Book review: “The Physician” by Noah Gordon

You may have noticed that I have been reading quite a bit about history and philosophy in the Islamic world. This is part of my quest to practice holy envy, and Islam definitely feels like a big hole in my education of other cultures and religions. We had a week on it in my introductory world civilizations course in 10th grade? Other than that, the only portrayal of Islam you get come from news media coverage of unrest in the Middle East.

I picked up The Physician by Noah Gordon after a passing reference to the film of the same name in a book I read Philosophy in the Islamic World: A History of Philosophy without Any Gaps. It a passage referring to one of the most famous Islamic philosophers, it read:

He also found time to become the single most influential medical author of any medieval tradition (a film released in 2013, The Physician, picks up on this part of his legacy by portraying him primarily as a doctor– and a rather saintly one, at that).

Intrigued, I found out that the film was indeed on Netflix. I decided to watch it, despite it being rated R. It deserved the rating, mostly due to many of the gory surgeries and medical conditions throughout. The film impressed me enough to add the original book to my reading list as well. And here we are.

If you choose to pick up this book too, know that it is an epic. It’s a solid 768 pages. The book spans nearly half a century, two continents, and a host of cultures. I found the book particularly interesting as a unique meeting of the three monotheistic religions: Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. Three of the main characters are Rob Cole, an English barber-surgeon disguised as a Jew in order to train as a physician in the Persian empire; his friend Mirdin, a young Jew and a fellow medical clerk at the maristan or medieval Islamic hospital; and his friend Karim, a Muslim and another medical clerk training with Rob and Mirdin. The surrounding cultures are extremely hostile to each other; the setting is the 11th century, leading up to the Crusades. Jews are treated as second class citizens in both Christian and Muslim communities. But while Jews are allowed to train at the Islamic school for physicians, the madrassa, Christians are barred from doing so. Rob risks excommunication from his own faith and death at the hands of another by disguising himself as a Jew to fulfill his deepest wish of becoming a physician. The book includes some beautiful reflections on inter-faith interactions, such as this conversation between Mirdin and Rob Cole:

“Have you ever considered how each faith claims that it alone has God’s heart and ear? We, you, and Islam– each vows it is the true religion. Can it be that we’re all three wrong?”

“Perhaps we are all three right”

“Shall we see each other in Paradise?”

“I shall meet you in Paradise. Solemn vow?”

“Solemn vow.”

“I think of the separation between life and Paradise as a river. If there are many bridges that cross the river, should it be of great concern to God which bridge the traveler chooses?”

The book isn’t uncritical either, though. It faces some tough realities. One of the major conflicts in the book revolves around the forbidding of the dissection of human bodies present in all three faiths. When Rob Cole finds out it originated in a commandment in Jewish law about the quick burial of hanged murderers, he lashes out at Mirdin:

“It makes little sense. It’s an ignorant commandment.”

“You shall not say that God’s word is ignorant!”

“I’m not speaking of God’s word. I’m talking of man’s interpretation of God’s word. That has kept the word in ignorance and darkness for a thousand years.”

The book, like the movie, is from a much harsher world. Sharia law punishes law-breakers by cutting off hands and heads and disembowelment. Christians are no better, punishing accused witches by drowning and other horrible methods. Many live in squalor and filth that allows disease wreak awful havoc and misery, including the dreaded black plague. And if the movie was made rated R for sex scenes as well as violence, the book definitely has 10x both. It may make some of my good Christian readers uncomfortable. But I found that the inclusion had some positives. There are some instances of what by today’s standards would be considered child abuse. It pains the reader, but it also allows us to enter into their grief. Despite the stricter punishments for sexual misconduct in that bygone era, somehow the main characters at least have a much more healthy and positive understanding of their sexuality. When we refuse to talk about sexuality at all in our religious communities, I think we are failing the next generation, likely setting them up for some trauma when they inevitably have to come to terms with it themselves. I even think reading this book did me some good in that aspect.

A really great book to start the year off with!

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