Avicenna was one of the most respected philosophers
and scientists in the history of Islam. For
hundreds of years, his works influenced philosophy
and the teaching and practice of medicine in
the Christian and Muslim worlds.
Avicenna was born in the village of Afshana
near Bukhara, in present-day Uzbekistan. His father
was a local governor under the Samanid
rulers, the first independent Iranian dynasty since
the Arab conquest 300 years before. Avicenna was
given the best education available in all fields of
knowledge. A brilliant student, he had learned the
KORAN (Qur’an) and memorized much Arabic poetry
by the time he was 10. He also became very
adept at medicine, a skill that would eventually
make his career. At age 17, he cured Nuh Ibn
Mansur, the Samanid ruler at Bukhara (a feat he
would later repeat with other rulers when political
turmoil forced him to move). He was rewarded
with access to the royal library, one of the best of
the time, where he began to write some of his
The death of his father and the defeat of the
Samanids at the hand of new Turkish rulers forced
Avicenna to begin several years of travel, working as
physician, local administrator, and jurist. He was
known as a hard worker, and he devoted his evenings
to continued learning and writing, surrounded by a
convivial group of scholars and students.
Wherever Avicenna went, he always found the
time to write, eventually producing an astounding
body of some books and treatises, some of them
encyclopedic in length, on an unusually wide range
of subjects. About 200 of these works survive. He
wrote most of his works in Arabic, the dominant
scholarly language of the Muslim world. He also
wrote a few works in Persian, including the first
book of Aristotelian philosophy in that language.
After several years of travel, in 1015 Avicenna
won an appointment as court doctor to Shams ad-
Dawlah, the Buyid prince of Hamadan in northwestern
Iran, whom he cured of a severe colic. The
prince eventually named him vizier (prime minister),
though political troubles forced him to spend
a few months in prison and longer spells hiding in
exile. At Hamadan Avicenna completed his monumental
medical treatise, The Canon of Medicine
(al-Qanun fi al Thibb).
Forced by the death of the ruler in 1022 to flee
Hamadan,Avicenna found refuge two years later at
Isfahan, at the court of another Buyid ruler, ‘Ala’
ad-Dawlah, where he lived the last 13 years of his
life in peace, accompanying the prince in all his
military campaigns and journeys. He died in
Hamadan during one of these trips.
Avicenna eventually wrote an autobiographical
sketch. It is the main source of information pertaining
to his life, together with a biography, The
Life of Avicenna, written by his lifetime companion
Juzjani, which was included in Latin translations of
Avicenna’s major works.
Avicenna’s Canon of Medicine may be the most influential
medical textbook in history; at more than
1 million words, it is certainly one of the longest
written by one person. The book relied to a certain
degree on the works of the great Greek physicians,
including GALEN, but it also incorporated
knowledge gained by many Muslim doctors and
scientists, as well as through Persian and Indian
lore. Avicenna was able to add to this bulk of
knowledge a great deal of insight he had personally
acquired through his long medical practice. His
discoveries included an understanding that tuberculosis
and other diseases were contagious, that
some diseases could spread via environmental factors
like water, and that psychology affected health.
The Muslim world soon recognized the book
as a major step forward in medical science. It was
translated into Latin in the 12th century, and it
soon became the chief medical textbook in all European
universities, maintaining that status until
The book contains five volumes: treating physiology
and hygiene; simple drugs; pathology (two
volumes covering fevers, tumors, rashes, and poisons);
and drug combinations. In addition, Avicenna’s
descriptions of the many hundreds of
herbs, powders, tablets, leeches, ointments, and
other remedies constituted the most complete and
accurate listing of remedies ever assembled. During
his lifetime he wrote some 40 other medical
works, most of them specialized treatises.
Like most Muslim philosophers of his day, Avicenna
worked in the Aristotelian tradition handed
down from ancient Greece, with a substantial influence
of Neoplatonism from the Roman period.
Many of his ideas were developed in The Book of
Healing, which was in effect an encyclopedic summation
of knowledge in almost every scientific and
Avicenna’s central philosophic idea is that God
exists as the “first cause”; everything else in the
universe emanates from that cause. The first things
to emanate are pure ideas, perfect and unchanging,
which can be understood through intelligence.
Souls emanate next; they can move matter in the
heavens and on earth. Then come the physical laws
of nature, followed by matter, which is by itself incapable
One of the four sections of The Book of Healing
was devoted to mathematics, under which Avicenna
included music and astronomy. He also
wrote works on psychology, geology, and physics,
in some cases adding his own original insights,
theories, and proofs, such as his designs for equipment
for measuring the exact coordinates of stars
(their location on the heavenly sphere or sky).
Like many Persian writers, Avicenna was also
influenced by mystical thought. He elaborated his
mystical ideas in one of the main works of his later
years, Oriental Philosophy, which was apparently
lost during an attack on Isfahan in 1043.However,
some of these ideas survive in his personal testimony,
The Book of Directives and Remarks, in
which he describes a spiritual journey from the
start of faith to an eventual direct vision of God.
After Avicenna’s death, prominent orthodox
Sunni Muslim writers criticized him for denying
that God can directly influence events in the world.
Nevertheless, his philosophy remained influential
for centuries in both the Muslim and Christian
English Versions of Works by Avicenna
A Treatise on the Canon of Medicine of Avicenna, Incorporating
a Translation of the First Book. Translated
by O. Cameron Gruner. London: Luzac &
Avicenna’s Poem on Medicine. Edited by Haven C.
Krueger. Springfield, Ill.: Thomas, 1963.
Ibn S¯ın¯a and Mysticism: Remarks and Admonitions,
Part Four. Edited by Shams Constantine Inati.
New York: Kegan Paul International, 1996.
Works about Avicenna
Burrell, David B. Knowing the Unknowable God: Ibn-
Sina, Maimonides, Aquinas. Notre Dame, Ind.:
University of Notre Dame Press, 1986.
Chishti, Hakim G. M. The Traditional Healer’s Handbook:
A Classic Guide to the Medicine of Avicenna.
Rochester, Vt.: Healing Arts Press, 1991.
Gohlman,William E. trans. and ed. The Life of Ibn
Sina; A Critical Edition and Annotated Translation.
Albany: State University of New York Press, 1974.
Goodman, Lenn Evan. Avicenna. New York: Routledge,
Parviz, Morewedge. The Mystical Philosophy of Avicenna.
Binghamton, N.Y.: Global Publications,
Siraisi, Nancy G. Avicenna in Renaissance Italy: The
Canon and Medical Teaching in Italian Universities
after 1500. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University
Wisnovsky, Robert, ed. Aspects of Avicenna. Princeton,
N.J.:Markus Wiener, 2001.