Abu ‘Ali al Husayn Ibn Sina, or Avicenna, was born in northern Persia (present-day Iran) and as a youth studied both mathematics and medicine and expressed a keen interest in philosophy. His five-volume al-Qanun fi’l tibb, translated into Latin with lists of known diseases, treatments, and medicines, was the standard medical reference work in the Christian and Islamic worlds for several centuries. Ibn Sina not only was a clinician, but also sought to synthesize the entire body of medical knowledge of the age. He approached the study of medicine as a science, not just as a practical profession.
Ibn Sina’s vast oeuvre, mostly in Arabic but also in Persian, dealt with philosophy, psychology, musical theory, autobiography, and even two short stories. Although Ibn Sina and other Muslim philosophers often did not know classical Greek, they were familiar with the classics through translations made by Christian Arabs.
Ibn Sina accepted much of Platonic thought and attempted to harmonize it with eastern belief systems in a form of Neoplatonism. In this regard Ibn Sina carried on the approach of Abu Nasr al-Farabi (c. 878–950), an earlier Muslim philosopher to whom Ibn Sina paid homage. As part of a chain of Islamic scholars, Ibn Sina’s ideas were expanded and reworked by Averroës.
In his encyclopedia of philosophy, Kitab al-shifa, Ibn Sina argued for the need to understand the natural world and supported the application of rational thought. Nor, he argued, were rational thought and religious belief necessarily contradictory. He disagreed with accepted Islamic thought regarding cosmology and expressed a low view of the intellectual ability of society in general.
Ibn Sina and other Muslim philosophers accepted the Qur’an as the holy revealed text of Islam but believed it was open to interpretation and that every word need not be accepted literally. Many Sunni scholars accepted Ibn Sina’s approach and his works had a long-term impact in Islamic thought. Others, in particular the later Ibn Taymiyya, vehemently denounced Ibn Sina’s approach.
In the last years of his life, Ibn Sina served as a wazir (minister) to the Buyid dynasty that gained control over parts of the Muslim territory as the Abbasid dynasty in Baghdad disintegrated. In Europe, Ibn Sina’s ideas and his review of Aristotle’s work in Kitab al-shifa had an impact during both the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.