International Journal of Cardiology Hosts Islamic Superstition?

Diagram of a heart with tricuspid atresia.

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An article, published online in August 2009 in the International Journal of Cardiology[1] appeals to superstition and pseudoscience Muslim style. The purpose of the article seems only to push a religious, spiritual agenda under the guise of being an historical account of what the authors of early Islamic mythology knew about human anatomy, etiology and pathology as they relate to diseases of the heart and cardiovascular system. The abstract of the article is freely available and reads:

Descriptions of the human anatomy derived from religious texts are often omitted from the medical literature. The present review aims to discuss the comments and commentaries made regarding the heart and cardiovascular system as found in the Qur’an and Hadeeth. Based on this review, it is clear that these early sources both had a good comprehension of these parts of the body.

There is, perhaps, good reason why medical literature omits anatomical descriptions derived from religious mythology: there are better, more reliable sources.

In the article’s introduction, the authors state:

within the Qur’an and Hadeeth are accurate descriptions of anatomical structures, surgical procedures, physiological characteristics, and medical remedies. In particular, prophylaxis of general diseases is emphasized by encouraging physical activity, herbal and organic remedies, and spiritual revitalization. Notably, within these two texts, is the emphasis on the heart and blood as both a vehicle for life and as an organ central to affecting emotion and attitude.

What’s really found in Islamic mythology is what’s generally found in most ancient mythology when it comes to discussions of the human heart. Mentions of an organ with a supernatural quality of seating the soul or being a spiritual center of the individual. When passages are talking about “disease” and “health” of the individual, it appears to be spiritual rather than physical. The authors of this paper admit to these metaphorical and “spiritual” usages of heart, indeed they spend four out of five paragraphs in the section of their paper designated “4.2 Heart” and only a single paragraph describing what they view as anatomical and physiological descriptions of the heart. One passage they quote from Islamic mythology is “[b]eware! There is a piece of flesh in the body if it remains healthy the whole body becomes healthy, and if it is diseased, the whole body becomes diseased.”

In this passage, the authors are guilty of looking at Iron Age mythology through the lens of space age common knowledge. From the point of view of a fourth century goat herder, a healthy heart meant living a pious life, and a diseased body was the individual consumed by their evil or immorality. This hadith is about the mythical angel Gabriel removing sin in the form of Satan from the inner being -the spiritual self- of Mohammed. The common thought of the period was that the heart was the center of “knowing” and “truth” and that if a demon were to dwell in a human, it would dwell in the heart. There is no more anatomical and pathological understanding of the human heart being displayed here than by Aztec kings and priests who removed the still-beating hearts of their sacrificial victims.

Loukas et al conclude their paper with:

The heart is extensively described as both an organ of psyche, intelligence, and emotion, as well as an important body of the organ that can be harmed such as exhibiting thrombi. An in-depth analysis of the contribution of Islamic medicine in anatomy, physiology, and health is severely lacking in the west and, if conducted, would uncover that discoveries made by European scientists were actually made centuries prior, within the vast Islamic empire.

I fail to see how the superstitious perspective of any mythology on the heart is important enough to be published in a scholarly journal of medical science such as this. It would make  a fine addition to any journal of religious studies or mythology. I would even see a valuable contribution to an historical journal since so much of human history is derived and influenced by mythology. The west, and science in general, should have little interest in what Bronze and Iron Age goat herders thought about human anatomy. There’s simply nothing that is revealed by Islamic mythology for them. Nor is there any indication that the authors of early Islamic mythology possessed knowledge of human anatomy that wasn’t already understood. Their mentions of the “heart” and other cardiovascular system components is related to “spiritual” health, morality, and piety not pathology or etiology.

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  1. doi:10.1016 / j.ijcard.2009.05.011, the heart and cardiovascular system in the Qur’an and Hadeeth []
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