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Quarantine! the Islamic strategy saving lives

Written by Chiara Rambaldi

Where does the Quarantine practice come from?

It is hard to find historical records of self or mass isolations similar to today’s idea of quarantine. However, it is certain that the very first use of the quarantine practice emerged with “The Canon of Medicine,” a five-volume medical encyclopedia written by the Persian Muslim Ibn Sina (AD 980-1037), known to the rest of the world as “Avicenna”. Despite the scientific advancements throughout the centuries, history confirms that Ibn Sina’s medical encyclopedia “al-Qanun fi al-Tibb” (The Canon of Medicine), has been used as the standard model of medical textbook until the 17th century, and nowadays is still considered a fundamental resource for medical studies.

Ibn Sinan indeed was the first one to suspect that some diseases could be spread by microorganisms. He understood that the only effective way to prevent human-to-human contamination was a sanitary isolation. Therefore, he came up with the idea of isolating people for 40 days. He called this method “al-Arba’iniya” which in the Islamic world means “the forty”. Traders from Venice, one of the most prosperous trading points in the 15th century, heard of this successful method invented by Ibn Sinan, and then took this acquaintance back to the Italian peninsula. Italians called it “quarantena” which in Italian means “the forty”. This is where the word “quarantine” come from. The origin of the methods currently being used worldwide to fight pandemics such a Covid-19 have their origins in the Islamic world around the 15th century.

It follows that in the last years of the 19th century, a German physician and microbiologist Robert Koch, one of the main founders of modern bacteriology, identified the causes of tuberculosis, cholera, and anthrax, ancient pandemics to which he also contributed to scientific knowledge by giving experimental support in the field of infectious diseases. Specifically, in 1876, Robert Koch suggested that microorganisms were the cause of infections which could then develop in pandemics. This finding was possible through the observation that the blood of an infected animal that contained pathogenic bacteria, when transferred to a healthy animal, caused the receiver animal to become sick. However, despite the scientific research advanced exponentially in the last centuries, the quarantine practice remains fairly original to the one our ancestries used to practice when Ibn Sina imagined it, as the only way to effectively stop the contagious is avoiding human contacts.

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