A Brief Glimpse of Islamic
Philosophy and Avicenna

By A'isha Al Medinawayyla (mka Sheri Harper)

     Around the year 529 AD, the emperor Justinian closed the philosophical schools of Athens.  This mass exodus of teachers led to the arrival of many philosophers in the East (Syria).  Around the same time (571-632), Islam was beginning its takeover of Northern Africa.  Combining  the arrival of Western  philosophy with the new belief was not an easy task.

     As in the past, the new group of Muslim thinkers , known as "falyasufs" (philosophers), were having the age old problem of reconciling philosophy with sacred text. How can the studies of Plato and Aristotle coincide with the beliefs of the Koran?

     Abu Ali al-Husayn Ibn Abd-Allah Ibn Sina, better known as Avicenna, was a Persian born intellectual.  At an early age, he already spoke Arabic ,and had thoroughly studied the Koran.  By the age of sixteen, he had finished his study of medicine, and by eighteen, had already mastered all of the philosophies available to him.  The only text that gave the young man trouble was "The Metaphysics of Aristotle".  He supposedly read it forty times before grasping the its meaning.

     Using Aristotelian categories, Avicenna said that the study of "being " is the proper study of metaphysics, and that this study applies in the fullest sense only to Allah.  Only Allah has existence as part of his nature, therefore Allah's essence includes necessary existence.  By implication then, Allah did not freely create the world and all its inhabitants, because the creation essence is now necessary.  The world was created exactly the way it was out of necessity.

     Using Neoplatonic categories, he then explained that through a series of growing intelligences, Allah did not create the world directly, but that the last of the intelligences, "active intelligence", created the world by putting form onto matter.  This is also the way individual souls come into being.  The souls are "imprints" of "active intelligence", giving us the rational principles of our knowledge.

     Apart from Aristotle's view, Avicenna went on to say that the soul is immortal and apart from the physical body. Because the soul can conceive of itself apart from the body, the soul must be a material thing.  This preceeded Descartes' "I think therefore I am" by 600 years.

     These three points: that Allah acts out of necessity, emanates through growing intelligences, and that the soul is immortal and apart from the body are contrary to the teachings of the Koran.  Avicenna dealt with the age old problem the same way modern day intellectuals deal with contradictions today.  In his opinion, the Koran was not meant to be taken literally, but as a symbolic and metaphorical way of life. The Koran should be used as a lyrical way of teaching the multitudes, a way of teaching which has been proven effective throughout the ages.

     At eighteen, he went to work as a physician and aide to a series of princes and ministers. During this time, he wrote "The Canon of Medicine", a reference book on medicine used in the West into the 17th Century. He died in 1037, at the age of  58, from what was reported as a prolific life.

Copyright 1999-2001, Sheri Harper. All Rights Reserved.

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