(History of the World: The Middle Ages)
0111200120-Avicenna.jpg Avicenna (Library of Congress) Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Article abstract: Avicenna was the first Islamic thinker to synthesize the philosophy of Aristotle and Plato with Islamic traditions. His writings on medicine were studied in Europe as late as the seventeenth century.

Early Life

Abū ʿAlī al-Husayn ibn ʿAbdallāh ibn Sīnā was born in 980 to Abd-Allah of Balkh (now in Afghanistan), the well-to-do governor of an outlying province under Samanid ruler Nuh II ibn Mansur. Avicenna may have descended from a Turkish family on his father’s side, but his mother, Sitara, was clearly Iranian.

After his brother, Mahmud, was born five years later, the family moved to Bukhara, one of the principal cities of Transoxiana and capital of the Samanid emirs from 819 to 1005. Exhibiting an early interest in learning, young Avicenna had read the entire Koran by age ten. His father was attracted to Ismaili Shiʿite doctrines, preached locally by Egyptian missionaries, but Avicenna resisted his father’s influence. There was much discussion in his home regarding geometry, philosophy, theology, and even accounting methods. Avicenna was sent to study with an Indian vegetable seller who was also a surveyor. It was from him that Avicenna became acquainted with the Indian system of calculation, making use of the zero in computations.

A well-known philosopher came to live with the family for a few years and had an extraordinary influence on the young scholar. Abu ʿAbd Allah al-Natili stimulated Avicenna’s love of theoretical disputation, and the youth’s earlier readings in jurisprudence enabled him to tax al-Natili’s powers of logic daily. The tutor convinced Abd-Allah that Avicenna’s career should be only in learning. Avicenna was studying Aristotelian logic and Euclidean geometry when the teacher decided to move to a different home. Soon Avicenna had mastered texts in natural sciences and metaphysics, then medicine, which he did not consider very difficult. He taught physicians, even practicing medicine for a short time. At the age of sixteen, he was also engaging in disputations on Muslim law.

For the next year and a half, Avicenna returned to the study of logic and all aspects of philosophy, keeping files of syllogisms and praying daily at the mosque for guidance in his work. So obsessed did he become with philosophical problems and so anxious to know all that he hardly took time for sleep. Aristotle’s Metaphysica (Metaphysics) became an intellectual stumbling block until his reading of a work by Abu Nasr al-Farabi clarified many ideas for him. Soon all of Aristotle became understandable, and Avicenna gave alms to the poor in gratitude.

When Sultan Nuh ibn Mansur of Bukhara became ill, he sent for Avicenna, upon the advice of his team of physicians. Because of his help in curing the ruler, Avicenna gained access to the palace library, thus acquainting himself with many new books. When not studying, Avicenna was given to drinking wine and satisfying a large sexual appetite which he retained to the end of his life. Avicenna claimed that after the age of eighteen he learned nothing new, only gained greater wisdom. When the palace library was destroyed in a fire, critics blamed Avicenna, who, they said, wished to remove the sources of his ideas. There is no proof of that charge.

Life’s Work

Avicenna’s writing career began in earnest at the age of twenty-one with al-Majmu (1001; compilation), a comprehensive book on learning for Abu al-Hasan, a prosodist. Then he wrote al-Hasil wa al-mahsul (c. 1002; the sun and substance), a twenty-volume commentary on jurisprudence, the Koran, and asceticism. There soon followed a work on ethics called al-Birr wa al-ithm (c. 1002; good works and evil). The sponsors made no copies of them, a matter of some concern to the author.

His father died in 1002, and Avicenna was forced to take government service. He reluctantly left Bukhara for Gurganj, the capital of Khwarazm, where he met Emir Ali ibn Mamun. From Gurganj, he moved to Fasa, Baward, Tus, Samanqan, and thence to Jajarm on the extreme end of Khurasan. He served Emir Qabus ibn Wushmagir until a military coup forced Avicenna to leave for Dihistan, where he became ill. After recovering, he moved to Jurjan.

In Jurjan, Avicenna met his pupil and biographer, Abu ʿUbaid al-Juzjani, who stayed with him throughout much of the remainder of his life. Juzjani thought him exceptionally handsome and wrote that when Avicenna went to the mosque on Friday to pray, people would gather to observe at first hand “his perfection and beauty.” While in Jurjan, Avicenna wrote al-Mukhtasar al-awsat (the middle summary on logic), al-Mabda wa al-maad (the origin and the return), and al-Arsad al-kulliya (comprehensive observations). There also Avicenna wrote the first part of al-Qanun fi al-tibb (Canon of Medicine), Mukhtasar al-Majisti (summary of the Almagest), and yet other treatises. One modern scholar lists one hundred books attributed...

(The entire section is 2074 words.)