Abu Ali Sina (Avicenna) The Life of Persian Polymath

August 23rd named to commemorate Avicenna in Iran. This article dedicated to mark Abu Ali Sina’s great life. Born in 980, Bu Ali Sina, in full, Abu Ali al-Hussein ibn Abdollah ibn Sina, is undoubtedly the most famous and influential of the philosopher scientists of Islam. He was particularly noted for his contributions in the fields of Aristotelian philosophy andmedicine. He composed the Kitab Ash-Shifa (“Book of Healing”), a vast philosophical and scientific encyclopedia, and the Canon of Medicine,which is among the most  famous books in  the history of medicine.

Early Years Bu Ali Sina, an ethnic Persian who spent his whole life in the eastern and central regions of Iran, received his earliest educa tion in Bukhara, present day Uzbekistan, under the direc tion of his father. Since the house of his father was a mee ting place for learned men, from his earliest childhood Bu Ali Sina was able to pro fit from the company of the outstanding masters of his day. A precocious child with an excep tional memory that he retained throughout his life, he had memorized the Qur’an and much Arabic poetry by the age of 10. Therea fter, he studied logic and metaphysics under teachers whom he soon outgrew and then spent the few years un til he reached the age of 18 in his own selfeducation. He read devotedly and mastered Islamic law, then medicine, and finally theology. Par ticularly helpful in his intellectual development was his gaining access to the rich royal library of the Samanids – the first great na tive dynasty that arose in Iran a fter the Advent of Islam – as the result of his successful cure of the Samanid prince, Nuhibn Mansur. He was 21 when he accomplished in all branches of formal learning and had already gained a wide reputa tion as an outstanding physician. His services were also sought as an administrator, and for a while he even entered government service as a clerk. But suddenly the whole pa tern of his life changed. His father died; the Samanid house was defeated by Mahamud of Ghazna, who established Ghaznavid rule in Khorasan (northeastern Iran); and Bu Ali Sina began a period of wandering and turmoil, which was to last, to the end of his life, with the excep tion of a few unusual intervals of tranquility. Des tiny had plunged Bu Ali Sina into one of the tumultuous periods of Iranian history, when Iranian dynas ties were trying to gain poli tical independence from the Abbasid caliphate in Baghdad. But the power of concentra tion and the intellectual exper tise of Bu Ali Sina were such that he was able to con tinue his intellectual work with remarkable consistency and con tinuity and was not at all in fluenced by the outward disturbances. Bu Ali Sina wandered for a while in di fferent ci ties of Khorasan and then le ft for the court of the Buyid princes, who were ruling over central Iran, first going to Ray, and then to Qazvin, where as usual he made his livelihood as a physician. But in these ci ties also he found neither su fficient social and economic support nor the necessary peace and calm to con tinue his work. He went, therefore, to Hamedan in western Iran, where Shamsod-doleh, another Buyid prince, was ruling. This journey marked the beginning of a new phase in Bu Ali Sina’s life. He became court physician and enjoyed the favor of the ruler to the extent that twice he was appointed vizier. As was the order of the day, he also su ffered poli tical reac tions and intrigues against him and was forced into hiding for some time; at one time he was even imprisoned. Famous Works This was the period when he began his two most famous works. Kitab ash-Shifa is probably the largest work of its kind ever wri ten by one man. It treats of logic, the natural sciences, including psychology, the quadrivium (geometry, astronomy, arithme tic, and music), and metaphysics, but there is no real exposi tion of ethics or of poli tics. His thought in this work owes a great deal to Aristotle but also to other Greek in fluences and to Neo-Platonism. His system rests on the concep tion of God as the necessary existent: in God alone essence, what he is, and existence, that he is, coincide. There is a gradual mul tiplica tion of beings through a timeless emana tion from God as a result of his self-knowledge. The Canon of Medicine (AlQanunfit-Tibb), a systematic encyclopedia, is the most famous single book in the history of medicine in both East and West. Occupied during the day with his du ties at court as both physician and administrator, Bu Ali Sina spent almost every night with his students composing these and other works and carrying out general philosophical and scien ti fic discussions related to them. These sessions were o ften combined with musical performances and gaiety and lasted un til late hours of the night. Even in hiding and in prison he con tinued to write. The great physical strength of Bu Ali Sina enabled him to carry out a program that would have been unimaginable for a person. The last phase of Bu Ali Sina’s life began with his move to Isfahan. Mission of His Life In Isfahan, Bu Ali Sina waas to spend the last 14 years of his life in rela tive peace. He was esteemed highly by Ala’oddoleh, the ruler, and his court. Here he finished the two major works he began in Hamedan and wrote most of his nearly 200 trea tises; he also composed the first work on Aristotelian philosophy in the Persian language and the masterly summary of his “Book of Healing” called Kitaban-Najat (“Book of Salva tion”), wri ten partly during the military

campaigns in which he had to accompany Ala’oddoleh to the field of batle. During this time he composed his last major philosophical opus and the most “personal” testament of his thought, Kitab al-Isharat wa atTanbihat (“Book of Directives and Remarks”). In this work he described the mystic’s spiritual journey from the beginnings of faith to the final stage of direct and uninterrupted vision of God. Also in Isfahan, when an authority on Arabic philosophy criticized him for his lack of mastery in the subject, he spent three years studying it and composed a vast work called Lisan al-Arab (“The Arabic Language”), which remained in rough draft until his death. Accompanying Ala’oddoleh on a campaign, Bu Ali Sina fell ill and, despite his atempts to treat himself, died from colic (stomach pain) and from exhaustion in 1037 in Hamedan. Besides fulfilling the role of the master of the Muslim Aristotelians, Bu Ali Sina also sought in later life to have found an “Oriental philosophy” (al-hikmatalMashriqiyah). Most of his works directly concerning this have been lost, but enough remains in some of his other works, to give an indication of the direction he was following. He took the first steps upon a path toward mystical theosophy that marked the direction that Islamic philosophy was to follow in the future, especially in Persia and the other eastern lands of Islam. Almost half of Abu Ali Sina’s works are versified. His poems appear in both Arabic and Persian. As an example, Edward Granville Browne claims that the following Persian verses are incorrectly atributed to Omar Khayyám, and were originally writen by Abu Ali Sina. Up from Earth’s Centre through the Seventh Gate, I rose, and on the Throne of Saturn sate, And many Knots unraveled by the Road, But not the Master-Knot of Human Fate. Bu Ali Sina, Beyond the Region In the Western world, Bu Ali Sina’s influence was felt, though no distinct school of “Latin Avicennism” can be discerned as can with Averroës, the great SpanishArabic philosopher. Bu Ali Sina’s “Book of Healing” was translated partially into Latin in the 12th century, and the complete Canon appeared in the same century. These translations and others spread the thought of Bu Ali Sina far and wide in the West. His thought, blended with that of St. Augustine, the Christian philosopher and theologian, was a basic ingredient in the thought of many of the medieval Scholastics, especially in the Franciscan schools. In medicine the Canon became the medical authority for several centuries, and Bu Ali Sina enjoyed an undisputed place of honor equaled only by the early Greek physicians Hippocrates and Galen. In the East, his dominating influence in medicine, philosophy, and theology has lasted over the ages and is still alive within the circles of Islamic thought. Transmission of His Thoughts to European Academic Circles Latin versions of some of Ibn Sina’s works began to appear in the early thirteenth century. The best known philosophical work to be translated was his Kitab alshifa’, although the translation did not include the sections on mathematics or large sections of the logic. Translations made at Toledo include the Kitab al-najat and the Kitab al ilahiyat (theology) in its entirety. Other sections on natural science were translated at Burgos and for the King of Sicily. Gerard of Cremona translated Ibn Sina’s al-Qanun fi’ltibb (Canon on Medicine). At Barcelona, another philosophical work, part of the Kitab alnafs (Book of the Soul), was translated. Bu Ali Sina’s “Book of Healing” was translated partially into Latin in the 12th century, and the complete Canon appeared in the same century. List of His Major Works · Al-Qanun fi’l-tibb (Canon on Medicine), · Risalah fi sirr al-qadar (Essay on the Secret of Destiny), · Danishnama-i ‘ala’i (The Book of Scientific Knowledge), · Al-Shifa’ (Healing), · Al-Mantiq (Logic), · Al-’Ibarah (Interpretation), · Al-Qiyas (Syllogism), · Al-Burhan (Demonstration), · Al-Jadal (Dialectic), · Al-Khatabah (Rhetoric), · Al-Ilahiyat (Theology), · Al-Nafs (The Soul), · Kitab al-najat (The Book of Salvation), · Al-Isharatwa-’l-tanbihat (Remarks and Admonitions), the fourteenth century. His late work on logic, alIsharatwa-’ltanbihat, seems to have been translated in part and is cited in other works. His commentaries on the Soul were known to Thomas Aquinas and Albert the Great, who cite them extensively in their own discussions. These and other translations of Ibn Sina’s works made up the core of a body of literature that was available for study. By the early thirteenth century, his works were studied not only in relation to Neoplatonists such as Augustine and Duns Scotus, but were used also in study of Aristotle. Consequently, they were banned in 1210 when the synod at Paris prohibited the reading of Aristotle and of ‘summae’ and ‘commenta’ of his work. The force of the ban was local and only covered the teaching of this subject: the texts were read and taught at Toulouse in 1229. As late as the sixteenth century there were other translations of short works by Ibn Sina into Latin, for example by Andrea Alpago of Belluno.

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