Ibn Sina (Avicenna): The Great Physician and Philosopher

Ibn Sina (Avicenna)

One name that keeps recurring these days, as the torchbearer for historical control of pandemics, is that of great Muslim scholar, physician and philosopher, Ibn Sina. But who was Ibn Sina? Today, he is the first in our Islamic heritage month series. Enjoy:

By Rachel Hajar, M.D.

“Medicine is the science by which we learn the various states of the human body, in health, when not in health, the means by which health is likely to be lost, and when lost, is likely to be restored to health.”

Ibn Sina, The Canon


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Undoubtedly, Ibn Sina (Avicenna) is one of the great physicians in Islam and one of the greatest thinkers and medical scholars in history.

He was born in 980 AD near Bukhara in Central Asia (Uzbekhistan) and died in 1037 in Iran. Ibn Sina was born at a time of change and uncertainty in the Muslim world. He began his studies in medicine at the age of thirteen. He became a distinguished physician and his medical expertise brought him to the attention of the Sultan of Bukhara, whom he treated successfully for a serious infection. As a reward, he asked only that he be given permission to use the sultan’s library and its rare manuscripts, allowing him to continue his research.

He was associated with multiple short-lived sultanates, but relocated often, searching for a stable, well-paying position. At various times, he worked as political administrator, court physician, soldier – and occasional outcast and prisoner. During his hectic life, he managed to write nearly 100 books, one of which was al-Qanun, fi al-Tibb or The Canon of Medicine, which was first translated to Latin in the 12th century, becoming the standard textbook of medicine in European medical schools and continued to be consulted in the Muslim world well into the 20th century. William Osler described the Canon as “the most famous medical textbook ever written” noting that it remained “a medical bible for a longer time than any other work.

From the autobiographical sketch that has come down to us, we learn that Ibn Sina was precocious. At the age of ten he knew the Qur’an by heart. Before he was sixteen, he had mastered physics, mathematics, logic, and metaphysics and began the study and practice of medicine. At the age of twenty-one, he wrote his famous “Qa’nun”, (Canon) which remained the principal authority in medical schools both in Europe and in Asia for several centuries.

He served successively several Persian potentates as physician and adviser, travelling with them from place to place. Although he was known to be sociable, he was studious and serious, devoting much of his time to writing.

The Canon

Ibn Sina is known to the West as Avicenna. His book, The Canon surveyed the entire medical knowledge available from ancient and Muslim sources, of the time, in a clear and organized summary. It was originally written in Arabic and later translated into several languages, including Persian, Latin, Chinese, Hebrew, German, French, and English. In addition to bringing together then available knowledge, the book is rich with the author’s original contributions.

The Canon of Medicine set the standards for medicine in Europe and the Islamic world. It is Ibn Sina’s most renowned written work alongside The Book of Healing. Much of the book also formed the basis of Unani (Greek) medicine, a form of traditional medicine still taught in Islamic universities in India. The principles of medicine described by the Canon ten centuries ago are still taught at UCLA and Yale University, among others, as part of the history of medicine.

Avicenna’s important original contributions include such advances as recognition of the contagious nature of tuberculosis; spread of diseases by water and soil; and interaction between psychology and health. In addition to describing pharmacological methods, the book described 760 drugs and became the most authentic materia medica of the era. He wrote a book on cardiac drugs, “al-adwiyat al-Qalbia”, which was translated to English as “Avicenna’s Tract on Cardiac Drugs and Essays on Arab Cardiotherapy.” He was also the first to describe meningitis and made rich contributions to anatomy, gynecology, and child health.

Ibn Sina as psychiatrist

Ibn Sina often used psychological methods to treat his patients. One anecdote was when a malnourished prince of Persia had melancholia, refused to eat and suffered from the delusion that he was a cow. The prince would moo like a cow crying, “Kill me so that a good stew may be made of my flesh” and would not eat anything. Ibn Sina was persuaded to the case and sent a message to the patient, asking him to be happy as the butcher was coming to slaughter him, and the sick man rejoiced. When Ibn Sina approached the prince with a knife in his hand, he asked “where is the cow so I may kill it.” The patient then mooed like a cow to indicate where he was. By order of the butcher, the patient was also laid on the ground for slaughter. When Ibn Sina approached the patient pretending to slaughter him, he said, “The cow is too lean and not ready to be killed. It must be fed properly and I will kill it when it becomes healthy and fat.” The patient was then offered food which he ate eagerly and gradually “gained strength, got rid of his delusion, and was completely cured.”

The Pulse

Every beat of the pulse comprises two movements and two pauses. Thus, expansion: pause: contraction: pause.

Ibn Sina, The Canon

As a cardiologist, I was drawn to Avicenna’s descriptions of the pulse. Taking the pulse is one of the simplest, oldest, and most informative of all clinical examinations. It is a key diagnostic method in most medical traditions particularly ancient Egyptian medicine, Chinese traditional medicine, Greco Islamic, and Ayurveda medicine.

Throughout the history of medicine, the pulse was an important parameter in assessing cardiac dysfunction, and the tactile examination of the pulse was referred to as “the messenger that never fails.” The character of the pulse is still one of the most important diagnostic clues in modern medicine. Feeling and interpreting the pulse requires great skill. Pulse-taking was a skillful bedside technique in Greco-Islamic medicine and the Middle Ages.

The Pulse and lovesickness

“The learned physician should read the happiness and misery of the body by feeling the pulse at the root of the thumb which stands as the witness of the soul.”

Sanscrit Law

One ailment in the history of medicine where pulse-taking is extremely useful was lovesickness. Lovesickness is an illness that permeates the history of medicine since the time of Hippocrates. Greek physicians considered falling in love a disease that may lead to death. Historically and traditionally, we have metaphorically attributed feelings and emotions as if they actually originated from the heart. The tradition goes back thousands of years and has enriched our language and literary heritage.

Descriptions of lovesickness have changed extensively over hundreds of years but it may exist today in the guise of psychiatric disorders. The ability to diagnose it was the sign of a great physician. The Egyptian medical tradition considered the pulse as the sole “window” into heart for “the heart speaks out of every limb” and hence, the diagnostic technique employed involved pulse-taking, which became central to its diagnosis. Erasistratus, a Greek physician in the fourth century B.C., and considered the father of physiology, discovered that Antiochus, the son of King Seleucus was lovesick for his stepmother by feeling his pulse. One story tells how Ibn Sina diagnosed that a sultan’s wife was secretly lovesick over someone other than her husband while feeling her pulse and asking her questions.

Pulses out of the Canon

Pulse-taking has evolved in our time to a highly sophisticated digital beat-to-beat display with blood oxygen monitoring to aid us in making a diagnosis. Hence, careful examination of the pulse is frequently overlooked. Even though pulse-taking is low-tech and inexpensive, a thorough examination of the pulse can provide a lot of information and help form an accurate diagnosis.

In Ibn Sina’s classification we recognize certain types of arrhythmias such as atrial fibrillation, premature and dropped beats. He also described different pulses similar to pulses being observed in arterial and ventricular arrhythmias. He described more than fifty identifiable pulses. He distinguished two kinds of irregular pulses: regularly irregular or irregularly irregular, and that the difference might be difficult to appreciate. He compared the rhythm of an irregular pulse to the flight of the gazelle, the “pulsus ghazalans”. The rat-tail pulse described by Ibn Sina is similar to what is known as “pulsus alternans” secondary to a weakened myocardium. “You may feel a strong pulse followed by a faint pulse. as if you pass your hand on a rat, you feel the body, then the tail feels small compared to the body.” Undulating pulse, dicrotic pulse, and ventricular pulse are a few examples of different types of pulse that were described by him.

Ibn Sina also compared pulse rhythms to musical rhythms. The musical character of the pulse did not escape his attention for he was an accomplished poet. Some of his pulse descriptions are written in the form of Arabic poetry [the Canon was written in Arabic].

It has been over 1000 years since Ibn Sina described the characteristics of a normal and abnormal pulses and how environmental and various conditions and stimuli affect the pulse. His thesis on the pulse is remarkable and many of his remarks on the pulse are still true today but pathological correlation was absent. This is because at that point in time, postmortem examinations were not done or forbidden. Our knowledge and understanding of the pulse in health and disease have evolved by leaps and bounds since then. We know so much more about the pulse now because of the widespread availability of the ECG, sophisticated digital beat-to-beat monitor display, and electrophysiological studies. Unlike the time of Ibn Sina, we have specific therapies for different types of arrhythmias.



Avicenna was a product of the rich intellectual, cultural, and scientific ferment that swept the Islamic world. He created a complete philosophical system in the Arabic language. Among the great sages of Islamic medicine, Ibn Sina is the best known in the West. Considered as the successor to Galen, his great medical treatise, the Canon was the standard textbook on medicine in the Arab world and Europe in the 17th century.

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