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Philosophy

Avicenna and the Islamic Golden Age

One of the most brilliant minds of his time, Avicenna was a self-educated Persian scholar, scientist, physician, and an expert on Aristotelian philosophy. 

Born at Bukhara, a prominent city on the silk trade route, Avicenna was the Latinised name for Ibn-Sina. As early as the age of 10 Avicenna had learnt the Quran by heart, and, always seeking to widen his education, he acquired the basics of arithmetic from a humble greengrocer. Using the income he earned, Avicenna started buying books, including Ptolemy’s Almagest, and he soon became skilled in advanced mathematics, geometry, logic, and astronomy. A polymath teenager! He then proceeded to study medicine and became a practicing doctor at the young age of 16. 

Avicenna (980-1037)

Avicenna’s fame was widespread all over the Muslim world, and he was soon appointed as Royal Physician by the Sultan of Bukhara. He wrote his first work at age 21 and proceeded publishing more than a hundred books. Avicenna devoted himself especially in the study of the Aristotelian corpus. His ‘Canon of Medicine’, is considered one of the greatest medical text-books ever written, as it includes most of the medical works of  both Aristotle and Galen. The ‘Canon’ was written in Arabic, but was translated into Latin in the 12th century by Gerard of Cremona and became the standard text-book in most Schools of Medicine in the West. 

The knowledge of anything, since all things have causes, is not acquired or complete unless it is known by its causes. Therefore in medicine we ought to know the causes of sickness and health.

Avicenna

Avicenna argued the existence of God from the necessity for an absolute Being in whom essence and existence coincide. In his works he attempted to define the relationship between the existence of a thing and its essence, and the dynamics between what is possible and what is necessary.

The universe is eternal because God -the First Cause, the Necessary Being- could not first have willed, and then later not willed, the existence of the world. As Avicenna explains: ā€œGod, the supreme being, is neither circumscribed by space, nor touched by time; he cannot be found in a particular direction, and his essence cannot change. The secret conversation is thus entirely spiritual; it is a direct encounter between God and the soul, abstracted from all material constraints.ā€

God appears as an all-pervading Presence from whom humans can never escape, with the consequence that it is not man who thinks but God who thinks in him. This is a form of the doctrine of the ‘unity of the Active Intellect’, which was the subject of extremely hot debates throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. 

Avicenna and his Arab colleagues such as Averroes, pioneered the Islamic golden age and helped re-introduce forgotten treasures of ancient Greco-Roman philosophy and science to the West, mainly through Sicily and Spain but also through the Byzantine Empire.