Great knowledge passed from the Greeks, Persians and Romans to the Byzantines and the Muslim caliphate. Abu al-Qasim was a medieval Muslim scholar who continued the research into medicine pioneered by the Roman medic Galen. He is considered the father of modern surgery.
Who was Abu al-Qasim?
Abu Qasim Khalaf Ibn Abbas Al Zahrawi – to give him his full name – was born in Cordoba. In the medieval era, that was the most powerful Islamic city in the caliphate that ruled the southern parts of what is now modern Spain and Portugal. I’ve been to Cordoba and its medieval Muslim heritage screams at you from every horseshoe arch. Abu al-Qasim grew up in this city to become the father of modern surgery.
He was born in the year 936 AD – two hundred years before the Knights Templar were formed. The Muslim caliphate had already been ruling the Iberian peninsula for two centuries and would hold on to Cordoba for another three centuries. Gives you an idea of how long the caliphate existed in southern Europe.
His family originated from Arabia and came over with the Muslim invasion of the eighth century. He hardly travelled at all. And like many Muslims in Cordoba, regarded the city as his hometown. He studied hard and became the court physician to the ruler in Cordoba – Al-Hakam II.
Why is Abu al-Qasim called the father of modern surgery?
Al-Qasim wrote a thirty-volume encyclopaedia on medicine that included many procedures that form the bedrock of modern surgery. These included the removal of polyps, taking out tonsils, cauterising wounds, treatment of fistulas, setting bones and dental procedures. Incredibly, he was also able to describe an ectopic pregnancy.
Western medical thinkers had no qualms about borrowing from his learning. In the same way that the caliphate had absorbed earlier Roman and Greek texts, western Christian philosophers and scientists took what they found useful from Islamic learning.
Crusaders enable Muslim learning to head west – including Abu al-Qasim
The transmission of knowledge doesn’t always happen in the nicest way. The Muslim armies had conquered a post-Roman Spain in the year 711. And they sucked up Roman civilisation, blending it with their own. When the crusader armies of the Kingdom of Castile took Toledo in 1085, it wasn’t just knights in chain mail who poured through the gates of the city.
Scholars followed them in droves. They wanted to access the Moorish libraries of Toledo and get their hands on books thought long lost or never discovered in the west. Men like Gerard of Cremona (1114 to 1187) feverishly translated books from Arabic to Latin. He and others, brought to the west the medical treatises of Abu al-Qasim, father of modern surgery.
LEARN MORE: The turning point for Muslim rule in Spain
Abu al-Qasim is forgotten amid a decline in learning
DISCOVER MORE: How the Templars became the Order of Christ
Within the Muslim world, there was always some discomfort at absorbing ideas and knowledge from the non-believers. It worried the more conservative and closed-minded. To them it suggested that Islam might not be the superior religion if it had to listen to opinions from outside. This was a regrettable point of view and one that damaged the Islamic world.
In the same way that the western mind closed at the end of classical antiquity, the Islamic caliphate became less receptive to outside ideas and more inward looking. That undoubtedly contributed to a shift in the balance of power from east to west.
And great thinkers like Abu al-Qasim – father of modern surgery – became rarer figures.