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The wandering genius

By Farid Parsa
November 11, 2002
The Iranian

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 and beyond.

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 the Turks".

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 Medicine.

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 years.

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 them.

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 central figure?

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 the vizier.

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 time.

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.

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