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Avicenna (Ibn Sina) 980-1037


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 Al-Qanun fi al-Tibb (The 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." (in 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), the son of a provincial governor. In his childhood Avicenna made so rapid a progress in learning, that several tutors were engaged to instruct him until he surpassed his teachers. According to his autobiography, he had known 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, Avicenna 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. "I found there," he said, "several rooms filled with books, which were arranged in cases, row upon row. One room was devoted to works on Arabic philology and poetry, another to jurisprudence and so forth . . . I inspected the catalog of ancient [Greek] authors and looked for the books I wanted; I saw in this collection books which few people have ever heard and of which I myself have never seen elsewhere, neither before or since." When the library burned down, a story was  created that  Avicenna had  personally set the fire in order to prevent anyone else  from becoming as learned as he was.

Avicenna devoured works of Greek philosophers and mathematicians, including Aristotle's Metaphysics, but its importance opened to him after he read Intentions of Aristotle's Metaphysics, an essay by al-Farabi (870-950), whom he referred as the Second Teacher, the first being Aristotle. The book taught him the meaning of seeing the nature of being as such. In his own works Avicenna combined Aristotleanism 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, as the dynasty was defeated in 999 by Mahmud of Ghazna, the legendary Turkish conqueror. Much of his life Avicenna spent travelling from court to court in Persia, avoiding the grip of the expansive Ghaznavid rule. From Gurgan, where he met his lifetime companion Abu Ubaid al-Juzjani  (980-1037), 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 Avicenna wrote Kitab al-Shifa (The Book of Remedy) and Al-Qanun fi al-Tibb, 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." (in The Poem on Medicine) Kitab, which was divided into four main parts, on logic, physics, mathematics, and metaphysics, is often said to be the longest book ever written by a single author. Avicenna's medical treatises were based principally his own clinical experience. "When you do not know the nature of a malady," he adviced, "leave it to the nature; do not strive to hasten matters. For either nature will bring about the cure or it will itself reveal clearly what the malady really is."

After Shams al-Dawlah died, Avicenna was imprisoned. He fled from Hamadan and traveled to Esfahan (Isfahan). There he spent the last 14 years of his life, 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. Just before his death he freed his slaves. Avicenna had accompanied 'Ala' ad-Dawlah on a campaing, but this time his physical strength failed due to colic and exhaustion. Trying to rush his recovery, he took eight enemas a single day (Avicenna by Lenn Evan Goodman, 2006, pp. 43-44).

According to some sources Avicenna died of excessive indulgence in wine and sex. His drinking Avicenna justified on the ground that he was a Hanafite. Whether he had a wife and children remains unknown. Juzjani wrote that "the master was vigorous in all his powers, the sexual being the most powerful and predominant of his concupiscent faculties, and he indulged it often." 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.

Until the end of the twelfth century, Arab civilization had a clear lead in the medical, scientific, mathematical and philosophical learning. The West had nobody to compare with Avicenna or the great polymats of the previous generations, Al-Kindi (c.812-873) and Al-Farabi (c.870-950).

Canon of Medicine was translated in the West by a variety of scholars, such as John of Seville and Dominicus Jundissalinus. Although Avicenna 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 were also much criticized. In his later years he tried to alter perception of Islamic speculative theology (kalam), so that it would be treated as a demontrative science. However, most of his work on this subject have been lost. Avicenna wrote some four hundred fifty books, about half of which still exists.

Contradicting Islamic orthodoxy, Avicenna held that only the soul, not the body, is immortal. Moreover, Avicenna insisted on the eternity of the world – he did not accept creation by God ex nihilo, the universe has always existed. Thus he became 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 in many questions in conflict with the fundamentals of religion. Opposed their arguments of the eternity of the world, al-Ghazali stated that God's powers are infinite and He can bring the world into being or cause it to cease to exists as He pleases.

After Al-Ghazali's attack on the philosophers, and determination to demolish Peripatetic school, Avicenna's thoughts were viewed with suspicion. 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 was certain that an alchemist cannot make improvements on nature but only produce imitations. It was logically impossible. This notion applied to all kinds of technology and machinery. In the West Avicenna's doubts were ignored, Latin translators tactfully omitted his arguments, 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. The first book-length study specially devoted to Avicenna's metaphysics was Amélie-Marie Goichon's La distinction de l'essence et de l'existence d'après Ibn Sina (Avicenne) (1937).

For further reading: Avicennas Bearbeitung der aristotelischen Metaphysik by Constantin Sauter (1912); Arabian Medicine by Edward G. Browne (1921); A Treatise on the Canon of Medicine of Avicenna by Oskar Camerson Gruner (1930); Avicenna: Scientist and Philosopher, ed.  G.M. Wickens (1952); Avicenna by Hermann Ley (1953); Avicenna: His Life and Works by Soheil M. Afnan (1958); Avicenna and the Visionary Recital by Henry Corbin (1960); Avicenna und die aristotelische Linke by Ernst Bloch (1963); Metaphysica of Avicenna by Parviz Morewedge (1973); Avicenna's Commentary on the Poetics of Aristotle: A Critical Study with an Annotated Translation of the Text by Ismail M. Dahiyat (1974); The Life of Ibn Sina; A Critical Edition and Annotated Translation by William E. Gohlman (1974); Avicenna on Theology by by Arthur J. Arberry (1979); Avicenna, Grundleger einer neuen Metaphysik by Gérard Verbeke (1983); Avicenna and the Aristotelian Tradition: Introduction to Reading Avicenna's Philosophical Works by Dimitri Gutas (1988); Alfarabi, Avicenna, and Averroes on Intellect by Herbert A Davidson (1992); Allegory and Philosophy in Avicenna by Heath, Peter Heath (1992); Avicenna by Lenn E. Goodman (1992); Averroes by Majid Fakhry (2001); Avicenna's Metaphysics in Context by Robert Wisnovsky (2003); Avicenna by Lenn Evan Goodman (2006)


  • Recollectae de urinis, 1475 (Upper Italy? Printer of Jacobus de Forlivio "Expositio)
  • Canon medicinae, 1483 (Pavia, Antonius de Carcano and Hieronymus de Durantibus)
  • Expositio super quarta fen primi canonis Avicennae, 1485 (Venice, Andreas Calabrensis)
  • Canon medicinae, 1486 (Venice, Petrus Maufer et socii)
  • Canon medicinae, 1498 (Lyons, Johannes Trechsel, completed by Johannes Clein)
  • Expositio super tertia, quarta, et parte quintae fen IV. libri Avicennae, 1496 (Venice, Bonetus Locatellus for Octavianus Scotus)
  • Opera philosophica, 1508 (Venice)
  • Avicennae medicorum arabum principus, Liber canonis, de medicinis cordialibvs, et Cantica, 1556 (Basilae, per Ioannes Heruagios)
  • Avicennæ Arabvm medicorvm principus, 1595 (2 vols., Venetiis, apud Iuntas)
  • Avicennae De congelatione et conglutinatione lapidum; being sections of the Kitâb al-shifâ', 1927 (edited by E. J. Holmyard and D. C. Mandeville)
  • A Treatise on the Canon of Medicine of Avicenna, Incorporating a Translation of the First Book, 1930 (edited and translated by O. Cameron Gruner)
  • Avicenna's Poem on Medicine, 1963 (translated by Haven C. Krueger, with a foreword by Ralph H. Major)
  • The General Principles of Avicenna's Canon of Medicine, 1966 (translated by Mazhar H. Shah)
  • Liber de anima, seu, Sextus de naturalibus: édition critique de la traduction latine médiévale, 1968-72 (2 vols., edited by S. van Riet, introduction by G. Verbeke)
  • Avicennae Philosophi Praeclarissimi Ac Medicorum Principis Compendium De Anima. De Mahad I. De Dispositione, Seu Loco, Ad Quem Revertitur Homo, Vel Anima Eius Post Morte. Aphorismi De Anima. De Diffinitionibus, & Quaesitis, De Divisione Scientiarum, 1969
  • Avicenna's Treatise on Logic, 1971 (edited by Farhang Zabeeh)
  • The Propositional Logic of Avicenna, 1971 (edited by Nabil Shehaby)
  • The Metaphysica of Avicenna (ibn Sina); A Critical Translation-commentary and Analysis of the Fundamental Arguments in Avicenna's Metaphysica in the Danish nama-i 'ala'i, 1973
  • Avicenna’s Commentary on the Poetics of Aristotle: A critical study with an Annotated Translation of the Text, 1974 (edited by Ismail M. Dahiyat)
  • Liber De Philosophia prima, sive, Scientia divina I-IV, 1977 (edited by S. van Riet, introduction by G. Verbeke)
  • Liber de philosophia prima, sive, Scientia divina, 1980-83  (vols. 2-3, edited by S. van Riet, introduction by G. Verbeke)
  • Avicenna's Psychology: An English Translation of Kitab al-najat 1981 (book II, chapter VI; edited by F. Rahman)
  • Remarks and Admonitions: Part One: Logic, 1984 (translated by Shams Constantine Inati)
  • Liber tertius Naturalium: De generatione et corruptione, 1987 (edited by S. van Riet, introduction by G. Verbeke)
  • Liber quartus Naturalium: De actionibus et passionibus qualitatum primarum, 1989  (edited by S. van Riet, introduction by G. Verbeke)
  • Liber primus Naturalium: tractatus primus, De causis et principiis naturalium, 1992 (edited by S. van Riet, introduction by G. Verbeke)
  • Allegory and Philosophy in Avicenna (Ibn Sina), 1992 (with a translation of the Book of the Prophet Muhammad's Ascent to Heaven, by Peter Heath)
  • The Metaphysics of The Healing: A Parallel English-Arabic Text = al-Ilahiyat min al-Shifa', 2004 (translated, introduced, and annotated by Michael E. Marmura)
  • The Physics of The Healing: A Parallel English-Arabic Text, 2009 (translated, introduced, and annotated by Jon McGinnis)
  • Risālah: ʼasbāb h̳uduw[theta] ʼal-h̳uruwf = A Treatise on Arabic Phonetics, 2009 (translation, notes & comments, Solomon I. Sara, S.J.)
  • Tadāruk al-khaṭāʼ, 2009
  • Ḥall-i mushkilāt-i kitāb-i al-Ishārāt va al-tanbīhāt-i Shaykh al-Raʼīs Abū ʻAlī Ḥusayn ibn ʻAbd Allāh ibn Sīnā, 2011
  • Avicenna’s Medicine: A New Translation of the 11th-Century Canon with Practical Applications for Integrative Health Care, 2013 (by Mones Abu-Asab, Hakima Amri, Marc S. Micozzi)

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