Avicenna Writes His

Avicenna’s five-book medical encyclopedia, the Canon of Medicine, served as the authoritative and most influential medical treatise in both the Islamic world and Europe for more than half a millennium.

Summary of Event

In 1015, at the age of thirty-five, Avicenna completed the first of five books that would make up his al-Qānūn fī al-ṭibb (1010-1015; Canon of Medicine, 1930), a task undertaken because he believed that neither the classical nor the Islamic world had produced a book that could teach the practice of medicine Medicine;Muslim as an integral whole. The end result of his efforts was a medical encyclopedia that would become the most influential single work in the history of medicine, remaining the authoritative text for both the Islamic and European worlds for five centuries. [kw]Avicenna Writes His Canon of Medicine (c. 1010-1015)
[kw]Canon of Medicine, Avicenna Writes His (c. 1010-1015)
[kw]Medicine, Avicenna Writes His Canon of (c. 1010-1015)
Canon of Medicine (Avicenna)
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Cultural and intellectual history;c. 1010-1015: Avicenna Writes His Canon of Medicine[1510] ; health and medicine; Health and medicine;c. 1010-1015: Avicenna Writes His Canon of Medicine[1510] ; literature Literature;c. 1010-1015: Avicenna Writes His Canon of Medicine[1510]
ՙAlā al-Dawlah
Shams al-Dawlah
Gerard of Cremona
Nūḥ ibn Manṣūr

Avicenna was one of the greatest philosophical and scientific minds produced by medieval Islam as well as a highly capable physician and political administrator. He was born near Bukhara, then the capital of the Persian Sāmānid Dynasty, the son of a local governor who opened his house for learned men to meet and discuss theological and philosophical issues. Avicenna, who had a private tutor since early childhood, mastered the Qur՚ān and a substantial body of Arabic poetry by the age of ten and then was instructed in Aristotelian logic and metaphysics. He impressed his tutor, Abū ՙAbd Allāh al-Natili, by his independent thought and then soon outgrew his teacher.

In his early teens, while grappling with Aristotle’s Metaphysica (348-336 b.c.e.; Metaphysics, 1801), Avicenna decided to turn to medicine, which he found easy to master by reading the numerous works of Galen translated into Arabic. He found Galen hard to reconcile with some of Aristotle’s conclusions, and he continued his intellectual struggles with Metaphysica.

At the age of sixteen, Avicenna began the practice of medicine, establishing a reputation for originating his own methods of treatment based on careful observation of symptoms and attention to detail. One year later, when the reigning Sāmānid Sāmānid Dynasty[Samanid Dynasty] prince Nūḥ ibn Manṣūr Nūḥ ibn Manṣūr fell ill, Avicenna was invited to court and successfully treated him along with other doctors. He remained at court, receiving permission to use the vast royal library containing numerous Greek works that Avicenna had never imagined to be in existence. His self-education grew by quantum leaps, along with his reputation as a skilled physician.

The fall of the Sāmānids to the Turkish-led Ghazavids forced Avicenna from court, sending him on a journey across central Persia to the courts of Buyid princes where he continued his role as a physician, before finally settling at the court of Shams al-Dawlah Shams al-Dawlah at Hamadān in central western Persia. Here he became court physician while also serving as the prince’s vizier. Avicenna’s nights were spent at Hamadān with a large retinue of students, composing and transcribing what would become the Canon of Medicine.

Also finalized was Kitāb al-shifa (book of healing; partially translated, 1927), probably the largest philosophic and scientific treatise written by a single individual, an encyclopedic synthesis of Greco-Roman knowledge, both theoretical and practical, with Islamic beliefs.

A German surgeon from a wood engraving after Hans Holbein.

(Frederick Ungar Publishing Co.)


(Library of Congress)

Following the death of Shams al-Dawlah in 1022, Avicenna fled to Eşfahān, where he was accepted as an esteemed member of the court of ՙAlā՚ al-Dawlah ՙAlā՚ al-Dawlah and continued his prolific writing, turning in his later years toward mystical spiritualism. More than one hundred of Avicenna’s major works and treatises would survive the ravages of time. He died in 1037, while accompanying his prince on a military campaign at Hamadān. About half a century later, with the first comprehensive Latin translation by Gerard of Cremona Gerard of Cremona , Avicenna’s Canon of Medicine would be born as a rapidly growing work of authority in Europe.

Avicenna’s work consisted of five books that, sharing an Aristotelian penchant for classification, were each subject to three subdivisions by Avicenna. Book 1 would rapidly be adopted on its own as a textbook on medical theory and as a standard setter for the major operating principles underlying the medical profession. Unlike Hippocrates, who viewed medicine as an art or craft, Avicenna showed it to be a science that used both philosophy and logical reasoning for practical ends. Book 1 was heavily based on Greek sources, particularly Aristotle and Galen. Avicenna pointed out the differences between the two (such as marked differences in defining the function of the heart and brain), and then proceeded to synthesize Galen, Aristotle, and Neoplatonic thought. Basically, Avicenna took Aristotle’s thought and updated it with Galen’s superior anatomical knowledge and the practical observations of Islamic physicians such as himself. Hence, book 1 contained a lengthy general discussion of the anatomy of the body.

In book 1, Avicenna tried to clarify the causes for both health and sickness that he found, like his Greek predecessors, subject to the laws of nature, a proper balance of hot, wet, cold, and dry, and a balance of four primary humors (blood, phlegm, red bile, and black bile). For Avicenna, imbalances in urine and pulse were also important monitors of the state of health.

In book 2 on meteria dedica, Avicenna blended Aristotle and Galen, while opening medical methodology to Stoic logic. Here he expounded on rules for isolating causes of disease, treatments, and means of measuring recurrence.

Book 3 was an analysis of specific diseases that affected twenty-one separate organs or organ systems, along with descriptions about how to treat each, while book 4 analyzed diseases that affect whole systems. Central ideas put forth in book 4 were the concept of crisis in fevers and the effects of toxins and tumors. Also of significance was the recognition that disease could be spread not only by bad air, but by contaminated water and soil as well, the contagious nature of tuberculosis, and the system weakening effects of intestinal worms. Avicenna also stressed the importance of minor surgery to correct whole system maladies, thus considering surgery to be part of the practice of medicine, not separate from it. Similarly, pharmacology was considered an important part of the practice of medicine, not in a world of its own, and book 5 was devoted to this end.

In book 5 on pharmacology, 760 drugs and herbs were discussed, including directions on how to prepare and administer them. In this book, Avicenna made many original contributions to medicine, including discussion of the antiseptic qualities of alcohol, the curative effects of mineral waters, and even the significance of animal experimentation in testing new drugs, along with general rules for experimental use of drugs.

The first Latin translation of the Canon of Medicine was made by Gerard of Cremona at a time when universities were beginning to rise in Europe and Scholasticism was orienting students to the ancients. Book 1 of the Canon of Medicine, with its heavy reliance on Greek sources, found its way into the universities at Padua and Salerno. By the late 1200’, using the Canon of Medicine (although not the total encyclopedia) was a standard part of a university medical education. The text could be found even in both monastic and personal libraries. By the fourteenth century, major parts of the text were translated into a variety of vernacular languages. A major retranslation into Latin was made by Andrea Alpago in the sixteenth century. More than sixty Latin editions would be printed in the sixteenth century, along with a tremendous amount of commentary to modernize the work.


Avicenna was the first Islamic thinker to synthesize Islamic thought with that of Western philosophy. The persistent and practical significance of the Canon of Medicine fell out of favor only with the increasing use of dissection and the scientific revolution of the second half of the seventeenth century. The five-hundred-year authority of the Canon of Medicine would be undermined by the direct observation that Avicenna advocated. While Avicenna would be removed as a current influence in the Western world by 1700, he would remain as one of the most influential figures in the historical evolution of medicine.

Further Reading

  • Afnan, Soheil. Avicenna: His Life and Works. London: Allen and Unwin, 1958. A standard treatment of Avicenna for the general reader, with a chapter devoted to his work in medicine and the natural sciences.
  • Amundsen, Darrel W., ed. Medicine, Society, and Faith in the Ancient and Medieval Worlds. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996. Covers the connections between medicine and religious faith, canon law on medical practice, medical ethics, and more.
  • Bakar, Osman. The History and Philosophy of Islamic Science. Cambridge, England: Islamic Texts Society, 1999. Discusses questions of methodology, doubt, spirituality and scientific knowledge, the philosophy of Islamic medicine, and how Islamic science influenced medieval Christian views of the natural world.
  • Goodman, Lenn E. Avicenna. New York: Routledge, 1992. A thorough philosophical analysis of Avicenna’s work viewed within the wider context of his times. Bibliography, index.
  • Huff, Toby E. The Rise of Early Modern Science: Islam, China, and the West. 2d ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003. Provides a strong cross-cultural background for the rise of science and medicine in Avicenna’s time. Includes illustrations, a bibliography, and index.
  • Sirasi, Nancy G. Avicenna in Renaissance Italy: The Canon and Medical Teaching in Italian Universities After 1500. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1987. The best English analysis of Avicenna’s work and its influence on Western medical education.
  • Wisnovsky, Robert, ed. Aspects of Avicenna. Princeton, N.J.: Markus Wiener, 2001. Chapters explore Avicenna’s psychology, epistemology, natural philosophy, metaphysics, and ideas on substance and materiality and intuition and thinking. Bibliography, index.
  • Wisnovsky, Robert, ed. Avicenna’s Metaphysics in Context. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2003. Chapters cover Avicenna’s ideas on perfection and the soul and explore the synthesizing of his philosophy within the work of other his contemporaries. Bibliography, index.