There are only few people from the East who are unconditionally recognised by Europe. Avicenna takes the first place among these glorious people. Suffice to say that after the invention of a printing press, Avicenna’s Canon of Medicine became the first printed book after the Bible.
We mostly know him as an outstanding physician, who in those days was compared to Hippocrates and Galen. If everything is more or less clear with Hippocrates and his oath, then Galen is rightfully considered the father of European medicine. The great Michelangelo used to say, “It is better to make mistakes eulogising Galen and Avicenna than to be right, eulogising others”. We will talk a lot about the medical heritage, but now let’s highlight Avicenna’s main works, in addition to his most famous “The Canon of Medicine”. There are “The Book of Knowledge”, “The Book of Instructions and Notes”, “The Book of Fair Trial”, “The Book of Salvation” and even mystical works such as “The Book of Love”, “Liberation from Death Fear”, or “Books about Predestination”.
Researchers still cannot say exactly how many works he has written. According to some data, the number of scientific works by Avicenna exceeds 456! Many works were misattributed to Avicenna, which is also a sign of success. Other works may be forged. There is one thing beyond doubt, though, the personality of Avicenna is comparable perhaps only with Leonardo da Vinci. He was interested in absolutely everything: mathematics, physics, chemistry, animal physiology, music theory, military strategy, linguistics, law and astronomy. Avicenna has been mentioned in European culture since the XII century. Since then people and books can’t stop talking about him. A lot of books are written about this famous man, many of his thoughts are relevant to this day. Avicenna is one of the few people in the history of human civilisation, whose fame has not faded for a thousand years, but even became more vivid.
Till now, many countries have argued about who owns exclusive rights to this genius. Turkey, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Iran – each of these countries treat him as their own national treasure and they all have a reason to believe so. After all, Avicenna was born in Turkestan and buried in Persia, although he spent most of his life wandering around Iran and Turan. Several monographs, such as “Ibn Sina the Great Turkish Scholar”, have been published in Turkey, while a majestic monument was erected in Dushanbe. The Turks and Persians consider him to be a diamond of their history. For more than a thousand years the Muslims, in their turn, have been visiting the Mausoleum of Avicenna as a holy place in sign of respect and in the hope of being healed.
Avicenna, or more precisely, Abu Ali Al-Hussein Ibn Abdallah Ibn Sina, was born into a wealthy family. His father, Abdillah Ibn Hasan, served as a tax collector. However, unlike present times perhaps, this service required education, life experience, intelligence and decency. After all, “only pure thoughts and responsibility can prevent abuse, because bribery cannot be concealed.” Anyway, Avicenna’s father spent a lot of money on the education of his children and was not found to be involved in anything suspicious. Avicenna’s mother, Sitara, was from Afshan, a small village near Bukhara, where Avicenna was born in 980AD.
THE MAIN THING IS TO UNDERSTAND
In those days, children were trained from the age of five until “fully being educated”. In school they studied Farsi and Arabic, grammar, stylistics, poetics, the Koran and much more. As a school boy, Avicenna made great progress for five years of training. Finally, it turned out that he had nothing to do at this school by the time when he turned ten. He brilliantly mastered Arabic, Farsi-Dari was his native language, therefore the boy’s quatrains in both languages were always the best. Being a ten-year-old boy, Avicenna knew the Koran by heart. He was yet to get acquainted with his favourite topics of mathematics and medicine, but even then his mind was ready for the hardest work. One of these days, Bukhara was visited by Abu Abdillah Nathili, a well-known scientist of that time. The tax collector immediately went to the scientist and literally begged him to stay at his home. Avicenna’s father even promised to provide the scientist with food and water and pay a salary only for training his son and giving him an example of “comprehension of knowledge.”
Continuous communication with the scientist immediately delivered its benefits. Avicenna wrote, “I was the best among many students asking questions.” A little later, he became the best of those who tried to answer these questions.
At that time, Aristotle was the greatest figure of authority in the scientific and philosophical world, and at the age of fifteen young Avicenna began to study Aristotle’s Metaphysics. Surprisingly, this philosophical treatise was translated at that time into all major Eastern languages and repeatedly commented. The fifteen-year-old teenager read this fundamental work several times and, as he recollected, could not comprehend it until a bookseller advised him to read Al-Farabi’s Comments to Aristotle’s Metaphysics. Later Avicenna called Al Farabi’s work a “treasure and key to the understanding of everything.” After this breakthrough, Avicenna called Aristotle his teacher, while his theory about the unity of material, physical and spiritual things became a determining point for the young man.
Perhaps, after comprehending this treatise, he extraordinarily easily learned medicine. “Medicine is not as difficult as it is commonly believed. The main thing is to understand the essence, but not the outward appearances,” said Aviccena, being a daring boy of sixteen, not a grey-haired wise man. No, young Ibn Sina was not an arrogant braggart… When the Emir of Bukhara, Nuh Ibn Mansur was sick, the best healers could do nothing about his illness, and seventeen-year-old Avicenna was invited to the palace. Avicenna cured the emir and was appointed as the emir’s resident physician and granted an access to the emir’s personal library. Avicenna triumphed as he could read “books that no one else could see.” The fact is that Bukhara experienced the last quiet years in its history, a little later the city was conquered by sultan Mahmud Gaznevi. The city was ruined, the emir’s palace and library burned down.
By that time, the twenty-year-old young man already became a well-formed scientist, who wrote several large books and held correspondence with all the bright minds of his time. But life in Bukhara became more and more alarming and the young genius went to Urgench at the personal invitation of Khorezm Shah Mamun II.
Khorezm Shah Mamun was an amazing figure of his time. He was a well-educated, witty man, who always tried to come to the core of the matter. At the same time, he was rich and powerful. He brought together all outstanding representatives of science and culture at his court. The most outstanding minds could discuss the most pressing problems and exchange views in his palace. Most importantly, the scientists were given an opportunity to work, in particular to verify scientific hypotheses and conduct the most courageous experiments. Often there were serious disputes between researchers and philosophers, in which Avicenna was a winner more often than others. The arguments of Avicenna baffled even Biruni, the most famous wise man of that time.
However, this idyll could not last long. Mahmud Gaznevi, a new formidable ruler, appeared on the horizon. The cruel despot wished to see the most famous scientists, musicians and poets at his court so that they “could enjoy the honour of presence” in the sultan’s palace. Disobedience was equated to a treason felony. The ruler of Khorezm could not disobey and only advised his friends to flee before it was too late. Finally, Avicenna and his friend went to sandy Kara-Kum in order to prove that scientists serve for science, not for authorities, no matter how terrible they are.
Losing his strength and friends, Avicenna crossed the terrible desert and came to western Iran. There he was met by emir Kudus, a poet and philosopher, who surrounded himself with scientists (people of that time called them “the light of truth”). Ibn Sina became a star of the first magnitude among these scientists. The emir presented Avicenna with a house and gave him all he needed, including an opportunity to communicate with others and work. It was the place where Avicenna started writing the first volume of the Canon of Medicine. However, a quiet life is not for the eternal wanderer. Whether for safety reasons, or in search of new knowledge, Avicenna left everything and set foot on the path of adventure once more. He slept in inns, paid visits to rich people, communicated with the poor. And everywhere he healed and cured people, sometimes saving hopeless patients. Everything he saw and felt he entered into his travel books. But sinister Sultan Mahmud Ghaznevi didn’t stop searching for him. The scientist was put on the wanted list, a reward was promised for his head. Forty drawings describing the fugitive were issued.
In 1023 Avicenna stayed in Hamadan and cured another emir from gastric disease. As a reward, Avicenna was appointed a vizier in the rank of advising minister. The new vizier worked hard and developed a number of projects to manage the country and even a reform of armed forces. But the Ministry of Defence had its own views on this matter and military generals asked the emir to execute Avicenna. The pressure from military officials was so great that the emir was forced to expel the reformer from the country. Forty days after Avicenna’s deportation, the emir suffered another attack, and the physician was returned back with honour. However, Avicenna didn’t want to stay at the court and tried to leave. But the ruler was changed and military officials imprisoned Avicenna for four months. The physician was treated with extreme caution as everyone could fall ill. This fact enabled him to escape.
ALLAH HAS MORE IMPORTANT THINGS TO DO…
While wandering, Avicenna still made his research and practiced medicine. Sometimes Avicenna healed his patients in the open air from his saddle. Finally, the scientist came to the heart of Persia – the city of Isfahan, the largest city of that time. This bright and noisy city with a population of a hundred-thousand people became the place where Avicenna completed the fifth volume of his Canon of Medicine, a work that took ten years. This unique work collected all the medical knowledge accumulated by that time. The Canon covers anatomy, physiology, surgery, acute, chronic and even hereditary diseases. It describes 800 simple medicines and even complex ones: some of them contain up to 37 components. Almost on every page the Canon offers new information, previously unknown to medical science. In gratitude for such a thorough work, naturalist Carl Linnaeus called a whole family of tropical plants as Avicennia.
Avicenna was the first scientist who described plague, cholera, jaundice, distinguished smallpox from measles, described diabetes, named symptoms and treatment for such diseases as meningitis and stomach ulcers and many others. The scientist believed that “febrile states” are caused by invisible carriers of disease. Louis Pasteur confirmed this theory more than 800 years later. Avicenna had a lot of similar hypotheses. It was Avicenna who first explained how the eye worked. Earlier people believed that the human eye emitted special rays like a flashlight. Being reflected from objects, these rays returned back and give images. This is not so much medicine as physics of course.
Even a simple enumeration of what he did is amazing. There are more than 450 works covering 29 areas, of which 274 have survived. Moreover, Avicenna composed poems and wrote many philosophical works. Unlike many other people, Avicenna understood God in his own way. Allah is the all-knowing father, who created this world. This is his main mission. Avicenna believed that God supervised only such issues as creation of the universe and maintenance of the general order. In his opinion, it is wrong to believe that God keeps watch over the daily bustle of people and participates in their affairs.
Meanwhile, Massoud Gaznevi, the successor of Sultan Mahmud, together with his huge army broke into Isfahan in 1030. Violence, fires and outrages came about with a bang. Avicenna also was faced with difficult times: his house was destroyed, many of his manuscripts and works disappeared without a trace. “The Book of Justice” consisting of 20 parts was irrevocably lost. Who knows, maybe this book unveiled the deepest thoughts of our genius.
Avicenna died at the age of 57 during a military campaign in 1037, accompanying the emir. When Avicenna realised that his body was exhausted, he advised physicians, “Do not waste medicines. It’s in vain. I’m not suitable for treatment”. Before his death, the genius donated his property to the poor and rewarded and dismissed his servants. Avicenna was buried in Hamadan, where his tomb is located now. His mausoleum was rebuilt in 1954, when the World Peace Council celebrated the millennium anniversary of the scientist. In general, little is known about Avicenna and his personal life. You may ask, “What about women?” There are only beautiful poems glorifying their beauty. There are no names, no specific references. But in his edification for descendants he said, “We die in full consciousness and take only one thing: the understanding of the fact that we have learned nothing.”
text by Adam Kapanov
image AVICENNA, Fathy Zin