Unani-tibbi denotes Arabic or Islamic medicine, also known as prophetic medicine. It traditionally makes use of a variety of techniques including diet, herbal treatments, manipulative therapies, and surgery. Unani-tibbi is a complete system, encompassing all aspects and all fields of medical care, from nutrition and hygiene to psychiatric treatment.


The name unani-tibbi is something of a misnomer, as literally translated from the Arabic, it means Greek medicine. This is because the early Arab physicians took their basic knowledge from the Greeks.

At the time, Greek medical knowledge was the best to be had, particularly from Galen, the renowned second-century Greek physician who treated the gladiators and Emperor Marcus Aurelius.

However, from that point onwards, Islamic medical scholars were responsible for many developments and advancements that, at the time, placed Arabic medicine firmly in the vanguard of medical science.

There followed a steady stream of Muslim medical scholars, who not only upheld the high standards that came to be known of unani-tibbi, but carried on adding to and improving the basic pool of knowledge.

Some notable scholars of the science of unani-tibbi include:
  • Al Tabbari (838–870)
  • Al Razi (Rhazes) (841–926)
  • Al Zahrawi (930–1013)
  • Ibn Al Haitham (960–1040)
  • Ibn Sina (Avicenna), (980–1037)
  • Ibn Al Nafees (1213–1288)
  • Ibn Khaldun (1332–1395)

Medical innovations introduced by unani-tibbi physicians included:
  • Avicenna was the first to describe meningitis, so accurately and in such detail, that it has scarcely required additions after 1,000 years.
  • Avicenna was the first to describe intubation (surgical procedure to facilitate breathing)—Western physicians began to use this method at the end of the eighteenth century.
  • The use of plaster of Paris for fractures by the Arabs was standard practice—it was “rediscovered” in the West in 1852.
  • Surgery was used by the Arabs to correct cataracts.
  • Ibn Al Nafees discovered pulmonary blood circulation.
  • A strict system of licensing for medical practitioners was introduced in Baghdad in 931, which included taking the Hippocratic oath, and specific periods of training for doctors.
  • There was a system of inspection of drugs and pharmaceuticals—the equivalent of the Federal Drug Administration (FDA)—in Baghdad 1,000 years ago.
  • The European system of medicine was based on the Arabic system, and even as recently as the early nineteenth century, students at the Sorbonne had to read the canon of Avicenna as a condition to graduating.
  • Unani-tibbi hospitals were, from the beginning, free to all without discrimination on the basis of religion, sex, ethnicity, or social status.
  • Their hospitals allocated different wards for each classification of disease.
  • Hospitals had unlimited water supplies and bathing facilities.
  • Before the advent of the printing press, there were extensive handwritten libraries in Baghdad, (80,000 volumes), Cordova, (600,000 volumes), Cairo, (two million volumes), and Tripoli, (three million volumes).
  • All Unani-tibbi hospitals kept patient records.
  • A hospital was established for lepers.
  • In 830, nurses were brought from Sudan to work in the Qayrawan hospital in Tunisia.
  • A system of fountain-cooled air was devised for the comfort of patients suffering from fever.
  • Avicenna described the contamination of the body by “foreign bodies” prior to infection, and Ibn Khatima also described how “minute bodies” enter the body and cause disease—well in advance of Pasteur’s discovery of microbes.
  • Al Razi was the first to describe smallpox and measles. He was accurate to such a degree that nothing has been added since.
  • Avicenna described tuberculosis as being a communicable disease.
  • Avicenna devised the concept of anesthetics. The Arabs developed a “soporific sponge,” (impregnated with aromatics and narcotics and held under the patient’s nose), which preceded modern anesthesia.
  • The Arab surgeon, Al Zahrawi was the first to describe hemophilia.
  • Al Zahrawi was also the first surgeon in history to use cotton, which is an Arabic word, as surgical dressings for the control of hemorrhage.
  • Avicenna accurately described surgical treatment of cancer, saying that the excision must be radical and remove all diseased tissue, including amputation and the removal of veins running in the direction of the tumor. He also recommended cautery of the area if needed. This observation is relevant even today.
  • Avicenna, Al Razi, and others formed a medical association for the purpose of holding conferences so that the latest developments and advancements in the field of medicine could be debated and passed on to others.


What began as an advanced medical system that set world standards, has now come to be regarded as a system of folk medicine. This decline coincided with the decline of the Islamic Empire and the dissolution of the caliphate (spiritual head of Islam), as these were directly responsible for the direction and impetus of Islamic scientific scholars in all fields.

Unani-tibbi practitioners still treat people with herbal remedies and manipulation, for a variety of illnesses. In the Islamic world, many of the poorer people who cannot afford allopathic medicine still resort to this traditional medicine.

There are also people who prefer unani-tibbi to allopathic medicine, as indeed, the traditional unani-tibbi remedies do not bring with them the side effects commonly experienced with allopathic drugs.


Similar to Greek humoral theory, unani-tibbi considers the whole human being, spiritual, emotional, and physical. Basic to the theory is the concept of the “four humors.” These are Dum (blood), Bulghum (phlegm), Sufra (yellow bile), and Sauda (black bile). Each is further categorized as being hot and moist (blood), cold and moist (phlegm), hot and dry (yellow bile), and cold and dry (black bile).

Every individual has his/her own unique profile of humors, which must be maintained in harmony to preserve health. If the body becomes weak, and this harmony is disrupted, a physician can be called upon to help restore the balance.

This restoration may be done using correct diet and nutrition and/or the unani-tibbi system of botanical therapy, cupping, bleeding, manipulation, and massage, among others, as treatments for all disease and ailments. Herbs or substances used to treat a patient will be matched to his humor type.

Unani-tibbi employs a detailed system of diagnosis, including observation of urine and stools, palpation of the body and pulse, and observation of the skin and eyes.

It also employs a system of prophylactics in order to preserve health and ward off disease. This includes the adherance to strict hygiene rules, protection of air, food and water from contamination or pollution, sufficient rest and exercise, and attention to spiritual needs. Certain herbs are also taken on a prophylactic basis, such as black cumin and sage.

In general, unani-tibbi treatment is not expensive, and it is certainly less expensive than allopathic medicine. However, charges vary according to area and practitioner. Fees should be discussed with a practitioner before treatment begins.


Remedies are often provided by the practitioner or are obtained from a specialized herbalist. The ingredients are mainly herbs and honey. It must be noted that the honey used will be raw and unadulterated, rather than the type found in supermarkets, which is usually heat-treated.

A famous and widely used medicinal herb is black cumin (Nigella sativa), also known as Hab Al Baraka in Arabic, which means blessed seed. Black cumin has been cultivated since Assyrian times and it is beneficial for a very long list of ailments.

It is widely mixed with other herbs for greater beneficial effect and is said to strengthen the immune system when taken over a period of time. Research has proved that it has the ability to slow the division of cancer cells.


The achievements of the unani-tibbi practitioners of today bear little resemblance to those of their illustrious predecessors, and some of those claiming to practice traditional medicine are woefully ill-equipped to practice.

However, many Arab and Muslim doctors, after qualifying in allopathic medicine, are still treating their patients with traditional remedies and are taking the trouble to educate themselves in this ancient art.

In India, where Islamic medicine is primarily known as unani-tibbi, the government has set up a Central Council for Research in Unani Medicine (CCRUM), which also has a licensing system for these traditional practitioners.

In the Arab countries, it is known as tibb-nabawi, or prophetic medicine, and mainly utilizes herbal remedies, honey, and other bee products.

Side effects

There are no known side effects of this form of treatment.

Research and general acceptance

The herbal remedies employed by unani-tibbi are chosen for their non-toxicity and absence of side effects.

Although unani-tibbi has not been the subject of a great deal of research by modern-day scientists, it still enjoys great popularity in Muslim countries. The records left by Islamic medical scholars become more remarkable in the light of modern medicine, when their achievements and theories still hold their own next to the latest in medical technology.

The CCRUM in India is conducting research into aspects of unani-tibbi that are likely to be of particular benefit to modern society. To cite one example, an examination of the substances that were originally used as safe forms of contraception, with none of the side effects of present-day chemical contraception.

Training and certification

There are two classifications of practitioners of unani-tibbi. There are the simple folk practitioners, dispensers of herbal remedies and so on, and the highly qualified doctors and scholars who are still conducting research.

Research is currently being conducted at the King Abdul Azeez University in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and the Sultan Qaboos University in Oman, among others, into the efficacy of traditional herbal remedies.

The CCRUM in India issues licenses to unani-tibbi practitioners and provides funds for research.