Elmira Akhmetova

Ibn Sina was one of many great minds of the Muslim world during medieval ages, whose multifaceted studies encompassed diverse scholarly fields such as exegesis, law, logic, metaphysics, mathematics, astronomy, and medicine. He played a considerable role in the development of both Eastern and Western philosophy and science. George Sarton, author of The History of Science, described Ibn Sina as “one of the greatest thinkers and medical scholars in history” and called him “the most famous scientist of Islam and one of the most famous of all races, places, and times.” For the British philosopher Antony Flew, Ibn Sina was “one of the greatest thinkers ever to write in Arabic,” while the Canadian 1913 as “the author of the most famous medical textbook ever written.” Osler added that as a medical practitioner, Ibn Sina was “the prototype of the successful physician who was at the same time statesman, teacher, philosopher and literary man” — perfectly expressing how contemporary scholars have perceived him.

Life and Works

Abū ʿAlī al-Ḥusayn ibn ʿAbd Allāh Ibn Sīnā, commonly known by his Latinized name Avicenna, was born in 980 CE in Afshana, a village near Bukhara in today’s Uzbekistan (historical Khurasan). His father ‘Abdullah was a local Samanid official from Balkh, and his mother Setareh was from Bukhara. At an early age his family moved to Bukhara, which at that time was the capital and intellectual centre of the Samanid ruling dynasty. Thanks to his father’s position as a governor as well as his thirst for knowledge, Ibn Sina had access to an excellent education in Bukhara, and was taught by some of the most famous scholars of the time in the sciences and in Islamic theology.

According to his own autobiography Ibn Sina learned Indian arithmetic from an Indian greengrocer, and he began to study under a wandering scholar who gained a livelihood by curing the sick and teaching the young. He studied jurisprudence (fiqh) under the famous Hanafi scholar Ismail ibn al-Husayn alBukhari al-Zahid (d. 1012), and medicine with a number of teachers. Such training and the excellent library at the Samanid court assisted Ibn Sina in his intellectual search and philosophical self-education.

By the age of eighteen, Ibn Sina had already mastered all the sciences of his day[1] and entered into the service of the Samanid court as a physician to the emir, Nuh ibn Mansur (r. 976-997). Now he had an access to the royal library and to the renowned scholars of the court. At this court, Ibn Sina wrote his earliest works.

After the death of his father, it seems that Ibn Sina was given an administrative post. The Samanid dynasty, however, came to its end in the turn of the millennium on the hands of the Ghaznavids and the Qarakhanids. Ibn SÊnÉ seems to have declined the offers of Mahmud of Ghazni, the prominent ruler of the Ghaznavid Empire (r.997-1030), and proceeded westwards to Urgench (modern Uzbekistan), where the vizier, regarded as a friend of scholars, gave him a small monthly stipend. The pay was small, however, so Ibn Sina wandered from place to place through the districts of Nishapur and Merv to the borders of Khorasan, seeking an opening for his talents. Later he settled at Ravy, in the vicinity of modern Tehran (present-day capital of Iran), the home town of Ibn Rushd (Averroes, 1126-1198), and entered the Buwayhid service as a physician and later as a vizier with Majd al-Dawla, a son of the last Buwayhid emir, who was a nominal ruler under the regency of his mother, Seyyedeh Khatun. About thirty of Ibn Sina’s shorter works are said to have been composed in Ravy. Constant feuds which raged between the regent and her second son, Shams al-Daula, however, compelled the scholar to quit the place. After a brief sojourn at Qazvin, Ibn Sina passed southwards to Hamadan where Shams al-Daula, another Buwayhid emir, had established himself. In 1015, Ibn Sina became the vizier of Shams al-Dawla in Hamadan. After the death of Shams al-Dawla in 1021, Ibn Sina became the vizier of the Kakuyid emir, ‘Ala’ al-Dawla (d.1041), for whom he wrote an important Persian summa of philosophy, the Danishnama-yi ‘Ala’i (The Book of Knowledge for ‘Ala’ al-Dawla). Based in Isfahan, Ibn Sina was widely recognized as a philosopher and physician and often accompanied his patron on campaigns. During one of the campaigns to Hamadan in 1037, Ibn Sina died of colic in his fifty-eighth year, in the month of Ramadan and was buried in Hamadan, Iran.

Ibn Sina lived a very stirring life, travelling from one place to another. He was a very gifted person, who busied himself from time to time with politics, who practised occasionally as a physician, but who was above all and outstanding philosopher who put forward a great many innovative ideas.[2] His works numbered almost 450 volumes on a range of subjects, of which around 240 have survived. 150 volumes of his surviving works concentrate on philosophy and 40 of them concentrate on medicine.

The “Prince of Physicians”    

Ibn Sina is world-renown and widely respected in the Western history of medicine as a major historical figure who made important contributions to medicine and the European Renaissance. Along with al-‘Ibadi (Johannitius in Latin, 809-873), al-Razi (Rhazes in Latin, 865-925), al-Zahrawi (Abulcasis, 936-1013) and Ibn al-Nafis (1213-1288), Ibn Sina is considered an important compiler of early Muslim medicine. Forty volumes of his surviving works concentrate on medicine, anatomy and pharmacology. His gigantic medical encyclopaedia, entitled al-Qanun fi al-Tibb (The Canon of Medicine), comprising of upwards of a million words, was translated into Latin around 1150 and has been used as the standard medical textbook in Europe up until the seventeenth century and is still widely considered a valuable resource for the study of medicine. It was printed thirty-six times in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries alone and is regarded as one of the most influential books in Europe during the Middle Ages and Renaissance.[3] It was a main source for many medical manuals and monographs and it was sometimes also taken as a model of form; for example, the collection of medical counsels by Ferrari of Grado (Venice, 1514 and several times reedited) is arranged according to the method of Ibn Sina. Due to the influence following translation of the Canon, from the early fourteenth to the mid-sixteenth centuries he was ranked with Hippocrates and Galen as one of the acknowledged authorities in medicine, princeps medicorum, the Prince of Physicians.

In outline, the Canon consists of five books with each book subdivided into various subjects, subsidiary subjects, summaries, and sections. The first book, also called al-Kulliyyat (The Collection), discusses the scientific background of medicine and anatomy such as physiology, symptomatology, and the principles of therapy. The second book has an account of the therapeutic properties of substances used in medicine. The third book is devoted to pathology and specific or localised ailments. The fourth book elaborates general diseases that affect the whole body, such as fever. The final volume is a treasure on pharmacology, which discusses the mixing of drugs.

In his Canon, Ibn Sina derived his system of medicine from the prominent Graeco-Roman physician, surgeon and philosopher, Aelius Galenus, better known as ‘Galen of Pergamon’ (129-200 CE) who himself based his approach on an ancient Greek physician, Hippocrates (460-370 BC). Ibn Sina also benefited from the methodologies of the early Muslim physicians such as al-Razi and al-Majusi (Haly Abbas in Latin, died circa 990) to present a systematised and comprehensive view of the medical sciences of the time. Yet, as was noticed by the famous American Greco-Arabist, Jon McGinnis, when it comes to the philosophical underpinnings of medicine, Ibn Sina was more apt to defer to Aristotle than to the physicians themselves when there is disagreement.[4]

The Canon met the needs of the new scholastic medicine in Europe in three respects. Firstly, with an immense wealth of information, it provided Western physicians with a synopsis of virtually all the knowledge amassed in the preceding 1500 years and stimulated them to work further on their own. Secondly, with its systematic incorporation of every subject, down to the smallest detail, in a well-ordered theoretical framework, it greatly facilitated the adoption of its contents for teaching and at the same time satisfied the scholastic liking for a logical classification of subject matter. Lastly, Ibn Sina linked the medicine of Galen to the natural philosophy and theory of science of Aristotle, who from the thirteenth century onward dominated intellectual life in Europe.

Medicine for Ibn Sina was one of the mixed sciences, which has both practical and theoretical components. At the opening of his Canon, he identified medicine as “the science from which one comes to recognise the states of the body on the part of health and the loss thereof in order to preserve the health as something realised as well as recovering it when lost.”[5] For him, living in a healthy climate, getting proper amounts of sleep, accompanied by a regimen of exercise and a well-balanced diet, as well as positive thinking were considered as the most important causes in preserving someone’s health.

Ibn Sina’s Philosophy

Ibn Sina wrote extensively on logic, metaphysics and ethics, including treatises entitled Logic and Metaphysics. His philosophical thought was influenced by ancient Greek philosophers, Aristotle (384BC-322BC) and Plato (c.427BC-348/347BC), Hellenistic thinker, Ptolemy (90-168), and earlier Muslim scientists and philosophers, such as Al-Kindi (Alkindus in Latin, 801-873), Al-Farabi (Alpharabius, 870-950) and Al-Biruni (Alberonius, 973-1048).  Thus, Ibn Sina’s complex philosophical investigations combined Aristotelian and Platonic perspectives with Muslim theology (kalam) as he developed a sophisticated paradigm that divided all knowledge into the theoretical (mathematics, physics, chemistry, astronomy and metaphysics) and practical (philosophy, ethics, economics and politics). His philosophy dealt with many of the most fundamental questions for every philosopher with a certain faith in God, such as the origins of the cosmos, the nature of the soul, the role of God in the human existence and the universe, and divine interaction with humans and other created beings.

The greatest contribution of Ibn Sina to the development of both later Muslim and Western thoughts was his attempt to reconcile the ancient Greek philosophy and the belief in the existence of God as the creator of all beings. Over the following centuries, Ibn Sina came to be regarded as the leading authority of the Islamic philosophy, while his synthesis of ancient Greek philosophy and theology was later adopted by the medieval Christian philosophers, including Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), and had a significant influence on the development of Western thought. Due to the translation of his works into Latin, Ibn Sina’s metaphysics and philosophy of knowledge had a significant impact on the first wave of thinkers in the Latin West, who were engaged with the writings on natural philosophy and metaphysics by Greek, Islamic and Jewish thinkers, such as William of Auvergne (1180-1249), who served as Bishop of Paris for twenty-one years, and Albertus Magnus (1193-1280), a German Dominican friar and Catholic bishop.

Ibn Sina introduced important modifications to the Neo-Platonic emanative scheme, which had been outlined earlier by Al-Fārābī. He initiated a full-fledged inquiry into the question of being, in which he distinguished between essence (mahiyat) and existence (wujud). According to his reasoning, existence must be due to an agent-cause that necessitates, imparts, gives, or adds existence to an essence. To do so, the cause must be an existing thing and coexist with its effect. In fact, Ibn Sina’s conception of reality and reasoning revolved mainly around the existence of God. As the principle of all existence, God in his reasoning is pure intellect, from whom everything else emanates. Still, because of “necessities”, man was called upon to use real concepts that formed what we know as human knowledge. Man was thus called upon to develop and use the rules of logic to serve his needs.

Ibn Sina also wrote a number of treatises dealing with Islamic theology, kalam.  These included treatises on various scientific and philosophical interpretations of the Qur’an, such as how Quranic cosmology corresponds to his own philosophical system, and on the prophets, whom he viewed as ‘inspired philosophers.’ In Metaphysics, Ibn Sina confessed that philosophers could reach the Universal Single Truth by their effort and reason. Yet, for him, only prophecy can provide the law for the good society in the ideal state. Prophecy and Shari’ah are not only indispensable to the life and preservation of mankind. The divinely revealed law contains also the truth about God, his universe, his angels, the hereafter, reward and punishment, and providence.[6] Thus Ibn Sina clearly established the political significance of prophecy as law-giver and the first ruler of the ideal state.

Erwin Rosenthal, a well-known reader in Oriental studies at the University of Cambridge, suggested that Ibn Sina’s philosophy has a definite political orientation, and important pronouncements on politics could be find in every of his philosophical writings.[7] In his Aqsam al-‘ulum (Divisions of the Science) he distinguished between three practical sciences: ethics, as taught by Aristotle in his Nicomachean Ethics; economics, as set out in Bryson of Heraclea (late 5th century BC) and dealing with the house-hold and its management; and politics, which is taught by Plato and Aristotle.[8]

In 1020s, Ibn Sina completed his major work on philosophy of science, entitled Kitab al-Shif, The Book of Healing. The book is divided into four parts: logic, natural sciences, mathematics (a quadrivium of arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music), and metaphysics. In Al-Burhan (Demonstration) section, Ibn Sina discussed the philosophy of science and described an early scientific method of inquiry. He discussed Aristotle’s Posterior Analytics and significantly diverged from it on several points. Through reviewing the issue of a proper methodology for scientific inquiry, Ibn Sina developed a method of experimentation as a means for scientific inquiry.

Legacy to Civilisations

Ibn Sina’s works were among the first translations into Latin, and, with their handy compendium format, became immensely popular in Europe. As early as the 14th century, when Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) depicted him in Limbo alongside the virtuous non-Christian thinkers in his Divine Comedy such as Virgil, Averroes, Homer, Horace, Ovid, Lucan, Socrates, Plato, and Saladin, Ibn Sina has been recognized by both East and West, as one of the great figures in intellectual history.

Ibn Sina’s synthesis of Greco-Arabic philosophy, with concerns central to all three of the Abrahamic religions, helped facilitate and prepare Latin Europe for the reintroduction of the Aristotelian scientific tradition. As such, Ibn Sina’s thought played an important role in the reinvigoration of philosophy in Europe, as well as the formation of Christian theology by such notaries as Thomas Aquinas and others.[9] Ideas of Ibn Sina, along with the efforts of other brilliant scientists and philosophers of the Islamic golden age such as al-Khwarizmi (Algoritmi, 780-850), Al-Farabi, Al-Kindi, ‘Umar Khayyam (1048-1131), Ibn Rushd and many others, established the foundations of the modern science, art and philosophy; and enabled Europe to emerge from the Dark Ages and into the Renaissance.

For Judeo-Islamic world, to understand Ibn Sina was to understand philosophy. While dealing with philosophy, the Ash’arite theologian and mystic Abu Hamid Al-Ghazali (1058-1111) admitted that Ibn Sina was his major source of inspiration. Similarly, philosophy of Ibn Sina was to exert considerable influence on the thought of Al-Suhrawardi (1154-1191), the founder of Illuminationist philosophy (Íikmah al-ishraq).[10]

Ibn Sina’s influence is not confined to the classical period only. His logic, natural philosophy and metaphysics are still taught in the Muslim world as living philosophy, and many contemporary Catholic and evangelical Christian philosophers continue to encounter his ideas through the works of Aquinas. Using a small handful of novel insights, Ibn Sina not only was able to address a host of issues that had troubled earlier philosophers in both the ancient Hellenistic and Islamic worlds, but also fundamentally changed the direction of philosophy, in the Islamic East as well as Jewish and Christian milieus.

In Iran, Ibn Sina is considered a national icon, and is often regarded as one of the greatest Persians to have ever lived. Many portraits and statues remain in Iran today. An impressive monument to the life and works of the man who is known as the ‘doctor of doctors’ still stands outside the Bukhara museum. There is also a crater on the Moon named ‘Avicenna’ and a plant genus ‘Avicennia.’ Bu-Ali Sina University in Hamadan (Iran), the Ibn Sina Tajik State Medical University in Dushanbe (capital of the Republic of Tajikistan), Ibn Sina Academy of Medieval Medicine and Sciences at Aligarh (India), Avicenna School in Karachi and Avicenna Medical College in Lahore (Pakistan), Ibn Sina Balkh Medical School in his native province of Balkh (Afghanistan), Ibn Sina Faculty Of Medicine at University Ankara (Turkey) and Ibn Sina Integrated School in Marawi City (Philippines) are all named in his honour.

Further Reading:

Ali, Ihsan & Guclu, Ahmet. (2014). “Ibn Sina: An Exemplary Scientist.” Onislam.Net: http://www.onislam.net/english/health-and-science/science/463382-ibn-sina-an-exemplary-scientist.html. Retrieved 3 July 2014.

Janssens, Jules. (2006). Ibn Sina and His Influence on the Arabic and Latin World. USA: Ashgate Publishing Limited.

Kechichian, Joseph A. (2013). “Ibn Sina, The Philosopher-Scientist.” http://gulfnews.com/about-gulf-news/al-nisr-portfolio/weekend-review/ibn-sina-the-philosopher-scientist-1.1184513. Retrieved 2 July 2014.

McGinnis, Jon. Avicenna. (2010). New York: Oxford University Press.

Rahman, Fazlur. (1958). Prophecy in Islam: Philosophy and Orthodoxy. London: George Allen & Unwin LTD.

Rosenthal, Erwin I.J. (1985). Political Thought in Medieval Islam: An Introductory Outline. USA: Greenwood Press Publishers.

Siraisi, Nancy. (2001). Medicine and the Italian Universities, 1250-1600. The Netherlands, Leiden: Brill.

Ullman, Manfred. (1978). Islamic Medicine. United Kingdom, Edinburg: Edinburgh University Press.

Zakaria, I. (2002). The Political Aspects of Avicenna’s General Theory of Cosmology and the Human Soul. Malaysia: Penerbit Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia.


[1] I. Zakaria, The Political Aspects of Avicenna’s General Theory of Cosmology and the Human Soul (Malaysia: Penerbit Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, 2002), 15.

[2] Jules Janssens, Ibn Sina and his Influence on the Arabic and Latin World (Great Britain: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2006), 1.

[3] Ihsan Ali & Ahmet Guclu, Ibn Sina: An Exemplary Scientist,” Onislam.Net, http://www.onislam.net/english/health-and-science/science/463382-ibn-sina-an-exemplary-scientist.html, accessed 3 July 2014.

[4] Jon McGinnis, Avicenna (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 227.

[5] Ibid., 230.

[6] Erwin Rosenthal, Political Thought in Medieval Islam: An Introductory Outline (USA: Greenwood Press Publishers, 1985), 147.

[7] Ibid., 143.

[8] Ibid.

[9] McGinnis, 244.

[10] See, Ibid., 245-250; and Jules Janssens, Ibn Sina and His Influence on the Arabic and Latin World (USA: Ashgate, 2006), 36-49.

Writer is a faculty member at department of History and Civilisation, International Islamic University Malaysia

In picture: A page from the original copy of Ibn Sina’s Canon.

Article was originally published in http://www.iais.org.my