Al Zahrawi: The 10th-century Muslim intellect behind modern surgery

Al Zahrawi: The 10th-century Muslim mastermind behind modern surgery
5 min read
10 January, 2023

There have been countless occasions that have shown the importance of healthcare workers.

The last pandemic reminded us of the crucial role they have played in our lives, with doctors, nurses and healthcare workers making remarkable sacrifices to support humanity. 

After witnessing their most recent efforts to preserve our health, have you wondered how medicine, particularly surgery, achieved such progress?

And, have you, by any chance, been made aware of Islam’s undeniable contributions to medicine and operational surgery?

"[Al-Zahrawi's] 30-volume medical encyclopaedia, Al Tasrif, is an elaborative compendium on cauterisation, incision, perforation, venesection, wounds and bone-setting"

From Ibn Sina, Ali Ibn Rabban Al-Tabari, Rufaida Al Aslamiyah to Ibn Al-Haytham and Ibn Zuhr, the followers of Islam and Islamic science played a vital role in the development process of modern medicine.

Among dozens of others, today we will be talking about Abu al Qasim al Zahrawi, who is also called the father of operative surgery and inspired European understanding of surgery for centuries. 

Generally known as Albucasis, particularly in the West,  the Latinised version of his name, Al Zahrawi was born in a place nearby Cordoba, located in southern Spain, in 936, during the term of the Umayyad Caliphate, which was one of the most remarkable and prosperous periods of Islamic History. 

His medical genius and capability paved the way for him to serve as the court physician during the caliphs al-Hakam II and his successor, al Mansur’s term. 

As a Muslim polymath and surgeon, Al Zahrawi was mainly influenced by the instructions and advice of Prophet Muhammed regarding the treatments of diseases.

Al-Zahrawi, for the first time, used catgut during surgical operations for internal stitches, which are still in use.

It is widely argued that he was the first surgeon who used cat intestines for sutures which were used for centuries after him to stitch up internal cuts and wounds.

Besides that, he invented more than 200 surgical tools for the C-Section during his lifetime and discovered the leading cause of paralysis while explaining the process of a fractured spine. But, Al Zahrawi was not content with what he had found. He kept improving his inventions and figured out how to sterilise surgical tools by using a unique combination of chemicals.

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He made various contributions to pediatric surgery, including the first explanation of the medical aspects of haemophilia. Al Zahrawi also described the tracheotomy operation and even performed it on one of his servants who needed urgent medical intervention. 

But, of course, not limited to these amazing, ground-breaking discoveries. 

It was Al Zahrawi who detailed the classic operation for breast cancer, explained how to treat sebaceous cysts while using an exploratory needle, discovered some specific techniques for removing thyroid cysts, the list goes on.

He even contributed to gynaecology, elucidated some instruments for delivery, and was again the first to describe the “Waslcher position”, which is still a relevant technique used in labour where the mother reclines with her back supported and her legs dangling. He also played a crucial role in neurosurgical diagnosis, including managing head injuries, spinal injuries, skull fractures, hydrocephalus and subdural effusions.

Al Zahrawi’s main work, an epoch-making medical encyclopaedia called Al Tasrif, shaped the medical curriculum of European universities for centuries. It was the first illustrated encyclopaedia of surgical tools, which left its mark on scientific perspectives on operative surgery but also contributed to the European Renaissance. This fantastic work is the pure reflection of Al Zahrawi’s fifty years of medical experience.

The 30-volume medical encyclopaedia, Al Tasrif, is an elaborative compendium on cauterisation, incision, perforation, venesection, wounds and bone-setting.

In Al Tasrif, he gave some descriptions about preparing simple and compound-complex drugs, and handled surgical operations of the eyes; ear, nose and throat; head and neck; general surgery; obstetrics and gynaecology in all its aspects.

The way of ligating blood vessels was even described in his works centuries before Ambroise Pare. Following Gerard of Cremona, Rogerius Frugardi, Ronaldus Parmensis and others’ translations of Al Zahrawi’s works, he was introduced to the West, with many believing that his writings, discoveries and descriptions represented the most advanced level of medical knowledge from the Middle Ages to the 13th century.

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The prominent French surgeon, Guy de Chauliac of the 14th century widely benefited from Al Zahrawi and cited him more than 200 times in his works which were published in various cities across Europe, such as Basel, Venice and Oxford until the 18th century. 

His profound knowledge and breakthroughs enabled him to earn the title of ‘Father of Operative Surgery’. 

Al Zahrawi, after leaving such a legacy passed away at the age of 77 in 1013. 

For many, his pioneering contributions have had an undeniable impact worldwide with some of the 10th-century Muslim surgeon’s discoveries still applied almost a thousand years later.

Ufuk Necat Tasci is a political analyst, journalist, and PhD Candidate in International Relations at Istanbul Medeniyet University. His research focuses on Libya, proxy wars, surrogate warfare, and new forms of conflict.

Follow him on Twitter: @UfukNecat