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Avicenna

Abū ʿAlī al-Ḥusayn bin ʿAbdullāh ibn al-Ḥasan bin ʿAlī bin Sīnā al-Balkhi al-Bukhari was a Persian polymath during the Islamic Golden Age. He is better known in the West as Avicenna.

He was a physician, a philosopher and an astronomer who also wrote about mathematics, geometry, physics, philology, music and poetry.

He was born around 980CE (370 in the Arabic Hirji calendar) in the village of Afshana near the city of Bukhara, part ofthe Sāmānid Empire in Central Asia.

A few years after his birth, the family moved to Bukhara. It was a centre of learning that attracted many scholars. It was there that Avicenna was educated.

Isaac Newton said, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” The same could be said of Avicenna. He learnt from masters in their fields but surpassed them all.

By his own account, he read and memorised the entire Qur’an before he was ten years old.

He was placed under the tutelage of Nātilī who instructed Avicenna in basic logic, however, Avicenna’s understanding soon outstripped that of his teacher. At that point,began studying Aristotle on his own.

Knowledge of Aristotle, along with other ancient Greek authors had been introduced to the Islamic world centuries earlier through Ibn al-Muqaffaʿ and his son. Al-Kindī founded the first Islamic Peripatetic (Aristotelian) school of philosophy. Avicenna also studied the Turkish polymath al-Fārābī from whose book he learntAristotelian metaphysics.

By the age of sixteen, Avicenna turned to medicine. He claimed it was an easy discipline to master. When the sultan of Bukhara fell ill with a disease that baffled the court physicians, Avicenna was called to his bedside and cured him. In gratitude, the sultan opened the royal Sāmānid library to him.

The explosion of intellectual endeavour brought dissent and strife–both political and religious—in the Islamic world. Avicenna found himself caught up in it. He was an adherent of the Sunni Hanafi school even though both his father and brother had converted to Shia Ismailism.

He corresponded regularly with fellow scholars. He was friends, and debated with, the likes of Abu Nasr Iraqi—a renowned mathematician—Abu Sahl Masihi—a respected philosopher and Abu al-Khayr Khammar—another renowned physician.

Of note was an ongoing debate with Abu Rayhan Muhammad ibn Ahmad al-Bīrūnī.

Avicenna argued the ex nihilo nihil fit (nothing comes from nothing) theory of the creation of the universe. That is, the universe is eternal. It has always been there and always will be.

Al-Bīrūnī argued the creatio ex nihilo (created from nothing) theory. That is, there was nothing before the universe was created.

We now know that Avicenna was wrong—the Big Bang theory states that the universe came into being through a massive act of creation.

Avicenna was forced to relocate many times as disputes erupted around him. Finally, he found safe refuge in Eṣfahān a major city of western Iran situated on the north bank of the Zāyandeh River. It was here that Avicenna wrote Kitāb al-shifāʾ (Book of the Cure), Dānish nāma-i ʿalāʾī (Book of Knowledge) and Kitāb al-najāt (Book of Salvation). In his spare time, he compiled new and more accurate astronomical tables.

Kitāb al-shifāʾ, translated into Latin, greatly influenced late-medieval scholasticism and luminaries such as Thomas Aquinas. Itformed the basis of medical instruction in European universities until the 17th century.

Avicenna accompanied the ruler of Eṣfahān,ʿAlā al-Dawlah, on his march to Hamadan. However, Avicenna was ill with colic and suffering from intestinal ulcers. He died in 1037CE (428 in the Arabic Hirji calendar) during the month of Ramadan.

He left a legacy of around 450 written works although only around 240 have survived.


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