Traditional Medicine Defined by the World Health Organization

Traditional medicine (TM):

Traditional medicine has a long history. It is the sum total of the knowledge, skill, and practices based on the theories, beliefs, and experiences indigenous to different cultures, whether explicable or not, used in the maintenance of health as well as in the prevention, diagnosis, improvement or treatment of physical and mental illness.


For the purposes of this Convention,
1. The ‘Intangible Cultural Heritage’ means the practices, representations, expressions, knowledge, skills – as well as the instruments, objects, artefacts and cultural spaces associated therewith – that communities, groups and, in some cases, individuals recognize as part of their cultural heritage. This intangible cultural heritage, transmitted from generation to generation, is constantly recreated by communities and groups in response to their environment, their interaction with nature and their history, and provides them with a sense of identity and continuity, thus promoting respect for cultural diversity and human creativity. For the purposes of this Convention, consideration will be given solely to such intangible cultural heritage as is compatible with existing international human rights instruments,
as well as with the requirements of mutual respect among communities, groups and individuals, and of sustainable development.
2. The ‘Intangible Cultural Heritage’, as defined in paragraph 1 above, is manifested inter alia in the following domains:
(a) oral traditions and expressions, including language as a vehicle of the intangible cultural heritage;
(b) performing arts;
(c) social practices, rituals and festive events;
(d) knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe;
(e) traditional craftsmanship.


The main focus here is to study the underlying theoretical basis of traditional medicine. The questions to be answered concern the theoretical concepts of traditional medicine, whether adequate research has been undertaken in the field? the various frameworks of traditional medicine and how they are differentiated from other dimensions of medicine as a whole? Efforts so far undertaken to compile related terminology, as well as the usage of the Terminology to promote traditional medicine findings is yet another point of concern in this sub-section.

Any school of traditional medicine considers the origin of medical products as being three. These include plant, animal and mineral medicines. The questions of what types of medicinal products are made from a combination of or an individual application of either one of the three origins? what sorts of diseases are these medicines prescribed for? what tool(s) and/or process(es) are applied in their making? What are the various phases and processes applied in the making of traditional medicines? are considered here.

Treatment in traditional medicine is not always of a medicinal nature. Treatment comprises spiritual and material methods. This theme focuses on the various processes of treating a patient in traditional medicine, i.e. cauterizing, tattooing, bone-setting, etc. These methods do not involve any medicinal intake(s).

What are the different diagnosis methods applied in traditional medicine? It is quite obvious that treatment is not possible in the absence of diagnosis. It is noteworthy that diagnosis is a process requiring considerable skills in traditional medicine. Some medicines are treatment-specific (they are prescribed to cure a certain organ). Various approaches to treatment, classification of diseases, and classification methods in various schools of traditional medicine are topics worth considering under this sub-section.

Similar to other medical practices, traditional medicine uses varieties of tools for diagnosis. These include tools for bone-setting, dentistry, means of ritual treatment practices, etc. This sub-section calls for research into the identification, nature, type, usage and efficiency of related tools.


Any school of traditional medicine retains its specific rituals, beliefs, behaviours and reasons. These comprise the composing elements of the diverse schools of traditional medicine. This sub-section deals with the identification and assessment of the said components in different schools of traditional medicine.

Specific behaviours are part of treatment methods in different schools of traditional medicine. These behaviours are performed as part of a certain social action. An example in the Iranian school of traditional medicine is the ritual of “ZĀRand “PIR SHALYAR”. The cure/recovery rituals are part of the non-medicinal practices adopted for treatment in traditional medicine. There is great significance attached to these rituals in all schools of traditional medicine. Identification, assessment and documentation of the said rituals are the focus-point of this sub-section.

Healers are the main actors in any school of traditional medicine. They are in charge of treatment. In the Iranian school of traditional medicine, the healers were referred to as “KHAWJA”, “PIR”, “EESHAN”, “MAMAZAR” and “BABAZAR”. The identification of the healers as well as the processes they adopt for treatment is the main focus of this sub-section.

Based on the teachings of diverse schools of traditional medicine, any human community is abundant with beliefs, and prescriptions for individual and collective social life. Adhering to these rules guarantees individual and collective health. This sub-section, focuses on the identification and assessment of such sets of rules/beliefs.

Today, traditional medicine has gained widespread recognition as a means for treating illnesses. The World Health Organization also promotes and encourages this method of treatment among nations, to reduce national treatment costs of countries and to observe peoples’ right to democracy. However, the question of whether the said treatment methods and related healers are trusted by the public still remains and needs to be investigated.

Traditional medicine is not merely limited to curing illnesses and recovery. Any school of traditional medicine consists of a series of activities that are directed at healthy peoples in a society and they are based on societal beliefs and traditions. One such example is the process of childbirth in some societies, where it should traditionally take place with the help of midwives, a group of healers in traditional medicine. In Iran the midwives are referred to as “GHABELE” or “MAMA”. As such, this sub-section focuses on the identification of and awareness-raising about health-oriented approaches attributed to traditional medicine.

Advancements in modern knowledge and technologies and their growing interrelationships with daily lives of people, raises the questions of how traditional medicine is treated in modern days as well as peoples’ level(s) of accessibility to this type of medicine. Are there any societies in which traditional medicine and related practices has diminished due to advancements in living conditions? This sub-section, therefore, focuses on the remaining number of healers are well as the existing, working schools of traditional medicine.  

The users/audiences of traditional medicine in any society are also in a position to be considered as means of classifying this type of medical practice (in other words, traditional medicine can be classified according to its users). In addition to all adult men and women, who are the users of traditional medicine as patients, women and children are also considered special users of this practice considering gender-specific and certain illnesses to which they are prone. This sub-section seeks to highlight the various approaches of traditional medicine towards the mentioned groups, the diseases most affecting them as well as the diverse methods adopted by different schools of medicine for treatment purposes in regard to the two identified target groups.

In addition to the classification of traditional medicine according to patients’ gender and age, this type of medicine can be classified according to peoples’ jobs. Certain jobs tend to develop career-specific diseases such as diseases prevailing among societies of water-well diggers and carpet-weavers. This sub-section thus seeks to highlight whether traditional medicine has specific answers for job-specific illnesses of the types described above or not.

Any school of traditional medicine has a special glossary of prayers, curative chants, incantations, talismans, etc. that are used in the process of treatment or afterwards to maintain a patient’s health. It is interesting to note that, in general, the oral traditions of diverse schools of traditional medicine are rooted in a society’s oral literature. This sub-section seeks to identify, collect and document the oral traditions specific to different schools of traditional medicine.

اگرچه یكی از مهمترین عناصر بیمارساز در هر جامعه مجموعه كردارها و رفتارهای انسان (شامل خوردن، آشامیدن، حوادث و مواردی از این دست) می باشد، اما در مقابل، در هر مكتب طب سنتی مجموعه ای از عوامل وعناصر وجود دارد كه همواره در پیرامون انسان وجود دارند و حفظ سلامتی مردم ( از نظر آن مكتب طب سنتی)دوری جستن از این عوامل است. مكانهای آسیب رسان و زمان های بیمار ساز ( شامل ساعات روز، روزهای هفته، روزهای ماه و مانند آن) از جمله این عناصر آسیب‌رسان به شمار می‌آیند. معرفی و سرشماری این عناصر و مستندسازی آنها مورد توجه این محور بوده است.

Climate and geographical considerations are two important factors in provoking illnesses as well as in producing relevant medications. This sub-section considers the impacts of climate and geographical conditions on provoking illnesses as well as the impact of the two said factors in producing related medications.

Human communities live under the influence of the geographical conditions of their living environment, their specific culture, civilisation and ethnicity. These elements are the constituting elements of human civilisations, societies and environments. In the wake of time, the said elements have led to the emergence of various schools of traditional medicine. This sub-section is, thus, devoted to identifying the impact(s) of the human environment and the said elements on the emergence of schools of traditional medicine in different places (even in border areas).

The impact of climatic conditions and geography is already clear on the emergence of diverse schools of traditional medicine as well as related medicinal products. However, it is noteworthy that the people living under diverse climatic conditions also have a share in the formation of schools of traditional medicine. This sub-section is, therefore, devoted to identifying behaviours, climate-related traditional medications, and the status of traditional medicine in diverse climatic conditions (which has led to the formation of diverse schools of traditional medicine for diverse ethnic groups). The identification and hence explanation of schools of traditional medicine that are formed for diverse ethnic groups is another focus-point of this sub-section.

Other Materials



WHO Traditional Medicine Strategy (2014-2023)

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Basic texts of the 2003 Convention