This Iranian Trailblazer Revolutionized Global Medicine and Thought

The works of Ibn Sina, also known as Avicenna, served as core medical texts for some 500 years in Europe. His groundbreaking philosophical teachings also transcended borders...

“Medicine is not one of the difficult sciences, and therefore I excelled in it in a very short time” (A statue of Ibn Sina in Istanbul / Photo: باسم / CC BY-SA 4.0)

Abu Ali Hussein ibn Abdullah ibn Sina, (980-1037 C.E.) known in the Western world as Avicenna, is considered to be one of the most celebrated and influential philosophers and scientists of the Irano-Islamic world, authoring more than 450 books in various scientific and humanistic fields. Ibn Sina was educated in Bukhara, the capital of the Samanid Empire, a Persian dynasty in Central Asia. This was a period of reawakening of the Persian national sentiment, which had been glorified by Persian-speaking poets like Rudaki and Ferdowsi. Bukhara was, therefore, considered to be one of the artistic and intellectual centers of the East. Ibn Sina was influenced by the humanistic culture of his surroundings, and by the age of 10 he knew the Quran by heart and had mastered Arabic grammar.

While a teenager, he studied Aristotle and later the works of al-Farabi. He then turned to natural sciences and began studying books on medicine, recalling in his autobiography: “medicine is not one of the difficult sciences, and therefore I excelled in it in a very short time.” Ibn Sina developed a system of medical knowledge in his encyclopedic book Al-Qanun fi al-Tibb or The Canon of Medicine, which was divided into five sections: a general introduction, properties of therapeutic substances, localized diseases, systemic diseases and pharmacology. Translated into Latin by the late 12th century, the book was taught and discussed in European medical schools for some five centuries, greatly impacting medieval and early modern physicians and the medical field quite broadly.

A 16th century Latin edition of Avicenna’s Fourth Book on the Universal Nature of Medicine. From the Harry Friedenwald Collection at the National Library of Israel

In addition to Canon of Medicine, other medical works of  Ibn Sina were received by philosophers and scientists in the Western world. The Book of Healing (Kitāb al-shifā) was also considered to be one of the major works of medieval Muslim scholarship. If The Canon of Medicine was essentially devoted to prevention of disease and pharmacology, The Book of Healing, known in Latin as Liber Sufficientia, was written as an Aristotelian philosophical summa, consisting of four major parts dealings with logic, metaphysics, mathematics and natural philosophy.

A 14th century Hebrew translation of an Ibn Sina medical text, featuring an illustration of a physician tending to a patient. From the National Library of France, available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

Following Aristotle, Ibn Sina saw the purpose or final cause as that for the sake of which something is done. As a matter of fact, Ibn Sina’s metaphysics of modality implies that all that actually exists is necessary because of its cause.  Though a Neoplatonist, Ibn Sina integrated Aristotelian concepts and ideas into his own corpus. He also ranked among the most influential metaphysicians in the history of Islamic philosophy. In his Treatise on the Soul (Kitab al-Nafs) translated in Latin under the title De Anima, Ibn Sina anticipated Descartes’ radical mind-body dualism. His philosophy was a something of a middle ground between Aristotle’s naturalism and ideas of monotheistic creationism, describing the Divine as the metaphysical “First Cause” of existence, rather than the physical “Unmoved Cause” of motion. For Ibn Sina, the essence of the human being was the soul; the body simply being a dress worn by the soul during its corporeal lifetime.

The mausoleum of Ibn Sina in Iran (Photo: AminiZaza / CC BY-SA 4.0)

Ibn Sina insisted on the spiritual nature of human being. It followed that the human being, as a spiritual being, is in need of the intervention of a “Universal Active Intellect”. Indeed, when Ibn Sina discussed Aristotle’s theory of the soul, he also discussed the Greek philosopher’s theory of the imagination and underlined its role in the process of prophecy. Consequently, Ibn Sina held that some souls could attain the state of prophecy through a union with the Universal Active Intellect, as the source of the genesis of human knowledge. As such, Ibn Sina considered man, as a social and ethical being, to be the crown of divine creation, while also accepting that there is a series of heavenly beings between God and man.

He sought to incorporate Islamic themes into his philosophy, while believing that philosophers (rather than theologians) should have the final say on how to interpret the concept of “Being”. He clearly preferred the philosophical way of expressing the concept of “Truth” and considered Truth to be a fundamental philosophical principle that was not limited to theology but also had important ramifications in metaphysics and logic. In fact, when referring to God, Ibn Sina used the Arabic word Al-Haqq (Truth) – clearly demonstrating his mixture of Islamic theology and Neo-Platonism.

On the whole, one has to conclude that lbn Sina was predominantly an astute metaphysician whose works were read and discussed not only by medieval Islamic philosophers such as Averroes and al-Ghazali, but also accommodated and disputed by Christian philosophers, including Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotus. Undoubtedly, Ibn Sina was a modern thinker who lived in the Middle Ages, and though his obvious brilliance was fully appreciated by the contemporary Islamic world, his full impact only came to the fore after his works were translated into Latin and discovered by European scholars. His passionate defense of philosophy, and his writings on the human body and soul, found many readers who saw in him a great humanist.

Galenus, Avicenna and Hippocrates pictured in a 16th-century medical book (Public domain)

As a result, Ibn Sina can be considered a truly universal thinker, whose thought travelled beyond the Iranian and Islamic mental geographies. Like his teacher Aristotle, Ibn Sina believed that philosophy aims at the universal. And, in fact, he was the first philosopher in the Islamic world who tried to establish a dialogue between different disciplines of thought without being afraid of commenting on Quranic issues and incorporating them into his philosophy. This certainly did not endear him to everyone and many among Ibn Sina’s contemporaries criticized his reliance on non-Muslim philosophers like Plato and Aristotle.

Yet today Ibn Sina’s legacy offers a chance to accomplish a goal that he had hoped to achieve in his lifetime: bridging the gap between the Islamic world and the founders of the fundamentals of Western philosophy. The world needs intercultural and interdisciplinary thinkers like Ibn Sina now, more than ever.

The Clinton Bailey Archive of Bedouin Culture Comes to the National Library of Israel

Irreplaceable documentation of ancient nomadic culture to be saved and made freely available online

Clinton Bailey interviewing a Bedouin elder, 1972 (Photo: Boris Carmi). From the Meitar Collection, National Library of Israel archives

  • 100s of hours of singular audio recordings, photos and slides from fifty years of research
  • Materials document a lost ancient culture; do not exist elsewhere and will not be found in the future
  • The collection will be made freely accessible online by the National Library of Israel

Over the course of more than five decades, Dr. Clinton Bailey has conducted research throughout the deserts of Sinai and the Negev, establishing himself as a world-renowned expert on the Bedouin, Arabic-speaking nomads whose ancient culture survived largely unchanged for thousands of years.

Bedouin men riding camels by the Gulf of Eilat (Photo: Clinton Bailey)

The Clinton Bailey Archive of Bedouin Culture is now coming to the National Library of Israel. The archive includes one-of-a-kind treasures, including approximately 350 hours of interviews and recordings from Dr. Bailey’s research, as well as hundreds of images, slides and video clips documenting Bedouin tribal culture over the past half century.

Dr. Bailey collected these materials immediately before his elderly Bedouin interlocutors passed away, taking their knowledge and memories with them. The archive therefore presents invaluable authentic primary-source materials from the last generation of elderly Bedouin who grew to maturity in the pre-modern period of Bedouin culture.

These materials will not be found in the future. They are a treasure of orally transmitted ancient culture now irreplaceable, and not available via the younger generations of Bedouin who grew up exposed to modernity.

Traditional Bedouin milk churning (Photo: Clinton Bailey)

According to Dr. Raquel Ukeles, Head of Collections at the National Library of Israel, “The irreplaceable materials in the archive will serve members of the Bedouin community interested in learning about their past, as well as scholars in Israel and abroad for generations to come. Safeguarding and opening access to these materials is central to the mission and mandate of the National Library of Israel, as we work diligently to preserve the treasures of all of Israel’s communities and share them with diverse audiences locally and internationally.”

The materials cover a range of facets of ancient Bedouin tribal cultures, making their preservation that much more significant. Subjects recorded include: traditional poems; legal trials; oral traditions and histories; information about economic life, social organization, values, laws, religious practices, poetic creativity, knowledge of the environment, and more.

Bedouin panel of judges in court (Photo: Clinton Bailey)
Unmarried Bedouin women (Photo: Clinton Bailey)

The archive presents a remarkable asset reflecting the singular mission of the National Library, an open and inclusive institution dedicated to preserving diverse expressions of cultural heritage and encouraging engagement with them by audiences in Israel and around the world.

The materials will be made freely accessible online through a comprehensive process that will include:

  • Transcribing all audio materials in order to make them searchable and easily accessible
  • Comprehensively describing and cataloguing their contents in Arabic and English, including explanations of specific vocabulary and customs encountered in the recordings, many of which are not familiar to modern scholars
  • Converting audio materials from analog to digital, optimizing sound quality and undertaking quality assurance measures
  • Opening full digital access to the materials via a dedicated online portal in three languages (English, Arabic, Hebrew) and the National Library of Israel’s catalogue

Preserving and opening access to the Clinton Bailey Archive of Bedouin Culture is made possible thanks to the generous support of the Charles H. Revson Foundation, Marcie Polier Swartz/Grantors Foundation and other donors.


About Dr. Clinton Bailey

Dr. Clinton Bailey has studied Bedouin culture firsthand for more than fifty years. Originally from the United States, Dr. Bailey holds a BA in Middle Eastern and Islamic History from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and a PhD in Political Science with a focus on the Middle East from Columbia University. In 1994, he was awarded the Emil Grunzweig Human Rights Award for his life’s work in studying and preserving the history of the Bedouin in Israel and promoting their civil rights. He has received numerous research grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and private foundations throughout the world.

His many works on Bedouin culture, poetry and law include four highly-acclaimed books: Bedouin Poetry from Sinai and the Negev: Mirror of a Culture (Oxford University Press); A Culture of Desert Survival: Bedouin Proverbs from Sinai and the Negev (Yale University Press); Bedouin Law from Sinai and the Negev: Justice without Government (Yale University Press); and the recently published Bedouin Culture in the Bible (Yale University Press).


About the National Library of Israel

Founded in Jerusalem in 1892, the National Library of Israel (NLI) serves as the dynamic institution of national memory of the Jewish people worldwide and Israelis of all backgrounds and faiths. While continuing to serve as Israel’s pre-eminent research library, NLI has recently embarked upon an ambitious journey of renewal to open access to its treasures and encourage diverse audiences in Israel and around the globe to engage with them in new and meaningful ways. This is taking place through a range of innovative educational, cultural, and digital initiatives, as well as through a new landmark complex designed by Herzog and de Meuron. The new home of the NLI, currently under construction adjacent to the Knesset (Israeli Parliament) in Jerusalem, is on schedule to open its doors in 2022.

Simulated night image of the new National Library of Israel, now under construction next to the Knesset in Jerusalem, on schedule to open in 2022 © Herzog & de Meuron; Mann-Shinar Architects, Executive Architect

The Library’s treasures include the largest collection of written Judaica ever assembled, significant handwritten works by luminaries such as Maimonides and Sir Isaac Newton, exquisite Islamic manuscripts dating back to the ninth century, and archival collections of leading cultural and intellectual figures including Martin Buber, Franz Kafka, Natan Sharansky and Naomi Shemer. The National Library holds the largest collection of Jewish and Israeli music, as well as world-class collections of manuscripts, ancient maps, rare books, photographs, communal and personal archival materials, and more.

For English press inquiries and interview requests: [email protected]

The Story of Layla and Majnun – Romeo and Juliet of the East

This story which originated in 7th century Arabia has traveled across the world over the ages

A young Majnun embraces a blue-eyed doe. Illustration by Mohammed ibn Mula, 1603

In 1192, a Persian poet by the name of Nizami composed a poem based on the tragic story of another young poet named Qays ibn al-Mullawah, whose love for one Layla drove him completely mad. Centuries earlier, Qays had fallen in love with his classmate, Layla, and she with him, yet her parents objected to the relationship between the two. Even with the help of his friends and acquaintances, Qays was not able to unite with his great love. But he would not give up. Wherever he went and whomever he met, he was reminded of Layla. Whenever he got a chance, he would sing of his love for her. This soon won him the nickname Majnun (Arabic for ‘crazy’.)

The brokenhearted Majnun fled to the desert, where he continued writing poems for his loved one, tracing the words in the sand before they were carried off by the desert wind. Anguished and helpless, the thought of Layla kept Majnun awake at night. While he slowly grew out of touch with human beings, Layla remained loyal to Majnun. Her parents forced her to marry another man, though she refused to consummate the marriage, rejecting his attempts to woo her. With the help of a Persian nobleman (portrayed as the saint al-Khider, referred to in many stories in Islamic tradition), Layla was able to arrange to meet with Majnun. The two did not physically touch each other in that last encounter. Instead, they read love poems to one another from a distance; Majnun, enthralled by the perfect image he had constructed in his mind of his unattainable love, fled back to the desert. When Layla’s husband died, she was finally able to grieve publicly. Those around her believed she was grieving the death of her husband, while in fact she was crying over the ongoing separation from her great love, Majnun. Shortly after, she died of heartbreak and was buried, per her request, in her wedding gown. Majnun rushed to her graveside and died as soon as he saw it. And so, the two were buried side by side, their graves becoming a pilgrimage site – a symbol of their reunion, achieved only in death. Nizami’s poem ends with the dream of a common friend of the couple, in which the two are united in their love, living happily ever after in heaven, as a king and queen.


Lord Byron called the Persian lovers “the Romeo and Juliet of the East.” Much like the eternal lovers of Verona, the story of Majnun’s love for Layla appeared in oral legends as well as a number of manuscript fragments even before it was immortalized by a great writer – in their case, the Persian poet, Nizami.

Believed to date back to the 7th century, the story’s origins are not Persian, but Arabic. “The Book of Songs” (Kitab al-Aghani), written by Abu al-Faraj, a 9th century Arabic lexicographer and poet, tells the story of a poet who lived in the days of the Umayyad dynasty. Using his penname, ‘Majnun’, the anonymous poet was able to fearlessly express his unfulfilled love for his cousin, for whom he composed love poems that described the pain of being separated from her.

Short, anecdotal forms of the story of Layla and Majnun began to circulate in Arabic and Persian literature and poetry, every instance expressing a different aspect of the life and death of the two lovers. In one version, the pair meet in a field and not at school; some highlighted the companionship between Majnun and the wild animals he met while living alone in the desert; others focused on the correspondence between the married Layla and tormented figure of Majnun.

Hundreds of years before Nizami composed his famous version of the story, the legend of Layla and Majnun was already known throughout the Middle East. One reason the love story became so popular was its mystic features. Qays/Majnun was a perceived as something of a role model in Sufi mysticism. As the researcher Michal Hasson told us, “In Sufism, man seeks to unite with God, and the relationship between man and God is one of great love and yearning. Even the greatest mystics, who grow especially close to God over the course of their lives, can only fully unite with Him at death. Thus, the day of the passing of the Sufi saint Mu’in al-Din Chishti is celebrated every year and is called Urs, which means ‘wedding.’ Majnun, who spent his entire life searching and longing for his love, but would only unite with her in death, is the ultimate depiction of love and desire for God – and Layla, the reflection of the beloved divine one.”

In 1188, the Persian poet, Nizami, wrote his great poem, containing some 4,600 verses. Nizami replaced the original Arab-Bedouin setting with an urban Persian one, along with the secondary characters that accompanied the lovers – the Meccan governor who tried to help the two lovers reunite is presented as a Persian nobleman; the young lovers who originally met in the Arabian deserts – two commoners surrounded by camels and merchants – meet at the beginning of the Persian poem at school, as children of aristocracy.

Since Nizami published his poem in the 12th century, the story of Layla and Majnun has traveled far beyond the borders of the East. Many different versions were created and it became the most “reproduced” story in Persian history. Before it was translated into European languages in the 18th and 19th centuries, a range of Arab and Persian poets who hoped to achieve something approaching Nizami’s stature composed Layla-and-Majnun poems of their own. Later, the pattern was repeated in Turkish, Urdu, and many other languages. According to Michal Hasson, “Layla and Majnun can therefore be found in 17th century wall paintings in Rajasthan, in Mughal miniatures, in Arabic poetry and, of course, in Persian poetry, as well as in numerous other works in different languages. There is also a “tomb structure” dedicated to the lovers in a small town on the border of India and Pakistan.” Even the 1970 song Layla, written by British musician Eric Clapton, was inspired by the tale. Clapton became familiar with the story, and was able to relate to its theme of unattainable love, which reflected his own feelings toward Pattie Boyd, the wife of his friend George Harrison.


The National Library of Israel is in possession of five different versions of Nizami’s work. One of them is a beautifully illuminated manuscript copied by Mohammed Ibn-Mula, around the year 1603. It contains many marvelous pictures, like the one below showing a young Majnun embracing a blue-eyed doe, a symbol of his one and only, long-lost love, Layla.


Another beautiful example is this Kashmiri manuscript from 1798, which contains an illustration of Layla and Majnun meeting one another.

In 2018, Yuval Shiloach first translated the story of Layla and Majnun into Hebrew, not from the original Persian version, but from Rudolf Gelpke’s English translation, published in 1966.

Read more about Layla and Majnun at Encyclopædia Iranica.

Thanks to Dr. Michal Hasson and Dr. Samuel Thrope for their help in writing this article.

Emirati Underground

With Israelis ready to flock to Dubai and Abu Dhabi, Katie Wachsberger spoke to the National Library about the cutting edge of culture in the UAE

The streets of Dubai, with the Burj Khalifa skyscraper, the world's tallest building, in the background; photo by Katie Wachsberger

Four hard-core rockers are wailing away in a dimly lit garage. The long-haired, headbanging guitarist and bassist are playing faster than seems humanly possible, and the lead singer’s gravely growl sounds like the voice of Satan himself. For those who love it, the song, “Demean,” by the band Nervecell, is four minutes of Death Metal perfection.

It may be a shock for some to learn that Nervecell’s musicians do not hail from London, Stockholm, or San Francisco. Instead, the well-established group is the leading representative of a thriving Death Metal scene in the United Arab Emirates, one of Israel’s newest partners in peace in the Arab world.

If you ask Katie Wachsberger, though, there is no reason for surprise; Israelis should set aside their prior assumptions about what culture is and isn’t in the UAE. In a recent lecture that was part of the National Library’s “Reading Room” series of online events, Wachsberger uncovered the vibrant cultural scene in the Gulf nation. A research associate at the Forum for Regional Thinking and the co-founder of the Unas Cultural Foundation, Wachsberger spoke to listeners from Dubai, where she spent over a month meeting with Emirati partners in the wake of the September 15 peace accord between Israel and the UAE.

Check out Katie Wachsberger’s lecture on the underground culture scene in the UAE:

The United Arab Emirates is a young country. Seven kingdoms, which had formerly been under British colonial rule, and located on the south-western reaches of the Persian Gulf, jointly founded the independent state in 1971. However, Emirati culture, as Wachsberger explained, is diverse and deep, with roots stretching back thousands of years to pre-Islamic times. As the country has grown into a cosmopolitan center for finance, trade, and business over recent decades, the cultural scene has expanded in stride. Major cultural institutions have opened branches there, including the Louvre Abu Dhabi in 2017, the American University in Dubai in 1995, and a planned Guggenheim Museum in Abu Dhabi.

What’s more, the Emirates is more and more a center for new creativity in visual arts, film, performance, and music–the head-thrashing Nervecell is just one example–rather than being only a passive recipient of western cultural exports. However, culture is complicated, and Emirates-based artists face their own unique challenges.

A Dubai art studio, photo by Katie Wachsberger

While the population of the UAE numbers almost ten million people, only some twelve percent are actually citizens. The rest are foreign workers and expatriates from all over the world, including South and Southeast Asia, Europe, Africa, and the rest of the Middle East. This diversity makes the country a cultural melting pot where different traditions can mix and recombine. Wachsberger cited a number of examples, including the CHI-KA women’s fashion line, created by a designer of mixed Emirati and Japanese heritage, that sells kimonos, abayas, and other clothes inspired by both cultures.

The CHI-KA shop & gallery, on Alserkal Avenue – the leading art district in Dubai, photo by Katie Wachsberger

Such innovation exists alongside traditional Emirati culture, which is largely similar to that of other Gulf Arab countries. While no longer the true popular culture of the UAE, traditional dress, dances, and music are supported by the government as part of its larger goal of preserving a certain national narrative.

“Emirati Boatman”, municipality authorised graffiti on an external wall of Al Satwa, Dubai, photo credit: Lxs

Although grassroots and innovative cultural projects are receiving more attention and support, they also still face a difficult path to success. Non-citizen residents, even those who have lived in the UAE for decades or generations, must have a work visa to remain in the country. For that reason, cultural entrepreneurs are obligated to quickly turn their projects into for-profit ventures, to find external support in government or academia, or to keep their day jobs and spread their work through social media rather than more standard avenues.

“Emirati Boys Playing”, municipality authorised graffiti on an external wall of Al Satwa, Dubai, photo credit: Lxs

Nevertheless, Wachsberger underlined that now is a moment of fascinating cultural transition in the UAE. New, critical, and innovative cultural projects are growing organically throughout the country and attracting attention at home and abroad. Artists are more optimistic about the future of Emirati culture than ever before.

The new connections between the UAE and Israel, she added, can help accelerate this momentum. Israel has a rich and robust cultural scene, with grassroots movements, activity in all the arts, and a long and developed tradition of cultural criticism. While Israelis are already imagining what peace with the UAE might mean for Israeli society, economics, and politics, the cultural effects in the Emirates could be just as deep and profound.