Avicenna (Ibn Sina)


Avicenna (Ibn Sina) was a Persian physician and philosopher who profoundly influenced medieval Islamic philosophy, while his synthesis of ancient Greek and theology also had a major influence on the Western thought, especially that of the medieval Christian philosophers. Avicenna worked during the so-called Islamic Golden Age that was marked by advanced knowledge which surpassed that in the West. The territorial expansion of the Arab Abbasid Caliphate during that time gave the Muslim scholars access to vast knowledge including that of ancient Greco-Roman, Byzantine, Indian, Egyptian and Persian civilisations which became accessible to the Western scholars only in the later Middle Ages and Early Modern Period.

Early Life

The main source of Avicenna’s life is his autobiography that was written by his follower Abd al- Wahid Juzjani. He tells us that the Persian philosopher was born about 980 in the village of Afshana near the present-day Bukhara in Uzbekistan. His mother Setareh was from the very same village, while his father Abdullah who was a high official under the Samanid dynasty was from the ancient city of Balkh in present-day Afghanistan. Avicenna’s real name was Abu Ali al-Husayn Ibn Abd Allan Ibn Sina but he is commonly referred to under his Latinised name. In the Muslim world, he is known as Ibn Sina.

Young Avicenna was educated at Bukhara and by the age of 16, he established himself as a respected physician. But besides studying medicine, he also dedicated much of his time to the study of physics, natural sciences and metaphysics. In 997, Avicenna was hired as a physician by Nun ibn Mansur, Bukhara’s ruler who gave him access to his royal library that was considered one of the best kinds in the medieval world. Over the next months, he read everything there was to read and soon began writing himself. The oldest surviving works date from 1001 when Avicenna was only 21 years old.

His father’s death and political turmoil in 1002 forced Avicenna to leave Bukhara. He went to Urganj (present-day Konye-Urgench) in today’s Uzbekistan but he soon moved to Gorgan in today’s Iran where he started working on the Canon of Medicine which is his most famous work. But the philosopher did not stay there for long either. He moved to Rai near the present-day Tehran and after 10 years of wondering arrived to Hamadan where he finally settled down. There, he established himself as a respected philosopher and physician as well as composed his greatest works.

Later Life and Death

After the death of the emir of Hamadan, Avicenna wrote to the ruler of Isfahan and offered him his service. When the new emir found out about his letter to the Isfahan’s ruler, he had him imprisoned. He was eventually released from prison but he decided to flee. Disguised as Sufi ascetics, Avicenna, his brother, a student and two slaves left the city and arrived to Isfahan in 1025.

In Isfahan, the Persian philosopher was warmly welcomed by the city’s ruler. He spent his last 12 years in a relative peace, serving the city’s ruler as his advisor and physician as well as working extensively on various branches of knowledge. He died from severe colic in 1037, aged only 58.

Philosophy and Works

Avicenna’s philosophy dealt with some of the most fundamental questions including the origin of the cosmos, the role of God in the human existence and the universe, and divine interaction with humans and other “created” beings. He wrote extensively on logic, metaphysics and ethics, while his greatest contribution to the development of both later Muslim and Western thought was his attempt to reconcile the ancient Greek philosophy and God as the creator of all existence. Over the following centuries, Avicenna came to be regarded as the leading authority of the Islamic philosophy, while his synthesis of Greek philosophy and theology was later to some extent also adopted by the medieval Christian philosophers including Thomas Aquinas.

Avicenna is thought to create over 400 works on a variety of topics but only about 250 have survived. Of the surviving works, over 100 address philosophical questions, while about 40 deal with medicine. Some of his best known works include:

Although Avicenna’s native language was Persian, most of his works were written in Arabic which was the language of the science in the Middle East in his time.