Avicenna (ca. 980-1037) was an Arabic physician and philosopher. He wove classical dicta into a rational, consistent system that dominated European medical thought from the late 12th to the 17th century.

Born in Afshana in the district of Bukhara, Avicenna, or Abu Ali al-Husain ibn Addullah ibn Sina, was the son of a government official. The family soon moved to the city of Bukhara, the capital of the province, and known throughout the Islamic world as a center of learning and culture. There Avicenna began his studies and by the age of 16 had mastered not only natural science and rudimentary metaphysics but also medical theory, having read, by his own account, all the books written on this subject. Not satisfied with merely a theoretical understanding of medicine, he began to treat the sick, obtaining empirical knowledge in this manner and also effecting remarkable cures.

The sultan of Bukhara appointed Avicenna as one of his physicians, who then had access to the sultan's vast library. By the time Avicenna was 18, he had read all the books. An early work written by Avicenna was an encyclopedia that included all branches of knowledge except mathematics; it ran to 20 volumes.

Avicenna had difficulty earning a livelihood after the sultan's death, and at the age of 22 he left Bukhara and wandered westward. At Jurjan, near the Caspian Sea, Avicenna lectured on logic and astronomy and wrote the first part of the Canon, his most significant medical work. He then moved to Ray (near modern Teheran), where he established a busy medical practice. There he is believed to have composed about 30 of his shorter works.


Physician to Rulers

When Ray was besieged, Avicenna fled to Hamadan, ruled by the emir Shams al-Daula. Avicenna became the emir's physician and confidant and was soon appointed to the office of vizier. Since his daylight hours were spent in attendance on the emir, Avicenna was forced to pursue his teaching and studying at night. Students would gather in his home and read the parts of his two great books, the Shifa and the Canon, already composed. He would dictate additional chapters and explain the principles underlying them to his pupils.

When Shams al-Daula died, Avicenna resigned his government office, went into hiding, and passed the time drafting a final, detailed outline of the Shifa. He sent a letter to the ruler of Isfahan, asking for a position in his government. When the new emir of Hamadan learned of this, he imprisoned Avicenna. While in prison Avicenna wrote several treatises. He longed to live in Isfahan, the jeweled city of central Persia, and a few months after his release from prison he, his brother, a pupil, and two slaves disguised themselves as religious ascetics and fled to Isfahan.

Avicenna spent his final years in the service of the ruler of the city, Ala al-Daula, whom he advised on scientific and literary matters and accompanied on military campaigns. An unexpected dividend of these excursions in the field was the completion of Avicenna's chapter of the Shifa dealing with botany and zoology.

Once, while Avicenna was ill, his slaves gave him an overdose of opium, ransacked his possessions, and escaped. Avicenna never fully recovered from this experience. In his last days he is said to have distributed alms to the poor, freed his slaves, and listened to readings from the Koran. He died during June 1037 and was buried at Hamadan.


Avicenna's Works

Although one Islamic bibliographer lists only 21 major and 24 minor works of Avicenna, other titles swell the total to at least 99 treatises dealing with philosophy, medicine, geometry, astronomy, theology, philology, and art. Young students in the Arab world still memorize his poems. The most significant of his scientific writings are the book on healing, Kitab al Shifa, a philosophical encyclopedia based on the Aristotelian tradition as modified by Moslem theology and Neoplatonic influences; and Al-Qanun fi al Tibb, or the Canon, which represents Avicenna's codification of Greco-Arabic medical thought.

If the Shifa exerted less influence in the West than did the Canon, this fact is explained partly by the difficulty of the subject matter and partly by the condition in which it reached Western scholars. When the Shifa was first translated into Latin during the 12th century, it was fragmented. The translators omitted the section on mathematics, presented only a small part of the chapters on physics and logic, and included a section on astronomy apparently written by someone else. Later translators were influenced by the efforts of their predecessors, and although parts of the Shifa originally overlooked or suppressed were translated subsequently, the composite nature of the work was not fully understood in the West until comparatively recently.

The Canon, in contrast, was rendered completely into Latin by one man, the great 12th-century translator of Arabic scientific works, Gerard of Cremona. The vast medical encyclopedia is divided into five books dealing with the theory of medicine, the simpler drugs, special pathology and therapeutics, general diseases, and pharmacopoeia.

Although much material in the second and fifth books was derived from the writings of Dioscurides, most data in the remainder of the Canon can be traced to three essential sources. Avicenna drew on the writings in the Hippocratic Corpus for fundamental doctrines. His sources for much of the anatomy and physiology were the writings of Galen. Avicenna's final authority was usually Aristotle. That Avicenna introduced the four causes of the peripatetic system into medical theory is indicative of adherence to Aristotelian principles, as is the fact that the entire Canon is arranged according to Aristotelian dialectic.

The synergistic quality of the Canon was certainly a major factor contributing to its success, and the work soon was regarded as superior even to its sources. Avicenna's book superseded the earlier medical encyclopedias and became the most important single work on medicine in the Western world. It remained a required text in certain European medical schools until the mid-17th century, and in certain Asian countries it is influential even today.


Further Reading on Avicenna

Avicenna's brief autobiography, "Life of a Philosopher," completed by his student al-Juzjani, is in A. J. Arberry, Aspects of Islamic Civilization as Depicted in the Original Texts (1964). Soheil M. Afnan, Avicenna: His Life and Works (1958), covers all aspects of Avicenna's work and thought. Max Meyerhof's article, "Science and Medicine," in Sir Thomas Arnold and Alfred Guillaume, eds., The Legacy of Islam (1931), contains a brief biographical sketch of Avicenna. For more specialized studies see E. G. Browne, Arabian Medicine (1921); George Sarton, Introduction to the History of Science, vol. 1: From Homer to Omar Khayyam (1927); A. J. Arberry, Avicenna on Theology (1951); F. Rahman, Avicenna's Psychology (1952); Henry Corbin, Avicenna and the Visionary Recital (1960); and Seyyed Hossein Nasr, An Introduction to Islamic Cosmological Doctrines (1964) and Three Muslim Sages: Avicenna, Suhrawardi, Ibn Arabi (1964).


Additional Biography Sources

Avicenna, 980-1037, Avicenna on theology, Westport, Conn.: Hyperion Press, 1979.

Afnan, Soheil Muhsin, Avicenna, his life and works, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1980, 1958.

Goodman, Lenn Evan, Avicenna, London; New York: Routledge, 1992.

Avicenna, 980-1037, The life of Ibn Sina; a critical edition and annotated translation, Albany, State University of New York Press, 1974.