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  • 1833
  • Date :
  • 8/23/2005


(Born at Kharmaithen, in theprovince of Bokhara, 980; died at Hamadan, Persia, 1037)

[Note: Avicenna was actually Persian, not Arabian]

Ibn Ali Al-Hosain bin Abdallah bin Sina, called by the Latins AVICENNAwas born in 980 C.E. in thevillage of Afshana near Bukhara which today is located in the far south of Russia (located in old Persia then). His father, Abdullah, an adherent of the Ismaili sect, was from Balkh and his mother from a village nearBukhara.

In any ageAvicenna,would have been a giant among giants. He displayed exceptional intellectual prowess as a child and at the age of ten was already proficient in the Qur'an and the Arabic classics. During the next six years he devoted himself to Muslim Jurisprudence, Philosophy and Natural Science and studied Logic,Euclid, and the Almeagest.

He turned his attention to Medicine at the age of 17 years and found it, in his own words, "not difficult". However he was greatly troubled by metaphysical problems and in particular the works of Aristotle. By chance, he obtained a manual on this subject by the celebrated philosopher al-Farabi which solved his difficulties.

By the age of 18 he had built up a reputation as a physician and was summoned to attend the Samani ruler Nuh bin Mansur (reigned  976-997 C.E.), who, in gratitude forAvicenna's services, allowed him to make free use of the royal library, which contained many rare and even unique books. Endowed with great powers of absorbing and retaining knowledge, this Muslim scholar devoured the contents of the library and at the age of 21 was in a position to compose his first book.

At about the same time he lost his father and soon afterwards left Bukhara and wandered westwards. He entered the services of Ali bin Ma'mun, the ruler of Khiva, for a while, but ultimately fled to avoid being kidnapped by the Sultan Mahmud of Ghazna. After many wanderings he came to Jurjan, near the Caspian Sea, attracted by the fame of its ruler, Qabus, as a patron of learning. UnfortunatelyAvicenna's arrival almost coincided with the deposition and murder of this ruler. At Jurjan,Avicennalectured on logic and astronomy and wrote the first part of theCanon, his greatest work.

He then moved to Ray, near modern Teheran and established a busy medical practice. When Ray was besieged,Avicennafled toHamadan where he curedAmir Shamsud-Dawala of colic and was made Prime Minister. A mutiny of soldiers against him caused his dismissal and imprisonment, but subsequently the Amir, being again attacked by the colic, summoned him back, apologized and reinstated him! His life at this time was very strenuous: during the day he was busy with the Amir's services, while a great deal of the night was passed in lecturing and dictating notes for his books. Students would gather in his home and read parts of his two great books, the Shifa and the Canon, already composed.

Following the death of the Amir, Avicenna fled toIsfahan after a few brushes with the law, including a period in prison. He spent his final years in the services of the ruler of the city,Ala al-Daula whom he advised on scientific and literary matters and accompanied on military campaigns.

Friends advised him to slow down and take life in moderation, but this was not in character."I prefer a short life with width to a narrow one with length", he would reply. Worn out by hard work and hard living,Avicenna died in 1036/1 at a comparatively early age of 58 years. He was buried in Hamadan where his grave is still shown.

Avicenna's tomb in Hamadan

Al-Qifti states that Avicenna completed 21 major and 24 minor works onphilosophy, medicine, theology, geometry, astronomy and the like. Another source (Brockelmann) attributes 99 books toAvicenna comprising 16 on medicine, 68 on theology and metaphysics 11 on astronomy and four on verse. Most of these were in Arabic; but in his native Persian he wrote a large manual on philosophical science entitled Danish-naama-i-Alai and a small treatise on the pulse.

Besides the medical "Canon", he wrote voluminouscommentaries on Arisotle's works and two great encyclopedias entitled"Al Schefa" (i.e. healing) and "Al Nadja" (i.e. deliverance). The "Canon" and portions of the encyclopedias were translated into Latin as early as the twelfth century, byGerard ofCremona, Dominicus Gundissalinus, and John Avendeath; they were published at Venice, 1493-95. The complete Arabic texts are said to be are said to be in the manuscript in the Bodleian Library. An Arabic text of the "Canon" and the "Nadja" was published in Rome, 1593.

Of Avicenna's 16 medical works, eight are versified treatises on such matter as the 25 signs indicating the fatal termination of illnesses, hygienic precepts, proved remedies, anatomical memoranda etc. Amongst his prose works, after the greatCanon, the treatise on cardiac drugs, of which theBritish Museum possesses several fine manuscripts, is probably the most important, but it remains unpublished.

Hibrew Editiio of Ibn Sina's QANUN -Bologne University

Despite such glorious tributes to his work, Avicennais rarely remembered in the West today and his fundamental contributions to Medicine and the European reawakening goes largely unrecognized. However, in the museum at Bukhara, there are displays showing many of his writings, surgical instruments from the period and paintings of patients undergoing treatment. An impressive monument to the life and works of the man who became known as the 'doctor of doctors' still stands outside Bukhara museum and his portrait hangs in the Hall of the Faculty of Medicine in the University of Paris.

Avicenna's work was so influential thathe is even commemorated here in this Polish stamp

Avicenna's philosophy

Avicenna's philosophy, like that of his predecessors among the Arabians, is Aristoteleanism mingled with neo-Platonism, an exposition of Aristotle's teaching in the light of the Commentaries of Thomistius, Simplicius, and other neo-Platonists.

His Logic is divided into nine parts, of which the first is an introduction after the manner of Porphyry's "Isagoge"; then follow the six parts corresponding to the six treatises composing the "Organon"; the eighth and ninth parts consists respectively of treatises on rhetoric and poetry. Avicenna devoted special attention to definition, the logic of representation, as he styles it, and also to the classification of sciences. Philosophy, he says, which is the general name for scientific knowledge, includes speculative and practical philosophy. Speculative philosophy is divided into the inferior science (physics), and middle science (mathematics), and the superior science (metaphysics including theology). Practical philosophy is divided into ethics (which considers man as an individual); economics (which considers man as a member of domestic society); and politics (which considers man as a member of civil society). These divisions are important on account of their influence on the arrangement of sciences in the schools where the philosophy of Avicenna preceded the introduction of Aristotle's works.

A favourite principle of Avicenna, which is quoted not only by Averroes but also by the Schoolmen, and especially bySt. Albert the Great, wasintellectus in formis agit universalitatem, that is, the universality of our ideas is the result of the activity of the mind itself. The principle, however, is to be understood in the realistic, not in the nominalistic sense. Avicenna's meaning is that, while there are differences and resemblances among things independently of the mind, the formal constitution of things in the category of individuality, generic universality, specific universality, and so forth, is the work of the mind. Avicenna's physical doctrines show him in the light of a faithful follower of Aristotle, who has nothing of his own to add to the teaching of his master. Similarly, in psychology, he reproduces Aristotle's doctrines, borrowing occasionally an explanation, or an illustration, fromAl-Farabi. On one point, however, he is at pains to set the true meaning, as he understands it, of Aristotle, above all the exposition and elaboration of the Commentators. That point is the question of the Active and Passive Intellect. He teaches that the latter is the individual mind in the state of potency with regard to knowledge, and that the former is the impersonal mind in the state of actual and perennial thought. In order that the mind acquires ideas, the Passive Intellect must come into contact with the Active Intellect. Avicenna, however, insists most emphatically that a contact of that kind does not interfere with the independent substantiality of the Passive Intellect, and does not imply that it is merged with the Active Intellect. He explicitly maintains that the individual mind retains its individuality and that, because it is spiritual and immaterial, it is endowed with personal immortality. At the same time, he is enough of a mystic to maintain that certain choice souls are capable of arriving at a very special kind of union with the Universal, Active, Intellect, and of attaining thereby the gift of prophecy.

Metaphysics he defines as the science of supernatural (ultra-physical) being and of God. It is, as Aristotle says, the theological science. It treats of the existence of God, which is proved from the necessity of a First Cause; it treats of the Providence of God, which, as all the Arabians taught, is restricted to the universal laws of nature, the Divine Agency being too exalted to deal with singular and contingent events; it treats of the hierarchy of mediators between God and material things, all of which emanated from God, the Source of all sources, the Principle of all principles. The first emanation from God isthe world of ideas. This is made up of pure forms, free from change, composition, or imperfection; it is akin to the intelligible world of Plato, and is, in fact, aPlatonic concept. Next to the world of ideas is the world of souls, made up of forms which are, indeed, intelligible, but not entirely separated from matter. It is these souls that animate and energize the heavenly spheres. Next to the world of souls is the world of physical forces, which are more or less completely embedded in terrestrial matter and obey its laws; they are, however, to some extent amenable to the power of intelligence in so far as they may be influenced by magic art. Lastly comes the world of corporeal matter; this, according to the neo-Platonic conception which dominates Avicenna's thought in this theory of emanation, is of itself wholly inert, not capable of acting but merely of being acted upon (Occasionalism). In this hierarchical arrangement of beings, the Active Intellect, which, as was pointed out above, plays a necessary role in the genesis of human knowledge, belongs to the world of Ideas, and is of the same nature as the spirits which animate the heavenly spheres. From all this it is apparent that Avicenna is no exception to the general description of the Arabian Aristotelians as neo-Platonic interpreters of Aristotle.

There remaintwo other doctrines of general metaphysical nature which exhibit him in the character of an original, or rather an Arabian, and not a neo-Platonic interpreter. The first is his division of being into three classes: (a) what is merely possible, including all sublunary things; (b) what is itself merely possible but endowed by the First Cause with necessity; such are the ideas that rule the heavenly spheres; (c) what is of its own nature necessary, namely, the First Cause. This classification is mentioned and refuted by Averroes. The second doctrine, to which also Averroes alludes, is a fairly outspoken system of pantheism which Avicenna is said to have elaborated in a work, now lost, entitled "Philosophia Orientalis". The Scholastics, apparently, know nothing of the special work on pantheism; they were, however, aware of the pantheistic tendencies of Avicenna's other works on philosophy, and were, accordingly, reluctant to trust in his exposition of Aristotle.

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