Life and Times
Abu Ali al-Husayn Abdullah ibn Sina (980-1037 C.E) was born in Afshena, Persia. He completed the memorization of the Qur’an at age 10 and immediately thereafter went onto study mathematics, physics and philosophy. He read Aristotle’s metaphysics over 40 times and at age 16 he turned to the study of medicine. He became such a prominent physician that by the age of 18, he was called to treat the Prince ibn Mansur of the Abbasid Caliphate (the ruling government of the time)(Tschanz, 2003). The era that Avicenna lived in was a golden time of intellectual growth in the Islamic world. While Europe was facing an intellectual decline during these dark ages with a halt to the progression of knowledge and philosophical debates since the Hellenistic era, the Muslim world, stretching from North Africa, including Spain all the way across Western Asia and parts of Europe to the borders of China, continued to advance in their intellectual developments and pursuits. Muslims were flirting with the ideas of Greek philosophy and Aristotelian metaphysics, while attempting to discover how their own Islamic tradition fit in with these ideas. Avicenna was drawn to these philosophical conversations and consolidated many of his ideas of theology, the nature of the human being, the soul, medicine and science into two prominent works, The Canon of Medicine and The Book of Healings. Prior to these works he served as a Vizier (political leadership) in modern day Syria (Hamdhan), but was forced to go into hiding, due to furious intellectual debates that took place between he and others in the court (Goodman, 1992). People were intimidated by his intellectual capacities and were also troubled by his unorthodox thinking and ideas. He left the court and produced many works in addition to the two major books he authored. In fact, evidence of his troubling ideas that did not quite fit very well with the Islamic orthodoxy of the time due to his being heavily influenced by Aristotelian philosophy became manifest in a rebuttal written by another influential philosopher Abu Hamid al-Ghazali. Al-Ghazali’s works made salient once again the hierarchy of intellectual worth, being the Qur’an and traditions of the Prophet at its head after the demise of Avicenna (Morowitz, 2005). Despite Avicenna’s unorthodox views, his influence in the area of medicine and science cannot be disputed and his books continued to be a source of study for five centuries in Europe and even longer in the Islamic world. During his era, physicians were afforded a high status in Islamic society as it followed from Islamic teachings that sickness was a normal part of life, a spiritual cleansing for the ill, where healers were revered as being able to speed up the recovery. This is contrary to the prevalent Christian ideas in Europe that sickness was a form of retribution for wrongdoings leaving the sick to be oft-neglected. In the Muslim world, there were traveling clinics that provided aid to underprivileged in rural areas. In this climate of receptivity to healers, Avicenna was free to explore his ideas through experimentation. Avicenna proposed applying logic to the testing of drugs and was permitted to experiment with his ideas in clinical trials (Sajadi, Mansouri & Sajadi, 2009). This led Avicenna down many paths of scientific inquiry that touched upon his ideas of psychology both from a philosophical and scientific lens.
Ideas on Psychology
Avicenna explored the area of death anxiety and noticed this was a universal fear. Avicenna stated that there were three cognitive types of causes for death anxiety. This included the following types of disordered thinking: (a) ignorance as to what death is, (b) uncertainty of what is to follow after death and (c) supposing that after death, the soul may cease to exist. He stated that the degree of anxiety one experiences is directly related to the level of knowledge one has about the idea of death (Avicenna, 1009). These ideas are similar to Cognitive-Behavioral theory as pathology is seen as a lack of understanding of the disorder that one has and disordered thinking. Once cognitive restructuring is underway, the experienced disorder should diminish. Similarly, Avicenna recommends that religio-education be sought out in order to alleviate these thoughts, thus reducing the experience of death anxiety.
Avicenna also spent a lot of time on the mind-body problem. Avicenna believed that the human mind is like a mirror and has the ability to reflect knowledge as it utilizes active intelligence (i.e. thinking). The more we think, the clearer and more polished our mirror gets, directing oneself towards the acquisition of true knowledge. Furthermore, the mind is in control of the body and there is a direct hierarchical relationship between the two. Such that, when the mind wants to move the body, it obeys. The second level of control the mind has on the body is through influencing emotions and will. Strong emotions can cause self-fulfilling prophecies, if one believes that one is going to fail, the likelihood of failure would increase. This can also cause a disturbance in health, in that the mind can influence health and impact vegetative functions (Haque, 2004). This is very similar to present scientific evidence on the influence of stress on the immune system, leading to a possible increase in physical sicknesses. Avicenna also believed that a strong personality or soul could influence others via hypnosis (called al-wahm al-amil).
Avicenna divided human perceptions into five external and internal senses: (a) Senus communis which integrates sense data into precepts; (b) imaginative faculty that conserves perceptual images; (c) sense of imagination that acts upon the imaginative faculty, producing practical intelligence; (d) moral instinct propelling one to perceive good and bad, love and hate, making up ones character and; (e) intention that conserves all of the above notions in memory and influences behavior (Haque, 2004).
Avicenna talked about psychological disorders and believed that melancholia is a disorder where one becomes suspicious and is usually mixed with certain types of phobias. He said that anger resulted when one transitioned from melancholia to mania. He believed the cause for this was an abundance of humidity in the head. Breathing results in moisture getting to the head, but if you have too much moisture in your head, it may develop into a mental disorder (Haque, 2004). The important thing to consider here is that Avicenna was considering that the causes of mental illnesses as originating in the head well before the emergence of phrenology, which directed Western thought towards modern psychology. In fact, Avicenna made other hypotheses concerning the neurological origins of various diseases, but due to religious prohibitions of cutting open the head, he was not permitted to experiment in this capacity. Avicenna also wrote about love sickness/disorder, theorizing that excessive passion was at the root of this disorder. This is reflective of his religious beliefs regarding Islamic prohibitions of excessive expressions of love towards anything other than God. This cultural difference is apparent in that modern western culture often sees love and passion as something to be highly sought after. The DSM in this regard may not necessarily be reflective of additional diagnoses that may exist in Muslim countries.
Avicenna’s influence on science and psychology in the West was certainly of value, but rarely is his name included in the books of history. He personified the ability to reconcile religion and empiricism/rationalism. This tremendous influence and task was later taken up by St. Thomas Aquinas to do the same in Europe later leading to the Renaissance and intellectual reawakening in Europe. Avicenna’s 14 volume text on medicine is still a topic of research in many Muslim countries and has led to numerous investigations into his ideas that guide some current experimentation (Tschanz, 2003). To a large extent, the field of Islamic psychology is still premature and a lot of the developments of psychology as a field in Muslim countries have been on account of importing the secularly based Western theories rooted in a Eurocentric framework (Haque, 2004). Though beneficial, Avicenna’s work offers a spiritual framework from which to approach this field based upon this indigenous knowledge and culturally congruent theory for further expansion and application with Muslim populations both in the West and Muslim world. In fact, the challenging task of bridging both the early intellectual developments of the West and East by Avicenna, despite the absence of technological resources is incredible giving him a well-rounded education and perspective. This is something that is admirable and is absolutely necessary in today’s context, given all the appropriate channels to do so in a globalized world and its growing diversity in thought.
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