(MUSLIMS, SCIENCE AND PHILOSOPHY – continued)
Ibn Sena (Avicenna) He believed that we have a direct and intuitive knowledge of the reality that Muslims call Allah. (Wikimedia Commons)
A century after al-Kindi there were the Persians al-Biruni and his collegue Ibn Sina, the latter known in the West by his Latinized name Avicenna. Like al-Kindi, both al-Biruni and Avicenna had a wide range of scholarly interests. Al-Biruni was born in 973 and Avicenna in 980. It is Avicenna who will be the focus here.
Avicenna was a gifted child. By the age of ten he had memorized the Koran and much poetry. He learned arithmetic from an Indian greengrocer. He began wrestling with Aristotle's metaphysics. And at the age of 16 he turned to medicine, and at 18 he acquired full status as a qualified physician.
Avicenna wrote philosophy and worked on astronomy, chemistry, geology, paleontology, mathematics and in medicine. He was a poet and a teacher. (Specialists were to be common centuries later.) In astronomy, like al-Kindi, he made his contributions within the context of the Ptolemaic view of the solar system. He described steam distillation and invented the refrigerated coil. He wrote a refutation of alchemy.
His contribution to geology concerned mountains. He wrote:
Either they are the effects of upheavals of the crust of the earth, such as might occur during a violent earthquake, or they are the effect of water, which, cutting itself a new route, has denuded the valleys, the strata being of different kinds, some soft, some hard... It would require a long period of time for all such changes to be accomplished, during which the mountains themselves might be somewhat diminished in size.
On motion he was more advanced than Aristotle, who did not understand inertia. And he advanced understanding in optics. But like the West's scholastics he tried his hand at metaphysics. He was recognized by Muslims as Islam's leading authority on philosophy. He tackled questions distilled in the words "being," "essence" and "existence," which were to concern some religious thinkers and others into the 21st century. And he attempted to describe "soul." That we exist was not being argued by philosophers, but some of them pondered and speculated about its origins or meaning. And since the pre-Socratics, philosophers had been looking for essence.
He became recognized in the Mideast and the West as one of history's great figures. He was to be made into a national icon in Iran and regarded as one of the greatest Persians. His portrait hangs in the Hall of the Avicenna Faculty of Medicine in the University of Paris. A university in Tajikistan is named after him, as are schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan. And a crater on the moon bears his name.
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