From my perspective, choosing a Muslim hero is tremendously difficult. Not because there are so few (on the contrary), but because there are so many heroes and heroines to choose from.

The Philosopher Bertrand Russell in his famous History of Western Philosophy has openly acknowledged the epoch-making contribution of Islam and Muslim civilisation to science, philosophy, economy, art, poetry and medicine.

My faith (Christian) influences me to value compassion as one of the characteristics of a person when identifying a hero, but my profession has also influenced my choice. I am a specialist in child mental health and am mindful of the great contribution that Islamic medicine has gifted to humanity.

Within a few short centuries after its beginning, the Islamic world had expanded to stretch from the Atlantic ocean in the west to the Indian ocean in the east, from Moorish Spain to the plains of Hindustan. Everywhere the Muslims went, their Unani physicians went with them, adapting themselves to the local conditions and resources. In the words of Unani medical historians, Unani Tibb enriched itself by absorbing new medicines, techniques and treatments from the various cultures and medical systems with which it came into contact, which included Indian Ayurveda and Oriental Medicine.

By the end of the 13th century Arab scholars had added mathematics to medicine allowing for accurate pharmacology in the creation and prescription of medications as well as giving surgeons and doctors a means of predicting the course of an illness using observation, empirical evidence and mathematics to calculate the most critical times of the illness, thus making dosage more specific to the patient.

For my choice of hero therefore, I will draw from the field of medicine and my nomination goes to Avicenna (Abu Ali Sina, or Ibn Sina (980-1037). Avicenna was a Persian physician and philosopher. He was born near Bukhara, then capital of the Samanid dynasty. By the time he was 10 years old he had learned the Qu’ran as well as Arabic grammar and literature. By the age of 16 he had mastered not only natural science and rudimentary metaphysics but also medical theory. He was not satisfied with merely a theoretical understanding of medicine so he began to treat the sick.

Avicenna (as he is known in the West), was a contributor to many fields, including geology, philosophy, law, theology and astronomy, but his greatest legacy lies in the field of medicine. He was one of the main interpreters of Aristotle and was the author of almost 200 books on science, religion and philosophy. Avicenna’s two most important works are: ‘Shifa’ (The Book of Healing) a vast philosophical and scientific encyclopaedia, and ‘Al Qanun fi Tibb’ (The Canon of Medicine). The first is a philosophical encyclopaedia (based on Aristotelian tradition) and the second is the most famous single book in the history of medicine. His medical system was long the standard in Europe and the Middle East.

Dominating medical education and practice in Europe and Asia for centuries, the Canon is a comprehensive codification of all Graeco-Arabic medicine. This book also includes many important original observations, for example, Avicenna was the first physician to observe the communicability of diseases such as tuberculosis and dysentery, the spread of diseases through water, the properties and preparation of alcohol and sulphuric acid, the genetic nature of certain conditions, and the sweet taste of urine in those with diabetes.

Avicenna is considered by many to be “the father of modern medicine”. The Belgian chemist and historian, George Sarton called him “the most famous scientist of Islam and one of the most famous of all races, places, and times.”

There is a memorial to the life and works of the man who is known as the ‘doctor of doctors’ standing outside the Bukhara museum and his portrait hangs in the Hall of the Faculty of Medicine in the University of Paris. There is a crater on the moon called ‘Avicenna’ which was named after him.

All students of medicine and allied fields should learn of the life and work of this great man and listen to what he says regarding the dualism of mind and matter. He saw matter as passive and creation as the act of instilling existence into this passive substance; only in the divine are being and existence one.

Dr Jay Hayes-Light

Thanks to Dr Jay for this article and to Claire claire@christianmuslimforum.org for leading on this project. Please keep the stories coming, as this is our third story and all the heroes have been men it would be great to have some female heroes! (Ed.)

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