Avicenna was the most renowned and influential philosopher of medieval Islam. One of his key purposes was to integrate science and religion. He grappled with some of the issues we grapple with today – “How did the cosmos come into existence? What is the role of God in the unfolding of human and cosmic destinies? How does God interact with created beings?”
Steps to Avicenna’s Success
- Continuous learning: By age 10, Avicenna had memorized the Koran, and by 18 he was more intelligent than his teachers. He was a voracious reader and when he healed the Samanid prince Nuh bin Mansur, he gained access to the royal Samanid library, which allowed him to continue his self-tutoring. This opened him up to a world of intellectual possibilities.
- Theory wasn’t enough: After reading all the medical theory he could find, he started to treat the ill.
- Never gave up: He continued his work after he was released from prison, and he didn’t give up despite the many times he had to relocate because of political turmoil.
- Along with Hippocrates of Cos and Galen, Avicenna is considered the Father of Medicine.
Why Avicenna’s Contribution Matters
- Avicenna laid the foundation for modern experienced-based medical science. Despite living in a time of great political upheaval, he produced two seminal pieces of work – The Book of Healing and the Canon of Medicine.
- The Canon of Medicine laid the foundation for modern experienced-based medicine. In the book, Avicenna brought together the old and more contemporary understanding of medicine.
- The Canon Medicine was also one of the most influential medical textbook in Europe until the 17th century.
Lessons from Avicenna
- Theoretical and practical knowledge and experiences go hand-in-hand.
- Combine experience, observation and experimentation.
- Understood the fundamentals of his field and then built on that.
- Fall down seven times, get up eight. Despite imprisonment and exile, he produced a great body of work.
- He was a man ahead of his time, he recommended techniques to anaesthetize patients to relieve pain.
Name: Avicenna (Abu Ali al-Husain ibn Addullah ibn Sina)
Birth Date: 980 – 1037
Job Functions: Physician, Philosopher of Science, Poet and Author
Fields: Science, Medicine, Philosophy
Known For: Canon of Medicine
Avicenna was a voracious reader and had a brilliant mind. By the time he was 10 years old, he completed the study of language and literature and had memorized the Koran. He then studied Greek logic, astronomy and mathematics (Ptolemy’s Almagest, and Euclid’s Elements) under the tutelage of his father’s friend al-Natili, but soon felt that his knowledge surpassed that of his tutor. At age sixteen, he had mastered contemporary knowledge in natural science, rudimentary metaphysics and medical theory. Avicenna had read all the books on medical theory, but wanted to know more than theory so he started to practice medicine, obtaining a huge body of knowledge.
Word soon spread about Avicenna’s abilities as a doctor and he was asked to heal the Samanid prince Nuh bin Mansur in 997, after which he was appointed court physician. He was given access to the prince’s vast library, which he made use of. By the time he was 18, Avicenna had read all the books in the library and was also discovering new treatments for diseases. He also felt that he had mastered the sciences except for metaphysics, which he had problems understanding – he read Plato’s Metaphysics 40 times without understanding it. Avicenna was finally able to understand metaphysics after he discovered a commentary on it by al-Farabi. He was so grateful that he gave alms to the poor.
In 999, the Samanid dynasty was overthrown by the Turkish Ghaznawid dynasty. His father died in 1002 amidst political turmoil and war so Avicenna left Bukhara to roam the cities of Transoxania and Iran. While in Iran, he lectured on logic and astrology and wrote the first part of his famed Canon of Medicine. Avicenna moved on to Ray which was close to modern day Teheran and established a busy medical practice. When Ray was under siege, he moved on to Hamadan which was ruled by the emir Shams al-Daula. Between 1015 and 1022 Avicenna acted as both vizier (chief minister) and physician to the emir. He reserved his evenings for teaching and studying. Avicenna wrote the Canon in Medicine and the Book of Healing (The Metaphysics of The Healing (Brigham Young University – Islamic Translation Series)), which established his place in history.
When Shams al-Daula died, Avicenna was imprisoned for four months then released. During his imprisonment, Avicenna wrote several treatises. After he was released, Avicenna, his brother, a pupil and two slaves disguised themselves as ascetic Muslim monks and left Hamadan for Isfahan. Avicenna spent the rest of his life in Isfahan in the service of the ruler Ala al-Daula. Avicenna was physician and advised Ala al-Daula on scientific and literary matters and accompanied him on military campaigns.
It is believed that once while Avicenna was ill his slaves gave him an overdose of opium and ransacked his belongings, and escaped. He never fully recovered his strength and died in 1037 while accompanying the ruler on a military campaign.
His surviving works include more than two hundred and fifty books, treatises, and letters on philosophy, cosmology, medicine, geometry, astronomy, art, and religion. The most important among these are Kitab al-Shifah (The Book Concerning the Healing of the Soul), Kitaba al-Najat (Book of Salvation), Danishnama-yi ialahI (Divine Wisdom), iUyun al-Hikmah, al-Isharat wahl tanbihat (Remarks and Admonitions), and the famous al-Qanun fihl-tibb (The Canon of Medicine). His two greatest works are Kitab al-Shifah (Book of Healing) and al-Qanun fihl-tibb (The Canon of Medicine).
The Canon of Medicine is over one million words and comprised of five books. Gerard of Cremona translated the Canon of Medicine from Persian to Latin between 1150 and 1187.
- Book I: This is the most complicated of the five books and covers pulmonary circulation and four treatises.
- Book II: A general account of the physical properties of drugs and a list of drugs.
- Book III: “Head-to-Toes Diseases” begins with diseases of the brain, nerves, eye, ear, joint pain, sciatica and so on.
- Book IV: Details of fevers, their classification, symptoms, prognoses, principles for diagnosis and therapy.
- Book V: Drugs, pills, liniments and their medicinal application.
Book of Healing
The Book of Healing is comprehensive and divided into four parts dealing with disciplines ranging from the physical sciences to music and psychology, based on Aristotle, Plato, and Plotinus. It contains summaries, analyses, and re-conceptualizations of those Aristotelian doctrines that appeared sound to him. The only areas that Avicenna didn’t deal with in The Book of Healing were ethics and politics.
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Book links are affiliate links.
Encyclopedia of World Biography
American Council of Learned Societies, Dictionary of Scientific Biography
Encyclopedia of World Scientists
Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography
Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Encyclopedia of Islam and the Muslim World