Avicenna, The Sage and The Philosopher

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Ismail Salami

Abu Ali Al-Husayn ibn Abdullah ibn Sina known as Avicenna was born into a middle class family in Afshanah, near Bukhara. His father was a governor of the Samanid dynasty.

After the death of his father, he began a period of wandering and turmoil. He sojourned for some time in Gurgan, Qazvin, Hamadan and Isfahan. A precocious genius, he is said to have cured the Samanid Amir Nuh Ibn Mansur at the age of 17, and by the time he was 18, he was accomplished in all branches of science.

Avicenna, also known as Shaykh al-Ra'is (Master and Head) died near Hamadan and was buried there. His scientific status won him different epithets such as Shaykh al-Ra'is, Hujjat al-Haq, Sharaf al-Mulk and Imam al-Hukama.

Avicenna's philosophy is composed of basic elements such as peripatetic philosophy of Aristotle, and a portion of Neoplatonic specific cosmological elements in synthesis with Islamic world vision. With all that, he is more a follower of Aristotle than others. Yet, he does not follow Aristotle blindly and imitatively. With his own initiatives, he shed light on the dark aspects of Aristotelian thought and endeavored to establish a new philosophical system by using Platonic and Neoplatonic thinking.

He calls his own philosophy “Oriental Wisdom” and hints at this type of wisdom in the preface to Al-Shifa (The Book of Healing) which treats of logic. However, this type of oriental wisdom differs from illuminative wisdom of a later century or centuries.

By and large, he remained a votary of peripatetic traditions. Yet he assumed a new philosophical outlook in some of his works like Al-Isharat Wa-Tanbihat, and especially in his mystical treatises.

Avicenna's philosophical theories tainted by Islamic thinking are generally derived from Greek philosophers. For example, Avicenna's famous theory is that the reality of a thing depends upon its existence, and the knowledge of an object is ultimately the knowledge of its ontological status in the chain of universal existence which determines all of its attributes and qualities.

Everything in the Universe, by the very fact that it exists, is plunged in Being; yet, God, or Pure Being, who is the Origin and Creator of all things is not the first term in a continuous chain and therefore does not have a substantial and horizontal continuity with the beings of the world. God is anterior to the Universe and transcendent with respect to it.”

Avicenna's study of existence depends upon two fundamental distinctions: these distinctions concern the essence and quiddity of a thing, and its existence on the one hand and its necessity, possibility or impossibility on the other.... On this basis, the Universe and all things therein are therefore possible and metaphysically contingent upon the Necessary Being.

Moreover, the possible beings are of two kinds: 1. Those that, although possible in themselves, are made necessary by the Necessary Being, consisting of the pure and simple intellectual substances, or the angels, who are the eternal effects of God. 2. The creatures of the world of generation and corruption.

Besides this division of possible beings into the eternal and temporal, or permanent and transient, he divides quiddity and existence into essence and accident. On the other hand, the life pattern of Avicenna coincided with the domination of the Isma'ili theological school; his father and brother are even said to have been the adherents of Isma'ili sect.

There are structural analogies to be found between the Avicennian thoughts and those of Isma'ili cosmology like Al-Farabi. Despite all that, he declined to attach himself with their circle; however, the reception and welcome he received from the Shiite courtiers and emirs of Hamadan and Isfahan is, at least, an indication of his link with Imami Shi'ism.

Avicenna propounded anthropology on the basis of angelology. In angelology he defined the foundation of cosmology and anthropology; therefore, his allegorical treatises bespeak his personal experience.

Likewise, Avicenna is a rare epitome of a philosopher who has attained self-awareness. For example, his allegorical treatise Hayyi ibn Yaqzan (The Living Son of the Vigilant) is the description of an invitation for a journey which takes place in the company of an angel. It relates the story of a child stranded on a deserted island who grows up and recognizes God by contemplating nature. This treatise inspired Daniel Dafoe to write Robinson Crusoe.

Risalat al-Tayr (Epistle of the Birds), his other mystical work, has also inspired Farid al-Din Attar in his versified Mantiq al-Tayr (The Conference of the Birds).

Among those who have been burgeoned in and influenced by the school of Avicenna, mention can be made of the illustrious poet Omar Khayyam of Nishapur, Nasir Khusraw, Ibn Haytham of Balkh, the mathematician, and Khwaja Nasir al-Din at-Tusi, who have defended him. Afdhal al-Din of Kashan (Baba Afdhal), Qutb al-Din of Shiraz, Secretaries of Qazvin, Qutb al-Din Al-Razi, Sadr al-Din Dashtaki, Ghiyyath al-Din Mansur of Shiraz, Jalal al-Din Dawani, and Athir al-Din Abhari are also influenced by his ideas.

Avicenna wrote about 450 works, of which only 240 have survived: 150 books are on philosophy and 40 on medicine. He also wrote on psychology, geology, mathematics, astronomy, and logic. His magnum opus is his immense encyclopaedic work, the Kitab al-Shifa (The Book of Healing). One of the four parts of this work is devoted to mathematics and Avicenna includes astronomy and music as branches of mathematics within the encyclopaedia.

Avicenna also made some discoveries in astronomy. From his observation of Venus crossing the surface of the Sun, he deduced that Venus must be closer to the Earth than the Sun.

He also correctly postulated that light travels at a finite velocity. Avicenna is regarded as the father of modern medicine, particularly for his introduction of systematic experimentation and quantification into the study of physiology (Katharine Park: March 1990) and for his discovery of the contagious nature of diseases

The life of Avicenna is documented in the "Life of Avicenna", written by his disciple Jorjani (Sorsanus).

Ismail Salami is the author of 'Iran Cradle of Civilization' and numerous articles on the Middle East and Asia.


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