Lab Results Confirm: This Ibn Sina Manuscript Is Nearly 1000 Years Old

A manuscript attributed to the famous 11th-century Persian physician and philosopher Ibn Sina has created a scholarly stir regarding its dating. Is it contemporary with the author? If so, this would make it an important and reliable copy. Or was it copied a few hundred years after his death? There was only one way to find out...

Rachel Goldberg
رسم ابن سينا من مخطوطة تعود للعصور الوسطى بعنوان subtitles of truth من عام 1271 (المصدر ويكيبيديا)، وهاجر ميلمان، مختصّة حفظ وترميم في مختبر الحفظ والترميم في المكتبة الوطنيّة الإسرائيليّة، وهي تقطع برفق خط رفيع من المخطوطة.
Ibn Sina, as he appears in the medieval manuscript titled Subtleties of Truth, 1271 (source: Wikipedia), and Hagar Milman, of the Conservation and Restoration Laboratory at the National Library of Israel, as she delicately cuts a sample from the edge of a manuscript page

“Scalpel,” says a woman in a white lab coat, holding out her hand while standing over a brightly lit table. Knife in hand, she then leans over and begins making the incision.

The “patient” on the operating table is not a person, but a manuscript whose date of writing, or rather of copying, is the subject of debate.

The purpose of the “operation” is to determine how old this manuscript truly is. This will be done by analyzing the sample that has been extracted in an external laboratory. The results of the test will have significant implications, for this is no ordinary manuscript but one that is attributed to the renowned 11th-century Persian philosopher and physician Ibn Sina.

Ibn Sina, as he appears in the medieval manuscript Subtleties of Truth, 1271. Source: Wikipedia

Ibn Sina is considered one of the most important thinkers of the Islamic world, and he is part of a small group of Islamic thinkers who were renowned in their own lifetime, both in the Islamic world and in Europe, where he was known as “Avicenna.”

Ibn Sina rose to prominence at a young age as a respected physician and philosopher. His early fame came when he was called to the bedside of the Sultan of Persia who had been suffering from a prolonged illness. Ibn Sina was able to heal the Sultan when the court physicians could not. His reward was access to the royal library, a development which spurred him on to write many different works, including his famous text on the philosophy of science known as the Book of Healing (Kitab al-Shifa).

First page of the manuscript the Book of Healing (Kitab al-Shifa), in the collection of the National Library of Israel

During his short life, Ibn Sina managed to compose hundreds of works. In the Library’s collections there are hundreds of manuscripts of Ibn Sina’s writings as well as later commentaries on them. But two in particular stand out: one in the field of medicine and the other in various fields of science.

Ibn Sina’s uniqueness in these two works is his overarching approach, which included mapping the entire field of knowledge, and dividing it into clear categories. Moreover, he critically examined these categories, presenting his own insights in each and every field. This method of examining the different categories critically, especially in the field of medicine, eventually became the basis of modern medicine – an approach formally known as “evidence-based medicine”.

The Book of Healing includes four volumes, each of which is dedicated to a different subject. In the Library’s collections is the first volume, which deals with logic. The other volumes deal with the natural sciences, psychology, computational sciences (geometry, mathematics, music and astronomy) and metaphysics. The Book of Healing is a survey of all the fields of science known at the time of its composition. Its uniqueness and importance, as already noted, lies in its structure, which became the standard for all books of philosophy that came after it.

The first volume of the Book of Healing was donated to the National Library as part of the vast collection of the eminent researcher, writer and collector Abraham Shalom Yahuda. The cataloger of the collection, Efraim Wust, recorded the details of this unique manuscript in the Library catalog. Every book cataloged in the Library includes the known or estimated year of its creation.

However, there was no clear date for the creation of this manuscript inside the manuscript itself, and in the catalog entry for it West listed the date as “1050” followed by a question mark. It is not clear what led West to assign this date to the manuscript. Was it an informed assessment perhaps based on the paper or the type of ink, or was it just a gut feeling?

Screenshot of the National Library catalog for the manuscript Kitab al-Shafa (Book of Healing). The catalog shows all the basic data related to every item in the National Library of Israel, and here prominently listed is the date: 1050?

But what is the importance of dating a manuscript anyway?

A manuscript copied during an author’s lifetime is usually indicative of the standing and reputation of the author and is considered more important than one copied after the author’s death because the wording will be closer to the original. It should be noted that there are very few manuscripts of Kitab al-Shafa from Ibn Sina’s lifetime. The discovery of an additional copy made during his lifetime might shed further light on the original wording of this important treatise.

There are several ways to date a manuscript. The easiest way is if the manuscript contains a colophon, that is, a note written by the copyist of the manuscript in which he notes when the copy was completed and sometimes also additional details about the manuscript. One finds colophons in many manuscripts, but as mentioned, not in this one.

An example of a colophon, which often appears in the form of a triangle, one of whose points face downward. From a manuscript in the collection of the National Library of Israel

In the absence of a colophon, there are other less direct ways for dating a manuscript that involve examining various details of the item – the title page and the information it contains, notes, seals of the manuscript’s previous owners or notes of consent for the study of the book (adjazat). However, many early manuscripts do not have a title page at all! Sometimes marginal notations can also shed light on the date a manuscript was copied.

In addition, the physical material from which the manuscript is made may also serve to indicate its time of origin – the type of paper, the type of ink, colors and decorations, the calligraphy, the numbering of the pages or the number of quires, and the like. However, the codicologist (a scientist who studies the materials from which books were made) of the Islamic Collection at the National Library of Israel warns against trying to date a manuscript (or even a printed book) by its cover because that part of a book can be easily replaced.

One thing that may help to pin down the date of a manuscript is the type of paper – its quality, its texture, its degree of transparency, the surface gloss and color, and its firmness or flexibility. Looking at the type of paper of the manuscript under discussion, we can clearly see these things. For example, one can see the fibers from which the paper is made and also some darker areas on the paper, which help to date when the manuscript was written.

Since its arrival at the National Library, there have been various opinions regarding the date the manuscript was copied: some argued that the manuscript was indeed contemporary with Ibn Sina, while others claimed that the manuscript was copied after the author’s death.

The issue became more acute when a specialist in Islamic codicology from Italy approached the Library with questions about the date in the catalog, and claimed that it was copied 200 years later. The Library staff decided to check once and for all in order to unequivocally solve the question of the manuscript’s dating.

Marcela Szekely, the Head of Conservation and Restoration at the National Library of Israel, asked Professor Elisabetta Boaretto to use radiocarbon dating, known to be the most reliable method for dating paper. Prof. Elisabetta Boaretto, a world-renowned expert in the field, came to the National Library to collect a sample of the manuscript.

An “operation” to extract a sample was performed. Since this is an invasive type of test, the operation was preceded by a long discussion between Marcela Szekely and Professor Boaretto about how and from where to take the sample. The initial thought was to conduct the test on the ink used in the manuscript. But in the end, in order to minimize damage to the manuscript as much as possible, it was decided to take the sample from the sides of several pages in the form of an elongated strip and not in the form of a rectangle as is usually the case.

Prof. Boaretto wraps the specimen from the manuscript in foil paper for transport to the lab at the Weizmann Institute for radiocarbon dating

This test, also known as the radiometric method, is based on the fact that every organic substance has a constant rate of radioactive decay. Thus, the older an object, the smaller the amount of radioactive carbon that will be found in it. Research in the field has developed significantly over the years, and today this method can be used to date any inanimate object of organic origin going back 50 thousand years. It was also decided to test for the composition of the paper at the same time. The test was carried out at the Dangoor Research Accelerator Mass Spectrometry Laboratory at the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot under the supervision of Prof. Boaretto.

Prof. Marcela Szekely, Head of Conservation and Restoration (left) and Prof. Boaretto (right) with the Kitab al Shifa manuscript. Every special request to view an ancient manuscript or rare item takes place in a room dedicated for this purpose, with the item placed on a special cushion for its protection.

When the answer finally came back from Prof. Boaretto, it was clear that the collector and cataloger had both been right and their gut feeling was accurate: the manuscript is not from the 14th century, but dates to between the years 1040–1160 at the latest, shortly after the death of Ibn Sina in 1037. It was also discovered that the source of the paper is cellulose. Further tests will be performed to discover the type of fibers from which the paper was made. This is another example of how science comes to the aid of history to help us to learn more about the Library’s cultural treasures which are available to the general public for reference and research.

The article was compiled with the assistance of Marcela Szekely, head of the Department of Conservation and Restoration at the National Library of Israel.


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