MOOMTAZ EMRITH

– He was among the first to suggest « isolation » and the measures he enunciated are still being used to fight the onslaught of COVID-19 pandemic

ABU ALI IBN SINA or AVICENNA, as he is more commonly known in the West, was born in August 980 A.D. in Bukhara, then a part of Iran and now in Uzbekistan. He was the most celebrated polymath of his time and probably the most prominent physician, astronomer, thinker – indeed, one of the brightest stars of the Islamic Golden Age. He is rightly hailed as “the father of modern medicine.”  His two books on medicine: “The Book of Healing” (or “Kitab alShifa”) and more particularly his second book : “The Canon of Medicine”  (or “AlKanun Fi AlTibb”),  which is a five-volume encyclopedia on medicine, was published in 1025 A.D. and was used for centuries as a manual in the Arab world and in European and other institutions where doctors and health-care people were formed. His is a household name in medical institutions and the Muslim world.

Ibne Sina was greatly inspired by Aristotle although some contend that he was closer to Neo-Platonism and has, doubtless, been ever a big influence on what, one critic has called, “the development of 13th century scholasticism.” Ibn Sina was an intellectual giant of his time.

In his famous work “The Canon of Medicine”, he stated that diseases were transmitted by tiny organisms to people and which could spread to countries and continents. He is also credited to be among the first to suggest ‘Isolation’ or ‘Quarantine’ as a means to control epidemics and curb the spread of infection among humans – like the situation we are faced with now with the COVID-19 pandemic.

ABU ALI HUSAYN IBN SINA (980-1037 A.D.) (known as “Avicenna” in the West) is hailed as “The father of the modern medicine”

Of course, the idea of ‘quarantine’ or ‘social-isolation’ as a means to control contagion, could be traced back to earlier times, like in the time of the Old Testament and also during the time of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). A majority of the scholars are in agreement that it was the contribution of Ibn Sina on the subject that has been the most significant.  Everyone agrees that the “Quarantine” measure, as we know it to-day, is one effective measure to control the spread of epidemics/pandemics like the COVID-19, which the whole world is presently struggling to control  to-day and, we owe it to the work of the genius and famous Muslim polymath – Ibn Sina. In fact, the measures he outlined and stressed in his classic — “The Canon of Medicine” — translated into Latin in 12th century Spain and made available to the West, would literally revolutionize the study of medicine on the continent.

Indeed, in his encyclopedic book, Ibn Sina explains, among others, the idea that diseases spread through small organisms or particles that could not be seen with the naked eye – a fact that would be proven true with the invention of the microscope centuries later. And historians agree that it was the work of Ibn Sina that laid the foundation of “modern quarantine” as we know it.

As far as the term “Quarantine” is concerned, Muslim sources contend that the term comes from the Arabic word “al-Arba’iniya” (meaning the fortieth), which Ibn Sina used to define how long the period of isolation should be. However, other groups argue that the term comes from the Italian word “Quarantena” (meaning forty) which was used during the Black Death plague in the14th and 15th centuries to keep ships out of the harbour for a forty-day period before passengers and crew could come ashore.

However, despite that petty controversy on the origin of the term, one thing has been clear and beyond doubt: Ibn Sina was way ahead of his time when he suggested “Quarantine” as a means to control epidemics.  And his work was always “considered highly in both the Islamic world and in the West” and he always enjoyed great respect among the learned circles.

It is a fact that in the 13th century, the University of Bologna, the oldest university in Europe, became the first to make Ibn Sina’s “Canon of Medicine” the cornerstone of its medical education program.

In his iconic book “The Canon of Medicine”, he wrote, among others:  “The knowledge of anything, since all things have causes, is not acquired or complete unless it is known by its causes. Therefore, in medicine we ought to know the causes of the sickness and health. And because health and sickness and their causes are sometimes manifest, and sometimes hidden and not to be comprehended except by the study of the symptoms, we must also study the symptoms of health and disease. Now it is established in the sciences that no knowledge is acquired save through the study of its causes and beginnings; nor completed except by knowledge of its accidents and accompanying essentials. Of these causes, there are four: material, efficient, formal and final.”

Besides, it is also a known fact that between the 13th and 17th centuries, Ibn Sina’s medical encyclopedia remained the foundation of the medical programs at many of the oldest universities in Europe’s – notably the University of Leuven, now in Belgium, the University of Montpellier, France and the University of Krakow in Poland.

For the past few months, the COVID –19 pandemic, as we all know, has created ‘havoc’ throughout the world, upsetting all sense of normalcy and creating deep medical concerns not only for public health everywhere but also ushering in the specter of a near economic and social chaos in societies everywhere. No country or continent has been immune. The key words during the current pandemic to people everywhere has been “isolation” “social distancing” and “frequent handwashing” – which are among the legacies of the 9th/10th centuries genius and scholar, Ibn Sina. Indeed, he was among the first to advise people, during an epidemic, to observe “Quarantine”, ‘Self-Isolate’ and “Keep Social Distance”.  So much so, we can safely say that the ideas of the Great Man of Medicine, who was Ibn Sina, has remained valid till to-day as they are helping the world in its fight against the COVID-19 pandemic – a fight which has generated remarkable solidarity and co-operation among countries in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic and the race to find a vaccine to fight the coronavirus pandemic.

As, Ibn Sina affirms, the goals and purposes of medicine, over the centuries, have not changed.  They continue to be concerned as they have always been with “the means to deal with the states of health and disease in the human body.” He further goes on to add:

It is a truism of philosophy that a complete knowledge of a thing can only be obtained by elucidating its causes and antecedents, provided, of course, such causes exist. In medicine, it is therefore, necessary that causes of both health and disease should be determined.”   

It will be almost a thousand years since Ibn Sina passed away. But the wealth of knowledge, be it in science, philosophy and medicine, he left behind, continues to be valid and he remains one of the icons of human history. Ibn-Sina died on June 22, in 1037, and was buried in Hamedan, Iran.