Herbal Medicine in Yemen: Traditional Knowledge and Practice, and Their Value for Today’s World

  • Book Title:
 Herbal Medicine In Yemen
  • Book Author:
Anne RegourdHanne SchönigIndrid Hehmeyer
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Traditional medicine in Yemen—and similarly in all other Islamic countries —is based on three main sources: classical Arabic medicine that has its foundations in Greek medical theory, the Prophet’s medicine (al-ṭibb al-nabawī), and local pre-Islamic traditions.

Its practitioners—namely drug-gists and healers—have studied the classical Arabic sources and the works of al-ṭibb al-nabawī. They have further acquired knowledge through oral transmission. Religious and magical rituals are employed side by side with materia medica, i.e. the substances of natural—plant, animal, or mineral—origin that are used for their medicinal properties.

The different approach-es to healing should not necessarily be understood as being taken independently, but rather in combination. Apart from a few drugs of animal and mineral origin, it is first and foremost Yemen’s rich and diverse vegeta-tion that has been the source of traditional remedies and that has resulted in an enormous variety of plant-based medicines.1

 Only a little plant mate-rial was imported from Iran and India. Jacques Fleurentin has determined that 54% of Yemeni medicinal plants are mentioned in the work on mate-ria medica by the famous Andalusian pharmacologist and botanist Ibn al-Bayṭār (d. 1248).2 But Fleurentin also stresses that 36% were not de-scribed by any of the classical authorities—a fact that emphasizes the originality of Yemeni herbal medicine.

The specific remedies that became part and parcel of traditional Yemeni medicine result from the experience of local practitioners who had observed the remedies’ effectiveness.3  Besides the health professionals, other people with well-founded knowl-edge of plants—for instance farmers—acquired experience with the med-ical properties of herbs.4

Apart from oral tradition, Yemeni indigenous knowledge of phytotherapy is reflected in works on materia medica by local authors, most importantly al-Malik al-Muẓaffar (d. 1295)5 and Shaʿbān Ibn Sālim al-Ṣanʿānī (d. 1736).6

In today’s Yemen, synthetic medicines developed in the Western world have become widely available in the urban centres and are being used there on a large scale. Migration into cities and demographic change have con-tributed to this trend.7

Also, more and more Yemenis who can afford it seek treatment abroad, in other Arab countries or in Europe. However, as in developing countries in general, traditional medicine still plays a significant role in health care in Yemen,8 especially in rural areas and among the lower social strata. This has to do with its greater affordability and avail-ability.

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In addition, as in the industrialized countries, traditional practices are very much accepted—and enjoy great popularity—as complementary or alternative medicine.

At the same time, plant resources are threatened in Yemen. The World Health Organization (WHO) adopted a strategy in 2002 to “ensure avail-ability and affordability of TM/CAM [traditional medicine/complemen-tary or alternative medicine], including essential herbal medicines.”9 Academic interest in the topic is also increasing.

 It was not until the 1980s that Western scholars began to publish on Yemeni traditional medicine. A pioneering work combining social anthropology with Arabic and Is-lamic studies was published by Armin Schopen in 1983 (Traditionelle Heil-mittel in Jemen).

 Further, the research by Fleurentin10 and by Anthony Miller and Miranda Morris in Soqotra11 has to be acknowledged.12

In contrast to modern Western medicine, traditional medical practice—besides being to a large extent transmitted orally—includes interaction with the socio-cultural context (‘Lebenswelten’) of both the healer and the patient.13

 In particular, magico-religious rituals14 add an additional value to “the holistic approach of indigenous knowledge systems in contrast to the reductionist approach of science.”15

In order to do justice to the topic of this volume, Herbal Medicine in Yemen: Traditional knowledge and practice, and their value for today’s world, a range of disciplinary approaches is required. Both the humanities and the natural sciences have an important role to play, not in competition, but in a complementary way.

The aspect of interdependence of culture and nature inspires a discussion across boundaries of disciplines such as history, social anthropology, Oriental studies, biology, pharmacology, and pharmacy. Fourteen specialists on Yemen from North America, Europe, Israel, and Yemen have contributed to the book.

Their research is based on textual analysis, as well as on empirical research and laboratory experiment, and covers both historical and contemporary aspects.

In her introductory contribution, pharmacist Ingrid Hehmeyer address-es the question of traditional medicine as an effective tool in issues of human health, using examples of materia medica and traditional practice from Yemen.

She explores their historical and cultural dimensions, as well as the validity of their uses in today’s society. The subsequent chapters (Lev, Schmidl) are based on textual evidence and contribute to our knowl-edge of medicinal herbs in earlier periods. Biologist and historian Efraim Lev, whose areas of specialization are the history of medicine and ethno-pharmacology, centres upon the Yemeni medical lore found in medieval sources.

He presents this information in the context of the medicinal sub-stances found in the Cairo Genizah documents and the records of the sea trade between the eastern Mediterranean and India. Historian of science Petra G. Schmidl examines a thirteenth-century treatise on the science of the stars, the Kitāb al-Tabṣira by the Rasulid ruler of Yemen al-Ashraf ‘Umar (r. 1295–6), and in particular its magical and medical topics that are re-lated to the stars in their broadest sense.

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The treatise explains connections between celestial events and human life on Earth with regard to prevention and treatment of disease, along with the determination of the appropriate time to do so.

The subsequent chapters (Varisco, Morris, Muchawsky-Schnapper, Ro-dionov) take a humanities-based approach and discuss practical medical aspects of plants in contemporary Yemen. They focus on specific plants, or regions, or both. Studies on qāt (Catha edulis), be it by Western or Yemeni scholars from various disciplines, are numerous and deal primarily with its socio-economic and health-related problems.

Anthropologist and historian daniel Martin Varisco combines a study of historical sources, poetry, ethnographic accounts, and contemporary scientific analysis. He considers health impacts of qāt use within the ancient Greek system of humoural pathology and in Islamic legal sources, but he also claims posi-tive effects on a person’s health, and thus draws a more nuanced and objective picture of qāt as a drug. Miranda Morris specializes in the study of the Modern South Arabian languages and the ethnography of those who speak them.

Her linguistic and ethnobotanical research on the use of aloes and frankincense in Soqotra concentrates on the more remote areas where the most valuable species flourish. Here she has discovered usages so far un-known in the Middle East, even in the towns of southern Arabia.

Ethnog-rapher Ester Muchawsky-Schnapper has studied the persistence of traditional knowledge and practice among Jews who emigrated from Ye-men to Jerusalem. Secret healing knowledge has been attributed to this minority within the state of Israel. Even second-generation Yemenites still practise traditional healing methods using herbs, some of which were brought from Yemen at the time of immigration and then cultivated in a private setting.

The final chapter of this section is also based on field re-search. Ḥaḍramawt is famous all over Yemen for its honey, and the typical bottle-shaped hives are well-known to every traveller who has visited that part of the country. Besides the medicinal qualities that are praised in the Qurʾān, specialist in Arabic studies and cultural anthropology Mikhail Rodionov has evaluated his field data and local poetry to discuss the sym-bolic roles and health-giving properties of honey, coffee, and tea, including the poetical rivalry and competition between the latter two.

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Since the 1970s, ethnopharmacologist Jacques Fleurentin has analyzed the medicinal value of numerous plants, also taking into consideration aspects such as cultural context and magical practices. He stresses the extraordinary biodiversity of Yemen, not so much from a quantitative point of view (1750 plant species), but mainly with regard to the quality and ge-netic properties of certain plants, e.g. frankincense (Boswellia sacra), aloe (Aloe vera which is the indigenous Aloe barbadensis), and coffee (Coffea arabica).

With his chapter we enter the last section of the book, with three more contributions by natural scientists (Al-Duais/Jetschke, Lindequist, al-Hakimi/Ya’ni/Pelat).

Plant ecologists Mohammed Al-Duais and Gottfried Jetschke, the former also a biochemist, the latter a developer of predictive models, present the example of ḥalqa (Cyphostemma digitatum), a plant that grows in Yemen’s south-western highlands. Their research demon-strates that ethnobotanical knowledge can withstand the scrutiny of mod-ern laboratory analysis.

 In addition, ethnobotanical work reminds us of the importance of sustainable use—instead of overexploitation—of the valuable plant resources. Pharmaceutical biologist Ulrike Lindequist enjoys well-established collaboration with Yemeni universities.

 Her research in-cludes investigating the biological activity and chemical constituents of plants and fungi, and the results confirm the great potential of Yemen’s natural resources for the development of new drugs. Specialist in plant breeding Amin Al-Hakimi, tropical agronomist Frédéric Pelat, and biologist Anhar Ya’ni outline the holistic setting of environment, culture and tradi-tions in which the use of both wild and cultivated plants meets local ther-apeutic needs.

They present numerous examples of farmers’ orally transmitted knowledge, but also point out how this intangible cultural heritage is at risk of being lost to us for ever.

This volume, then, takes an interdisciplinary approach to the topic of traditional medicine in Yemen and presents it within the context of oral tradition, written sources, the socio-political and economic framework, as well as modern scientific insights. The editors are fundamentally concerned about the aspect of sustainability and the integrity of cultural property without which there would be little lasting value of this research for today’s Yemen.

While the focus of the book is on traditional medicine and Yemen, it is hoped that it will have much wider implications, because “[t]he dis-course on the relationship between economic, ecological, and social issues in sustainable development and biodiversity conservation has gradually emphasized the re-discovery of culture […]. In this process, indigenous knowledge as a prime part of culture has come to play an important role in international debates on development planning and conservation strategies.”16

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