Category: Persons

Avicenna (ibn Sīnā)

11th century Persian physician and philosopher. He was the most distinguished philosopher-scientist of Medieval Islam. His philosophical thought is based on a creative synthesis of ancient Greek philosophy with Muslim theology and made him famous not only in the Arabic world but also in the West and especially among Latin Christian thinkers.

1. Life Abū Alī al-Husayn ibn Abd Allāh ibn Sīnā, known as Avicenna (from the Hebrew version of his name Avec Sina), was a thinker and physician of Persian origin born c. 980 (370 Hijri year) in Afshanah, a village near Bukhara the capital of the Samanid dynasty and died in 1037 (429 Hijri year).

Avicenna was one of the few thinkers of the Islamic Middle Ages who got interested in writing his autobiography with the help of his student al-Jūzjānī. We know for example that in the age of ten he had memorized the Qur'an and the most important works of Islamic literature (as he later did with Aristotle’s Metaphysics). He was taught logic and mathematics by Abū 'Abdallāh al-Nātilī and then decided to study ancient Greek philosophers on his own. He also studied theology, law, physics, astronomy and medicine and by the age of sixteen he was already a trainee doctor.

In 997 he became the personal physician of the Governor of Bukhara, Nun ibn Mansur, who gave him access to the royal library, one of the era’s largest libraries. Avicenna lived in a turbulent political period, which often forced him to change residence; once he was even imprisoned for mainly political reasons. After his release he left Hamadan and fled disguised in Isfahan. He died during a military campaign from a severe colic; according to another version he was poisoned by a servant.

2. Work Avicenna was considered the representative par excellence of the medieval homo universalis, since he was praised for his great love of learning and he systematically dealt with a broad range of scientific fields. Despite his Persian origin he chose to write mainly in Arabic and finished his first work in 1001 at the age of twenty one. Approximately 400 works are attributed to him, of which only 240 are preserved; 150 of philosophical content, 40 on medical issues and some poetic works, among others. Two of his most famous writings are the philosophical and scientific encyclopedia The Book of Healing (Kitāb al-shifāʾ) and The Canon of Medicine (Al-Qanun fi al-Tibb) one of the most important works in the history of medicine that up to 17th century was a major manual for physicians. Among his well-known writings are the Book of Liberation (Naffit), the Sources of Wisdom ('Uyūn al-Hikmah) and Remarks and Admonitions (Αl-Ishārāt wa'l-tanbīhāt). His work covers a large number of topics on logic, ethics, psychology, cosmology, ontology, and metaphysics. Avicenna’s philosophy is product of his effort to establish a strong and coherent philosophical system harmonized with the theological and religious requirements of Muslim civilization. He addressed the fundamental issues of the creation and origin of the world, the role and importance of God’s existence for the human existence and the creation of the universe, as well as the interaction of the divine, human and other ‘created’ beings. He also attempted to reconcile the ancient Greek philosophy with the concept of God as creator of existence.

In his early texts, Compendium on the Soul (Maqala fi’l-nafs) and Philosophy for the Prosodist (al-Hikma al-‘Arudiya) the influence of the thought of Al-Farabi is evident; Avicenna was particularly interested in the metaphysical theory developed by Al-Farabi with which he dealt systematically and attempted its ‘refinement’ by combining Aristotelian and Neoplatonic ideas with Islamic monotheism. Later he devoted part of his work to the study of Aristotelian logic and the concept of reasoning: he wrote commentaries and paraphrased the Organon, contributing thus to the dissemination and adoption of its methodology by Muslim thinkers.

Avicenna’s philosophical thought had a great impact on both eastern and western thinkers but was also fiercely challenged and criticized, especially by Al Ghazali who in The Incoherence of the Philosophers attacks Avicenna, Al-Farabi and other thinkers who had tried to approach through reasoning philosophical issues that Al Ghazali himself considered as subjected to the divine will and unexplainable by falasifa (the kind of philosophy that is based on ancient Greek philosopher’s way of thinking).

3. Platonic influences Traces of the thought of Plato, Aristotle, Neoplatonists, Galen, Al-Farabi and other Greek and Arab philosophers can be identified in Avicenna’s philosophical thought. Although it has often been argued that he received mostly Aristotelian influences, one can not neglect the presence of Platonic and mainly the Neoplatonist tradition, especially in his epistemology and metaphysics. The Iranian philosopher distanced himself to a certain extent from the Peripatetic School of Baghdad and incorporated Platonic, neo-Platonic and Stoic elements into his thought. Thus, Avicenna’s nine books on logic follow the curriculum of the late Neoplatonism and include his version of Porphyrius’ Introduction and his interpretation of the Aristotelian Organon. Of Platonic origin is also the definition of philosophy given by Avicenna: he claims that there are two kinds of philosophy, the theoretical one that aims at perfecting the soul only through knowledge and the practical one that achieves the same purpose through the knowledge of what a person should do.

Avicenna rejected Neoplatonic epistemology and the theory of pre-existence of the soul, but accepted the cosmological emanation and the distinction that Plato draws between the body and the soul, in favor of which he argues at the chapters of the Book of Liberation and the Book of Healing. Indeed, he integrated and adapted the Al-Farabian theory on emanation (influenced by Neoplatonism) to the formulation of his theological argument for the creation of the world and its contingency (a form of the cosmological argument for God's existence), according to which (a) every being is either contingent or necessary, (b) if it is contingent it is reduced to a cause, (c) since the infinite regress to preceding causes is not possible one must assume the existence of a necessary and primary being which is the cause of all things. Also, for Avicenna divine providence is what ensures that we live in the best possible world created in the manner one would expect from a God-creator similar to the creator of Timaeus.



Author: Matina-Ioanna Kyriazopoulou
  • Gohlman, W. ed. The Life of Ibn Sina [Sirat al-shaykh al-ra. Albany, 1974.
  • Rahman, F. ed. Avicenna’s De Anima [Fi’l-Nafs]. London, 1954.
  • Goichon, A.M. ed. Livre de directives et remarques [al-Isharat wa’l-Tanbihat],2 τόμοι. Paris, 1951.
  • Shams, I. ed. Ibn Sina on Mysticism [al-Isharat wa’l-Tanbihat namat IX]. London, 1998.
  • Marmura, M. ed. The Metaphysics of Avicenna [al-Ilahiyyat min Kitab al-Shifa’]. Provo, 2004.
  • Bertolacci, Α. The Reception of Aristotle's Metaphysics in Avicenna's Kitab al-Sifa'. A Milestone of Western Metaphysical Thought. Leiden, 2006.
  • Goodman, L. Avicenna. London, 1992.
  • Gutas, D. Avicenna and the Aristotelian Tradition. Leiden, 1988, 2η έκδοση 2014.
  • McGinnis, J. Avicenna. Oxford, 2010.
  • Street, T. Avicenna. Cambridge, 2005.
  • Sebti, M. Avicenne. Paris, 2003.
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