|The wandering genius
By Farid Parsa
November 11, 2002
I had an email from my friend in NZ who is studying aromatherapy asking, "Did
you know that the father of aromatherapy was Avicenna (CB 980-1037) the Arab physician?"
I replied, "I know Avicenna, fairly well. He wasn't an Arab, but rather an ethnic
Persian and he wasn't just the father of aromatherapy." Thanks to alternative
medicine, I thought, Avicenna's name at least is more frequently mentioned than ever
before despite his impressive contribution to modern medicine in general.
Avicenna was one of the most intriguing personalities of the last millennium. His
life was intriguing because we are left with more questions than answers. The circumstances
he had to live under, how he managed to achieve as a philosopher and a scientist
is more commendable than the achievements themselves.
Avicenna who was known as the "prince of physicians" became a popular figure
as a doctor and philosopher in the West mainly through his books The Canon of
Medicine and the Book of Healing.
The Canon of Medicine served for 600 years as a standard medical textbook
in major centres of learning throughout Europe and the East, and is known as the
most important and enduring single medical book ever written. The monumental work
contains more than one million words. In this encyclopaedic work Avicenna brings
together all the medical and pharmaceutical knowledge that had gone before him and
discusses them systematically.
Avicenna writes within the Western tradition of medicine, following the teachings
of Hippocrates and Galen. His other great work is the Book of Healing. The
book gathers all the theoretical and practical knowledge, like mathematics, metaphysics,
psychology, natural sciences and logic and presents them in a single unified, up-to-date
bibliograph. Avicenna left more than 250 treaties and is considered as one of the
major interpreters of Aristotles to the Western world.
Many of us perhaps associate learning or producing high quality work with certain
degree of stability and comfort, against a backdrop of a free society, where our
liberated audience spur us on. Well, for Avicenna neither was much the case. On the
contrary, he was hunted down, imprisoned, ridiculed, accused of heresy and driven
out of places. Yet he produced, strengthened, and expanded human knowledge in spite
of his troubled life.
What we know of Avicenna's life come to us mainly through his own autobiographical
writing and a biographical account of Juzjani, his pupil, personal assistant and
a life time companion. It is also possible to examine his life by looking at the
political and religious atmosphere of his time, where he found himself in the centre
of, either directly as a political figure, or indirectly as an intellectual physician
who influenced the political elite. However, it is hard to infiltrate at any deep
level into his personality. This is probably more due to the fact that he lived in
an era where he had to hide his personal thoughts and beliefs.
Avicenna was born in Afshana a village near Bukhara. After a few years his family
moved to Bukhara, in today's Uzbekistan. The city of Bukhara was a glittering cosmopolitan
capital, drawing to itself people of wealth, power and knowledge. His reputation
as a doctor spread quickly to the courts of Samanid ruler, Nuh ibn Mansur, whom summoned
him to serve at his royal palace. By the age of 18 he became the official physician
of the Samanid monarch.
Samanids (A.D 819-999) had established themselves as the first autonomous Islamic/
Iranian rulers and favoured and supported Persian arts. It was during this period
that Persian cultural renaissance began, flourished and was cut short, by the invading
Turks from Central Asia.
At the cultured Samanid's castle, Avicenna was stunned by their royal library and
its rich collection of books. He said in his own words "I saw books whose very
names are as yet unknown to me, many-works which I had never seen before and have
not seen since. I read these books taking notes of their contents." He avidly
imbibed whatever books he could get his hands on, until the library was destroyed
by fire. The fire which he was accused of causing, indicates that he was not a very
popular person among some court officials.
But the young Avicenna was not intimidated by his enemies for he enjoyed a good degree
of freedom and support within the Samanid family whose ailments, be it physical or
psychological, he treated successfully. And later when his father died he replaced
him as the governor of Karmaytan and must have experienced some administrative power
and influence within the political life of his land.
It is not long before Avicenna's life begins to take on an entirely different course.
The Turkish tribes had begun to unite and expand under a new powerful chieftain,
Qarakhanids. The Samanids who had given some limited power to the leaders of their
Turkish populated provinces in the past, now fear the most, and are not sure whether
they could withstand their ravenous appetite for more land and power. To safeguard
their top scientists, some of whom came from other religious affiliation, including
Avicenna himself, whose father was an Ismaili, they asked them to leave and head
to Gorganj where a small Iranian dynasty ruled.
They accepted the Samanid's solicitous advice and fled to Gorganj, in Karazm where
they were received cordially and await the fate of their Samanid rulers from a safe
distance The Samanids capital, Bukhara meanwhile, is captured and the Samanids flee.
The fall of Bukhara marked the beginning of Avicenna's wanderings and the start of
the Ghaznavid imperial expansion, where eventually they came to rule all of Persia
When the Ghaznavid found out that these men have taken refuge in Gorganj they demand
that they all join their entourage in their new powerful realm but Masihi (a Christian
doctor) and Avicenna refused. Although all the other intellectual men joined the
Ghaznavid's court, mainly fearing for their lives if they did not, Avicenna deliberately
avoided any Turkish patronage throughout his life. Berouni who stayed under their
patronage, or better say surveillance, compiled a book called, "A Warning against
Avicenna and Masihi fled to Gurgan, near the Caspian Sea, hoping to seek asylum in
the local Persian dynasty, with king Qabus who was renowned for his passion for science
and philosophy. On their way to Gurgan they get caught in a violent storm and Masihi,
Avicenna's friend, teacher and mentor, dies. Masihi was a remarkable man who's 12
volumes medical books is mentioned by Berouni and were widely used throughout Persia.
Avicenna with him shared the greatest and probably the only close fellowship.
By the time Avicenna departed from Gorganj he had compiled Compendium, Import
and Substance (in 20 Volumes) Good Work and Evil ( on ethics).
On his arrival in Gurgan, he finds king Qabus, his beacon of hope, has been captured
by another rival to his throne and has died in prison. Avicenna is deeply saddened,
for his main purpose for coming to Gurgan was to be under the patronage of king Qabus.
In Gurgan however, he found an influential friend and remained there for a while.
But once again he sets out to leave, this time to Rayy. During the time he stayed
in Gurgan he composed, The Middle Summary, The Beginning and the Return, The General
observations, Summary of the Almagest, and the first part of The Canon of
Why he decided to go to Rayy is not very clear. He only says "out of necessity".
Was it because Sultan Mahmud was still after him and he wanted to distance himself
further and live and work under a more powerful Iranian king? Or was it that in a
small town of Gurgan he felt confined and restricted or even bored as an intellectual?
The fact that he chose to go to Rayy might shed some light on his decision. Rayy
was a city with more than 4000 years of history mostly rooted in his ancient Persian
past. It was a place linked directly with Zoroaster himself and was one of the 12
sacred places created by Ahura Mazda.
Rayy was a thriving city, rivalling Baghdad and Damascus in its size, learning centres
and physical beauty. And was ruled by one of the Buiyds, an Iranian dynasty. In Rayy,
there were people of his calibre, like Razi, a leading alchemist and doctor. Rayy
could have enticed him in more ways than one and to go there must have satisfied
his own personal desire, and sense of adventure.
When he arrived in Rayy, he finds that king Fakhr el-Dowlleh was dead and his widow,
Saiyyida was ruling the province. He is apparently well received by her and instead
he offered his services to her household. Once again it's hard to say whether the
services he offered were purely medical, or whether it was political as well.
Rayy, politically, was in a vulnerable state. From one side, the Ghaznavids had their
eyes on it and from the other, the son of Fakhr el-Dowleh was refused the throne
by her mother and there were other rivals to the throne as well. There is no evidence
that he was directly involved in any political activity. However, when he later leaves
Rayy for Hamedan we shall see that the political Avicenna surfaces there.
It is easy to take for granted that Avicenna enjoyed his intellectual interlocution
with others in Rayy. The leading intellectuals in Rayy were also alchemists and Avicenna
was an anti alchemist philosopher and wrote treaties against it. Razi, for example
was also a Persian who had returned from Baghdad to live and work in Rayy. He had
set up a medical clinic and lectured at the university. Razi wrote approximately
100 medical books. His most famous book is on Smallpox and Measles. The book
was translated into English, Latin and other languages and in a period of some 400
Razi was considered the greatest clinical physician of his time and was also an accomplished
musician, poet and singer. He was also known for his fearlessness in expressing his
philosophical views. He used to call Socrates as his Imam; a blasphemy to the religious
establishment of his day. And like Avicenna, Razi held the Hellenic philosophers
in high regard, risking backlash from the mainstream Islamic establishment. They
met and exchanged ideas, but it was their philosophical stance on alchemy that separated
Just over two years living in Rayy, the city is attacked by one of the sons of the
Fakhr el-Dowleh, Mad el-Dowleh and captured. Avicenna once again is resolute to move
to Hamedan, where another Buiyd prince ruled. It's not again clear why he does not
stay in Rayy. Like Razi he had established a successful medical practice and perhaps
even could have kept his link with the new king.
Other intellectuals seemed to enjoy a good degree of freedom and made Rayy their
home, so why not Avicenna? Was it because that his close relationship with Saiyyida
and her son was more than just a family doctor and he advised them on the affairs
of the state as well and played some political role that could have put his life
in danger under the new kingship? Or was he disillusioned with the city, finding
there no continuity in his ancient Persian past and was determined to find another
dynasty like the Samanid who would revive the Persian renaissance; with him as the
When Avicenna arrived in Hamedan he did not go to the
king's court, as he did in Rayy. He settled down in a modest house in the outskirts
of town. However, the news about his arrival quickly filled the city . When the king
came down with colic he sent after him for professional a visit. Avicenna successfully
treats Shams el-Dowleh and is invited to stay at the king's resident. Not long after
his stay he is offered by the king to take on the position of vizier.
But the army did not approve. For the army this new man on the block, ascended perhaps
too quickly to the second most powerful position in the state. Avicenna once again
is forced to go to hiding fearing for his safety. While he in hiding, the king is
struck by colic for the second time and Avicenna is summoned again to treat him.
This time when the king was cured he used his power to subdue the army and again
appoints Avicenna as the vizier. Avicenna quickly proved his worth as a diligent
administrator and conciliated the army generals with his knowledge and skills in
all manners of state affairs, particularly of military kind.
Avicenna's political position did not necessary guarantee him a protected life he
was after; a life dedicated more to intellectual pursuits. However, by then, Avicenna
must have realised that it was inevitable not to play a role in politics. After all
it was political instability that had driven him from one place to another and made
a gipsy out of him. And undoubtedly a politically sound government could have insured
him security, power, prestige and respect, so he could continue to fulfil his destiny
as a scientist and an intellectual in the shadow of his other personality, Avicenna
Avicenna's schedule in Hamedan as one could imagine
was tight. He had to run the affairs of the state during day, entertain people and
spend time with his king. The only time for him left was at night where he gathered
his students and got them to read his works and dictate new passages to them. These
sessions were usually rounded by live music and wine.
Once again Avicenna's stable lifestyle as the most senior public servant start to
get unpredictable after the king's death. When the army expresses its wish to the
new king (Shams el-Dowleh's son) for Avicenna to carry on as the vizier, Avicenna
for some reason refuses and goes into hiding and enters into a secret correspondence
with Ala el-Dowleh, the Buiyd king of Isfahan. It is fair to say that Avicenna was
not happy to continue as vizier because his intellectual pursuits had to be neglected
for the sake of state's affairs. And this is not what he came to Hamedan for.
When the information of his communication with the Isfahan ruler is divulged, a warrant
for his arrest is issued under the suspicions of treachery. After they discovered
his where about he is apprehended and put under the house arrest. While imprisoned
Avicenna did not cease to work and completed two works, The Book of Guidance
and The Treatise of Living.
During this period Avicenna also wrote some poetry in his native Persian, to ease
the pain of lonely and cold nights of his captivity.
After some four months as a prisoner, Hamedan is attacked and captured by Ala el-
Dowleh. Avicenna is freed but still refused to take back his old prestigious position.
When the defeated king is reinstated and Ala el-Dowleh returned to his stronghold
in Isfahan, Avicenna along with Juzjani, his brother and two slaves disguising as
Sufis leave the city for Isfahan.
Avicenna stayed in Hamedan for about nine years (1015-1024). There he wrote The
Book of Guidance, The Treatise of living, The Son of The Vigilant, The Book of Colic,
and the Cardiac Remedies. And sections of the The Canon and The
Book of Healing.
Obviously he was not interested in the position of vizier again. He saw his mission
clearly as an intellectual and is determined to leave his mark as one. He had learned
that Ala el-Dowleh is a man that loved sciences and respect and support people like
himself. Avicenna as a doctor and as vizier received respects but as an intellectual,
except the short period at the Samanid courts, hardly did. He did not, however, give
up the search for that ideal patronage where he would receive the respect he truly
deserved, as who he really was; a superb intellectual, who was miles ahead of his
When Avicenna entered Isfahan, he also entered into the last phase of his life. Ala
el-Dowleh who had set him free from prison in Hamedan received him with open arms.
He gave him a large house with the most eloquent of furniture to reside in and arranged
regular philosophical discussions at his palace, inviting all the learned men of
his kingdom to take part. Avicenna must have realised here that his gamble of wandering
finally has paid off and at last he had found his ideal patronage under Ala el-Dowleh.
Avicenna at once sets out to complete The Canon and The Book of Healing.
It is only in Isfahan that he reached his ideal
lifestyle. The king freed him from any matters of state and encouraged him to do
as he pleased. And in an introduction to one of his books he expresses his contentment
of his condition, and praises king Ala el-Dowleh who granted him his every wish.
Avicenna's restless life is also reflective of the most turbulent and exciting period
of Persian history. The Abbassid caliphs in Baghdad seek supremacy over Shiism and
Ismailism, and with their new, strong champions the Ghaznavids, they eradicated any
non Sunnies elements over their Islamic Empire. After the fall of Rayy and other
important Buiyd's capitals, all the adherents of these sects were severely persecuted
and a restrict Sunnie faith reigned supreme all over the Abbasid empire with Baghdad
as its political and religious centre.
Avicenna did not profess his faith in any particular religion, although he was suspected
to be an Ismaili. He nenver married and died at the age of 58.