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The Arab who changed the West

A study on Avicenna reveals the geniality of the thinking that brought philosophy to Western countries

‘Abu ‘Ali al-Hussein ibn ‘Abd Allah ibn al-Hassan ibn ‘Ali ibn Sina (980-1037) is the author of the work as extensive as his name. Known by Westerners as Avicenna, he wrote more than one hundred books, in which he dealt with logic, natural science, mathematics, metaphysics, theology and medicine. Translated from Latin during the 12th century, he is one of the fathers of Medieval philosophy. His texts were read in the West even before those of Aristotle, a fact that led respected historians of philosophy, among them the -Medieval philosopher Alain de Libera, to consider him to be the introducer of science and of religious rationality into the Western world.

Even then, studies into his work are in short supply Avicena – A Viagem da Alma [Avicenna – The Journey of the Soul] (Fapesp, Editora Perspectiva; 348 pages), written by Rosalie Helena de Souza Pereira, is an attempt to revert this picture and focuses its attention on an examination of the Epistle of Hayy ibn Yaqzân, a text in which Avicenna narrates in figurative language the travels of the human soul towards knowledge.

According to the researcher, in this text the rigorous philosophical considerations go hand in hand with the occult feelings present in traditions linked to philosophy, such as Hermetism and Gnosticism, both popular variations of Neoplatonic thinking. This plurality of feelings gave rise to interpretations that swing either to the side of the philosophy of reason or towards that of “occult feelings”. Her proposal is the conciliation of these two lines. “I want to show that the matrix of thought of Avicenna is not only that of Aristotelian, as some would like, but as well Neoplatonic”, says the researcher.

The Epistle does not figure among the most famous works of the Arab thinker, better known as the author of the encyclopedia Al-Shifâ’ (The Cure) and of Al-Qanûn fî al-Tib (Canon of Medicine) . Two examples are sufficient to show the measure of the impact of these works on the West. The first, which had parts translated from Latin in the 12th century, is cited more than two hundred and fifty times in the Summation of Theology by St. Thomas Aquinas. On the other hand the Canon was the book that served as a basis for the teaching of medicine until the 17th century which made of Avicenna, alongside Hippocrates and Galen, one of the pillars of the theory and practice of medicine in the West.

In the opinion of the medievalist Alain de Libera, the text of Avicenna is the first magnificent philosophical work that arrived in the West. In Thoughts on the Middle Ages, he wrote: “It is forgotten with considerable frequency that the Latin scholars knew of Avicenna before Aristotle had been translated in its entirety”. Further on, he asserts with even more emphasis. “If there was in the 13th century a philosophy and a theology marked as “scholasticisms”, it is primarily because Avicenna had been read and studied from the end of the 12th century. It was Avicenna, not Aristotle, who initiated philosophy into the West”.

At this point it is worth remembering that Aristotle, as well as Pythagoras, Plato, Plotinus, Porphirius, Alexander of Aphrodisiac, Galen and Iamblichus, could only have been “discovered” during the Western Middle Ages because of the translations of the original texts in Arabic carried out by the Nestorians, Jacobites and Melkites Christians, who, fleeing from religious persecution, settled in the region of Mesopotamia from the 5th century on. These are the classical authors of the matrix of Arabic thought that was to develop over the following centuries, characterized by a cultural effervescence in which nobody remembers the “dark days” into which part of Europe had plunged during the same period.

For example, during the caliphate of Harun al Rachid, which was in force between the years 786 and 809 of the Christian calendar, works on medicine, astronomy, morality, music, geography and alchemy were translated. The translation of the works on animals and botany by Aristotle, of some of the speeches by Plato, and the establishment of the tales of One Thousand and One Nights were also of this period. A little more than a century previously, the act that unchained all of this process occurred: the coming forth of the Koran, the primordial source of Islamism and the third divine book, preceded byTorah and the Gospels. Composed of some six thousand verses, the book brought with it the basic principal of Arabic thought which would develop from that point forward: the uniqueness of God.

Consequently, it is not possible to separate with clarity the theology of philosophy practices at that time, since this latter was born of the necessity to confer rational fundament to divine revelation. In this manner, philosophical thinking in Islam aimed to systematize the meeting between the recently born faith in the Koran and those earlier Logos inherited from the Greeks. Towards this end the Arab philosophers worked with Avicenna at their head.

Shortly afterwards, in the Latin Middle Ages adherent towards Christianity, this same attempt to apply the reasoning inherited from the Greeks in order to build upon Christian religious belief would be the driving force of thinking. Once again it is Alain de Libera who explains. “If, like Heidegger, we would want to characterize Western metaphysics as an “onto-theology”, it is through Avicenna that we must, for various generations, search for his decisive entry and his directive model”, wrote the Medievalist. And further on complemented. “Therefore it is with Avicenna that the influence of Muslim thinking concerning the Latin Middle Ages acquired its first and true contour: this author did not just initiate the Western world into reasoning, in its profane use, in a word, through science; he also introduced into religious rational, a rationality very precise placed in service, for the first time and of rigor, within a monotheistic religion.”

A lively life
It is possible to get close to the thinker by a less complicated pathway. For example, his life was lively and, at least from judging what he left relating to his autobiography, full of situations that would not be undesirable in a work of fiction (the writer Noah Gordon had contemplated the idea of including Avicenna as a personality in his best-seller The Physicist). At ten years of age he was a remarkable expert on grammar, theology and knew the entire Koran by heart. At sixteen, he cured Sultan Nuh ibn Mansur of an incurable disease and turned himself into a protected citizen. Initiating himself into the studies of Euclides and Porphirius, he read the Metaphysics of Aristotle more than forty times before publishing his first piece of work at the age of twenty one.

Avicenna was very good looking, and we are led to believe, a little arrogant. “Medicine doesn’t make up part of the difficult sciences and for that reason I distinguished myself well in it within a short period of time, so much so that eminent doctors began to read the science of medicine under my guidance”, can be read in his autobiography. It is not surprising that during his lifetime he collected detractors. Some of the commentators of his time considered him to be a cheap wizard, given the little orthodoxy of his methods. Others saw him as a traitor to Islam, given his propensity towards excesses: he drank wine in huge quantities and had his death attributed to his greatly publicized gastronomic and sexual appetite.

Whether it be through his life or through his work, what is important is to have clarity when examining at close range the thinking of Avicenna and to understand with more clarity what is in the origin of a process of crucial thinking for the development of philosophy. “Unexplored by us Brazilians, the Arab medieval philosophy marks its importance in a double registration”, writes the researcher. “As well as widening the horizons of philosophical reflection and contributing to a greater understanding of the cultural patrimony of humanity, it turns us into, by way of the Iberian Peninsula, debtors to the Arabs who at that time left a significant cultural vestige, built during almost eight centuries of permanence.”

The project
Avicenna – The Journey of the Soul (nº 00/11765-8); Modality Publication assistance; Researcher Rosalie Helena de Souza Pereira;
Investment R$ 5,000.00