Islamic Studies Ibn Sīnā
by
Oliver Leaman
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 September 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 02 March 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195390155-0040

Introduction

Ibn Sīnā (370–429 AH/980–1037 CE) is generally considered to be one of the most creative thinkers within the Peripatetic tradition, doing much to formalize the structure of philosophy of his time. Like most of the other philosophers, he was also interested in mysticism, although the extent of this interest is often overemphasized. Known as Avicenna in Latin, he went on in translation to have a considerable impact on Jewish and Christian thought and established for the first time a highly developed systematic approach to theoretical problems. His work on medicine is particularly important, and here as elsewhere it is the exactitude with which he wrote and his attempt to be comprehensive that is so impressive. It was written over a considerable period while he was on the move in Iran and yet displays a remarkable coherence and completeness. His style is often elusive and suggestive when he is writing on subjects he regards as having a deeper meaning.

Life

Ibn Sīnā was born in 370 AH/980 CE near Bukhara and at thirteen started to study medicine, and he reports in Ibn Sīnā 1974 successful treatment of the Sultan of Bukhara, which first brought him into the official public eye. He became involved in the intrigue among the various claimants for the throne, and his personal life was difficult; at the same time, however, he managed to complete a number of significant philosophical works, including the Kitab al-shifā’ (Book of healing), a compendium of ideas and arguments that established him as the leading exponent of falsafa (Peripatetic philosophy) during his time. The Kitāb al-najāt (Book of salvation), an abridgment of al-Shifā’, probably helped establish his status, since as Goodman 1992 suggests, Ibn Sīnā provides a summary of his more complicated theses that is far more accessible than the complete work. His al-Ishārāt wa’l-tanbī hāt (Remarks and admonitions) is also an attractive work, which Inati 1984 and Inati 1996a describe as helping readers to work through various types of logical arguments for themselves. Some of Ibn Sīnā’s short works are lost, not surprising given the tumultuous life that he lived. And he wrote on not only philosophy but also science, language, poetry, and especially medicine. His work on medicine, al-Qanun, continued to wield influence in Christian Europe for many centuries after his death and continues to be used in local medicine in the Islamic world today. The title means “the canons [of medicine],” and the implication is that the total sum of contemporary medical knowledge is in it. Ibn Sīnā did not lack ambition, or a high opinion of himself, as his autobiography clearly displays.

Bibliography

The general bibliographical literature on Islamic philosophy has material on Ibn Sīnā. Also worth mentioning are Gutas 1989, Janssens 1991, and Janssens 1999.

The Intelligible Nature of the Universe

Ibn Sīnā 1959 and Wisnovsky 2003 outline the theory of God as pure intellect from which everything else emanates and insists this is an entirely rational process: meaning that any individual thing can be linked both to God and to other things logically. The structure of reality can then be understood to represent a series of syllogisms, with some principles being more abstract and general—the categories such as “thing,” “necessary,” “existence,” and so forth—while others are derived from them. Advanced knowledge consists of the knower grasping the middle term, the proposition that connects the other parts of a syllogism. It is the middle term that links premises to their conclusions, so once one understands this, the whole syllogism or process of reasoning becomes clear. The highest level of such knowledge is prophecy, where the most abstract understanding possible to human beings is attained in different degrees. The prophet has a purely rational soul and can know the most basic ideas and how they feature in syllogisms. In effect, he understands the rational structure of the world, and so knows what will happen and what has happened in the past. The ordinary person only grasps this to a limited extent and requires the guidance of the prophet in order to understand how to live.

Philosophical Psychology

Davidson 1992 explains how Ibn Sīnā formulated a comprehensive account of human faculties and how imagination plays a significant role. It is the faculty of using images and linking those images with both the abstract world of ideas and the ordinary world of sense perception. His theory follows the thinking of al-Farabi, who established the central role of the imagination in Islamic philosophy. In his commentary on Aristotle’s aesthetics, Ibn Sīnā presents the view explained by Kemal 1991 that poetry and drama follow a syllogistic form: where the conclusion of the argument is some shared judgment about how moved one is by something, or amused, or frightened. Imagination is not then a faculty that operates entirely as a result of passion, or arbitrarily, but it channels our ideas and feelings in a rational direction and produces information that can be shared with others—an indication of its logical basis. Nonetheless, Ibn Sīnā would not claim that poetry works at a very high level of demonstrative or logical rigor. On the contrary, poetry is appropriate to address an unsophisticated audience that needs material and vivid examples before they can understand what is going on. He is operating with a theory common to Islamic philosophy: that one addresses different audiences in different ways. And so the prophet, the philosopher, and the poet may well all know the same things. But they express that truth in different ways when communicating with people who can only be reached through those different approaches.

Ontology

Ibn Sīnā makes a basic distinction between existence and essence. Rahman 1958, a classic article on this issue, emphasizes that from the essence or concept of something, no implication may be drawn about its existence. As Morwedge 1972 points out, we can think of things that do not exist, but also things exist that we never think about. Yet, some things do exist, and we might wonder how something that need not exist could come into existence. It may be brought into existence through another thing that might or might not exist, and as Marmura 1980 shows, this leads to an infinite regress, unless we can posit a necessary thing—something that must exist and that sets the whole chain of existence going. God is the being whose essence includes his existence—he cannot not exist—and is the only being of which this is true. And everything that exists stems from God, through a long and complex process along Neoplatonic lines, where higher beings bring lower beings from possibility to actuality, and the lower forms of existence emanate from the higher. Bäck 1992 analyzes the modal consequences of this view, while Leaman 2009 shows how later ishraqi philosophy worked, with Ibn Sīnā’s ontology as its starting point.

The Soul

Since the important thing about thinking is thinking abstractly, for Ibn Sīnā the soul has to be incorporeal. He argues that this is because to think about something means there is a resemblance between the object of thought and thinker, and the soul is one thing, not composite, and so it cannot be broken up into many different things upon our death. Here, he departs radically from Aristotle, for whom the soul is merely the form of the body and so dissolves when the body perishes. This notion of the soul as spiritual led to the attack on this style of philosophy by al-Ghazali in his Tahāfut al-falāsifa (al-Ghazali 1997). He not only argued that the notion of soul as spiritual was heretical but also that it does not follow logically from Ibn Sīnā’s premises. This is not an idea that fits in easily with the Qur’anic account of the afterlife, but then the philosophers on the whole tend to argue, following Ibn Sīnā, that the material description of the afterlife in the Qur’an needs to be reinterpreted. He also has problems with the notion that God can punish or reward us as individuals in the next life, since the deity cannot know what we as individuals do in this life—because, as Marmura 1962 shows, God cannot have knowledge of us as contingent particulars. This sort of direct knowledge is inappropriate for a pure thinking being, and the notion of emanation and different levels of being explains how out of such a being the lower forms of existence and knowledge can be produced. But this obviously poses another difficulty for a literal understanding of the Qur’an, in which text the afterlife is such an important idea; and for reward and punishment to be appropriate, one assumes that the judge would need to know precisely what those he is judging have done. Al-Ghazali classifies this as not only erroneous but also heretical. Leaman 2002 analyzes in detail the debate and shows how it went on to involve Ibn Rushd.

Ibn Sīnā the Mystic?

There is a controversy in the study of Ibn Sīnā that relates to his links with mysticism, if any. It has to be said that virtually all the Islamic philosophers were attracted in one form or another to mysticism, but some such as Nasr 1976, Nasr 1996, Corbin 1980, and Corbin 1993 have argued that Ibn Sīnā thought of “Eastern philosophy” as a deeper form of thought. Others such as Gutas 1988 have suggested that this is a misreading and that by “Eastern” he meant a form of thought from east of where he lived and not necessarily anything especially mystical.

Influence

Janssens 2006 argues that The Canon of Medicine by Ibn Sīnā was widely read by Europeans in the Latin translation of Gerard of Cremona made in the 12th century. Despite its enormous size, there were other translations later on, which is evidence of its popularity. His philosophical works were also much read in the Jewish and Christian medieval worlds, and this is outlined by the authors in McGinnis and Reisman 2004 and his position as the main representative of the Islamic Peripatetic movement was widely accepted by those in other cultures interested in exploring philosophical ideas and arguments.

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