Avicenna

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2074

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...

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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 to him. Another says that the list of Avicenna’s works includes several hundred in Arabic and twenty-three in Persian.

From Jurjan, Avicenna next moved to al-Rayy, joining the service of al-Saiyyida and her son, Majd al-Dawlah. Civil strife forced him to flee to Qazwin; from there he moved to Hamadhan, where he managed the affairs of Kadhabanuyah. He was called to the court of Emir Shams al-Dawlah to treat the ruler for colic, after which Avicenna was made the vizier of his emirate. Because of a mutiny in the army, however, the emir was forced to discharge him. After matters calmed down, Avicenna was called back and reinstated as vizier. During this period, public affairs occupied his daytime hours, and he spent evenings teaching and writing. When the emir died, Avicenna went into hiding, finishing work on his Kitab al-shifa (book of healing). He was arrested for corresponding with a rival ruler, but when Emir ʿAla al-Dawlah attacked Hamadhan four months later, Avicenna was set free.

Avicenna left Hamadhan for Isfahan with his brother, two slaves, and al-Juzjani to serve Emir ʿAla al-Dawlah. The emir designated every Friday evening for learned discussions with many other masters. Not present was a famous scholar and rival of Avicenna, Abu al-Rayhan al-Biruni, with whom he carried on a rather bitter correspondence. They had been clients at many of the same courts, but never at the same time. At Isfahan, Avicenna completed many of his writings on arithmetic and music. He was made an official member of the court and accompanied the emir on a military expedition to Hamadhan.

When he was rebuked by the emir’s cousin, Abu Mansur, for feigning expertise in philology, Avicenna was so stung by the criticism that he studied this subject frantically, compiling his discoveries in a book entitled Lisan al-Arab (the Arabic language). During these years, he also continued other experiments in medicine and astronomy. He introduced the use of medicinal herbs and devised an instrument to repair injured vertebrae. He understood that some illnesses arose from psychosomatic causes, and he wrote extensively on the pulse, preventive medicine, and the effects of climate on health. On May 24, 1032, he observed the rare phenomenon of Venus passing through the solar disk.

When he became ill in Isfahan, one of his slaves filled his meal with opium, hoping for his death and an opportunity to steal his money. Yet Avicenna managed to recover under self-treatment. Soon, however, he had a relapse; he died in 1037. Most authorities say that he died and was buried in Hamadhan.

Summary

The Canon of Medicine remained a principal source for medical research for six centuries, perhaps second only to the Christian Bible in the number of copies produced. Between 1470 and 1500, it went through thirty editions in Latin and one in Hebrew; a celebrated edition was published on a Gutenberg press in Rome in 1593. Avicenna’s principal literary contribution was the invention of the Rubaiyat form, quatrains in iambic pentameter, later made famous by Omar Khayyam. Most important of all, Avicenna’s philosophical system helped to stimulate a genuine intellectual renaissance in Islam that had enormous influence not only in his own culture but in Western Europe as well. Thomas Aquinas, Averroës, John Duns Scotus, Albertus Magnus, and Roger Bacon learned much from Avicenna, even though they disagreed on some particulars.

Most intriguing to the medieval Scholastics were Avicenna’s insistence upon essences in everything, the distinction between essence and existence (a notion derived from al-Farabi), the absence of essence in God (whose existence is unique), and the immortality of the soul (which animates the body but is independent of it).

According to some scholars, Avicenna’s insistence upon observation and experimentation helped to turn Western thought in the direction of the modern scientific revolution. His theories on the sources of infectious diseases, his explanation of sight, his invention of longitude, and his other scientific conclusions have a truly remarkable congruence with modern explanations. The application of geometrical forms in Islamic art, his use of the astrolabe in astronomical experiments, and his disputations on the immortality of the soul demonstrate Avicenna’s universal genius.

Bibliography

Afnan, Soheil M. Avicenna: His Life and Works. London: George Allen and Unwin, 1958. The author stresses the impact of Avicenna’s philosophy upon the thinkers of the Arabic-speaking world.

Arberry, Arthur J. Avicenna on Theology. London: John Murray, 1951. This important brief work contains Avicenna’s own autobiography and its continuation by his disciple and companion, Abu ʿUbaid al-Juzjani, as well as Arberry’s discussion of Avicenna’s defense of monotheism and the immortality of the soul.

Avicenna. The Life of Ibn Sina: A Critical Edition. Translated by William E. Gohlman. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1974. Contains an annotated edition of Avicenna’s autobiography, the contemporary account of his life by Juzjani, and a critical examination of the bibliography about Avicenna.

Brown, H. V. B. “Avicenna and the Christian Philosophers in Baghdad.” In Islamic Philosophy and the Classical Tradition: Essays to Richard Walzer, edited by S. M. Stern, Albert Hourani, and Vivian Brown. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1973. A clear presentation of Avicenna’s philosophical differences with both Aristotle and the Peripatetic thinkers of the Baghdad school, despite his fundamental adherence to the rationalism of Aristotelian traditions. The Greek master’s ambivalence on the purposiveness of nature led Avicenna to reject any rational choice in nature, in contrast to the approach of the Baghdad scholars.

Copleston, Frederick. A History of Philosophy. Vol. 2. Westminster, Md.: Newman Press, 1955. Copleston clarifies not only the contributions of Arab philosophy to European medieval thought but also the diversity within this Islamic renaissance. Particular attention is focused upon Avicenna and Averroës.

Goichon, Amélie M. The Philosophy of Avicenna and Its Influence on Medieval Europe. Translated by M. S. Khan. Delhi: Motil al Banarsidass, 1969. Three lectures, originally in French, make up the three chapters of this fine work on the main theses of Avicenna’s philosophy, the adaptation of the Arabic language to Hellenic thought, and the influence of Avicenna’s ideas on European intellectual developments in the Middle Ages. Not addressed are Avicenna’s contributions to medicine and the natural sciences.

Hitti, Phillip K. Makers of Arab History. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1968. This eminent historian of the Arab world discusses Avicenna and twelve other outstanding figures, from Muhammad to Ibn Khaldūn. A valuable feature of this work is its incorporation of eight historical maps.

Maurer, Armand A. Medieval Philosophy. New York: Random House, 1962. Reprint. Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1982. Maurer presents a summary of Avicenna’s arguments on being, necessity, and essence; on proofs for the existence of God; on the doctrine of creation; and on man’s intuitive knowledge of his soul. Although an Aristotelian, Avicenna, according to Maurer, also had links with the Neoplatonists and the later followers of Saint Augustine.

Morain, Lloyd L. “Avicenna: Asian Humanist Forerunner.” The Humanist 41 (March/April, 1981): 27-34. A valuable article containing numerous reproductions of artifacts and sketches of Avicenna. Anatomical drawings used in Avicenna’s writings and other depictions of his medical treatments appear in this article as well as portraits, a commemorative stamp, and a photograph of his mausoleum.

Peters, F. E. Aristotle and the Arabs. New York: New York University Press, 1968. Falsafah, the term used to describe the tenth century reception of classical Greek science and philosophy, was in fact a blend of Hellenic learning with Islamic ideas. This is the subject of Peters’ book, but the synthesis of which he writes is not only that of Islam and Hellenism but that of scholarship on this subject since the nineteenth century.

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