A Brief Discussion on Avicenna’s Madhab

Compiled by Malik Merchant
Publisher/Editor, Simerg, Barakah and Simergphotos

Avicenna Wellcome image in Simerg
Oil painting by a Neapolitan painter, 17th century, of an Arabic man of learning, presumably Avicenna, who is seen holding a snake over a book of herbal recipes. Photo: © Wellcome Library, London.

Just as Arabs, Turks and Persians all like to claim Avicenna as their own, the Ismailis like to consider him to be a part of their own tradition. A number of different theories have been proposed regarding Avicenna’s religious inclination. Medieval historian Zahir al-din al-Baihaqi considered Avicenna to be a follower of the Brethren of Purity. On the other hand, the Shia scholars Nurullah Shushtari and Sayyed Hussein Nasr have both maintained that he was most likely a Twelver Shia. Dimitri Gutas, who has spent considerable amount of his research effort on the Arabic philosophical tradition, refuted both these claims and stated that Avicenna was a Sunni Hanafi based on the fact that two of his books were dedicated to Hanafi scholar al-Baraqi, and that Avicenna earned his living in the Hanafi court of Ali ibn Mamun. However, another theory proposed by the late philosopher and thinker Professor Henry Corbin considered that Ibn Sina, just like his father, was himself an Ismaili.

The accounts of the early life of the Avicenna are based on an autobiographical narration which he himself chose to dictate to Juzjani, the man who was his companion and pupil of twenty-five years. Avicenna’s father was from Balkh which was an important commercial and political metropolis, and an intellectual and religious capital, where Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, Manichaeism, Nestorian Christianity and finally Islam met. The religious atmosphere of Avicenna’s home was not orthodox — an important point that he himself tended to conceal, but which helps to explain some of the difficulties of his life. “My father”, he says, “was one of those who had responded to the invitation of the Egyptians [the Fatimids] and was counted among the Ismailis.” Avicenna in his retold biography says that he used to listen to his father and brother discussing the soul and the intellect after the manner in which they [the Ismailis] expounded them.

There is no doubt that Avicenna lived during a troubled political and religious era, and moved from one place to another. It is told that he felt unwelcome at various places for both religious and racial reasons as well as for his Ismaili connections. Several sources indicate that he was actually accused of coming from a ‘bad din’ (evil religion). While many of the books that mention him are full of praise for his knowledge and ability, not a single kind word is found for the man himself. This obvious ill-feeling had various sources. One was that his Ismaili origin was never forgotten; and that his many writings ran directly counter to religious dogma. There is no doubt however that his enemies made capital of the heterodoxy of his family; and we find historians like Ibn al-Athir, writing about this much later.

Mumtaz Ali Tajddin Sadik Ali, a prolific Ismaili author based in Pakistan, is of the opinion that Avicenna practised some form of taqiya due to the difficult circumstances that he lived in. He states that Avicenna “would have shrouded into mist had he divulged his inclination towards Ismailism.” In this regard Mumtaz Ali quotes the well-known Orientalist, the late Professor A. J. Arberry, who wrote, “Even during his lifetime, Avicenna was suspected of infidelity to Islam; after his death accusations of heresy, free thought and atheism were repeatedly levelled against him.”

Tajddin also makes a reference to another article on the controversial subject about Avicenna’s madhab. He cites Dr. Abdul Muid Khan’s article in the journal Islamic Culture (Vol. XXV, Oct., 1951, pp. 28-9) that, “[Avicenna’s] teachers in philosophy are not known to us. His contact with the preachers of Ismaili doctrine then in full swing in Persia, seemed to have attracted the study of philosophy. When one reads his epistles on metaphysics, he appears no more than a Muslim scholastic with tendencies of Ismailites.”

Binding board of manuscript of Avicenna’s Canon. Credit: © Wellcome Library, London.

It is said that in 332 AH/943 CE, a widespread massacres of the Ismailis was conducted in the time of Nuh I bin Nasr II, impelling the Ismailis to exercise taqiya. Hence, Tajddin says, “Ibn Sina also had to take the mantle under constraint and did not divulge his faith. Since his father and brother were publicly known as the adherents of the Ismailis, and Avicenna mentioned that in his autobiography, there was no need for the scholar to make references to himself as an Ismaili.” He felt nothing wrong in showing his father and brother as Ismailis in his autobiography, but exercised precaution for himself. There is no doubt that Avicenna had to face many troubles. Dr. T. J. Boer writes in The History of Philosophy in Islam (London, 1961, p. 148) that, “From the very first, of course, he had many enemies, and they were more noisy in their demonstration than his friends. Poets cursed him: theologians either chimed in with him, or tried to refute him.” And according to the Avicenna Commemoration Volume (Calcutta, 1956, p. 8), Ibn Sina was tolerant and liberal in his religious pursuit. Even in his own time, the people questioned Ibn Sina’s faith and considered him a heretic. He condemned such an imputation in a well-known Persian quatrain:

“It is not so easy and trifling to call me a heretic.
No belief in religion is firmer than mine own.
I am the unique person in the whole world.
And if I am a heretic, then there is not a single Muslim anywhere in the world.”

Interestingly, Mumtaz Ali also mentions that during the 1983 commemoration of the Silver Jubilee of the current Ismaili Imam, His Highness the Aga Khan, a gift of a Chair at the Aga Khan University was offered by the President of the Aga Khan National Council for Pakistan, Vazir Ashiqali, on behalf of the Ismailis of Pakistan. His Highness the Aga Khan graciously accepted the gift on behalf of the Aga Khan University and said that the Chair should be named after one of Islam’s great philosophers or scientists, so that his memory may be kept alive in an academic institution of higher learning today. In 1985, His Highness further recommended to the Board of Trustees that the name “be of a great man in our history, in our tariqah.”  In November 1988, the Ismaili Imam named the Chair of Professorship of Medicine after Abu Ali Ibn Sina.

I might also make a note that during my stay with my parents in Vancouver during 2012-2013, I came across a rare document containing a reference that the late 48th Ismaili Imam, Mawlana Sultan Mahomed Shah (1877-1957), His Highness the Aga Khan III, had stated that Avicenna was an Ismaili.

Based on this brief discussion, the Ismailis have a good reason for treating Avicenna as one of their own.

Date article posted on Simerg: April 28, 2011
Date article updated: December 27, 2020 (reformatting)



Materials for this reading were excerpted or adapted from the following sources:

(1) Encyclopaedia of Ismailism by Mumtaz Ali Tajddin Sadik Ali.

(2) Avicenna: His life (980-1037) and Work by Soheil M. Afnan. This excellent book may be read on-line at the third millennium Web site. Please click Avicenna by Afnan.

(3) Wikipedia article on Avicenna.


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3 thoughts on “A Brief Discussion on Avicenna’s Madhab

  1. ‘Based on this brief discussion, the Ismailis have a good reason for treating Avicenna as one of their own.’ Quoted from the article: I am proud to be one!

  2. This might be pluralism in action…who is to disarm his faith and intellect? The last lines are very interesting. Thank you. Again.

  3. Beautifully expressed and full of data which are supported by history. Mumtaz Ali is a brilliant historian and it has always been a pleasure to meet and talk to him.Thanks for sharing this article.

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