medicines went to the Trust, which made all these modern developments possible. He took only a peppercorn salary.
The writer is based in the Uk
Published: March 23, 2012