Ibn Sina (Avicenna) 980-1037 C.E.

Western historians consider the era between the sixth and the 12th centuries A.D. as one of the earth's darkest periods of history. Although Europe had lapsed into an epoch of ignorance, some parts of the world continued to grow and flourish during this period. Specifically, in the Islamic world (Afghanistan, Arabian countries, Iran and Turkey), a golden age had dawned, and achievements in the arts and sciences of the time can be seen clearly in the development of the medical sciences. Babylonia, Phoenicia, and Judaeh were the most ancient centers of learning and culture from which the Greeks derived their inspirations.

Greek wisdom flowed to the East through the Syrian Christian translators who passed Hellenism to the Islamic world. Among the Muslim scholars and philosophers who diverted their legacy to the West and awakened Europe to the dawn of Renaissance, Ibn Sina occupies a prominent place.

The life of Ibn Sina is known to us through a narration dictated to his pupil, Jujani. The Persian philosopher, Abu Ali al-Husain ibn Abd-Allah ibn Hasan ibn Ali ibn Sina, was born in Kharmaithan, a village near Bukhara, in August, 980 C.E. He was the elder of two boys, born to a man of uncertain heritage, but most likely Iranian.

His father came from Balkh, a metropolis that was a political and religious center, bringing together Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, Manichaeism, Nestorian Christianity, and Islam.

Ibn Sina was raised in an unorthodox Muslim environment.  As a child he was exposed to his father’s beliefs, which were influenced by the Ismailis.  He had read the Quran by the age of ten, and by the age of sixteen, had studied Muslim jurisprudence, religious argumentation, philosophy, geometry, and medicine.  He had excelled in medicine, using practical techniques.

For eighteen months, Ibn Sina dedicated himself to logical and philosophical problems, translating every statement and proposition he encountered into syllogistic premises and recording them.  This was an intense period of study, as he worked through the day and late into the night.

The results of his efforts were that he had mastered logic, the natural sciences, and mathematics.  However, Aristotle’s Metaphysica had eluded his understanding, as he claimed to have read it forty times without comprehension.  It was not until he had read Farabi’s commentary on the Metaphysica that the whole treatise became clear to him.

At this time, when the Amir fell ill and his personal physicians were unable to restore him, they suggested that Ibn Sina be summoned.  The Amir recovered and Ibn Sina was given access to the Samanid library, a massive collection of modern and ancient works of philosophy, poetry and the sciences, with a whole room to each subject.

At twenty-one, he wrote his first major work, a compendium to the sciences.  This was followed by Kitab al-Hasil wa Al-Mahsul (Sum and Substance), an appraisal of the philosophic sciences, and al-Birr war-Ithm (Innocence and Guilt), which dealt with morals.

When his father died, Ibn Sina was forced to relocate to Guranj for a position with the Sultan.  The Samanids were losing power to the Turks, and Ibn Sina’s connection to the Ismaili’s through his father may have jeopardized his safety.  However, Ibn Sina remained in Guranj only until 1012, when he was summoned to the court of Mahmud of Ghazna.  He did not go, probably for religious reasons, but wandered from village to village until he arrived in Gurgan.

Among the works he composed here were al-Mukhtasar al-Aswat (The Middle Summary), al-Mabda wa al-Ma’ad (The Beginning and the Return), and al-Arsad al-Kulliya (The General Observations).  He also began his great medical text al-Qanun (The Canon) and Mukhtasar al-Majesti (Summary of the Almagest

From there he moved to Raiy, where Ibn Sina came under the employment of the prince, Majd el-Dowleh.  The prince had been ineffectual in securing his position, and Ibn Sina was treating the prince for melancholia.  Shams al-Dowleh, the Prince’s brother, attacked the city and Ibn Sina fled.  This time to Hamadhan, to work in the court of Shams al-Dowleh.  He cured the Amir of colic, and was given a position as vizier.  However, the army rose up and had Ibn Sina exiled, whereby he hid out with a friend, until the Amir again had an attack of colic, and Ibn Sina was once more successful in curing him and regaining his position.  While serving as vizier, Ibn Sina began working on the Kitab al-Shifa (The Book of Healing), and also finished the first book of the Qanun.

When the Amir died from another attack of colic while on military campaign, and his son was named the Amir, Ibn Sina began corresponding with Ala el-Dowleh, in order to secure a position in Isfahan.  While awaiting a reply, Ibn Sina went into hiding, where he finished the Shifa.  His plans were discovered and he was thrown into prison where he wrote Kitab al-Hidaya (The Book of Guidance), the Risalat Haiyibn Yaqzan (The Treatise of Living, the Son of the Vigilant) and the Kitab al-Qulanj (The Book of Colic).

Upon release, Ibn Sina fled to Isfahan where he was received with honor.  He lived in luxury, under Ala el-Dowleh, having no official position.  He completed the Shifa, and wrote a Persian language book of philosophy called the Danish-Nameh ye Ala’i (The Ala’i Book of Knowledge).

In 1030, Masud, son of the Sultan Mahmud, entered Isfahan, causing Ala el-Dowleh to flee, along with Ibn Sina.  Ibn Sina was seized by colic and nearly killed himself in his attempt to cure his affliction.  But he recovered, only to fall into a severe relapse, at which he quoted the manager who used to manage me, is incapable of managing me any longer, so there is no use trying to cure my illness.  He died in 1037 at age fifty-eight, and was buried outside of Hamadhan.

Sources:

Afnan, Soheil M.  Avicenna: His Life and Works Westport: Greenwood Press, 1980

Goodman, L. E.  Avicenna New York: Routledge, 1992