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Unani Tibb

Doctor taking a woman's pulse, from Ibn Sina's Canon on Medicine.

Doctor taking a woman's pulse, from Ibn Sina's Canon on Medicine.

Credits:Wellcome Library, London

‘Tibb’ means medicine in Arabic, and dates from the early Islamic period (750-1000 CE). ‘Unani’ means Greek, and Unani Tibb refers to the tradition in south Asia.

The tradition is based on earlier Greek medicine, and was developed within the Islamic Empire by Muslim, Christian and Jewish scholars. They were supported by Muslim rulers keen to develop medical and scientific knowledge. This led to a large-scale translation movement converting texts into Arabic. It also generated enormous amounts of new medical knowledge, collected in encyclopedias by scholars such as Ibn Sina. These were translated from Arabic into Latin, and became the basis of European medical teaching for many centuries.

Tibb is based on the Greek concept of humours in which the mixture of humours contributes to an individual’s temperament. The hakim, or doctor, keeps the individual’s temperament internally balanced and in harmony with the environment. Practitioners use the gentlest treatments possible to restore balance. They often advise changes in lifestyle, diet and exercise.

The progressive Muslim occupation of India from the 11th century brought new medical knowledge. Muslims’ growing influence in south Asia over the centuries saw Tibb expand too. Tibb eventually became Unani Tibb, or Greek medicine, throughout the region. It developed as a tradition, and shared materia medica ideas with Ayurveda. Like Ayurveda, Unani Tibb was discouraged during the British rule of India. Support for the tradition was part of the independence movement.

Since India became independent in 1947, the government has supported biomedicine. It also recognises traditional medicines including Unani Tibb and Ayurveda. Unani Tibb is now practised worldwide, particularly in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.


P Pormann and E Savage-Smith, Medieval Islamic medicine (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007)

S Alavi, Islam and Healing: Loss and Recovery of an Indo-Muslim Medical Tradition, 1600-1900 (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008)

M Bode, Taking traditional knowledge to market: the modern image of the ayurvedic and unani industry 1980 – 2000 (Hyderabad: Orient Longman Private Limited, 2008)

J Alter (ed.), Asian medicine and globalization (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005)

G N A Attewell, Refiguring unani tibb: plural healing in late colonial India (New Delhi: Orient Longman, 2007)



The name given to the medical practice that is based on the sciences of the body, such as physiology (the functioning of the body).