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ABU ALI SINA

Encyclopaedia of Ismailism by Mumtaz Ali Tajddin

"Abu Ali ibn Sina, Ibn Sina or Avicenna, known in the West as Prince of Physicians, was born in 370/980 in the village of Afshana near Bukhara. He was an encyclopeadist, philosopher, physiologist, physician, mathematician, astronomer, logician and poet. He gained the titles of Shaikh al-Ra'is (leader among the wise men) and Hujjat al-Haq (proof of God), displayed a remarkable aptitude for learning from an early age. His father Abdullah hailed from Balkh and was in the service of the Samanid court. During the rule of Nuh bin Mansur (366-387/976-997), Abdullah was posted to Bukhara as a revenue collector. Ibn Sina can be described a very gifted child prodigy and learnt the Koran at the age of 10 years, and also mastered the logic and mathematics. Next he embarked upon the fields of physics, metaphysics and medicine, and at the age of 16 years he was well steeped in all the sciences of his days.

At about this time, through out Iran, particularly in the vicinity of Bukhara and the eastern regions, the Ismaili mission and proselytism were at their height. Abdullah and his sons also embraced Ismailism and their residence had become the rendezvous of the Ismaili mission. Ibn Sina learnt logic and mathematics from his teacher an-Natili, mysticism from Ismail al-Sufi and medicine from Isa bin Yahya, but it cannot be ascertained who had taught him philosophy. Dr. Abdul Muid Khan, however, writes in Some Aspects of the Arabian Writings of the Philosopher Ibn Sina (cf. Islamic Culture, Deccan, vol. xxv, Oct., 1951, pp. 28-9) that, "His teachers in philosophy are not known to us. His contact with the preachers of Ismaili doctrine then in full swing in Persia, seemed to have attracted the study of philosophy. When one reads his epistles on metaphysics, he appears no more than a Muslim scholastic with tendencies of Ismailites." Ibn Sina himself also writes in his autobiography that, "My father was one of those who had responded to the Egyptian propagandists (the Fatimids); he, and my brother too, had listened to what they had to say about the Spirit and the Intellect, after the fashion in which they preached and understand the matter. They would therefore discuss these things together, while I listened and comprehended all that they said."

At the age of 17 years, Ibn Sina was invited to treat the Samanid ruler, Nuh bin Mansur, who was lying seriously ill and the court physicians had given up all hope. Ibn Sina was able to cure him. On his recovery, Nuh bin Mansur wished to reward him, but the young physician only desired permission to use his library. Thus he obtained the privilege of access to the royal library.

In 332/943, a widespread massacres of the Ismailis was conducted in the time of Nuh I bin Nasr II (331-343/943-954), impelling the Ismailis to exercise taqiya. Hence, Ibn Sina also had to take the mantle under constraint and did not divulge his faith. Since his father and brother were publicly known as the adherents of the Ismailism, therefore, he felt nothing wrong to show them as the Ismailis in his autobiography, but exercised precaution for himself. He however had to face many troubles. Dr. T.J. Boer writes in The History of Philosophy in Islam (London, 1961, p. 148) that, "From the very first, of course, he had many enemies, and they were more noisy in their demonstration than his friends. Poets cursed him: theologians either chimed in with him, or tried to refute him."

His achievements would have been shrouded into mist had he divulged his inclination towards Ismailism. A.J. Arberry writes that, "Even during his lifetime, Avicenna was suspected of infidelity to Islam; after his death accusations of heresy, free thought and atheism were repeatedly levelled against him." (op. cit., p. 6) According to Avicenna Commemoration Volume (Calcutta, 1956, p. 8), Ibn Sina was tolerant and liberal in his religious pursuit. Even in his own time, the people questioned Ibn Sina's faith and considered him a heretic. He condemned such an imputation in a well-known Persian quatrain:-

Kufar chun mani ghazaf wa asman nabud, Mohakam tar az iman man iman nabud.

Dar dahr chun man yaki wa aw ham kafar, pas dar hama dahr yak musalman nabud.

"It is not so easy and trifling to call me a heretic. No belief in religion is firmer than mine own. I am the unique person in the whole world. And if I am a heretic, then there is not a single Muslim anywhere in the world."

Soon after the collapse of the Samanid rule in 389/1001, Ibn Sina left Bukhara for Gorganj, where he frequented the society of the Ismaili thinkers, and cultivated friendship with the scholars. In those days, Mehmud of Ghazna was spreading his conquests and was eager to add Ibn Sina to the galaxy of talented and learning. He wrote to the ruler of Khawarazm, demanding the intellectuals to be sent to his court. Ibn Sina preferred to throw in his lot with the Iranian princes rather than risk the capricious patronage of the fanatical ruler.

His first refuge was Gorganj in northern Khawarazm, which was in the principality of Qabus bin Washmgir (366-371/976-981), the Zayrid prince of Tabaristan. He also went to Ray in 405/1014 when Iran was dominated by the Buawahid dynasty. Ibn Sina spent some time at the court of Fakhr ad-Dawla (387-420/997-1029) in Ray and then set out for Hamadan to meet another member of this dynasty, called Shams ad-Dawla (d. 412/1022). Ibn Sina also treated him and became so great favourite at the court that he was promoted to the rank of vizir, a position he efficiently administered for several years until the ruler's death in 412/1022.

His fortune took a reverse turn and upon his refusal to continue to work as a vizir, he was consigned to prison. He however managed to escape by taking advantage of a siege of Hamdan and then incognito in the mantle of a darwish. During his wandering, he proceeded to Ispahan, where he came to the attention of the ruler, Ala ad-Dawla. When Ala ad-Dawla was defeated in a battle by the troops of Ghazna in 425/1034, the books of Ibn Sina were also carried off by them and were placed in one of the libraries of Ghazna, until they were destroyed by fire. Ibn Sina enjoyed a long period of respite and peace in Ispahan, which lasted for 15 years.

Ibn Sina died in 428/1037 of colic of which he had been a specialist and was buried at Hamdan. With the brief span of 58 years, Ibn Sina was able to produce an astounding number of works, relating to logic, medicine, physics, mathematics, astronomy, theology, psychology, ethics, politics, mysticism etc. He was a man of enormous energy and some of his works were actually dictated on horseback while accompanying the ruler in the battles. His great efficiency in writing can be judged from the fact that he composed his one book in a single night.

His influence in the West started penetrating palpably since the time of Albert the Great, the famous saint of St. Thoman Aquinas. Domenico Gundisalvi (d. 545/1150) had written De Anima, which is richly a wholesale transportation of Ibn Sina's doctrines. M. Gilson writes in this context that, "The De Anima attributed to Gundisalvi marks the point of insertion of Avicennaism into the Christian tradition." (cf. The Legacy of Islam ed. J. Schacht, London, 1974, p. 382). Similar is the case with the medieval philosophers and scientists, Rober Grosseteste and Roger Bacon. Duns Scotus and Count Zabarella, the late medieval commentators of Aristotle, also bear testimony to Ibn Sina's enduring influence. Dr. S. van den Bergh in his Averroes Tahafat al-Tahafut (London, 1954) traced the influence of the ideas of Ibn Sina down to the modern times. In sum, the influences of Avicennism got stronger in the West than Augustiniasm.

It is generally believed that Ibn Sina was the author of no less than 238 works. Of his works the best-known masterpiece is first al-Qanun fi't-Tibb, the epitome of Islamic medicine, compiled in about a million words. Sir W. Osler regards it as "medical Bible for a longer period than any other book," vide Evolution of Modern Medicine (Yale University Press, 1921, p. 98). William Harvey puts him in the same category as Aristotle and Cicero. It was translated into Latin by an Italian Gernard of Cremona (1114-1187) at Toledo. Its Arabic text was published in Rome in 1593. This comprehensive treatise continued to be a textbook of Medicine in the Universities of St. Louis and Montpellier, until 1657. It appears that for well over 600 years no medical book ever written had been studied so thoroughly over such a long period. At Montpellier, a great centre of medical studies, the treatise of Ibn Sina included in the official syllabus set in 1340 for medical degrees. At the Universities of Leipzig and Tubingen as early as 1481, the medical curriculum included the al-Qanun fi't-Tibb. Ferriar in his textbook of medicine quoted Hippocrates 140 times, ar-Razi and Galen 1000 times while he quoted Ibn Sina 3000 times. The course of studies at the University of Vienna in 1592 and the University of Frankfurt-on-Oder were mainly based on the al-Qanun fi't-Tibb. Thus, Ibn Sina held his own at Montpellier and Louvain down to 1657.

The second is his monumental encyclopaedia, Kitab al-Shifa. It marks the high point of Peripatetic philosophy in Islam and contains important chapters on logic and mathematical and natural sciences. It was translated into Latin during 6th/12th century under the title of Sufficientia. It contains a logic of which only twelve folios out of one hundred and sixty-nine, have been translated; physics including the natural sciences, psychology, cosmology and finally metaphysics. In 1951, the Egyptian government and the Arab League set up a committee in Cairo to edit Kitab al-Shifa. Some parts of it have already been published.

Ibn Sina also wrote a treatise on Remedies for the Heart, and a certain number of poems about medicine. His pharmacopoeia comprised about 760 drugs. He is said to have guessed the existence of bacteria in the spread of epidemic as early as the 5th century. Dr. Amini Asad Khairullah writes in al-Tibb al-Arabi (pp. 147-157) that, "His diagnosis of the symptom of pneumonia and pleurisy and kidney stones was supposed to have been so perfect that nothing new could be added by the modern science. The application of the ice-bag to the head of the sick was also said to have been his invention."

Ibn Sina’s influence in Europe even in comparatively recent times can be judged from the fact that during the two years (1899 and 1900), four doctoral dissertations were submitted to the University of Berlin by J. Cueva, Paul Uspensky, Elias Michailowsky and Th. Bernikov. The portrait of Ibn Sina, which even today adorns the main hall of the Medical School at the University of Paris, bears an eloquent testimony to the reverence in which the great Galen of Iran is held by modern Europe.

During the commemoration of the silver jubilee of the Present Imam of the Ismailis in 1983, a gift of a Chair at the Aga Khan University was offered by the President of the National Council for Pakistan, Vizir Ashiqali on behalf of the Ismailis of Pakistan. The Imam graciously accepted the gift on behalf of the Aga Khan University and said, "I want to express to my jamat of Pakistan, my deepest gratitude for the nazrana of a Chair at the Aga Khan University. And I would like you to know that this nazrana gives me the very greatest happiness. You know that I am proud of our history, I am proud of the great philosophers, of the great scientists, the great thinkers that have marked our history like lights in the night. And I would like that this Chair should be named after one of those great philosophers or scientists, so that his memory may be kept alive in an academic institution of higher learning today. I would therefore recommend to the Board of Trustees a name of a great man in our history, in our tariqah and I hope that when that Chair is named, the professor that holds that Chair will always do honour to the name the Chair bears and to the students that must be educated for the future” (Karachi: November 13, 1985).

At length, the Imam named this Chair of Professorship of Medicine after the great Ismaili philosopher, physician and scientist, Abu Ali Ibn Sina in November, 1988. In addition, during his visit to Pakistan, the Imam said to his followers that, "I would like to take this occasion also to say how happy and grateful I am for the endowment which you and the jamat of Pakistan has offered for the Ibn Sina Professorship at the Aga Khan University. This is a wonderful gesture on behalf of the jamat of Pakistan to support and to sustain this young new important institution in the jamat" (Karachi, March 21, 1989)

Dr. O. Cameron Gruner writes in A Treatise on the Canons of Medicine of Avicenna (London, 1930, p. 2) that, "The place for Avicenna in modern thought is gained when it is agreed that he shall be viewed as one who entered this world, entrusted with a mission independently to express for that age, by mean of those various tools which he then found in it, the wisdom which is unchanging and impersonal." The Islamic world indeed needs dedicated scientists of Ibn Sina’s ilk.


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