In such circumstances, it’s easy to forget that centuries ago the Middle East and Islamic territories were a hotbed of medical innovation, when mental health provisions were an integral part of hospitals across the Muslim world. “The interface between mind and body was very much at the centre of medieval Islamic medicine,” explains Peter Pormann, professor of Classics and Graeco-Arabic Studies at the University of Manchester. “Your mental state was one of the so-called six non-naturals – things that influence your health that are outside your body.”
Healthcare institutions sprang up across the Muslim world during the medieval era and were far more advanced than anything offered in Europe at the time.
Towards the beginning of the ninth century, the earliest known hospital established by an Islamic ruler was founded in Baghdad, under Harun Al Rashid, whose domain covered what is now known as Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Iran. As more hospitals were built in Baghdad, and others sprang up in Cairo, in the mid-12th century, the Nuri hospital was founded in Damascus by Nur Al Din Zangi, the Muslim ruler of northern Syria. It became a leading light of medical care in the region and had a school, complete with a library.
Pormann, editor of 1001 Cures: Contributions in Medicine and Healthcare from Muslim Civilisation, calls these medieval hospitals “one of the great success stories of Islamic medicine”. It was at pioneering institutions such as these that remedies, including music and epithyme – a parasitic plant growing on thyme – were applied for mental health disorders such as melancholy. But Iraq and Syria are different places today. The former is still trying to regain stability 16 years after the US-led invasion, while the latter has spent eight years in the grip of civil war. Understandably, conflict and political upheaval have made the medical needs of their populations difficult to address.