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Meeting the Hakim in the Old Bazaar

Both my wife and I had decided to visit the Hakim because our systems had become unbalanced. Our abrupt change in diet on arriving in Kabul had produced a rush of loose bowels for myself, and the late fall temperatures dipping into the 'teens had given my wife a sharp, wracking cough. I was trying to decide how to describe my symptoms of diarrhea without seeming rude or ridiculous in front of all those people.

   To my surprise, Hakim Sherif asked me no questions at all about my ailment, but instead took my left hand and pressed the tips of his fingers to my wrist and felt the blood passing through for perhaps ten seconds. He then felt my fingertips in the same manner. I concluded that he had made his general diagnosis and found my pulse to be more or less normal. I again braced myself to answer the inevitable question about my ailment. But he asked nothing and instead reached to the shelf behind him for a small round can and gave it to me. One of his assistants told me to eat about a thumbnail portion in hot tea three times a day. Then the Hakim nodded and indicated I was to go. Next it was my wife's turn. By now all of the people had pressed in around us.

   She sat down as I had done, and the healer once again asked no questions but felt her pulse at the wrist and on the fingertips. The whole process took less than ten seconds. This time though, he called to one of his assistants to give her some pills, which was done. The Hakim and everyone in the room stared, waiting for us to leave. I tried to insist on paying for the consultation, or at least the medicine, but this he adamantly refused: "You are a guest in our country, and we are responsible for your health."

Frankly, I was leerly of eating the remedies the Hakim had given us until I had some idea of what they contained. So, we returned home and asked an Afghan friend of ours what the substances were that the Hakim had given us. He sniffed at the mixture I had received and said, "It's badyan, ginger and some kinds of seeds mixed in honey." "Fine," I answered, "but what's it for?" "When you have loose bowels," he informed me, "it balances the digestion, which is what causes the problem in the first place." He likewise knew that my wife's pills were "for when you have a cough, but without fever," although he didn't know the ingredients or name of the formula.

   My initial excitement of meeting Hakim Sherif increased over the next few days, first of all because the remedies had worked: my stomach settled and my wife's cough disappeared. This seemed utterly remarkable to me, that the healer could accurately diagnose and treat a disease without hearing one word from the patient as to the nature of the illness. Although I had considerable training in natural therapeutics, my experience with the Hakim convinced me that I was in the presence of a healer who possessed quite another order of knowledge.

Initial Lessons of the Hakim

   After several months of carefully building up a friendship with the Hakim, I was permitted to become his student.

   "The first thing you must learn, is whether or not the patient is going to recover," Hakim said one day.

   "But how can anyone know that for certain?" I asked with genuine disbelief.

   "It is in the pulse, the rhythm is a peculiar one," he said, and held out his own wrist for me to examine the steady flow of blood through his own body. He revealed to me the erratic change in rhythm that would betray imminent death.

   "That would mean there is no point in giving medicine?" I asked further.

   The Hakim lowered his eyes to bore through me: "It only means the body is finished. But God may or may not be finished. There is no disease without hope, but in the end, death is real."

Later, when I was learning pulse diagnosis, Hakim Sherif first had me develop my own sensitivity. He took a sheet of clean white paper, then plucked a single hair from his immaculately-trimmed beard. He asked me to turn away. When I looked back he ordered me to 'feel' over the surface until I could discover where he had placed the hair. Then, he added a second sheet, and a third. After several months of practice I could unerringly discern a single hair through seven thicknesses of paper.

   As a United States research scholar, I spent almost eighteen months in Afghanistan, studying the traditional medicine of Islam, known as Tibb, an Arabic word that means "medicine of the physical, mental or spiritual realms."

   Although based in Afghanistan, I was fortunate to make several extended trips into Pakistan and India, and discovered that this natural herbal medicine was not simply some primitive village medicine of Afghanistan, but one of the most widely practiced and scientifically accurate systems of medicine in the world. In fact, Unani Healing medicine remains the treatment of choice for more than one-quarter of the world's population---in all of the Middle and Near East, India, South America, and parts of Europe. Dr. Edward Spicer, an anthropologist at the University of Arizona, has even identified Afro-Americans in the rural South of the United States using herbal remedies that originated in the Unani Healing formularies.

Origins of Unani Natural Healing

   Unani medicine was presented as a fully developed system of therapeutics by Hakim Abu Ali Abdullah Husayn Ibn Sina, known as Avicenna in the West. A brief glance at the accomplishments of his life confirms the title by which he is known in the East: The Prince of Physicians.

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Artist's Rendition of Hakim Ibn Sina

Born in 980 A.D. near Bokhara, then part of Afghanistan, Avicenna had exhausted all of the most distinguished teachers while he was still in his teens. Avicenna's father was a religious man who entertained many learned guests, whose discources the young student also gathered up with zeal. By the age of ten Avicenna had become a hafiz---one who has committed the entire Qur'an to memory.

   His father recognized and encouraged his son's medical genius from the earliest age, and by the time he was fourteen, Avicenna had been appointed Chief Physician of the Royal Court, and all physicians worked under his direction.

   When Avicenna was 21, his father died and this event, coupled with the political turmoil of the early 11th century, forced Avicenna into a period of wandering. Ultimately, he found refuge and support from the Bujid Prince Shams-ad-Dawlah at Hamadan in Persia. Even such royal patronage was insufficient to shield Avicenna from the epidemic of political intrigues, and he was even imprisoned on one occasion.

   But his intellect and physical stamina were so great that Avicenna managed to conduct his work as physician and scholar despite such dislocations and hardships. Writing with his memory as his primary resource, Avicenna composed an astonishing 276 works, most of them in several volumes, covering virtually every subject of human thought and endeavor---medicine, natural history, physics, chemistry, mathematics, astronomy, music, economics and moral and religious questions.

Like Hippocrates and Galen, Avicenna considered that God was a "necessary existent" and himself wrote many books on the nature of Divinity, including the famous Kitab al-Insaf (Book of Impartial Judgement), in which, at the age of twenty-one, he posed and answered 28,000 questions on the nature of Divinity.

   Two of his medical books have earned undisputed and unparalleled fame. The first, Kitab ash-Shifa' (The Book of Healing), is generally conceded to be the largest work ever produced by an individual. In this monumental book, Avicenna developed his theories of medicine and its relevant allied sciences, by expounding the doctrines of logic, natural sciences, psychology, geometry, astronomy, arithmetic, music and metaphysics.

   His fame rests chiefly on his second book Al-Qanun fi'l at-Tibb (The Canon of Medicine), which the Encyclopedia Britanica regards as "the most famous book in the history of medicine, in East or West."

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