Avicenna is the Latinized name of Abū ʿAlī al-Ḥusayn ibn ʿAbd Allāh ibn Sīnā, the greatest and most influential philosopher and physician in the Islamic world. Through translation into Latin, his works also exercised significant influence on the philosophy and medicine of medieval and Renaissance Europe.
Islamic intellectual life in Avicenna's time
The activities of philosophers and scientists had fostered and sustained a movement, centered in Baghdad, to translate many Greek philosophical and scientific texts into Arabic. New advances in a variety of intellectual fields produced original Arabic-language works that surpassed the achievements of their Greek prototypes.
By the middle of the tenth century, the authority of the caliph had begun to erode, causing a gradual decentralization of political power. As a result, local dynasties gained power over regional government throughout the vast Islamic empire. These dynasties continued to acknowledge the caliph in Baghdad as the ultimate overlord, however. With the decentralization of power there also came decentralization of culture. The several capitals of the local dynasties began to rival Baghdad for intellectual and cultural supremacy. They adopted the same tastes and fashions as those in the Abbasid capital.
caliph: the Islamic ruler
Avicenna's education, life, and career
Avicenna's father was the governor of a town near Bukhara. As a young boy Avicenna grew up in the company of the Samanid administrative elite. His education began early, as was customary, and continued throughout his teens. He studied the traditional subjects—the Koran, Arabic literature, and arithmetic. He had a particular propensity for legal studies (Islamic canon law) as well as medicine. In his famous Autobiography, he reports that he had started practicing both law and medicine by the time he was sixteen.
In his Autobiography Avicenna also reports that at the same time he was repeatedly studying all the branches of philosophy at increasingly advanced levels. The philosophical curriculum that he describes was patterned upon the classification of the philosophical sciences in the Aristotelian tradition of Alexandria in late antiquity (4th-6th centuries):
Avicenna concluded his studies by conducting advanced research in the royal library of the Samanids, as he tells us in his Autobiography:
Avicenna's description of the Samanid library and its contents is a significant witness for the spread and dominance of the philosophical and scientific culture in the first two centuries of Abbasid rule in the Islamic world. As for his statement concerning his extraordinary performance in his studies, he does not intend it to be a boast but a concrete illustration of his theory of knowledge. According to Avicenna, individuals with powerful intellects could learn what was intelligible by themselves without teachers.
After his tranquil youth, Avicenna was forced to abandon his native land as a result of the political troubles that led to the fall of the Samanid dynasty around the turn of the first millennium. He moved west and spent the rest of his life in the courts of local rulers in the Iranian world (today’s Iran), predominantly in Hamadan and Isfahan. His services to these rulers were both political and medical. He spent most of his free time on philosophy:
Avicenna died in 1037 in Hamadan and was buried there.
Avicenna also wrote works in a style which he introduced to Arabic philosophical literature: the allusive and suggestive genre of "pointers and reminders" which he employed in the work of the same name, al-Ishārāt wa-t-tanbīhāt.
For example, in the discussion of the different forms in which information received by the human rational soul from the souls and intellects of the celestial spheres is manifested by being processed by the internal senses of imagination, memory, etc., Avicenna says,
This briefly summarizes—provides a pointer to and a reminder of—the elaborate discussion of the subject in the fourth book of his De anima from The Cure.3
The philosophical work of Avicenna is characterized by his attempt to create a philosophical system. The system would integrate all the parts of philosophy in a self-consistent whole based on Aristotelian logic. In practice this meant erecting a system that rationalized and completed all the discrete traditions of Aristotelian philosophy. It also harmonized them both with each other and with the Neoplatonic accretions, primarily from the works of Plotinus (205-269 or 270) and Proclus (410 or 412-485), that accumulated over the ages.
As a result, Avicenna's works display a highly systematic and deeply rational structure and an all-encompassing comprehensiveness. Whereas philosophers between Plotinus and Avicenna writing in both Greek and Arabic preferred the commentary as a form of expression, Avicenna eventually developed the summa philosophiae as his favorite genre. He can be seen as the last philosopher of antiquity and the first Scholastic.
Avicenna sought to express his new synthesis of philosophy in a way that would also respond to philosophical concerns of his age and society. This explains both his experimentation with the wide variety of compositional styles and his immense popularity. He aimed at reaching audiences with different backgrounds and preparations in order to communicate more effectively the contents of his philosophy.
Avicenna's magnum opus is the book he called The Cure (i.e., of the soul, ash-Shifā’, most of which was translated into medieval Latin as Sufficientia). The Cure is a summa of philosophy in twenty-two large volumes (in the edition of Cairo, 1952-83). It includes all the parts of philosophy as classified in the Alexandrian tradition in late antiquity. Here are its contents with the ancient books upon which each section is based given in parentheses:
Avicenna treated practical philosophy very briefly in the The Cure as an appendix at the end of his section on metaphysics. He had little interest in these subjects. He wrote a few short essays on ethics and politics which survive, but his only major work on ethics, written in his youth, now appears to be lost.
The Canon is divided into five parts:
al-Majusi: known in the Latin world as Haly Abbas; d. ca. 975
In addition to the Canon, Avicenna also wrote a short essay in Persian on the pulse and an Arabic didactic poem on medicine in general. Numerous other medical works are attributed to him in the manuscripts. However, their authenticity has yet to be investigated.Avicenna's intellectual legacy
Avicenna’s influence was monumental. Within Islam, his philosophy shaped the development not only of philosophy but of all subsequent intellectual life. His logic, a revised and expanded form of the Aristotelian Organon, achieved the status of the sole acknowledged method for conducting scientific research. Its modes of argument dominated Islamic jurisprudence and theology. It was cast and recast in various handbooks intended for classroom use. Some of them are still used in traditional colleges in the Islamic world and especially in Iran.
Thoroughly Aristotelian, Avicenna's physics was the only physical doctrine to defend causality and seriously challenge the occasionalism of mainstream muslim theologians for the allegiance of intellectuals throughout the Islamic pre-modern period. Avicenna's theory of the soul went well beyond Aristotle’s De anima and its late antique commentators. It introduced novel theories on the function of the intellect, the internal senses, and self-awareness that stand at the beginning of modern psychology.
occasionalism: theological doctrine asserting that God is the only true cause; events which seem to be causally linked are actually created as such in every instant as such by God
Avicenna's metaphysics was a systematic reorganization of Aristotle's work by that name. It contained significant developments in all major areas—causality and the theories of essence, substance, and existence. It quickly became the major metaphysical doctrine of the Islamic world, penetrating Islamic theology and conditioning all later developments.
Avicenna’s influence was no less substantial in the Latin west. In addition to significant portions of The Cure and the complete Canon, some minor works were also translated into Latin. His ideas—often anonymously—shaped much of the content and terms of discussion in both scholastic philosophy and theology well into the Renaissance. His influence on European medicine was even more long-lived. His Canon, first translated in the twelfth century, remained the standard textbook of medicine in European universities. It was at the center of controversy in the Renaissance as new approaches to medicine emerged, and new translations or revisions of the old ones were still being made in the seventeenth century.
1. From Avicenna’s Autobiography, translated in D. Gutas, Avicenna and the Aristotelian Tradition, Leiden: Brill 1988, pp. 28-29.
2. Ibn Sīnā, Al-Ishārāt wa-t-tanbīhāt, ed. S. Dunyā, Cairo 1968, Vol. IV, p. 144-5.
3. Some passages of Avicenna’s discussion in The Cure of prophecy depending on the internal sense of imagination (“pure revelation”) and of the different kinds of dreams and their interpretation (“dream”) can be found in Avicenna on Prophetic Dreams.
A. Works by Avicenna
--., al-Qānūn fī ṭ-ṭibb, Cairo: Bulaq 1877; repr. Beirut 1993
--., O. Cameron Gruner, A Treatise on the Canon of Medicine of Avicenna, New York 1970. Read a review of Gruner's translation through JSTOR (restricted access)
Both translations cover only the first book of the Canon. Shah's is later and unlike Gruner's it includes the section on anatomy. Gruner's is based on the Latin translation circulating in Europe, while Shah's is based principally on the Urdu, supported by the Cairo edition of the Arabic. So for readers interested in the text available to Latin scholastics, the older translation will be more useful.B. Secondary works
“Avicenna”, by different authors, Encyclopaedia Iranica III,66-110.
A. Bertolacci, The Reception of Aristotle’s Metaphysics in Avienna’s Kitāb al-Shifā’. A Milestone of Western Metaphysical Thought, Leiden: Brill 2006.
L.E. Goodman, Avicenna, London: Routledge 1994.
D. Gutas, Avicenna and the Aristotelian Tradition, Leiden: Brill 1988.
D.N. Hasse, Avicenna’s De anima in the Latin West, London – Turin: The Warburg Institute 2000.
J. Janssens, An Annotated Bibliography on Ibn Sīnā (1970-1989), Leuven: University Press 1991; and First Supplement (1990-1994), Louvain-la-Neuve 1999.
J. Janssens and D. De Smet, eds, The Heritage of Avicenna, Leuven: University Press 2002.
N.G. Siraisi, Avicenna in Renaissance Italy: the Canon and Medical Teaching in Italian Universities after 1500, Princeton 1987.
T. Street, “An Outline of Avicenna’s Syllogistic,” Archiv für Geschichte der Philosophie 84 (2002) 129-160.
T. Street, “Arabic Logic,” in Handbook of the History of Logic, Vol. I, D.M. Gabbay and J. Woods, eds (Amsterdam 2004), 523-596.
R.Wisnovsky, Avicenna’s Metaphysics in Context, Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2003.