[This is taken from Claud Field's Mystics and Saints of Islam, originally published in 1910.]
Avicenna, now best known as a philosopher, was perhaps better known in the middle ages as a kind of magician owing to the mastery of medical science. His father was a native of Balkh, but removed from that city to Bokhara; having displayed great abilities as a government tax collector he was appointed to fill that office in a town called Kharmaithen, one of the dependencies of Bokhara. Here Avicenna was born. At the age of ten years he was a perfect master of the Koran, and had studied arithmetic and algebra.
The philosopher An-Natili having visited them about that time, Avicenna's father lodged him in his own house, and Avicenna studied under him logic, Euclid and the Almagest (an astronomical treatise of Ptolemy). He soon surpassed his master, and explained to him difficulties and obscurities which the latter had not understood. On the departure of An-Natili, Avicenna applied himself to the study of natural philosophy, divinity, and other sciences. He then felt an inclination to learn medicine, and studied medical works; he treated patients, not for gain, but in order to increase his knowledge. When he was sixteen years of age, physicians of the highest eminence came to him for instruction and to learn from him those modes of treatment which he had discovered by his practice. But the greater portion of his time was given to the study of logic and philosophy. "When I was perplexed about any question," he says in an autobiographical fragment, "I went to the mosque and prayed God to resolve the difficulty. At night I returned home; I lit the lamp, and set myself to read and write. When I felt myself growing tired and sleepy I drank a glass of wine, which renewed my energy, and then resumed reading. When finally I fell asleep I kept dreaming of the problems which had exercised my waking thoughts, and as a matter of fact often discovered the solution of them in my sleep."
When he came across the "Metaphysics" of Aristotle, that work in spite of his acuteness seemed to present an insuperable difficulty. "I read this book," he says, "but I did not understand it, and the purport of it remained so obscure to me that though I read it forty times through and could repeat it by heart, I was as far from understanding it as ever. In despair, I said to myself, 'This book is quite incomprehensible.' One day at the time of afternoon prayer I went to a bookseller's, and there I met a friend who had a book in his hand, which he praised and showed me. I looked at it in a listless way and handed it back, certain that it was of no use to me. But he said to me, 'Buy it; it is very cheap. I will sell it you for three dirhems; its owner is in need of money.' It was a commentary of Al Farabi on the metaphysics of Aristotle. I bought it, took it home and began to read it. Immediately all my difficulties were cleared up, as I knew the "Metaphysics" by heart. I was delighted, and the next day distributed alms to the poor in order to show my gratitude to God."
About this time the Emir Nuh Ibn Mansur, prince of Khorassan, fell ill, and having heard of Avicenna's talent, sent for him and was restored to health under his treatment. As a reward, Avicenna was allowed to study in the prince's library, which contained several chests of rare manuscripts. Here he discovered treatises on the sciences of the ancients, and other subjects, the essence of which he extracted. It happened some time afterwards that this library was destroyed by fire, and Avicenna remained the sole depository of the knowledge which it contained. Some persons even said that it was he who had set fire to the library because he alone was acquainted with its contents, and wished to be their sole possessor.
At the age of eighteen he had completely mastered all the sciences which he had studied. The death of his father and the fall of the Samanide dynasty forced him to quit those literary treasures which he had learnt to appreciate so well. At the age of twenty-two he left Bokhara and went to Jorjan, the capital of Khwarezm where he frequented the Court of Shah Ali ibn Mamoun. At this time the celebrated Sultan Mahmoud of Ghazni, having heard that there were several learned men, and among them Avicenna, at the Court of Mamoun, requested the latter to send them to him. Several of them went, but Avicenna refused, probably because his orthodoxy was suspected, and Sultan Mahmoud was a strict Sunni. Mahmoud was much displeased at not seeing Avicenna appear at his court with the rest, and sent descriptions and drawings of him in several directions in order that he might be arrested. In the meantime, Avicenna finding the allowance made to him at the Court of Mamoun insufficient, left Jorjan and wandered through the towns of Khorassan. Finally he settled in a little village near Balkh. There he composed the greater part of his philosophical works, and among others the book on the "Eternal Principle and the Return of the Soul." Some time afterwards he was called to Hamadan to treat the Buwayhid Sultan Shams-ed Dawla, who suffered from a dangerous gastric malady. He was successful in curing the Sultan, who showed his gratitude by appointing Avicenna his vizier.
The affairs of State did not prevent Avicenna from carrying on his studies, for during his stay at Hamadan he found time to commence his exposition of the philosophy of Aristotle entitled the "Shifa" which he undertook at the Sultan's request. At this time Avicenna presented the rare spectacle of a philosopher discharging the functions of a statesman, without injury to either statesmanship or philosophy. His great physical energy enabled him to spend the day in the service of the Sultan and a great part of the night in philosophical discussions with his disciples. His writings, which date from this time, allow us to judge with what success he pursued his philosophical studies, and we have every reason to believe that he was equally successful in the conduct of affairs, for, after the death of Shams-ed-Dawla, his son and successor Taj-ed-Dawla requested him to retain the post of vizier.
Avicenna appreciated this testimony to his worth, but declined the offer in order to devote himself to the completion of his great work, the Shifa. But even in his studious retirement he was not out of reach of political disturbance. Suspected of carrying on secret correspondence with Ala-ed-Dawla, the governor of Ispahan, an enemy of Taj-ed-Dawla, Avicenna was imprisoned in a neighbouring fortress. He would probably have remained there a long time had not the fortune of war put Ala-ed-Dawla in possession of Hamadan, Avicenna was liberated after an imprisonment of four months. Despite this misadventure he succeeded during his stay at Hamadan in completing the Shifa and several medical treatises, besides, a little mystical allegory, "Hay ibn Yokdhan" ("The living one, son of the Waking One"). This shows the mystical side of Avicenna's philosophy, and we therefore subjoin an abridgment and explanation of it.
"During my sojourn in a certain country, I used to make excursions with my friends to pleasant spots in our vicinity. One day when strolling out with them I met an old man who, in spite of his advanced age, seemed brimful of juvenile ardour, being neither bent nor having white hairs. We felt attracted by him and accosted him. After the usual salutations, I opened the conversation by requesting him to inform us about himself, his trade, name, family, and country. 'As to my name and family,' he answered, 'I am called Hay ibn Yokdhan, and I was born in Jerusalem; as to my occupation, it consists in traversing all the regions of the earth, always following the direction indicated by my Father. He has entrusted to me the keys of all the sciences and guided me through all ways even to the utmost bounds of the universe.' We continued to ask him questions regarding different branches of science till we touched on the science of physiognomy, on which he spoke with marvellous precision, taking it as the starting point of a discourse which he delivered to us."
This exordium may be interpreted as follows: "During the sojourn of my soul in the body I felt a desire under the guidance of my imagination and my senses to examine whatever presented itself to me. While thus engaged, I came in contact with active Intelligence (the old man), the salutary effects of which I had long experienced and which had preserved my vigour unabated. I commenced to examine the nature of this Intelligence freed as it is from all material grossness and yet in a certain way, linked to the material world. Since life includes the two conditions necessary to actual development, consciousness and movement, he calls himself 'Hay' 'the Living,' and adds 'ibn Yokdhan' 'Son of the Waking,' meaning that he derives his origin from a Being higher than himself, Who is always awake and has no need of repose. His birthplace is the holy city of Jerusalem, free from all earthly stain, and his occupation is to traverse the highest regions open to intelligence in order to understand the nature of his heavenly Father, who has committed to him the keys of all forms of knowledge. Thus, favoured by his help, we arrive at Logic, a science which leads by sure and evident conclusions to a knowledge of what is remote and occult. For this reason logic is indicated by the term 'physiognomy' which judges of the hidden by its outward manifestation."
After this commencement the allegory proceeds: "Logic," continued the old man, "is a science whose income is paid in ready money; she brings to light what nature conceals, and what may be a source of either joy or sorrow; she points you out the way of freedom from earthly entanglements and sensual propensities. If her healing hand touches you, it will give you salutary support, but if your weakness cause you to stumble, you will be exposed to ruin, accompanied as you always are by bad companions from which it is impossible to get free.
"As to thy nearest companion (imagination), he is a confused babbler, abounding in futility and falsity; he brings you news in which truth and falsehood are mingled together, and that, though he professes to be your guide and enlightener. He often brings matters before you very ill-suited to your dignity and position, and you must be at the pains of distinguishing the false from the true in them. But for all that, he is very necessary to you, and would exert a healthy influence on you, if his false witness did not lead you into error.
"But your companion on the right (irascibility) is still more impetuous, and it is only with the greatest difficulty that his attacks can be repulsed by reason or avoided by dexterity. He is like a blazing fire, a rushing torrent, a runaway horse, or a lioness deprived of its young. Similarly with your left-hand companion (carnal concupiscence) whose evil influence springs from insatiable appetite; he is like a famished beast let loose to graze. Such are your companions, unhappy mortal, to whom you are tied, and from whom no release is to be obtained except by migrating to those countries where such creatures are unknown. But till you are allowed to do so, your hand at any rate must tame them; beware of flinging the rein on their necks and giving them free course; if you hold the reins tight they will submit, and you will be master."
"After I had heard this description of my companions, I began to recognise the justice of it, and accordingly I varied gentleness and severity in my treatment of them. Alternately I and they had the upper hand. But I constantly invoked the help of God in this respect, until I was delivered. Meanwhile I prepared for the journey, and the old man added this last counsel: 'You and those like you will be constantly impeded in this journey, and the road will be very difficult for you, unless you can succeed in quitting this world for ever; but you cannot hasten the time fixed by God. You must therefore be content with a frequently interrupted progress; sometimes you will make way, sometimes you will be at the beck and call of your companions. When you apply yourself with your whole heart to making progress, you will succeed, and your companions will lose all influence over you; but if you connive at their importunities, they will conquer you, and you will altogether lose touch with me.'
"I then asked the old man for information on the various regions of the universe, of which he possessed ample knowledge, and he replied: 'The universe has three parts; first, the visible heaven and earth, the nature of which is ascertainable by ordinary observation: But as to the other two parts, they are marvellous indeed; one is on the East, the other on the West. Each of these regions is separated from our world by a barrier which only a few elect souls succeed in passing, and that only by divine grace; the man who relies only on his natural powers is excluded from them. What makes the passage thither easier is to wash in the flowing waters of the fountain whose source is close to a stagnant pool. The traveller who has found the way to it and is refreshed by its healing waters, will feel himself endued with a marvellous energy, which will help him to traverse savage deserts. Unfatigued he will scale the heights of Mount Kaf, and the guardians of hell will lose all power to seize him and to cast him into the abyss.'
"We asked him to explain more precisely the situation of this fountain, and he said: 'You are doubtless aware that perpetual darkness surrounds the pole unpenetrated by any ray of light till God permits. But he who fearlessly enters this darkness will emerge into a clearly lighted plain, where he will find this springing fountain.
"We then asked him to tell us more about the Western region bordering our earth, of which he had spoken, and he gave us the following information:
"'In the extreme West is an immense sea called in the Divine Revelation "the miry sea," where the sun sets and along which stretches a desolate and sterile land, where the inhabitants never abide but are always passing away, and which is covered by thick darkness. Those who go there are exposed to every kind of illusion. The sun only gives a feeble light, the soil is completely barren, whatever is built there is soon destroyed again, conflict and strife perpetually rage there, whatever gets the upper hand tyrannises over those which were in power before it. There are found all kinds of animals and plants passing through strange developments.
"'Now if you turn to the East you will see a region where there is no human being, nor plant, nor tree, nor animal; it is an immense and empty plain. Crossing it, you will reach a mountainous region, where are clouds and strong winds and rapid rivers; there are also gold and silver and precious stones, but no plants. From thence you will pass into a region where there are plants but no animals, then into another where there are animals but no men. Lastly you will arrive at a region where there are human beings such as are familiar to you.
"'After passing the extreme limit of the East, you will see the sun rising between the two horns of Satan, "the flying horn" and "the marching horn." This latter is divided into two parts, one having the form of a fierce animal, the other of a gross one; between these two composing the left horn is perpetual strife. As to "the flying horn," it has no one distinct form, but is composed of several, such as a winged man, a serpent with a swine's head, or merely a foot or an arm. The human soul which rules this region has established five ways of communication under the care of a watchman who takes whatever comes along them and passes it on to a treasurer who presents it to the King.
"'The two horns continually attack the human soul, even to the point of driving it to madness. As to "the marching horn," the fierce animal of which it is partly composed lays a trap for man by embellishing in his eyes all his evil actions, murder, mutilation, oppression and destruction, by exciting his hatred and impelling him to violence and injustice; while the other part in the shape of a gross animal continually attacks the human soul by casting a glamour over vileness and foulness and urging her thereto; nor does it cease its assaults till she is brought into complete subjection. It is seconded in its attacks by the spirits of the flying horn, which make man reject whatever he cannot see with his own eyes, whispering to him that there is no resurrection nor retribution nor spiritual Lord of the universe.
"'Passing hence, we find a region inhabited by beings of angelic origin, free from the defects abovementioned. They enter into communication with man, and contribute towards his spiritual progress. These are the intellectual faculties, which, though they are far below the pure Intelligences, have an instinctive desire to shake off the yoke of irascibility and concupiscence. Beyond this region is that of the angels, and further still, one directly governed by the Great King, and dwelt in by his faithful servants, who are engaged in fulfilling His commands. These are free from all evil inclination, whether to concupiscence or injustice or envy or idleness. To them is committed the defence of the frontier of this Kingdom, which they guard in person. Allotted to different parts, they occupy lofty forts constructed of crystal and precious stones, which surpass in durability all that may be found in the region of earth. They are immortal, and subject to no feebleness nor decay of force in discharging their duties.
"'Beyond this region again are beings in immediate and continual relation with the supreme King, constantly occupied in His service, and never replaced by others. They are allowed to approach the Lord, to contemplate the throne of His Majesty and to adore Him, enjoying the sight of Him continually and without intermission. They have the gentlest natures, great spiritual beauty, and a keen faculty of penetration and of arriving at the truth. To each has been assigned a distinct place and fixed rank, which can be shared by no one. Highest of all is that unique being, the nearest to the Lord, and the parent of all the rest. Active Intelligence40; it is by his mediation that the word and commandment of the Lord go forth to all the other beings of creation.
"'In this highest region all are pure spirits, having no relation to matter, except in so far as innate desire may set them in movement or cause them to move others. From such desire only, the Lord himself is absolutely exempt.
"'Those who think that He had a beginning are in complete error, and those who think to describe Him fully are beside themselves. In relation to Him all description and comparison are impossible. Those who attempt to describe Him can only indicate the distance which separates Him from all human attributes; the beauty of being is represented in scriptural language by His Face and His infinite bounty by His Hand. If even one of the cherubims wished to contemplate His essence, he would be dazzled and frustrated by His glory. Since beauty is the veil of beauty, His manifestation must always remain a mystery, in the same way as the sun, when lightly obscured by a cloud allows its disc to be seen, but when it blazes forth in all its splendour, its disc is veiled from human eye by excess of light. The Lord, however, is always communicating His splendour to His creation without grudging or reserve; He imparts Himself generously and the plenitude of His bounty is without limit: He who has the least glimpse of His beauty remains entranced by it for ever; sometimes saints of extraordinary attainments who have given themselves up to Him and have been favoured by His grace, aware of the worthlessness of the perishable world, when, from their ecstatic state they return to it, are haunted for the rest of their lives by regret and sadness.'
"Here Hay ibn Yokdhan closed his discourse by adding:
"'If I had not, in thus addressing you, been acting in obedience to the commands of my Lord, I would rather have left you for Him. If you will, accompany me on the path of safety.'"
Thus concludes this brief allegory, which, like Avicenna's other mystical treatises, is concerned with the progress and development of the human soul. According to him, the soul is created for eternity, and the object of its union with the body is the formation of a spiritual and independent microcosm. During our earthly life we have but a dim presentiment of this future condition; this presentiment produces in different characters a lesser or greater desire for it, and the thoroughness of our preparation depends on this desire. This preparation is only accomplished by the development of the highest faculties of the soul, and the inferior faculties of the senses furnish the indispensable basis for this.
Every human faculty has some pleasure corresponding to it. The pleasure of the appetitive faculty for example, is to receive a sensation which accords with its desire; the pleasure of the irascible faculty is attack; the pleasure of the surmising faculty, hope; that of the recollective faculty, memory. Generally speaking, the pleasures attending these faculties consist in their realising themselves in action, but they differ widely in rank, the soul's delight in intellectual perception of realities, in which the knower and the known are one, being incomparably higher than any mere sensual satisfaction. By attaining to such perceptions, the soul prepares itself for the beatitude of the next life. The degree of this beatitude will correspond to the intensity of spiritual desire awakened in it during its earthly sojourn.
It is extremely difficult, not to say impossible, to determine the degrees of beatitude of the soul after death. We may, nevertheless, understand that the various impediments of passions, prejudices, etc., to which its union with the body has given rise, are not immediately dissolved on its separation from the body. Souls thus hindered may pass into a state depicted by Plato and other ancient philosophers, in which they are still weighed down by the passions they indulged in. Every soul is eternal and imperishable, and will finally attain the beatitude for which it was created. But it may be punished after death by a shorter or longer exclusion from that beatitude. To suppose with Alexander Aphrodisius that an imperfect or ill-prepared soul may be annihilated, would be to admit a belief at complete variance with its eternal essence and origin.
But we may well conjecture that the punishment of such ill-prepared and refractory souls would consist in their being in a state in which after separation from the body they still pine after sensual enjoyments and suffer from the impossibility of such gratification.
It may also be supposed that such ill-prepared souls remember the notions that were current in this world regarding beatitude and damnation; their conceptions would in that case resemble dreams which are often more vivid than impressions received in waking moments. They would imagine themselves undergoing the examination in the tomb and all the other punishments depicted in the Koran, or it may be enjoying the sensual pleasures there described. On the other hand, the noble and well-prepared soul will pass at once to the contemplation of the eternal, and will be exempt from every memory and every conception relating to this world. For if anything of this kind remained in it as a reminder of its union with the body, it would so far fall short of the plenitude of its perfection.
Besides his mystical treatise "On the soul," Avicenna has left a short but remarkable poem on the same subject, which runs as follows:—
"It descended upon thee from the lofty station (heaven); a dove rare and uncaptured, curtained from the eyes of every knower yet which is manifest and never wore a veil. It came to thee unwillingly and it may perhaps be unwilling to abandon thee although it complain of its sufferings. It resisted at first, and would not become familiar, but when it was in friendly union with the body, it grew accustomed to the desert waste (the world). Methinks it then forgot the recollections of the protected park (heaven), and of those abodes which it left with regret; but when in its spiral descent it arrived at the centre of its circle in the terrestrial world, it was united to the infirmity of the material body and remained among the monuments and prostrate ruins. It now remembers the protected park and weepeth with tears which flow and cease not till the time for setting out towards the protected park approacheth; till the instant of departure for the vast plain (the spiritual world) draweth nigh. It then cooeth on the top of a lofty pinnacle (for knowledge can exalt all who were not exalted) and it has come to the knowledge of every mystery in the universe, while yet its tattered vest hath not been mended.
"Its descent was predestined so that it might hear what it had not heard, else why did it descend from the high and lofty heaven to the depth of the low and humble earth? If God sent it down by a decision of His will, His motive is concealed from the intelligence of man. Why did it descend to be withheld from the exalted summit of heaven by the coarse net of the body, and to be detained in a cage? It is like a flash of lightning shining over the meadow, and disappearing as if it had never gleamed."
Although Avicenna's reputation in the Muhammedan world has always been high, his mystical treatises have generally been regarded as heretical, and many have only been preserved in Hebrew translations. He himself says explicitly that he only intended them for his most intimate disciples, and forbade them to be communicated to the multitude. For his own part, he conformed to the religious law and customs. The celebrated contemporary Sufi Abou Said Abi'l Khair having asked his opinion regarding the custom of praying for the dead, and visiting their tombs, he answers thus:
"God the Unique Being and Source of all that exists—angels, intelligences exempt from connection with matter, souls united to matter, elements in all their varied developments—animal, vegetable and mineral, inspires His whole creation, and His omniscience embraces all. His influence in the first place acts immediately on the Active Intelligences and angels, who in their turn act on souls which in their turn act on our sublunary world. If there were not homogeneity of substance between celestial and terrestrial souls and likeness between the macrocosm of the universe, and the microcosm of man, the knowledge of God would be impossible for us, as the Prophet himself hath said, 'He who knows himself, knows God.' All creation, whose parts are linked together, is subject to influences which all derive from a single source—God. Terrestrial souls differ widely in rank; the highest are endowed with gifts of prophecy, and perfected so far that they attain the sphere of pure intelligence. A soul of this kind entering after death into eternal beatitude, shared with its peers, continues along with them to exercise a certain influence on terrestrial souls. The object of prayer for the dead and visiting their tombs is to beg for the help of those pure souls, a help which is realised sometimes in a material, sometimes in a spiritual way. The former kind of help may be compared with the direction which the body receives from the brain; spiritual assistance is realised by the purification of the mind from every thought but that of God."
Avicenna, after his liberation from imprisonment by Ala-ed-Dowla, being anxious to quit Hamadan, left the city secretly with his brother, his disciple Joujani and two servants, all five disguised as Sufis. After a painful journey they reached Ispahan, where they were received in a friendly manner by Ala-ed-Dowla. Avicenna here continued to hold philosophical discussions as he had done at Hamadan. At Ispahan he also composed two of his most important works, the "Shifa" and the "Najat," treating of medicine. Later on he followed Ala-ed-Dowla to Bagdad, but on the way was seized with a gastric malady, accompanied by an attack of apoplexy. He recovered at the time, but not long afterwards the sickness returned, and he died at the age of 57, a.d. 1037.
In his Literary History of Persia (vo. II., p. 108) Professor Browne points out that one of the most celebrated stanzas in Fitzgerald's translation of Omar Khayyam was really composed by Avicenna:—
"Up from earth's centre through the Seventh Gate rose,
and on the throne of Saturn sate,
And many a knot unravelled by the road,
But not the master-knot of human fate."
Another interesting link between the two philosophers is supplied by the fact, mentioned by Professor Browne, that a few days before his death Omar Khayyam was reading in the "Shifa" of Avicenna the chapter treating of the One and of the Many.
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