Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Ibn Sina

Abū ʿAlī al-Ḥusayn ibn ʿAbd Allāh ibn Sīnā (c. 980 born in Balkh, Khorasan), commonly known in English by his Latinized name Avicenna, was a Persian Muslim polymath: an astronomer, chemist, logician and mathematician, physicist and scientist, poet, soldier and statesman, theologian, and foremost physician and philosopher of his time.

He wrote almost 450 works on a wide range of subjects, of which around 240 have survived. In particular, 150 of the surviving works concentrated on philosophy and 40 of them concentrated on medicine. His most famous works are The Book of Healing, a vast philosophical and scientific encyclopaedia, and The Canon of Medicine, which was a standard medical text at many Islamic and European universities up until the 18th century. Ibn Sīnā developed a medical system that combined his own personal experience with that of Islamic medicine, the medical system of Galen, Aristotelian metaphysics, and ancient Persian, Mesopotamian and Indian medicine. Ibn Sīnā is regarded as the father of modern medicine, particularly for his introduction of systematic experimentation and quantification into the study of physiology, his discovery of the contagious nature of infectious diseases, the introduction of quarantine to limit the spread of contagious diseases, the introduction of experimental medicine and clinical trials, and the first descriptions on bacteria and viral organisms. He is also considered the father of the fundamental concept of momentum in physics.

Ibn Sīnā also wrote extensively on the subjects of philosophy, logic, ethics, metaphysics and other disciplines. Most of his works were written in Arabic - which was the de facto scientific language of that time, and some were written in the Persian language. Of linguistic significance even to this day are a few books that he wrote in nearly pure Persian language (particularly the Danishnamah-yi 'Ala', Philosophy for Ala' ad-Dawla'). Ibn Sīnā's commentaries on Aristotle often corrected the philosopher, encouraging a lively debate in the spirit of ijtihad.

Ibn Sīnā's philosophical tenets have become of great interest to critical Western scholarship and to those engaged in the field of Muslim philosophy, in both the West and the East. However, it is still the case that the West only pays attention to a portion of his philosophy known as the Latin Avicennian School. Ibn Sīnā's philosophical contributions have been overshadowed by Orientalist scholarship (for example that of Henri Corbin), which has sought to define him as a mystic rather than an Aristotelian philosopher. The so-called hikmat-al-mashriqqiyya remains a source of huge irritation to contemporary Arabic scholars, in particular Reisman, Gutas, Street, and Bertolacci.

The original work, entitled "The Easterners" (al-mashriqiyun), was probably lost during Ibn Sīnā's lifetime; Ibn Tufail (Abubacer) appended it to a romantic philosophical work of his own in the twelfth century, the Hayy ibn Yaqzan, in order to validate his philosophical system, and, by the time that the work was transmitted into the West, appended as it was to a set of "mystical" opusculae and sundry essays, it was firmly accepted as a demonstration of Ibn Sīnā's "esoteric" orientation, which he concealed out of necessity from his peers.

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