Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Ibn Sina (Avicenna)

Ibn Sina (ca. 980-1037), known in Europe as Avicenna, was an Iranian polymathic philosopher of considerable scope. He was born at a village near Bukhara, the capital of the liberal Samanid dynasty in Central Asia. His father was a local estate governor, hailing from Balkh, and may have been an Ismaili. Ibn Sina was educated in Bukhara. By the age of eighteen, he had learned jurisprudence, medicine, mathematics, astronomy, physics, and also philosophy (falsafa) in the Peripatetic (Aristotelian) mould.

Ibn Sina was gifted in medicine, and became a physician at an early age. He also gained familiarity with the Metaphysics of Aristotle, at first with difficulty, though he assimilated the contents via the commentary of Al-Farabi (entry no. 17). Ibn Sina early arrived at an independent standpoint in religion, though he remained a Muslim.

His brief autobiography relates that his teacher, the mathematician Abu Abdulla al-Natili, had merely a superficial knowledge of philosophy, and so he studied on his own, in logic, mathematics, and astronomy. His self-taught curriculum (apart from medicine) did not impair his abilities, and he ranks as one of the most brilliant intellects of his era.

The autobiography has been described in terms of: “centers on the ability of some individuals with powerful souls to acquire intelligible knowledge all by themselves and without the help of a teacher.... is written from the perspective of a philosopher who does not belong by training to any school of thought and is therefore not beholden to defending it blindly, who established truth through his independent verification (hads).” (Dimitri Gutas, “Avicenna ii. Biography,” Encyclopaedia Iranica online.) The Arabic term hads has also been translated as intuition, and was used by Ibn Sina in relation to his version of the Aristotelian syllogism.

In 997, Ibn Sina gained entry to the palace library when he cured the Samanid ruler (Nuh ibn Mansur al-Samani) of an illness. That library apparently possessed an extensive collection of works, which he researched. A few years later, he started to write his own books, mostly in Arabic, and his corpus is extensive.

The life of Ibn Sina was colourful, and at times hazardous. The political conditions in Central Asia and Iran were very unstable, and military strife was commonplace. He gained an administrative post, and moved from Bukhara to Khwarezm, eventually arriving at Hamadan in West Iran, maintaining a career as court physician and political minister (wazir). He was dependent on royal patrons, and evidently lived in some degree of opulence.

At Hamadan he suffered a brief period of imprisonment in the political flux, and later moved to Isfahan, where the Buwayhid prince Ala’ al-Dawla became his patron. Ibn Sina acted as a physician and scientific adviser to this prince for over a decade, accompanying the ruler on military campaigns, and writing books in his leisure hours. He began the construction of an observatory, but that project was not completed. He died at Hamadan during a military campaign, suffering from colic. His pupil Juzjani reported that Ibn Sina indulged in sexual activity with women; he later gained a reputation amongst detractors as being disposed to slave girls and wine. He is said to have experienced remorse on his deathbed, and to have given away his possessions.

His works include al-Qanun fi’l-tibb (The Canon of Medicine), which epitomised the medical knowledge of his time, and supplemented by his own original observations. This book was translated into Latin, and became influential, being used as a textbook in European universities until the seventeenth century, and having since been called “the most famous single book in the history of medicine.” (J.J. O’Connor and E. F. Robertson, Avicenna.)


His lengthy and encyclopaedic Kitab al-Shifa (Book of Healing) incorporates logic, the natural sciences, mathematics, and metaphysics. Mathematics is here divided into geometry, arithmetic, astronomy, and music. This neo-Aristotelian digest of philosophy and science became famous in a Latin translation two centuries later, creating controversies, censure, and also diverse influences upon the Christian schoolmen, including Aquinas, who frequently cited Ibn Sina (alias Avicenna).

To quote: “We see in his system traces of Platonism, Aristotelianism, Neoplatonism, Galenism, Farabianism and other Greek and Islamic ideas. His system is unique, however, and cannot be said to follow any of the above schools. Even al-Shifa, which reflects a strong Aristotelian tendency, is not purely Aristotelian.” (S. Inati, “Ibn Sina,” chapter 16 in S. H. Nasr and O. Leaman, eds., History of Islamic Philosophy Pt 1, London: Routledge, 1996, p. 232). Others have described Ibn Sina as being rooted in the Aristotelian tradition.

His Danishnama-yi ‘Ala’i (Book of Science) has been described as the first treatise of Islamic Peripatetic philosophy to be written in the Persian language, being an introductory text for laymen, and dedicated to his patron Ala’ al-Dawla. Exhibiting a less formal style, the author again contradicts the scholastic theologians (mutakallimun), whom he seems to have regarded as primary opponents. See M. Achena, “Avicenna xi. Persian Works,” Encyclopaedia Iranica online.

Ibn Sina’s version of Aristotle was undertaken in an independent spirit of revision. He also incorporated Farabi and Plotinus. A drawback here is that Ibn Sina and other Muslim commentators believed that the rather confusing text Theology of Aristotle was the culmination of Aristotle’s metaphysics, though it is actually a version of Enneads IV-VI. Ibn Sina’s Peripatetic exposition has been regarded as a fusion of Aristotelianism, Neoplatonism, and Islamic theology (kalam), though bearing in mind his conflict with theologians.

“Avicenna’s epistemology is predicated upon a theory of soul that is independent of the body and capable of abstraction; this proof for the self in many ways prefigures by 600 years the Cartesian cogito.” Quotation from S. H. Rizvi, “Avicenna (Ibn Sina),” 2006, Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy.

The metaphysical system of Ibn Sina has been described as “one of the most comprehensive and detailed in the history of philosophy,” and further, as exhibiting “an underlying Farabian motif, namely, that the quest after philosophical knowledge is for the sake of perfecting one’s soul and hence for the attainment of happiness in this world and the next.” (M. E. Marmura, “Avicenna iv. Metaphysics,” Encyclopaedia Iranica online.)

The question of mysticism in Ibn Sina has been subject to much argument. In his al-Isharat wa’l Tanbihat (Pointers and Reminders), Ibn Sina finishes with a sympathetic review of Sufi mysticism. Here a feasible interpretation is that he validated Sufism without being a participant, and in terms of his own philosophical system. His lost work called Oriental Philosophy (al-Hikma al-Mashriqiya) or Book of the Easterners (Kitab al-Mashriqiyin) is known via a surviving passage that has been differently interpreted. See S. H. Nasr, An Introduction to Islamic Cosmological Doctrines (revised edn, London 1978), pp. 186ff., associated with the view that Ibn Sina was a precursor of later Iranian gnosticism. Cf. D. Gutas, “Avicenna v. Mysticism,” Encyclopaedia Iranica online, and here denying any mysticism in Ibn Sina, interpreting him in terms of being rooted in Aristotelian rationalism.

See further W. E. Gohlman, ed. and trans., The Life of Ibn Sina (Albany 1974); D. Gutas, Avicenna and the Aristotelian Tradition (Leiden 1988); L. E. Goodman, Avicenna (London, 1992; new edn, 2005); S.H. Nasr, “Ibn Sina’s ‘Oriental Philosophy’,” chapter 17 in Nasr and Leaman, eds., History of Islamic Philosophy Part 1 (London 1996); T. Street, Avicenna: Intuitions of the Truth (Cambridge 2006); S. Rahman, T. Street, H. Tahiri, eds., The Unity of Science in the Arabic Tradition (New York, 2008). See also muslimphilosophy.com.

Kevin R. D. Shepherd
April 21st 2010

ENTRY no. 18

Copyright © 2010 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved.