The Unani Cuisine
The typical cuisine of cultures adapted to the Unani system reflect a diet comprised of approximately 60-80 percent of those foods considered to be metabolically heating: Basmati rice, clarified butter, onion, lentils, leek, eggplant, chick peas, pepper, dried fruits, nuts and tea. Foods from the cooling list enter into the diet more as seasonal variations on the basic components of the diet.
Meat, while permitted, is consumed in far smaller quantities than in a typical American home---usually a modest protion one or twice per week. Consumption of pork is shunned, as are alcoholic beverages, banned because of its ability to destroy human reason.
The Concept of Humours
Like his famous predecessors Hippocrates and Galen, Avicenna also discovered the conceptual framework for expressing the imbalances that cause disease in the Concept of Humors. The humors, semi-gaseous, vaporous substances, are considered the 'essence' of the blood, phlegm, yellow and black bile. These substances admix with the body's fluids and tissues, and are responsible for maintaining each part of the body in its characteristic, healthy temperament. For example, blood is said by nature to be warm and moist; phlegm, cold and moist; yellow bile, cold and dry; and black bile, hot and dry. Likewise each body part and system---organs, nerves, skin, and so forth---is believed to have a proper, or healthy temperament. Whenever this balance is disturbed---usually due to incorrect food or exercise---an environment is created in which disease can arise and flourish. Western scientists admit to a quasi-material "pre-disposing factor" which permits some to fall ill from bacteria and viruses, while others identically exposed, do not. On this vital point, Western medicine and Avicenna seem to be in perfect agreement.
The quality and quantity of all of the humors are derived from the foods eaten and the completeness of digestion. For Avicenna, any deviation from the normal, or balanced state of a humor, would produce changes in the internal biotic environment that permit bacteria to grow to larger than normal populations, and similar effects, which are identified as the symptoms of 'disease.' The specific disease that might affect any person would depend upon that person's general state of health, inherent weaknesses and related factors.
According to Avicenna, cancer is due to an imbalance of the black bile humor, which maintains the temperaments of the by-products of metabolism---the body's waste products. Hakim Sherif related that cancer was among the most difficult cases to cure. However, he had only seen two cases in more than sixty years of practice. According to World Health Organization statistics, the cancer rate for countries subscribing to the Unani dietary principles are the lowest in the world.
Training of Hakims
The training of the hakim traditionally begins at the age of six or seven and requires about 30 years before the hakim practices alone. The reading of the pulse permits a rather straightforward assessment of several factors: 1) which humor is out of balance; 2) what is the nature of the imbalance; that is, excess of heat or coldness, wetness or dryness; and 3) which of the primary organs are effected.
The typical treatment plan found the the Canon advises changes in diet, prescribes herbal substances in many forms, and often suggests the inhalation of specific floral fragrances to balance the emotional and spiritual planes.
The pharmacological Formulary of the Canon lists 282 plants used as medicines, although Avicenna frequently advised fasting, or otherwise withheld intake of food to cure disease. He placed herbs in three classes: 1) nutrients (example, basil); 2) medicinal nutrients (example, ginger); and 3) medicines, or drugs (example, belladonna).
The distinction between food and medicine is frequently blurred in Unani. For example, the most common remedy for winter coughs is to eat a handful of walnuts and raisins---both from the heating list of foods.
Fenugreek, ginger, coriander seed, nigella, cinnamon, cumin and other herbs shared a medicinal as well as nutrient function for Avicenna. Indeed, the basis of cooking in every society that utilizes Avicenna's medicine is found in the herbal/spice mixture called garam masala, meaning "the heating spices," compounded of ginger, clove, coriander seed, black pepper, and cumin.
One thing I found particularly fascinating was that rose petals enter prominently into a great number of Unani herbal formulas. Hakim Sherif called the rose the "Queen of the Garden of Paradise," and often simply gave out one or two petals as a remedy.
Sugar, even minimally-refined raw sugar, is considered to be a potent narcotic medicine. The Hakims of Afghanistan to this day keep sugar under lock and key!
Honey is not only the sweetener of choice, but is considered by Avicenna to be "the food of foods, the drink of drinks and the drug of drugs." The most well-known herbal formulas of Avicenna, called "jawarish," are ground and sifted, and preserved in a honey base. Biochemically, honey is an inert trigger, meaning than it will not support the growth of bacteria. Thus the volatile oils and other active ingredients in the formulations are preserved against contamination and loss of potency for at least several years, if not centuries.
The contemporary hakim possesses a unique blend of medical knowledge, psychological insight and spiritual discipline. The largest facility in the world for the study, treatment and research in herbal therapeutics is the Hamdard Institute of New Delhi, India. Devoted exclusively to Avicenna's Unani medicine, the Hamdard Institute under its director Hakim Abdul Hamid is famous in the Sub-Continent. Strategically-placed warehouses distribute hundreds of thousands of Unani remedies throughout India. A similar institute exists in Pakistan, under Hakim Mohammad Said, who is said to have personally treated more than two and a half million patients over the past thirty years.
At the famed Hamdard clinics, or Dawakhanas as they are called, no fees are charged to anyone for consultation, exmination, tests, or services. The patient only pays for medicines, a charge usually very modest, less than a dollar. Indigent patients are given all treatment and medicine free. For those unable to travel to larger cities with established clinics, a hakim or hakima (feminine) makes weekly or monthly excursions throughout the countryside administering to the sick.
Today in America the use of natural, living foods and herbal medicines is rapidly shifting from the status of ridiculed cult into the mainstream of viable medical choices. It seems inevitable that as Avicenna's books become widely available, all students and practitoners of natural healing will discover an immense reward in the special and extraordinary medical genius of the Prince of Physicians.
Avicenna's View of Heart Disease
In Unani, the heart is considered the most important organ. Avicenna subscribed to and repeated the Prophetic Tradition of Muhammad in this regard: "There is one organ in the body which, if it be well, the whole body is well; and if it is ill, the whole body is ill. And this organ is the heart."
In the Canon Avicenna assesses the condition and state of the heart by eight means: 1) pulse; 2) respiration patterns; 3) form or shape of the chest; 4) hair growth on chest; 5) general feel of the body; 6) other palpable conditions; 7) general strength or weakness; and 8) thoughts and hallucinations.
Among the diseases of the heart Avicenna lists intemperament, inflammation, embolism of cardiac arteries, functional diseases and discontinuity.
Amazingly, my teacher Hakim Sherif denied ever having seen or heard of anyone suffering a heart attack. In fact he never did understand precisely what I tried to convey when I explained that the person's heart stopped and they fell down dead. "Human beings do not die in that way," he answered with disdain.
To Avicenna, the heart possessed a greater function than being simply a muscular pump. He believed that the heart served as the repository of Divine potentialities, and was greatly effected by emotions such as pleasure, sorrow, joy, grief, revenge, anxiety and exhilaration.
The first purpose in treatment of any cardiovascular disease was to "purify the blood, which refines the pneuma or vital force." To accomplish this purification, many substances were used, especially finely ground amber stone, lapis luzuli and shaved gold and silver.
General treatment was both symptomatic and tonic. Avicenna advised single and compound herbs, smelling salts, teas, foods, change in climate, pastes over the heart and perfumes.
For Avicenna, the breath was the link between the manifest and unmanifest realms, between God and humans, and he felt the "vital power of the heart is attracted to aromas. In cardiac drugs great condideration is given to aromas, because the heart is the seat of the production of the vital force of the body." In fact, Avicenna was so convinced of the value of essential oils in heart conditions, that he once remarked "all aromatic oils are cardiac drugs."
One very important difference between the oils used by Avicenna and contemporary "perfumes," is that use of alcohol, even in minute quantities, was forbidden, because it is believed the alcohol destroys the "essence" or vital force of the floral oil.
Of the 63 cardiac drugs mentioned by Avicenna, 40, or more than half, were aromatic oils. Attars---non-alcolholic distilled essential oils---of lavender, rose, cinnamon, frankinsence, water lily, mint, aloeswood and basil were among those often prescribed in heart conditions.
Purgatives were extremely valueable for cleansing the body of toxins, specially in the area of the heart, but Avicenna urged caution in their use, "because they can remove beneficial elements as well as detrimental." A tea made from senna pods ranked highest in Avicenna's Formulary of purgatives.
Intemperament caused by coldness was treated by its opposite, the heating herbs---musk, amber, saffron, aloeswood and cardamom. Cooling drugs included camphor, sandalwood, rose and coriander.
For palpitations of the heart, Avicenna advised extracts of fragrant fruits---apple, quince, guava---specially after meals. Many of the cardiac oils added via the diet---such as clove, saffron, coriander, mint, cucumber and lettuce.
For More About Unani Herbal Healing
The Traditional Healer's Handbook: The Classic Herbal Medicine of Avicenna, by H. M. Chishti; New York: Inner Traditions International, Ltd., Sept., 1998. 600 pages.
One of the classic Unani manuals for Hakims was translated from Persian and used as the basis for this handbook of Unani medicine, intended for use and adaptation by Western practitioners. The original edition was published by McGraw Hill Book Company in 1980, presently out of print.
The Unani Institute has prepared a self-study course on Avicenna's Unani system, covering all aspects of the theory and practice of Unani, including pulse diagnosis, urinalysis, herbal formulas, essnetial oils, humoral evaluations, spiritual practices and other topics.