Ibn Sina/Avicenna

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‘Ibn Sina’s renown brought him the title ‘the leading eminent scholar’ (al-Shayk al Ra’is). Discuss the significance of his philosophical ideas with special focus on his distinction between his essence and existence, and its role in his proof for God as the necessary existent.’ Ibn Sina, or Avicenna, born 980 AD, was a leading polymath of many subjects; many of his theories are still renowned today; 240 of (approximately) 450 works can authentically be attributed to him, contributing to mainly medicine and philosophy, but also astronomy, physics, psychology, geology and even poetry. A devout Muslim and child prodigy, he had memorised the Qur’an by the age of ten, and quickly surpassed his teachers of the Hanafi Sunni school, and by the age of 16 was fully learned in the sciences of his time. After studying medicine, he turned his attention to physics and metaphysics, reading Aristotle’s Metaphysics forty times, until he had memorised it, yet he could not grasp its meaning until reading al-Farabi’s commentary which enlightened his problems of understanding. He began writing his own discourse on this topic and many others on his travels to Isfahan whilst working as a physician to Kings and other important figures, gaining prestige in medical matters and his knowledge of philosophy, theology and metaphysics was widely recognised. Even after his death in 1038 AD, his works have continued to influence philosophical and medical thought; his ‘canon of medicine’ served as the highest medical authority for 600 years, and the translation of kitab al-Shifa (Book of Healing) into Latin served as the starting point for many other prestigious thinkers, such as Aquinas, and this discourse will be further looked at here. Avicenna is considered “the most famous and influential of the philosopher-scientists of the Islamic world” There are many other Islamic philosophers that have attempted to address metaphysics, but Ibn Sina’s works alone systematically and consistently focus on both ontological and cosmological arguments that are not self-contradictory and address the underlying issue of reconciling the Islamic faith with philosophy. “Before Avicenna, falsafa (Arabic Aristotelian and Neoplatonic philosophy) and kalam (Islamic doctrinal theology) were distinct strands of thought, even though a good deal of cross-fertilization took place between them. After Avicenna, by contrast, the two strands fused together and post-Avicennan kalam emerged as a truly Islamic philosophy, a synthesis of Avicenna’s metaphysics and Muslim doctrine.” This is the primary reason for his lasting prestige; his ideas in the Book of Healing concentrated not on medicine, but on the healing of the soul and body, and held two key fundamental ideas; the distinction between essence and existence, and God as the necessary existent, a doctrine that has previously not been merged successfully. The doctrine of a ‘thing’ (shay’) proved difficult to define for the Mu’tazilis, as although they differentiated that a ‘thing’ can either be existent or non-existent; they struggled to define where the non-existent entities lay. Using the Qur’anic verse of creation: “our statement to a thing, when we wish it [to be], consist merely in our saying “Be!” and then it is.” (The Holy Qur'an 16:40), we can identify that something can exist in mentality before it exists in actuality; God thought of a ‘thing’ then willed it into being by saying “be!” and it was. This shows that the idea of the ‘thing’ existed before its reality, meaning that the Mu’tazilis were able to conceive of the ‘thingness’ of contingent entities, and their universality (of thingness) can either exist in reality or in mentality. They could not address the idea of non-existent things, (ma’dum) such as a square circle, as their impossibility cannot even exist in the mind. This idea opposes the Sunni theological perspective, where they hold that ‘thingness’ and existence are one and the same. They hold the idea of...
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