Human concerns – Avicenna (Ibn Sina) 980-1037

See on this site – Persian philosopher and physician, one of the main interpreters of Aristotle to the Islamic world. Avicenna wrote prolifically on science, religion, and philosophy, but many of his works have been lost. His best-known books include the million-word Canon of Medicine, a systematic synthesis of the medical and pharmacological knowledge of his time. It was used as a textbook in the Middle East and, through Latin translations, in Europe for several hundred years. Avicenna’s famous medical poem, al-Urjuzah fi’l-Tibb, survived in Arabic and Latin and was also widely read in Europe.

“He who has white hair has a cold temperament; the hair of the warm temperament is black; he who is less cold will have tawny hair; he who is less warm will have reddish hair; the one with a balanced temperament has tawny hair mixed with red.” (from The Poem on Medicine)
Abu Ali al-Husayn ibn Abd Allah ibn Sina, know in the West as Avicenna, was born in Afshana, near Bukhara (now in Uzbekistan), as the son of a provincial governor. In his childhood Avicenna made so rapid progress in learning, that several tutors were engaged to instruct him until he surpassed his teachers. According to his autobiography, he had knew by heart the Koran at the age of ten and at eighteen he had mastered mathematics, logic and physics.

Avicenna’s native language was Farsi (Persian), but the language of his education was Arabic. While still in his teens, he served as the court physician to Samanid ruler Nuh Ibn Mansur. Bukhara was the capital of Samanid dynasty, a cultured cosmopolitan city with a large royal library. There Avicenna devoured works of Greek philosophers and mathematicians, including Aristotle’s Metaphysics. The importance of the book opened to him after he read Intentions of Aristotle’s Metaphysics, an essay by al-Farabi (870-950) It taught him the meaning of seeing the nature of being as such. In his own works Avicenna combined Aristotelianism and Neoplatonic tradition with Islamic theology. His later writings showed Gnostic, Hermeneutic and mystical tendencies, as exemplified is Kitab al-Asherat (The Book of Admonitions).

Avicenna’s career at the court did not last long, the dynasty was defeated in 999 by Mahmud of Ghazna, the legendary Turkish conquerer. Much of his life Avicenna spent traveling from court to court in Persia, avoiding the grip of he expansive Ghaznavid rule. From Gurgan, where he met his lifetime companion Abu Obeyd Juzjani, he moved to Rayy, near modern Teheran. At one point he became the vizier or prime minister to Shams al-Dawlah of the Shii Buyid dynasty. During this period he wrote Kitab al-Shifa (The Book of Remedy) and Al-Qanun fi al-Tibb (The Canon of Medicine), which followed in its basic conceptions Galen and the theory of the four elements. “The opinion of Hippocrates on the subject of the elements is accurate; there are four of them: water, fire, earth, air. The proof of the accuracy of this notion is that after death, the body returns to them through necessity.” (from The Poem on Medicine) Canon of Medicine was translated in the West by a variety of scholars, such as John of Seville and Dominicus Jundissalinus.

After Shams al-Dawlah died, Avicenna was imprisoned. He fled from Hamadan and traveled to Esfahan (Isfahan), where he spent the last 14 years of his life. Aviceenna served as physician and adviser to the local ruler, ‘Ala’ ad-Dawlah, and wrote most of his nearly 200 treatises. Avicenna died in Hamadan at the age of fifty-eight. He had accompanied ‘Ala’ ad-Dawlah on a campaing, but this time his physical strength failed due to colic and exhaustion. According to some sources Avicenna died of excessive indulgence in wine and sex. Dante included Avicenna in Inferno in the first circle of Hell with great pagan scientists and writers:

Of qualities I saw the good collector,
Hight Dioscorides; and Orpheus saw I,
Tully and Livy, and moral Seneca,
Euclid, geometrician, and Ptolemy,
Galen, Hippocrates, and Avicenna,
Averroes, who the great Comment made.
Although Avicenna has influenced a number of Muslim, Jewish, and Western philosophers, among them Roger Bacon (c. 1214-c.1293) and John Duns Scotus (c. 1265-1308), his thoughts also have been much criticized. Contradicting Islamic orthodoxy, he held that only the soul, not the person, is immortal. He was the major target in the Muslim theologian al-Ghazali’s book Incoherence of the Philosophers. Al-Ghazali (d. 1111) saw that the Muslim Neoplatonists were is many questions in conflict with the fundamentals of religion. Al-Ghazali opposed their arguments of the eternity of the world, stating that God’s powers are infinite and He can bring the world into being or cause it to cease to exists as He pleases. Avicenna also did not accept creation by God ex nihilo. After Al-Ghazali’s attack on the philosophers, Avicenna’s writings were viewed with suspicion which limited the spread of his ideas. At the European universities his books became a part of the curriculum, but not at the madrasahs of the Islamic world. However, in the Farsi-speaking area Avicenna influenced the Illuminationist school of Sufism.

The Spanish-Arab philosopher Averroes (1126-98) criticized al-Farabi, Avicenna, and their followers for “distorting the teachings of the ancients in the science of metaphysics” – Avicenna was not faithful enough to Aristotle. Averroes considered Avicenna’s claim that the world is both possible and eternal self-contradictory. With respect to eternal entities Aristotle held that there is no possibility. Avicenna’s concept of universals, “The intellect is what makes universality in things,” was repeated by Albertus Magnus.

Until 1927, Avicenna’s alchemical text, De Mineralibus (On Metals) was ascribed to Aristotle, but Holmyard and D.C. Mandeville showed that it originated from Avicenna’s Book of Remedy, written at Hamadan about 1021-23. When his contemporaries believed that transmutation of the metals was possible, Avicenna did not believe that alchemists can make artificial gold. He regarded the transmutation as impossible, and stated that alchemists can only produce imitations. Later in the West Avicenna’s doubts were ignored and he was celebrated as one of the forerunners of the Hermetic art. Avicenna’s other works include the Shifta (Healing of the Soul), an account of the ancient knowledge in logic, physics, mathematics, and metaphysics. As a scientist Avicenna did not hesitate to try to prove his theories by experimental studies, when he was unconvinced by what other scientists had claimed in their works. In the section of the Shifta dealing with meteorology, he admitted that he failed to produce a satisfactory explanation of the rainbow colours, although he repeatedly made observations of the bow. He also wrongly emphasized that a dark background was necessary for the raindrops to act as mirrors. The first decades of his life Avicenna chronicled in his autobiography. Al-Juzjani also wrote a sketch of Avicenna’s life. (Read more here).

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