Arabization of Medical Sciences: History, Challenges and Recommendations

Arabization “” means adopting a word that does not exist in Arabic language and translating it in a way to make it clear and eloquent for the Arabic speaking communities. (1) At present, the definition of Arabization includes dimensions beyond rendering foreign words into Arabic. It means to make the Arabic language the main official language of an Arab country in all life domains including education.(2) The call to Arabize Medical Education and the sciences is not a new notion; it emerged a long time ago. In this article, the authors will briefly represent the rationale behind this initiative, historical background, exerted efforts, encountered challenges and recommendations to move forward.


Literature in education demonstrates that language is one of the essential factors in learners’ comprehension of the educational materials.(3) Countries like those of Scandinavia, Germany, Austria and Japan teach medicine in their native languages and this has not constrained their contribution to the world health care arena as per WHO efficiency ranking. (4) A study in Tanzania illustrated that teaching in English language instead of Kiswahili language is harming the quality of education. (5)

Medical education curricula in Arab countries are typically based on British, American, French and Italian curriculums, while most of the governmental high schools in these countries instruct most of their subjects in Arabic language. Students who are pursuing a degree in medical sciences are expected to master the foreign language in order to succeed in medical schools.

The rationale of Arabization of medical sciences is widely discussed in Arabic literature. Evidence-based research studies conducted in Arab countries like Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Jordan suggested that Arabization of education would improve the educational outcome quality. (6,7,8,9,10) A study in King Faisal University School of Medicine revealed that students preferred the Arabic language versus the English language in their medical education.(6) This study examined medical students, interns and residents. It proved that participants read 43% faster if they read in Arabic than in English and their comprehension increased by 15%. As a result, their academic attainment may increase. They also found that the medical terminology represents only 3.3% of the total content of 10 medical books. The results of such studies have been extensively discussed in various regional conferences. Arabization became one of the core objectives of the Arab Medical Union for over fifty-five years with the support of the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Council of Arab Health Ministers. (12) 


Advocates for Arabization explain that Arabic is a rich language, capable of absorbing the medical sciences and history proves it.(13) Before the colonization era, Arabs translated sciences from the Greek, Indian and Persian languages. They authored many scientific references and made a substantial addition to scientific knowledge that became the basis of most of today’s sciences.(13)

Arabization of medical education started in Egypt during Mohamed Ali’s period in 1827 and the instruction continued in Arabic for 60 years.(14) A significant number of Arabic medical books were authored in all disciplines of medicine. Many European faculty members were teaching during this period. They were provided professional interpreters in the lecture halls to interpret the lectures to the students. While the interpreters attended these lectures, the instructors tutored them as well. Due to this interaction, many instructors learned Arabic. At a later stage, non-Arabic speaking instructors were required to learn the Arabic language. Although it was a challenge, many non-Arab faculty members mastered the language and it is worth mentioning that the first medical French-Arabic dictionary was compiled by a French professor of Medicine “Dr. Perron”.(15) This book is titled: ”Al Shudhur al dhahabiyah fi al mustalahat eltibbiyah” (The Golden Pieces of Medical Terms). Instruction switched from Arabic to English after the British Occupation in 1882.  

Another significant experience was in Lebanon in 1866, where medicine was taught in Arabic in the Syrian Protestant College, currently known as the American University of Beirut. During this era, twenty-three college-level books were produced in Arabic in: physiology, chemistry, anatomy & surgery. (15) Thereafter in 1920, instruction switched from Arabic to English and the same pattern was repeated in other countries that experienced colonization. (15) 


Currently, extensive efforts are being exerted to revive the Arabization of Medical Sciences. The Arab Health Ministers’ Council, Arab Doctors Union and Education Ministers have taken decisions in various conferences to support and finance the Arabization initiative. Here are some examples of the efforts exerted:

  • The First Symposium on Arabization of Medical Sciences :(16) was hosted by the Qatar Supreme Council of Health - Doha, Qatar in January 2015. The symposium objective is to reinforce the decision of the Arab Health’s Ministers’ Council for GCC States during its 39th session on the Arabization initiative of Medical Sciences and to introduce the efforts of the “Arab Center for Authorship & Translation of Health Science”. 
  • The Arab Center for Authorship and Translation of Health-Science (ACMLS): (17)
    an Arab Organization, based in Kuwait, was established in 1980 by the Council of Arab Health Ministers’ decision. ACMLS has contributed significantly to the Arabization initiative by translating and editing medical books in Arabic, producing medical dictionaries and atlases, as well as, recording medical documents and information in a comprehensive database for easy retrieval.  The center issued six medical atlases since 2002 and has been working on an Illustrated Dictionary for Medical and Health Sciences since 2009. This dictionary includes the latest Medical terminology compiled by WHO.  The total number of terms translated and illustrated up to 2014 number more than 64000 terms.
  • The Syrian Experience: (15) Several Arab countries like Sudan, Tunisia, Libya and Syria have made salient efforts to Arabize their university education.  The Syrian experience is the most prominent one in the region.  Damascus University initiated instruction in Arabic in their Medical School since its establishment in 1919. The early professors translated and wrote many medical books and issued the Arab Medical Journal. This initiative was successful at the beginning, since the translation and publishing efforts were synchronized with international scientific development. After 80 years, the Arabization movement in Syria faced some challenges due to political instability in the region. A study conducted in the USA showed that the performance of the Syrian doctors in the ECFMG (Educational Commission for Foreign Medical Graduates)(18) was equivalent to that of their peers. (19) Learning in Arabic did not inhibit them from performing well in the American certification process.

Currently, Arabization of medical education is facing the following legitimate challenges that need organized efforts to overcome:

  • Absence of political consensus on a clear vision to improve the general education in the Arab world let alone medical education.
  • Variations of economic status between the Arab countries and the provision of financial resources to support this initiative.
  • Limited literature, medical books and references in Arabic language.
  • Limited organized Arabic professional translation and editing services to disseminate / transfer the latest international scientific knowledge.  
  • Rapid changes in global medical education arena adding the challenge to keep up with the latest developments in this field.
  • Lack of professional training for faculty in Arabic language.
  • The majority of the international medical education standardized assessment tests are administered in foreign languages (not in Arabic). This requires students who graduate from an Arabic based curriculum to learn these languages to pass the tests and obtain international recognition of their medical education.


The Arabization movement is achievable but requires intensive planning and collaboration. Below are several suggested recommendations that were brainstormed in the symposium and published in various articles. These are primary steps to be implemented in accordance with each other:

  • Obtain the political leadership support and allocate the appropriate financial resources.
  • Work collectively instead of exerting efforts in silos and co-ordinate between the different Medical Societies in the Arab world.
  • Review the existing Arabic medical books and references and distribute them to all college libraries.
  • Combine the translation efforts to avoid duplication and give priority to translate and elucidate the primary medical books.
  • Utilize one unified medical dictionary as a main tool for translation and authorship and update it regularly.
  • Sign agreements with international journals to publish translated issues in Arabic.
  • Encourage Arabic-speaking faculty to research, author and translate in Arabic. In addition, health-care professionals (students or doctors) are encouraged to learn foreign languages to expand the exchange of knowledge.
  • Organize medical training workshops and host international conferences to discuss the latest medical developments.

In conclusion, the national language of any nation personifies its identity, cultural heritage and history. Using the national language in medical education could increase academic attainment and magnify Arab contribution to global medical education efforts. In order to Arabize medical sciences, serious national planning, political agreement and dedicated efforts are required to work in parallel on all levels, to support the translation movement, academic attainment, vigorous research and author books.

References and for further reading:

  1. Muhammad Ibn Manzur. Lisan al-Arab. (in Arabic) [read more]
  2. Mason Al-Tamimi. Defining the term Arabization, linguistically and terminologically. Journal of Arabic language. 2014) (in Arabic) [read more]
  3. UNESCO report. Enhancing Learning from access to success. Report of the first experts’ meeting: Defining areas of action. Paris. 2007 [read more]
  4. Ajay Tandon. et al. Measuring Overall Health System Performance for 191 Countries. GPE Discussion Paper Series: No. 30 [read more]
  5. Martha Qorro. Does Language of Instruction Affect Quality of Education?. HakiElimu Working Papers. Tanzania. 2006 [read more]
  6. Ismail HM. Are we ready for Arabization in medical education?. J Fam Community Med [serial online] 2002];9:67-69. [read more]
  7. Mohmdani AA, Abdel Rahman SH. Evaluating the impact of Arabization on medical students’ acquisition, Gezira University, Sudan. Eastern Mediterranean health journal. 2006 [read more]
  8. Mahamoud Al-Asal, Oqlah Samadi. The effect of language of instructions on university participants’ acquisition of scientific terms. European Scientific Journal. Vol. 25, 5-28
  9. Muna Al-Ajrami. The Dilemma of Arabization in the Arab World:Problems and Solutions. Theory and Practice in language Studies. Vo. 5. Oct. 2015. [read more]
  10. Al-Sibaie ZA, Othman M. Defense for medical education in Arabic. Journal of Family & Community Medicine 1994;1(1):1-9. (in Arabic )
  11. S.M. Sabour, S.A. Dewedar, S.K. Kandil. Language barriers in medical education towards Arabization of medicine: students’ and staff perspectives. Eastern Mediterranean Health Journal. Vol. 16. No. 12. 2010 [read more]
  12. Abdelaziz A, Hassan N. Arabic Guidelines for Curriculum Development in Health Professions Education. International Journal of Medical Science Research and Practice. 2014. [read more]
  13. Al-Khalili Jim. Pathfinders: The golden age of Arabic science. Book. 2010
  14. Khalid Al-Abdel Rahman. Arabization of Medical Education: Realistic Vision and Practical Steps. Islamic University of Mohamad Bin Saud. Saudi Arabia. (Taareeb al taaleem al tebbi: royaa waqiyaa wa khatwat amallyyaa) (in Arabic) [read more]
  15. Badinjki T. Research notes: the challenge of Arabization in Syria. American Journal of Islamic Social Sciences, 1994. 1(1), pp. 108–112. [read more]
  16. Arab Center for Authorship and Translation of Health-Science (ACMLS) [read more]
  17. Education Commission for Foreign Medical Graduates (ECFMG) [read more]
  18. Ara Tekian, John Boulet. A longitudinal study of the characteristics and performances of medical students and graduates from the Arab countries. BMC Medical Education. 2015 [read more]

Written for December 2015 by:
Maha Elnashar, Director & Huda Abdelrahim, Associate Specialist
The Center for Cultural Competence in Healthcare
Global and Public Health Division
Weill Cornell Medicine-Qatar