In the bimaristan, such patients were placed in a separate ward. The hospitals were divided into distinct wards, such as those for infectious and those for non-infectious diseases, eye diseases, surgical and non-surgical cases. Men and women were housed separately and cared for by same-sex staff. In most cases, the hospitals were located in close proximity to universities, where students and their teachers read, commented on, interpreted and independently developed the great works of antiquity in Arabic. Medical students accompanied doctors on their rounds and kept medical records.

These physicians already implemented basic ideas of hygiene. Before building a new hospital in Baghdad, the Abbasid caliph al-Muktafi (875 - 908) asked the physician al-Razi to find the perfect location for it. So al-Razi had fresh pieces of meat hung up in various districts of Baghdad. A few days later, he checked the degree of decay of the pieces. Where it was lowest, the air was purest – and thus suitable for a new bimaristan.

When the Mongols completely destroyed the Abbasid caliphate in Baghdad, sacking the famous city and slaughtering its inhabitants in 1258, a historical heyday of science, not only medical science, also came to an end. Two centuries later, the Arab Muslims were driven out of Spain in the course of the so-called Reconquista. With Granada, writes Islamic scholar Fuat Sezgin in his book "Science and Technology in Islam", the Arabs not only lost the last bastion of their eight-hundred-year rule on the Iberian Peninsula in 1492, but the loss also marked the definitive end of the Arab-Islamic world power. The Crusades (1096-1291) had also weakened the Islamic world, Sezgin writes.

However, these are only some of the reasons for the onset of stagnation and the demise of creativity. Looking at the region today, the narratives about the bimaristan recede into the distance, at least in many places.

Today, healthcare in many Arab countries is ramshackle and expensive

Today, healthcare in most Arab countries – apart from the oil-rich Gulf states – is ramshackle and expensive. People from the middle and lower classes in particular, who often live together in small spaces, are helplessly at the mercy of the corona virus. Public hospitals are often in disastrous condition, and most citizens cannot afford expensive private clinics.

In the overcrowded prisons in the Middle East, too, hygiene conditions are deplorable. Human rights organisations have frequently warned of mass deaths in prisons during the ongoing pandemic. Countries like Egypt and Syria, where tens of thousands of people are imprisoned mainly for political reasons, have refused to take protective measures for their prisoners. Iran ordered prison reprieves for 100,000 inmates at the end of March 2020. Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Jordan and Bahrain followed suit and also opened some of their prisons.

The treatment of people on the margins of society has also been the subject of much discussion recently. How can homeless people protect themselves from the virus? How do refugees, the mentally ill or prisoners fare?

More than a thousand years earlier, the Abbasid vizier Ali ibn Isa ibn al-Jarrah (859-946) dealt with this question. Reacting to the particularly high number of diseases that plagued his reign, he wrote in a letter to the physician Sinan ibn Thabit that he was "very worried about the prisoners". Their large numbers and conditions in the prisons could cause disease to spread quickly. Therefore, he said, they should have their own doctors, who would examine them every day and give them medicine if necessary. A short time later, with the help of donations, a separate hospital was built for prisoners.

Dunja Ramadan

© Sueddeutsche Zeitung/ 2021

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