In spite of the enormous difference between the science of his day and contemporary science, Ibn Sina (Avicenna) remains an essential link in the science and religion discourse. This is so because Ibn Sina addressed some of the most fundamental questions regarding the relationship between science and religion: How did the cosmos come into existence?; What is the role of God in the unfolding of human and cosmic destinies?; How does God interact with created beings? These and many other questions critical to contemporary discussions occupy a central position in Ibn Sina's philosophy, if not his science.
Life and writings
Abu'liAli al-Husayn Ibn 'Abd Allah Ibn Sina, whose name was Latinized as Avicenna during the Middle Ages, is known in the Muslim world as Ibn Sina. He was one of the most important representatives of the encyclopedic tradition of learning that was the hallmark of Islamic scholarship. Honorifically called al-Shaykh al-Ra'is ( the Grand Shaykh), Ibn Sina was born in 980 c.e. in Afshana, his mother's home town near present-day Bukhara, Uzbekistan, during the reign of Amir Nuh ibn Mansur al-Samani.
We know about his life and works from two authoritative sources: an autobiography that covers the first thirty years of his life and a detailed life-sketch left behind by his disciple and friend al-Juzjani. Ibn Sina's father was a high official of the Samanid administration. His native language was Persian and he was first educated at home and then sent to learn jurisprudence from Isma'il al-Zahid. He studied Ptolemy's Almagest, Euclid's Elements, and logic with the famous mathematician Abu 'Abdallah al-Natili. By the time of his sixteenth birthday, Ibn Sina had mastered physics, medicine, metaphysics, and he was well-known as a physician. During the next two years, he was able to master Aristotle's metaphysics with the help of al-Farabi's commentary.
The first important turning point in the life of Ibn Sina came in the year 997 when, as a physician, he successfully treated the ruler of Bukhara, Nuh ibn Mansur; this opened the doors of one of the best libraries of its time to the young Ibn Sina. He spent the next several months in the palace library and saturated his mind with the best of medieval learning to such an extent that many years later he remarked to his disciple Juzjani, "I now know the same amount as then but more maturely and deeply; otherwise the truth of learning and knowledge is the same."
The earliest of Ibn Sina's surviving works date from 1001 when he was twenty-one; these include the twenty-volume Kitab al-hasil wa' l-mahsul (Book of sum and substance) dealing with all sciences, Kitab al-majmu' (Book of compilation) on mathematics, and Kitab al-birr wa 'l- ithm (Book of virtue and sin) on ethics.
The second important turning point in Ibn Sina's life can be traced back to the year 1002 when his father died amidst political turmoil and war, and Ibn Sina left Bukhara for Jurjaniyah, then the capital of the Khwarazmian dynasty, where he found patronage in the court of the ruler, Abu'l Hasan Ahmad ibn Muhammad al-Suhaili. It was for al-Suhaili that Ibn Sina wrote two treatises on mathematics and astronomy, Kitab al-tadarik li anwa' al-khata fi' l tadbir (Book of remedy for mistaken planetary positions) and Qiyam al-ard fi wasat al-sama' (The Establishment of earth in the middle of the sky). But Ibn Sina had to flee again because of political turmoil. He set out for Jurjan because of the reputation of its ruler as a lover of learning but when Ibn Sina arrived in the kingdom of Qabus in 1012, he discovered that the ruler had died. After ten years of moving from place to place, Ibn Sina finally settled in Ispahan in present day Iran, where he composed his masterpieces during a fifteen-year period of calm and peace. When Masud of Ghaza attacked Ispahan, this peace came to end, and Ibn Sina returned to Hamadan where he died of colic during the month of Ramadan in the year 1037.
Ibn Sina's surviving works include more than two hundred and fifty books, treatises, and letters on philosophy, cosmology, medicine, and religion. The most important among these are the voluminous Kitab al-Shifa' (Book of healing), Kitaba al-Najat (Book of salvation), Danishnama-yi i ala' I (Divine wisdom), 'Uyun al-Hikmah, al-Isharat wa' l tanbihat (Remarks and admonitions), and the famous al-Qanun fi' l-tibb (The Canon of medicine).
Ibn Sina's philosophy is based on an ontological foundation in which God, the Necessary Being (wajib al-wujud), is the only being that is pure goodness, the source of all existence. Everything else derives its being (mahiyya) and its existence (wujud) from the Necessary Being and hence is contingent upon God. The contingent beings (mumkin al-wujud) are then divided into two kinds: (1) Those that are necessary in the sense that they cannot "not be"; they are contingent by themselves but receive from the First Cause the quality of being necessary. These beings are the simple substances (mujarradat). And (2) those beings that are only contingent, the composed bodies of the sublunary world that come into being and pass away. Ibn Sina's importance is based on the fact that he attempted to integrate Greek philosophy and Islam in an original synthesis that places God at the center of a philosophy that is essentially based on self-evident truths. According to Ibn Sina, the idea of "being" is so rooted in the human mind that it could be perceived outside of the sensible, though the first certitude apprehended by the human mind is the one that comes by means of sense perception.
In a prefiguration of the Cartesian Cogito ergo sum (I think, therefore I am), Ibn Sina based his philosophy on intuition (hads) and on the notion that the human soul is independent of body, and hence capable of apprehending itself directly. According to Ibn Sina, the Necessary Being produces a single Intelligence (because from the One can only come one). This Intelligence possesses a duality of being and knowledge; it introduces multiplicity into the world; from it can derive another Intelligence, a celestial soul, and a celestial body. Then, according to Ptolemy's system, this creative emanation descends from sphere to sphere as far as a tenth pure Intelligence, which governs our terrestrial world; this terrestrial world is unlike the other worlds because it is made of corruptible matter. This multiplicity surpasses human knowledge but is perfectly possessed and dominated by the active Intelligence, the tenth Intelligence. Ibn Sina demonstrated this in a highly original poetic narration, Hayy ibn Yakzan (The living, the son of the Awakened).
Among Ibn Sina's medical works, Canon of Medicine, is the ordered summation of all the medical knowledge up to his time. Divided into five books, this major work of Islamic medical tradition was used as the basic textbook for teaching medicine for seven centuries both in the East as well as in the West. Translated by Gerard of Cremona between 1150 and 1187, the Canon formed the basis of teaching at all European universities. It appears in the oldest known syllabus given to the School of Medicine at Montpellier, a bull of Pope Clement V dating from 1309, and in all subsequent ones until 1557. The Arabic text was edited at Rome in 1593; in all, eighty-seven translations, some incomplete, exist in various European languages.
Ibn Sina's influence on the subsequent development of intellectual thought is vast. In the Muslim world, his philosophy was instrumental in the emergence of Ishraqi (Illuminist) school of Suhrawardi. Ibn ' combined it with the Gnostic doctrines and Mulla Sadra integrated it into the intellectual perspectives of Shi'ism. In the West, medieval philosopher Thomas Aquinas embodied some of Ibn Sina's proofs in the Catholic theology and although the Renaissance brought a violent reaction against him, Ibn Sina holds a secure place in the history of Western philosophy through his influence on major Christian philosophers.
gohlman, william e. the life of ibn sina: a critical edition and annotated translation. albany: state university of new york press, 1974.
gutas, dimitri. avicenna and the aristotelian tradition: introduction to reading avicenna's philosophical works. leiden. netherlands: e. j. brill, 1988.
hamarneh, sami. "abu 'ali al-hussain bin 'abdallah bin sina (avicenna) (980–1037)." in the genius of arab civilization: source of renaissance, ed. john r. hayes. london: eurabia, 1983.
corbin, henry. avicenna and the visionary recital, trans. willard trask. new york: pantheon, 1960.
nasr, seyyed hossein. an introduction to islamic cosmological doctrines. albany: state university of new york press, 1993.
marmura, michael e., ed. islamic theology and philosophy: studies in honor of george f. hourani. albany: state university press of new york, 1984.
wickens, g. m., ed. avicenna, scientist and philosopher: a millenary symposium. london: luzac, 1952.
Avicenna (ca. 980-1037) was an Arabic physician and philosopher. He wove classical dicta into a rational, consistent system that dominated European medical thought from the late 12th to the 17th century.
Born in Afshana in the district of Bukhara, Avicenna, or Abu Ali al-Husain ibn Addullah ibn Sina, was the son of a government official. The family soon moved to the city of Bukhara, the capital of the province, and known throughout the Islamic world as a center of learning and culture. There Avicenna began his studies and by the age of 16 had mastered not only natural science and rudimentary metaphysics but also medical theory, having read, by his own account, all the books written on this subject. Not satisfied with merely a theoretical understanding of medicine, he began to treat the sick, obtaining empirical knowledge in this manner and also effecting remarkable cures.
The sultan of Bukhara appointed Avicenna as one of his physicians, who then had access to the sultan's vast library. By the time Avicenna was 18, he had read all the books. An early work written by Avicenna was an encyclopedia that included all branches of knowledge except mathematics; it ran to 20 volumes.
Avicenna had difficulty earning a livelihood after the sultan's death, and at the age of 22 he left Bukhara and wandered westward. At Jurjan, near the Caspian Sea, Avicenna lectured on logic and astronomy and wrote the first part of the Canon, his most significant medical work. He then moved to Ray (near modern Teheran), where he established a busy medical practice. There he is believed to have composed about 30 of his shorter works.
Physician to Rulers
When Ray was besieged, Avicenna fled to Hamadan, ruled by the emir Shams al-Daula. Avicenna became the emir's physician and confidant and was soon appointed to the office of vizier. Since his daylight hours were spent in attendance on the emir, Avicenna was forced to pursue his teaching and studying at night. Students would gather in his home and read the parts of his two great books, the Shifa and the Canon, already composed. He would dictate additional chapters and explain the principles underlying them to his pupils.
When Shams al-Daula died, Avicenna resigned his government office, went into hiding, and passed the time drafting a final, detailed outline of the Shifa. He sent a letter to the ruler of Isfahan, asking for a position in his government. When the new emir of Hamadan learned of this, he imprisoned Avicenna. While in prison Avicenna wrote several treatises. He longed to live in Isfahan, the jeweled city of central Persia, and a few months after his release from prison he, his brother, a pupil, and two slaves disguised themselves as religious ascetics and fled to Isfahan.
Avicenna spent his final years in the service of the ruler of the city, Ala al-Daula, whom he advised on scientific and literary matters and accompanied on military campaigns. An unexpected dividend of these excursions in the field was the completion of Avicenna's chapter of the Shifa dealing with botany and zoology.
Once, while Avicenna was ill, his slaves gave him an overdose of opium, ransacked his possessions, and escaped. Avicenna never fully recovered from this experience. In his last days he is said to have distributed alms to the poor, freed his slaves, and listened to readings from the Koran. He died during June 1037 and was buried at Hamadan.
Although one Islamic bibliographer lists only 21 major and 24 minor works of Avicenna, other titles swell the total to at least 99 treatises dealing with philosophy, medicine, geometry, astronomy, theology, philology, and art. Young students in the Arab world still memorize his poems. The most significant of his scientific writings are the book on healing, Kitab al Shifa, a philosophical encyclopedia based on the Aristotelian tradition as modified by Moslem theology and Neoplatonic influences; and Al-Qanun fi al Tibb, or the Canon, which represents Avicenna's codification of Greco-Arabic medical thought.
If the Shifa exerted less influence in the West than did the Canon, this fact is explained partly by the difficulty of the subject matter and partly by the condition in which it reached Western scholars. When the Shifa was first translated into Latin during the 12th century, it was fragmented. The translators omitted the section on mathematics, presented only a small part of the chapters on physics and logic, and included a section on astronomy apparently written by someone else. Later translators were influenced by the efforts of their predecessors, and although parts of the Shifa originally overlooked or suppressed were translated subsequently, the composite nature of the work was not fully understood in the West until comparatively recently.
The Canon, in contrast, was rendered completely into Latin by one man, the great 12th-century translator of Arabic scientific works, Gerard of Cremona. The vast medical encyclopedia is divided into five books dealing with the theory of medicine, the simpler drugs, special pathology and therapeutics, general diseases, and pharmacopoeia.
Although much material in the second and fifth books was derived from the writings of Dioscurides, most data in the remainder of the Canon can be traced to three essential sources. Avicenna drew on the writings in the Hippocratic Corpus for fundamental doctrines. His sources for much of the anatomy and physiology were the writings of Galen. Avicenna's final authority was usually Aristotle. That Avicenna introduced the four causes of the peripatetic system into medical theory is indicative of adherence to Aristotelian principles, as is the fact that the entire Canon is arranged according to Aristotelian dialectic.
The synergistic quality of the Canon was certainly a major factor contributing to its success, and the work soon was regarded as superior even to its sources. Avicenna's book superseded the earlier medical encyclopedias and became the most important single work on medicine in the Western world. It remained a required text in certain European medical schools until the mid-17th century, and in certain Asian countries it is influential even today.
Avicenna's brief autobiography, "Life of a Philosopher," completed by his student al-Juzjani, is in A. J. Arberry, Aspects of Islamic Civilization as Depicted in the Original Texts (1964). Soheil M. Afnan, Avicenna: His Life and Works (1958), covers all aspects of Avicenna's work and thought. Max Meyerhof's article, "Science and Medicine," in Sir Thomas Arnold and Alfred Guillaume, eds., The Legacy of Islam (1931), contains a brief biographical sketch of Avicenna. For more specialized studies see E. G. Browne, Arabian Medicine (1921); George Sarton, Introduction to the History of Science, vol. 1: From Homer to Omar Khayyam (1927); A. J. Arberry, Avicenna on Theology (1951); F. Rahman, Avicenna's Psychology (1952); Henry Corbin, Avicenna and the Visionary Recital (1960); and Seyyed Hossein Nasr, An Introduction to Islamic Cosmological Doctrines (1964) and Three Muslim Sages: Avicenna, Suhrawardi, Ibn Arabi (1964).
Avicenna, 980-1037, Avicenna on theology, Westport, Conn.: Hyperion Press, 1979.
Afnan, Soheil Muhsin, Avicenna, his life and works, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1980, 1958.
Goodman, Lenn Evan, Avicenna, London; New York: Routledge, 1992.
Avicenna, 980-1037, The life of Ibn Sina; a critical edition and annotated translation, Albany, State University of New York Press, 1974. □
Named Aben Sina by Hebrew writers, but properly Ebor Sina, or—to give his names in full—Al-Sheikh Al-Rayis Abu Ali Al-Hossein ben Abdallah ben Sina. He was born at Kharmatain, near Bokhara, in the year of the Hegira 370, or 980 C.E., and was educated at Bokhara. He displayed such extraordinary precocity that when he had reached his tenth year, he had completely mastered the Quran and acquired a knowledge of algebra, Muslim theology, and the His ab ul-Hind, or the arithmetic of the Hindus. Under Abdallah Al-Natheli he studied logic, Euclid, and the Almagest, and then, as a diversion, devoted himself to the study of medicine.
He was only 21 when he composed his Kitab al-Majmu or, The Book of the Sum Total, whose mysteries he afterward attempted to clarify in a 20-volume commentary.
Avicenna's reputation for wisdom and erudition was so great that on the death of his father he was promoted by Sultan Magdal Douleth to the high office of grand vizier, which he held with advantage to the state until a political revolution accomplished the downfall of the Samanide dynasty. He then abandoned Bokhara and wandered from place to place, increasing his store of knowledge but yielding himself to a life of sensuality.
About 1012 he retired to Jurjân, where he began his great work on medicine, which is still considered one of the earliest systems of that art with any pretensions to philosophical completeness. It is arranged with singular clearness and presents a very admirable résumé of the doctrines of the ancient Greek physicians. Avicenna subsequently lived at Rai, Karzwîn, and Ispahan, where he became physician to the Persian sovereign. He is said to have been dismissed from this post on account of his debauched living. He then retired to Hamadan, where, worn out with years of sensual indulgence, he died, at the age of 58.
Avicenna wrote nearly 100 works on philosophy, mathematics, and medicine and at least seven treatises on the philosophers' stone of alchemy. His Book of the Canon of Medicine acquired European celebrity and has been translated into Latin several times.