Great Muslim Thinkers: Avicenna on Education (I)

By ‘Abd al-Rahman al Naqib

To mark the 1,000th birth anniversary of the most influential of Islam’s philosopher-scientists, UNESCO minted this commemorative medal in 1980. Abu Ali al-Husain Ibn Abdallah Ibn Sina was known in Europe as Avicenna. A healer and a humanist, Avicenna developed an exemplary holistic approach that captures the essence of ethics in science and has thus come to serve as a source of inspiration for the promotion of this concern, which is of central importance to UNESCO. Designed by sculptor-medallist Victor Douek, the obverse depicts a scene showing Avicenna surrounded by his disciples, inspired by a miniature in a 17th-century Turkish manuscript.


Avicenna has attracted the attention of scholars, past and present, who have written books, treatises and articles on him. His most famous works are those on philosophy and medicine. Avicenna’s philosophical views have engaged the attention of Western thinkers over several centuries, while in medicine, his great work, al-Qanun (The Canon), was translated into Latin towards the end of the twelfth century CE, and became a reference source for medical studies in the universities of Europe until the end of the seventeenth century.

One aspect, however, that has not been very widely discussed, is his views on education. Although Avicenna’s writings on this subject, in comparison with his vast output on other subjects, are in fact considered to be very scarce, we do nonetheless find he deals with the same problems that confront educators today. He speaks about humanity, society, knowledge and ethics. He devoted a treatise entitled ‘Politics’ to education; and he speaks at some length in ‘The Canon’ about the upbringing of infants.

Thereby, Avicenna represents a lively illustration of the meeting between philosophy and education, for the educator and the philosopher are both faced with the same problems: truth, goodness, the nature of the world, the meaning of knowledge and human nature, and so on.

Obviously, Avicenna the philosopher has his own views on education. In addition, if we consider that Avicenna undertook teaching on a practical level for a considerable length of time, we realize that we have here a thinker whose philosophy was transformed into an educational theory that he himself practiced.

Abu Ali al-Ḥusayn ibn Abd Allah ibn Sina commonly known as Ibn Sina or by his Latinized name Avicenna, was born in the village of Afshana in the vicinity of Bukhara (in what is now Uzbekistan), in 370 AH (980 CE) of an Ismaili family concerned with intellectual sciences and philosophical inquiry, all of which had its effect upon the scientific career of Avicenna.

It was just around the time of Avicenna’s birth and in the subsequent years that Islamic Arabic culture reached its peak. Since the Arabic language was the accepted vehicle for the transmission of knowledge in this era, Avicenna studied Arabic under Abu Bakr Ahmad b. Muhammad al-Barqi al-Khwarizmi. As soon as he had mastered Arabic (his mother tongue was Persian), his father obtained for him a teacher of the Qur’an and another for literature. The young pupil learned quickly from his two teachers, and before he was 10 years old he knew the Qur’an and a considerable amount of literature as well, becoming ‘almost a prodigy’, as Avicenna says of himself. Next he developed a leaning towards philosophy, geometry and Indian mathematics, so his father sent him to the school of Mahmud ‘al-Massah’ (the surveyor), a man learned in arithmetic, algebra and the movement of the heavens, as reported by al-Bayhaqi. He also studied fiqh (Muslim law) and the Sufism movement with Ismail al-Zahid al-Bukhari. And no sooner had Abu Abdallah al-Natli, the philosopher, arrived in Bukhara than Avicenna’s father invited him to his house, hoping that the boy would learn intellectual subjects from him. If al-Natli had any noticeable success, it is that he diverted the boy from a preoccupation with law and Sufism in favour of the theoretical sciences and philosophical studies.

Before long, the professor sensed that the boy no longer needed him, for Avicenna was very anxious to acquire learning and had a real craving for the sciences of wisdom. He was then attracted by medical science, and devoted himself to it for a brief time, until he surpassed all the scholars of his age in this science. Avicenna says: “Then I desired to study medicine, and took to reading the books written on this subject. Medicine is not one of the difficult sciences, so naturally I became proficient in it in the shortest time, until the excellent scholars of medicine began to study under me. I began to treat patients, and through my experience I acquired an amazing practical knowledge and ability in methods of treatment.”

Avicenna was not content with the theoretical study of medicine, but he also practiced it from humanitarian motives, in order to put his learning to good use. He achieved all this while still no more than 16 years of age. Then he devoted himself to intensive study and reading for a year and a half, in which time he read through logic and all known sections of philosophy. Before Avicenna had reached the age of 18, his scholarly fame for philosophical inquiries and medical knowledge had spread far and wide.

It is clear from Avicenna’s biography that he was quick to learn, with a vast memory, and wrote with ease. When he was 21 years old, he composed the book al-Majmu (The Compendium), at the request of some of his pupils; in this he dealt with all of the theoretical sciences, except mathematics. Deespite political unrests, Avicenna pursued both studying and teaching the sciences. He was always on the move, but drew students and formed his study circles wherever he went. This continued right up to the time of his death, which occured on a Friday during the month of Ramadan in 428 AH (1037 CE). He was buried at Hamadan in Persia.


I. The Human Being and the Mental Faculties

The human being, in Avicenna’s view, consists of both hidden (sirr) and open (‘alin) elements. Known to us is the perceptible human body with its organs and its cells. ‘Sensory perception stops at its exterior, while anatomy (dissection) enables us to learn about the interior; the hidden part consists of the powers of its mind’. These mental powers motivate the human being, and cause it to carry out its various activities and behave as a human being. To Avicenna, the human is a tangible body on the outside, revealed within by means of anatomy — as we see in his books, such as ‘The Canon’ — and we do not find any difficulty today in accepting this.

But what are the mental powers and what is their function in motivating the body?

Avicenna classifies these mental faculties for us into three groups.

First, the group of vegetative faculties, in which humans and plants both share. They are concerned with the survival of the human being, growth through nutrition, and preservation of the species through reproduction. They thus comprise three faculties: feeding, growth and reproduction.

This group is followed by the faculties that make animals superior to plants, and are shared by human beings and animals. Typically, they allow the human being to be attracted to what it desires, and to be repelled by anything harmful arousing fear or anger. They comprise, in his view, two faculties: a faculty of motion and a faculty of comprehension or perception. Each is, in its turn, divided into other faculties: the motive faculty consists of an instinctive reaction, and a rational movement, permitting the human either to act or desist from action; comprehension is also divided into a perceptive faculty of the exterior world through the five senses — sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch — and one directed from within, by way of common sense, imagination, memory and reflection.

Finally, there is the group of faculties which distinguish the human being from the animal; in Avicenna’s view they comprise two faculties: an active faculty directing the human’s practical conduct, and a cognitive faculty directing his intellectual conduct. Both are given the name ‘intelligence’, but the first is practical and the second is contemplative.

II. The Human Soul

All the faculties are merely different functions of the human soul. For the human soul is one, and those three powers are different functions of it.

To Avicenna, the soul is immaterial, and is quite different from the substance of the body. It is not pre-existent, coming into being together with the body; but it survives and does not perish when the human being dies. Avicenna says: ‘When the body dies and decays, the substance of the soul is released from its connection with the body; and if it is perfected in knowledge, wisdom and good deeds, it is drawn towards the divine lights, the lights of the angels and of the heavenly kingdom, just as a needle is drawn towards an enormous mountain by magnetic force; the divine presence flows over it, and it achieves real tranquillity, as the call comes to it from the heavenly beings: “Oh soul at complete rest, return to thy Lord, well pleased and well pleasing. Enter then among my devoted servants! Enter My heaven!”.’

III.The Nature of  the Human Being: Good or Evil? 

Avicenna is of the opinion that the human being is born ‘upon the natural disposition’ and is neither good nor bad by nature, although tending more to good than to evil; and this human being changes and adapts according to the influences of the environment and its education systems. If he is accustomed to evil, he will become evil; if accustomed to good, he becomes good. On this point, Avicenna says: ‘When the child is weaned, then his education and his moral training begin, before he is attacked or overcome by blameworthy morals or objectionable characteristics. For evil morals so quickly take over the young boy, and bad habits soon prevail; and if any of these gain influence over him they overcome him, and then he cannot separate himself from them nor struggle against them’. Avicenna emphasizes this elsewhere by saying: ‘All moral characteristics, the good and the bad, are acquired; and it is possible for the human being, when he has as yet no specific moral character, to obtain them for himself; and when his soul also chances upon some specific characteristic, he may move, by his own volition, away from it towards its opposite’.

IV. The Role of Society 

When we refer to Avicenna’s writings on this subject, we are given an insight into an Avicennian social theory based on the social nature of the human being and the divine nature of society.

The human being, as created by God, is not able to live in isolation but needs society for his survival, his growth and his education. Avicenna says: ‘The human being differs from all other animals in being unable to live well as an isolated individual [...] with no partner to help him satisfy his needs. He must be supported by another of his kind, who, in turn, must also be supported by him and by his like, so that, for instance, one will provide vegetables for another, while the other makes bread; one will sew when the other provides the needle. When they join forces they are complementary. This is why human beings are compelled to found societies’.

The whole of society must submit to the righteous holy law of God, through the Prophet who legislates it, guided by divine revelation. For society needs someone to legislate its affairs, and this legislator must be a human being who stands out from the others through qualities which ensure that his word is obeyed and the whole people follow him. This is Avicenna’s justification for the existence of the Prophet, the specific miracles with which God distinguished him, and the need for the prophecy. Avicenna says: ‘So it is necessary that there should be a Prophet, and necessary that he should be a human being, and also that he should possess a special quality not found in other people, so that they are aware of something in him not found in themselves; thus he is set apart from them and has miraculous powers’.

Reproduced on the reverse is a phrase by Avicenna in Arabic and Latin which means, “Cooperate for the well-being of the body and the survival of the human species” as well as the signature attributed to Avicenna.

V. The Soul as the Path to Knowledge

Avicenna considered that the soul, with its various faculties, is the path to knowledge or perception for it distinguishes between sensory perception and intellectual perception. The means of sensory perception, as already stated, are the five external senses and the five internal senses. These external and internal senses are especially relevant to sensory perception. Sensory perception occurs when sensory stimuli reach the organs of perception and are registered and comprehended by the sensory faculties. Avicenna says: ‘It appears that every perception is the acceptance of the picture of the thing perceived, in one way or another’. And he says of sensory perception itself: ‘The pictures of all the things perceived by the senses are conveyed to the organs of perception and are impressed upon them, and are then perceived by the sensory faculties’. Sensory knowledge, in Avicenna’s view, is acquired knowledge, its source being the sensed stimuli, and its means the external and internal faculties of sense. The subject of intellectual knowledge is then simply the thing perceived, and its means is the human’s speculative faculty entrusted to him by God, which is capable of acquiring that rational knowledge.

In order that intellectual knowledge should be effective, it must have a particular structure and an instrument to regulate its operation, and also to verify the soundness of the thought and reasoning; this instrument is logic. For logic is the theoretical art or the instrument which protects the intellect from making a mistake.

VI. Ethics, Reason, and Moral Conduct

Avicenna saw moral character as an expression of ‘a natural disposition whereby certain actions issue from the soul with ease, without prior thought’. This means that character is not merely the practice of good behavior, but the practicing of it at every appropriate occasion because the person has accustomed himself to it and is unable to act otherwise. We can describe a man as truthful only when he is habitually truthful in his speech, and the same applies for other admirable moral characteristics. In the same way, we can describe a man as a liar only when he habitually tells lies, and the same for other character failings.

For the human being to achieve an excellent morality, he must govern his reason well in all his conduct, and punish his soul if it departs from the right path, and reward and encourage it when it follows the path of virtue. Avicenna says: ‘The human being must prepare for his soul both reward and punishment, and govern it thereby.’

It is also obligatory for the human being, if his soul encounters a moral evil, to recognize its opposite, and force his soul go towards this excellent virtue and accustom it to that extreme path, in order that his soul shall eventually acquire the middle path.

In all this, the reference point is reason. When the human being knows how to obey the commands of reason, he is on the road to being educated or virtuous. Reason is what defines good conduct, and the standards by which it is defined are the middle path on the one hand and equity on the other. Reason can itself recognize the middle path for every virtue, since virtue stands in the middle between two bad characteristics. Reason recognizes equity from the harmony among these virtues, so that no virtue is dominant over the others, and the human being can maintain an even balance in all his morality, without exaggerating one virtue at the expense the others. It is to be noted here that, while the foundation of spiritual and ethical values found in the Qur’an and the words and deeds of the Prophet is based on the religious constraint deep in the human soul, for Avicenna it arises from the domination of reason over the faculties of wrong-doing. Now it is clear that to comprehend moral values, their simple acceptance by reason is not enough. It is necessary rather that they should take root in the heart, where the ‘moral sense’ becomes a part of the human beings behavioural structure.

In Avicenna’s view, then, morality is an acquired matter, not inborn, and it is within a person’s capacity to acquire any such morality he wishes through ‘habituation’, ‘imitation’, ‘fear’ or ‘wisdom’. Avicenna considered that the process of acquiring morality begins from ‘the infant’s birth’, because the child is exposed to problems and difficulties soon after birth and in the early stages of childhood, and these influence his psychology and temperament, and hence his ethical development. For this reason Avicenna paid great attention to the early stages of childhood and everything connected with it: the morality and culture of the wet nurse, the teacher, and the child’s companions in school or the place where he studies.

PART II: Avicenna on the Aims of Education, Stages of Education and Methods of Teaching

Date this article posted on Simerg: March 12, 2011.
Date updated: March 18, 2011


The above article has been adapted from the original paper entitled “Avicenna,” which appeared in Prospects: The Quarterly Review of Comparative Education, Volume vol. XXIII, no. 1/2, 1993, p. 53-69, published by The International Bureau of Education of UNESCO. Copyright.

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2 thoughts on “Great Muslim Thinkers: Avicenna on Education (I)

  1. A very informative and stimulating article specially for those involved in educational ventures. Now, of course, the vast amount of information and methods available makes knowledge accessible for many more. But his basic principles remain the same.

    Simerg, well done to make us aware of Avicenna’s genius.

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