Great Muslim Scholars: Avicenna

To live in the past and to waste the gifts that Allah (SWT) has given to us all is to not live at all. However, to recall the riches of the past and to learn from them serves as a reminder of what we have achieved and what we can still achieve.

Ibn Sina lived life to the fullest. Even in the midst of political turmoil, he became a renowned physician, philosopher, encyclopedist, mathematician and astronomer.

Ibn Sina was born in 981 in Bukhara, one of the capitals of the Samanid dynasty, in the then northeastern part of Iran. Of Iranian parentage, his father was a middle-level official – the governor of a village on one of the estates owned by the Samanid ruler, Nuh Ibn Mansur. His home was a meeting-place for learned men, creating a ripe environment for Ibn Sina’s pre-school education in which his father was his first teacher.

By the age of ten, Ibn Sina had memorized the Qur’an and quite a bit of Arabic poetry, attracting the attention of many scholars. He had also begun to study medicine.

After this age, Ibn Sina started studying philosophy by reading relevant Greek, Islamic, and other material, and he had learned Logic from the (then renowned) philosopher Abu Abdallah Natili. In addition, he was receiving instruction from various teachers in metaphysics.

By the age of sixteen, Ibn Sina had mastered the study of medicine; his skills in that field proved to be of great value and gained him a reputation that came to the attention of Nuh Ibn Mansur who was ill. Despite the help of well-known physicians, Ibn Mansur had given-up hope of recovery.

Ibn Sina successfully treated the ruler, earning him much respect as well as free access to the uniquely stocked Royal Library of the Samanids, which immensely facilitated his development in a wide range of subjects. From that point onwards, Ibn Sina was self-taught.

By the age of twenty-one, Ibn Sina had become accomplished in all branches of formal learning. However, the defeat of the Samanids and the death of his father changed his life completely. Without the support he had formerly known, he began to wander from town to town in Khorasan serving as a physician and administrator by day while holding philosophical and scientific discussions for his students every evening.

Afterwards, he served as a jurist in Gurganj, and was then welcomed by Khawarizm Shah in Jurjan where he served as a teacher. It was in Jurjan that Ibn Sina met his famous contemporary, Raihan al-Biruni with whom he corresponded on philosophical and scientific matters.

In Rayy (near modern day Tehran), Ibn Sina served as an administrator and then moved on to Qazvin where he was a physician. However, he became restless because he couldn’t find sufficient social and economic support or the necessary peace and calm to do his work so he left for Hamadan in the midwestern part of Iran. There, he treated the ruling Buyid prince, Shams ad-Daulahh, for severe colic and was appointed by him twice as a vizier. He also served the prince’s court as a physician.

Occupied with his duties at court during the day, Ibn Sina spent almost every night with his students – composing works and carrying out related philosophical and scientific discussions. The political situation, however, was tumultuous and eventually forced him into hiding for a while. He also spent some time as a political prisoner, escaping to Isfahan (modern day Iran) disguised as a Sufi where he joined its ruler, Ala ad-Daulah, who held him in high esteem.

Ibn Sina continued to write throughout his employment, hiding, and imprisonment. While he was in Hamadan, he completed two of his most famous works.

The Kitab al-Shifa (The Book of Healing) is a scientific and philosophical encyclopedia, and a synthesis of Aristotelian tradition, Neo-Platonic influences, and Islamic Theology along with Ibn Sina’s contributions. Its Latin translation during the 12th century is known as the “Sanatio.” It covered Mathematics, which was divided into four branches (geometry, arithmetic, astronomy and music).

Geometry was subdivided into geodesy, statistics, kinematics, hydrostatics, and optics. Astronomy was subdivided into astronomical and geographical tables, and the calendar; arithmetic was subdivided into algebra, Indian addition, and subtraction; and music comprised musical instruments.

Ibn Sina’s observed Venus as a spot against the surface of the sun, and he correctly deduced that it must be closer to the earth than to the sun. He was the first to describe meningitis, and the first to suggest the treatment for lachrymal fistula by the use of a medical probe into the throat canal.

Rasul’ullah (SAW) said, “The one who utters false words and the one who continues to perpetuate them are equally at fault.” Ibn Sina condemned conjectures and presumptions.

He also set the basic standard still used today in testing new medicines:

  1. The drug must be free from any extraneous accidental quality
  2. It must be used on a sample, not a composite disease.
  3. It must be tested with 2 contrary types of disease because sometimes a drug cures one disease by its essential qualities and another by its accidental qualities.
  4. The quality of the drug must correspond to the strength of the disease. For example, a drug whose warmth is less in degree than the coldness of a certain disease would have no effect on it.
  5. The period that it takes to act must be consistent in all or most cases.
  6. Experiments must be conducted on humans.

Ibn Sina was the first scientist to graphically describe, in minute detail, the different parts of the eye (e.g., the conjunctive sclera, cornea, choroids, iris, retina, layer lens, aqueous humor, optic nerve, and optic chiasma).

His most famous book throughout the East and the West is the immense encyclopedia of medicine, Al-Qanun fi al-Tibb (The Canon of Medicine). It surveyed the entire realm of medical knowledge available, at that time, from ancient and Islamic sources. Its systematic approach and its intrinsic value superseded Razi’s (Rhazes) Hawi, ‘Ali ibn ‘Abbas’ Maliki and even the works of Galen, and it remained supreme for six centuries.

In addition to describing pharmacological methods, Al-Qanun described 760 drugs and became the most authentic medical material of the era. It was translated into Latin by Gerard Cremona in the 12thcentury and became the textbook in European medical schools. During the last 30 years in the 15th century, it was reissued 16 times with 15 editions in Latin and one in Hebrew, and it was reissued more than 20 times during the 16th century.

In 1930, Cameron Gruner partly translated Al-Qanun into English and entitled it A Treatise On the Canons of Avicenna.

From the 12th century until the 17th century, Al-Qanun served as the chief guide for medical science in the West. Dr. W. Osler, author of the Evolution of Modern Science wrote, “The Qanun has remained a medical bible for a longer period than any other work.”

Ibn Sina spent the last 14 years of his life relatively peacefully in the court of the ruler Ala ad-Daulah in Isfahan. He completed many works on philosophy, medicine, the Arabic language and the many military campaigns that he had to attend (such as the summary of his Kitab al-Shifa, the Kitab an-Najat (Book of Salvation).

The Kitab al-Isharat wa at-Tanbihat (Book of Directions and Remarks) describes the mystic’s spiritual journey beginning with the development of faith to the final stage of direct and continual vision of God.

Ibn Sina died in June 1037 while on a military campaign with Ala ad-Daulah, leaving his vast findings and knowledge for us to learn from. Rasul’ullah (SAW) said, “He who travels in search of knowledge, to him Allah shows the way to Paradise.”

Reference:

  • Muslim History: 570 – 1950 C.E, A. Zahoor; The Arab Roots of the European Medicine, A. Zahoor; IslamCity: The Window Philosophers, Islamaili., net; Abu Ali-al Husayn ibn Abdallah Ibn Sina, J. O’Connor; The Mantle of The Prophet, R. Mottahedeh.

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