The Achievements of IBN SINA in the Field of Science and His Contributions to Its Philosophy

By Nasr, Seyyed Hossein | Islam & Science, December 2003 | Go to article overview

The Achievements of IBN SINA in the Field of Science and His Contributions to Its Philosophy


Nasr, Seyyed Hossein, Islam & Science


Ibn Sina is generally known as one of the most important philosophers and physicians, one whose contributions to science and philosophy have attracted numerous studies. This article provides an outline of his philosophy of science which determined the framework for his understanding of natural philosophy. Rather than being of historical interest, the article argues, Ibn Sina's philosophy of science is a useful beginning for developing a contemporary Islamic philosophy of science. The article also discusses Ibn Sina's importance in the philosophy of health and medicine.

Keywords: Contributions of Ibn Sina in various sciences; Islamic philosophy of science; health and medicine in Islam; Ibn Sina and contemporary Islamic intellectual thought.

Ibn Sina is without doubt the most widely known intellectual figure concerned with science in Islamic civilization. He has, in fact, gained the image of a folk hero, especially in the zones of Arabic, Persian, and Turkic cultures, where numerous stories concerning his exceptional intellectual powers came into being in the form of folktales told by grandmothers to their grandchildren over the centuries. Moreover, his medical heritage is alive wherever Islamic medicine is still practiced, such as in Pakistan and India, and his influence as a philosopher and even theologian is to be felt wherever the Islamic philosophical tradition survives, as in Persia. The sign of respect for him as almost the archetype of the Muslim philosopher-scientist can be seen in the number of hospitals, schools, and centers of research bearing his name from Morocco to Malaysia.

In this essay we shall limit the definition of science to the mathematical and natural, while remembering that Ibn Sina also made major contributions to the sciences of language, music, psychology, etc., and even the occult sciences (al-'ulum al-gharibah), not to speak of the supreme science or metaphysics (al-ilahiyyat) which determined the framework for his understanding of natural philosophy (al-ilahiyyat). Because of the fame of Ibn Sina in both the West and in the Islamic world, numerous studies have been devoted to him and even if we were to limit ourselves to the above given definition of science, it would still be necessary to compose a large work and in fact many volumes to do justice to Ibn Sina's contributions to science and its philosophy. (1) Here we shall provide a simple summary based on a lifelong study of his philosophical and scientific works, without claiming to have exhausted the discussion of any of the fields to which he made contributions.

Before turning to specific sciences, it is essential that we deal with Ibn Sina's contributions to what in today's terminology would be called "philosophy of science" and the more traditional category of natural philosophy, which are in fact the most important aspects of his scientific legacy, worthy of much more study than has been granted them until now. It is our belief that in this aspect of Ibn Sina's work is to be found one of the major cornerstones for the creation of a contemporary Islamic philosophy of science. His discussion of the relation of physics to metaphysics, the meaning of form (Eurah) in both physics and the biological sciences, the relation between various sciences in the context of the Islamic intellectual tradition and many other subjects dealt comprehensively by this remarkable figure are of great relevance today and are not only of historic interest.

Before Ibn Sina, philosophers such as al-Kindi and al-Farabi had been concerned with the classification of the sciences, which is a matter of great significance for a worldview based on tawhid and the consequent inter-relation of all branches of authentic knowledge. Ibn Sina continued this effort with greater knowledge of particular sciences than his illustrious predecessors and also at a time when the various sciences had developed more fully. His treatise Fi aqsam al-ulum al-'aqliyyah (Classification of the Rational Sciences) as well as his classification of the sciences in his Kitab al-shifa' (The Book of Healing) are major contributions to a subject of great importance in Islamic civilization, namely the rapport between various sciences, both intellectual and religious. …

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