From Diseases to Drugs: What Do You Know About Ibn Sina’s Great Canon of Medicine?

Islam attaches a lot of value to education and acquiring knowledge. This led to the period of the Islamic Golden Age, known as one of the most important periods in history with huge developments in all fields in science, culture and national economies. During this period, scholars obtained knowledge from various educational fields and it is because of their extensive contributions that they have become part of the most exceptional scholars in the world. One of these so-called polymaths was Ibn Sina, also known as Avicenna, who wrote one of the famous medical books in Medieval Europe.

From an early age, one can already consider the Persian polymath Ibn Sina to be a child prodigy. He had memorised the Quran by the age of ten and had extensive knowledge of Persian literature. He started his career as a famous physician at the age of seventeen and treated many patients without asking for payment. After Noeh ibn Mansoer, an important commander of the Samanid Empire, was treated by Ibn Sina, he granted him permission to enter his library, where he, according to his biography, was educated in all existing scientific and cultural fields by the age of eighteen. Throughout his life he wrote on astronomy, alchemy, geography and geology, psychology, Islamic theology, logic mathematics and physics, 450 works in total, of which 240 have survived.

One of his famous works is the Canon of Medicine, which was used in European universities until as late as 1650 and is still used in the traditional medicine practice Yunani in India. This work of Ibn Sina set the standards for medicine in European countries and the Islamic world. According to the Oxford History of Islam, the Canon of Medicine was written with the intention of producing the definitive canonical work on medicine, in terms of both comprehensive and theoretical rigor. In this book, Ibn Sina provided a coherent and systematic theoretical reflection on the inherent medical legacies, starting with anatomy, followed by physiology, then pathology and finally therapy. He produced a unified synthesis of medical knowledge, which derived its coherence from the relentlessly systematic application of logical and theoretical principles.

The Canon of Medicine is divided into five books. The first of them describes the general aspects of medicine, stating for example that “Medicine is the science by which we learn the various states of the body; in health, when not in health; the means by which health is likely to be lost, and, when lost, is likely to be restored. In other words, it is the art whereby health is concerned and the art by which it is restored after being lost.” The first book also describes the four periods of life from infancy to senility, according to the distinctive characteristics of every period.

The second book lists 800 floral, mineral and animal substances and their medical purposes at the time. Ibn Sina also explains how one correctly experiments with drugs. He stated for example, that ‘the drug must be tested on two contrary conditions’, for a drug can be effective for relieving the symptoms of more than one disease.

His other three books cover the function and diseases of each organ, diseases that affect the whole body and the preparation and effectiveness of about 650 compound drugs for different remedies. With this, Ibn Sina became one of the first scholars to write about contagious diseases and sexually transmitted infections.

The earliest copy of the Canon of Medicine is held in the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto, Canada, admired by visitors up until today. Centuries old, his work has left an important mark on medicine all around the world and with his contributions in all fields of science and arts, Ibn Sina surely proved his title of Shaykh al Rayees: leader among the wise men.