Ibn Sina (Avicenna)
Title page
Page from a Latin translation of The Canon. Illustration from Science in Medieval Islam by Howard R. Turner

The same historical narrative that argues that medieval Europeans stumbled through a thousand-year fog of incoherence also argues that Greek learning was preserved — though often corrupted — by Muslim scholars. Although they managed to preserve the knowledge of the ancient Greeks, the story goes, the Muslims learned virtually nothing new. In the 16th century, German physician Leonhart Fuchs complained:

The Arabs had taken all their knowledge from the Greeks and, like Harpies, defiled all that they touched. . . . henceforth they will be used very little in the teaching of [medicine], which more advisably will be taught from the wellsprings of the art than by drinking from turbid waters.

Fuchs then made the ironic choice to quote extensively from one of the allegedly defiling harpies: Abu 'Ali al-Husain ibn Abdullah ibn Sina, known in the West as Avicenna. Had ibn Sina heard Fuchs's complaints, he might have had a sharp retort (by most accounts, ibn Sina did not suffer fools) including the item that he wasn't Arab, he was Persian.

Ibn Sina was born in 980 in what is now Uzbekistan, and died in 1037 in what is now Iran. He was a bright child, studying not just the Quran, but also philosophy and science. His birth came at a time of decentralization and uncertainty in the Muslim empire, however, and the unrest affected ibn Sina's whole life. Associated with multiple short-lived sultanates, he relocated often, searching for a stable, well-paying position. At various times, he worked as a political administrator, court physician, soldier — and occasional outcast and prisoner. Though he never married, he was rumored to be attractive, popular with the ladies, and fond of wine.

During his hectic life, he managed to write nearly 100 books. Two of his books, one an encyclopedia of philosophical sciences and another on the pulse, he wrote in his native language of Farsi, but most books he wrote in Arabic. Just as Latin would later unite European scholars, Arabic served as a universal language of learning, and many Arab and Muslim scholars found it more adept at conveying precise meanings than their native languages.

Probably ibn Sina's most famous book is Al-Qann fi al-Tibb, or The Canon of Medicine. It was first translated into Latin in the 12th century, and translated into Hebrew in the late 15th century. Unfortunately, the encyclopedia lacked pictures. (Islam generally forbade the depiction of human form, though pictures were relatively rare in European books of the time, too.) As a result, the pictures that did appear in The Canon were mostly decorative. The Canon remained influential in Europe for well over five centuries, and continued to be consulted in the Muslim world well into the 20th century.

The contention that Muslims preserved the works of ancient Greece was certainly true. Ibn Sina was a follower of Galen's belief in humors: blood (provides vitality), phlegm (cools the body, especially in a fever), black bile (darkens bodily fluids), and yellow bile (aids digestion). Thought to shape personality as well as health, humors had to be kept in balance, leading to the sometimes deadly practice of bleeding. But ibn Sina was hardly an ineffectual doctor. He became a physician in his teens, and soon won the favor of a local ruler by treating him successfully for a potentially fatal infection. Ibn Sina's reward was access to the royal library at Bukhara. Over the years, he endorsed experimentation, and readily discarded ineffective remedies for better ones. Besides advances in medical care for expectant mothers and children, he recognized the contagious nature of tuberculosis, and the ability of diseases to spread through tainted water and soil. He even became an arguable pioneer in psychology, recognizing the connections between emotional and physical states (he sometimes recommended listening to good music for good health), and examining the role that environment plays in one's health.

Ibn Sina flowered as a polymath, writing not only about medicine but also philosophy, mathematics, astronomy, alchemy (which he did not respect), geology, even optics. Nuclear physicist and science historian Jim al-Khalili has argued that ibn Sina's greatest work wasn't The Canon but instead Kitab al-Shifa, or Book of Healing. Its title implies it was about medicine, but it was actually a book intended to heal the world of the disease of ignorance, and it was a compendium of knowledge, including philosophy and the natural sciences.

Ibn Sina felt that the universe was governed by physical laws that simply aren't broken, and he was skeptical of miracles — something that drew as much invective from some Muslim scholars as Islam in general drew from the likes of Fuchs; 12th-century Muslim scholar Abu Hamid al-Ghazali railed against ibn Sina in his own treatise, The Incoherence of the Philosophers. Aristotelian commentator Abu al-Walid ibn Rushd, known in the West as Averroes, later penned a direct riposte to al-Ghazali titled The Incoherence of the Incoherence.

Top: From Arabick Roots issued by the Royal Society
Bottom: From Images of the Body by Philippe Comar

In ibn Sina's day, Muslim scholars were trying to discern how human eyes could see. One idea was that eyes sent out optical energy. Ibn Sina doubted that anything as small as an eye could produce sufficient energy, especially when one considered that the human eye could discern the stars that filled the nighttime sky. Every time an eye was opened, he pointed out, the diminutive organ would have to send out star-reaching energy. He also had the remarkable insight that light consists of particles — an idea that would be echoed centuries later by Newton, and demonstrated by Einstein.

For all his doubt of energy-producing eyes, ibn Sina's likely held even deeper suspicions of alchemy. During his lifetime and for centuries afterwards, scholars and mystics engaged in a sometimes shadowy, secretive practice that alternately aimed for spiritual enlightenment and the manufacture of gold. Ibn Sina didn't buy it.

Art is weaker than nature and does not overtake it, however much it labors. Therefore let the artificers of alchemy know that the species of metals cannot be transmuted. But they can make similar things, and tint a red [metal] with yellow so that it seems gold, and tint a white one with the color that they want until it is very similar to gold or copper. They can also cleanse the impurities of lead, though it will always be lead.

For centuries after ibn Sina's death, scholars and savants would puzzle over the origin of fossils. Perhaps his skepticism over alchemy would cause ibn Sina to doubt that a once-living organism could turn to stone. But he touched upon the topics of stratification and superposition — younger rock layers resting atop older ones. (This idea of superposition would be spelled out in detail in the 17th century by the European scholar and cleric Niels Stensen, or Steno. Ibn Sina himself was likely influenced by a group of Shiite scholars known as the Brothers of Purity, who produced volumes on the subject in the 10th century.) Ibn Sina observed:

It is possible that the bed of the sea may have been originally in the shape of plains and mountains, and that when the waters ebbed away, they were exposed. It may be noticed that some mountains are in layers, and this may be because each layer was formed at a different period.

As others did, ibn Sina apparently recognized that breaking a rock often revealed shells within it — partial remains of aquatic animals. The sea, he accepted, must have been in places it no longer lingered.

While ibn Sina's reputation would face the occasional attack from European Christians, he would enjoy the occasional defender as well. Bologna professor Girolamo Cardano pointed out the irony of criticizing ibn Sina for being a Muslim when Galen had been an "idol worshiper." Venetian physician Benedetto Rinio likewise pointed out the irony of criticizing ibn Sina's use of earlier work when no one attacked Aristotle or Galen for the same practice.

Beyond mere defenders, ibn Sina has enjoyed real admirers. Royal Society fellow and Cambridge professor Edmund Castell delivered his inaugural lecture on the use of ibn Sina's work in medicine. Today, one of the craters on the moon is named Avicenna. And in 1980, member nations of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization celebrated the 1,000-year anniversary of his birth.

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