Caesarean Birth - an Islamic View
By: Dr. N.H. Naqvi
Until the 16th century C.E. the operation of Caesarean
section was a mystery and highly controversial in Europe but in the Middle Ages,
Muslims wrote about the operation and even illustrated it with pictures. Towards
the end of the 12th Century C.E. the European nations were beginning to surpass
their rivals in the Islamic East. The increasing strength of the West took full
advantage of scientific and literary discoveries of the Muslims. Far from giving
any credit to the Muslims or acknowledging their contributions to science, the
Western scholars painted a very distorted picture and left highly biased opinions
of their predecessors from the Islamic world. This fact can be very easily
illustrated by many examples from the history of medicine.
It is unfortunate that the Western medical historians have not appreciated
the value of the writings of early Muslim scholars. On the contrary, for many
centuries they have made positive efforts to discredit the Muslims. As an example,
it is a generally held view in the West that surgical advancement was discouraged
by great Muslim physicians like Ibn Sina because, in his Al-Qanon he did not
emphasise surgical procedures. In these futile efforts it is forgotten that
Al-Qanon was primarily a treatise on internal medicine and not on surgery. Many
European authors of later ages produced medical texts on similar patterns.
Moreover these shortsighted historians completely ignored surgical geniuses and
the contributions of people like Abu Qasim (known in the West as Al Bucasis). In
this context, the history of Caesarean section presents a good example.
In 1863 a French medical historian by the name of C. Rique recorded that the
operation of Caesarean section was strictly prohibited in Islam . He went on to
say that according to Islamic jurists any child born by such an operation should
be killed immediately as a child of the Devil. This author also quoted the name
of an unknown Arab to justify his conclusion. But even after exhaustive searches
this reference can not be found in the authentic Arabic literature. From the
middle of the last century until modem times, Rique's statement has been quoted
and referred to by many historians without establishing the truth or its validity.
The literature on this subject is littered with references to the above quotation
without even referring to the original source. On the contrary, no medical
historian has ever mentioned that during the middle ages it was a well known
belief in Europe that the devil or the Antichrist would be born by Caesarean
section before the end of the world. This legend is mentioned and supported by a
picture in a book published in 1898 by R. Procter and can be seen in the British
Unfortunately worthwhile literature of the early Islamic period is scanty and
scattered or else is in the wrong hands. Many valuable manuscripts are either in
private hands used only as profitable investments or in museums all over Europe
and America. The Islamic states and the statesmen who can easily afford to
collect and compile copies of these manuscripts for free circulation have never
shown any interest in this wealth of inheritance. Lack of interest and research
in these early manuscripts has created an atmosphere of doubt and misinformation.
If someone cared to devote time and effort searching through the available
literature, a great a deal of truth could easily be found buried under the sands
of time. As regards Caesarean section we know that in the pre-Islamic days the
Romans used to perform this operation after the death of a pregnant woman. This
practice was strictly governed by law. Jewish religious books have also mentioned
various rules in relation to a child born by an operation. If we go further back
into history, in India we find that the Buddha was possibly born by an operation.
A famous Indian medical man by the name of Susruta wrote about such an operation
in 6th or 7th century B.C. All these rich sources relating to Caesarean section
were available to Muslim scholars of the Middle Ages, when a vast amount of
scientific literature was translated into Arabic. In fact many of the Syriac,
Creek and Sanskrit texts were only saved and are available to us because of their
Arabic translations whilst the originals are lost forever. Many of the famous
translators in the Islamic period were Christians or Jews. We known that an
Indian by the name of Manka was appointed to translate Susruta's works into
A unique and extremely rare manuscript exists in Edinburgh University Library.
It is manuscript number 161 called "Al-Asrar-al-Baqiyah-an-al-Qurun-al-Khaliydh"
or the Chronological History of Nations. It was written by the famous Muslim,
Al-Beruni, who died at the age of 78 in 1048 C.E. Al-Beruni has also left us a
large volume on the history of India and many other texts. He travelled extensively
in pre-Muslim India and his writings were greatly influenced by these experiences.
In particular he was impressed by medicinal plants form India. In the above
manuscript Al-Beruni has mentioned that Caesar Augustus (63 B.C. - 14 C.E.) was
born by post-mortem Caesarean section. He also wrote that a folk hero
Ahmed-Ibn-Sahl was born by Caesarean section after the death of his mother.
Apart from these two very relevant references he actually included a picture of
the Caesarean section in his book. Without any question this picture is the first
ever illustration of such an operation in a textbook and places its author at
least 500 years ahead of others.
Another famous name and contemporary of Al-Beruni was Firdousi (935-1025 C.E.),
author of the well known "Shahnama". In this 60 000 verses long poems he
described the birth of Rustum by Caesarean section. This lively and fascinating
description and use of anaesthesia during the operation is there for everyone to
read and provides convincing proof that the concept of Caesarean section was
mature and its use was an accepted fact.
When we seek help from the religious authorities we discover no less than the
towering figure of Imam Abu Hanifah (699 -767 C.E.) who decreed that an operation
on a living or dead woman to save the life of an unborn child is allowed in Islam.
This is mentioned in a book called Radd-ul-Mukhtar published in 1844 in Egypt.
Further strong evidence is available in the Fatawa Alamgeeria-a collection of
Islamic decrees compiled by Sheikh Nitzam -ud -Din of Burhanpur under the
auspices of the Mughal emperor, Aurangzeb, who himself was well versed in Islamic
Sharia. In this document there is a decree that if a pregnant woman dies and a
child is expected to be alive, then the child must be removed by operation. It
goes on to say that the operation should also be performed in order to save the
life of a mother when the child is known to be dead.
In conclusion it can be proved that Caesarean section has never been prohibited
by any Muslim authority. On the contrary, the Muslims in the Middle ages were
the first to write about it in text and poetry and to illustrate the operation in
pictures. They also formulated rules governing religious matters to allow such a
procedure when the need arose.