Avicenna the Philosophical Genius of Muslim Persia

  October 03, 2021   Read time 5 min
Avicenna the Philosophical Genius of Muslim Persia
The most famous and influential of Persian philosophers and scientists, Abū ʿAlī al-Ḥusayn ibn ʿAbdallāh ibn Sīnā (Avicenna), known by the later Islamic philosophers as al-Shaykh al-Raʾīs and Ḥujjat al-Ḥaqq, and in circles involved with his philosophy as simply Shaykh, was born in 370/980 in Afshānah, a village outside of Bukhārā.

His father, originally from Balkh, had moved to Afshānah; when Ibn Sīnā was five years old, they moved once again, this time to Bukhārā itself, where Ibn Sīnā grew up. The Ibn Sīnā household was a centre of intellectual activity visited by numerous scholars of the city. Extremely precocious, Ibn Sīnā showed remarkable attraction to the sciences from a very early age. By the time he was ten, he had memorized much of the Qurʾān and had mastered the Arabic language in addition to his mother tongue, which was Persian. According to his autobiography, completed by his lifetime student and companion Abū ʿUbayd Juzjānī, by the time Ibn Sīnā was eighteen years old, he was already master of the Islamic sciences, both transmitted and intellectual, and was an accomplished physician and philosopher. In 387/997, the Samanid ruler of Bukhārā gave him access to the royal library, which enabled him to further his mastery of the various sciences, especially philosophy and medicine. In 391/1001, at the age of twenty-one, he composed the first books of which we have any knowledge.

A year later, however, Ibn Sīnā’s whole life was set in turmoil as the result of his father’s death and Maḥmūd of Ghaznah’s conquest of Bukhārā. Refusing to join his court and deeply saddened by the destruction of the order of his native home, Ibn Sīnā set out for Jurjāniyyah. He began a life of wandering from one Persian court to another, usually acting as court physician to the various Buyid rulers of the central regions of Persia. He journeyed from Jurjān (Gurgān) to Rayy and then to Hamadān, where he remained several years as court physician and wazīr. But he sought to reach the court of ʿAlāʾ al-Dawlah in Iṣfahān and refused further service at the Hamadān court. This decision resulted in his falling out of grace and being imprisoned for four months. Escaping in the garb of a dervish, he made it safely to Iṣfahān, which had become a great centre of learning under ʿAlāʾ al-Dawlah. Here he spent some fifteen years in respect, honour, and peace and wrote many of his major works, even beginning the construction of an observatory that was never completed. Yet, even this period of peace was to be disrupted by the attack upon the city by Maḥmūd of Ghaznah’s son, Masʿūd. Ibn Sīnā then left Iṣfahān and returned to Hamadān, where he died of colic in 428/1037 and where his tomb, a celebrated monument, is to be found to this day. Some claim that he was buried in Iṣfahān but this is most likely not true. His school (madrasah) can be seen in the old quarter of the city, but his tomb is, according to the most authentic early historical sources, in Hamadān.

Ibn Sīnā led an extraordinary life, which has turned him into a legend—indeed, almost a mythological figure. Endowed with unlimited physical and intellectual energy, an exceptional memory, an acute sense of observation, a truly remarkable power of intellectual analysis and synthesis, a love of the sacred and the beautiful, and a power of concentration rarely seen in the annals of intellectual history, he was able to produce a vast body of works amid the outward turmoil and vicissitudes of his time. He wrote over two hundred works during a fairly short life, some of which, such as the Shifāʾ, are of monumental proportion. His writings are astounding from both the qualitative and the quantitative points of view. Many are devoted to medicine, including the al-Qānūn fi’l-ṭibb (Canon of Medicine), the most famous single work in the history of medicine in both the Islamic world and the West—a work that gained Ibn Sīnā, or the Latin Avicenna, the title of Prince of Physicians in medieval Europe. But his scientific works also include treatises on mathematics (especially music) as well as language.

As for the philosophical works with which we are concerned here, they can be divided into two categories: those dealing with mashshāʾī, or Peripatetic philosophy, and those treating what Ibn Sīnā himself called al-ḥikmat al-mashriqiyyah (oriental wisdom), which can be read in Arabic orthography as either oriental or illuminative—a philosophy that he considered as having been written for the elite (khawāṣṣ). The first category includes his encyclopedic masterpiece, the Kitāb al-shifāʾ (The Book of Healing), which deals in four sections with logic, natural philosophy, mathematics, and metaphysics; it is the most voluminous work of its kind ever written by a single person. The section on logic is the most extensive in the annals of Islamic thought, while the natural philosophy and the metaphysics sections mark the peak of Peripatetic philosophy in Islam. The first category also includes shorter works such as the al-Najāh (Deliverance), al-Mabdaʾ wa’l- maʿād (The Origin and the End), and the Dānish-nāmah-yi ʿalāʾī (Treatise on Knowledge Dedicated to ʿAlāʾ al-Dawlah), the first work on Peripatetic philosophy ever written in the Persian language.

To the second category belongs his last great masterpiece, al-Ishārāt wa’ltanbīhāt (Remarks and Admonitions)—at least its last chapters—and also the trilogy of visionary recitals Ḥayy ibn Yaqẓān (The Living Son of the Awake), Risālat al-ṭayr (Treatise of the Bird), and Salāmān wa Absāl (Salāmān and Absāl). We must also include his short mystical treatises in this latter category. As for his Qurʾanic commentaries, which are the first by a Peripatetic philosopher, they occupy a category of their own. The ḥikmat al-mashriqiyyah of Ibn Sīnā was never known or taken seriously in the West; in Persia, however, it formed a bridge to the later School of Illumination (ishrāq) of Suhrawardī. What Ibn Sīnā writes in his Manṭiq al-mashriqiyyīn (Logic of the Orientals), which belongs to the second category, as setting out to expound a philosophy (that is at once oriental and illuminative) for the intellectual elite was seen by the later ishrāqī tradition as pointing to the ḥikmat al-ishrāq that was to be expounded by Suhrawardī less than two centuries after Ibn Sīnā.

Write your comment