Unani Medicine
By Shahid Bukhari, ND


Many of you will have some awareness of Unani Medicine and its important contribution to traditional medicine. The name ‘Unani’ is the Arabic word for Ionian, or Greek. It may also go by the names Four Humour Medicine, Galenic Medicine, or Islamic Medicine. Unani has close ties to the other great traditions of medicine, such as Ayurveda (India) and classical Chinese Medicine (TCM), however one unique aspect of Unani is its multi-national aspect as it was not confined to one country or race and hence was able to treat a variety of illness that were peculiar to or dominated in different regions of the then known world. Unani incorporated knowledge from a wide variety of different sources, including: Egyptian, Greek, Persian, Indian, Chinese and Arabic.

During the golden age of the Islamic Empire (7th – 14th century AD) all the worlds popular medicine systems were meticulously collated and further developed in the Middle East, eventually becoming standard Unani Tibb, as practiced by physicians today. It is interesting to note that Unani texts were still being read and used by European physicians into the eighteenth century.

It might be said that Unani forms the basis of so called modern western medicine, spreading outward from the Middle East, into India and Europe.

Although terms used to describe Eastern medicine constitutional types seem alien to a European ear such as Vata, Pitta, Kapha, Yin / Yang or Qi, Unani terms on the other hand are familiar and ‘Western’, such as Choleric, Sanguine, Melancholic and Phlegmatic and are still heard and used to this day in the English Language. For example, in Shakespeare’s works: Julius Caesar – [Brutus to Cassius] go show your slaves how choleric you are. Or in King John – [King John to Hubert] if that surly spirit, melancholy, had baked thy blood.


Unani Words

Modern medicine still uses many Arabic medicine terminologies, for example in anatomy we have Basilic Veins (al bazili) meaning the draining, Cephalic Vein (kafili) the sponsoring, cornea (carania), and eye (ein). A number of surgical instruments also take their name from Arabic sources such as: catgut, cautery (cau’ee), catheter (catha tair) or feather’s quill. Modern chemistry too has its roots firmly planted in the former Arabic empire, indeed the very word chemistry comes from the Arabic word (Al-Kimiya) hailing from the black lands ie: Egypt. Herbs or drugs (deriaq) such as: camphor, cassia, cloves, myrrh and senna are all Arabic words, along with: alcohol, alkali, sherbet, borax, elixir, syrups, lozenge and tragacanth (demulcent).

Unani concepts:

The basic concept of Unani medicine is the division of things into hot and cold, wet and dry, the combination of which is:

Hot + Wet
Hot + Dry
Cold + Wet
Cold + Dry

Instead of repeating these combinations, it’s easier to call them by the names:
Sanguine (hot + wet)
Choleric (hot + dry)
Phlegmatic (cold + wet)
Melancholic (cold + dry)

In a simplistic sense, we can divide individuals into these four types. The qualities of each type can be seen clearly in complexion, hair colour, physical build, manner of speech and sleep patterns. A physician trained in Unani methodology should be able to work out the temperament of an individual from observation alone. This will then be reinforced by reading their pulse or taking a case history. Traditionally, Unani Physicians will read the pulse and from this be able to ascertain a patient needs ie: identification of illness, when it occurred and any subsequent imbalance. Traditionally, it is sufficient for Unani physicians (as with Ayurveda or a TCM practitioners) to only to read a patient’s pulse and to ask very few questions.

When detecting illnesses in Unani, we are looking for a deviation in the norm; an imbalance of Humours: the four Humours being bloodphlegm, yellow bile and black bile. These are experienced as distinct fluids, present in all bodies and varying in quantity according to the individual.  The Four Humours were seen as metabolic agents of the four great elements ie: Earth, Water, Fire and Air. It was these great elements which formed the primary components of a human body. After diagnosing an imbalance, we then look for a cause. We are not simply looking to cut branches from the tree but looking to assess the situation at the root of the tree. From here we move upward and outward, aiming to eliminate cause and normalise the imbalanced humour/s and/or tissue/organ.

Generally, all health conditions may be corrected by understanding six essential factors, these are: quality of breath (air), sustenance (food and drink), mobility and posturing (exercise and repose), mental response (working ability), sleeping requirements and finally, retention and excretion (bodily elimination/retention).

When a treatment includes adjustment of the above factors (such as sustenance) we call that – treatment by diet, indeed many of the treatments and results obtained at my own clinic are a direct result of dietary modification. Along with these dietary recommendations I can implement additional simple therapies such as massage, baths, cupping and pricking, all of which can have very powerful results.  In instances where herbal formulations need to be prepared (be they single or compound) Unani preparations very often take the form of powders, pills, decoctions, syrups, oils, scents, balms, vinegars, sugar based preparations or honey based pastes.

The pharmacopeia of Unani is quite extensive, containing a myriad of formulations comprised of herbs, minerals and some animal products.  Shilajit (bitumen) is one well known mineral component. This sticky tar like substance is essentially located in the Himalayas, Karakuram, Tibet Mountains, Caucasus Mountains and Mountains of Gilgit. The benefits of Shilajatu are too numerous to list here, but studies have shown it to be of positive benefit in chronic fatigue syndrome, Alzheimer’s and the management of type II diabetes.