THIRD MILLENNIUM LIBRARY
LIFE AND WORKS OF AVICENNA
All accounts of the early life of the man whom Chaucer’s Doctour of Phisik was so proud of having read, and whose name echoed in the cloisters of many a mediaeval monastery, are based on an autobiographical narration which he himself chose to dictate to the man who was his companion and pupil of twenty-five years (about whom more is told hereunder).
Abu Ali al-Husain ibn Abd-Allah ibn Hasan ibn All ibn Sina, which by way of Hebrew became Europeanized into Avicenna, was born in August 980 (Safar, 370 AH) in a large village near Bukhara called Kharmaithan (The Land of the Sun). His father was from Balkh—a city known to the Greeks as Bactra, with the epithet “the glittering” in Middle Persian literature. This was an important commercial and political metropolis, and an intellectual and religious capital, a centre of religious and intellectual life. As the seat of the Graeco-Bactrian kings, it was for a period the centre of Hellenic culture, then lost its importance for a while, only to recover its ancient glory under the Samanid and Ghaznavid dynasties. Here Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, Manichaeism, Nestorian Christianity and finally Islam met. This was the site of the Nowbahar, the renowned Buddhist monastery visited by pilgrims from far-away China, at the head of which was Barmak, the ancestor of the most powerful, able and enlightened minister at the court of the Caliphs in Baghdad.
From Balkh the father of Avicenna moved to Bukhara, an old Iranian city known to the Chinese as Pu-ho, also the seat of a large Buddhist monastery and since the Arab conquest a centre of Islamic studies that produced some eminent theologians. At this time it was the capital of the Samanid ruler, Nuh the second, son of Mansur, who had ascended the throne in 977 at the age of thirteen. Avicenna’s father was appointed as a local governor in Kharmaithan, and must therefore have been a man of some standing. There he married and had two sons of whom Avicenna was the elder.
The origin of the father is not quite clear; Arabs, Turks and Persians have in turn claimed the son. There is at least no reason to believe that he was an Arab. As the vast majority of the inhabitants of Transoxiana at that date were of Iranian stock, and the great Turanian predominance does not begin till after the Mongol conquest, an Iranian origin seems the most probable. To this may be added the observation that throughout all his wanderings, Avicenna deliberately avoided Turkish patrons, and sought the courts of Persian rulers. The view that he was of Chinese lineage which is based on the assumption that the whole region was formerly a centre of Chinese rule where many of their people had settled, and which had become a cultural and commercial thoroughfare between Persia and China, is rather far-fetched. As to his mother: she came from the nearby village of Afshaneh, and her name Setareh, a pure Persian word meaning Star, suggests that she was Persian.
The family returned to Bukhara, and here Avicenna’s early formative age begins. When he was only ten years old he had read the Qur'an and some belles-lettres, he tells us; and all marveled at his talent. The religious atmosphere of his home was not orthodox—an important point that he himself tended to conceal, but which helps to explain some of the difficulties of his life. “My father”, he says, “was one of those who had responded to the invitation of the Egyptians [the Fatimids] and was counted among the Ismailis”. He used to listen to his father and brother discussing the soul and the intellect after the manner in which they [the Ismailis] expounded them, but he hastens to add that he felt he could not assent to their arguments. They asked him to join them in their discussions on philosophy, geometry and Indian arithmetic; but he does not say if he ever responded to the invitation. He was sent to a certain grocer who was in the habit of using that form of calculation to learn Indian arithmetic; and at the same time he was studying Muslim jurisprudence by himself, and visiting an old ascetic from whom he learnt the methods of religious argumentation. Presently a man by the name of Nateli professing a knowledge of philosophy, came to Bukhara. Avicenna’s father immediately engaged him to teach his son and invited him to stay in their house. No source tells us whether or not he was an Ismaili also.
The lessons started with the Eisagoge of Porphyry; and one day, having heard his teacher define a genus, the young pupil set about verifying that definition in a manner that deeply impressed Nateli, and caused him to advise the father that the boy should not engage in any other occupation but learning. Together they went all through the elementary parts of logic; and from then onwards Avicenna read the texts himself with the aid of commentaries, supposedly of Hellenistic authors translated into Arabic. Similarly with Euclid: he read parts with his teacher and the rest independently. Next he took up the Almagest of Ptolemy, and often it was beyond the powers of his teacher to help him. When Nateli left for Gurganj, Avicenna took up the natural sciences and metaphysics alone, reading the texts and seeking help from commentaries. These supplementary books were to prove an important influence on his own works. He often depended upon them for his understanding of Plato and Aristotle. Much Peripatetic and Stoic thought found in his writings stems from this source.
At this stage he decided to take up medicine, and proceeded to read all the available books on the subject. He assures us that he did not find it a difficult science and that he excelled in it in a very short time, using methods of treatment often extremely practical. He also continued his study of religious law and disputation. By then, he says, he was sixteen years of age. Whether this statement is true or one to the excessive zeal of the disciple who recorded it, we are unable to say.
During the following eighteen months he went over logic and the various problems of philosophy once again. During this period, he tells us, he did not sleep one night through, and worked all day, reducing every statement and proposition that he read into its syllogistic premises and recording it in his files. Whenever he found himself in a difficulty—he chooses to assure his pupil he repaired to the mosque, and prayer gave him insight in solving his problems. In the evenings he sat by his lamp and worked late into the night; and when sleep began to overcome him, or when he felt weak, he took a glass of wine and went back to work again. This minor detail which he candidly relates is interesting. He likes to assure his pupil that he is a religious man, and he wants to explain just how it came about that he became addicted to drinking.
By working in this manner he mastered logic, the natural sciences and mathematics, but he felt he must return to metaphysics. He took up the Metaphysic of Aristotle, read it some forty times, but to his great disappointment still could not understand it. One day in the booksellers street a broker offered him a cheap volume which he bought only reluctantly. It turned out to be a book by Farabi on the objects of the Metaphysica. He rushed home and read it, whereupon the whole purport of Aristotle’s treatise was revealed to his mind, and he went out to distribute alms to the poor in gratitude the next day.
It happened at this time that Nuh ibn Mansur, the reigning prince, fell ill. Unable to help him, his physicians suggested that Avicenna, of whose wide reading they had heard much, should be summoned. He was duly sent for, and in collaboration with the others successfully treated the royal patient, and as a result became enrolled in his service. Special permission gave him access to the library of the Samanid rulers. This he found to be a mansion of many chambers with chest upon chest of books in each. Each apartment was devoted to a special subject; and when he reached the section on Greek, Avicenna tells us, “I saw books whose very names are as yet unknown to many—works which I had never seen before and have not seen since. I read these books, taking notes of their contents. This taking of notes was very important, since my memory for learning was at that period better than it is now; but today I am more mature, otherwise my knowledge is exactly the same and nothing new came my way after that”.
This great library, collected by successive rulers all known for their passion for literature and learning, was soon afterwards destroyed by fire. Avicenna’s enemies—and he never lacked them —hastened to accuse him of firing the library; so that he could attribute the contents of those books to himself, they claimed. Historians may well search for the perpetrators and their purpose. It might well have been connected with the racial and religious struggle that was going on at that time in the capital of the Samanids and that ended in their downfall. Hellenists must always mourn the treasures that were reduced to ashes in the library of Bukhara.
According to his own account, Avicenna’s first attempt at authorship was made at the age of twenty-one, while he was still at Bukhara; when in answer to the request of a certain prosodist, he wrote a comprehensive book which he called the Majmu (Compendium). This genre of writing had gone into common use since Alexandrian times, and it will be seen that many of his works take that form. Next, one of his neighbors, much interested in jurisprudence, asked him to write a commentary for him, whereupon Avicenna wrote al-Hasil wa al-Mahsul (the Import and the Substance) in about twenty volumes; as well as a work on ethics called al-Birr wa al-Ithm (Good Work and Evil) of which he never made copies but presented it to his learned friend in the original.
Then abruptly his life entered a new phase. He tells us “my father died and my circumstances changed. I accepted a post in the Sultan’s employment, and was obliged to move from Bukhara to Gurganj”. This obscure passage throws little light on what must actually have taken place. If after his father died he found it necessary to earn his living and for that reason enlisted in government service, then why was he “obliged” to leave Bukhara and submit his allegiance to a different ruler in Gurganj? These were troubled times at the court of the Samanids. The Turks were gaining the ascendancy and they must have frowned on the son of an Ismaili, even though some of the Samanid rulers themselves had Ismaili connections. Avicenna might therefore have become unwelcome for both racial and religious reasons.
It is significant that even to his intimate friend and pupil, Avicenna did not wish to expatiate on this episode; but his words betray bitterness; and we know from other sources that he was actually accused to Sultan Mahmud of being bad-din (of evil religion). Furthermore the Turks were such a menace to the Persian element that Beruni, who was somewhat in the same position, wrote a book entitled A Warning against the Turks. In fact it is tempting to suppose that Avicenna’s autobiographical narrative, with its emphasis on the study of Muslim jurisprudence and religious disputation at the feet of an ascetic, and his later commentary on that subject in some twenty volumes—matters remote from his chief interests—were meant to assure his pupil of his religious conformity and of the fact that he never acceded to the Ismaili beliefs of his father and brother. It is not difficult to imagine that his enemies made capital of the heterodoxy of his family; and we find historians like Ibn al-Athir, writing much later, levelling the same accusation against him in the most violent terms. In any case his departure from Bukhara was in unhappy circumstances, and marked the beginning of a most troubled period in his life.
His arrival in Gurganj—a large and flourishing city along the banks of the Oxus—at first seemed fortunate and of happy augury. The minister of the ruling Mamunid prince was a learned man by the name of Soheili. He welcomed Avicenna and introduced him to the Emir, dressed in the garb of a theologian with scarf and chin-wrap. A salary was duly fixed for him which he describes “as amply sufficient for the like of me”, only to add immediately afterwards, “then necessity constrained me to move to Fasa and thence to Baward and thence to Tus, then Shaqqan, then Samanqan, then Jajarm the frontier-post of Khurasan, and thence to Jurjan (Gurgan). My entire purpose was to reach the Emir Qabus; but it happened meanwhile that Qabus was taken and imprisoned in a fortress, where he died. After this I went to Dihistan where I fell very ill, then returned to Jurjan where Abu 'Ubaid al-Juzjani made friends with me; and I composed a poem on my condition in which there is a verse saying:
And great once I became, no more would Egypt have me,
And when my value rose, no one would care to buy me”.
Here ends the autobiographical note dictated to Juzjani. The life-long friendship between these two men is not surprising. His companion, as me name shows, was a fellow-countryman; Juzjan being the western district of Balkh, his father’s hometown; and like him he apparently had no family attachments. Yet again he does not tell us why “necessity” forced him to leave Gurganj and embark on his peregrinations, though the tenor of the account is full of restrained self-pity, a mood also implicit in the surviving lines of his otherwise lost poem, with their reference to the story of Joseph in Egypt.
From another source we have a highly colored account of the reasons that forced Avicenna to leave Gurganj, which if not entirely true is not pure fiction either. It says that Sultan Mahmud was told that there were some highly gifted people at the court of the Mamunid prince, who should be made to join his entourage. The king thereupon sent a special envoy asking the prince to send him Beruni, Khammar, Masihi, Avicenna and a painter by the name of Arraq, “that they may have the honor of being received in our meetings and we may be pleased by their knowledge and accomplishments”. The prince who had suspected the purpose of the envoy even before arranging to receive him, called these men “for whom he had provided all their earthly wants” and acquainted them with the probable intentions of Sultan Mahmud. The Sultan, he told them, was very powerful and coveted his principality and he was therefore in no position to anger or provoke him. Beruni, Khammar and Arraq, having heard much of the generosity of the Sultan, agreed to go; but Avicenna refused and Masihi decided to keep him company. On the advice of the prince, they terminated their ten happy years in Gurganj, and left by night with a guide to lead the way.
There is reason to suppose that it was primarily for religious reasons that Avicenna refused to comply with the wish of Sultan Mahmud, whose strict orthodoxy and ruthless treatment of the unorthodox had already become proverbial. This may well have been the motive of Masihi also, who unlike Khammar had remained a Christian; and according to one account even Beruni went reluctantly.
The story goes on to relate that Sultan Mahmud was very angry when he heard of Avicenna’s flight; that he ordered Arraq to make a portrait of him and that some forty copies were circulated throughout the land with strict orders that he should be arrested wherever found and sent to the Sultan under escort. Meanwhile Avicenna and Masihi who had left Gurganj with a relation of Soheili, the minister, as guide, wandered from village to village until on the fourth day they were caught in a violent sandstorm and completely lost their way. Masihi could not survive the excessive heat of the desert, and died of thirst, assuring his companion, however, that their souls would meet elsewhere. Avicenna together with the guide found his way to Baward after a thousand difficulties. From there the guide returned, and Avicenna went on to Tus. It is thus seen that the itinerary corresponds with his own account as recorded by his pupil, and that this account may therefore well be true.
The story is then taken up by Juzjani. “From this point”, he says, “I mention those episodes of the Master’s life of which I was myself a witness during my association with him, up to the time of his death”. In Gurgan, Avicenna seems to have been well received. One man who “loved these sciences” bought him a comfortable house next to his own and lodged him there. And Juzjani used to visit him every day, to read the Almagest with him, and to listen to his discourses on logic. He here dictated a book on that subject which he called al-Mukhasar al-Awsat (The Middle Summary) which his pupil took down. He also wrote others; among them al-Mabda wa al-Maad (The Beginning and the Return), and al-Arsad al-Kulliya (The General Observations) composed in honor of his benefactor. He began writing the first part of al-Qanun (The Canon), his chief medical work; and one that he called Mukhtasar al-Majisti (Summary of the Almagest), and many other tractates on similar subjects of interest to him and to the man who had been so good to him. After a while, however, he chose to leave Gurgan and go to Raiy. Again the reasons for that decision are obscure. Admittedly he had originally gone there with the hope of offering his services to Qabus, the celebrated Ziyarid prince and man of letters; and had instead found that the unlucky ruler had been betrayed by his army chiefs and died while imprisoned in a fortress. Yet the philosopher had been welcomed in that place, had been offered a home by one of the townsmen, had found a devoted friend and pupil in the person of Juzjani, and had occupied himself with the writing of books. What then made him leave? Was his departure again due to some religious hostility towards him or simply to his own ambition and the hope of doing still better for himself?
Raiy, the ancient Ragha, some five miles from present-day Tihran, had peculiar attractions. It was an old centre of communication between east and west Iran; associated with Zoroaster and the twelfth sacred place created by Ahura Mazda, with accommodation for the three estates of priests, warriors and cultivators. It had been fortified by Darius and destroyed by Alexander; rebuilt by Seleucus Nicator and named Europos; reconquered by the Parthians andi called Arsakia. It was from this city that the last Sasaman king issued his farewell appeal to the Iranian nation before fleeing to Khurasan. There the Umayyads handed over power to the Abbasids, and here Harun al-Rashid, the Caliph, was born. The population though predominantly Persian included men of many lands; and the bishops of the Syriac Church in Persia had made it their seat. In 925 when the Buyids had established themselves there, Raiy was one of the glories of the land of Islam, and possessed a very large library. Under Fakhr el-Dowleh, the Buyid prince, it had become a great centre of learning; and the two accomplished ministers of this dynasty, Ibn al-Amid and Ibn Abbad, had made it a centre of attraction for men of letters.
When Avicenna came to Raiy, Fakhr el-Dowleh was already dead, leaving a son by the name of Majd el-Dowleh, still only a child, and the country was ruled by his widow—a princess in her own right—known as al-Saiyyida (the lady). This able and courageous woman had refused to hand over power to her son when he came of age, and had kept Sultan Mahmud at bay with the warning that should he conquer her principality he would earn the scorn of the world as the mighty king who made war on a woman.
Avicenna, as Juzjani tells us, offered his services to the Saiyyida and her son, and was welcomed because of the favorable letters of introduction he had brought with him. Who gave him these letters, he does not say. Majd el-Dowleh was not a happy man at the time. He had tried to win back power and establish his rightful position, but had failed. He had therefore taken to the pleasures of the harem and of literature. We are told that he was overcome by melancholia and the Master applied himself to treating him. Avicenna remained for two or three years at Raiy, during which period he composed the Kitab al-Maad (Book of the Return). Then trouble once more overtook him. The city was attacked by Shams el-Dowleh, a brother of Majd el-Dowleh, and again circumstances conspired to oblige him to leave Raiy for Qazwin, and from Qazwin he proceeded to Hamadhan.
Although the pupil is careful to conceal the circumstances, Khondamir—an historian of later date—informs us that Avicenna infuriated the Saiyyida by insisting on the legitimate rights of her son in the dynastic quarrel between the two. This had become a local issue of some importance and the moral indignation of the philosopher could not be allowed to interfere.
In Hamadhan yet another phase begins in the life of Avicenna. He decides to take an openly active part in local politics; and places himself at the disposal of another influential lady, who may have been the wife or the favorite of Shams el-Dowleh, in order to investigate her finances. By this means he becomes acquainted with the ruler and is summoned to court to treat him for an attack, of colic. The treatment proves successful and he departs “loaded with many costly robes ... having passed forty days and nights at the palace and become one of the Amir’s intimates”. In a war against the Kurds, he accompanies the prince as his personal physician; and although the expedition proves a failure, he succeeds in winning the favor of the Amir, and on their return to Hamadhan is appointed a vizier with all the powers of that office. His début as a political figure and State administrator, however, was followed by further trouble. The army for some reason refused to have him, tearing for themselves on his account, whatever this statement means. They could not in any way be pacified and “they surrounded his house, haled him off to prison, pillaged his belongings. They even demanded that he should be put to death; but this the Amir refused, though he was agreeable to banishing him from the State, being anxious to conciliate them”. The fury of the army was such that Avicenna had to go into hiding for forty days in the house of a friend. However, Shams el-Dowleh was again attacked by colic and he was again sent for. When he appeared at court, the Amir apologized profusely for what had occurred. For a second time and with great ceremony Avicenna was appointed vizier.
At this juncture Juzjani suggested that he should not neglect his writing, and urged him to undertake a commentary on the works of Aristotle. The reply is revealing with regard to Avicenna’s attitude and outlook. He said he had not much time at his disposal, but “if you agree that I should compose a book setting forth those parts of the sciences that I believe to be sound, not disputing therein with any opponents nor troubling to reply to their arguments, I will do so”. He then began work on the physical section of the Kitab al-Shifa (The Book of Healing) which is the longest of his extant works. He had already started on his Qanun (Canon) of medicine, and here he finished the first book. Every night he held a circle of study at his home for his pupils. “I would read the Shifa”, Juzjani says, “and another in turn the Qanun. When we had each finished our allotted portion, musicians of all sorts would be called in and cups brought out for drinking, and in this manner we spent the rest of the time. Studying was done by night because during the day attendance upon the Amir left him no spare time”.
A different account of his daily programme relates that during the period that Avicenna was a vizier, he used to rise before dawn every morning, write some pages of his Shifa, then call in his pupils and with them read some passages from his writings. By the time he was ready to leave the house, all those who wanted him to attend to their work were waiting outside. At the head of them all he rode to his official divan and dealt with affairs of State till noon. He then returned home and invariably entertained a large number of guests to lunch. After the siesta he went to present himself at court, and alone with the Amir discussed matters of importance.
These two accounts which may well be taken together as complementary show that he was a man of extraordinary industry and varied interests. They also reveal some of the more personal sides of his life. Evidently he did not hesitate to display publicly his love of music and wine, and to share them with those who partook also of his intellectual pleasures. Such conduct must have seemed scandalous to his colleagues in the Government, particularly in the rigorous Islamic society in which lie lived. But all throughout his life he appeared to find satisfaction in completely disregarding what the public thought and said of him. This unconventional way of life he continued for some time and it may have been the source of much of his unpopularity. In the meantime the restless Amir decided to go to war again, and took Avicenna along with him. A severe attack of colic seized the prince during what to prove to be an exhausted campaign, and he refused to follow the direction of his watchful physician and take sufficient rest during the intervals of fighting. The army, apprehensive and fearing the consequences of his death, decided to convey him to Hamadhan, but he died on the way.
The son of Shams el-Dowleh was thereupon sworn in as Amir, and the army petitioned that Avicenna should continue as chief minister. This Avicenna declined and entered into secret correspondence with Ala el-Dowleh, the ruler of Isfahan, offering his services. The reasons for this change of allegiance are not clear. It may be supposed that Avicenna’s relations with the army were strained and his past experiences not altogether happy. Fearing the consequences of his refusal, he went into hiding in the house of a druggist. There again the pupil who seems to have valued his intellectual accomplishments far more highly than his political acumen, urged him to profit from this enforced leisure and finish writing the Shifa. Accepting this proposal, Avicenna summoned his host and asked for paper and ink; these being brought, the Master wrote in about twenty parts of eight sheets each, the main topics that he wanted to discuss, in his own hand, and he continued writing for two days until he had enlarged on all the topics without once asking for any book or referring to any text, accomplishing the work entirely from memory. Then he placed these parts before him, took paper, and pondering on every question, wrote his comments on it. Each day he wrote fifty leaves until he had completed the whole of the natural sciences and metaphysics, with the exception of the books on animals and plants. He also began with logic and wrote one part of it.
Meanwhile he had been accused of corresponding with Ala el-Dowleh and a search for him was instituted. His enemies betrayed his whereabouts and he was cast into prison in a fortress. There he again took to poetry, and wrote scornfully:
My going in was sure, as you have seen,
My going out is what many will doubt.
But after some four months he did go out of that fortress. Ala el-Dowleh attacked and captured Hamadhan, and the defeated ruler, together with his family, sought refuge in the very place where Avicenna was confined. When Ala el-Dowleh withdrew with his army, they all returned home; and Avicenna accepted the hospitality of a friend and busied himself with the completion of the logical section of the Shifa. Nor had he been idle while in the fortress, for there he had written the Khita al-Hidaya (The Book of Guidance) and the Risalat Haiyibn Yaqzan (The Treatise of Living, the Son of the Vigilant) and the Kitab al-Qulanj (The Book of conlic). The al-Adwiyat al-Aalbiyya (The Cardiac Remedies) he had composed when he first came to Hamadhan.
On his return the prince did his best to win back the allegiance of Avicenna and promised him handsome rewards, but all in vain. At the first opportunity he slipped out of the town in disguise accompanied by Juzjani, his own brother, and two slaves, all dressed as Sufis. After suffering many hardships they reached the gates of Isfahan, where his friends together with the courtiers went out to welcome him, and robes were brought and fine equipages. He was lodged in a large house and “his apartment was furnished and carpeted in the most sumptuous manner”. At court he was received very cordially and with all due ceremonial.
Ala el-Dowleh, who valued Avicenna’s talents highly, decreed that every Friday evening a meeting should be held in his presence for learned men of all classes, to discuss scientific and philosophical topics. We are assured that at these gatherings he proved himself quite supreme and unrivalled in every branch of learning. These were indeed the best days of his life, and in the introduction to his Persian logic he expresses deep gratitude to his patron for granting him “all his wishes, in security, and eminence and honor”. Here in Isfahan he occupied no official position, and avoiding politics and its pitfalls, he devoted his entire time to writing. He now set about completing the Shifa. In his commentary on the Almagest “he introduced ten new figures into the different observations, and at the end, under the section dealing with the celestial sphere, he had things that had never been discovered before. In the same way he introduced some new examples into Euclid; and in arithmetic some excellent refinements; and in music matters that the ancients [the Greeks] had neglected.” At Isfahan he also wrote his first book on philosophy in the Persian language, probably something which had never been attempted since the Arab conquest of Persia. This work he called, after the name of his patron, Danish-Nameh ye Alai (The Alai Book of Knowledge).
While accompanying the Amir on an expedition, he composed the remaining parts of ine oniju lugeiiier wini an dDridgement of the whole work which he entitled Kitab al-Najat (The Book of Deliverance). By this time he had become one of the intimate courtiers of the Amir, and when the latter decided to attack Hamadhan—city of unhappy memories for Avicenna—he did not remain behind. One night while discussing the imperfections in the astronomical tables based on ancient observations of the stars, the Amir asked him to compile new ones, assuring him the necessary funds. He immediately started work and deputed Juzjani to select the instruments and engage skilled assistants. Many old problems were thus elucidated and the imperfections were found to be due to the fact that the observations had been made at irregular intervals and on different journeys.
At this stage of his narrative Juzjani,. who had been repeating what Avicenna had related, breaks off to observe that “one of the remarkable things about the Master was that I accompanied and served him for twenty-five years and I did not see him take up a new book and read it right through. Instead he used to look up the difficult passages and the complicated problems and see what the author had to say, so as to discover the state of his understanding”
Avicenna had never been a master of Arabic. One day when in the presence of the Amir, he expressed an opinion on a difficult linguistic question. One of the scholars present who was particularly proud of his knowledge of that language, immediately turned to him and said, “You are a philosopher and a man of wisdom, but not sufficiently well read in philology as to be able to please us by the expression of your views”. This rebuke greatly annoyed Avicenna; and he at once took up a thorough study of Arabic grammar and literature. He ordered anthologies from Khurasan—in those days a great repository of Persian and Arabic books—and various literary works, and began reading extensively. Some three years later he composed three Arabic poems full of rare words; then three essays, one in the style of Ibn al-Amid, another in that of Ibn Abbad, and still another in the style of al-Sabi. He had all these bound in one volume, had the binding rubbed and soiled, and presenting it to the Amir asked that it be passed on to the learned man who had administered the rebuke with the request that he should determine the value and find out the authorship of a volume that had been found while he was out hunting. To the satisfaction of Avicenna and all those who had witnessed the disputation, the pretentious scholar was entirely baffled. It was after this incident that he began a work on linguistics which he called Lisan al-Arab (The Language of the Arabs)—still only in the form of a rough draft at his death. What purports to be a copy of that treatise has lately been published in Persia.
Another story concerns an essay on logic written in Gurgan and called al-Mukhtasar al-Asghar (The Smaller Epitome), later placed at the beginning of the Najat. A copy of this had reached Shiraz in southern Persia, where a group of scholars had taken exception to some of its statements. The judge of the religious court decided to send their objections together with a covering letter to one of the pupils of Avicenna, asking him to present them to his master and elicit an answer. This the pupil did just as the sun was setting on a summer day. Avicenna immediately asks for paper and ink, orders drinks to be laid out, and while a general conversation is in progress, sits there and by candlelight examines the points raised. While thus occupied he bids Juzjani and his brother to sit and drink, with him, and when they become drowsy, orders them to depart. In the morning he calls up Juzjani and gives him what he had written during the night in some fifty sheets, saying, “I made haste to reply so that the messenger should not be delayed”.
During this period the Kitab al-Insaf (The Book of Equitable Judgement) was also written. This was destroyed by the invading army of Sultan Masud, but certain fragments have survived.
The ruler of Raiy had been an astute lady who had usurped the rights of her own son and kept the ambitious Sultan Mahmud at bay. But after her death, the son proved unequal to the task. He injudiciously asked the assistance of Sultan Mahmud who seized the long-awaited opportunity to send an army, conquer the whole kingdom and dispatch its ruler and his son as prisoners to India. JHe showed his intolerance of heterodoxy in a ruthless manner. In the words of a modern historian, “he began to persecute the Carmathians, the Batinis and the Mutazelites, and thousands of them were gibbeted, stoned to death or carried in chains to Khurasan to languish in captivity”. One authority is quoted to the effect that “fifty camel-loads of books are said to have been burnt under the trees on which the Carmathians had been gibbeted”. And he concludes that “an invaluable store of learning, which the liberal policy and scholarly zeal of the Buwaihids (Buyids) had accumulated in the course of years, was thus consumed in an instant to satisfy the enthusiasm of the puritan warrior.
The fall of Raiy had made the position of Ala el-Dowleh in Isfahan very critical. He did his best to conciliate Sultan Mahmud, but the latter was adamant, and entrusted to his son the task of conquering all the Buyid possessions. When Masud, the equally ambitious son, entered Isfahan in 1030 (421 a.h.), Ala el-Dowleh fled, and it may be presumed that Avicenna accompanied him. It was then that his house was plundered and his library carried off to Ghazna, only to be destroyed about a century later by the invading Ghurid Turks.
Accounts of the sequence of political events during this period are contradictory, and the dates not very reliable. We are told that in the year in which Ala el-Dowleh was fighting a Ghaznavid army chief, Avicenna, while in the company of the Amir, was seized by a severe attack of colic. Fearing the prospect of being left behind if the Amir were defeated, Avicenna took heroic measures to cure himself, and in one day injected himself eight times, with the result that his intestines were ulcerated. Nevertheless he accompanied his patron in his flight, and at their next stopping-place “the epilepsy which sometimes follows colic manifested itself”. He continued to treat himself by injections, and one day when he desired to be injected with two measures of celery-seed, one of the physicians attending him put in five measures instead. Juzjani adds, “I do not know whether purposely or by mistake”. The excess of celery-seed aggravated the abrasions. “He also took mithridatum for the epilepsy; but one of his slaves went and threw in a great quantity of opium, and he consumed the mixture; this being because they had robbed him of much money from his treasury, and they desired to do away with him so that they might escape the penalty of their actions”.
Such was the state of his health when Avicenna was carried into Isfahan. He continued to prescribe for himself, though he was so weak that he could hardly stand on his feet. When he felt a little better he once more attended the court of the Amir, and is said to have indulged in excesses for which he again suffered in health. Once again Ala el-Dowleh marched on Hamadhan and again Avicenna accompanied him. On the way he had a severe relapse; and when they finally reached their destination, he realized that his strength was ebbing fast; his body had no longer the strength to repel the disease. It was then that he gave up all treatment and took to saying, “the manager who used to manage me, is incapable of managing me any longer, so there is no use trying to cure my illness”. He lingered for a time in this condition and died not long after his return to Hamadhan. He was buried outside the town in June or July, 1037 (428 a.h.), at me age of fifty-eight.
The autobiographical note and what his pupil had to add are obviously neither complete nor convincing; and this bare outline of an eventful life does not give a full picture of the man and all that he went through. Nor is the motive for reticence always clear. Was it himself or his pupil who thought it best to leave certain things unsaid? Casual remarks by later authors fill few of the gaps, but there is always a feeling that something has been kept back. Avicenna was never a popular figure, and his detractors succeeded in spreading all sorts of derogatory stories about him even during his lifetime; so that in popular Arabic, Persian and Turkish literature he often figures as a sorcerer and magician, a conjurer of evil spirits. No one would be expected to make a careful record of the events and circumstances of such a man’s life.
The book that in our view gives the best background to much that Avicenna had to suffer, and helps to explain some of the obscure motives that influenced the course of his life, is a semi-historical semi—political tractate by a renowned statesman who was eventually assassinated. In page after page he describes the persecution of the followers of the Ismaili heterodoxy, and the ruthless suppression of all forms of unorthodox movement and belief. This puritanical revivalism and rule of rigid orthodoxy was particularly strong in Transoxiana and on the eastern borders of Persia, and extended in time from before the days of Avicenna till long after him. It was associated with the Turkish influence, and its victims eventually included the Samanian rulers of Bukhara under whom Avicenna, his father, and his family had lived. With this situation in mind, one finds the tone of reticence both in the autobiographical account and the additions of his pupil more understandable. And we have in support the evidence of Shahristani that throughout his life Avicenna was suspected of Ismaili leanings. It is not surprising, therefore, that we find the pattern of his life so uneven from the very start—sometimes even tragically tortuous. Never long in one place, he is hounded from town to town for reasons that he does not care to tell. We suppose that he must have learnt early in his life to suppress and conceal; and it is clear that even a friend and disciple of twenty-five years did not enjoy his full confidence. A sense of futility and frustration seems to cast a shadow over all his doings; and this may have been one reason why his pupil urged him constantly to devote most of his time in writing. Hence the difficulty of uncovering the complexities of a character composed of deep and varied strains; to probe into a restless mind never at peace with itself or the world around it.
Yet Avicenna was no recluse given to solitary contemplation like Farabi. He loved and sought company, and he possessed an infectious joie de vivre that delighted his companions. He does not seem to have had many close friends, and that may have made him unhappy; yet people were fascinated by his rare gifts and scintillating mind. It is in this connection that his pupil chooses to tell something that was repeated by all later authors—not without malice. As a man of excessive passions, not given to moderation, he indulged in sexual relations far more than even his strong physique could stand. We are told that even in failing health he did not abstain; and on top of his political activities and intellectual pursuits this proved extremely exhausting. When reproached for such intensive living, he gave his famous reply that he wanted his years in breadth and not in length. Yet he never married, deliberately denying himself the pleasures of family life: he was a lonely man to his dying day. All these facts imply a deep-seated unhappiness, and a fundamental dissatisfaction with his lot.
Two different sources attest to Avicenna’s strikingly good looks and impressive figure. One relates that when supposedly in hiding, he ventured into the bazaar, and was immediately recognized by a man, who says, “I could easily tell. I had heard so much about your remarkable face and attractive appearance”. We do not know how he dressed in his home town. He tells us that in Gurganj he chose the attire of a religious divine. And the other testimony to his fine appearance is in an account of how he attended the court of Ala el-Dowleh in Isfahan, in a long robe with a short jacket and a turban of coarse cloth. “He used to sit very close to the Amir, whose face became radiant with delight as he marveled at his good looks, and accomplishment and wit. And when he spoke all those present listened attentively, none uttering a word”.
He could not have been a modest man, nor, in some respects, a particularly endearing personality. His disputes with fellow-philosophers reveal a violent temper; and a merciless scorn for the mediocre. He dismisses Razi’s philosophy as the lucubrations of a man who should have stuck “to testing stools and urine”. He ridicules Miskawaih and his pitiful limitations—and thereby provokes the rather significant retort that he would do well to amend his own character. From everyone he demands both quick wits and application; and assures us that he himself always went over what he wrote carefully, “even though that is a very tedious task”.
These sidelights may stimulate our desire to know more about him, but actually this man of genius keeps the secrets of his true personality and leaves us still guessing. Most of the books that mention him are full of praise for his knowledge and ability, but contain not a single kind word for the man himself. Often they half-mockingly remark that he was the person who died of sexual excesses, and whose Book of Healing (Shifa), and Book od Deliverance (Najat) helped neither to heal nor to deliver him. This obvious ill-feeling had various sources. One was his Ismaili origin which was never forgotten; another was that his many writings ran directly counter to religious dogma. To these may be added his behavior in public and his utter disdain of conformity. Of what else could they accuse him? Power, except for a brief troubled period, he never gained; wealth, by the testimony even of his detractors, he never sought, and the quiet comfort of a home he confesses he never had. Often he lived under a cloud of menace, and in spite of great self-confidence he claims “that events befell me, and such trials and troubles came rushing upon me, that had they befallen the mighty mountains, they would have cracked and come crashing to the ground”. In a Persian quatrain which, if authentic, must be considered a revealing cri de coeur, he says:
'How I wish I could know who I am,
What it is in this world that I seek.
Of the two hundred books or more attributed to Avicenna, some are spurious, others are sections of some major work appearing under a different title. The authentic writings run to about a hundred; and of these the most important have fortunately survived. It is to be regretted that his last detailed work, supposed to contain the results of his mature thought, and which
he deliberately caned Kitab al-Insaf (The Book of Equitable Judgment), written with the intention of arbitrating between the conflicting views of contemporary philosophers, was lost in the sack of Isfahan, only fragments of it having survived.
Thanks to Avicenna’s pupil, we have a general idea of the order and sequence of his writings. This helps to determine the development of his thought to some extent. But the account is not always clear nor sufficiently instructive. The books of Avicenna suffer from being often oeuvres d’occasions addressed to a friend or patron and suited to his tastes and attainments. It was probably for that reason that he did not always trouble himself to retain copies of them; so that but for the devoted efforts of his pupil they would long since have been lost. Most of what he wrote was in Arabic, with a few works in Persian. In neither does he show felicity of language or interest in what might be called the magic of words (and of course the same could be said of Aristotle). Yet he rendered a great service to the development of philosophical style and terminology. Avicenna’s Arabic is definitely more lucid than that of Kindi and Farabi. The aphorisms give place to real philosophical argumentation. He is at his best in discursive rather than in assertive passages. He has, however, some serious defects of style. In particular he is too repetitive; and as he was not a true Arab, his writings abound in what may be called Persianisms, particularly where he tries to be expansive as in the Shifa. These Persianisms can be detected in both the structure of the sentences and in his vocabulary. When compared to good classical Arabic prose, with which he must have been quite familiar, his sentences lack the compactness so characteristic of that literature; and sometimes they are even unidiomatic. His vocabulary is full of new abstract terms, which were shocking to Arab purists, and which were very reluctantly, if ever, used by Arab authors after him. These terms were derived neither from Greek nor from Syriac, as is sometimes supposed; they are the direct result of his knowledge of Persian, which has an easy way of forming them. Hence the reason why his own countrymen found them natural and even felicitous, while the Arabs considered them barbarisms. Nevertheless these neologisms helped to enrich Arabic philosophical language, and they constitute a far more valuable contribution than any made either by Hindi, the pure Arab, or by Farabi. Avicenna’s choice of terminology is also more extensive than that of his predecessors. Kindi and Farabi followed one set of translators consistently, with the result that they had no choice of terms, while Avicenna had the good sense to compare alternative translations and choose such technical terms as he considered the best for his purposes. Consequently his language is more varied and interesting. There is no question of his having known Greek, and this he never claimed. But in the Shifa he makes various illuminating remarks about Greek linguistics and grammar which can only be explained by the supposition that he was in contact with someone who had a fair knowledge of that language: the most likely person is Abu Sahl al-Masihi, who was his close companion and as a Christian physician trained in Baghdad certainly knew Syriac and may also have known some Greek.
Another feature of Avicenna’s style—characteristic of his writings and of his mode of thought—is his passion for classification. He divides and subdivides far more than any Greek author; and it is from him that mediaeval European philosophers copied that method. Classification was once considered a device of the Western mind, here we find it even more marked. Still another contribution of Avicenna in this field is his attempt to introduce more precision in the use of Arabic terms. There had already been tentative efforts in that direction by Kindi and Farabi, but theirs had taken the form of aphorisms. Only in Avicenna do we find a special treatise devoted solely to definitions and the specification of terms. This was a valuable service, and it is only since his day that most of the technical terms of logic and philosophy have acquired specific senses and values. It stands to his credit that they continue to do so to the present
Arabic philosophical language was not easy to mould. Aristotelian logic is so bound up with Greek grammar that it is sometimes doubted if it can be faithfully rendered into any other tongue. The early translators, as well as the Falasifa who followed, had some formidable obstacles to overcome. Of these perhaps the most intractable was the total absence of the copula in Arabic. A characteristic of the Indo-European languages, it does not exist in the Semitic tongues. Thus it was sometimes necessary to use almost a dozen different equivalents in different contexts in order to convey an idea, and even then the result was not always satisfactory.
Whilst Avicenna helped to establish Arabic philosophical terminology for a thousand years, and himself introduced into it abstractions never before used, he can claim to be the actual originator of Persian philosophical language. His Danish-Nameh is the first book on philosophy, logic, and the natural sciences in post-Islamic Persian. It is highly doubtful whether any such work had ever been attempted before: if so, no mention or trace of it remains. It is difficult to say what motives inspired Avicenna to undertake this work. Juzjani only tells us that it was written at the request of his patron, Ala el-Dowleh, who could make no sense of it because it was beyond his understanding. Arabic, as has already been noted, was the proper medium for theology and philosophy; and the innovation places Avicenna in line with all the other bilingual poets and prose-writers of the Persian Renaissance. Although there is nothing new in the Danish-Nameh that is not to be found in his Arabic writings, it is linguistically one of the most important books in the history of Persian prose. It abounds in the most resourceful and happy equivalents for Arabic terms, coined from pure Persian roots. Although some of them sound rather archaic after the lapse of so many years, most of them can and should be used today. Reference has already been made to the fact that his initiative was copied by his younger contemporary, Nasir Khosrow, the Ismaili poet and philosopher, who wrote a number of treatises in as pure a Persian as he could command on religious and philosophical subjects. And yet religious, social, and political exigencies militated against the development of this literary movement; and we find very few subsequent authors wishing, or venturing, to continue the effort. Ghazali and Tusi, writing not so long after Avicenna, preferred to use the Arabic terms, and the practice has continued since in all theological seminaries. Avicenna wrote some poetry also. His Arabic poems, including the celebrated ode on the soul, are elevating in thought and in theme, but they cannot be considered of great literary value. It is clear that he used the medium of verse without any artistic pretensions; and his poem on logic has nothing to recommend it (except to remind us of Empedocles and the early Greeks who wrote philosophy in verse); and the same may be said of his poem on medicine. The Persian verses that have been attributed to him are of far greater merit. It has been thought that some of the famous quatrains of Umar Khayyam are really his; and were introduced into the collection of Umar by anthologists. This, however, has been a difficult question to determine. It is quite conceivable that in his moments of loneliness—and they must have been frequent—he should have taken to verse in his own mother-tongue; but on the whole his claim to eminence cannot be extended to the field of poetry.