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Syncretic systems like Unani offer lessons for sustainable, effective healthcare

Historically, medicine and its effectiveness has been one route to assertion of cultural superiority and political legitimacy. However, Unani demonstrated a scientific humility by retaining the name that acknowledges its roots.

Written by Ritu Priya | Updated: February 11, 2020 9:48:36 am
Decolonising Healing The evolution of Unani medicine itself has been as a syncretic science.

Hakim Ajmal Khan (1868-1927), born on February 11 in Delhi in a family of hakims, was an exceptional healer, a freedom fighter, and the founder of Ayurveda and Unani Tibbia College in Delhi and the Jamia Millia Islamia. His contributions led to his birthday being declared Unani Day. The Tibbia College was envisaged to strengthen indigenous scientific content and practice of Ayurveda and Unani by bringing them into one institution.

The evolution of Unani medicine itself has been as a syncretic science. It draws its roots and name from ancient Greek physicians and philosophers, Hippocrates and Galen, also the acknowledged roots of modern medicine in Europe. Greek knowledge was absorbed and preserved by the Arabs through translation of Hippocratic and Galenic texts into Arabic (and later into Latin, making them accessible to Europe). The Persian scientist-philosopher Ibn Sina was next in chronology to contribute much to this medical tradition.

Translations into Persian expanded its reach. Scientific growth of medicine in the Muslim world between 8th and 15th centuries was in keeping with the original Greek humoral theories of bodily functions and their imbalance as cause of disease. A large body of preventive, promotive, therapeutic and palliative (lifestyle, medicinal and surgical) knowledge emerged. It reached India in the 11th century, receiving patronage since the 13th century from the Delhi sultanate to later Mughal rulers and nawabs. The then practising hakims’ research on local health problems, medicinal plants and methods for preparation of medicines, and interaction with the vaids, led to generation of an Indian version of Unani. Translations from Arabic and Persian to Sanskrit and vice-versa was also undertaken, as was translation into Gurmukhi, Tamil, Malayalam and other Indian languages. Besides treatment of common ailments, Indianised Unani medicine is especially known for its contributions to the knowledge of toxicology, for effective cures in urological and skin diseases, among others.

Unani remains alive in practice on the Indian subcontinent. As reported in 2017, there are in India 264 hospitals, over 1,500 dispensaries, 201 colleges and almost 50,000 registered Unani practitioners. The Traditional Knowledge Digital Library set up by Centre in 2001 includes 98,700 Unani formulations.

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Important to recognise is the value of the scientific approach of Unani that is diagnostic, prognostic and holistic, with a stated syncretic developmental approach. All sciences grow by interacting with and assimilating from other knowledges, but most do not actively acknowledge this, instead claiming a superiority and universality of application. Historically, medicine and its effectiveness has been one route to assertion of cultural superiority and political legitimacy. However, Unani demonstrated a scientific humility by retaining the name that acknowledges its roots.

When the first Unani Education Committee was set up in 1964 by the Government of India to formulate a shuddha (pure) Unani curriculum, members argued that “purity” is unscientific and undesirable. It was said: “The appellation ‘Unani’ (Greek or Ionian) has been retained by promoters of this system of medicine, the Arabs, and the Persians as an honest acknowledgment of their indebtedness and a tribute to the great Greek philosophers who were originators of the basic principles of this system… as well as of the modern system of medicine. Though the Arabs contributed extensively and made substantial advances by hard work and extensive researches and experiments, they continued to call it Unani. Later on in India, the hakims, made, during the Mughal period, extensive researches to adapt it to local conditions and took much from Ayurvedic practice, but still, they continued to call it Unani, although in reality it became an Indianised Unani system.”

To strengthen this knowledge system, the Committee suggested admitting undergraduate students immediately after school for a Pre-Tibb curriculum of two-years and then a four-and-a-half year curriculum of Unani medicine and surgery; research including “research on the fundamental principles and basic theories of Unani system of medicine, such as temperament, the humoral theory and Tabiat Mudabra-Badan (natural healing powers); and rights, status and privileges for Unani practitioners equal to their Allopathic counterparts.”

We still have a way to go on each of these. Decolonising healthcare with confidence in fundamental principles of AYUSH systems and openness to syncretic adaptations based on sound logic and research has lessons for sustainable and effective healthcare.

This article first appeared in the print edition on February 11, 2020 under the title ‘Decolonising healing’. The writer is professor, Centre of Social Medicine and Community Health, JNU.

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