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An introduction to Ibn Sina: The Doctor of Doctors

Perhaps well-known amongst historians worldwide, yet forgotten by most people,  Abū Alī al-Ḥusayn ibn Abd Allāh ibn Sīnā, or more commonly known as Ibn Sina (Latinized Name – Avicenna), remains an often forgotten image to many people around the world. 
A portrait of Ibn Sina

To simplify his life, Ibn Sina was a Persian Polymath best known (in the medical world) for his pioneering works in Medicine. That is, a person whose expertise spans a significant number of different subject areas. In less formal terms, a polymath (or polymathic person) may simply be someone who is very knowledgeable.

Now, in this essay, we shall try to examine Ibn Sina’s life and understand his achievements and contribution to the many fields of Astronomy , Chemistry, Geology, Islamic  Studies and theology and of course, Medicine. To simply put it, he was an astronomer, chemist, geologist, Hafiz, Islamic psychologist, Islamic scholar, Islamic theologian, logician, paleontologist, mathematician, Maktab teacher, physicist, poet, and scientist.

It is without any question that he is regarded as the most famous and influential polymath of the Islamic Golden Age. Here, we shall examine the life and feats of “The Doctor of Doctors”.

Childhood and Early Years:

Ibn Sina was born in  980 C.E. in the village of Afshana near Bukhara which today is located in Uzbekistan, close to Iran, during the time of the Samanid Empire. His father, Abdullah, an adherent of the Ismaili sect, was from Balkh and his mother from a village near Bukhara. The fact that his father was a governor had allowed Ibn Sina to be educated by some of the greatest scholars in the Samanid Empire.

However, Ibn Sina had proved to be independent, having (according to his mentors) an extraordinary intelligence and memory. It is even stated in his autobiography that “By the time I reached 18, There was nothing that I had not learned.”

Ibn Sina was something of a child prodigy, he had memorized the Qur’an (Islam’s holy book) by age 10 as well as many of the contemporary Persian poems at the time. He had learned arithmetic from local scholars as well as studying Islamic Jurisprudence , Philosophy and Natural Sciences for the next 6 years. He was also believed to have studied Logic, Euclid, and the Almeagest (a work of Ptolemy). 
Ibn Sina traveled a lot during his lifetime, as shown above.

As a teenager, he was greatly troubled by the Metaphysics of Aristotle, which he could not understand until he read al-Farabi's commentary on the work.

Ibn Sina turned to Medicine at the age of 17 , and not only studied the theory of Medicine but he was also well known for discovering new methods of treatment. The teenager achieved full status as a qualified physician at age 18  and found that "Medicine is no hard and thorny science, like mathematics and metaphysics, so I soon made great progress; I became an excellent doctor and began to treat patients, using approved remedies." .His fame spread quickly, and he treated many patients without asking for payment.

Now, I shall not enter much into detail on Ibn Sina’s life , it is too vast to be covered in a single essay, hence I shall simply outline and explain his works.

The Canon of Medicine:

Perhaps Ibn Sina’s greatest work of the sciences, this was a medical text that had listed all of Ibn Sina’s findings and research. So great was this text that it was the standard Medical text for Europe until the 18th century. Ibn Sīnā was interested in the effect of the mind on the body, and wrote a great deal on psychology, likely influencing Ibn Tufayl and Ibn Bajjah. He also introduced medical herbs.

Latinized version of the Canon of Medicine
The Canon of Medicine, translates into “Laws of Medicine”.The book is known for the discovery of contagious diseases and sexually transmitted diseasesthe introduction of quarantine to limit the spread of infectious diseases, the introduction of experimental medicine, clinical trials, neuropsychiatry, risk factor analysis, and the idea of a syndrome in the diagnosis of specific diseases, and hypothesized the existence of microrganisms. 

Ibn Sīnā adopted the theory that epidemics are caused by pollution in the air (miasma). It classifies and describes diseases, and outlines their assumed causes. Hygiene, simple and complex medicines, and functions of parts of the body are also covered. In this, Ibn Sīnā is credited as being the first to correctly document the anatomy of the human eye, along with descriptions of eye afflictions such as cataracts. It asserts that tuberculosis was contagious, which was later disputed by Europeans, but turned out to be true. It also describes the symptoms and complications of diabetes. Both forms of facial paralysis were described in-depth.

The Canon of Medicine was also the first book dealing with experimental medicine, evidence-based medicine, randomized controlled trials and efficacy testsand it laid out the following rules and principles for testing the effectiveness of new drugs and medications, which still form the basis of clinical pharmacology and modern clinical trials:

  •     The drug must be free from any extraneous accidental quality.

  •     It must be used on a simple, not a composite, disease.

  •     The drug must be tested with two contrary types of diseases, because sometimes a drug cures one disease by Its essential qualities and another by its accidental ones.

  •     The quality of the drug must correspond to the strength of the disease. For example, there are some drugs whose heat is less than the coldness of certain diseases, so that they would have no effect on them.

  •     The time of action must be observed, so that essence and accident are not confused.

  •     The effect of the drug must be seen to occur constantly or in many cases, for if this did not happen, it was an accidental effect.

  •     The experimentation must be done with the human body, for testing a drug on a lion or a horse might not prove anything about its effect on man.

Sounds familiar doesn't it ? This is the very basis of testing Medicine nowadays.
Much more may be found about his book, which I recommend for all Medical Students and History enthusiast (or simply, the curious reader), to read the book. You can find it here or even buy it.

Ibn Sina in other fields:

To say Ibn Sina was working only within the field of Medicine is an understatement. He was a "Jack of All Trades" as the saying goes. 

Ibn Sīnā wrote on Earth sciences such as geology in The Book of Healing, in which he developed the concept of uniformitarianism and law of superposition in geology. While discussing the formation of mountains, he explained:

    Either they are the effects of upheavals of the crust of the earth, such as might occur during a violent earthquake, or they are the effect of water, which, cutting itself a new route, has denuded the valleys, the strata being of different kinds, some soft, some hard... It would require a long period of time for all such changes to be accomplished, during which the mountains themselves might be somewhat diminished in size.

Due to his fundamental contributions to the development of geology, particularly regarding the origins of mountains, Avicenna has been called the 'Father of Geology'.

Wikipedia sums it up nicely: 

In mechanics, Ibn Sīnā, in The Book of Healing, developed an elaborate theory of motion, in which he made a distinction between the inclination (tendency to motion) and force of a projectile, and concluded that motion was a result of an inclination (mayl) transferred to the projectile by the thrower, and that projectile motion in a vacuum would not cease. He viewed inclination as a permanent force whose effect is dissipated by external forces such as air resistance.

His theory of motion is thus reminiscent of the theory of inertia, now known as Newton's first law of motion. His theory of mayl also attempted to provide a quantitive relation between the weight and velocity of a moving body, resembling the concept of momentum, a precursor to the concept of momentum in Newton's second law of motion.Ibn Sīnā's theory of mayl was further developed by Jean Buridan in his theory of impetus
In optics, Ibn Sina "observed that if the perception of light is due to the emission of some sort of particles by a luminous source, the speed of light must be finite.”He also provided a wrong explanation of the rainbow phenomenon. Carl Benjamin Boyer described Avicenna's ("Ibn Sīnā") theory on the rainbow as follows:

    Independent observation had demonstrated to him that the bow is not formed in the dark cloud but rather in the very thin mist lying between the cloud and the sun or observer. The cloud, he thought, serves simply as the background of this thin substance, much as a quicksilver lining is placed upon the rear surface of the glass in a mirror. Ibn Sīnā would change the place not only of the bow, but also of the color formation, holding the iridescence to be merely a subjective sensation in the eye.

In 1253, a Latin text entitled Speculum Tripartitum stated the following regarding Avicenna's theory on heat:
    Avicenna says in his book of heaven and earth, that heat is generated from motion in external things.

This is the list of some of Avicenna's well-known works:
  • Sirat al-shaykh al-ra’is (The Life of Ibn Sina), ed. and trans. WE. Gohlman, Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1974. (The only critical edition of Ibn Sina’s autobiography, supplemented with material from a biography by his student Abu ‘Ubayd al-Juzjani. A more recent translation of the Autobiography appears in D. Gutas, Avicenna and the Aristotelian Tradition: Introduction to Reading Avicenna’s Philosophical Works, Leiden: Brill, 1988.)
  • Al-Isharat wa-‘l-tanbihat (Remarks and Admonitions), ed. S. Dunya, Cairo, 1960; parts translated by S.C. Inati, Remarks and Admonitions, Part One: Logic, Toronto, Ont.: Pontifical Institute for Mediaeval Studies, 1984, and Ibn Sina and Mysticism, Remarks and Admonitions: Part 4, London: Kegan Paul International, 1996
  • Al-Qanun fi’l-tibb (The Canon of Medicine), ed. I. a-Qashsh, Cairo, 1987. (Encyclopedia of medicine.)[
  • Risalah fi sirr al-qadar (Essay on the Secret of Destiny), trans. G. Hourani in Reason and Tradition in Islamic Ethics, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985.[
  • Danishnama-i ‘ala’i (The Book of Scientific Knowledge), ed. and trans. P Morewedge, The Metaphysics of Avicenna, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1973.
  • Kitab al-Shifa’ (The Book of Healing). (Ibn Sina’s major work on philosophy. He probably began to compose al-Shifa’ in 1014, and completed it in 1020.) Critical editions of the Arabic text have been published in Cairo, 1952–83, originally under the supervision of I. Madkour
  • Kitab al-Najat (The Book of Salvation), trans. F. Rahman, Avicenna’s Psychology: An English Translation of Kitab al-Najat, Book II, Chapter VI with Historical-philosophical Notes and Textual Improvements on the Cairo Edition, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1952. (The psychology of al-Shifa’.)
  • Hayy ibn Yaqdhan a Persian myth. A novel called Hayy ibn Yaqdhan, based on Avicenna's story, was later written by Ibn Tufail (Abubacer) in the 12th century and translated into Latin and English as Philosophus Autodidactus in the 17th and 18th centuries respectively. In the 13th century, Ibn al-Nafis wrote his own novel Fadil ibn Natiq, known as Theologus Autodidactus in the West, as a critical response to Hayy ibn Yaqdhan.

The remaining ten or twelve years of Ibn Sīnā's life were spent in the service of Abu Ja'far 'Ala Addaula, whom he accompanied as physician and general literary and scientific adviser, even in his numerous campaigns.

During the last years of his life, A severe colic, which seized him on the march of the army against Hamadan, was checked by remedies so violent that Ibn Sina could scarcely stand. On a similar occasion the disease returned; with difficulty he reached Hamadan, where, finding the disease gaining ground, he refused to keep up the regimen imposed, and resigned himself to his fate.
His friends advised him to slow down and take life moderately. He refused, however, stating that:

"I prefer a short life with width to a narrow one with length".

On his deathbed remorse seized him; he bestowed his goods on the poor, restored unjust gains, freed his slaves, and read through the Qur'an every three days until his death. He died in June 1037, in his fifty-eighth year, in the month of Ramadan and was buried in Hamadan, Iran.

My apologies for not elaborating much on this, I hope I’ve enlightened your views on this man. Because Ibn Sina will be forever known as one of the all-time greats in the world.


  1. Ibn Sina Academy (Aligarh/India) is going to organise an “International Conference on Life & Contribution of Ibn Sînâ (Avicenna)” during 25-27 October 2014, in Aligarh to commemorate the 1000th Anniversary of the Compilation of Ibn Sina’s Kitab al-Qanun fi at-Ṭibb (The Canon of Medicine).The idea is actually to review Ibn Sina’s multidimensional personality and to span his contributions in the field of science, philosophy, literature and all branches of medicine in particular. The forthcoming conference will bring together expert scholars to discuss topics on various themes. A tentative list is as follows.

    1. Ibn Sina as a physician and his works on all branches of medicine,
    2. Ibn Sina as a natural scientist: Compiler of Kitâb al–Shifâ’,
    3. Ibn Sina as a philosopher, geographer, poet, and commentator of Quranic Sura,
    4. Ibn Sina’s impact on his own contemporary scientists,
    5. Studies on Ibn Sina in India,
    6. Studies on Ibn Sina in European universities during medieval and renaissance periods,
    7. Relevance of Ibn Sina in modern era.

    The programme will comprise invited lectures, besides oral and posters’ presentations.

    Participants are requested to present a paper in any area of their expertise. Please inform us the title of your talk as early as possible. We shall appreciate, if you send your abstract of not more than 300 words until 16 July 2014.

    Looking forward to active participation of scholars in making this event a grand success, and waiting for a prompt response,

    Prof. H. S. Zillur Rahman
    Organising Chairman
    Prof. S. M. Razaullah Ansari
    Organising Secretary
    Dr. Abdul Moiz Shams
    Co-Organising Chairman
    Dr. Syed Ziaur Rahman
    Joint Organising Secretary


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