What is Unani

History of Unani Medicine

 Unani is the Arabic word for Ionian, or Greek.  Greece's Islamic neighbors call Greece Yunanistan, or the Land of the Unanis. 
While Western Europe was in the Dark Ages, Greek Medicine and other branches of classical science and learning found a safe haven in Islamic lands.  But Greek Medicine didn't remain static or unchanging; it continued to grow and evolve as Muslim scholars and physicians continued to make important discoveries and contributions of their own. 

In the process, Greek Medicine was "Islamicized" into Unani-Tibb, or Greco-Arabic Medicine.  This transformation proved that Greek Medicine was flexible, resilient and adaptable enough to absorb and incorporate new developments and influences. 

Within a few short centuries after its birth, the Islamic world had expanded to stretch from the Atlantic ocean in the west to the Indian ocean in the east, from Moorish Spain to the plains of Hindustan.  Everywhere the Muslims went, their Unani physicians went with them, adapting themselves to the local conditions and resources.  In the words of Unani medical historians, Unani Tibb enriched itself by imbibing new medicines, techniques and treatments from the various cultures and medical systems with which it came into contact, which included Indian Ayurveda and Oriental Medicine.

Around the time of the Crusades, the Islamic world produced a few very prominent and influential physicians and medical scholars.  Their names were Latinized, and their medical treatises were imported into Europe and translated into Latin, to serve as texts and reference manuals in the medical schools that were just starting to spring up in Medieval Europe. 

Ibn Rushd, or Averroes (1120 - 1198) was a physician and Islamic scholar and philosopher in Moorish Spain.  He wrote a five volume treatise on medicine called Al-Culliyat (The Fundamentals), or Colliget. 

Al-Razi, or Rhazes (865 - 924) was a Persian physician, chemist and alchemist.  He wrote a vast medical encyclopedia called Continens, with many excerpts from Hindu and Greek medical sources.



But the greatest of these was undoubtedly Hakim Ibn Sina, or Avicenna (980-1037 AD).  He wrote a five volume treatise called The Canon of Medicine, which became a standard textbook in European medical schools.  Today, it serves as the basic handbook for all practitioners of Unani Medicine.

Unani Medicine found fertile soil in India, Pakistan & Bangladesh.  The Delhi Sultanate and later the Moghul emperors were great patrons of medicine.  Many eminent physicians from Persia and Central Asia came to India not only to seek fame and fortune, but also to find a safe haven from the wars and strife devastating their homelands. 

Under British rule, all forms of healing except conventional allopathic medicine were discouraged.  But Unani Medicine survived, due to its popularity with the masses, and the safe, gentle yet effective nature of its treatments. 

Hakim Ajmal Khan (1864 - 1927) was an Unani physician, and also an Indian patriot and freedom fighter in the struggle for independence.  He was also a great advocate and champion of the indigenous systems of Ayurvedic and Unani Medicine, and pioneered scientific research into their treatments. He separated many of alkaloids from Serpentina herbs.

Hakim Habibur Rahman (1881 - 1947) was most popular Unani physician in Bangladesh. He was a great hakim for the Nawab family of that time. His practice was so sharp as modern diagnosis.

Today, the Bangladesh government supports and subsidizes both Unani & Ayurvedic medical colleges and hospitals in this country.  As herbal medicine the government of Bangladesh has recognized Unani & Ayurvedic system of medicine as a legal medication system. Bangladesh Government controls the commercial production of both Unani & Ayuevedic medicine under the drug (Control) ordinance, 1982.


Father of Medicine


Medical historians generally look to Hippocrates (Buqrat in Arabic) as the founder of medicine as a rational science.  It was Hippocrates (Buqrat in Arabic) who finally freed medicine fromthe shackles of magic, superstition, and the supernatural.

Hippocrates (Buqrat in Arabic) collected data and conducted experiments to show that disease was a natural process; that the signs and symptoms of a disease were caused by the natural reactions of the body to the disease process; and that the chief role of the physician was to aid the natural resistance of the body to overcome the metabolic imbalance and restore health and harmony to the organism. 

Hippocrates (Buqrat in Arabic) was born on the island of Cos, off the southwest coast of Asia Minor, or present-day Turkey, around (460-377 B.C.)  His father was a physician-priest in the Asclepion at Cos, and his family could trace its lineage back to the legendary Asclepius.  Hippocrates lived a very long life and died at a ripe old age in the town of Larissa in Thessaly.


Traditional Methods of Diagnosis


The traditional physician had to be very perceptive and resourceful in using all his five senses, and whatever was at his disposal in diagnosing disease, and assessing the patient's condition.  Above all, the first and most important method of diagnosis was taking a good medical history in the initial patient intake process, and then following up with one's careful observations of the patient and the disease as it develops and progresses.

Visual diagnosis includes careful observation and inspection of the patient's general behavior, spirit and demeanor; posture and physique; skin color, or complexion; facial signs, eyes and physiognomy; nails, tongue, hair, etc...

Palpation or tactile diagnosis obviously includes pulse diagnosis, as well as palpating the chest and abdominal cavities.  It involves feeling heat or coldness, softness or hardness, dryness or moisture, and fullness or emptiness.

Auscultation, or auditory diagnosis includes listening to the patient's voice or breathing sounds; using a stethoscope to listen to the patient's heartbeat, gastrointestinal or lung sounds; and percussion of the chest and abdomen to listen for either hollow, resonant or dull sounds.

Olfaction can also be used to smell the patient's breath or body odor, as well as odors of any of the bodily secretions or excreta. 

Taste can also be used upon occasion to taste any of these same secretions or excreta.  Sweet tasting urine, for example, is diagnostic of diabetes.

The bodily excreta are important diagnostic indicators in themselves that also deserve careful inspection and study.  Excretion, or elimination, is the final stage of pepsis, or digestion and metabolism.  You can tell a great deal about the body's metabolic processes by what they excrete as superfluous or unusable waste.

The main excreta that are inspected for diagnostic purposes are the urine and the stool.  Greek Medicine is especially known for its urine diagnosis, although the stool, or Alvine Discharge, is also important.

There are some master physicians that have developed such consummate skill in a particular diagnostic technique, like the pulse, that no further information is needed for an accurate diagnosis than hearing the patient's chief complaint and taking his/her pulse.  But for the majority of physicians, especially beginning practitioners of the medical art, forming a broad, composite picture from many different diagnostic methods is the surest way to arrive at an accurate diagnosis. 


Principles of Unani medicine

The history of Unani medicine can be characterized by the work of its practitioners, or hakims, who relied on natural healing based on principles of harmony and balance, uniting the physical, mental, and spiritual realms.

Al-Umoor al-tabiyah: basic physiological principles

According to practitioners of Unani medicine, the health of the human body is maintained by the harmonious arrangement of al-umoor al-tabiyah, the seven basic physiological principles of the Unani doctrine. These principles include (1) arkan, or elements, (2) mizaj, or temperament, (3) akhlat, or bodily humours, (4) aaza, or organs and systems, (5) arwah, or vital spirit, (6) quwa, or faculties or powers, and (7) afaal, or functions. Interacting with each other, these seven natural components maintain the balance in the natural constitution of the human body. Each individual’s constitution has a self-regulating capacity or power, called tabiyat (or mudabbira-e-badan; vis medicatrix naturae in Latin), or to keep the seven components in equilibrium.

Arkan and mizaj: elements and temperament

As four simple, indivisible entities—arz (earth), maa (water), nar (fire), and hawa (air)—arkan not only constitutes the primary components of the human body but also makes up all other creations in the universe. There are predictable consequences to the actions and interactions (imtizaj) of the four arkan. As these elements act upon and react with each other, they continually undergo change into various states of “genesis and lysis” (generation and deterioration), due to ulfat-e-keemiyah (acceptance of a medicine by the body) and nafarat-e-keemiyah (rejection of a medicine). Skilled hakims claim that they can perceive, recognize, and observe such states.

The four essential mizaj (temperaments) are hot, cold, moist, and dry. Four more are compounded of those single temperaments—namely, hot and dry, hot and moist, cold and dry, and cold and moist. Possessed in different proportion, mizaj is balanced by all entities in the cosmos, including all plants, minerals, and animals. The equilibrium of the individual’s elemental combination and resulting mizaj, as determined by tabiyat, provides a stable constitution to that individual—in other words, health. Just as elemental balance keeps an individual in a healthy state, changes in natural temperament cause the health of an individual to suffer. Therefore, mizaj plays a pivotal role in Unani in characterizing a person’s normal state (physical, mental, and social), as well as the nature of a disease.

Doctrine of akhlat

Hippocrates (Buqrat in Arabic) propounded the doctrine of fluids, or humours, of the body, and he categorized the humours into four groups based on their colour. These groups were refined by Galen and later by Avicenna. They appear in Unani practice as dam (blood), balgham (phlegm), safra (yellow bile), and sauda (black bile). The human dispositions corresponding to these humours are, respectively, sanguine, phlegmatic, choleric, and melancholic. Each person is considered to have a specific humoral makeup, determined by the predominance of a given humour in his or her constitution. The quality and quantity of the humours in an individual—a person’s unique, proper, and proportionate humoral makeup—is said to guarantee health. Conditions other than this balance signal ailment or disease.

The theory of humours (nazaria-e-akhlat), which is the essence of the practice of Unani medicine, holds that the four humours are derived from and utilized in the digestive process. Their continuous action and reaction results in the breakdown of complex macromolecules into simpler molecules, which are then incorporated throughout the body in the form of fluid. These humours, the akhlat, suffuse the body’s cells, interstitial spaces, and vascular channels, affecting physical and behavioral well-being, and are most stable in a healthy individual.

Relationship between tabiyat and asbab-e-sittah-zarooriah

In the Unani system of medicine, tabiyat is an individual’s internal power or capacity to withstand or combat disease and to perform normal physiological functions. Believing that it is only tabiyat that is engaged in actually curing a disease, Unani hakims hold that they only assist from “outside” by prescribing therapeutic relief. If not adversely affected, tabiyat can eradicate most infections without medical treatment, using what may be thought of as the natural defense system of the mind and body.

Unani medicine recognizes six physical, or external, factors, called asbab-e-sittah-zarooriah, which are essential in establishing a synchronized biological rhythm and thus living a balanced existence. The six asbab-e-sittah-zarooriah are:

  • Hawa (air), in which the quality of the air a person breathes is thought to have a direct effect on his or her temperament and, thus, health.
  • Makool-wo-mashroob (food and drink), in which the nutritional value and the quality and quantity of one’s food and drink are believed to ensure physical fitness by strengthening tabiyat.
  • Harkat-wo-sakoon-e-jismiah (bodily exercise and repose), which emphasizes the positive effects of balanced physical exercise on an individual’s internal resistance and tabiyat.
  • Harkat-o-sakoon nafsaniah (mental work and rest), which emphasizes the simultaneous engagement of the human mind in numerous emotional and intellectual activities. Just as the body needs systematic and planned exercise and rest, Unani medicine holds that the human mind and brain need adequate stimulation and proper relaxation as well.
  • Naum-o-yaqzah (sleep and wakefulness), in which an individual’s health and alertness are understood as being dependent on a specific amount of sound sleep in the course of a 24-hour (circadian) cycle.
  • Ihtebas and istifragh (retention and excretion), which considers the metabolism of food and liquid as both affecting and being regulated by tabiyat. According to Unani medicine, the assimilation of food and liquid facilitates the elimination from the body of excessive and noxious substances. Therefore, to maintain a harmonic and synchronized tabiyat, certain beneficial end-products of kaun-o-fasad (genesis and lysis) are retained in the body while harmful ones are expelled.

These six factors are believed by Unani practitioners to directly affect the harmony of the human mind and body. Socioeconomic, geographic, and environmental factors are considered secondary factors (asbab-e-ghair-zarooriah) in the Unani system and therefore indirectly influence tabiyat. However, both the primary and the secondary factors must be closely considered in the Unani process of treatment.