The Muslim who was the most influential pre-modern thinker: Ibn Sina

Avicenna
Avicenna Portrait on Silver Vase - Museum at BuAli Sina Mausoleum, Hamadan, Western Iran. Author: Adam Jones, Kelowna, BC, Canada.

During the dark ages of medieval Europe, Islamic civilization was undergoing a golden age of science, medicine and arts. Indeed much of Europe’s renaissance era breakthroughs had already been discovered during the Abbasid Caliphate period and many more were built on the backs of the work by Muslim scholars. One such scholar is Ibn Sina whose Latinized name Avicenna often appears in the works of Europe’s great scholars even today.

Abu Ali al-Husayn ibn ‘AbdAllah Ibn Sina was born in 980 CE in Afshana in modern Uzbekistan. He grew up in Bukhara which was a centre of intellectual influence during the Samanid rule. His thirst for knowledge as well his father’s influence allowed him access to an excellent education where he was taught by some of the most influential scholars in the natural sciences and Islamic theology.

By the age of 18, Ibn Sina had gained a good mastery of the sciences and began working in the Samanid court as a physician to the Emir. This gave him access to the library as well as the wisdom of the older scholars, many of whom were renowned, of the court. It was here that he wrote his earliest works.

The end of the Samanid dynasty marked a significant change in Ibn Sina’s life. He began a life of traveling and constant uprooting. He wandered from place to place looking for an opening for his talents. He lived on small stipends from benefactors or from being a practicing physician. He settled in Ravy, serving as a physician and subsequently as a vizier. Thirty of Ibn Sina’s work were written here. After that he became a vizier for a number of rulers.

Ibn Sina led an incredibly interesting life. He is however primarily known for his contributions to medicine and philosophy. He is regarded as an important compiler of early Muslim medicine. There are forty known volumes of his works on medicine, anatomy and pharmacology. His extensive medical encyclopedia entitled al-Qanun fi al-Tibb (The Canon of Medicine), is over one million words in length and was translated into Latin around 1150. It was used as the standard medical textbook in Europe until the mid-seventeenth century and is still widely considered a valuable resource for the study of medicine.

The Canon met the needs of European scholarship perfectly. It provided a synthesis of virtually all known medical knowledge from the previous 1500 years. It was also incredibly systematic, incorporating multiple disciplines in a well-ordered theoretical framework, which made it easier for it to be used as a teaching tool. He also linked medical theories to the philosophical theory of science of Aristotle, whose works dominated intellectual life in Europe.

Ibn Sina regarded medicine as a mixed science filled with practical and theoretical components. He recommended a holistic approach. Indeed for him medicine included lifestyle. For him, living in a healthy climate, having a proper diet, getting exercise, sleeping well and positive thinking were important parts of medicine. These are aspects that western medicine did not reconcile until relatively recently.

Ibn Sina is most known however as a philosopher. He wrote extensively on logic, ethics, metaphysics and divinity. Ibn Sina was fortunate to come at a time where he had access to both ancient Greek thought as well as early Muslim philosophers. His philosophy combined ancient Greek perspectives with Muslim theology. He created a sophisticated paradigm dividing all work into theoretical and practical.

His greatest contribution to philosophy was his synthesis of ancient Greek philosophy with the belief in the existence of God as the source of all life and all being. Over the centuries, Ibn Sina’s work gained influence and he became regarded as the leading authority on Islamic Philosophy. The span of his influence did not stop there, his methods were also adopted by Thomas Aquinas, an influential Christian thinker.

Indeed Ibn Sina’s legacy can be seen all around us. Not only is he remembered as an Iranian national icon with both a crater of the moon and a plant genus named after him. His legacy can also be seen in modern philosophy and medicine. Without him the landscape of both of these fields would be vastly different. Indeed the west itself would look very different, for without the advances in medicine Muslim scholars such as Ibn Sina provided, who knows how Europe would have developed?

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