Author: Aleena Dawer
Within the medical field, there are many great “fathers” of surgery; Sushruta in Ancient India, Hippocrates in Ancient Greece, Hua Tuo in Ancient China, and many more. However, we rarely learn about one of the most significant contributors to modern surgery.
Rufaida Al-Aslamia was born circa 620 AD in the seventh century. She was one of the first surgeons ever recorded in history. On top of that, she was a woman, a person of color, and a Muslim.
Al-Aslamia’s gifted medical nature was fostered by her family’s strong ties to the medical community. Rufaida frequently assisted her father, Sa`ad Al Aslamy, a physician at the time. Notably, she lived under the leader, Muhammad, a religious, social, and political leader. According to Islamic doctrine, he was a prophet sent to confirm the monotheistic teachings of previous prophets such as Adam, Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and others. Under his leadership, women’s roles and rights were liberated from the preceding cultural constructs. Because of this, Rufaida was able to practice her skills in field hospitals where casualties from battles would be sent to her tent. She then became widely known for her medical expertise.
Rufaida’s level of surgery and medical expertise did not just stop there. Not only was she a successful surgeon, but Rufaida Al-Aslamia also invented the first-ever documented mobile care unit. A mobile care unit essentially is a trauma center on wheels or better, an emergency response unit staffed by doctors who bring their services directly to you like an on-site trauma and surgical facility. The life-saving capabilities introduced by this conception has been extremely beneficial since. It is commonly used in America and is provided by EMTs from First Aid Squads and Fire Departments. At the time of inception, Rufaida used the emergency units to stabilize patients for more invasive procedures and hygiene to treat wounds.
Al-Aslamia was known as a kind, empathetic doctor and a great leader. Her leadership truly shined when she led training for other women to open spaces for them to work in health care. Several other individuals, such as Nusaybah Bint Kaab, Umm Waraq Bint Hareth, and others, became amazing practitioners. They excelled in the field of medicine. She also led groups of volunteer nurses out into the battlefield to treat injured soldiers. During times of repose, Rufaida proceeded with her association with philanthropic endeavors by giving her time assisting those in need. She helped the youth, the orphans, the disabled, and the poor. By the permission of the Prophet, she constructed a tent inside the mosque (Al-Masjid an-Nabawi) to train and teach the community about health education. She pioneered for preventative care and is said to have drafted the world’s first code of nursing conduct and ethics.
Historical records of her work were passed down through generations, but after some time they became unappreciated. However, recently, Rufaida has been rediscovered as the founder of medical innovations and is now honored in many universities such as in Ireland; the Royal College of Surgeons awards one student the prestigious Rufaida Al-Aslamia Prize; and in Pakistan; where the Aga Khan University is named after her.
Rufaida Al-Aslamia was not only a social worker and a community teacher but the modern founder of surgery and nursing. She had introduced medical expertise to the world precisely 1,200 years before Florence Nightingale. Like Nightingale, who had become well-known when tending the injured during the Crimean War, it was also a battle that brought Al-Aslamia to medicine. During the onset of clashes, Rufaida gave medical aid to the wounded and organized treatments for the injured and dying. Much like Nightingale, who prepared a group of volunteer medical caretakers, Rufaida also led groups of volunteer nurses to operate with her.
Rufaida Al-Aslamia’s history of accomplishments illustrates the groundbreaking strides taken in the medical field. She was an empathetic, passionate, intelligent leader and organizer. She did not confine herself to just the clinical needs. She went out to the community, solving social problems, and alleviated the suffering of individuals regardless of race, color, or social class. Al-Aslamia was the founder of the first nursing school, the first intensive care unit, and opened the path for women’s presence in advanced treatments.
Miller-Rosser, K., Chapman, Y., Francis, K. (July 19, 2006): "Historical, Cultural, and Contemporary Influences on the Status of Women in Nursing in Saudi Arabia". OJIN: The Online Journal of Issues in Nursing. Vol. 11, No. 3.
Al-Hassani, Salim. “Women's Contribution to Classical Islamic Civilisation: Science, Medicine and Politics.” Muslim Heritage, 11 Feb. 2020, muslimheritage.com/womens-contribution-to-classical-islamic-civilisation-science-medicine-and-politics/. Lyons, Jonathan, et al. “Early Islamic Medicine.” Lapham's Quarterly, 1 Jan. 1970, www.laphamsquarterly.org/medicine/early-islamic-medicine. “Many Centuries before Florence Nightingale, This Muslim Woman Introduced Nursing to the Arabic World.” Nurse Recruiter, 22 Mar. 2017, blog.nurserecruiter.com/many-centuries-before-florence-nightingale-this-muslim-woman-introduced-nursing-to-the-arabic-world/.