Nooh ibn Mansur, the Samanid king of Bukhara (976–97 A.C.) was lying in a precarious condition on his sickbed, and the court physicians had given up all hopes of his recovery. In consequence, a boy of 17 years was summoned and ushered into the Chamber of the sick King, passing through a congregation of astonished dignitaries composed of distinguished courtiers and talented physicians. This boy was Ibn Sina who was finally entrusted with the treatment of the King. The marvellous boy cured the dying Ruler, to the great astonishment of all and was accorded due honour and prestige at the Court. He was given the privilege of using the Ruler’s remarkable Library, which, in fact, could be the highest award for his great work.
Ibn Sina, the greatest intellectual giant of the Middle Ages and one of the greatest of all times, was a versatile genius who influenced the course of thought in diverse ways. Being an outstanding encyclopaedist, he made lasting contributions to medical sciences, philosophy, logic, occult sciences, mathematics, astronomy, music and poetry. He was an eminent rational philosopher, whose invaluable discoveries in varied branches of knowledge forestalled many later discoveries and won for him an immortal place among the galaxy of eminent scientists and thinkers of the world. “He is important as Universal Encyclopaedist,” adds the Encyclopaedia of Islam, “who fixed the system of learning for centuries following”.
Abu Ali Husain ibn Abdullah ibn Hasan ibn Ali ibn Sina, known as Shaikh-ur-Rais (Prince of all Teachers), was born in 980 A.C. at Afshinah near Bukhara (Turkistan). His father Abdullah who hailed from Balkh was appointed as a Samanite Governor and was later posted at Bukhara, where the young Abu Ali received his early education. From the very beginning he showed such an extraordinary intelligence and made so remarkable progress in his education that at the early age of 10, he was well versed in Quran and different branches of literature.
Being brought up in an Ismaili family, he was deeply influenced by Ismaili proselytism and developed a taste for philosophy which enabled him to study Greek, Islamic and other material on the subject. Meanwhile, Abu Abdullah, an Natili, a leading philosopher of his time, visited Bukhara and stayed at his house. Ibn Sina studied logic, geometry and astronomy from him. The intelligent boy soon surpassed his teacher and studied by himself medicine, physics and metaphysics. He gained a deep insight into these categories of knowledge. He acquired deep knowledge of medical science and established such a high reputation as a practising physician, that reputed physicians consulted him in difficult cases, Metaphysics he learnt from the works of al-Farabi. The metaphysical and logical speculations of al-Farabi determined the direction of his thought. He mastered all these subjects before he was 17 years of age.
Endowed with extraordinary powers of assimilating, absorbing and retaining knowledge, he soon mastered all the varied intellectual material found in the Imperial Library, which later enabled him to undertake his monumental works. “I went there,” writes Avicenna, “and found a large number of rooms filled with books packed up in trunks. I then read the catalogue of the primitive authors and found therein all I required. I saw many books the titles of which were unknown to most people, and others which I never met with before or since.” He started writing at the age of 21. His style is clear and comprehensive. After the death of his father, he had to leave Bukhara due to political disturbances and reached the city of Gorgan which was noted for its high culture, His fame had travelled faster than him and he was accorded a hearty welcome by the King of Khwarizm, a great patron of art and learning. It was at this famous seat of learning that he met his great contemporary Abu Raihan Al-Biruni. He had hardly set his foot there, when Sultan Mahmood of Ghazni, demanded from the King of Khwarizm to send these intellectual luminaries to Ghazni. Reluctantly the King of Khwarizm had to comply with the request of the great conqueror, Mahmood Ghaznavi and despatched Al-Biruni, Abu Nasr Arraq and Abul Khair Khammar to Ghazni. But Ibn Sina and Abu Sahl Masihi refused to go to Ghazni and set out for Gorgan. At Gorgan, he practised as a physician and engaged himself in the teaching and writing of books. It was here that he met his sincere friend and pupil Abu Ubaid Jawaz Jami. Lack of patronage and appreciation of his deep erudition, forced him to leave Gorgan and reach Rayy. Here he was welcomed by the Dalamite Ruler Majdul Dawlah. His stay at Rayy was brief and shortly afterwards he went to Hamadan. At Hamadan, he stayed for a longer period and he was closely associated with its ruler Shamsud Dawlah, whom he had cured of a painful colic. It was here that Ibn Sina completed his monumental work on medicine called, ‘Al Qanun Fit Tib.’ Majdul Dawlah, the Dalamite Ruler, had appointed him his Minister for a brief period. The army threatened a mutiny as it suspected Ibn Sina to be in correspondence with the Ruler of Isfahan. At last, he hurried to Isfahan, where he was heartily welcomed by its Ruler, Alaud Dawla. Ibn Sina got some respite in Isfahan and carried on the task of completing most of his immortal works here. Repeated travels and exacting political and intellectual preoccupations, had undermined his health. He was suffering from colic and he made some special efforts towards his own treatment and probably overdid it which produced intestinal complications. He became bed-ridden at Hamadan, and having realised that his end was approaching, he took bath, offered repentance and began reciting Quran till his end came. Thus died the greatest thinker of the Mediaeval times at the age of 57 in 1037 A.C. being victim of a disease in which he was a specialist. His grave in Hamadan is yearly visited by a large number of pilgrims and admirers.
His was a chequered career and his life was a struggle not without a lesson for the common man. He lived in a period when the Muslim world was passing through great revolutionary times and his restless soul could not provide him the peace and tranquillity which is ordinarily essential for undertaking such gigantic intellectual works as he did. It is a great tribute to his genius that in such disturbed conditions and with a distracted state of mind, he could compile a number of monumental works on diverse subjects.
He was the greatest encyclopaedist of the middle ages, a versatile genius who has left behind him ineffaceable marks in diverse branches of knowledge. His works embraced a wide range of subjects, including logic, medicine, philosophy, psychology, mathematics, astronomy, theology, ethics, politics, mysticism, Tafseer, literature, and music. He is said to have written 50 pages a day at an average and is the author of no less than 238 books and treatises. His literary works commenced at Bukhara at an age of 21 and continued at Gorgan, Rayy, Hamadan, and Isfahan in spite of his political pre-occupation and disturbed environments. The last 13 years of his life at Hamadan and Isfahan was a period of his greatest intellectual activities in which he completed most of his gigantic works. His chief works on philosophy AshShifa and An-Najat were written here. He also concluded his works on ethics and Al Magest and added 10 chapters to the later. He wrote treatises on geometry, arithmetic, and music. He made new additions to arithmetic and disproved a number of theories advanced by Euclid. He wrote two books on zoology and botany during a trip to Shahpur Khwast along with his patron, Alaud Dawlah. During the same journey, he wrote his ‘Kitab an-Najat’. At Isfahan, he wrote his ‘Danish Namai Alai’, Kitab al-Insaf, and works on literature and lexicography. He is considered as the father of the science of geology, on account of his invaluable book on-mountain in which he discussed the matters relating to the earth’s crust and gave the scientific cause for earthquakes.
His chief contribution is to the realm of medicine and philosophy. He wrote at least eight large medical treatises, which occupy the most outstanding place in the history of medieval medical science. One of these deals with treatment of colic in which he was a specialist. Another contains a chapter on the possibility of the production of exceptional psychical phenomena. The medical traditions of Galen, Hippocrates, Aristotle, Zakariya Razi, and Al-Majusi reached their climax in the Canon of Ibn Sina, His gigantic work ‘Al Qannun Fil Tib’ known as Canon in Latin is the culmination and masterpiece of Arab systematization. Written in five volumes it is a medical encyclopedia, dealing with 760 drugs besides general medicines, simple drugs, and diseases affecting all parts of the body from head to foot. This book particularly deals with pathology and pharmacopeia and was translated in the 12th century by Gerard of Cremona. An appendix dealing with clinical observations was lost. He treats acute and chronic diseases and prescribes methods of treatment and preventive measures. He has distinguished mediastinitis from pleurisy and has discovered the contagious nature of diseases which spread through water and soil. “Translated in Latin by Gerard of Cremona in 12th Century”, writes Phillip K. Hitti, “This Canon with its encyclopaedist contents, its systematic arrangements, and philosophic plan, soon worked its way into position of prominence in the medical literature of the age, displacing the works of Galen, Al-Razi and Al-Majusi and becoming the Text for medical education in the schools of Europe. From the 12th to 17th century this work served as the chief guide to the medical science in the West and it is still in occasional use in the Moslem East”. In the words of Dr. Osler it has remained, “a medical bible for a longer period than any other work.” The popularity of this great book may be gauged by the fact that during the last 30 years of the 15th century it was published 16 times and was published 20 times in the 16th century in various European languages. The publication of its parts, as well as commentaries in various languages of the East and the West, are innumerable. According to a celebrated European writer, “Probably no medical work ever written has so much been studied. Hence Avicenna’s influence on European medicine has been overwhelming.” “This book was started when Avicenna was in Gorgan,” writes the author of the Medical History of Persia, “and finished at Rayy. When it became known to the medical world, it at once superseded all previous works on medicine”. Sir Jadu Nath Sircar, the well-known Indian Historian pays eloquent tributes to Ibn Sina when he says: “Avicenna has the greatest intellectual giants of the middle ages.” Avicenna was responsible for elevating Islamic medicine to its zenith, and his portrait, as well as that of al-Razi, still adorn the Grand Hall of the Faculty of Medicine in the University of Paris.
Avicenna is considered by many as the greatest philosopher of Islam, whose rationalist philosophy tried to explain religious dogmas in the light of reason and invited severe criticism of Imam Ghazali. Like his predecessors, he tried to harmonize the abstract forms of philosophy with the Islamic religious faith. His outstanding philosophical works are ‘Kitab as-Shifa’ Al-Najar (The Salvation) and the Isharaat (Instructions). His Kitab as-Shifa’ which contains valuable knowledge on logic, physics, and metaphysics, had a deep influence over Western as well as Eastern philosophy. Persian writers class this book along with Almagest, of Ptolemy and treat it as a work devoted to a branch of astronomy, but the sections dealing with medical properties of stones and other chemical matters were included in the book, because all these subjects were included in philosophy in those days. His philosophical works reflected a conflict between materialism and idealism. He expounded the doctrines of Farabi and followed him in logic and epistemology. “Avicenna made for himself and posterity a problem which taxed his ingenuity to the utmost”, writes a celebrated orientalist. “He laid down the principle that from the one and indivisible only one being can originate. Therefore, it is not possible to assert that form and matter spring directly from God, for that would involve the assumption that there are two different modes in the Divine essence. Matter, indeed is not to be thought of as coming from God, because it is the very principle of multiplicity and diversity.”
He has more clearly brought out the dualism of mind and matter, God and the world than Farabi. The doctrine of the immortality of soul is more definitely laid down by him. His philosophy, in fact, brings out his scientific and progressive outlook. His rationalistic and materialistic outlook which was quite natural, being shaped by the philosophical trends of his times, was severely criticized by Ghazali. His compromise with Muslim theology did not find favor with the orthodox circles and his philosophical works were put to fire in Baghdad. He explains the moving, changing, and developing matter. Similar is his approach to the process of knowledge. His philosophy is the necessary link between the philosophy of Farabi and Ghazali on one hand and that on Ibn Rushd (Averroes) on the other.
His book ‘Shifa,’ according to Ibn Ali Usabiya was completed by him in 20 days in Hamadan. But Nizami states that the books was written in Isfahan with great deliberation. In logic, he has followed Farabi and has expanded as well as supplanted the deductions of Aristotle. His logical treatise ‘Nafia’ was translated in French and was published in 1658 in Paris.
Being a materialist, Avicenna is one of the greatest scientists of the middle ages. He has given his own classification of sciences, which is based on materialism. He differed from Aristotle regarding classification of sciences. He acknowledges the reality of the outer world and found an inter-relation between time and movement. Time can be conceived only in relation to movement. According to him, where there is no movement, there is no time. He refuted the Theory of Aristotle that the sources of motion is the invisible force who is God while Avicenna asserts that natural laws operate in the world with which Providence does not interfere. Hence the outlook of Avicenna is more modern and scientific than that of Aristotle. According to the celebrated orientalist R. Briffault, “an air thermometer is said to have been employed by Ibn Sina”.
Ibn Sina ranks only next to Farabi as the greatest musical theorist of Islam. His ‘Kitab as-Shifa,’ a philosophical encyclopedia of repute also contains much original work on music. He also wrote an introduction to the art of music, whilst a few definitions regarding music are found in his ‘Division of Science’. The work of Ibn Sina considerably influenced the West on the subject and Roger Bacon recognizes his contribution to therapeutic value of music. According to a Western critic of music, “Both Farabi and Ibn Sina are claimed to have added to what the Greeks taught.”
Avicenna, who was a versatile genius, made contributions to the field of astronomy also. He was entrusted by Alaud Dawlah, with the work of improving the existing calendar and the arrangement for the establishment of an observatory. “In proving the falsity of astrology”, says a Western writer, “he opposed the fallacious contention of the Greek, Arabian and Hindu astronomers who maintained that the obliquity of the ecliptic diminishes gradually towards the Celestial Equator.”
He is considered as the Father of the Science of Geology and in his well-known treatise published in Latin, as ‘De Conglutiatione lapidum’, he deals with the formation of mountains and the earth crust. He gives the scientific cause of earthquakes. His literary works, Hal, the son of Yakzan and Al Tair, directed the course of literary development in Iran, Afghanistan, Central Asia and Arabian countries. His best poetical contribution is the Ode describing the descent of the soul into the body from the higher spheres, which is still learnt by heart by the Arabic students.
Avicenna’s influence over the Eastern, as well as Western thought, has been overwhelming. He not only assimilated the Greek and Eastern sciences but improved upon them. His exhaustive biography was written by his favourite disciple Jurjani which was translated in Latin and several other languages. “His works”, according to Encyclopaedia of Islam, “were much read, annotated and translated into Western languages.” Acknowledging Avicenna as one of the greatest men that this world has seen, Cyril Elgood writes in his monumental work, Medical History of Persia: “Here is a man who starting with none of the advantages of life (except perhaps an appreciative father) becomes, while still a youth, the Adviser and confidant of his ruler, who, changes his city though he may, yet always becomes the leading within a few months and whose writings influenced all Europe, although he died before he was sixty and never travelled outside the semi-desert of Central Asia. He was hailed by his countrymen as the Second Teacher, the chief master; he has been seen by Dante in Paradise along with the greatest intellects of the non-Christian world, and William Harvey will say 600 years after his death to his friend Aubrey;’Go to the fountainhead and read Aristotle, Cicero and Avicenna.”