Avicenna, the prince of physicians

Shireen Rafeeq
Public Health Consultant, Islamabad, Pakistan


Fig. 1: Avicenna – The “Persian Galen”
(c. 980-1037 A.D.) Robert A. Thom, 1953

This image is one of 40 paintings commissioned by the pharmaceutical company Parke Davis in 1953 for a book titled “History of Pharmacy in Pictures.” This painting shows Avicenna holding a tablet with ancient Arabic characters. The artist had to repaint the characters when he was told that the ones he had painted were 300 years older than the ones used in Avicenna’s time. Of all the paintings that he did,
it was this one which consolidated Thom’s reputation as an artist.

When Husain Ibn Sina said in his memoirs that he understood all the sciences “as far as is humanly possible,” he was not exaggerating.1 Known to the West as Avicenna, he was one of the most extraordinary men ever to grace this earth. Sir William Osler called him “the prototype of the successful physician who was at the same time statesman, teacher, philosopher, and literary man.”2 George Sarton wrote that Avicenna was one of the “giants of medieval times.”3 Apart from medicine and philosophy, he also made significant contributions to mathematics, physics, astronomy, psychology, geology, religion, music, and poetry.4 In his lifetime he was a legend and his name still evokes awe. Numerous awards have been instituted in his name,5 and even a crater on the moon has been called after him.6

For most men such fulsome praise would sound excessive. For Avicenna, words fail to do justice to all his achievements. His life is well-documented in the writings of his contemporaries but also because he wrote an autobiography which was augmented by a biographical sketch by one of his students.7 He lived in times of great political turbulence8 but also of great intellectual activity by Muslim scholars, who preserved the Greek, Roman, and Sanskrit texts and also contributed greatly to science and arts, thus laying the foundation for the European Renaissance.9 Avicenna was born in 980 near Bokhara (currently Uzbekistan), the capital of the Samanid dynasty and a center of culture and civilization.10 His father was governor in one of the villages of Sultan Nuh Ibn Mansur, and men of learning gravitated to his house.11 It was in this stimulating and intellectual company that Avicenna grew up.

His father put him under the tutelage of famous scholars and teachers. Avicenna showed a voracious appetite for learning. By the age of ten he had memorized the Quran and vast amounts of literature.12 He studied mathematics, logic, physics, astronomy, law, mysticism, and soon outpaced his teachers.13 He then studied on his own. He wrote that he was largely self-taught but received help at critical junctures.14 Then he decided to become a physician. He said “Next I sought to know medicine, and so I read the books written on it. Medicine is not one of the difficult sciences, and therefore I excelled in it in a very short time, to the point that distinguished physicians began to read the science of medicine under me…In addition I devoted myself to jurisprudence…at that point being sixteen years old.”15

Fig. 2: The map outlines the route along which Ibn Sina wandered
in search
of peace and stability

Map from Ibn Sina by Vassili Ternovski, 1969,
Editions Nauka, Moscow, printed in “My Odyssey,”
The Unesco Courier. October, 1980.

At this tender age he was an accomplished physician and cured the Sultan of a seemingly untreatable disease. As a reward, he sought access to the royal library, which was richly stocked with precious manuscripts from all over the world.16 By the time he was eighteen, he had absorbed the contents of the entire library, and never studied those subjects ever again.17 He wrote, “Everything I knew at that time is just as I know it now; I have not added anything to it to this day.”18 At the age of twenty-one he had acquired expertise in all major subjects.19 His fame as a physician spread far and wide and he became known as the “Prince of Physicians.”20It was indeed debatable whether he was a better physician or a better philosopher.21 In spite of scientific study being his overriding focus in life he was not immune from worldly pleasures, especially wine and women.22Avicenna has been described as possessing an impressive figure with striking good looks.23 He was a noble and dignified man who enjoyed music and was an accomplished composer and poet.24 As he put it, “God, who is exalted, has been generous…so I use every faculty as it should be used.”25    

With the fall of the Samanid dynasty at the hands of the Turks and the death of his father, his settled and comfortable life changed forever, and from then on he was forced to lead the life of a wanderer,26 unable to settle down in any place.27 He said, “When I became great, no country could hold me;/When my price went up, I lacked a buyer.”28

After the fall of the Samanids, Avicenna worked his way through various Persian cities such as Gurganj, Khwarazm, Gurgan, and Ravy in search of stability, working as administrator and physician by day and writing or tutoring students during evenings and nights. He also had to accompany his benefactors on military expeditions.29 At times, he was even forced into being part of some ruler’s court as a form of tax to the victor, as happened in Gazna for a while.30 In Hamadan he was appointed vizier to King Shams Al-Dawlah after treating him successfully for colic; however, he soon became the target of jealousies and spent time either as a political prisoner or hiding from opponents.31 Eventually he escaped to Isfahan disguised as a Sufi and joined the court of Prince Ala al-Daula; it was here that he found relative stability and finished most of his work.32

In spite of his unsettled and chaotic lifestyle he continued his prolific work,33 working and writing ceaselessly, by night and day, whether in prison or travelling; he even wrote or dictated his work on horseback.34 Who knows what further heights he could have achieved if he had been financially independent like Newton or Plato. He had access to no research institutes. He could not even carry his books with him on his travels and carried all his knowledge in his head. His work was self-funded; he had no assured courtly patronage, and his life was one of adversity, but this did not hold him back.35 He had an extraordinary understanding and phenomenal memory.36 When the Samanid Royal Library burned down during the invasion, people consoled themselves saying that the contents were preserved in Avicenna’s mind.37 It appears that only Aristotle’s Metaphysics posed a challenge to him. He said that he read it forty times and still could not understand it; only after reading Al-Farabi was he was able to make sense of it.38


Fig. 3: A physician talking to a patient in a garden

A lacquered binding board cover of the Canon of Medicine, 1632. The illustration is believed to be about a legend regarding Avicenna and a sick prince. By keeping his hand on the prince’s pulse while he asked questions and by noting which questions caused the pulse to ‘flutter’, Avicenna diagnosed that the young man was love-sick and prescribed marriage to his beloved as the best remedy.

In 1037 he took ill on a military expedition and died in spite of attempting to treat himself. It is said he died of a severe colic, an ailment he had often cured in others.39 He was buried in Hamadan (current day Iran).40 According to legend, he had instructed his servant to give him five medicines in succession. His servant complied and with every dose he seemed to improve; unfortunately the nervous servant dropped the last medicine and so ended the life of a sage; fortunately, his work lives on.41

His works are mostly in Arabic, the norm for scientific discourse at the time.42He wrote some 450 books and treatises, of which 240 still exist.43 Copies of his manuscripts are available in libraries around the world and some have been preserved by UNESCO.44 Unfortunately, much of his work has been lost. His brilliant Treatise of Illuminative Philosophy was destroyed in his lifetime.45Among the surviving work are two books that had an immense impact on the world: the masterpiece on philosophy, Kitab al-Shifa (The Book of Healing) and the monumental Al Qanun fi al-Tibb, (The Canon of Medicine).46 The latter is arguably the most famous medical book in history.47 He wrote these books as a cure for the soul and for the physical body.48 Also preserved are his commentaries on Aristotle, his interpretation of some parts of the Quran, his autobiography (Al Sira bi Qalam Sahib al Sira), and treatises on subjects as varied as music and geology.49

The Book of Healing consists of eighteen books,50 basically an elucidation of ancient philosophy but also dwelling at length on natural sciences and mathematics.51 It was considered unorthodox and remained a matter of debate among Muslims and non-Muslims alike.52 The Canon of Medicine was the perfect blend of the entire medical knowledge up to that time, Greek, Chinese, Sanskrit or Islamic, along with Avicenna’s own contributions such as descriptions of meningitis and spinal tumors.53 He described it thus, “I prepare this book on medicine setting forth its general and particular laws to the full extent necessary, and yet with apt brevity.”54 Similar work had been done by al-Razi and al-Majusia, who also propounded the works of Aristotle and Galen; however, The Canon was written in a concise and systematic order never seen before, with references to past work and pioneered the modern scientific method with rules for experimentation outlined by Avicenna.55

Avicenna started writing The Canon in 1012 and finished it in 1024.56 It won immediate recognition and the author was conferred the title “Galen of Islam.”57 Translated into Latin by Gerard of Cremona in the twelfth century, it became the most studied medical book of all times.58 It was said that “A good doctor must be a good Avicennist.”59 It became the basic reference book in all medical schools for over six hundred years;60 it is still in use in some parts of the East.61 According to Osler, The Canon was “the most famous medical textbook ever written” and maintained its status as “a medical bible for a longer period than any other work.”62

Avicenna’s work eventually fell out of favor in many places. The Book of Healing was burned by the Islamic ruler in 1160 and the Catholics later banned it too.63 The Canon too was burned by Swiss physician Paracelsus in the sixteenth century.64 It was rubbished during the Renaissance, when the medieval physician Arnold of Villanova called him “a professional scribbler who had stupefied European physicians by his misinterpretation of Galen.”65 Nevertheless, Avicenna’s genius has stood the test of time. His own contributions to the scientific method are invaluable and without him the ancient works would have been lost forever.66 US Professor John Urquhart said that Avicenna’s work is still relevant to modern medicine. In 2006 he compared The Canon to an influential 19th century book, Osler’s Principles and Practice of Medicine’, and concluded,

If the year were 1900 and you were marooned and in need of a guide for practical medicine, which book would you want by your side? My choice was Ibn Sina. A leading reason is that Ibn Sina gives an integrated view of surgery and medicine, whereas Osler largely shuns intervention. …The gap between medicine and surgery is now closing, with the advent of interventional cardiology, gastroenterology, radiology etc. Ibn Sina correctly saw medicine and surgery as one.67


    1. Abu Ali al Husayn Ibn Sina and Abd al-Wahid al Juzjani, The Life of the Shaykh Al Ra’is, trans. William E. Gohlman, in The Life of Ibn Sina, A Critical Edition and Annotated Translation, ed. George F. Hourani et al (Albany, New York: State University of New York Press, 1974), 31. http://www.islamicmanuscripts.info/reference/books/Ibn-Sina-1974-Autobiography/Ibn-Sina-1974-Autobiography-000-105.pdf.
    2. William Osler, “The Evolution of Modern Medicine” (a series of lectures on the Silliman Foundation, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut, April 1913) (under Arabian Medicine, Chapter III: Medieval Medicine), http://www.gutenberg.org/files/1566/1566-h/1566-h.htm.
    3. George Sarton, A Guide to the History of Science, (Waltham, Mass.: Chronica Botanica Company, 1952), 28, https://archive.org/details/guidetohistoryof00sart.
    4. Asita S. Sarrafzadeh et al, “Ibn Sina (Avicenna): Historical Vignette,” Neurosurg Focus 11 (2001): 1 (Article 5), http://thejns.org/doi/pdfplus/10.3171/foc.2001.11.2.6.
    5. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), Division of
      Ethics of Science and Technology, Avicenna and the Ethics of Science and Technology Today, (Paris: UNESCO, 2004), 30. http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0013/001344/134475e.pdf.‎
    6. “Lunar Features Named after Mathematicians,” University of St. Andrews. Accessed 23 February, 2014. http://www-history.mcs.st-andrews.ac.uk/Societies/LunarFeatures.html
    7. J. J. O’Connor and E. F. Robertson, “Abu Ali al-Husain ibn Abdallah ibn Sina (Avicenna),” University of St. Andrews. Accessed 23 February, 2014. http://www-history.mcs.st-andrews.ac.uk/Biographies/Avicenna.html (under Avicenna biography).
    8. Ibid.
    9. Izet Masic, “Thousand-Year Anniversary of the Historical Book: “Kitab al-Qanun fit-Tibb”- The Canon of Medicine, written by Abdullah ibn Sina,” J Res Med Sci 17 (2012): 993-1000. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3702097/).‎
    10. O’Connor and Robertson, under Avicenna biography.
    11. Ibid.
    12. Ibn Sina and al Juzjani, 19.
    13. Ibid., 19-25.
    14. O’Connor and Robertson, under Avicenna biography.
    15. Ibn Sina and al Juzjani, 25-27.
    16. Ibid., 35-37.
    17. Ibid.
    18. Ibid., 31.
    19. Sarafzadeh, 1.
    20. Mohammad Ghannaee Arani et al, “Ibn Sina’s (Avicenna) Contributions in the Treatment of Traumatic Injuries,” Trauma Mon 17 (2012): 301-304, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3860635/.
    21. Masic, 993-1000.
    22. UNESCO, Ethics of Science and Technology, 7.
    23. Ibrahim Madkur, “Al Shifa: the World in a Book, The Unesco Courier. October, 1980. http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0007/000747/074765eo.pdf. (p. 27)
    24. Muhamed S. Asimov, “Avicenna-Ibn Sina: A Universal Genius”, The Unesco Courier. October, 1980. http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0007/000747/074765eo.pdf. (p. 4).
    25. Ibn Sina and al Juzjani, 83 (footnote).
    26. O’Connor and Robertson, under Avicenna Biography.
    27. Sarrafzadeh, 1.
    28. Ibn Sina and al Juzjani, 43.
    29. O’Connor and Robertson, under Avicenna Biography.
    30. Masic, 993-1000.
    31. Ibn Sina and al Juzjani, 51-53.
    32. O’Connor and Robertson, under Avicenna Biography.
    33. Ibid.
    34. Asimov, 4.
    35. UNESCO, Ethics of Science and Technology, 12-13.
    36. Ibid., 5.
    37. Asimov, 4.
    38. Ibn Sina and al Juzjani, 33-35.
    39. “Milestones in a Restless Life,” The Unesco Courier. October, 1980. http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0007/000747/074765eo.pdf. (pg 12).
    40. Ibn Sina and al Juzjani, 89.
    41. Asimov, 8.
    42. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, “The Works of Ibn Sina in the Sϋleymaniye Manuscript Library Today”, accessed February 22, 2014, http://www.unesco.org/new/en/communication-and-information/flagship-project-activities/memory-of-the-world/register/full-list-of-registered-heritage/registered-heritage-page-8/the-works-of-ibn-sina-in-the-sueleymaniye-manuscript-library/.
    43. Ibid.
    44. Ibid.
    45. UNESCO, Ethics of Science and Technology, 7.
    46. Ibid., 6-7.
    47. O’Connor and Robertson, under Avicenna Biography.
    48. Masic, 993-1000.
    49. UNESCO, Ethics of Science and Technology, 7.
    50. Masic, 993-1000.
    51. Ibid.
    52. Ibid.
    53. Ibid.
    54. Avicenna, The Canon of Medicine (al-Qanun fi al-Tibb), trans. O. Cameron Gruner, in A Treatise on the Canon of Medicine of Avicenna, (New York: Random House, [1914] 1983) (London: AMS Press, [1930] 1973), http://archive.org/stream/AvicennasCanonOfMedicine/9670940-Canon-of-Medicine_djvu.txt. (under “Introductory words”)
    55. Masic, 993-1000.
    56. Ibid.
    57. Daniel J. Boorstin, The Discoverers, (New York: Random House, [1914] 1983), 346, http://m.friendfeed-media.com/9ab0b7509bc67ddd3bcc7e331e804d8bff11a0c7.
    58. Arani, 301-304.
    59. Osama A. Tashani and Mark I. Johnson, “Avicenna’s Concept of Pain,” Libyan J Med 5 (2010): doi: 10.3402/ljm.v5i0.5253.
    60. Masic, 993-1000.
    61. UNESCO, Ethics of Science and Technology, 6.
    62. Osler, Chapter III.
    63. Masic, 993-1000.
    64. New World Encyclopedia, s.v. “Paracelsus,” last modified April 3, 2008, URL: http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/p/index.php?title=Paracelsus&oldid=687265 (under “Life”).
    65. Encyclopaedia Britannica, s.v. “Avicenna,” last modified Jan 31, 2014, URL: http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/45755/Avicenna. (under “Assessment”).
    66. Ibid.
    67. John Urquhart, letter to the editor, British Medical Journal 332 (2006): 120, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1326980/pdf/bmj3320120b.pdf.



SHIREEN RAFEEQ, MBBS, MPH, MSc, is a medical doctor specialized in public health and nutrition.  She grew up in a family steeped in arts and literature and then found herself living with military precision, travelling all over the country (and abroad) due to her husband’s assignments as an Air Force officer.