Ibn Sina

Background

Ibn Sina Portrait

"I prefer a short life with width to a narrow one with length”[1] – Ibn Sina

Abū ʿAlī al-Ḥusayn ibn ʿAbd Allāh ibn Sīnā, commonly known in the West by his Latinised name Avicenna, was a significant Persian Muslim philosopher and physician. Born in 980CE in Bukhara, Khorasan (modern day Uzbekistan), he excelled in astronomy, geology, palaeontology, psychology, physics, mathematics and poetry[2], and is ranked as one of the greatest philosophers and physicians of the past thousand years. Ibn Sina went on to write the Canon of Medicine, which became one of the most significant contributions to the field of medicine and still forms the basis for modern clinical trials and pharmacology[3].

 

Early Life

Ibn Sina’s father was a prominent Ismaili scholar and government official in the region of Balkh (in modern day Afghanistan) under the Samanid dynasty; he later moved to Bukhara charged with governing the village of Kharmaythan where he met and married Ibn Sina’s mother, Sitarah.
Ibn Sina showed a great aptitude for learning from an early age. Under the direction of his father, his education was carefully planned and received whilst being exposed to some of the most learned masters of the time. Having memorised the Quran by the age of ten as well as extensive education in Persian and Arabic poetry, he went on to master principles in physics, mathematics and metaphysics.

He soon outgrew the education he was receiving from his teachers and took charge of his own self-education by the age of 18. He began studying natural science and rudimentary metaphysics as well as medical theory; increasingly dissatisfied with solely a theoretical understanding of medicine, he began to practise and treat the sick.

After successfully treating the Samanid prince Nūr ibn Mansūr, he was allowed access to the extensive royal library, which enabled him to further his intellectual development.

Later Life

Ibn Sina treating the sick

Aged 21 Ibn Sina lost his father and witnessed the fall of the Samanid dynasty. The new ruler of the region, the Turkish hero Mahmud of Ghani offered Ibn Sina a position under the new administration which he refused. Thus began a tumultuous period in Ibn Sina’s life paralleled with Turkish domination of Persia, and he began to journey westwards to modern day Uzbekistan. Here he received a small monthly income and much of his time was spent wandering through the different districts seeking a channel for his ability and education. He eventually settled in Gorgan near the Caspian Sea where he lectured on astronomy and logic and dedicated his time to furthering his knowledge of medical theory and practice.

Following his time in Gorgan, he settled near modern day Tehran; this marked a new phase in Ibn Sina’s life. Highly favoured by the ruling prince, Shams al-Dawlah, he was appointed as the court physician and was given the title of vizier on two separate occasions.

In 1022 Shams al-Dawlah died and Ibn Sina, as a result of a political backlash, was forced into hiding and eventually imprisoned for some time. On his release Ibn Sina moved to Esfahan, in the service of the ruling prince Abu Ja'far 'Ala Addaula where he completed two of his major works, including the Canon of Medicine, and authored some 200 treatises. He also dedicated some of his time to the composition of his first work on Aristotelian philosophy in the Persian language and also concentrated on the study of literature and philology.

Canon of Medicine

Completed in 1025, the Canon of Medicine was an extensive 14 volumes. The book was to become one of the pillars of medical theory and practice, discussing the discovery of contagious and sexually transmitted diseases and introducing the concept of quarantine as a means of limiting the spread of infections.

Ibn Sina has been widely recognized as the first physician to accurately document the anatomy of the human eye and the depiction of eye infections as well as describing the symptoms of diabetes and discussing the mechanisms of the heart and the function of the valve.

Legacy

In the Western world Ibn Sina’s influence was deeply felt and his book, the Canon of Medicine was partially translated into Latin in the twelfth century, the complete version appearing later in the same century.

Ibn Sina MausoleumHis ideas, along with those of the Christian philosopher and theologian, St Augustine, would form the foundations for work produced by the medieval Scholastics, particularly in the Franciscan schools. In medicine the Canon served as the medical authority for several centuries, and Ibn Sina enjoyed an undisputed rank of honour comparable only to the early Greek physicians Hippocrates and Galen. In the East, particularly in Iran, he is considered an icon and an impressive number of monuments have been constructed in his honour. He has appeared on commemorative stamps across the world and this year his name has been attached to a new directory for educational institutions for healthcare professionals.

In 1300 Dante Alighieri depicted Ibn Sina in his Divine Comedy, aligning him for eternity with some of the greatest men in history such as Homer, Virgil, Socrates and Plato. The leading thinker in the history of science, George Sarton, has described him as the one of the "greatest thinkers and medical scholars in history" and so he remains to this very day.

 

[1] Islam Online

[2] L.E. Goodman Avicenna. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2005 p. 11.

[3] D.W. Tschanz, 'Arab Roots of European Medicine' Aramco World May/June 1997

 

Picture 1 - "Avicenna (Ibn Sina) I - socialist artist" by night_eulen, Flickr

Picure 2 - "Avicenna Mausoleum" by indigoprime, Flickr

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Introduction: 

Avicenna - philosopher and physician - wrote one of the most significant contributions to the field of medicine.