Abu 'Ali al-Husayn ibn 'Abd Allah ibn Sina, is understandably better known by the Latinised version of his name - Avicenna. He was one of the most outstanding of Arab physicians in an era when Arab medicine was the most advanced in the Western world.
He was born in 980 ad. in the town of Bukhara in Persia (now in the Uzbeckistan). He was by all accounts an infant prodigy, and had memorised the Koran and quantities of Arab poetry by the time he was ten years old. His father provided him with tutors in logic, metaphysics, arithmetic and other sciences until he outgrew his tutors, and continued to educate himself, in subjects including Islamic law, astronomy and medicine until he was 18.
By the age of 21 he was already famed for his mastery of allbranches of formal learning, and for his medical prowess, and became physician-in-chief to the hospital at Bhagdad. Inevitably, such a brilliant young man was invited to become personal physician to a succession of Caliphs, and almost equally inevitably, he attracted jealousy and intrigue, as a result of which he spent several periods in prison. Even in prison he continued to study and to write, and he is said to have had such a strong physique that he withstood ordeals that would have killed a lesser man.
His two most important books were the 'Kitab ash-shifa' - 'The Book of Healing', which dealt with natural sciences, psychology, astronomy and music as well as purely medical matters; and the great 'Canon of Medicine' in which he summarised the medical knowledge of his Greek, Roman and Arab predecessors and added to it from his own experience. These books were translated into Latin in the 12th century, at the same period when mediaeval scholars were also rediscovering the work of Hippocrates, Galen and Dioscorides, and in this way Avicenna became a very important influence on European medical thought for several centuries.
The importance of Avicenna to the history of aromatherapy is threefold, for he not only described accurately many hundreds of plants and their uses, and set down such accurate instructions on giving massage that they could be used as a teaching manual now, but he is credited with having discovered the method of distilling essential oils from flowers. See
Whether or not he personally made this discovery, which is not really proven, it is certain that attar of roses was produced in Persia during his lifetime, and there are some persuasive arguments for attributing the discovery to him. Apart from his all-round brilliance as a scientist, poet, doctor and scholar, Avicenna was an alchemist, and roses had a very specific significance in alchemical experiments. White roses and red roses held different symbolic importance and were used at different stages of the work. They were placed in a flask, or alembic, and heated with other materials, the vapour so produced being collected in another flask as it cooled. Roses heated in this way will produce a quantity of rosewater, with a very small amount of rose oil, or attar, floating on the surface. Such an attribution is, of course, somewhat speculative, but it fits the known facts about Avicenna.
The medicinal plants described in his various writings amount to over 800, but we are not able to identify all of them accurately, as he used their vernacular names from India, Tibet and China, as well as the Middle East. Among those that we can identify, we find lavender, camomile and, of course, the ubiquitous rose, all of them very valuable aromatherapy oils.
Avicenna wrote lucid descriptions of massage techniques, describing, for example, brisk friction to produce localised warmth and redness, and more gentle strokes which he prescribed for 'the softening of hard bodies'. Writing about massage for athletes, he said 'There is a friction of preparation, which comes before exercise. Then there is a friction of restoration, which comes after exercise and is called rest-inducing friction. The object of this is the resolution of superfluities retained in the muscles, not evacuated by exercise, that they may be evaporated, and that fatigue may not occur. This friction (i.e. massage) must be done smoothly and gently'. It would be hard to better this advice, which corresponds almost to the letter to the regime followed by some Olympic teams.
Some of Avicenna's medical thinking is astonishingly modern, and encompasses much that is valued in alternative medicine. As well as using massage, plants and plant oils, he originated various forms of manipulation for spinal problems (and traction for broken limbs), and either introduced, or at least popularised, the all-fruit diet as a cleansing process, using fruits rich in natural sugars, such as melons and grapes.
Avicenna died in 1037 a.d. from colic, when he was in a state of exhaustion after accompanying the Caliph on a military campaign.
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