Thb year 1931 is being celebrated tliroughout the Muslim world, and especially in Persia, as die millennary according to lunar reckoning of the birth of Avicenna, one of the greatest and most original thinkers produced by Islam. Born in 370 (980) at the little village of Afshana in the province of Bukhara—a region now hopelessly lost within the territories of the Soviet empire —Abu 'All al-Husain ibn 'Abd Allah called Ibn Sina (to give him his Muslim name) largely by virtue of his own exceptional genius and diligent self-instruction became a master alike of the ancient Greek learning and the Arab sciences, and was the author of large works on medicine and philosophy which, translated into Latin, continued to be studied in the medieval universities of Europe to the end of the sixteenth century.
Concerning Aviccnna's genealogy we know virtually nothing. His father 'Abd Allah, a native of Balkh, was appointed governor of an outlying district of Bukhara by the Samanid ruler Nuh II ibn Mansur, and was therefore presumably a man of some substance; his grandfather's name was al-Hasau, his greatgrandfather's name was 'All, but that is all history records of them. How he came to be called Ibn Sina is entirely obscure : it has been fancifully supposed that the name indicates a Chinese origin, but the word fur Chinese in Arabic is spelt with a different kind of 1. The region of Transoxania, territories over which die Samanid dynasty reigned, certainly had a very mixed population in the tenth century a.d. ; lying within the broad area of Iranian occupation since prc-history, it had been the scene the Arab legions carried Islam into an expanse once extensively Buddhist. It thus arises that Arabs, Persians and Turks all claim Avicenna as a compatriot; at this point of history, with the scanty information at our disposal, it is impossible to pass final judgment on the merits of these rival pretensions. But it can almost certainly be said that Avicenna had at least a half-share of Persian blood in him, for his mother's name was Sitara, which in Persian means " star ".
If our knowledge of Avicenna's ancestry and nationality is thus meagre, we are fortunate in possessing comparatively excellent sources for reconstructing his biography. For his early years we are able to rely upon his own autobiography as recorded by his pupil Abu 'Ubaid al-Juzjani, and quoted by the Arab historians of philosophy and medicine, al-Qifn (d. 1248) and Ibn Abi Usaibi'a (d. 1270) ; the story of his later life has been written by the same al-Juzjani and preserved by the same authorities. These first-hand documents have been translated and appended to this introduction. Other secondary sources confirm the facts presented in these two accounts, and add further illustrative details.
A brief summary of the political history of Persia during Avkeiuia's lifetime is necessary, to indicate die somewhat confused and unsettled circumstances under which he worked and wrote. Though nominally part of the vast empire ruled over by the caliphs of Baghdad, these territories since early in the ninth ccntury had been direcdy governed by virtually independent princes, under whom the old proud spirit, and with it the rich and varied culture of Iran, crushed by the stunning shock of the Arab conquest, was now reviving. Bukhara itself was the capital of the Samanid amirs; the first seventeen years of Avicenna's life were passed under N«|i II, whose reign was disturbed by frequent insurrections and brushes with neighbouring principalities, and saw the rise to power of the Turkish slave Subuktagin, father of die famous Mahmud of Ghazna. After Nu^'s death in 997 the Samanid kingdom rapidly broke up, the dynasty coming to an end in 999 when Mahmud the Ghaznavid overran its remaining territories.
This catastrophe marked the beginning of Avicenna's wanderings, fortunately not before the precocious youth had made himself master of many sciences and acquired that encyclopaedic knowledge upon which his later original achievements were securely based. Though Mahmud was eager to add him to the galaxy of talent and learning which he was pleased to have illuminate his court, the philosopher preferred to throw in his lot with Persian princes rather than risk the capricious patronage of the fanatical Turkish parvenu.
Avicenna's first refuge was Gurganj (Jurjaniya) in northern Khwarizm, the ruler of which had lately succeeded in reuniting the whole province under one throne, thus rcfounding the brilliant regime of the Khwarizmshahs. But he did not feel settled there, having in mind, as he tells us, to join the service of Qabus ibn Washmgir, the Ziyarid prince of Tabaristan, who in 998 regained his throne after long exile, only to lose it in 1012 before the philosopher could conic to him. After extended wanderings Avicenna eventually cunc to rest in Raiy, the capital of the eastern Buyid ruler Majd al-Daula ; his stay was not prolonged, however, for the Buyid house, once great and powerful, was now rent by family quarrels and a ready prey to adventurous rebels and more vigorous neighbours.
He next tried his iuck at Hamadhan, and found favour with Shams al-Daula, the brother and rival of his former protector Majd al-Daula. Shams al-Daula had seized power in 1015, and enjoyed his throne until 1022; during thescycars Aviccnaa was held in high favour at the court of Hamadhan, being twice appointed vizier. Shams al-Daula's son on succeeding to the rulcrship would have continued Avicenna in officc ; but the philosopher, no doubt diagnosing the mortal sickness of the regime and foreseeing its early demise, began secret overtures to transfer his allegiance to the Kakuyid ruler 'Ala' al-Daula, who from his capital Isfahan was plotting the overthrow of the Buyids of Hamadhan. Avicenna was thrown into prison by Taj al-Mulk, who however after suffering defeat at the hands of 'Ala'al-Daula sought to make his pcace with him ; but one night the great philosopher escaped in Sufi disguise and succeeded in making his way to Isfahan, his final refuge. It was in 'Ala' al-Daula's service that he ended his days in 428 (1037).
Politics have always been closely interwoven with theology in the pattern of the Islamic state ; the fortunes of princes during Avicenna's lifetime were but facets of the wider struggle between orthodoxy and schism. The caliphate of Baghdad was Sunn!, and the days were long past when the liberal Ma'tnun (d. 813), great patron of Greek learning, could nominate as his successor a Shl'ite imam. Mutawakkil (<L 847), under the influence of his fundamentalist ulema, encouraged a reaction against all foreign influences in Islam. Shfisrn, in retreat at the capital, took refuge with the semi-independent courts of the Samanids and the Buyids ; the Fatimids, establishing themselves in Cairo, secretly plotted the overthrow of the orthodox caliphs of Islam and sent their Isma'ili propagandists as far afield as distant Transoxania. Hie mystical doctrine of the hereditary Imamate, the theory of that divine light which was transmitted through the lined descendants of the Prophet—a notion itself closely related to die (44 Persian legend of the royal splendour—found welcome support in the fantastic speculations of the later Hellenistic philosoflien. bk the cdeboned Epinkt «f the Bntkmt of Purity, circulated daring the Lot quarter of the tenth century in order to win sympathy for ultra-Shi*ite political pretensions, a bold attempt was made to reconcile an allegorized Islamic theology with Neo-pythagorean, Gnostic and Hermetic notions which were the principal constituents of a characteristic oriental syncretism.
Avicenna seems almost certainly to have belonged to a Shi'ite family ; though this is not a decisive argument, all the names of his household known to us were popular in Shi'ite circles ; his father, according to the autobiography, became converted to Isma'ilism. Nuh II was a Shi'ite sympathizer, and we read with great interest of the magnificent Samanid library to which the youthful Avicenna had access ; this vast repository, later destroyed—no doubt by those Sunn! zealots who did not scruple to whisper that the torch which fired the treasury of learning was lit by the philosopher himself, jealous to keep to himself knowledge he had there imbibed—contained many manuscripts of Greek science not available elsewhere. Avicenna rejected with scorn the mumbled mysteries of Isma'ili propaganda, but made his own attempt to reconcile Islamic doctrine with Greek philosophy, unconuminatedby irrational" wisdom " accretions.
The fame of Avicenna rests chiefly upon his two greatest books. Hie Qautin, his comprehensive treatise on medicine, translated into Latin in the twelfth century, became the chief textbook of medical studies in medieval Europe and figured in university curricula for five hundred years. His Skifa, an encyclopaedia of Aristotelian philosophy and science with many original addenda, proved scarcely Ins influential in the history of human thought. The present little volume docs not pretend to estimate Avicenna's contribution to mcdicme »ad science, and is concerned with his philosophy only to a very limited extern; its chicf object is to isolate from the great maw of bis writings tome aspects of hb theological speculation.
Even during his lifetime Avicenna was suspected of infidelity to Islam ; after his death accusations of heresy, freethought and atheism were repeatedly levelled against him. The batde between free speculation and orthodox belief was decisively won by his great compatriot Ghazal! (d. mi), whose Tahafut al-falasifa (" Incoherence of the Philosophers ") ended forever any possibility that Aviccnna's system might provide the pattern for a broader Islamic theology.
It is not possible within the scope of this brief essay to discuss all the points of dispute between Avicenna and the orthodox. Some of the charges brought against him were obviously untrue, so far at least as a non-Muslim may presume to judge. He certainly believed in One God; he certainly accepted the doctrine of prophetic inspiration, and the authority of Muhammad as the lawgiver of Islam ; he both practised, and defended on theoretical grounds, the ritual worship and religious obligations of his faith. But it cannot be denied that for him, as for the Greeks of old whose writings he knew so well, God's highest gift to man was not faith but reason. And cm one most important point of doctrine he was unquestionably, gloriously heretical: he rejected unreservedly the resurrection of the body, and with it the literal acceptance of those passages in the Koran describing in graphic physical terms the pleasures of paradise and the tortures of the damned. For him, as for the Neo-platonists, the supreme reward of virtue, the purest felicity attainable by man, was the intellectual apprehension of God. A thousand years have gone by since he threw down the challenge, and never in Islam or Christianity has the paradox of a physical resurrection been more boldly or more forlornly exploded.
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