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Avicenna — Abu 'Ali al-Husayn ibn 'Abd Allah ibn Sina

(980 - 1037)

The “Leonardo da Vinci of the Muslim World,” known as Avicenna in the West. Born in Bukhara, today Uzbekistan. Wrote on theology, metaphysics, astronomy, philology, poetry, and medicine, including Al-Qanun fi al-Tibb (The Cannon of Medicine), a codification of all existing medical knowledge that was used as a reference in Europe well into the fifteenth century. Ibn Sina’s philosophy is based on an ontological foundation in which God, the Necessary Being (wajib al-wujud), is the only being which is pure Goodness, the source of all existence. Everything else derives its being (mahiyya) and its existence (wujud) from the Necessary Being and hence is contingent upon God. The contingent beings (mumkin al-wujud) are then divided into two kinds: (1) Those which are necessary in the sense that they cannot “not be;” they are contingent by themselves but receive from the First Cause the quality of being necessary. These beings are the simple substances (mujarradat). And (2) beings which are only contingent, the composed bodies of the sublunary world which come into being and pass away. Ibn Sina attempted to integrate Greek philosophy and Islam in an original synthesis which places God at the center of philosophy based on the self-evident truths.

Among Ibn Sina’s medical works, Canon of Medicine, is the ordered Summa of all the medical knowledge up to his time. Divided into five books, this major work of Islamic medical tradition was used as the basic textbook for teaching medicine for seven centuries both in the East as well as in the West. Translated by Gerard of Cremona between 1150 and 1187, the Canon formed the basis of teaching at all European universities. It appears in the oldest known syllabus of teaching given to the School of Medicine at Montpellier, dating from 1309, and in all subsequent ones until 1557.

Ibn Sina’s influence on the subsequent developments of intellectual thought is vast. In the Muslim world, his philosophy was instrumental in the emergence of Ishraqi (Illuminist) school of Suhrawardi. Ibn ‘Arabi combined Ibn sina's work with other doctrines and Mulla Sadra integrated it into the intellectual perspectives of Shi‘ism. In the West, Thomas Aquinas used some of his proofs in the Catholic theology and although the Renaissance brought a violent reaction against him, Ibn Sina holds a secure place in the history of Western philosophy through his influence on major Christian philosophers.

Sources: Center for Islam and Science; Saudi Aramco World, (January-February 2002)