Wednesday, 20 August 2008

ALTERNATIVE MEDICINE IN THE AGE OF UNREASON

ALTERNATIVE MEDICINE

One of the major ‘medical paradoxes’ of our age, is what James Le Fanu calls, in his brilliant aforementioned book, ‘The Soaring Popularity of Alternative Medicine’.

I think everyone has a good idea of what alternative medicine is. It is unconventional medicine, which aims to “prevent or treat disease without relying on any elements of conventional Western medicine”. A good definition is that of the USA Institute of Medicine:

"Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM) is a broad domain of resources that encompasses health systems, modalities, and practices and their accompanying theories and beliefs, other than those intrinsic to the dominant health system of a particular society or culture in a given historical period. CAM includes such resources perceived by their users as associated with positive health outcomes. Boundaries within CAM and between the CAM domain and the domain of the dominant system are not always sharp or fixed."

Two other good definitions are those of David M. Eisenberg, who defines it as "medical interventions not taught widely at US medical schools or generally available at US. hospitals," (or for that matter UK medical schools or hospitals) while Richard Dawkins “sardonically defines it as a "set of practices which cannot be tested, refuse to be tested, or consistently fail tests”. Dawkins in this case, as we will see, is not far from the truth.

Widely cited estimates suggest that 60% of Germans, 42% of Americans, and over 25% of Australians and 20% of UK citizens consults an ‘alternative therapist’ every year. This costs Americans over $40 billion dollars, and about £1.5 billion in the United Kingdom, a year. This figure, “exceeded the total amount spent out-of-pocket in the mainstream medical system”. In Australia, a recent study concluded that:

“Extrapolation of the costs to the Australian population gives an expenditure on alternative therapies in 2000 of $AUD2.3 billion and for the U.S. population an annual expenditure of $US34 billion. In Australia this represents a 120 and 62% increase in the cost of alternative medicines and therapists, respectively, since 1993. In 2000 expenditure on alternative therapies was nearly four times the public contribution to all pharmaceuticals”.

Studies about the prevalence of the practice in the Arab world are fairly scanty, but some small studies highlight its relatively high prevalence. A recent study of just under 400 people in the United Arab Emirates showed that over 65% of them used some form of alternative medicine. In Saudi Arabia, the proportion appears to be similar; I remember coming across an article many years ago where the wife of the late King Fahd donated over $6 million dollars to fund alternative medicine centres. This practice seems to have been repeated, as a recent article published only a week ago shows:

“Practice of alternative medicine in Saudi Arabia got a boost on Monday with the Council of Ministers approving the setting up of a National Center for Alternative and Complementary Medicine. The Center will serve as a national referral authority on alternative and complementary medicine (ACM). It will be directly linked to the Minister of Health and it can seek the help of foreign ACM specialists, a Council statement said. The cabinet, chaired by Crown Prince Sultan, also approved creation of a consultative committee of ACM specialists and representatives of ministries, public institutions and government organizations involved in health affairs, as well as the private sector. The center will lay down the principles, rules, criteria and conditions for practicing ACM and issue licenses. It will also draw up guidelines for documentation of ACM, especially regarding traditional Islamic and Arab medicine. Alternative medicine commonly includes naturopathy, chiropractic, herbalism, traditional Chinese medicine, Ayurveda, meditation, yoga, biofeedback, hypnosis, bodywork, homeopathy and diet-based therapies.”

In the UK, it is something that is practiced by “at least 40% of general practices…and there is pressure to make (it) universally available on the NHS”. For that reason, it deserves our greatest attention.

There are many types of ‘alternative medicine’, shown on the table below:


These can be classified into five major groups:

1. “Whole medical systems cut across more than one of the other groups; examples include Traditional Chinese medicine and Ayurveda.
2. Mind-body medicine takes a holistic approach to health that explores the interconnection between the mind, body, and spirit. It works under the premise that the mind can affect "bodily functions and symptoms".

3. Biologically based practices use substances found in nature such as herbs, foods, vitamins, and other natural substances.

4. Manipulative and body-based practices feature manipulation or movement of body parts, such as is done in chiropractic and osteopathic manipulation.

5. Energy medicine is a domain that deals with putative and verifiable energy fields:

§ Biofield therapies are intended to influence energy fields that purportedly surround and penetrate the body. No empirical evidence has been found to support the existence of the "putative" energy fields on which these therapies are predicated.
§ Bioelectromagnetic-based therapies use verifiable electromagnetic fields, such as pulsed fields, alternating-current or direct-current fields in an unconventional manner”

My personal stance on alternative medicine is one not of opposition or rejection. I simply do not believe it exists. Medicine is partly a science, partly an art. It cannot incorporate anything opposed to science or itself, or unverified by science, and that is what is upheld by advocates of ‘alternative medicine’.

It cannot have a religion or a nationality – medicine as I explained before, is neutral. I paraphrase Chekhov, “There is no national medicine, just as there is no national multiplication table; what is national is no longer medicine”. Stephen Straus states it thus, “If a modality were rigorously proven and widely accepted as such, it would no longer be considered complementary or alternative”. It would just be ‘medicine’.

It cannot be buried in ideas, such as “fields of force, unknown to biology or physics”, or “that there are patterns of energy flow (Qi) throughout the body that are essential for health; that disease is due to disruptions to this flow”, for which there is absolutely no evidence. All those ideas are hundreds, if not thousands of years old, and the hallmark of science and medicine is progress. Medicine cannot support or be associated with something that is static, unprogressive, and unwelcoming of critical appraisal. It is only through criticism that nations and sciences progress.

It also cannot welcome something that expects us to go back to the medieval times, to the times when man used to live (or rather die, by use of ‘folk medicine’) and believe in magic. It cannot undermine all our best efforts to improve the health of mankind over the past 60 years or so[1]. As Raymond Tallis states, “It is medicine’s greatest triumph that it has shed folk remedies and woken from the 5000 or 10000 year hegemony of the untested. Alternative medicine is the kind of medicine people took when there was no alternative; when there were no antibiotics, no steroids, no effective treatments for cancer, heart attacks, stomach ulcers”. To return to these ideas, is analogous to a return to the geocentric model of the universe, of a flat earth, that is supported on the back of a giant tortoise![2]

In addition, it cannot be associated with something aiming to undermine it, to discard it entirely. It is a given fact that there are many problems with medicine as it is practiced (indeed it is one of the aims of this work to rectify them), but that does not mean we ignore them, and seek an alternative that has no basis whatsoever apart from the wishes of its developers. That is a cowardly and unacceptable attitude.

Indeed, most alternative practitioners and those seeking alternative ‘medicine’, spend most of their careers criticizing modern scientific medicine; we saw that before in quoting the translators of Ibn Al-Qayyim’s book, ‘Prophetic Medicine’ (which falls under the category of alternative medicine) who say in the introduction to their work that, “they are so happy to translate the book which is one of the best books which saved us from treatment of chemicals and poisonings that may have got bad side effects”, when in actual fact, they are the first people to resort to scientific medicine to help themselves when they are ill. More specifically, for instance with homeopathy, Oliver Wendel Holmes tells us that, “Homeopathy waged a war of radicalism against the profession. Very different would have been the profession’s attitude toward homeopathy if it had aimed, like other doctrines advanced by physicians, to gain a foothold among medical men alone or chiefly, instead of making its appeal to the popular favour and against the profession”. It is this hypocrisy that I find very repugnant about alternative medical practitioners.

Alternative medicine poses a threat to humanity in four main ways.

1. Financial threat – as we just saw, alternative medical practitioners are slowly creeping into the NHS, and their methods are being used by a large proportion of GPs, at a high price.

2. Intellectual threat – by advocating their ideas, alternative practitioners will bring us back to the age of unreason, and there can be no greater threat than that. At a time when humanity needs rationality and pure reason more than anything else, comes this wave of irrationality and superstition. As put by my favourite pharmacology authors, P. N. Bennett and M. J. Brown, “the world cannot afford unreason, and the antidote to unreason is reason and the rigorous pursuit of knowledge, i.e. evidence-based medicine”.

A belief may be regarded irrational if there is no evidence for it, and especially so if it is upheld when there is evidence against it.

John Diamond, the British journalist, described the fight against alternative medicine as, “In some aspects of alternative medicine we are fighting an almost medieval belief in magic but debunking such beliefs is like telling people that the tooth fairy is sniffing glue”. Edward Shorter described the return to ‘alternative therapies’, which are “lacking any scientific basis (as) a return to the eighteenth century, when all therapies, medical and nonmedical alike, were based upon anecdotal results rather than systematic demonstration of efficacy”. Raymond Tallis described how frustrated he is with alternative practitioners, saying, "Side by side in this rational world I live in are people who are not even subnumerate and they are given equal time."

In France, “the Academy of Medicine takes a contrary attitude toward alternative therapies, as Professors Gounelle de Pontanel and Tuchmann-Duplessis reminded us in a 1984 press release: “Given the state of the science today, the prescription of homeopathic remedies is not an act of reason but remains an act of faith as long as the scientific bases of its effectiveness have not been established.” And Gounelle de Pontanel added, ironically: “Will we find ourselves, tomorrow, planning to give official recognition to the divining rod as a diagnostic means equal to the stethoscope, and the laying on of hands as a therapeutic procedure?” Professor Sournia, likewise a member of the Academy of Medicine, recently wrote that alternative medicine is a “regression”, a return to a “pre-scientific era of humanity”.

An excellent example of their irrational attitude is in the naturopath’s opposition to the bacterial theory of disease, which as Martin Gardner explains:

"The naturopath's opposition to the bacterial theory of disease is, of course, shared by many religious groups. Christian Science, New Thought, and Unity head the list, not to forget Jewish Science, founded in 1922 by Rabbi Morris Lichtenstein, of New York City. He is the author of numerous works on the subject, including Jewish Science and Health, a fair imitation of Mrs Eddy's famous text”.

3. Cultural threat – alternative medicine can foster a very harmful way of thinking; the ‘We vs Them’ mentality, which the world has been struggling to get rid of for the past 60 years. To regard some types of medicine as ‘Western’ or ‘Eastern’, ‘Islamic’, ‘Jewish’ or ‘Christian’ can only build divisions and tensions between civilized people. In an age when the unity of man ought to be emphasized, to spare it further cruelty and barbarism, the advocacy of such harmful paranoid ideas ought to be prohibited.

‘Nationalistic’medicine (which is what all those types of ‘medicine’ fall under, from ‘Indian’ and ‘Chinese’ to ‘Islamic medicine’) “must follow the tribal gods to limbo”, as H G Wells would put it. We will need to listen to Bertrand Russell when he says that we need to develop a new understanding of humanity:

“The conception is that of the human race as a whole, fighting against chaos without and darkness within, the little tiny lamp of reason growing gradually into a great light by which the night is dispelled. The divisions between races, nations, and creeds should be treated as follies distracting us in the battle between Chaos and Old Night, which is our one truly human activity”.

For instance, can anything breed more paranoia and be more physically harmful than for vaccines to be regarded “as a US plot to depopulate Muslim lands by causing sterility and spreading AIDS”. I think not.

4. Health threat – the potential for harm can be divided in two types. If one takes ‘alternative medicine’ completely over scientific medicine, he (or more likely, she, since women are more interested in alternative medicine) will be risking their lives, and its advocates killing its users, who deserve better.[3]

For instance, “faith healing alone in acute illnesses has been blamed for 172 deaths in the United States over the last 20 years when parents prevented their children from seeking medical care for conditions such as meningitis, appendicitis, pneumonia, and diabetes. In our own state in Indiana, not too long ago, a child with diabetic ketoacidosis who was not sent to a hospital for acute medical care, died in a diabetic coma. The five religious groups which have been identified, who are opposed to seeking medical care, are Church of the Christ, The Scientist, The Church of the First Born, The End-Time Ministry, Faith Assembly, and Faith Tabernacle.”

When Patrick Holford, one of the new priests of herbal and natural medicine says in his, ‘The New Optimum Nutrition Bible’ that "AZT, the first prescribable anti-HIV drug, is potentially harmful, and proving less effective than vitamin C" (when there is absolutely no evidence for this, otherwise the sky would be raining lemons on Africa), he is advocating a very dreadful type of ‘medicine’.

When an alternative practitioner claims that, “More than 85% of all cases of appendicitis…can be relieved by fasting for a short period, then taking a cold-water enema every day four days, followed by a special diet. The use of drugs to cure syphilis, he says, not only does not cure, but also causes locomotor ataxia”, he is on the brink of madness. Martin Gardner elaborates further on this same man:

"On another occasion, Dr. Wood went to work on a boy of five who suffered from tuberculosis of the pelvic bone. The disease had eaten two holes through the bone. "With the exception of the tuberculosis holes," Dr Wood writes, "a slight spinal curvature, and the fact that one leg had become shorter than the other, he was in fairly good condition. His diet was given priority, with the natural foods supplemented by natural calcium, Sits baths, sun baths, cold sprays, hot packs, infra-red, vibrations, exercise, manipulations, colonic irrigations, and other natural remedies were used. The last X-rays showed the condition completely healed"

If one takes the two together, in which case alternative medicine would be referred to as ‘complementary medicine’, the harms are mainly due to interaction and interference. Examples are shown on the table below:


As explained in ‘Davidson’s Principles and Practice of Medicine’, one of the best selling medical textbooks of our time:

“There is also potential for harm when alternative medicine is used to treat serious or life-threatening medical conditions if the resultant delay in seeking conventional treatment compromises clinical outcome, in a way that the patient would not have chosen had they been fully informed at the outset.

Not all CAM therapies are safe; some are toxic in their own right (e.g. dietary supplements containing ephedrine alkaloids-now banned in the USA) and others are harmful if used in combination with conventional treatment (e.g. garlic supplements that interfere with the action of anti-HIV chemotherapy).”

Thus, the harms of alternative medicine are great. Of course, no one can deny many of the tools of ‘mind-body medicine’, such as prayer and music, can be useful, and indeed many find them helpful. But the difference between those tools and others is that they are cheap and most importantly innocuous, and have been advocated by some of the greatest medical scientists of all time. For instance, the great Alexis Carrel, who writes the following about prayer in his book, ‘Man the Unknown’:

“Certain spiritual activities may cause anatomical as well as functional modifications of the tissues and the organs. These organic phenomena are observed in various circumstances, among them being the state of prayer. Prayer should be understood, not as a mere mechanical recitation of formulas, but as a mystical elevation, an absorption of consciousness in the contemplation of a principle both permeating and transcending our world. Such a psychological state is not intellectual. It is incomprehensible to philosophers and scientists, and inaccessible to them. But the simple seem to feel God as easily as the heat of the sun or the kindness of a friend. The prayer which is followed by organic effects is of a special nature. First, it is entirely disinterested. Man offers himself to God. He stands before Him like the canvas before the painter or the marble before the sculptor. At the same time, he asks for His grace, exposes his needs and those of his brothers in suffering. Generally, the patient who is cured is not praying for himself. But for another. Such a type of prayer demands complete renunciation--that is, a higher form of asceticism. The modest, the ignorant, and the poor are more capable of this self-denial than the rich and the intellectual. When it possess such characteristics, prayer may set in motion a strange phenomenon, the miracle”

We are told in the Quran how it is “a direction from your Lord and a healing for the (diseases) in your hearts,- and for those who believe, a guidance and a Mercy” (10:57), “And We reveal of the Qur'an that which is a healing and a mercy for believers though it increase the evil-doers in naught save ruin” (17:82) and "It is a Guide and a Healing to those who believe" (41:44). Worship and the remembrance of God, we are told is a healing, “Be constant in prayer: for, behold, prayer restrains [man] from loathsome deeds and from all that runs counter to reason, but verily remembrance of Allah is more important. And Allah knoweth what ye do” (29:45).

I have no doubt in the power of prayer and worship to help heal, provided it is used with scientific physical methods of treatment. Most importantly, it is innocuous, and makes the patient feel better (as well as being free). It is unlike other forms which carry risks and are expensive.

As for music, one of the foremost surgeons of all time, the great Theodor Bilroth, who was also a first class conductor[4], once made the following remark:

“I have never met a great physician who was not basically an artist with a rich imagination and unaffected mentality…science and art draw upon the same source”.

In our times, there have been many physicians advocating music therapy and the benefits of music. Anthony Storr, the late psychiatrist wrote an entire book devoted to the subject, ‘Music and The Mind’ , and the world’s most famous neurologist, Oliver Sacks, who published his book, ‘Musicophilia’ in 2007, where he says:

“Music…may be especially powerful and have great therapeutic potential for patients with a variety of neurological conditions. Such people may respond powerfully and specifically to music (and sometimes to little else). Some of these patients have widespread cortical problems, whether from strokes or Alzheimer’s or other causes of dementia – loss of language or movement functions, amnesia, or frontal lobe syndromes. Some are retarded, some autistic, others have subcortical syndromes such as Parkinsonism or other movement disorders. All of these conditions and many others can potentially respond to music and music therapy”

Prayer, music and other forms of art therapy, may work by the same mechanism – possibly by psychoneuroimmunological effects, by reducing the harmful impact of the ‘fight-or-flight’ response:

“The proposed theory of mind-body medicine stems from work done in the early 1900s. The fight-or-flight response was described as physiologic preparation for combating or fleeing an external threat. Stimulation of the hypothalamus and increased sympathetic nervous system activity lead to neurohormonal stimulation and increases in blood pressure, heart rate, respiratory rate, and muscle tension. This response has historically been protective, ensuring survival in the face of physical danger. In today’s society, however, we are continually faced with innumerable stressors that can elicit the fight-or-flight response, yet fighting or running away is inappropriate or impossible. The body is primed for action but can take none. This chronic physiologic stimulation is thought to increase the likelihood of disease. Furthermore, the development of a chronic disease may stimulate the response through a feedback mechanism, potentially worsening the condition. The effect of the chronic fight-or-flight response on immunosuppression and cytokine and hormone production needs greater elucidation”.

Therefore, these methods of ‘relaxation’, which cannot cause harm, and may have beneficial effects cannot be opposed. Similarly, one cannot be completely opposed to the use of herbal remedies and natural things as medicine. No one in their right mind, who knows the history of the pharmaceutical industry can do that, for we all know that a great proportion of our treatments are based on natural products. For instance, foxglove is used to extract digoxin, which is, to this day, the mainstay of rate control in the cardiac arrhythmia atrial fibrillation. As Professor Adriane Berman writes in the 15th edition of ‘Harrison’s Principles of Internal Medicine’:

“Many of the drugs in clinical practice are derived from plants, as are the majority of analgesics: lidocaine and novocaine from the coca plant (Erythroxylum coca); opioids from the poppy (Papver somniferum); aspirin from meadowsweet (Spirea ulmaria), whence the ‘spir’ part of its name derives. The progestin component of oral contraceptives comes from the Mexican yam (Diascorea villosa). Digoxin comes from the foxglove (Digitalis lanata); cromolyn sodium is a khellin derivative from the Ayurvedic herb Ammi visnaga; and warfarin is a derivative of dicoumarin, from sweet clover (Melilotus officinalis). The ipecac that is kept in the medicine cabinet for poisonings comes from the root of a South American shrub (Cephaelis ipecacuanha); the benzoin that attaches bandages to skin is a gum resin from Styrax benzoin; and the witch hazel used to soothe haemorrhoids is an extract of Hamamelis virginiana. Fungi also have contributed to pharmaceuticals: penicillin was isolated from the fungus Penicillium notatum, cephalosporins were derived from a marine fungus (Cephalosporium acremonium) and lovastatin was derived from the fungus Aspergillus terreus.”

And of course, it is not only plants, bacteria and fungi that have benefited us, but all organisms – including mammals (e.g. hormones like insulin and even xenografts) and insects, such as bees, which produce honey, which as everyone knows has some excellent medicinal properties that have been known for thousands of years. Some believe that the “use of honey as an internal and external remedial agent must be much older than the history of medicine itself; it is, beyond doubt, the oldest panacea. While primeval man had to search first and probe the curative effects of the various organic and inorganic substances, honey, the greatest delicacy of Nature within his easy reach, surely could not have escaped his attention very long and he must soon have become convinced of its supreme curative value”. We see evidence of its use by the ancient Egyptians who put “small residues of edible honey …in the pharaohs’ tombs”, and of its praise in the Bible, when Solomon in his Proverbs (24:13) advises, "My son, eat thou honey, for it is good."

One historian writes:

“The Jews advocated honey as a producer of wit and intellect; it was supposed to make one "mentally keen." Moses, when exposed in the fields, sucked honey from a pebble (Exod. R. 23:8). The resuscitating and invigorating effects of honey are disclosed in the Bible. Jonathan, the son of Saul, had his eyes enlightened with the aid of honey, after which he had a better understanding of the people than his father had. While Jonathan was passing through the woods during the war against the Philistines, he found honey dripping on the ground; he plunged his spear into it, and ate enough to restore his lost strength. He was, however, sentenced to death because he ate honey on a day of abstinence. Honey was referred to in most ancient writings as a gift of God. St. Ambrose said: "The fruit of the Bees is desired of all, and is equally sweet to Kings and Beggars and it is not only pleasing but profitable and healthful, it sweetens their mouthes, cures their wounds and convaies remedies to inward Ulcers."… In ancient China honey was used only as a component of diets and as a medicine. The Chinese never utilized honey as a sweetening substance. China is the native land of the sugar cane, and for this reason bees were rarely cultivated. Even today in the interior of China, honey can be obtained only in the old-style medicine shops.

In India, Persia, Arabia, Assyria, Greece and in the Roman Empire, honey was much in demand as a remedial agent for internal and external use. On the entire European Continent it was in popular use, especially among the Slavic and Nordic races. In the Eddas we find that the life of Liafsburg, the mother of Saint Lindgar, was saved with a spoonful of honey.

If we review the therapeutic field in which honey was used by the ancients, we find that its main employment was as a helpful remedy for gastric and intestinal disorders, especially as a pleasant laxative. Respiratory troubles were next in order. The sedative and soporific power of honey is often emphasized. The diuretic effect of honey was well known and it was a favored remedy for all kinds of inflammation of the kidneys, for gravel and stones. The antiseptic property of honey made it a desirable gargle, expectorant and a valuable adjunct in mouth hygiene. In inflammation of the eyes and eyelids honey was extensively used. Attic honey had a special reputation as a curative substance for eye disorders. The Egyptians carried its fame with them to their country. In one of the Egyptian papyri it is mentioned that a man begged that they fetch him some honey from Attica which he needed for his eyes. In surgical dressings and skin diseases it was a remedy of first choice. The smallpox patients were anointed with honey. It was also employed as a vehicle for nauseous or bitter medicines. Lucretius referred to it 2000 years ago:

"Physician-like, who when a bitter draught
Of wormwood is disgusted by a child
To cheat his taste, he brims the nauseous cup
With the sweet lure of honey."

Hippocrates was a great believer in honey. He considered it a very good expectorant. According to Hippocrates, the physical virtues of honey were: "It causes heat, cleans sores and ulcers, softens hard ulcers of the lips, heals carbuncles and running sores." (Hippocrates alleged that if the seeds of cucumbers and other plants are first soaked in honey and then planted, "the fruit that groweth of them will taste sweeter.") He recommended honey for difficulty in breathing because "it causes spitting." Hippocrates believed that honey "with other things" is nourishing and induces a good complexion but eaten alone it attenuates rather than refreshes because it provokes urine and purges too much. According to the legend (Samuel Purchas, A Theatre of Politicall Flying Insects, 1657, p. 163), a swarm of bees lived for a long time in the sepulcher of Hippocrates, the prince of physicians, and produced honey there. Nurses carried children to the grave and anointed their lips with this magic honey which easily cured them. Dioscorides, the Greek physician (first century A.D.), whose Materia Medica is one of the oldest sources of medical knowledge, often mentions honey as an excellent medicine. He also praises the medicinal value of wax, propolis and honey-wine.

Cornelius Celsus remarked in De Medicina (first half of the first century A.D.) that a physician must heal in a safe, quick and pleasing manner (tuto, cito et jucunde), and all this could be best accomplished with honey.

Galen recommended the mixing of four parts of honey with one part of gall of the sea-tortoise which, when dropped into the eyes, would improve the sight. To quote Marcellus: "The honey pure and neat wherein the Bees are dead, let that drop into the eyes; or honey mixt with the ashes of the heads of Bees, makes the eyes very clear." Pliny also credited honey in which bees have died with the faculty of relieving dullness of sight and hearing. In antiquity, honey had a great reputation in producing clearer vision, which may be the reason for its reputation of endowing the power of divination, improving thus not only the physical but also the spiritual sight. Some historians believe that when Jeroboam sent his wife with a cruse of honey to the prophet Ahijah it was meant as a remedy for the prophet's blindness.

Honey and dead bees were used by Galen for growing hair. "Take Bees dead in combs, and when they are through dry make them into powder, mingle them with the honey in which they died and anoint the parts of the Head that are bald and thin-haired, and you shall see them grow again." The Syriac Book of Medicines recommends a handful of bees roasted in oil as a remedy to turn gray hair black. This ancient book of medical knowledge contains three hundred recipes in which honey is an important ingredient (over fifty of them contain wax).

Celsus recommended raw honey as a laxative and boiled honey as a cure for diarrhea. The reason, he thought, was because "the acrimony is taken away by boyling which wont to move the belly and to diminish the virtue of the food" (Libr. 3 C. 3). Galen recommended boiled and only seldom raw honey but forbids long or too intensive heating because this would make honey bitter. The Hindu physicians assumed that fresh honey was a laxative and honey which was over a year old, an astringent. Pliny burned the bees, mixed their ashes with honey and used the substance for all kinds of ailments: "Powdered bees with milk, wine or honey will surely cure dropsy, dissolve gravel and stones, will open all passages of urine and cure the stopping of the bladder. Bees pounded with honey cure griping of the belly." Muffet also had faith in honey with dead bees. "Honey wherein is found dead Bees is a very wholesome medicine, serving for all diseases." Aelian reported that honey from Pontus cured epilepsy.

Porphyry thought that honey had four excellent qualities: first, it is a nourishing food; second, a good cleanser; third, it has healing power; and fourth, it is pleasant on account of its sweetness. According to Aristoxenus (320 B.C.), anyone who eats honey, spring onions and bread for his daily breakfast will be free from all diseases throughout his lifetime. The ancient Hindus had great faith in the medicinal virtues and magic properties of honey, especially of aged honey. They used it mainly for coughs, pulmonary troubles, gastric and bilious disorders. The famous Arab physicians, such as El Mad joussy and El Basry, all spoke in laudatory terms of the curative power of honey and liberally used it in their professions for a variety of ailments. Arab physicians were reputed to cure tuberculosis with an extract made from the petals of roses and honey. The efficacy of this medicine was recognized for many centuries. Rosed honey is yet an official remedy in most modern pharmacopoeias. Paul of Aegina, Aetius, Oribasius were other honey enthusiasts.”

And of course, we know that the Quran states:

“Your Lord revealed to the bees: "Build dwellings in the mountains and the trees, and also in the structures which men erect. Then eat from every kind of fruit and travel the paths of your Lord, which have been made easy for you to follow." From inside them comes a drink of varying colours, containing healing for mankind. There is certainly a Sign in that for people who reflect (16:68-69)”[5]

All of these things are a product of divine providence, the power that “hath made of service unto you whatsoever is in the heavens and whatsoever is in the earth; it is all from Him. Lo! Herein verily are portents for a people who reflect” (45:12-13).


The biggest argument against ‘alternative medicine’ is that it has never saved a life, and there is no scientific evidence whatsoever that it has helped anyone. There are anecdotes here and there that may contradict this statement, but not a single professionally performed study. One textbook of medicine, published by the ‘American Physicians Association’ in 2006 states this clearly:

“One of the defining characteristics of alternative medicine is the paucity of definitive evidence supporting mechanism of action, efficacy, and safety. Although a number of clinical trials on CAM have been published, the overall quality of those trials is quite poor, primarily because of inadequate sample size, randomization, and blinding.15,16 Additionally, publication bias may be common in the international literature. Critical reviews of published studies on CAM therapies from a number of countries have shown that the studies almost universally report positive findings pertaining to CAM. This suggests that studies reporting negative findings may never make it to press.”

As Raymond Tallis explains:

“There is negligible evidence that the effectiveness of alternative therapies is greater than would be expected from the placebo effect – the effect that is to say, of suggestion. Of course there is much apparent evidence: anecdotes, patient testimony, endorsements from satisfied customers – the kind of evidence used by the first huckster who sold his first bottle of snake oil off the back of his ox-cart and the first magician to turn his attention to the lucrative business of peddling cancer cures….The only way of making sure that the apparent benefits of treatment are not due to either suggestion, placebo, bias, chance effects or spontaneous recovery, is to carry out a proper trial. The treatment should be compared with an inert placebo or best current therapy in a randomized double-blind controlled trial. In such a trial, neither the beliefs of the patient nor of the therapist can affect the outcome. Proper randomization of patients is necessary to ensure that those receiving treatment being evaluated are similar in all benefits observed under such circumstances will, if sufficient patients are included, probably be real….The lack of a sound theoretical basis for alternative medicines means that there is a pressing need for them to be thoroughly tested in practice. It is therefore regrettable that most alternative therapies have not been evaluated in trials, not even badly designed one. Where properly designed trials have been performed, the results have been overwhelmingly negative.”

One textbook of pharmacology states that:

“Features common to complementary medicine cults are absence of scientific thinking, naive acceptance of hypotheses, uncritical acceptance of causation, e.g. reliance on anecdote, assumption that if recovery follows treatment it is due to the treatment, and close attention to the patient's personal feelings. Lack of understanding of how therapeutic effects may be measured is also a prominent feature.”

It then goes on to give a list of false beliefs of its practitioners:

§ “That synthetic modern drugs are toxic, but products obtained in nature are not (Herbal teas containing pyrrolidizine alkaloids (Senecio, Crotalaria, Heliotropium cause serious hepatic veno-occlusive disease. Comfrey (Symphitum) is similar but also causes hepatocellular tumours and haemangiomas. Sassafras (carminative, antirheumatic) is hepatotoxic. Mistletoe (Viscum) contains cytotoxic alkaloids. Ginseng contains oestrogenic substances which have caused gynaecomastia: long-term users may show 'ginseng abuse syndrome' comprising CNS excitation; arterial hypotension can occur. Liquorice (Glycyrrhiza) has mineralocorticoid action. An amateur 'health food enthusiast' made himself a tea from 'an unfamiliar [to him] plant' in his garden: unfortunately this was the familiar foxglove (Digitalis purpurea): he became very ill but happily he recovered. Other toxic natural remedies include lily of the valley (Convallaria) and horse chestnut (Aesculus). The medical herbalist is at fault for clinging to outworn historical authority and for not assessing his drugs in terms of today's knowledge, and the orthodox physician is at fault for a cynical scepticism with regard to any healing discipline other than his own' (Perm R G 1983 Adverse Drug Reaction Bulletin: no 102).

§ That traditional (prescientific) medicines have special virtue.

§ That scientific medicine will accept evidence that remedies are effective only where the mechanism is also understood.

§ That scientific medicine recognises no form of evaluation other than the strict randomized controlled trial.

§ That collection and formal analysis of data on therapeutic outcomes, failures as well as successes, is inessential.

§ That scientific medicine rests on acceptance of rigid and unalterable dogmas.

§ That, if a patient gets better when treated in accordance with certain beliefs, this provides evidence for the truth of these beliefs.”

The same pharmacologists add that a scientific rational approach is necessary for the progress of medicine, an approach that “does not mean a patient must be treated as a mere biochemical machine. It does not mean the exclusion of spiritual, psychological and social dimensions of human beings. But it does mean treating these in a rational manner”.

There are many explanations for the rise of ‘alternative medicine’, which I will not dwell into here. But I think the most important one is that, it is simply the by-product of living in the age of unreason. We are living at a time when bizarre beliefs are common, that books on quantum healing, transcendental meditation, parapsychology, paranormals, scientology, kaballah and Sufism among others, occupy large proportions of the shelves of respected libraries and bookshops. We are living in an age when, “Despite its rejection by scientists, 31% of Americans polled expressed a belief in astrology and 39% considered it scientific according to another study”. We are living in an age of spiritual poverty, which is being exploited by proponents of these nonsensical dogmatic systems, to their benefit. Gone is the simple prayer and worship of revealed religion, and instead of it we have the foolish pretences of the New Age. As explained by Harun Yahya:

“Ironically, (the) scientific testimony against atheism is closely related to why Buddhism is spreading in the Western world. Architects of atheism and materialist culture see that their theory is collapsing. To prevent the rapidly growing movement towards revealed religions, they counter it by promoting pagan faiths such as Buddhism. In other words, Buddhism-and other Far Eastern religions like it-are spiritual reinforcements of materialism.

But why should materialist Western culture need any such reinforcement? English writers Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh and Henry Lincoln have examined the development (and degeneration) of ideas in the Western world over the past 2,000 years. In the 20th century, they explain, the Western world has fallen into a "crisis of meaning." In other words, the way of life imposed on Western societies by materialist philosophy has stripped people's lives of meaning by cutting them off from their belief in God's existence and from worship of Him. These three authors put it this way:

Life became increasingly bereft of meaning, devoid of significance - a wholly random phenomenon, lived for no particular purpose.

Adding to this crisis of meaning, the collapse of materialist theories on a scientific level has opened the way for a new return to revealed religions, especially Islam. For this reason, the monotheistic faiths are growing in their numbers of adherents; the number of those who believe and practice their religion is increasing; and religious concepts and values are assuming much more important places in social life.

Buddhism and similar pagan beliefs are eager to curtail this movement by offering, to those confused by the crisis of meaning brought on by the materialist culture, a false route to salvation. Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism and versions of it like the Hare Krishna sect, Wicca and other New Age trends that bring together various pagan teachings, UFO religions that busy themselves with so-called holy messages believed to have come from space-these are all false teachings embraced by those who do not want to break with atheist and materialist dogmas, while eagerly search for spirituality at the same time. Besides, many who become Buddhists are largely influenced by a desire to unwittingly and blindly imitate something they do not understand, simply to attract attention and pretend that they are, indeed, aware and sophisticated.”

Martin Gardner wrote the following words over 25 years ago, and he could have done so yesterday:

“We are living at a time of rising interest, on the part of an uninformed public, in wild beliefs which the entire scientific community considers close to zero in credibility. It is this crasy science that writers and television commentators mean when they use the term paranormal.

Need I summarise some of the things you are likely to see when a pseudodocumentary film explores the paranormal. UFOs bearing aliens from outer space; mysterious deadly forces in the Bermuda triangle; the power of the Great Pyramid’s shape to preserve food and sharpen razor blades; the reality of demon possession, psychic surgery, dowsing, astrology, palmistry, numerology, biorhythm, the claims of Transcendental Meditators that one can learn to levitate, become invisible, and walk through walls; the human aura; out of body travel; poltergeists; Spiritualism; the phone calls from the dead; statues of Mary that weep and bleed; the sensitivity of plants to thoughts…In a competitive society such as ours the owners of the print and electronic media always pander to public taste, and there is much to be said for such pandering. If large numbers of people relish bad art, music, and literature, bad movies and television shows, and bogus science, who can say they should not be given the opportunity to read, hear and see what they like”

Martin Gardner concluded his aforementioned book as follows:

“Are you one of those dabblers in Eastern religions who likes to sit in a lotus position and meditate on a mantra, or on om, or on nothing? Let me recommend a more ancient practice. Try meditiating about God. Say something to God. Give thanks for something. Ask forgiveness for something. Ask from something you desire, remembering that God knows better than you whether you should have it or not. What can you lose? You might discover that at the heart of those old religious traditions, buried under the blood and balderdash, was something that gave them vitality that held and still holds the allegiance of millions. You might discover that you have something in common with these believers after all. In brief you might, you just might, entertain the fantastic notion that God is more than an old wive’s tale.”

In effect, what Gardner is saying here is recite the first sura of the Quran, which incorporates all these things he is asking us to do[6]. Only in belief in its concepts, will humanity find complete salvation, and only with it, will the light of reason prevail over the many darknesses of our times, one of which is this cancer called alternative medicine, whose problems are “concealed by the muddled thinking which is endemic in pretty well all discussions of the phenomenon... (A) muddle seeping into mainstream medical practice”.






Alternative medicine is merely a symptom of this age of unreason and postmodernism. It can only be combated by good faith, honesty and rationality. All those interested in the survival of the medical profession and its noble ideals, should not accept it, and should do everything to oppose its current rising trend. There are many reasons for the rise, which I will not go into here, and more reasons for opposing it too. It goes under the category of the ‘munkar’, which only prayer and worship can obliterate. Does not God tells us, “Be constant in prayer: for, behold, prayer restrains [man] from ‘fahsha’ (loathsome deeds) and munkar ( from all that runs counter to reason)” [7](29:45).

Finally, for the Muslim, belief in something for which there is no evidence is unacceptable – especially when it goes against common sense and rationality, and involves people’s lives and health. The Muslim physician especially, who is asked to practice or accept alternative medicine is obliged to “Say: Bring your proof (of what ye state) if ye are truthful” (2:111). And until then, he or she ought to practice that medicine which truly benefits the world, and join forces with those, like Professor Michael Baum, Sir James Black and others who have recently organized campaigns against this mythological enterprise. Only then will humanity benefit and reap the rewards of scientific medicine properly.

[1] Modern diagnostic, scientific medicine truly began with the work of William Osler, who died in 1919, and treatment-wise, it began after the Second World War. As the late Henry Shenkin put it, “Prior to World War II, almost all medical practice was ‘alternative medicine’ since there was little evidence for the validity of treatment methods, and even orthodox physicians could do little for their patients beyond providing them and their families with empathy and moral support”.
[2]I cannot help but quote Stephen Hawking’s opening lines to his best-selling ‘A Brief History of Time’, “A well-known scientist (some say it was Bertrand Russell) once gave a public lecture on astronomy. He described how the earth orbits around the sun and how the sun, in turn, orbits around the center of a vast collection of stars called our galaxy. At the end of the lecture, a little old lady at the back of the room got up and said: "What you have told us is rubbish. The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise." The scientist gave a superior smile before replying, "What is the tortoise standing on?" "You're very clever, young man, very clever," said the old lady. "But it's turtles all the way down!””. Apart from the fact that Hawking is the first person to me to regard Bertrand Russell as a ‘scientist’, the quote is very apt and typical of Russell’s great genius.
[3] It is interesting to know that one of the great killers of our times, Mao Tse Tung, used “traditional Chinese medicine, described so often as dating back thousands of years…to try to fill in the gaps left by a shortage of “the superior new medicine”.

[4] As one biography of his puts it, “Billroth was also a man of strong artistic bent, above all a great lover of music. He was an artist by nature: intuitive, humane, inventive. His home in Vienna became a musical centre where he played second violin and viola and became friends with Johannes Brahms and with the musical theorist and writer Eduard Hanslick (1825-1904). Two of Brahm's string quartets are dedicated to Billroth, and during his last illness Billroth was working on the physio-psychological book "Wer ist musikalisch?", published by Hanslick in 1896. In Zürich he was invited at times to be guest conductor of the Zurich ymphony Orchestra”.
[5] I have given this history of honey in some detail in order to stop this current practice of attempting to show the truth of Islam and the Quran by scientific miracles, of which honey is thought to be one. That is what Harun Yahya did in a recent article on the subject, concluding it with the words, “It can easily be seen from this information that honey has great "healing" properties. This is undoubtedly one of the miracles of the Qur'an Allah, Who is Exalted in Power, has revealed”, and.what Zaghlool Najjar continuously does, and other advocates of this idea of ‘scientific miracles’. One writer concludes an article on the subject, after mentioning the hadith, “Honey is a remedy for every illness”, “Again, the Noble Quran is filled with scientific statements and notions. These are statements of Allah Almighty describing how He created things on earth and in the Universe. What's most amazing is that all of these scientific statements and notions had been proven to be in perfect agreement with science and our modern-day scientific discoveries. Allah Almighty made the Noble Quran be Prophet Muhammad's (peace be upon him) Everlasting Divine Miracle and proof for Prophethood. The Holy Book certainly stood the test of time 1,500 years ago with Its Claims, Prophecies and Miraculous language eloquence, and it does again and again in our day today with its overwhelming agreement with science and discoveries that were not known to man 1,500 years ago. Allah Almighty's Divine Claim about honey containing healing and medicine to mankind was indisputably proven to be true!” As the above quote shows, the medical praise of honey is older than that of the Quran itself. And I hasten to add that honey cannot be “a remedy for every illness” – it will kill a diabetic, for it is full of glucose.


[6] The Sura in full (1:1-1:7): “All the praises and thanks be to God alone, the Lord of all the Worlds. The Most Gracious, the Dispenser of Grace, Lord of the Day of Judgment! Thee alone do we worship; and unto Thee alone do we turn for aid. Guide us the straight way – the way of those upon whom Thou hast bestowed Thy blessings,* not of those who have been condemned [by Thee], nor of those who go astray!”
[7] As Muhammad Asad explains, “The term al-munkar (rendered by me in other places as "that which is wrong") has here its original meaning of "that which the mind [or the moral sense] rejects", respectively "ought to reject". Zamakshari is more specific, and explais this term as signifying in the above context "that which [men's] intellects disown" or "declare to be untrue" (md tunkiruhu al= uqul): in other words, all that runs counter to reason and good sense (which, obviously, must not be confused with that which is beyond man's comprehension). This eminently convincing explanation relates not merely to intellectually unacceptable propositions (in the abstract sense of the term) but also to grossly unreasonable and, therefore, reprehensible actions or attitudes and is, thus, fully in tune with the rational approach of the Qur'fn to questions of ethics as well as with its insistence on reasonableness and moderation in man's behaviour. Hence my rendering-of al-munkar, in this and in similar instances, as "all that runs counter to reason".

1 comment:

Pertti said...

Hi, could you give me the reference to Chekhov saying that there is no national medicine? I've heard it before and tried to locate the source but failed to find it.

Best,

Pertti.alasuutari@gmail.com