The knowledge of anything, since all things have causes, is not acquired or complete unless it is known by its causes. -Avicenna
Avicenna was a Persian polymath who is regarded as one of the most significant thinkers and writers of the Islamic Golden Age.
Of the 450 works he is known to have written, around 240 have survived, including 150 on philosophy and 40 on medicine.
His most famous works are The Book of Healing – a philosophical and scientific encyclopedia, and The Canon of Medicine – a medical encyclopedia which became a standard medical text at many medieval universities and remained in use as late as 1650. In 1973, Avicenna’s Canon Of Medicine was reprinted in New York.
Besides philosophy and medicine, Avicenna’s corpus includes writings on astronomy, alchemy, geography and geology, psychology, Islamic theology, logic, mathematics, physics and poetry.
Ibn Sina created an extensive corpus of works during what is commonly known as the Islamic Golden Age, in which the translations of Greco-Roman, Persian, and Indian texts were studied extensively. Greco-Roman (Mid- and Neo-Platonic, and Aristotelian) texts translated by the Kindi school were commented, redacted and developed substantially by Islamic intellectuals, who also built upon Persian and Indian mathematical systems, astronomy, algebra, trigonometry and medicine. The Samanid dynasty in the eastern part of Persia, Greater Khorasan and Central Asia as well as the Buyid dynasty in the western part of Persia and Iraq provided a thriving atmosphere for scholarly and cultural development. Under the Samanids, Bukhara rivaled Baghdad as a cultural capital of the Islamic world.
The study of the Quran and the Hadith thrived in such a scholarly atmosphere. Philosophy, Fiqh and theology (kalaam) were further developed, most noticeably by Avicenna and his opponents. Al-Razi and Al-Farabi had provided methodology and knowledge in medicine and philosophy. Avicenna had access to the great libraries of Balkh, Khwarezm, Gorgan, Rey, Isfahan and Hamadan. Various texts (such as the ‘Ahd with Bahmanyar) show that he debated philosophical points with the greatest scholars of the time. Aruzi Samarqandi describes how before Avicenna left Khwarezm he had met Al-Biruni (a famous scientist and astronomer), Abu Nasr Iraqi (a renowned mathematician), Abu Sahl Masihi (a respected philosopher) and Abu al-Khayr Khammar (a great physician).
Avicenna was born c. 980 in Afšana, a village near Bukhara (in present-day Uzbekistan), the capital of the Samanids, a Persian dynasty in Central Asia and Greater Khorasan. His mother, named Setareh, was from Bukhara; his father, Abdullah, was a respected Ismaili scholar from Balkh, an important town of the Samanid Empire, in what is today Balkh Province, Afghanistan. His father worked in the government of Samanid in the village Kharmasain, a Sunni regional power. After five years, his younger brother, Mahmoud, was born. Avicenna first began to learn the Quran and literature in such a way that when he was ten years old he had essentially learned all of them.
A number of theories have been proposed regarding Avicenna’s madhab (school of thought within Islamic jurisprudence). Medieval historian Ẓahīr al-dīn al-Bayhaqī (d. 1169) considered Avicenna to be a follower of the Brethren of Purity. On the other hand, Dimitri Gutas along with Aisha Khan and Jules J. Janssens demonstrated that Avicenna was a Sunni Hanafi. However, the 14th century Shia faqih Nurullah Shushtari according to Seyyed Hossein Nasr, maintained that he was most likely a Twelver Shia. Conversely, Sharaf Khorasani, citing a rejection of an invitation of the Sunni Governor Sultan Mahmoud Ghazanavi by Avicenna to his court, believes that Avicenna was an Ismaili. Similar disagreements exist on the background of Avicenna’s family, whereas some writers considered them Sunni, some more recent writers contested that they were Shia.
According to his autobiography, Avicenna had memorised the entire Quran by the age of 10. He learned Indian arithmetic from an Indian greengrocer,ءMahmoud Massahi and he began to learn more from a wandering scholar who gained a livelihood by curing the sick and teaching the young. He also studied Fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) under the Sunni Hanafi scholar Ismail al-Zahid. Avicenna was taught some extent of philosophy books such as Introduction (Isagoge)’s Porphyry (philosopher), Euclid’s Elements, Ptolemy’s Almagest by an unpopular philosopher, Abu Abdullah Nateli, who claimed philosophizing.
Ibn Sina’s first appointment was that of physician to the emir, Nuh II, who owed him his recovery from a dangerous illness (997). Ibn Sina’s chief reward for this service was access to the royal library of the Samanids, well-known patrons of scholarship and scholars. When the library was destroyed by fire not long after, the enemies of Ibn Sina accused him of burning it, in order for ever to conceal the sources of his knowledge. Meanwhile, he assisted his father in his financial labors, but still found time to write some of his earliest works.
Ibn Sina subsequently settled at Rey, in the vicinity of modern Tehran, the home town of Rhazes; where Majd Addaula, a son of the last Buwayhid emir, was nominal ruler under the regency of his mother (Seyyedeh Khatun). About thirty of Ibn Sina’s shorter works are said to have been composed in Rey. Constant feuds which raged between the regent and her second son, Shams al-Daula, however, compelled the scholar to quit the place. After a brief sojourn at Qazvin he passed southwards to Hamadãn where Shams al-Daula, another Buwayhid emir, had established himself. At first, Ibn Sina entered into the service of a high-born lady; but the emir, hearing of his arrival, called him in as medical attendant, and sent him back with presents to his dwelling. Ibn Sina was even raised to the office of vizier. The emir decreed that he should be banished from the country. Ibn Sina, however, remained hidden for forty days in sheikh Ahmed Fadhel’s house, until a fresh attack of illness induced the emir to restore him to his post. Even during this perturbed time, Ibn Sina persevered with his studies and teaching. Every evening, extracts from his great works, the Canon and the Sanatio, were dictated and explained to his pupils. On the death of the emir, Ibn Sina ceased to be vizier and hid himself in the house of an apothecary, where, with intense assiduity, he continued the composition of his works.
Meanwhile, he had written to Abu Ya’far, the prefect of the dynamic city of Isfahan, offering his services. The new emir of Hamadan, hearing of this correspondence and discovering where Ibn Sina was hiding, incarcerated him in a fortress. War meanwhile continued between the rulers of Isfahan and Hamadãn; in 1024 the former captured Hamadan and its towns, expelling the Tajik mercenaries. When the storm had passed, Ibn Sina returned with the emir to Hamadan, and carried on his literary labors. Later, however, accompanied by his brother, a favorite pupil, and two slaves, Ibn Sina escaped from the city in the dress of a Sufi ascetic. After a perilous journey, they reached Isfahan, receiving an honorable welcome from the prince.
The remaining ten or twelve years of Ibn Sīnā’s life were spent in the service of the Kakuyid ruler Muhammad ibn Rustam Dushmanziyar (also known as Ala al-Dawla), whom he accompanied as physician and general literary and scientific adviser, even in his numerous campaigns.
During these years he began to study literary matters and philology, instigated, it is asserted, by criticisms on his style. A severe colic, which seized him on the march of the army against Hamadan, was checked by remedies so violent that Ibn Sina could scarcely stand. On a similar occasion the disease returned; with difficulty he reached Hamadan, where, finding the disease gaining ground, he refused to keep up the regimen imposed, and resigned himself to his fate.
The Canon of Medicine
Avicenna authored a five-volume medical encyclopedia: The Canon of Medicine (Al-Qanun fi’t-Tibb). It was used as the standard medical textbook in the Islamic world and Europe up to the 18th century. The Canon still plays an important role in Unani medicine.
In the Al-Burhan (On Demonstration) section of The Book of Healing, Avicenna discussed the philosophy of science and described an early scientific method of inquiry. He discusses Aristotle’s Posterior Analytics and significantly diverged from it on several points. Avicenna discussed the issue of a proper methodology for scientific inquiry and the question of “How does one acquire the first principles of a science?” He asked how a scientist would arrive at “the initial axioms or hypotheses of a deductive science without inferring them from some more basic premises?” He explains that the ideal situation is when one grasps that a “relation holds between the terms, which would allow for absolute, universal certainty.” Avicenna then adds two further methods for arriving at the first principles: the ancient Aristotelian method of induction (istiqra), and the method of examination and experimentation (tajriba). Avicenna criticized Aristotelian induction, arguing that “it does not lead to the absolute, universal, and certain premises that it purports to provide.” In its place, he develops a “method of experimentation as a means for scientific inquiry.”
An early formal system of temporal logic was studied by Avicenna. Although he did not develop a real theory of temporal propositions, he did study the relationship between temporalis and the implication. Avicenna’s work was further developed by Najm al-Dīn al-Qazwīnī al-Kātibī and became the dominant system of Islamic logic until modern times. Avicennian logic also influenced several early European logicians such as Albertus Magnus and William of Ockham. Avicenna endorsed the law of noncontradiction proposed by Aristotle, that a fact could not be both true and false at the same time and in the same sense of the terminology used. He stated, “Anyone who denies the law of noncontradiction should be beaten and burned until he admits that to be beaten is not the same as not to be beaten, and to be burned is not the same as not to be burned.
Avicenna wrote an attack on astrology titled Resāla fī ebṭāl aḥkām al-nojūm, in which he cited passages from the Quran to dispute the power of astrology to foretell the future. He believed that each planet had some influence on the earth, but argued against astrologers being able to determine the exact effects.
Avicenna’s astronomical writings had some influence on later writers, although in general his work could be considered less developed than Alhazen or Al-Biruni. One important feature of his writing is that he considers mathematical astronomy as a separate discipline to astrology. He criticized Aristotle’s view of the stars receiving their light from the Sun, stating that the stars are self-luminous, and believed that the planets are also self-luminous. He claimed to have observed Venus as a spot on the Sun. This is possible, as there was a transit on May 24, 1032, but Avicenna did not give the date of his observation, and modern scholars have questioned whether he could have observed the transit from his location at that time; he may have mistaken a sunspot for Venus. He used his transit observation to help establish that Venus was, at least sometimes, below the Sun in Ptolemaic cosmology, i.e. the sphere of Venus comes before the sphere of the Sun when moving out from the Earth in the prevailing geocentric model.
He also wrote the Summary of the Almagest, (based on Ptolemy’s Almagest), with an appended treatise “to bring that which is stated in the Almagest and what is understood from Natural Science into conformity”. For example, Avicenna considers the motion of the solar apogee, which Ptolemy had taken to be fixed.