The Ayush ministry of the Indian government defines Unani as the science of health and healing and as a system of medicine that originated 2,500 years ago in Greece. Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine laid the foundation of Unani.
It is also known in various parts of the world as Graeco-Arabic Medicine, Islamic Medicine, Oriental Medicine, Tibb-E-Sunnati, Eastern Medicine, Uighur Medicine, and Traditional Iranian Medicine. The Arabs incorporated the Greek literature of medicine into their system of medicine, philosophies and principles.
This medical system follows a holistic approach and considers the physical and psychological traits of the individual as well as his or her lifestyle to diagnose and prescribe treatments. Physicians select the medicines and regimens according to the individual and the nature of the condition.
Today, many of these principles and ancient wisdoms are being integrated into holistic strategies for health . So, what are the roots of this system? And what are the principles that hold true even two millennia later? Let us find out.
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What is Unani medicine?
The Unani system of medicine, also referred to as Unani Tibb, follows the teachings of Greek physician Hippocrates and Roman physician, Galen. By the Middle Ages, Arabian and Persian physicians developed the Unani into an elaborate medicine system to treat people.
Based on the Herbo-Animo-Mineral foundation, Unani uses approximately 90 per cent herbal drugs, 4-5 per cent animal products and 5-6 per cent minerals. “The treatment approach is usually by diet and drug. In some cases, some regimental therapies are also done for evacuation of morbid matter,” says Dr C Umamath, former Chief Medical Officer, Markaz Unani Medical College and Hospital, Kozhikode, Kerala.
Theories lay the foundation
Understanding of the premises of Unani medicine starts with understanding the underlying philosophies. According to Unani, the human body comprises of seven components, or — Al-umoor al-tabiyah.
These seven basic physiological principles of the Unani doctrine are:
According to Unani all these components present in the human body should work in coordination for its proper functioning.
Theory of Humours – Akhlat
The fundamental framework of this concept is based on the Hippocratic theory of four humours based on their colour. In Unani practice, they are known as dam (blood), balgham (phlegm), safra (yellow bile), and sauda (black bile).
“The theory of humour is applied based on the condition and personality. According to Unani, the condition is caused due to imbalance in humours,” says Dr C Umamath. The body compositions corresponding to these humours are sanguine (damwi), phlegmatic (balghami), choleric (safrawi), and melancholic (saudawi). Every person has a specific humoural makeup. According to Unani, humours are the moist and fluid parts of the body that are produced after metabolism to provide nutrition to the body.
Theory of Temperaments or constitution – Mizaj
This theory is also known as the doctrine of composition and physiology of the body. In Unani, the concept of temperament is complicated. Qualities like hot, cold, dry, and moist are the four temperaments. One of the active qualities interacts with a passive quality to denote a particular temperament of the humour.
An individual’s temperament is the result of the interaction of the elements. For example, dam (blood) is hot wet, balgham (phlegm) is cold wet, safra (yellow bile) is hot dry, and sauda (black bile) is cold dry. “For the maintenance of health, overall qualities of humours should be in accordance with the mizaj (temperaments)”, says Dr Mehjabeen Fatimah, Assistant professor, National Institute of Unani Medicine, Bengaluru.
Theory of elements – Arkan
Like Ayurveda and other holistic treatment practices, Unani too relies on the concept of elements in the nature that constitute our bodies. Air, earth, fire and water are the four elements where air is considered to be carrying hot and moist temperament, while earth has a cold and dry temperament. Fire is believed to be hot and dry, and water cold and moist.
Theory for prevention of ailments (Asbab e Sitta Zarooriya)
Unani like other holistic approaches has a similar theory when it comes to prevention of ailments – prevention is better than cure.
Unani focuses on the six essential factors for the promotion of health and prevention of diseases. Factors such as air, food and drinks; physical health and repose; mental health and repose; sleep and wakefulness; and evacuation and retention need to be kept in proper balance to prevent illness.
Unani emphasises on a natural preventive approach rather than treatment of conditions. This science suggests a healthy lifestyle, diet and environment based on the temperament of an individual. The treatment approach starts with a detailed observation by a Unani physician.
The doctors emphasise the importance of treatment by physical examination such as checking skin, nails, and tongue. It uses holistic diagnostics comprising history, physical examination, pulse, urine and stool inspection.
An individual’s humoural constitution represents his healthy state. The body’s ability of self-preservation or adjustment, called medicatrix naturae (Öabé‘at Mudabbira Badan), helps maintain this humoural balance. As the body weakens, an imbalance in the humoural composition is bound to change and cause illness. In Unani, significant importance is placed on this ability. The medicines used in this system assist the body in regaining this ability and restoring the humoural balance, thereby maintaining health. Also, a healthy diet and digestion are considered to maintain humoural balance.
When the prevention stage is over and the illness occurs, Unani practitioners use a variety of protocols to treat what is believed to be the root of an underlying health condition.
The preference is given to regimen therapy and dietotherapy. Pharmacotherapy and surgery are used as a last resort to any condition. Psychiatric treatment (‘Iläj Nafsäné) and spiritual treatment (‘Iläj Rüùäné) are also followed based on the condition.
Regimen therapies are mostly non-medicinal procedures in which the practitioners regulate the lifestyle to preserve health and treat ailments. The regimen therapies practised in Unani include cupping (Ùijäma), massage (Dalk), leeching (Ta’léq), venesection (Fañd), purgation (Ishäl), emesis (Qay’), diuresis (Idrär-i Bawl), enema (Ùuqna), sitz bath (Äbzan), Turkish bath (Ùammäm), irrigation (Naöül) and fomentation (Takméd). Dietotherapy involves managing certain ailments by administration of specific diets and by regulating the quantity and quality of food.
The Unani system of medicine focuses on the root cause of any illness. Otherwise, the condition may stabilise for a while before developing again. Hence, the key to treatment is to understand these doctrines correctly to find the cause and treat it accordingly.