In the centre of the city of Hamadan in Iran stands a monument to the Iranian national hero called Avicenna. The Mausoleum of Avicenna houses a library, a museum, and tower and pays tribute to arguably the most important philosophers and physicians in the history of Islam.
His full name in Arabic is Abu Ali al-Husayn Sina ibn Abd Allah ibn Sina, and he is undoubtedly one of the greatest scientists and scholars of the Islamic Golden Age. Despite this impressive legacy, Avicenna remains relatively unknown around the world.
Birth and early life
Avicenna was born in 980 AD in Afshana, a small village near the city of Bukhara in modern-day Uzbekistan, during a period of change and uncertainty within the Muslim world. His father, Abdullah, was a scholar and a man of great political importance in northern Iran, working within the government of the Samanid Empire.
Avicenna was a prodigious intellect and was famed for his amazing feats of memory. According to his autobiography, he has already memorised and mastered the Quran by the age of ten, and he began studying medicine when aged just thirteen. By the age of sixteen, he states that he had mastered mathematics, logic, physics, and had already become proficient in the art and science of medicine. At the age of seventeen, he successfully treated the Sultan of Bukhara for a severe infection, and this drew attention from the court of rulers of the Samanids. As a reward for his treatment of the sultan he was granted access to the sultan’s library and the numerous rare manuscripts within it, and this allowed him to continue his research and ignited a passion for philosophy. He described medicine as the ‘easiest of the sciences’, and considered philosophy to be a far more difficult subject.
The Canon of Medicine
Over the course of his life, Avicenna would write over 100 books, but none of these is more famous, and had a longer lasting effect than al-Qanun fi al-Tibb, or ‘The Canon of Medicine’. The Canon presented an overview of the contemporary medical knowledge of the medieval Islamic world and was heavily influenced by the work of Galen and Hippocrates.
Spanning five volumes, The Canon of Medicine was first translated into Latin in the 12th century and would influence medicine for centuries afterwards. It became the standard textbook of medicine in European medical schools and continued to be consulted well into the 17th century. William Osler described the Canon as “the most famous medical textbook ever written” noting that it remained “a medical bible for a longer time than any other work”.
He is thought to have been the first physician to suggest that soil and water can spread disease and the first to identify tuberculosis and a number of other contagious diseases. His work on cardiology was also particularly impressive, and he was a pioneer of pulsolgy, being the first physician to accurately describe the pulse, after he refined Galen’s previous work in this area. He was the first physician in history, and he was the first to describe carotid sinus hypersensitivity.
The ‘Floating Man’ thought experiment
Avicenna also wrote extensively on the subject of philosophy and became famous for his ‘Floating man’ thought experiment. This thought experiment aimed to demonstrate human self-awareness and the substantiality and immateriality of the human soul. His argument was as follows:
“One of us must suppose that he was just created at a stroke, fully developed and perfectly formed but with his vision shrouded from perceiving all external objects – created floating in the air or in the space, not buffeted by any perceptible current of the air that supports him, his limbs separated and kept out of contact with one another, so that they do not feel each other. Then let the subject consider whether he would affirm the existence of his self. There is no doubt that he would affirm his own existence, although not affirming the reality of any of his limbs or inner organs, his bowels, or heart or brain or any external thing. Indeed he would affirm the existence of this self of his while not affirming that it had any length, breadth or depth. And if it were possible for him in such a state to imagine a hand or any other organ, he would not imagine it to be a part of himself or a condition of his existence.”
This thought experiment is sometimes considered to be a precursor to Rene Descartes’ famous ‘Cogito ergo sum’.
The legacy of Avicenna
There is little known about Avicenna’s later life and death, but he is thought to have died from ‘colic’ in Hamadan, Iran, aged 58-year-old in 1037 AD. There can be no argument that his legacy was profound and long-lasting, significantly influencing medicine in both the Islamic and Western world up until the 17th century. It is, perhaps, best to leave his story with one of his most famous quotes:
“Medicine deals with the states of health and disease in the human body. It is a truism of philosophy that a complete knowledge of a thing can only be obtained by elucidating its causes and antecedents, provided, of course, such causes exist. In medicine it is, therefore, necessary that causes of both health and disease should be determined.”