Ibn Sina (aka Avicenna): Life, Accomplishments and Major Works of the Renowned Persian Polymath
It’s common knowledge that the advances in modern medicine are the result of numerous centuries of research, development and experimentation. However, unbeknownst to many people, a large number of those advancements took place in the Islamic world between the 9th and 14th centuries, a period historians like to refer to as the Islamic Golden age. Inspired by the works of ancient Greeks and Romans, Islamic Golden age scholars were tolerant and open to new knowledge and technology from different parts of the world, including from non-Muslims. One of such distinguished scholars was the Persian polymath ibn Sīnā, who is known in the West as Avicenna. ibn Sīnā’s medical texts had profound influence on the study of medicine throughout Europe for many centuries. For example, until the late 17th century, his work “The Canon of Medicine” remained the standard textbook in many medical schools across Europe and beyond.
What else was ibn Sīnā best known for? And how did his works and contributions to medicine come to epitomize the Islamic Golden Age?
Below, we look at the life and major achievements of Ibn Sina, the Persian polymath who is often hailed as the “Father of Early Modern Medicine”.
Abu Ali al-Husayn Ibn Abd Allan Ibn Sina, popularly known in Western societies as Avicenna, was the son of Abdullah and Setareh. He was born in c. 980 in Transoxiana, a place in central Asia. Soon after his birth, his family relocated to Bukhara, where he received his early education in Hanafi jurisprudence from Isma’il Zahid and began his studies in medicine under the tutelage of a variety of experts.
He became a well-known doctor by the time he was 16 years old and spent a lot of time learning about physics, natural sciences, and philosophy in addition to his medical studies. He rose to notoriety after successfully curing a very rare illness that had plagued Nuh ibn Mansur, the Sultan of Bukhara of the Samanid Court, Nuh ibn Mansur.
In 997, after Ibn Sina had healed Nun ibn Mansur of his disease, Mansur employed him as his personal physician. In addition to that, the sultan granted him access to his library and its collection of priceless manuscripts so that he could continue his studies. This education and access to the medical library of the Samanid court aided him in his pursuit of philosophical understanding. As one of the finest of its sort in the medieval world, the sultan’s royal library was a source of great prestige for his country, and Ibn Sina took full advantage of the opportunity to advance his knowledge in a host of disciplines.
What was the polymath best known for?
Ibn Sina’s book “Al-Qanun fi al-Tibb” (The Canon of Medicine) is widely regarded as a landmark in the field of medicine because of the way it skillfully weaves together old medical wisdom with modern discoveries made by Islamic scientists of the Golden Age.
At some point in the 12th century, the book was translated into Latin, and from that point on, it was employed as a go-to medicine textbook at universities across Europe until the middle of the 17th century.
Ibn Sina not only outlined the anatomy of various body components, including the eye and the heart, but he also listed over 550 potential treatments for common diseases. The physician also discusses the impact that plants and roots have on the human body, demonstrating his expertise as a botanist.
One of his most important contributions to medicine was his research on the usefulness of quarantines in preventing the transmission of disease. He argued that a quarantine of at least 40 days was necessary to prevent the spread of infection. This became one of his most notable contributions to medicine.
The Book of Healing
“The Book of Healing”, one of his most influential writings outside of medicine, is divided into four parts and covers a wide range of topics, including mathematics, physics, biological sciences, and psychology. After an extensive 50 page a day write up, Sina completed “The Book of Healing”; however, the book only became available in Europe fifty years later under a new title known as “Sufficientia”.
The book is regarded as one of the most notable works of physiology and taking a closer would reveal the polymath’s knowledge displayed across numerous fields.
Did Avicenna believe in God?
The establishment of his own version of Aristotelian logic and the use of reason to prove the presence of God were Ibn Sina’s most significant contributions to the field of philosophy.
The Persian polymath, while challenging his Greek predecessor Aristotle, held the view that humans possessed three souls: the vegetative, the animal, and the intellectual. He believed that humans’ reasoning ability was the link between them and God, whereas the first two tied them to the ground.
With this philsophy, Ibn Sina authored a book titled “Burhan al-Siddiqin” (Proof of the Truthful) in which he argued that God must exist because there is no such thing as a nonexistent being. He went on to say that everything other than this is dependent on the existence of another entity. A person’s own existence, for instance, is dependent on the presence of their parents, who in turn depend on the existence of their family members, and so forth.
Ibn Sina reasoned that even when everything in the universe is added up, it is still contingent, since everything needs a non-contingent cause outside of itself, which he believed to be God. Ibn Rushd later argued that this kind of thinking was flawed because it relied on unprovable metaphysical principles rather than observable natural rules. Therefore, Ibn Sina kept his belief in God.
READ MORE: Top 10 Philosophers from Ancient Greece
The link between the human senses and soul
Ibn Sina dedicated most of his life to learning the ins and outs of the human senses and proving that they were more complex than previously thought. He suggested that we possess inner senses that work in tandem with the five traditionally recognized senses (i.e. taste, smell, hearing, sight, and touch).
An avid intuitive scholar, he considered common sense to be an internal sense and even credited it with performing some of the soul’s tasks. Therefore, in his view, the process of coming up with an opinion and deciding on an action is an act of the soul.
He believed that aside from using common sense, individuals also relied on their retentive imagination to recall the facts they had learned. This perceptual faculty saves numerous information in the mind, allowing you to recall this information and identify them.
Finally, Ibn Sina explained that understanding is the ability to use all the information to the best of our internal senses’ capacities, while memory is responsible for preserving all the knowledge created by the other senses.
Other discoveries of the polymath
In his scientific writings, Avicenna argued that light traveled at a constant velocity. He also described the path of sound in the air and proposed a theory of motion. Here are some other notable discoveries and works made by Avicenna:
- The polymath, during his study of an early kind of psychiatry, discussed the physical manifestations of mental health problems like depression and anxiety.
- The study of earthquakes and cloud formation were two examples of the natural phenomena studied by the Persian polymath. He explained that surface-level earthquakes are caused by plate movements and other subsurface processes.
- By comparing the apparent size of Venus to the sun’s disc, Ibn Sina deduced that Venus was actually further from the sun than the Earth. It’s been said that he may have discovered that the SN 1006 supernova, visible for three months around the turn of the first millennium CE, briefly outshone Venus and was visible even in broad daylight.
- The physicist also invented a gadget to track the positions of stars and discovered that stars emit their own light.
How did Avicenna die?
In June 1037, at the age of 58, Ibn Sina passed away following a protracted bout with colic. All his efforts to heal himself proved futile as he was steadily poisoned by one of his slaves. This resulted in his early death. His tomb in Hamdan, Iran, which is now a mausoleum, served as the site of his burial.
Other interesting facts about Ibn Sina
Here are a few more interesting facts about Ibn Sina:
- Ibn Sina was recognized as a Qur’an Hafiz (one who has memorized the entire Qur’an) at the tender age of ten. At the age of fourteen, he had already surpassed his educators due to his outstanding intelligence.
- The Persian polymath succeeded his father as the Governor of Harmaytan.
- By the 12th century, Avicennism had emerged as the preeminent school of Islamic thought in the medieval Islamic world, thanks to Avicenna’s successful attempt to reconcile Aristotelianism and Neoplatonism, coupled with Kalam.
- For his extensive works, he became the most famous and influential polymath of the Islamic Golden Age.
- At some point in his life, he served as the private physician and confidant of the Emir of Buyid Majd al-Dawla.
- He also served in the court of ʿAlā al-Dawlah Muhammad, the founder of the Kakuyid dynasty in Jibal.
- It was during his stay at Eṣfahān that he penned his most famous works – Kitāb al-shifāʾ (Book of the Cure, or The Cure) and Kitāb al-najāt (Book of Salvation).
- He lived during the Abbasid Caliphate era (750-1258).
- Much of what we know of Avicenna comes from his autobiography dictated to his loyal student, al-Jūzjānī.
Avicenna: Fast Facts
Full name: Abū ʾAlī al-Ḥusayn ibn ʿAbd Allāh ibn Sīnā
Born: c. 980
Place of birth: Transoxiana, Samanid Empire (in modern-day Uzbekistan)
Died: June 22, 1037
Place of death: Hamadan (in modern-day Hamadan Province, Iran)
Father: Abd Allah
Notable works: l-Qānūn fī al-ṭibb (The Canon of Medicine) and Kitāb al-shifāʾ (Book of the Cure, or The Cure)
Scholars that influenced him: Hippocrates, Aristotle, Galen, al-Farabi, al-Kindi
Scholars that he influenced: René Descartes, Al-Ghazali, Tusi, Duns Scotus, al-Juzjani, Thomas Aquinas, Sir William Osler