My Lord! Increase me in knowledge

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The veils of ignorance covering the world during the Dark Ages, were pierced by the appearance of a man who is rightfully called the most famous individual physician in the history of humanity. Hakim Abu Ali al-Husayn Abd Allah Ibn Sina, known in the West as Avicenna, was born in 980 A.D. near Bokhara, in what then was part of Afghanistan. Though that was the center of learning of the age, Avicenna had exhausted all of the most learned teachers while he was still in his teens. His father was a religious man who entertained many learned guests, and the young savant gathered up their discourses with zeal. By the age of ten he had become a hafiz–one who has committed the entire Qur’an to memory.

When Avicenna was twenty-one his father died, and this event, coupled with the political turmoil of the era, forced Avicenna into a period of wandering. Ultimately, he found refuge and support from the Bujid prince Shams-ad-Dawlah at Hamadan in Persia. Even such royal patronage was insufficient to shield Avicenna from the epidemic of political intrigues, and he was even imprisoned on one occasion.

But his intellect and physical stamina were so great that Avicenna managed to conduct his work as a physician and scholar despite such dislocations and hardships. Writing with his memory as his primary resource, he composed an astonishing 276 books, most of them in several volumes, covering virtually every subject of human thought and endeavor–medicine, natural history, physics, chemistry, mathematics, music, economics, and moral and religious questions. Two of his medical books have earned undisputed and unparalleled fame. The first, Kitab al-shifa’ (The Book of Healing), was a monumental work that is generally conceded to be the largest ever produced by one person. In it Avicenna developed his theories of medicine and its relevant allied sciences by expounding the doctrines of logic, natural sciences, psychology, geometry, astronomy, arithmetic, music, and metaphysics. For Avicenna, the evaluation of a “disease” was incomplete until and unless all components of a person’s life had been included in the diagnosis.

No one disputes his eminence and status as a physician. His fame rests chiefly on his second book, Al-Qanun fi al-Tibb (The Canon of Medicine), which the Encyclopaedia Britannica calls “the single most famous book in the history of medicine, in East or West.” Composed in five long volumes totaling one million words, the Canon drew together all of the medical knowledge that existed in the world up to his time, which he refined and codified into the science of medicine. Both The Book of Healing and The Canon of Medicine were translated widely, first into Latin, then into virtually every other language of the civilized world.

The Canon and other of Avicenna’s works became the basis of thought in most of the medieval schools of thought, especially that of the Franciscans. The Canon of Avicenna is the medical authority for all therapeutics, and its influence upon the development of all medicine cannot be overestimated. It has maintained its authority through ten centuries of medical teaching and practice, and even today remains the handbook for all practitioners of Unani medicine. Edward Spicer, an anthropologist at the University of Arizona, has even identified “folk remedies” used by rural Afro-Americans as originating with the Canon. Hakim Ibn Sina enjoys a place of honor unequalled by any other individual physician and is often referred to as the Prince of Physicians.

Using the work of Avicenna as their basis and inspiration, Muslim civilizations made several very important contributions to medicine: the founding of medical chemistry in the form of botany, the organization of pharmacy, and the founding of hospitals. Avicenna himself provided much of the basis for later development of fundamental chemical processes such as filtration, distillation, sublimation, and calcination. He invented the procedure of distillation of floral oils and was the first to distill essence of rose.

From the tremendous impetus of advancement of medicine supplied by Avicenna, the Arabs took the huddled masses of sick and established them in sleek and elegant hospitals. Their hospitals were immense structures with courtyards and had features such as lecture halls, libraries, mosques and chapels (they treated people of all religious beliefs), charity wards, kitchens, and dispensaries. All patients were attended by qualified male and female nurses.

Despite such glorious tributes to his work, Ibn Sina is rarely remembered in the West today and his fundamental contributions to Medicine and the European reawakening goes largely unrecognised. However, in the museum at Bukhara, there are displays showing many of his writings, surgical instruments from the period and paintings of patients undergoing treatment. An impressive monument to the life and works of the man who became known as the ‘doctor of doctors’ still stands outside Bukhara museum and his portrait hangs in the Hall of the Faculty of Medicine in the University of Paris.

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