Ibn Sina (980–1037) Persian philosopher and physician who argued against the possibility of transmutation in Alchemy. Born Abu Ali al-Husain ibn ‘Abdallah ibn Sina, he was known by his Latinized name, Avicenna, for centuries. He is one of the most important of Islamic philosophers. He enjoyed royal patronage that earned him the title “Prince of Physicians.”
Ibn Sina was born in Kharmaithen near Bukhara (Bokhara), now part of Uzbekistan. His father was a village governor for the sultan of Bukhara. Ibn Sina was a quick student and at a young age was tutored in the Koran, poetry, Aristotlean and neo-Platonic philosophies, metaphysics, and logic. By age 13 he was studying medicine, and by age 16 he was doing charitable medical work with the sick. At age 17 he Demonstrated his medical skill by curing the sultan of a serious colic illness that the sultan’s own physicians were unable to treat. In exchange for the service, ibn Sina was given access to the sultan’s royal library.
Seven years later the sultan was defeated by invading Turks, and ibn Sina’s father died. With his royal patronage gone, he wandered from place to place, working as a physician and writing. He also indulged his passions for wine and women.
In Hamadan (now in Iran) the prince made ibn Sina court physician and appointed him twice as vizier. He was not an astute politician, and his enemies had him jailed as a political prisoner. He escaped prison disguised as a Sufi .
In 1022 ibn Sina again lost his royal patronage with the death of the prince, and he left Hamadan and joined the royal court in Isfahan as the prince’s physician. He completed his major works and wrote additional ones. While accompanying the prince on a military march to Hamadan, he was stricken with colic and died, despite his attempts to minister to himself. According to some sources, he may have been poisoned by a servant. On his deathbed he repented his licentious ways, freed his slaves, and gave all his belongings to the poor.
Ibn Sina is credited with authoring more than 450 works, of which about 240 have survived. Of those, 150 are on philosophy, and 40 are on medicine, the two topics on which he wrote most frequently. His greatest works are Qanun fial-Tibb (Canon of Medicine), an encyclopedic text that influenced medicine for centuries, and Kitab alShifa, an encyclopedic work on philosophy, science, metaphysics, and Muslim theology. He also composed works on alchemy, philosophy, theology, philology, astronomy, music, physics, and mathematics. In medicine and pharmacology especially, he was ahead of his time.
Ibn Sina acknowledged being a student of an alchemical adept known only as Jacob the Jew, a man of “penetrating mind,” he said. Jacob the Jew impressed upon him the desirability of understanding philosophies outside of one’s own religion and of following the moral precepts found in the Ten Commandments and other religious doctrines.
Ibn Sina’s comments on alchemy are in his Book of the Remedy, written while he was still in Hamadan, probably in about 1021. In medieval times it was translated into Latin as De Mineralis (“On Minerals”) and was even attributed to the authorship of Aristotle.
His most important alchemical work is Tractatulus Alchimia (“Treatise on Alchemy”). Like Jabir ibn Hayyan, ibn Sina believed that all metals are produced by combinations of sulphur and mercury in varying grades of purity. Mercury is the grand elixir. The Prima Materia has spiritual powers far beyond nature.
However, he said that alchemists cannot truly change metals or their inherent natures, but they can produce imitations; for example, they can whiten a red metal so that it resembles silver, or they can tint it so that it resembles gold. Such imitations might fool even the shrewdest expert, ibn Sina said. His dismissal of alchemy received little support at the time, for the alchemists of his day either believed in literal transmutation or at least in the theoretical possibility of it.
Ibn Sina is cited as an authoritative source for some of the material found in various grimoires, handbooks of magic.
- Holmyard, E. J. Alchemy. New York: Penguin Books, 1957.
- Morewedge, Parvis. The Mystical Philosophy of Avicenna. Binghamton, N.Y.: Global Publications at SUNY Binghamton University, 2001.
- Patai, Raphael. The Jewish Alchemists. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1994.
- Waite, Arthur Edward. Alchemists Through the Ages. Blauvelt, N.Y.: Rudolph Steiner Publications, 1970.