A Tale of Neglect: Ottomans in Muslim Medicine

The Surgeon's Tract, an Ottoman text written by Sharaf al-Din in about 1465, indicates where on the scalp incisions should be made.Further to earlier discussions about the importance of not cherry-picking historical details to serve an agenda (especially at Wikipedia), a recent article by Miri Shefer Mossensohn at Social History of Medicine, 21(1), points to a history of neglect in the history of Muslim Medicine.

Although the history of medicine in the Ottoman period has received considerable attention, especially from Turkish scholars, standard general works on the history of Muslim science and medicine after the Middle Ages rarely discuss Turkish and Ottoman medicine. Furthermore, the limited discussion usually does not go beyond referring to great medical discoveries in the Ottoman Empire, or alternatively its intellectual decline. The yardstick for the evaluation of Ottoman medicine seems to have been exposure to and acceptance of European medicine. Ottoman medicine was positioned between two simplistic poles, the dichotomy of ‘east’. In this article, I try to answer two interrelated questions. First, why is it that despite its erudition, Turkish scholarship of Ottoman medicine is hardly utilised by western scholars, even those specialising in Muslim medicine? Secondly, why is it that the two discourses, the Turkish and the western, share (or at least used to share) a non-dynamic image of Ottoman medicine? I claim that the frozen image that appears in the scholarship came about because of two different discourses—one Orientalist and Arabist, the other nationalist and Turkish—which joined together at this particular point for different reasons.

But is this neglect actually indicative of a case of implicit cherry-picking? A question that often follows from this kind of history relates to an important historiographical problem: are such calls directed toward the celebration of forgotten saints, or for balance and neutrality in the historical narrative?

Mossensohn’s response to this problem is to point toward possible causes. The rising influence of social approaches to history, for example, has not yet spread fully to the various sub-fields of Muslim scholarship:

While scholars have started to address social contexts of medicine in both the medieval or modern periods, there is still a lacuna in the scholarship with regard to the early modern period; that is the Ottoman world…. No longer is Ottoman medicine assumed to be simply a local branch of the Arab-Muslim tradition rather than an autonomous medical system (p. 9).

There is also a language barrier:

Ottoman medicine still principally interests Turkish scholars, perhaps because non-Turkish scholars of Muslim medicine—even today—are mainly experts in Arabic, rather than Turkish and Ottoman Turkish (p. 9).

In other words, the cause of the neglect in this case is not necessarily malicious. Future historians can therefore address the imbalance without lapsing into activist celebration: the agenda served by Mossensohn’s contribution is neutrality in the historical narrative.

But as our earlier discussions of doing history at Wikipedia show, not all histories are written with such noble intent.

About Jeremy Burman

Jeremy Trevelyan Burman is a senior doctoral student in York University’s Department of Psychology, specializing in the history of developmental psychology and its theory (especially that pertaining to Jean Piaget). Prior to returning to academia, he was a producer at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.