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Ibn Sina: The Father of Early Modern Medicine

posted on: Apr 29, 2021

“The knowledge of anything, since all things have causes, is not acquired or complete unless it is known by its causes.” ibn Sina

By: Ahmed Abu Sultan/Arab America Contributing Writer      Ibn Sina is a polymath who is regarded as one of the most significant physicians, astronomers, thinkers, and writers of the Islamic Golden Age, and the father of early modern medicine. Arguably the most influential philosopher of the pre-modern era, a Muslim Peripatetic philosopher influenced by Aristotelian philosophy. Of the 450 works he is believed to have written, around 240 have survived, including 150 on philosophy and 40 on medicine.


He was born in 980. Ibn Sina first began to learn the Quran and literature in such a way that when he was ten years old he had essentially learned all of them. According to his autobiography, Ibn Sina had memorized the entire Quran by the age of 10. He learned Indian arithmetic from an Indian greengrocer, and he began to learn more from a wandering scholar who gained a livelihood by curing the sick and teaching the young. He also studied Fiqh under the Sunni Hanafi scholar Ismail al-Zahid. Ibn Sina was taught some extent of philosophy books. 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. For the next year and a half, he studied philosophy, in which he encountered greater obstacles. Forty times, it is said, he read through the Metaphysics of Aristotle, till the words were imprinted on his memory, but their meaning was hopelessly obscure to him until he purchased a brief commentary by al-Farabi from a bookstall for three dirhams. 

He turned to medicine at 16, and not only learned medical theory, but also by gratuitous attendance of the sick had, according to his own account, discovered 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. The youthful physician’s fame spread quickly, and he treated many patients without asking for payment. Setting an example that people nowadays struggle to even follow. Almost a thousand years ago an 18 years old physician was healing the sick and helping the wounded for no charge. Compared to nowadays, people are scared to call an ambulance so that they can avoid bankruptcy. Indeed, he set an example for us that many failed to follow. 

“There are no incurable diseases — only the lack of will. There are no worthless herbs — only the lack of knowledge.” ibn Sina

The Cannon Of Medicine

Ibn Sina’s first appointment was that of a physician to the emir, Nuh II, who owed him his recovery from a dangerous illness. At 22 years old, Ibn Sina lost his father. The Samanid dynasty came to its end in December 1004. Ibn Sina seems to have declined the offers of Mahmud of Ghazni and proceeded westwards to Urgench in modern Turkmenistan, where the vizier, regarded as a friend of scholars, gave him a monthly stipend. The pay was small, however, so Ibn Sina wandered from place to place through the districts of Nishapur and Merv to the borders of Khorasan, seeking an opening for his talents. Finally, at Gorgan, near the Caspian Sea, Ibn Sina met with a friend, who bought a dwelling near his own house in which Ibn Sina lectured on logic and astronomy. Several of his treatises were written for this patron, and the commencement of his Canon of Medicine also dates from his stay in Hyrcania.

The Canon of Medicine is an encyclopedia of medicine in five books compiled by Ibn Sina and completed in 1025. It presents an overview of the contemporary medical knowledge of the Islamic world, which had been influenced by earlier traditions including Greco-Roman medicine, Persian medicine, Chinese medicine, and Indian medicine. The Canon of Medicine remained a medical authority for centuries. It set the standards for medicine in Medieval Europe and the Islamic world and was used as a standard medical textbook through the 18th century in Europe. It presents a clear and organized summary of all the medical knowledge of the time, including a long list of drugs. Several hundred substances and receipts from different sources are mentioned for the treatment of different illnesses in this book. 

“Width of life is more important than length of life.” Ibn Sina


His other major work was “The Book of Healing”, a scientific and philosophical encyclopedia. This book was intended to ‘heal’ the soul. It was split into four parts: logic, natural sciences, mathematics, and metaphysics. In his book, he developed his own system of logic, Avicennian logic. In astronomy, he proposed that Venus was closer to the Sun than the Earth. He invented an instrument for observing the coordinates of a star. He made several astronomical observations and stated that the stars were self-luminous. In mathematics, Ibn Sina explained the arithmetical concept and application of the “casting out of nines”. Ibn Sina also contributed to poetry, religion, and music. In total, Ibn Sina wrote over 400 works, of which around 240 have survived.

His seminal work, Al-Qanun, was key in the development of medical literature and educational programs and a cornerstone in the history of medicine. Ibn Sina’s works continued to play a pivotal role in the development of medicine in the Muslim world and Europe for 600 years after his death. The very idea of quarantine is rooted in the scientific work of Ibn Sina, who had argued for controlling the spread of diseases in his five-volume medical encyclopedia, The Canon of Medicine, originally published in 1025. Nonetheless, his work and his legacy survive to our days because of the dedication he to heal people. The morality that guided him was the true reason he succeeded to imprint himself into outlives a thousand years after his passing.

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