Avicenna 980-1037

(Full name Abū 'Alī al-Husayn ibn 'Abd-Allāh ibn Sīnā) Persian philosopher and physician.

A Muslim religious philosopher and physician, Avicenna attempted to synthesize the ideas of Islam, Plato, and Aristotle. From his point of view of philosophical monotheism he thus developed the Aristotelianism (as interpreted by the neo-Platonists) that became the basis of most Muslim philosophy of that period and that helped transmit the teachings of Aristotle to the West. In addition, Avicenna's medical writings, especially his Al Qānūn fī al-Tibb (Canon of Medicine), collected the medical knowledge of Avicenna's predecessors and served as standard medical texts for several centuries.

Biographical Information

Abū 'Alī al-Husayn ibn 'Abd-Allāh ibn Sīnā, called Avicenna by his Latin translators, was born in 980 in Afshana, near Bukhārā, Persia. At an early age, Avicenna undertook both a secular and a traditional Islamic religious education: he learned grammar, dialectics, astronomy, geometry, and arithmetic, and he knew the Qur'ān by rote at the age of ten. Recognizing his son's precocity, Avicenna's father hired a tutor named al-Nātilī, who introduced Avicenna to logic, geometry, and astronomy; under his tutelage, Avicenna read Porphyry's Isagoge and the first propositions of Euclid. However, doubting his tutor's abilities, Avicenna began an intensive regimen of self-education. Aided by commentaries, he mastered logic, geometry, and the Almagest of Ptolemy. When al-Nātilī departed, Avicenna studied medicine, at which he excelled and which he soon began to teach. Then, when he was sixteen years old, he began an intensive study of logic and philosophy that lasted for one and a half years. Avicenna read constantly, and when he encountered a passage he did not comprehend, he went to a mosque and prayed for understanding. His studies were interrupted, however, when in 997 he was summoned with other physicians to attend the ruler Nūh ibn Mansūr, who was suffering from a dangerous illness. After helping him recover, Avicenna became court physician and was given access to the Sāmānid library, where he immersed himself in rare and unique books. There Avicenna completed his studies, and when his father died in 999, he left the Sāmānids, whose realm was disintegrating. Avicenna travelled to various regions, serving as physician to several Persian princes, the most notable of which was Shams al-Dawla of Hamadhān. He served as vizier and physician to al-Dawla, himself a poet and a scholar, from 1015 to 1022. During this time, Avicenna lectured on logic and astronomy, wrote several treatises dedicated to his patron, and completed his Canon of Medicine. Political turmoil led to a four-month imprisonment, but Avicenna escaped to Esfahan, where he served as vizier to its ruler, Abū Ya'far 'Alā al-Dawla. Encouraged to pursue his scientific and philosophical investigations, Avicenna began to study literature and philology. However, his health began to decline, and, after taking harsh medicines for some time with little improvement, he resigned himself to dying. Avicenna freed his slaves, gave his wealth to the poor, and listened to readings from the Qur'ān. He died in 1037 while accompanying his patron on a military expedition against Hamadhān, where he is buried.

Major Works

About one hundred treatises have been attributed to Avicenna, some in Persian, but most in Arabic. Between 1012 and 1022 Avicenna wrote his major medical work, an encyclopedia of medical knowledge known to the West as the Canon of Medicine. Primarily comprised of the teachings of Hippocrates modified by Aristotle as heard through Galen, the Canon consists of five books covering physiology, pathology, hygiene, methods of treating disease, and pharmacology. Besides assembling the cumulative learning of his predecessors, Avicenna also introduced a number of herbs into medical use, and was aware of the antiseptic affects of alcohol and of the psychosomatic nature of some illnesses. Avicenna's philosophical magnum opus is the Kitīb al-Shifā' (Book of Healing, written between 1020 and 1027), an eighteen-volume encyclopedia with sections on logic, physics, mathematics, metaphysics, psychology, and natural history. As was the custom among Aristotelians at the time, Avicenna often paraphrased Aristotle's texts and interspersed them with many of his own original thoughts. In addition to his philosophical and medical works, Avicenna also wrote symbolic mystical narratives and Arabic verse, some of which was erroneously attributed to Omar Khayyám.

Textual History

Avicenna kept few of his own manuscripts, so that when he died they were scattered throughout collections in the Middle East. A Hebrew version of the Canon was published in Naples in 1491, as was an Arabic edition in Rome in 1593. About thirty editions in Latin appeared shortly afterward, all based on the original translation by Gerard of Cremona. Other medical works translated into Latin were Medicamenta Cordialia, Canticum de Medicina, and Tractatus de Syrupo Acetoso. Nearly complete manuscripts of the Shifā exist in the Bodleian library and elsewhere. Translated into Latin by Dominicus Gundissalinus (Gondisalvi) with the assistance of Avendeath ibn Daud, the Shifā sparked the revival of Aristotle at the end of the twelfth and beginning of the thirteenth century. Separately published sections—De Anima, Logic, Metaphysics, Physics, and De Caelo—were also printed several times, including a Pavian edition in 1490 and Venetian editions in 1493, 1495, and 1546.

Critical Reception

Avicenna's best-known work, and that to which he primarily owes his reputation as the "Prince of the Physicians," is the Canon of Medicine, which was widely read in the West and remained a standard medical textbook for several hundred years. The Canon elicited a great deal of commentary, especially in the fifteenth century, and was a guide for medical studies in Europe from the twelfth to the seventeenth centuries: it was still used at the universities of Louvain and Montpellier in France as late as 1650. Not until dissection was allowed in European universities were certain anatomical and physiological errors of Galen, passed on by Avicenna, discovered. In addition to his renown in medical studies, Avicenna's philosophical contributions earned him the title "Second Teacher" (after Aristotle) among Arabs and Princeps Philosophorum—"The Great Master"—among Western Scholastics. His Shifā exerted a strong influence on Muslims, Jews, and Christians alike and led to the revival of interest in Aristotle in the Middle Ages. Avicenna's attempt to fuse Aristotle's tenets and Islamic beliefs, however, eventually aroused the hostility of Islamic theologians. Al-Ghazālī's Incoherence of the Philosophers was directed primarily against Avicenna; overcome by the opposition of orthodox religious leaders, the popularity of Avicenna's philosophy quickly declined in the Middle East. Still, such Western Medieval philosophers as Roger Bacon and such theologians as Thomas Aquinas, Albertus Magnus, and John Duns Scotus were greatly influenced by Avicenna. His concept of God as the being in whom existence and essence are identical was widely accepted, especially by Aquinas and Maimonides. Although they point out that Avicenna's influence in the West has not been fully appreciated, critics agree that Avicenna's medical and philosophical works greatly contributed to learning in Medieval Europe and indelibly affected the history of mid-Eastern science and philosophy.