Children still recite sacred scripture in Koranic school as they did in Avicenna’s time. (photo: Leon V. Kofod)
During the Middle Ages, when monks and scholars were preserving and enriching the wisdom of Europe, Muslim philosophers were making brilliant contributions to Islamic civilization. Fortunately, some of their works became known in the West through translations. The Western world thus inherited the work of Islams outstanding medieval philosopher, physician and scientist: Avicenna.
He was born in Bukhara, Persia, in 980 A.D. His father was a member of an Islamic religious and political movement, and the young Avicenna grew up in a stimulating intellectual atmosphere.
He was exceptionally precocious and had an amazing memory; by the time he was ten years old he knew the Koran by heart and was familiar with theology, literature and algebra. He soon began to surpass his tutors, and while still in his teens he turned independently to the study of medicine, philosophy and the natural sciences.
Word of the brilliant young man who had begun to treat the sick reached the Sultan of Bukhara, who was ill. Avicenna was called to the royal court, where he cured the ailing ruler. In gratitude, the Sultan made his extensive library available to the young physician. Within a few years, Avicenna had absorbed most of the wisdom of the ancient and medieval worlds.
When the Sultan of Bukhara was overthrown, Avicenna was forced to flee. Still in his twenties, he became a wandering sage and scholar, his fortunes dependent to a large extent upon political conditions. In some royal courts he found favor as a physician and teacher, and was rewarded with diplomatic appointments. When power shifted or his enemies sought to destroy him, he would escape, sometimes in disguise, and go into hiding. He was even thrown into jail. In spite of the danger and uncertainty of his life, however, Avicenna continued to write, organizing the knowledge he had obtained through study and practice. He also held conferences and classes with the numerous scientists, philosophers and students who gathered around him.
Avicenna wrote more than 200 books, but the bulk of his teaching is contained in his two most famous works, the Book of Healing and the Canon of Medicine.
The Book of Healing is an encyclopedia of philosophy and science, and may be the largest work of its kind ever undertaken by one man. It bears witness to Avicennas exhaustive study of the greatest philosophers of antiquity, particularly Aristotle. Included in the wide range of subjects it covers are logic, metaphysics, mathematics, economics, physics, botany and music. Well-written and meticulously organized, the book reveals the scope and breadth of Avicennas learning.
Slower scholars might take heart, however, upon reading that even Avicenna did not always find his studies easy. He claims that he read Aristotles Metaphysics 40 times without comprehending it. Discouraged by his failure, he was nonetheless persuaded by a bookseller to read another philosophers commentary on the Metaphysics. Avicennas eyes at last were opened to the mysteries of Aristotle. In gratitude for the gift of understanding, he ran joyously into the streets, distributing alms to the poor.
Avicennas Canon of Medicine is a huge compilation of all the medical and pharmacological knowledge of the age, enriched with commentary based on the authors own experience and experimentation. Among the subjects he covers are the symptoms, diagnosis and treatment of the major diseases, the use of medicinal plants, the preparation and use of drugs, the practice of hygiene, techniques of surgery, and care of the hair and skin. He also deals with the relationship between emotional and physical health. The Canon was translated into Latin and became the chief text in many European medical schools. It was still in use in the seventeenth century, and secured Avicennas position as the greatest medical writer of the Middle Ages.
During his lifetime Avicenna was widely known as a physician and scientist. But his work in philosophy was equally brilliant, and exerted considerable influence on both Muslim and Christian scholars for centuries to come. Avicenna presented a well-developed system, the first of its kind in Islam, describing God, man and the universe, and the ways in which they are related.
One of the ideas Avicenna advanced is that God is the only necessary Being, the only Being who exists without a cause. Created beings have a beginning in time; their existence can be traced to a cause. Gods existence, however, is eternal and outside of time; it is part of His very nature to exist. He had no beginning and will have no end.
This idea was used and developed in the thirteenth century by St. Thomas Aquinas, the greatest of the medieval Christian scholastics. Though he frequently quoted Avicenna in order to criticize him, Thomas held the Muslim philosopher in high regard, and he used much of Avicennas philosophy in formulating his own.
After a lifetime of intense scholarship, Avicenna died in Hamadhan in 1037. In the centuries since his death, his work has been honored, criticized, discussed and debated by Christians and Muslims, by theologians, philosophers and physicians. His wisdom was a bridge between East and West, and he holds a permanent place among the greatest minds in history.