Abu ‘Ali al-usayn ibn ‘Abd Allah ibn Sina often referred to by his Latinized name Avicenna was a Persian physician, philosopher, and scientist who was born in 980 in Kharmaithen near Bukhara, now in Uzbekistan (then Iran), and died June 1037 in Hamadan, Iran.
He was the author of 450 books on a wide range of subjects. Many of these concentrated on philosophy and medicine. He is considered by many to be “the father of modern medicine.” George Sarton called Ibn Sina “the most famous scientist of Islam and one of the most famous of all races, places, and times.” His most famous works are The Book of Healing and The Canon of Medicine, also known as the Qanun.
His life is known to us from authoritative sources. An autobiography covers his first thirty years, and the rest are documented by his disciple al-Juzajani, who was also his secretary and his friend. He was born in 370 (AH) / 980 (AD) in Afshana, his mother’s home, a small city now part of Uzbekistan (then part of the Islamic Caliphate) and his Father from Balkh now part of Afghanistan (then also part of the Islamic Caliphate). His native language was Persian. His father, an official of the Samanid administration, had him very carefully educated at Bukhara. Although traditionally influenced by the Ismaili branch of Islam, his independent thought was served by an extraordinary intelligence and memory, which allowed him to overtake his teachers at the age of fourteen.
Ibn Sina was put under the charge of a tutor, and his precocity soon made him the marvel of his neighbours; he displayed exceptional intellectual behaviour and was a child prodigy who had memorized the Koran by the age of 10 and a great deal of Arabic poetry as well. From a greengrocer he learned arithmetic, and he began to learn more from a wandering scholar who gained a livelihood by curing the sick and teaching the young.
However he was greatly troubled by metaphysical problems and in particular the works of Aristotle. So, for the next year and a half, he also studied philosophy, in which he encountered greater obstacles. In such moments of baffled inquiry, he would leave his books, perform the requisite ablutions, then go to the mosque, and continue in prayer till light broke on his difficulties. Deep into the night he would continue his studies, stimulating his senses by occasional cups of goat’s milk, and even in his dreams problems would pursue him and work out their solution. Forty times, it is said, he read through the Metaphysics of Aristotle, till the words were imprinted on his memory; but their meaning was hopelessly obscure, until one day they found illumination, from the little commentary by Farabi, which he bought at a bookstall for the small sum of three dirhems. So great was his joy at the discovery, thus made by help of a work from which he had expected only mystery, that he hastened to return thanks to God, and bestowed alms upon the poor.
He turned to medicine at 16, and not only learned medical theory, but by gratuitous attendance on the sick had, according to his own account, discovered new methods of treatment. The teenager achieved full status as a physician at age 18 and found that “Medicine is no hard and thorny science, like mathematics and metaphysics, so I soon made great progress; I became an excellent doctor and began to treat patients, using approved remedies.” The youthful physician’s fame spread quickly, and he treated many patients without asking for payment.
His first appointment was that of physician to the emir, who owed him his recovery from a dangerous illness (997). Ibn Sina’s chief reward for this service was access to the royal library of the Samanids, well-known patrons of scholarship and scholars. When the library was destroyed by fire not long after, the enemies of Ibn Sina accused him of burning it, in order for ever to conceal the sources of his knowledge. Meanwhile, he assisted his father in his financial labours, but still found time to write some of his earliest works.
When Ibn Sina was 22 years old, he lost his father. The Samanid dynasty came to its end in December 1004. Ibn Sina seems to have declined the offers of Mahmud of Ghazni, and Ibn Sina proceeded westwards to Urgench in the modern Uzbekistan, where the vizier, regarded as a friend of scholars, gave him a small monthly stipend. The pay was small, however, so Ibn Sina wandered from place to place through the districts of Nishapur and Merv to the borders of Khorasan, seeking an opening for his talents. Shams al-Ma’äli Qäbtis, the generous ruler of Dailam, himself a poet and a scholar, with whom Ibn Sina had expected to find an asylum, was about that date (1052) starved to death by his own revolted soldiery. Ibn Sina himself was at this season stricken down by a severe illness. Finally, at Gorgan, near the Caspian Sea, Ibn Sina met with a friend, who bought a dwelling near his own house in which Ibn Sina lectured on logic and astronomy. For this patron, several of Ibn Sina’s treatises were written; and the commencement of his Canon of Medicine also dates from his stay in Hyrcania.
Ibn Sina subsequently settled at Rai, in the vicinity of the modern Tehran, (present day capital of Iran), the home town of Rhazes; where Majd Addaula, a son of the last emir, was nominal ruler under the regency of his mother (Seyyedeh Khatun). At Rai about thirty of his shorter works are said to have been composed. Constant feuds which raged between the regent and her second son, Amir Shamsud-Dawala, compelling the scholar to quit the place. After a brief sojourn at Qazvin, he passed southwards to Hamadãn, where that prince had established himself. At first, Ibn Sina entered into the service of a high-born lady; but the emir, hearing of his arrival, called him in as medical attendant, and sent him back with presents to his dwelling. Ibn Sina was even raised to the office of vizier.
The amir consented that he should be banished from the country. Ibn Sina, however, remained hidden for forty days in a sheikh’s house, till a fresh attack of illness induced the emir to restore him to his post. Even during this perturbed time, Ibn Sina prosecuted his studies and teaching. Every evening, extracts from his great works, the Canon and the Sanatio, were dictated and explained to his pupils; among whom, when the lesson was over, he spent the rest of the night in festive enjoyment with a band of singers and players. On the death of the amir, Ibn Sina ceased to be vizier and hid himself in the house of an apothecary, where, with intense assiduity, he continued the composition of his works.
Meanwhile, he had written to Abu Ya’far, the prefect of the dynamic city of Isfahan, offering his services. The new emir of Hamadan, hearing of this correspondence and discovering where Ibn Sina’s was hidden, incarcerated him in a fortress. War meanwhile continued between the rulers of Isfahan and Hamadãn; in 1024 the former captured Hamadan and its towns, expelling the Turkish mercenaries. When the storm had passed, Ibn Sina returned with the amir to Hamadan, and carried on his literary labours. Later, however, accompanied by his brother, a favourite pupil, and two slaves, Ibn Sina escaped out of the city in the dress of a Sufite ascetic. After a perilous journey, they reached Isfahan, receiving an honourable welcome from the prince. Avicenna also introduced medical herbs.
The remaining ten or twelve years of Avicenna’s life were spent in the service of Abu Ya’far ‘Ala Addaula, whom he accompanied as physician and general literary and scientific adviser, even in his numerous campaigns. During these years he began to study literary matters and philology, instigated, it is asserted, by criticisms on his style. But amid his restless study Ibn Sina never forgot his love of enjoyment. Unusual bodily vigour enabled him to combine severe devotion to work with facile indulgence in sensual pleasures.
Versatile, lighthearted, boastful and pleasure-loving, he contrasts with the nobler and more intellectual character of Averroes. His bouts of pleasure gradually weakened his constitution; a severe colic, which seized him on the march of the army against Hamadãn, was checked by remedies so violent that Ibn Sina could scarcely stand. On a similar occasion the disease returned; with difficulty he reached Hamadãn, where, finding the disease gaining ground, he refused to keep up the regimen imposed, and resigned himself to his fate.
His friends advised him to slow down and take life moderately. He refused, however, stating that: “I prefer a short life with width to a narrow one with length”. On his deathbed remorse seized him; he bestowed his goods on the poor, restored unjust gains, freed his slaves, and every third day till his death listened to the reading of the Qur’an. He died in June 1037, in his fifty-eighth year, and was buried in Hamedan, Iran.
Ibn Sina is comparable to such greats as Abu Bakr Mohammad Ibn Zakariya al-Razi. However, despite such glorious tributes to his work, Ibn Sina is rarely remembered in the West today and his fundamental contributions to medicine and the European reawakening go largely unrecognised.
Ibn Sina is usually considered as a great philosopher and physician. His philosophical disciple is not a live school in western philosophy today. Unfortunately, the West only pays attention to some portion of his philosophy, which is known as the Latin Avicennaian School, and his other significant philosophical contribution, which had been hailed by Suhrawardi, is still unknown to West. This notable part is called hikmat-al-mashriqqiyya by him. In some of his writings, he mentions this to his disciples as his major achievement. Heavily influenced by Ibn Sina, Suhrawardi made philosophical contributions which have developed much from Ibn Sina’s work, later founding illuminationist philosophy and believing to have finished what Ibn Sina began.
Ibn Sina also wrote extensively on the subjects of philosophy, logic, ethics, metaphysics and other disciplines. All his works were written in Arabic – which was the de facto scientific language of that time, and some were written in the Persian language. Of linguistic significance even to this day are a few books that he wrote in nearly pure Persian language. Unlike Aquinas who more or less sanctified Aristotle as church dogma, Ibn Sina corrected him often, encouraging a lively debate in the spirit of ijtihad. Accordingly he is one of the earliest pioneers of the scientific process of peer review as we know it today, his influence on that process being profound at least, and perhaps even decisive.
About 100 treatises were ascribed to Ibn Sina. Some of them are tracts of a few pages, others are works extending through several volumes. The best-known amongst them, and that to which Ibn Sina owed his European reputation, is his 14-volume The Canon of Medicine, which was a standard medical text in Western Europe for seven centuries. It classifies and describes diseases, and outlines their assumed causes. Hygiene, simple and complex medicines, and functions of parts of the body are also covered. It asserts that tuberculosis was contagious, which was later disputed by Europeans, but turned out to be true. It also describes the symptoms and complications of diabetes. An Arabic edition of the Canons appeared at Rome in 1593, and a Hebrew version at Naples in 1491. Of the Latin version there were about thirty editions, founded on the original translation by Gerard of Cremona. The 15th century has the honour of composing the great commentary on the text of the Canon, grouping around it all that theory had imagined, and all that practice had observed. Other medical works translated into Latin are the Medicamenta Cordialia, Canticum de Medicina, and the Tractatus de Syrupo Acetoso.
It was mainly accident which determined that from the 12th to the 17th century Ibn Sina should be the guide of medical study in European universities, and eclipse the names of Rhazes, Ali ibn al-Abbas and Averroes. His work is not essentially different from that of his predecessor Rhazes, because he presented the doctrine of Galen, and through Galen the doctrine of Hippocrates, modified by the system of Aristotle.
But the Canon of Avicenna is distinguished from the Al-Hawi (Continens) or Summary of Rhazes by its greater method, due perhaps to the logical studies of the former. The work has been variously appreciated in subsequent ages, some regarding it as a treasury of wisdom, and others, like Averroes, holding it useful only as waste paper.
In modern times it has been more criticized than read. The vice of the book is excessive classification of bodily faculties, and over-subtlety in the discrimination of diseases. It includes five books; of which the first and second treat of physiology, pathology and hygiene, the third and fourth deal with the methods of treating disease, and the fifth describes the composition and preparation of remedies. This last part contains some personal observations. He is, like all his countrymen, ample in the enumeration of symptoms, and is said to be inferior to Ali in practical medicine and surgery. He introduced into medical theory the four causes of the Peripatetic system. Of natural history and botany he pretended to no special knowledge. Up to the year 1650, or thereabouts, the Canon was still used as a textbook in the universities of Leuven and Montpellier.
Scarcely any member of the Arabian circle of the sciences, including theology, philology, mathematics, astronomy, physics, and music, was left untouched by the treatises of Ibn Sina, many of which probably varied little, except in being commissioned by a different patron and having a different form or extent. He wrote at least one treatise on alchemy, but several others have been falsely attributed to him. His book on animals was translated by Michael Scot. His Logic, Metaphysics, Physics, and De Caelo, are treatises giving a synoptic view of Aristotelian doctrine. The Logic and Metaphysics have been printed more than once, the latter, e.g., at Venice in 1493, 1495, and 1546. Some of his shorter essays on medicine, logic, &c., take a poetical form (the poem on logic was published by Schmoelders in 1836).
Two encyclopaedic treatises, dealing with philosophy, are often mentioned. The larger, Al-Shifa’ (Sanatio), exists nearly complete in manuscript in the Bodleian Library and elsewhere; part of it on the De Anima appeared at Pavia (1490) as the Liber Sextus Naturalium, and the long account of Ibn Sina’s philosophy given by Shahrastani seems to be mainly an analysis, and in many places a reproduction, of the Al-Shifa’. A shorter form of the work is known as the An-najat (Liberatio). The Latin editions of part of these works have been modified by the corrections which the monastic editors confess that they applied. There is also a Philosophia Orientalis, mentioned by Roger Bacon, and now lost, which according to Averroes was pantheistic in tone.
In the museum at Bukhara, there are displays showing many of his writings, surgical instruments from the period and paintings of patients undergoing treatment.
In Iran, he is considered a Persian hero. He is often regarded as one of the greatest Persians who have ever lived. Many of his portraits and statues remain in Iran today. An impressive monument to the life and works of the man who is known as the ‘doctor of doctors’ still stands outside the Bukhara museum and his portrait hangs in the Hall of the Faculty of Medicine in the University of Paris.
Ibn Sina was interested in the effect of the mind on the body, and wrote a great deal on psychology, likely influencing Ibn Tufayl and Ibn Bajjah.
Along with Rhazes, Ibn Nafis, Al-Zahra and Al-Ibadi, he is considered an important compiler of Early Muslim medicine.
There is a crater on the moon called Avicenna which was named after him.