Avicenna: Biography, Quotes & Contributions

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

We often think of the medieval era as a dark age, but that definitely wasn't true everywhere. In this lesson, we'll explore the life and works of Avicenna, and see how this medieval genius helped reshape the intellectual world.

Avicenna

We often think of the medieval era as a dark age, where science and philosophy were all but forgotten. What this viewpoint forgets is that while medieval Europe had its intellectual difficulties, the medieval Islamic world did not. This was an age of science and philosophy and art and mathematics, an Islamic golden age, and at the heart of it was Avicenna. This Muslim philosopher rose to become amongst the most respected and influential thinkers in the world. It was a medieval world that Avicenna lived in, but it certainly was not a dark age.

Avicenna
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Biography

Avicenna was born near Bukhara (now in Uzbekistan), sometime around 980 CE. His Arabic name was Abu 'Ali al-Husayn ibn 'Abd Allah ibn Sina, often shortened to Ibn Sina (from which we get the Latinized Avicenna). We know little about his early life, except that he showed early intellectual acumen and had memorized the entire Qur'an by the age of 10. He studied under great Islamic scholars, but had surpassed them by the age of 16 when he undertook the study of medicine on his own. After curing the sultan of Bukhara of a mysterious disease, Avicenna was granted access to the royal library, and he devoured it.

By the age of 21, Avicenna was a respected scholar and began writing books. He was uninterested in political squabbles of the day and kept on the move to avoid being entangled in them. He finally settled at Esfahan in modern-day Iran, where he was allowed to open his own school for scholars and write without political drama. He ended up writing over 240 books on philosophy, medicine, astronomy, botany, zoology, meteorology, and psychology.

Avicenna treating a patient in an 17th-century copy of one of his medical texts
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Around 1037, Avicenna contracted colic and treated himself with celery-seed enemas, which he managed to administer himself. The procedure was messed up by an assistant who doubled the active ingredient in the medicine, causing ulcers. In later treatments, a slave attempted to poison Avicenna as well, and we do have to recognize that the brooding philosopher may not have been well liked by all. Finally, in 1037 these experiences caught up with Avicenna, and he died while traveling to Hamadan, Iran.

Influence on Philosophy

Despite some personality quirks, Avicenna ended up becoming the most influential scholar in Islamic history, and one of the greatest in the world. We can see this influence primarily in two facets. Let's start with philosophy.

After mastering the Islamic texts as a child, Avicenna taught himself the philosophies of the Greeks and Romans. In particular, Avicenna was taken by the works of Aristotle, and built his philosophy in the Aristotelian tradition. Avicenna is still considered to be one of the most important interpreters of Aristotle in history.

So, how did this fit within Islamic society? At the time, Islam has many great scholars, but they focused on the Qur'an purely from a theological perspective. Avicenna was the first to apply Aristotelian philosophy and logic to Islamic teachings, and is thus seen as the founder of true Islamic philosophy.

Influence on Medicine

Avicenna also adopted the Greek tendency to see philosophy and science as interchangeable and inseparable. As a result, he developed a strong interest in medicine and a clear elaboration of Hippocratic Greek beliefs. The field of medicine is where we find Avicenna's two most important texts.

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