Avicenna's Persian Encyclopedia of Philosophical Sciences

  October 03, 2021   Read time 3 min
Avicenna's Persian Encyclopedia of Philosophical Sciences
Of special significance for the later history of Islamic philosophy in Persia is the fact that Ibn Sīnā wrote philosophical and scientific works in Persian, especially the Dānish-nāmah-yi ʿalāʾī.

Although his choice of words was sometimes contrived and the text is difficult to fathom in many ways, he set the background for the appearance of Persian as a major philosophical language—and in fact the second language of Islamic philosophy after Arabic. The lucid and rich Persian philosophical works of Nāṣir-i Khusraw, Suhrawardī, Naṣīr al-Dīn Ṭūsī, Quṭb al-Dīn Shīrāzī, and many others show evidence of the pioneering efforts of Ibn Sīnā.

The works of Ibn Sīnā mark a combination of early Islamic Peripatetic philosophy, Neoplatonism, Aristotelianism and general Islamic teachings, creating a synthesis that has cast its influence upon all later Islamic philosophy. The fundamental ontological distinctions between Necessary Being (wājib al-wujūd) and contingent existent (mumkin al-wujūd), the definition and distinction between existence and quiddity, and other basic concepts either developed or refined by Ibn Sīnā mark the foundation of ontology and what in the West is called medieval philosophy. Many have in fact called him the first ‘philosopher of being’; it was always in the continuation of or reaction to his ontology that later Islamic, and even many Jewish and Christian, philosophers developed their ideas. This is seen especially in Persia, as the ontological discussions of such major later figures as Suhrawardī, Khwājah Naṣīr al-Dīn Ṭūsī, and Mullā Ṣadrā make clear. Ibn Sīnā also opened the door and pointed toward a path that was later to be followed by Suhrawardī.

The philosophical significance of Ibn Sīnā’s synthesis is also to be seen in cosmology and psychology, including the master’s critique of the Aristotelian theory of motion and the relationship between the psyche and the physical body. Ibn Sīnā’s medical philosophy is in fact of great significance not only for the history of medicine but also for the current search for holistic understanding of medicine and the human psychosomatic reality. It would not be an exaggeration to say that Ibn Sīnā is the greatest cultural hero of Persia in the domains of philosophy and the sciences. In any case, little in those domains has remained untouched by his influence during the succeeding centuries of Persian history and his philosophical influence is alive in his native land today.

The first selection in this chapter deals with Ibn Sīnā’s major Persian work, Dānish-nāmah-yi ʿalāʾī. The focal point of this section, entitled Ilāhiyyāt (Metaphysics and Theology), is the Necessary Being. It is here that a wide range of issues, from God’s knowledge of universals to the will of the Necessary Being, is treated.

The second selection is part three of al-Ishārāt wa’l-tanbīhāt concerning ‘creation ex-nihilo and immediate creation’. The ninth treatise of al-Shifāʾ and book seven of al-Ishārāt wa’l-tanbīhāt are presented next. These sections treat such notions as providence, evil, and divine predestination; how evil has entered the created order is the central theme of this section.

The fifth selection is dedicated to the concept and nature of time, a translation of section two, parts eleven and twelve of the Physics of al-Shifāʾ. The sixth selection turns to mystical aspects by offering a translation of Maqāmāt al-ʿārifīn (On the Stations of the Knowers). This philosophical-mystical narrative is a translation of part four of the ninth class of al-Ishārāt wa’l-tanbīhāt. The seventh selection is from the philosophical-mystical narrative of Ibn Sīnā, Ḥayy ibn Yaqẓān. Among different translations of this treatise, we have chosen Henry Corbin’s because, despite his free style of translation, he stays faithful to the most profound meaning of the text and because of Corbin’s contributions as a contemporary authority of Islamic philosophy. In the final selection, we provide a translation of Ibn Sīnā’s introduction to his Manṭiq al-mashriqiyyīn (Logic of the Orientals) that is part of a greater work in which Ibn Sīnā had expounded his ‘oriental philosophy’.

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