"In the city of Hamadan in Iran, right in the centre, there is a vast mausoleum dedicated to an Iranian national hero. Built in 1952, exactly 915 years after his death, it’s a great conical tower with twelve supporting columns. It’s dedicated not to a warrior or a king but to a philosopher and physician. His name is Ali Al Husayn Ibn-Sina, but he is also known as Avicenna and he is arguably the most important philosopher in the history of Islam. In a colourful career Avicenna proved the existence of god, amalgamated all known medical knowledge into one big book and established a mind body dualism 600 years before Descartes," BBC Radio 4 - In Our Time, Avicenna.
Play the episode below from BBC Radio 4 to listen to a discussion on Avicenna by Peter Adamson, Reader in Philosophy at King's College London; Amira Bennison, Senior Lecturer in Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at the University of Cambridge; Nader El-Bizri, Affiliated Lecturer in the History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Cambridge.
Avicenna was one of the most eminent scientists and philosophers in the 10th and 11th centuries. He was of Persian origin, and was born near Bukhara in 980.
In Persia he lived a turbulent life of wandering, imprisonment and escapes. This was the golden age of philosophy and spiritual life in the Islamic world, and also a time of political agitation and instability. The power of the Caliphate in Baghdad was in decline, and the Turks were conquering the Persian and Arab worlds. This being a golden age for the spirit in a declining civilization, parallels between Plato, Aristotle and Avicenna have been drawn. As Hegel wrote in the preface of his Principles of the Philosophy of Right (1821):
The Owl of Minerva first takes flight with twilight closing in.
Avicenna was an exceptionally gifted and precocious child. At twelve, he was better than any of his teachers, and continued his training on his own. Endowed with a prodigious memory, he knew the Koran by heart at the age of ten and Aristotle’s Metaphysics before he was eighteen, as well as Theology, which at the time was attributed to Aristotle (it was in fact a compilation of texts by Plotinus). In his wandering life Avicenna could not travel with a library (had he possessed one), and so his quotations and references are from memory.
For instance, he learned medicine without formal education or training and, according to his autobiography, considered it to be “not a difficult science”. It seems that Aristotle’s Metaphysics, which Avicenna says he read forty times without understanding it, was the only subject he ever found really difficult. The books of Al-Farabi, then known as “the Second Master” (Aristotle being the first), allowed Avicenna to finally find a way out of this situation, frustrating for someone of his genius.
By age seventeen, Avicenna had mastered more or less the totality of existing knowledge of his time in philosophy, medicine, mathematics, law and religion, and he spent the remainder of his life deepening this knowledge. Before he had reached the age of twenty, he was already a famous physician. There was a turning point in his life when — after having cured the Prince of Bukhara — he was given access to the Prince’s well-endowed library. An exceptionally gifted young man until then, Avicenna was now also able to become a truly universal scientist.
When his father died, Avicenna, who was then about 23, had to support himself. He earned a living by practising medicine and politics, excelling in both of these arts. In medicine he would teach the most renowned of his peers, and heal patients considered incurable. He wrote the famous Canon of Medicine (Al-Qanun fi l-tibb), which was used in the West for teaching medicine until the 17th century and is still used in the East today. Avicenna was also sufficiently skilled in politics to make a forty- year career of it, serving many rulers during the course of his long wandering life. During those forty years, it was at night that Avicenna studied, read and wrote, the day being devoted to his political duties.
A strong personality, Avicenna was quick to criticize others, and would not remain silent if displeased. He was also quite aware of his own talents. For instance, he wrote these verses in his autobiography:
Since I have become great, no country
has been able to contain me
Since my price has risen, I have lacked buyers.
Regrettably, significant parts of Avicenna’s works have been lost. What remains are the Canon of Medicine; the Book of Healing (Kitab al-Shifa), which is a philosophical masterpiece of vast range and a milestone for the rediscovery of Athenian philosophers in the medieval West; comments on sura of the Koran; poems; some commentaries on Aristotle (al-Mubhathat); some works on geology, fossils, metals and music (in Persian, the second part of the Danesh-Nameh); and finally his autobiography (Al-Sira bi Qalam Sahib al Sira), which was completed by his faithful disciple Al-Juzajani.
All these works demonstrate not only that Avicenna had mastered a vast and encyclopedic culture, but also that he had intellectually influenced many of the areas of knowledge in which he was interested. His masterpiece, the Treatise of Illuminative Philosophy, was destroyed during his lifetime. Answering some twenty-eight thousand questions, it constituted Avicenna’s personal philosophy, which he himself called Oriental philosophy.
Concluding this brief summary of his life, it is no suprise that Avicenna has become a synonym for moral authority and ethics, lending his name to foundations, hospitals, philosophical and medical associations, bookshops and, last but not least, our great cause- The Avicenna Project.