by Kyle Perra

There is much to say of the many famed philosophical thinkers of previous generations who set the standards on knowledge in the world we know and cherish today. These celebrated persons, such as Sir Isaac Newton, Galileo Galilee, William Harvey, Thomas Aquinas and countless others have long been studied and their works analyzed by many thousands of people. These philosophical thinkers and scientists alike surely deserve their fame, which they have earned through strong critical thought and experimentation, however I am left uncertain on whether or not everyone within the long chains of philosophical practice have each had their fair share of credit, in which the big names I have mentioned I believe unfairly hold too much of. How it is possible that a person who began or influenced greatly the ingenious ideas of evolution, the concept of momentum, algebraic problem solving, the multiverse and many others could slip under the radar so severely is beyond my imagination. Moreover, the fact that I did not know of the man Ibn Sina who is credited to be “the most universal thinker and man of science in Islam,” by Olaf Pedersen in his book The First Universities, published in 1997, and Ibn Sina’s many contributions to everything I have mentioned thus far is completely embarrassing. Without this man Ibn Sina, who I can now hold in high regard, our world and the way that we can systematically understand it would have been dramatically affected. Furthermore, the scientific understanding of the human species and it’s biological make up would surely be severely lacking. Ibn Sina died almost one thousand years ago and he likely knew more regarding our existence as humans within his primitive world than many could possibly fathom today; the fact that he came to so many intellectual conclusions without the technology we take for granted today should attest to his genius.

Ibn Sina, often referred to as his Latinized name, Avicenna, lived during a time of great intellectual advancement known as the Islamic Golden Age. As proclaimed by Soheil Afnan in his book Avicenna: His Life and Works, published in 1958, during this time, many cultures such as Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, Manichaeism, Nestorian Christianity and Islam blended and worked together in order to form the foundation of many facts we know about our world and ourselves today. Avicenna’s father, who was appointed as a local governor in Kharmaithan, obviously was of some high standing. It was here in Kharmaithan that Avicenna and his younger brother were born. Shortly after, they moved to Bukhara, a known Buddhist center at the time due to Arab conquest, and thusly a place of large Islamic study. The origin of Avicenna’s father is not quite clear because so many cultures have claimed Avicenna to be of their own kind. It is notable though, that during Avicenna’s wanderings, he deliberately avoided Turkish areas and sought the company instead of Persian rulers. Also notable when considering what culture Avicenna might have been born into is his mother’s name, Setareh, a pure Persian word meaning star, suggesting her Persian descent.

Avicenna’s early years were met with long hours of studious tasks, as is mentioned by Farhang Zabeeh, in his book Avicenna’s Treatise on Logic, published in 1971. Avicenna’s father took the education of his sons very seriously and sent them both at early ages to initiate their education. As Avicenna mentions in his autobiography, which was depicted by his long time pupil Gorgani, “During a period of ten years I learned the Koran and the belles-lettres. I surprised everyone by my aptitude for learning the various sciences.” Unfortunately for Avicenna, his region in which he grew up was marked by religious unorthodox – an important thing to note as to possibly explain his difficult life, with no shortage of persecution. While his father belonged to the Ishmaeli section and often attempted to expand his beliefs onto his sons, Avicenna withheld. Avicenna notes that, “Often he (Avicenna’s father) discussed the Ishmaelian concept of the nature of the soul and the intelligence with my brother. I listened and thought, but was never convinced, and, although they tried to convert me to their religion, their efforts were useless.” This however did not discourage Avicenna’s father from continuing his stubborn son’s education and he “discussed geometry, philosophy and Indian arithmetic and it was he who sent me to a grocer to learn Indian numerals which I mastered quickly.” Around this time a man named Abu Abdullah-Natali, whom gathered some fame for his philosophy, came to Bukhara. Avicenna’s father immediately sought him out and encouraged him to stay at his home in hopes that he would instruct young Avicenna on philosophy. Avicenna quickly picked up on what Natali had to offer him. In his autobiography, Avicenna mentions that, “I made an original inquiry into the problem of genus (which refers to the types of different things) which surprised my teacher.” Natali, whom was nervous that Avicenna’s father might discontinue Avicenna’s education, quickly encouraged the father to not engage Avicenna in any other occupation. From this plea and on, Avicenna began his life as a great polymath who would affect the world over greatly.

Eventually Natali left Bukhara, and his young pupil Avicenna then began an energetic spree of learning across many subjects such as arithmetic, astronomy, medicine, logic, metaphysics and so many more, all on his own and on his own time. Avicenna had an obvious desire to learn, and over the rest of the entirety of his life he did so vigorously. It was due to this attitude that Avicenna was able to contribute on many important things we know today. The idea that space is larger than any human can fathom, even with the technology we obtain today, is firstly due to Fakhr Al-Din Al-Razi’s famous concept of a multiverse. However, possibly even more important was the foundation Al-Razi worked on top of with his astronomical questions: the Aristotelian and Avicennian Geocentric Model of our world. The Geocentric Model, often referred to as the Ptolemaic System, “is the superseded theory, that the Earth is the center of the universe, and that all other objects orbit around it.” This idea served as the dominant cosmological system in several ancient cultures, such as Ancient Greece. When considering the Geocentric Model there were two observations made that led to the universal acceptance of the theory. Firstly, it was observed that the stars, the sun and other planets seemed to revolve around the earth each day. Furthermore, every star was on a ‘celestial’ sphere, which lined up when using the North and South Pole as an axis. Secondly, the Earth does not seem to move when observed from the Earth itself. Both observations thusly led to the idea that the Earth was the center of the universe. Al-Razi noted the Aristotelian and Avicennian model and took to the study on his own. When considering the concept, Al-Razi used his knowledge of atomism to state that there are “a thousand thousand worlds (alfa alfi ‘awalim) beyond this world such that each one of those worlds be bigger and more massive than this world as well as having the like of what this world has.” To support his argument, he cites the Qur’anic verse, in which he was well knowledgeable on, “All praise belongs to God, Lord of the Worlds,” pointing closely to the term “Worlds.” Through his religious and celestial knowledge, Al-Razi rightfully predicted the Geocentric Model to be inaccurate and while he did prove Aristotle and Avicenna to be incorrect, it was through their observations that Al-Razi was able to claim the vastness of our universe and the possibility of multiple universes.

Avicenna’s yearning for knowledge didn’t end there and, in fact, he had much more to observe about the world he lived on. In one of Avicenna’s many books, The Book of Healing, Avicenna reflects on the concept of momentum in a way that many today might recognize as an early version of what Galileo Galilee and then, eventually, Isaac Newton had to say on the theory. While following closely with Aristotelian Dynamics, Avicenna was able to contribute to the theory of Impetus, which was developed by John Philoponus in the 6th century. Avicenna was credited with the development of a strikingly different theory than Philoponus however, in which he made a distinction between the inclination and force of a projectile, and concluded that motion was a result of an inclination ( mayl ) transferred to the projectile by the thrower, and that projectile motion in a vacuum would not cease. Furthermore, Avicenna also referred to mayl as being proportional to weight times velocity, which is obviously the basis for our concept of inertia today as well as Isaac Newton’s concept of momentum. The Avicennan-Buridan self-conserving impetus theory initiated one of the most important thought-experiments in the history of science, namely the so-called ‘tunnel-experiment’, so important because it brought oscillatory and pendulum motion within the pale of dynamical analysis and understanding in the science of motion for the very first time and thereby also established one of the important principles of classical mechanics. Without Avicenna it is unclear where the state of these theories, hugely important to our existence, might be today. It is possible that Isaac Newton without the Impetus Theory might have never bothered with the classical mechanics we know today. It is certain though that without Avicenna this subject would have required much more ground work and thusly would have taken famous thinkers such as Galileo Galilei, Rene Descartes and Isaac Newton longer to develop.

Avicenna was largely known for his treatises on logic, in which he followed closely with Aristotelian views and beliefs. Being the polymath that he was, it was essential for Avicenna to debate what knowledge is, and what could make something knowable. In Aristotle’s De Anima (On the Soul), Aristotle divides the mind into three parts: sensation, imagination and intellection; moreover, when one perceives an object, his mind composites a sense-image. When he remembers the object he previously sensed, he is imagining its form (the image of the imagination is often translated as “phantasm”). When he extracts information from this phantasm, he is using his intellect. Through the ideas Aristotle and also with the help of later commentaries on Aristotle’s work, Avicenna was able to develop a strong theory for his own beliefs on epistemology. This epistemology of Avicenna’s is founded on the theory that the soul is independent of the body and also capable of abstraction. This theory is where Avicenna developed his so-called ‘flying man’ argument and thought experiment, which can be found in his writing Fi-Nafis/De Anima (Treatise on the Soul). The experiment questioned that if a person were created in a perfect state and condition, blind and also suspended mid-air causing this person to be incapable of understanding anything through their senses, would this person be able to confirm their own existence? Even in this state, the argument would be that the person could identify themselves through their thinking, thus confirming their existence; however, the experiment substantially confirms the importance of the soul. This theory inevitably develops the ideas of hylomorphism, in which both Avicenna and Aristotle were involved. It is often thought that Aquinas simply followed Aristotle with his doctrine on Intelligible Species. However, this is not the case. There were many doubts had about the Aristotelian corpus, in which Avicenna studied closely. Those who followed Aristotelian thought tried to resolve the problems of intellection and hylomorphism. This scientific experimentation done by Avicenna and a man by the name Averroes led to a result of denying Platonic forms and affirming hylomorphism; these scientific observations were directly drawn from for the development of Aquinas’ doctrine of Intelligible Species. Thusly so, without Avicenna, Aquinas’ heavily discussed doctrine of Intelligible Species either would have contained some of the inaccuracies of Aristotle from his original theories on hylomorphism or the doctrine would have not been constructible altogether.

Interestingly so, none of the above contributions in which I have spoken in depth on are of the fore front of Avicenna’s treatises and theories. In fact, the man Avicenna who is given little credit in our modern era for the many things he has accomplished and theorized would only and mainly be known for his huge contributions to medicine, which cannot be overrated. Avicenna is often referred to as the father of modern medicine and the father of aromatherapy for the creation of his ‘Kanon.’. In the four centuries that followed Avicenna’s life, his Canon would be the main treatise for reference in medieval medicine. “In his five books Avicenna gave a clear picture of general medicine, pharmacology, pathology, nutrition, and hygiene, all based on a synthesis of Hippocratic and Galenic observations and on Aristotle’s ideas on biology. With its clear clinical descriptions and precise therapeutic notes, the Canon gave the art of healing in the middle ages a solid foundation – more solid perhaps than the theories on which it was based. Its importance… can hardly be overrated, and to this day it is read with respect as the most superior work in this area that the past has ever produced.” The medical encyclopedia as previously mentioned was contained in five books, each broken apart to deal with separate but confusing issues. The first reintroduced the Galenic ideas of four temperaments, or humours, alongside some general anatomy and physiology. The second introduced clinical pharmacology, in which the original Galenic ideas of four humours was severely lacking of. Alongside this the second book introduced pharmaceutical sciences and the hugely important theory of inductive logic, which can be seen as critical for the scientific method. Book three contains the function and diseases of each organ head to toe, a diagram in which many of those who sought out medical careers took to heart. Book four contains information on diseases that might affect the entirety of a person’s body such as a fever. The last book contained an extensive list of compound drugs used to treat several diseases and was also among the first writings to suggest remedies for cancer and other tumors. Not greatly mentioned in the Kanon, but heavily practiced by Avicenna was what can be seen as some of the first successful surgeries, a practice which Avicenna encouraged – a severe contrast to physicians at his time.

Avicenna’s Canon, and namely his sections regarding anatomy directly influence the ideas of Ibn Al-Nafis whom was greatly involved in William Harvey’s later theorized systemic circulation – critical to medicine as it describes the process of the heart and of blood throughout the body. It is in Avicenna’s section on anatomy, pathology and physiology that historians find the first descriptions of pulmonary circulation. Al-Nafis, whom would write a commentary on the Canon’s anatomy section states that, “…the blood from the right chamber of the heart must arrive at the left chamber but there is no direct pathway between them. The thick septum of the heart is not perforated and does not have visible pores as some people thought or invisible pores as Galen thought. The blood from the right chamber must flow through the vena arteriosa (pulmonary artery) to the lungs, spread through its substances, be mingled there with air, pass through the arteria venosa (pulmonary vein) to reach the left chamber of the heart and there form the vital spirit.” Al-Nafis took Avicenna’s foundation, as many philosophers and physicians did and are still doing today, and grew upon it, introducing their own ideas and observations that later lead to the theories of people we are more inclined to know of today. In this situation it is William Harvey whom used the foundation of Avicenna’s, and then Al-Nafis’, in order to directly involve his own theories in modern medicine today; and while the first discussions on pulmonary circulation will be credited Avicenna and Al-Nafis, it is Harvey who is today famous for his systemic circulation: a complete description of the properties of blood being pumped through the body by the heart. This science is well known today and is taught scholastically in our schools as matters of scientific fact. Thusly, without Avicenna our knowledge on how the different parts of our body receive nutrients and oxygen would had to have been the work of someone else, whom would have been severely late on the subject and also possibly severely lacking.

Some might say that it was Galen’s ideas with his four temperaments that truly influenced the ideas of medieval and then modern medicine and that Avicenna merely hopped onto the bandwagon. However I would argue that Galen’s methods were missing what is possibly the most important part of the entirety of the Canon of Medicine: clinical pharmacology. In Galen’s practice, if a person was ill then there was a systematic way of understanding what disease the person was ill of and what could possibly be the best way to treat them. Not a bad system to have in place. However it was when Galen was unable to treat a patient where I can personally see the main flaws of his practice. Simply, Galen had no means of trial and error, and everything that was stated about his four temperaments was expected to be followed in the same manor for every person under the classified disease regardless of previous treatments and their fatalities. In Avicenna’s clinical pharmacology, there were seven things to consider when treating a person.

  • “The drug must be free from any extraneous accidental quality.”
  • “It must be used on a simple, not a composite, disease.” 
  • “The drug must be tested with two contrary types of diseases, because sometimes a drug cures one disease by Its essential qualities and another by its accidental ones.”
  • “The quality of the drug must correspond to the strength of the disease. For example, there are some drugs whose heat is less than the coldness of certain diseases, so that they would have no effect on them.”
  • “The time of action must be observed, so that essence and accident are not confused.”
  • “The effect of the drug must be seen to occur constantly or in many cases, for if this did not happen, it was an accidental effect.” 

“The experimentation must be done with the human body, for testing a drug on a lion or a horse might not prove anything about its effect on man.”

There is very little evidence of people acknowledging the necessity of clinical pharmacology that is except for the great mind, Avicenna.

Avicenna’s careful practice of medicine helped him gain the favor of many high courts during his long life, without which it is likely that he would have never been able to accomplish the many works he created, including his all-important Canon. Without Avicenna, many things that we know today in modern medicine would be lost. More importantly though, Avicenna and the development of, not just the Kanon, but all of the theories in which I have mentioned, directly influenced the education system of his time and the many centuries to come. His philosophical ideas and clinical observations have led to a history of both scholastic and dynamic learning. Scholastic in such a way that his Canon was a must-know for anyone whom knew anything about medicine – a huge piece in what people believed should be studied at the time in order to be a truly educated being. Dynamic in such a way that while not all of his theories are recognized as facts today, these same theories challenged the knowledge of likely thousands of educated persons and built the foundation for which much of what we recognize as fact today is built on. Without Avicenna, I believe there would have been a huge delay in the mass education of people, thus possibly leading to a downfall in intellectual thought all together. Luckily for us, the man Ibn Sina did in fact live and did all of what I have mentioned for the human kind. He lives on today through his many ideas, which are still very relevant within our society and also through the many institutions based on Unani medicine in which Avicenna’s ideas directly influenced. These same institutions of which there are hundreds dedicated to the advancement of the four temperaments are still very prominent today throughout the world and especially in the world’s eastern half.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *