Ibn Sina and "The Canon of Medicine" in Our Heritage Library

By: Hadia H. Elkhalifa, Editor and Publications Specialist
Translated by: Abolhaggag Bashir, Arabic Content Writer

Ibn Sina (or Avicenna) is the first physician to introduce psychotherapy to the world of medicine, and his book The Canon of Medicine remained, for seven centuries, European universities’ main reference in medical science until the mid-17th century. In the Middle Ages, Westerners called him the “Prince of Doctors” and the “Father of Modern Medicine.” He is Ibn Sina (or Avicenna, as he is known in the West), the Muslim polymath, physician and philosopher, one of the greatest figures of the Islamic Golden Age, whose works have been a testimony to the significant contributions of Islam to the development of European civilization, and indeed of all human civilization.

Abu Ali Al-Hussein bin Abdullah bin Al-Hassan bin Ali bin Sina Al-Balkhi, then Al-Bukhari, known as Ibn Sina, was born in 370 AH/980 CE in a village near Bukhara (in present-day Uzbekistan) to a father from the city of Balkh (in present-day Afghanistan). He died in Hamadan (in present-day Iran) 427 AH/1037 CE. He wrote about 200 books on various knowledge disciplines but focused on philosophy and medicine. Of the 450 works he is believed to have written, around 240 have survived, including 150 on philosophy and 40 on medicine.

Some sources mentioned that Ibn Sina became a doctor at the age of 18, having started studying medicine at 13. He had a distinguished reputation in medicine in his country and its neighbors. Ibn Sina’s fame reached Europe after his works were translated into Latin and Hebrew. 

Ibn Sina was able to introduce to mankind some of the most important medical discoveries, such as infectious diseases and how infections are transmitted. He wrote that water and air may contain very small animals that are not visible to the naked eye and cause some diseases. This was proven by scientists several centuries later, when the microscope, that was not available to him at the time, was invented. 

Ibn Sina wrote about the importance of environment and the diseases caused by environmental pollution. Surprisingly, he practiced experimental medicine in its modern form in a time when that was very unusual. He tested the medicines he developed on animals first and if they proved effective, he would treat his patients. He was the first to describe meningitis, strokes and paralysis caused by an internal cause in the body. Among his meticulous medical observations that were ahead of his time, are his studies of the mental disorders, in which he treated his patients by means of psychoanalysis. In examination, diagnosis and treatment, Ibn Sina followed the same methods used in our modern age, such as feeling the pulse, percussion (tapping with the fingers over the patient’s body to identify some internal diseases) and studying urine and feces for symptoms. Unfortunately, he was never given the credit for many of his methods, as they were attributed to physicians who came centuries after him.

Ibn Sina showed great ingenuity in the science of surgery. He explained several ways to stop bleeding, such as cauterization with fire, ligation, and caustic drugs, citing the importance of extracting arrows from the body without injuring nerves or arteries. Ibn Sina is considered the first to describe the inner eye muscles and the optic nerve, explaining that it, not the crystalline body in the eye, is the center of sight, as was previously believed. Ibn Sina was a skilled surgeon who performed many delicate surgical operations with great skill, such as excision of cancerous tumors, incision of the trachea, extraction of kidney stones—some of his surgical methods for treating diseases are still used today. It is also worth noting that Ibn Sina was the first to attribute fetal gender to the father and not to the mother, which has recently been confirmed by modern science.

The Canon of Medicine: An Enduring Encyclopedia The Canon of Medicine is a comprehensive encyclopedia of medical information and knowledge in which Ibn Sina expounded on the diseases that affect all parts of humans. He presented some of the most important medical discoveries that transcended that era’s capacities and capabilities. Ibn Sina is credited with discovering several diseases that still exist today. The Canon of Medicine was originally written in Arabic in the 8th century AH/14th century CE and was translated into several languages, including Persian, Latin and Hebrew, and parts of it were later printed in Milan, Padua and Venice. The Canon of Medicine enjoyed enormous prestige in the West and was so popular in Europe that some scholars in the West considered it the "Medical Bible.” It was the main reference for medicine and was taught in universities in France, Italy, Belgium and other European countries.

A Polymath Scholar His distinction and brilliance in medicine, surgery and pharmacology brought Ibn Sina worldwide fame and marked him as the founder of modern medicine. He was a true polymath. Besides being a philosopher, poet and medical pioneer, Ibn Sina was a great scholar in physics, chemistry, biology, astronomy, geology and mathematics, as well as botany, music, logic and psychology. He was ahead of his time in many areas of thought, and many of his analyses and conclusions were proven correct several centuries later. Ibn Sina received recognition from scholars and students throughout the centuries and was considered an unparalleled intellectual phenomenon. He is considered by many as one of the greatest scholars of humanity in all of history.

Journey with Editions of The Canon of Medicine in Our Heritage Library Our Heritage Library includes rare historical versions of The Canon of Medicine and its various translations, including:

1. Original manuscript in Arabic This was written in 416 AH/1025 CE in five volumes. It includes medical principles, medical materials and tools, diseases affecting one part of the body, diseases affecting multiple parts or the whole body, and prescriptions for combination drugs.  Call Number: HC.MS.2017.0033: (i24555332)

2. Gilded Latin edition This edition was produced in Strasbourg, France around 1473 CE by the famous publisher Adolphe Roche. The gilded decorations on the pages of this copy reflect the high and fine status of The Canon of Medicine in the West at the time. Call Number: HC.FB.01923(i10069641)

3. A complete illustrated manuscript from the Latin translation This translation was made by Gerard of Cremona, a famous Italian translator of Arabic works of epistemology, and it remained the standard version throughout the medieval and Renaissance period. This version, which was produced in the Kingdom of Lyon in 1498 CE, dates back to the time when the University of Paris was attracting scholars from all over Europe, and where The Canon of Medicine was the most important medical textbook. Call Number: HC.MS.LAT.01922 (i10069653)

4. First printed edition in Arabic This rare edition of The Canon was printed by the Medici Oriental Press, Rome, in 1002 AH/1593 CE. The printed version was owned by a Syriac doctor who added his own comments in the margins of the book in the Syriac language, which reflects the civilized communication and intellectual cross-fertilization between cultures at that time. Call Number: HC.AB.2014.0219 (i21371982)

Add new comment