Holy Pharmacy - Medicine from Plants of the Bible and Qu'ran Holy Pharmacy Modern Medical Uses of Some Plants of the Qu'ran and the Bible
Its Relation to Biodiversity
Modern Medical Uses of Some Plants of the Qu'ran
and the BibleIts Relation to Biodiversity
Lytton John Musselman
Both the Qu'ran(1) and the Bible(2) include plants that have long been used for medicine. The hadith and western folk botany are full of additional references to these plants as well. Only recently has the efficacy of these same plants been documented with modern science. I have selected just a few plants, well known in bilad-al Sham, for discussion. These include garlic (Allium sativum), rock rose (Cistus creticus), gourd or colocynth (Citrullus colocynthis), tamarisk or tamarix (Tamarix aphylla), myrrh (several species of Commiphora), mandrake (Mandragora officinarum), black cummin (Nigella sativa), and pomegranate (Punica granatum).
Plants of the Bible and the Qu'ran have been one of my research efforts for many years, a fascination that has been enhanced by living and working in Jordan and Syria. There are about 125 plants in the Bible and about twenty mentioned in the Qu'ran. Of course, allowances have to be made for the inclusion of many other species which are not explicitly stated when "fruits," "trees," "thorns," and "weeds" are discussed.
Relatively few plants are put in the context of medicines. Most of these would be found in the first five books of the Bible, "The Books of Moses" where ceremonial cleansing is discussed. I am not going to speak about these plants which include such well known trees as the cedar (Cedrus libani) and juniper (Juniperus oxycedrus, for example). Rather, I have selected a group of plants based on two criteria: they have long fascinated me and I know them first hand and, second, that modern research has shown some of the pharmaceutical or medicinal value of these plants. For brevity, I have also limited the number of references to those within the past decade.
Not surprisingly, some of the plants mentioned in these Scriptures are toxic. One common example in Syria is hemlock, Conium maculatum, the toxin Socrates ingested that took his life. Less obvious, but far more prevalent, is the pathogenic effect of the pollen of olive and other members of the olive family, the Oleaceae(3). In fact, in regions around the Mediterranean where olives are grown on a large scale, allergies are common and often serious(4).
If time permitted, and if I were better qualified, I would explore the many medicinal uses mentioned in the extra-Qu'ranic and extra-Biblical writings. Just one example. This is the season for cam'aa in Syria. One of the most fascinating food plants of the Badia, this is a fungus that develops on the roots of an annual species of Helianthemum. The year I lived in Amman, 1998, was a very good year for these truffles and I came to appreciate them in a personal way. In one of the hadiths, the Prophet Mohammed recommends that the juice of the truffle be applied to the eye as a medicine. This is logical as many fungi contain anti-bacterial compounds that have healing qualities. There are many, many more examples which can be studied in light of modern research.
In this brief overview, I have selected plants that are known to most of us. I gathered this information by searching abstracts and reviews; in most cases I have not read the entire journal article. Other information on plants is from my own research into plants of the Bible and the Qu'ran.
Few members of the lily family (or more correctly in modern taxonomy, the onion family, the Alliaceae) are as familiar as garlic. Yet garlic is mentioned only once in both the Bible and the Qu'ran. Al-Baqara 2: 61--'Moses,' you said, 'we will no longer put up with this monotonous diet. Call on your Lord to give us some of the varied produce of the earth, green herbs, cucumbers, garlic and lentils and onions.' Numbers 11:5 refers to the same incident. People were chaffing at the leadership of Moses, griping and complaining about what they were missing from Egypt. The prophet Moses reminded them of God's goodness.
Like many of the plants in the Middle East, garlic produces a bulb that stores the food from photosynthesis. This serves several purposes. First, it allows the garlic to get a head start when the rains begin. Second, it protects the garlic from grazing.
In a recent study(5), in order to determine the main medicinal plants used in folk medicine to treat arterial hypertension and/or diabetes, a survey was undertaken in different areas of oriental Morocco. The patients (370 women and 256 men) were divided into three groups: diabetics (61%), hypertensives (23%) and hypertensive diabetic persons (16%). On average, 67.51% of patients regularly use medicinal plants. This proportion is the same in all groups and does not depend on sex, age and socio-cultural level. This result shows that phytotherapy is widely adopted in northeastern Morocco. In the hypertension's therapy 18 species were reported, of which the most used were garlic, olive, and parsley. Other studies support the use of garlic as medicine(6). Although rare, urticaria from garlic has been reported(7).
In the Qu'ran, pomegranates, Punica granatum of the family Puniceacae, are mentioned as one of the provisions of Allah (Al-An'm 6:99-- It is He who sends down water from the sky with which We bring forth the buds of every plant. From these We bring forth green foliage and close-growing grain, palm-trees lade with clusters of dates, vineyards and olive groves, and pomegranates alike and different. Behold their fruits when they ripen. Surely in these there are signs for true believers). In the Bible, pomegranate is used for food and in art. Of the six species in Deuteronomy 8:8, pomegranate, Punica granatum, is certainly the most beautiful. Pomegranates figure prominently in three places in the Scriptures: the garment of the high priest (Exodus 28: 33), as a garland on the pillars in the temple, and in the Song of Solomon. Solomon's temple had two hundred pomegranates engraved on the capitals of the two pillars which were at the front of the temple (I Kings 7: 42; II Chronicles 4: 13). In Song of Solomon 4:3 and 6:7 the red interior of the fruit is likened to the temples of the Beloved. These are the only biblical references to the red, juicy seeds of the pomegranate.
The unique seed coat in pomegranate, known technically as a sarcotesta, is fleshy and is widely used in the Middle East to prepare a pleasantly sour, refreshing drink. This red flesh may be alluded to in Song of Solomon 8:2. This juice contains as much as 17 mg per kg oestrone, a compound being investigated in cancer research, eg. Fernandes-Carlos et al. (8)
The family contains only two species, the well-known pomegranate and its putative wild ancestor, P. propunica restricted to the island of Socotra.
The Qu'ran refers to a plant growing over the prophet Jonah (Al-Sfft 37:146--The whale swallowed him [Jonah], for he had sinned; and had he not devoutly praised the Lord he would have stayed in its belly till the Day of Resurrection. We threw him, gravely ill, upon a desolate shore and caused a gourd-tree to grow over him). A similar plant is referred to in Jonah 4:6-10 as a "gourd." No doubt, in both cases, a miraculous growth is intended although both Qu'ranic and Biblical scholars disagree over which plant is intended in the text. For our purposes, we will assume it is the gourd.
The gourd, more accurately termed the colocynth, Citrullus colocynthis, is a common vine found in the drier parts of bilad-al Sham(9). The colocynth creeps along the ground and has leaves which vaguely resemble grape leaves. Fruits are about the size and shape of an orange with a yellowish rind, greenish pulp and light brown seeds. The taste of the fruit is extremely bitter--and poisonous. Varied uses of the wild gourd are well documented by T. E. Lawrence writing about the plant in the Hejaz region. "The ground was luxuriant with colocynth, whose runners and fruits looked festive in the early light." He then describes how various tribes use the plant for food for horses, cups for milk, or lotion for tired feet! If this refers to swollen feet, modern research may explain the efficacy of this cure through the loss of water due to ingestion of the gourd(10) "On one point however they were all agreed, that the whole plant was useless or poisonous as fodder for camels(11)."
Don't eat unknown plants! This simple but wise advice we give to the youngest children. How is it, then, that one of the sons of the prophets would go out and gather this unknown plant (II Kings 4:39)? Like its close relative the watermelon which it resembles in many ways, the colocynth creeps along the ground and has leaves which vaguely resemble those of the grape. The fruit is about the size of an orange with a yellowish rind, greenish pulp and light brown seeds. The taste of the flesh is extremely bitter--and toxic.
The sons of the prophets had to prepare a meal for a large group and apparently at short notice. We can well imagine the panic as thirty or forty people arrive unexpectedly at the door for a meal! Elisha had faith that God would provide the food as he told them to put on the large pot. Adam was told that the wild herbs were created for food (Genesis 1:30) so it is not surprising that in Bible day people collected wild plants to eat, a common practice prevalent today. Similarly, this son of the prophets went out into the field to get some food. As he was collecting various edible plants, he happens upon the colocynth. Here was a large supply of food right at hand. No further work was needed. You can imagine the surprise of the guests at this dinner party when they ate the main dish and gagged! Death was in the pot!
Gourds were used ornamentally in Solomon's temple (I Kings 6:18a.); they are not mentioned in Ezekiel's temple. No doubt their symmetry added beauty in the carved cedar walls. Or perhaps the vines were used along with the small flowers and fruits.
A visit to the atar, the dispenser of herbal medicines, in the Soq Ballid in Amman indicates that this plant, known as handal, is still used as a medicine. The atar told me that it cured a variety of diseases. It is to be wondered, however, if a plant that can poison camels might not also be risky for humans. In fact, human poisoning from the gourd has been documented(12)
In SabŠ 34:16 we read-- So We let loose upon them the waters of the dam and replaced their gardens by two others bearing bitter fruit, tamarisks, and a few nettles [or, stunted lote trees]. Clearly, an environment that is not desirable is being described here. And this makes sense! Tamarisks, species of the genus Tamarix are very common trees and shrubs in parts of the Middle East and have now become serious weeds in other parts of the world. Often, the places they grow are some of the most difficult environments for plants. For example, they are found in soils with high salt concentration and are therefore the only trees found on the shores of the Dead Sea.
The prophet Abraham planted a tamarisk tree (Genesis 20:33). Trees, as we noted in our lecture last time, were often used as memorials for great men. It is therefore appropriate that Abraham should honor God by planting the tamarisk. It would be a permanent memorial of the covenant between the two.
There are several species of tamarisk. The most commonly planted species and one which grows into a good sized tree is Tamarix aphylla. The tamarisk has scalelike leaves which give the tree a pine-like appearance. During the heat of the day the tamarisk secretes salt, a process very wasteful of water. The salt dries. During the night the salt absorbs water from the air. In the morning the water evaporates creating a sort of natural air-conditioning. This cooling effect is another reason for its popularity as a shade tree. Attractive pink or white flowers are produced during the winter, although a tree may flower any time during the year. The fruits are wind dispersed but the tamarisk is easily propagated by cuttings.
Tamarisk provides the only example of the group of plants we are discussing which can be used to control the insect vector of a disease! A disease of such areas in the deserts and semidesert is leishmaniasis (in Sudanese Arabic, kalazar). Remarkably, one of the products which can control the vector of this disease is Tamarix aphylla.(13)
In my last lecture, I spoke at length about rockrose, or Balm of Gilead. Because it may be confused with some of the other plants used for balm, especially myrrh, I want to refer to it again and draw upon some recent research.
Two species of Cistus are common in Syria, C. creticus and C. salvifolius. They are easily distinguished by their flower color. The large pink flowers of C. creticus and the slightly smaller but equally beautiful white flowers of C. salvifolius appear in May. On a hot day, the fragrant resin of the plants is obvious. Upon closer examination, you can see the numerous hairs that cover the leaves and young stems of both species. The resin will stick to your hands if you collect leaves.
Cistus' resin is fragrant, as noted, and has been used for millennia to produce an incense. Even today, the resin is collected in parts of Greece. It can be harvested in a variety of ways. One ancient method is to comb the hair of goats who graze in plant communities where Cistus is abundant. Another is by dragging a rake with long, leather tines across the shrubs at the hottest time of day and then removing the resin when it is dry(14). To my knowledge, it does not have any widespread use among modern Arabs.
The resin is also used for medicine, as a balm that can reduce inflammation of the skin. Recent research on the biochemistry of the plant has shown the efficacy of compounds in the plant for dermatological disorders(15). Recent research in Turkey shows that, of the seven plants used as folk remedies for ulcers, the one with the greatest efficacy was C. salvifolius(16).
I have included mandrake because of my intrigue with this plant which was so highly valued in the Middle Ages in Europe. The mandrake, Mandragora officinalis, is a strange plant mentioned only in Genesis 30:14 and Song of Songs 7:13 although it is a common plant in many parts of bilad al-Sham. Mandrake is a member of the nightshade family which includes some of the most poisonous plants such as nightshade, jimsonweed, tobacco and, paradoxically, some of the most common vegetables such as potatoes, tomatoes, green pepper, and eggplants.
As the Bible so accurately describes, the mandrake often grows as a weed in wheat fields. The plant consists of several large, wrinkled, dark green leaves which lie flat upon the ground forming a rosette. In the center of this rosette a cluster of attractive purple flowers appears in the winter. The root of the mandrake may be several feet long and weigh several pounds. It has bizarre often human-like shapes and for this reason is highly regarded by the superstitious. The fruits, as noted in Song of Songs, are produced in the early summer and have a very attractive fragrance. Arab friends have warned me that it was toxic. If it is poisonous, then the poison is either very weak or very slow acting as I felt no discomfort after tasting a bit.
Myrrh is the dried resin of several species of Commiphora (Burseraceae). These are shrubs or small trees of the arid and semiarid regions of East Africa, Arabia, and the Indian subcontinent. All species are not used for the same purpose, some are used for medicine and others for their fragrance. For many years, myrrh has been used for its healing qualities(17). Recent work indicates that C. myrrha has opiate qualities [Science News 149(2): 20 1996]. This helps interpret Mark 15:23 where Jesus, on the cross, was offered vinegar mingled with myrrh.
These two different myrrhs, medicinal and fragrant, are both translated from the same Hebrew word mor. The scented myrrh is probably Commiphora guidotti. Odor of myrrh permeates the pages of Solomon's writings with more references than any other Bible author. Song of Solomon has seven references.
In the single reference in Proverbs 7, the harlot refers to her bed as having been sprinkled with " . . . myrrh, aloes, and cinnamon" (7: 17). Myrrh is used in a similar way in Song of Solomon, that is, as a personal perfume with erotic overtones (5: 5, 5:13). There is a guild of plants associated both with the harlot in Proverbs as well as with the lovers in Song of Solomon. These include cassia, aloes (not the bitter aloe of the New Testament) and myrrh.
Perhaps no Bible plant is receiving as much current research attention as black cummin. It is finding use in cancer research.(18),(19),(20) and even birth control(21)! The plant translated "caraway" in the NIV, "fitches" in the KJV and"dill" in JND is actually a plant known as black cummin, Nigella sativa, and no relation to the well-known herb, cummin. The word fitches may be an allusion to the sharp pointed beaks of the fruit and is used for unrelated plants in other Scriptures (eg., Ezekiel 9:32).
Black cummin is planted in the winter, produces attractive flowers in the spring and is harvested in the early summer for its jet-black seeds. These have a very distinct flavor are used to flavor bread and other baked goods. The seeds are still threshed from the fruits by beating the dried plants with a stick (Isaiah 28:28). At least one case of dermatitis has been reported from contact with the oil of black cummin.(22)
We have much to learn about the ultimate utility of these plants mentioned in ancient documents. But we may not have much time, as we are destroying our God-given biodiversity faster than we are learning about plants. The example of the pomegranate is an excellent one to make this point. I have mentioned the medicinal value of the juice of the pomegranate (there are other uses of other parts of the plant as well). Scientists believe that Punica propunica, restricted to Socotra, may be the progenitor of the pomegranate we use (Punica granatum). If the Socotran plant disappears, what have we lost? What is the ultimate value of this little known plant? How can we justify preserving it when there are people to feed, diseases to conquer, and other noble human endeavors?
As thinking people, how can we relate the importance of preserving biodiversity in a cultural setting. One could predict that environmental ethics are shaped by the prevailing religion or philosophy. My hypothesis, however, is that much of the environmental movement in Syrian is based on the Western, secular model rather than on religious principles of the majority religion, Islam, or of the minority religion, i.e., Christianity.(23)
A leading thinker who is paying attention to the religious basis of environmental ethics is Sayeed Hossein Nasr, one of the most insightful contemporary authors on comparative religion. In a profound volume(24), Nasr argues that, despite what secularists think, the majority of people live in a world where religion is part of everyday life. This is in contrast to the "Christian" West where many people concerned for the environment are secular humanists who neglect religion as a pervasive force in peoples' lives. Nasr writes:
"... we shall never understand why Christianity, which believes in the incarnation of the Divine Word as flesh" . . . has resulted in . . . "a totally nonreligious perspective without many of its leading thinkers ever being concerned with the violation of the original Christian theology that such a surrender of the cosmos implied."
I believe Nasr is correct about the nonreligious perspective of environmental care divorced from religion in Christian countries. Yet religion, as the ultimate authority, provides the most powerful force for protection of species and their habitat. And for me, this is the ultimate link between plants of the sacred books and conservation of biodiversity.
1. The translation of the Qu'ran I am using is the English translation by N. J. Dawood. 1997. The Koran with Parallel Arabic Text. London: Penguin
2. The translation of the Bible I am using is The Holy Bible New International Version. 1986. London: Hodder and Stoughton.
3. Liccardi G., D'Amato M., and G. D'Amato. 1996. Oleaceae pollinosis: a review. International Archives of Allergy and Immunology 111(3): 210-7.
4. Florido J.F., Delgado, P. G., de San Pedro B. S., Quiralte J., de Saavedra J. M., Peralta V., and L. R. Valenzuela. 1999. High levels of Olea europaea pollen and relation with clinical findings. International Archives of Allergy and Immunology 119(2): 133-137.
5. Ziyyat, A., A. Legssyer, H. Mekhfi, A. Dassouli, M. Serhrouchni, and W. Benjelloun. 2997. Phytotherapy of hypertension and diabetes in oriental Morocco. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 58(1): 45-54.
6. Salman, H., M. Bergman, H. Bessler, I. Punksy, and M. Djaldetti. 1999. Effect of a garlic derivative (alliin) on peripheral blood cell immune responses. International Journal of Immunopharmacology 21 (9): 589-597.
7. Asero, R., G. Mistrello, D. Roncarolo, P. L. Antoniotti, and P. Falagiani. 1998. A case of garlic allergy.. Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology 101(3): 427-428.
8. Fernandes-Carlos, T., J. Riondel, D. Glise, P. Guiraud, and A. Favier. 1997. Modulation of natural killer cell functional activity in athymic mice by beta-carotene, oestrone and their assocation. Anticancer Research 17(4a): 2523-2528.
9. Musselman, L. J. 2000. Jordan in Bloom. Wildflowers of the Holy Land. Original watercolors by Dasha Fomicheva, artist to the Royal Hashemite Court. Under the Patronage of Her Royal Highness Rania Al Abdullah, Queen of Jordan. Amman: Jordan River Foundation.
10. Wasfi I. A., A. K. Bashir, A. A. Abdala, N. R. Bannna, and M. O. M. Tanir. 1995. Anti-inflammatory activity of some medicinal plants of the United Arab Emirates. International Journal of Pharmacognosy 33(2): 124-128.
11. Lawrence, T. E. 1935. Seven Pillars of Wisdom A Triumph. (reprint 1962). London: Penguin Books.
12. Al Faraj, S. 1995. Haemorrhagic colitis induced by Citrullus colocynthis Annals of Tropical Medicine and Parasitology. 89(6): 695.
13. Jacobson R. L, and Y. Schlein. 1999. Lectins and toxins in the plant diet of Phlebotomus papatasi (Diptera: Psychodidae) can kill Leishmania major promastigotes in the sandfly and in culture. Annals of Tropical Medical Parasitology 93(4):351-6.
14. Baumann, H. 1996. The Greek Plant World in Myth, Art and Literature. Translated by W. T. and E. R. Stearn. Portland: Timber Press.
15. Danne, A., F. Peterett and A. Nahrstedt. 1993. Proanthocyanidins from Cistus incanus. Phytochemistry 34(4): 1129-1133.
16. Yesilada E., I. Gurbuz, and H. Shibata. 1999. Screening of Turkish anti-ulcerogenic folk remedies for anti-Helicobacter pylori activity. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 66(3):289-93. (The other plants were Spartium junceum, cones of Cedrus libani, herbs and flowers of Centaurea solstitialis ssp. solstitialis, fruits of Momordica charantia, herbaceous parts of Sambucus ebulus, and flowering herbs of Hypericum perforatum.)
17. Duwiejua M,. I. J. Zeitlin, P. G. Waterman, J. Chapman, G. J. Mhango, and G. J. Provan. 1993. Anti-inflammatory activity of resins from some species of the plant family Burseraceae. Planta Medica 59(1):12-6.
18. Haq, A., M. Abdullatif, P. I .Lobo, K. S. A. Khabar, K. V. Sheth, and S. T. Al-Sedairy. 1995. Nigella sativa: effect on human lymphocytes and polymorphonuclear leukocyte phagocytic activity. Immunopharmacology 30(2): 147-155.
19. Haq, A. P. I. Lobo, M. Al-Tufail, N. R. Rama, and S. T. Al-Sedairy. 1999. Immunomodulatory effect of Nigella sativa proteins fractionated by ion exchange chromatography. International Journal of Immunopharmacology 21(4): 283-295.
20. Worthen, D.R.. O. A. Ghosheh and P. A. Crooks. 1998.The in vitro anti-tumor activity of some crude and purified components of blackseed, Nigella sativa L. Anticancer Research)18(3A):1527-32 .
21. Keshri G., M. M.Singh, V. Lakshmi, and V. P.Kamboj. 1995. Post-coital contraceptive efficacy of the seeds of Nigella sativa in rats. Indian Journal of Physiological Pharmacology 39(1):59-62.
22. Steinmann A., M. Schatzle. M. Agathos, and R. Breit. 1997. Allergic contact dermatitis from black cumin (Nigella sativa) oil after topical use. Contact Dermatitis 36(5):268-9
23. Musselman, L. J. 1999. A Biblical View of Creation. Al Reem, Journal of the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature (Jordan). 65: 8-9. Part of this section is adapted from this article.
24. Nasr, S. H. 1996. Religion and the Order of Nature. New York: Oxford University Press.