Ibn Sina Abdullah
980 - 1037A.D.
"Aristotle" of the Middle Agesby Rit Nosotro First Published:: 2003
"I prefer a short life with width to a narrow one with length,"1 stated Abdullah Ibn Sina, one of the Muslim world's foremost physicians and philosophers. He spent the 58 years of his life healing the sick, refuting outdated ideas and ushering in a new branch of thought. He directly influenced Renaissance ideology and carried on, in a sense, the traditions of Aristotle. His life permitted him time to write 240 works and through them, influence history.
Abu Ali al-Hussein Ibn Abdullah Ibn Sina (or "Avicenna" as he is known in the west) was born around 980 AD near Bukhara, located in present day Uzbekistan. At the time of his birth, the Samanid dynasty controlled Transoxania (a region situated between the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers). Amir Nuh Ibn Masnur enjoyed prosperity during his rule of Bukhara, one of the two greatest cultural centers in the region. Indeed the Royal Library of the Samanids was housed at the palace, and many teachers, poets, philosophers, and artists traveled through. Ibn Sina grew up in this city of opportunity. A child prodigy, he learned Arabic and mastered the entire Qu'ran by age nine. Ibn Sina attended and participated in his father's weekly meetings for the neighborhood poets and philosophers. He schooled himself in astronomy, physics, music, philosophy, logic, religion, mathematics and geology, becoming a veritable polymath. At age thirteen, he began his study of medicine, doing experiments, watching other doctors, and mixing herbal remedies. Ibn Sina started his own profession at age sixteen. Charging little to no fee, he soon increased his customers; people gossiped widely of his talent. Gradually the Amir heard of this young, but spectacular doctor. Summoning him to court, he demanded that Sina cure him of his persistent malady. The boy did so. Amir Mansur, now happy and healthy, insisted that Sina stay as court physician and be granted freedom to frequent the Royal Library. There Ibn Sina first read Aristotle, whose works were to trouble him immensely.
At court, though continuing to practice medicine, Ibn Sina wrote some of his earlier treatises. This tranquility did not last, however. In 1004, the Qarakhanids attacked and finally gained control of Transoxania, killing Sina's benefactor, Nuh Ibn Mansur. Sina took to the road, venturing first to Khiva, then Khorasm, making his fame as a traveling physician. He journeyed through Transoxania before he turned west, to Iran.
Persia, now known as Iran, was in 1012, a great center for learning. Some of the most famous philosophers and astronomers of the Muslim world came from that era. Libraries housed thousands of Muslim works and ancient classics, faithfully translated into Arabic for the edification of all. The Samanid dynasty encouraged intellectual reasoning, spurring growth and ushering the Persian world into the Middle Ages. To this "haven", Ibn Sina traveled, fleeing from the raging wars and racial troubles of his home. Making his way to Hamadan, Ibn Sina announced himself at court. The Amir, Shams Al-Dawbah, subsequently adopted Sina as Royal Court Physician. The prince noticed his wisdom and appointed him vizier twice. Ibn Sina's political career was short-lived. He barely managed to escape with his life and writings to Isfahan, away from the hateful grasp of the people. It was there Ibn Sina began to write his most important work, Kitabi Al-Shifa, the Book of Healing. He also began his 14 volume Al-Qanun-arguably the most famous book on medicine ever written. At Isfahan, he entered the court of Firushed , again as a doctor, but this time, he sat down to write.
Ibn Sina returned to Hamadan, under the service of a new prince. There he completed his precious books and followed these with over 240 treatises and philosophical essays. In 1037, while on a military campaign, Sina's life abruptly ended. Suddenly attacked by a bout of colic, he tried in vain to apply his remedies to himself. Other scholars state that Ibn Sina's debaucheries concurred to his final end.
Al-Qanun li't- Tibb, the fourteen volume Canon of Medicine, became the single most famous book in the history of medicine. Ibn Sina spent only a few years writing this: his greatest contribution to medicine. The books consist of extensive classification of body parts, drugs, and diseases. He enumerates each body part's function, and then proceeds to examine problems and cures thereof. He lists many common and exotic diseases along with their known treatments. The book examines nearly 260 different drugs, listing both their dosage, and purpose. Sina was one of the first physicians to call diabetes a sickness and second to none at prescribing possible cures for it. An ever-advanced thinker, Ibn Sina gave hygiene an important place in medicine, firmly asserting that it prevented infection. Equally astonishing was his theory, later proved correct, that some diseases spread through water and dirt. The book too describes his surgical instruments, today on display at the Samarkand museum. Al-Qanun, undoubtedly, deserves its place as an undisputed magnum opus.
Gerard of Commona, a European scholar, translated this and many others of Sina's works into Latin, thereby ushering Islamic medical thought into Europe. Though many disagreed with his philosophy, all declared the Canon of Medicine a most important catalogical piece of literature. In fact, the Canon became a standard medical textbook at European Universities in the 13th century. It remained a standard text in all of Europe for 700 consecutive years. This book greatly influenced leading physicians of the Renaissance who paved the way to modern medicine including Leonardo Da Vinci. Disregarding Sina's contributions to medicine, most people today acclaim only the work of the late Renaissance doctors. They forget that without Al-Qanun, these discoveries would have been impossible. Ibn Sina's legacy can be summed up in one word: Avicenna, a moon crater called by his Latin name.
Not withstanding his contributions to medicine, Ibn Sina was first a philosopher. Called the "Aristotle" of the Middle Ages, he produced 140 philosophical treatises ranging from all topics of reason to discussions of metaphysics. He treated the "destiny of man", "suspension in space theory", and "formation of the universe" as well as offering proofs for the existence of God and the soul. The most advanced thinkers in Europe claimed Avicenna the representation of all intellectual Islamic thought and studied his works with fervor. A sect evolved known as Augustinian Avicennism. These followers of the Augustinian argumentation methods and believers in Avicenna's philosophy tried to reconcile the two to each other.2
Avicenna postulated that God was the Necessary Good, a purely intellectual Being from whom all other beings claimed existence and reason. For only through reason do we have being, he argued. One needs logic and reason, for when one reaches intelligence, one reasons himself, as it were, into being. This is called Sina's "Suspended in Space" theory, in which man is a part of an intellectual circle larger than this life and only though his reasoning capabilities, does he envision himself, to be alive. This theory so affected Rene Descartes that he proclaimed "Cogito, ergo sum-I think, therefore, I am." Avicenna also declared, "The grasp of intelligence determines the fate of the rational soul in the hereafter."3 Ibn Sina did not believe in heaven or hell, yet all the same he postulated that gaining intelligence determines what will happen in the "hereafter".4 Most of Sina's theories came from his desire to integrate ancient Greek philosophy and Islam into a reasonable pattern of ideas. Interestingly, Greek philosophy was also manipulated to fit the religious views of the Jewish physician Maimonides (1135-1204) and later Thomas Aquinas (1225- 1274) who tried to integrate Aristotle with Christianity in his famous Summa Theologiae.
Though the Augustinian Avicennialists attempted the impossible task of agreeing with both St. Augustine and Abdullah Ibn Sina, Christians can never fully accept Sina's postulations and theories. When Sina claimed man existed because he somehow imagined himself into being, Christians claim that man has life because God created him. Where Christians agree that hell is reserved for the wicked and heaven for the just, Sina refuted all possibility of either. He argued that the ultimate destiny of man was to fully grasp logic and reason, to become almost completely one with his intellect. Christians must again disagree with him as in other examples, because the chief end of man "is to glorify God and enjoy him forever."5 Though acclaimed as one of the greatest philosophers, Ibn Sina's treatises will never agree with Christian thought. His postulates also set him at odds with some Muslim teachings.
As the leading physician of the Middle Ages, he impacted the renaissance and consequently, modern medicine. As a philosopher, he continued the search for metaphysical meaning in life. His attempts to reconcile Greek philosophy to Islamic theology were extensive, but left little impact upon Islam as it declined from a Golden Age of influence from Spain to China. Yet, the legacy of Abdullah Ibn Sina is well deserving of an important place in world history.
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4 CIS-CA.org. "Abu'l 'Ali al-Husayn b. 'Abd Allah ibn Sina." [accessed16 September 2005] http://www.cis-ca.org/voices/s/ibnsina.html
5 Westminster Divines. The Westminster Shorter Catechism. 1777 Edition. 1.
Ahmed, Monzur. "Ibn Sina" [accessed 14 September 2005] http://www.islamic-paths.org/Home/English/History/Personalities/Content/Sina.htm
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