A Compendium on the Soul
Category: Islam
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Ibn Sina (Persian: ابن سینا‎), also known as Abu Ali Sina (ابوعلی سینا), Pur Sina (پورسینا), and often known in the West as Avicenna (/ˌævɪˈsɛnə, ˌɑːvɪ-/; c. 980 – June 1037), was a Persian polymath who is regarded as one of the most significant physicians, astronomers, thinkers and writers of the Islamic Golden Age, and the father of early modern medicine. Sajjad H. Rizvi has called Avicenna "arguably the most influential philosopher of the pre-modern era". He was a Muslim Peripatetic philosopher influenced by Aristotelian philosophy.

A Compendium On The Soul

Abû-‘Aly al-Husayn Ibn ‘Abdallah Ibn Sînâ

Edward Abbott van Dyck


Several sources out of which to draw information and seek guidance as to Ibn Sînâ’s biography and writings, and his systems of medicine and philosophy, are nowadays easily accessible to nearly every one. Among such sources the following are the best for Egyptian students:

1. Ibn Abi Uçaybi´ah’s “Tabaqât-ul-Atib-ba,” and Wuestenfeld’s “Arabische Aertzte.”

2. Ibn Khallikân’s “Wafâyât-ul-A´ayân.”

3. Brockelmann’s “Arabische Literatur.”

4. F. Mehren’s Series of Essays on Ibn Sînâ in the Periodical “Muséon” from the year 1882 and on.

5. Clément Huart’s Arabic Literature, either in the French Original or in the English Translation.

6. Carra de Vaux’s “Les Grands Philosophes: Avicenna,” Paris, Felix Alcan, 1900, pp. vii et 302.

7. T. de Boer’s “History of Philosophy in Islâm,” both in Dutch and in the English translation.

The “Offering to the Prince in the Form of a Compendium on the Soul,” of which the present Pamphlet is my attempt at an English Translation, is the least known throughout Egypt and Syria of all Ibn Sînâ’s many and able literary works: indeed I have failed, after repeated and prolonged enquiry, to come across so much as one, among my many Egyptian acquaintances, that had even heard of it.

Doctor Samuel Landauer of the University of Strassburg published both the Arabic text, and his own concise German translation, of this Research into the Faculties of the Soul, in volume 29 for the year 1875 of the Z.d.D.M.G., together with his critical notes and exhaustively erudite confrontations of the original Arabic with many Greek passages from Plato, Aristotle, Alexander Aphrodisias, and others, that Ibn Sînâ had access to, it would appear, second hand, i.e. through translations. Doctor Landauer made use also of a very rare Latin translation by Andreas Alpagus, printed at Venice in 1546; and of the Cassel second edition of Jehuda Hallévy’s religious Dialogue entitled Khusari, which is in rabbinical Hebrew, and on pages 385 to 400 of which the views of “philosophers” on the Soul are set forth, Doctor Landauer having discovered to his agreeable surprise that those 15 pages are simply a word for word excerpt from this Research by Ibn Sînâ. For the Arabic text itself, he had at his command only two manuscript copies, the one, preserved in the Library at Leyden, being very faulty; and the other, in the Biblioteca Ambrosiana at Milan, being far more accurate and correct.

This text was reprinted talis qualis, but with omission of every kind of note, in 1884 at Beirût, Syria, by Khalîl Sarkîs: this reprint is very hard to find.

James Middleton MacDonald, M.A., made a studiedly literal English translation or rather a construe of it in 1884, of which he got a small number printed in pamphlet form at Beirût, and by Khalîl Sarkîs also: this English Version too is very rare, and almost unknown.

My present English rendering of this Essay by Avicena on the Powers of the Soul has been made directly and finally from the Arabic Original as given in the Landauer Text, with constant consultation however of both the Landauer German translation and the MacDonald English construe: it has been made not for European scholars and Arabists but solely for pupil students in Egypt, which circumstance called in a great measure for the use of two or more nearly synonymous words where the Arabic original often has but one only. Indeed I am not ashamed to say further that in some places I have failed to follow the drift and understand the purport of Ibn Sînâ’s argument; so that in such passages I am only too conscious of how far my rendering may perhaps have wandered from the right and true sense. But the author himself declares that psychology is one of the deepest and darkest of studies; and he relates of himself in his autobiography that he had read one of Aristotle’s writings forty times over, until he had got it by heart, and yet had failed to see the point. And he goes on to tell of how it was that he one day stumbled across and then read over al-Fârâbî’s “Maqâçid Aristotle,” whereupon mental light dawned upon him as to the purport of that writing.

Those for whom I have made it now know why this my English version is often timid and wavering, nay sometimes even wordy and hazy.

The end of the next year’s session will in all likelihood bring with it the cessation of my connection with the Khedivial School of Law. More than this: I am getting well on in life, so that this translation will most likely be the last serious work that I shall ever perform in the service of Young Egypt. Such reflections awaken in my inmost soul all sorts of feelings and thoughts about the shortness and fleetingness of this earthly life, the happiness of childhood and youth, the darkness of the grave, and the utter despair that will surely engulf the soul at the last hours, unless — mark my words — unless the strong arm of our Heavenly Father lay hold upon this soul that is now within me, and take it off and up, to be joined unto the millions of souls of all, all those who have gone before, whither too shall follow so many, many other millions; in a word, unless GOD have mercy upon me, even as He has had mercy upon my forefathers and mothers since many generations. This hope in His mercy and grace is my ever-strengthening prop and stay, the older and feebler I get. Nor will any of those for whom I write these lines ever find a stronger or a better. And the time will very soon come when each and every one of them, however long may be his life here below, will surely need it, to save him from sinking into the black nothingness of doubt, indifference, and despair.


Verona, August, 1906.

Wer fertig ist, dem ist nichts recht zu machen:
Ein werdender wird immer dankbar sein.

[Lustige Person, in Goethe’s Faust]


In the Name of GOD, the Merciful, the Compassionate: May GOD bless our Lord Muhammad and his Kinsfolk, and give them peace. O my God facilitate [this undertaking]; and make [it] end in good, O Thou Bounteous Being!

Abu-´Aly, Ibn Sînâ, the chief elder, learnèd and erudite leader, the precise and accurate researcher, Truth’s plea against mankind, the physician of physicians, the philosopher of Islâm, may the Most High GOD have mercy upon him, saith: —

The best of beginnings is that which is adorned with praise to the Giver of strength for praising Him; and for invoking blessing and peace upon our Lord Muhammad, His prophet and servant, and upon his good and pure offspring after him. And after this beginning, he saith further: —

Had not custom given leave to the small and low to reach up to the great and high, it would be most difficult for them ever to tread those paths in going over which they need to lay hold of their upholding arm and seek the help of their superior strength; to attain to a position in their service, and join themselves to their social circle; to pride themselves on having become connected with them, and openly declare their reliance upon them. Nay, the very bond which joins the common man to the man of élite would be severed, and the reliance of the flock upon its shepherd would cease; the frail would no longer become powerful through the strength of the mighty, nor the low-born rise through the protection and countenance of the high-born; the foolish would not be able to correct his folly and ignorance by intercourse with the prudent and wise; nor the wise draw nigh to the ignorant and foolish.

And whereas I find that custom has trod along this highroad, and prescribed this usage, I avail myself of such a precedent and excuse to warrant my reaching up and aspiring to the Prince, GOD give him long life, with an offering [an acceptable present]; and I have given prevalence to the thought that my choice ought to fall upon an object which will at once be most acceptable to him, and best calculated to attain my aim of ingratiating myself into his favor; and this, after coming to the certain conclusion that the chief virtues are two, namely 1. Love of wisdom as to the Articles of Faith, (i.e., Love of Philosophy in theoretical principles); and 2. Choice of the most honest of deeds as to in tention (i.e., the preference of pure purposes in practical life).

And in this connection I find the Prince, God prolong his days, to have given to his intrinsically worthy character so much of the polish and lustre imparted by wisdom that he far outstrips his rivals among the princes, and overtops all such as are of his kind. And hence I clearly perceive that of all presents the one he will appreciate most is such as conduces to the most precious of the virtues, to wit wisdom. I had, however, so far profitted from a careful perusal of the books of the learnèd as to find their researches into the spiritual faculties among the most abstruse and refractory against the mind’s grasping what they mean, and the most bewildering, obscure and misleading as to their results. And yet I have seen it reported about a number of wise men (philosophers) and pious saints that they agree in this dictum (motto), viz: “Whoso Knoweth himself, Knoweth his Lord”; and I have also heard the Chief of the Philosophers say, in agreement with their saying: “Whoso faileth to Know himself, is still more likely (apt) to fail of Knowing his Creator”; and “How shall he, who is trusted as a reliable authority in a science, be deemed to have any views at all, when he is ignorant of himself?” I see further the Book of the Most High GOD pointing to the measure of truth of this, where He says, when mentioning the distance separating the Erring from His mercy: Surah 59, al-Hashr, v. 19: “they forgot God, and He made them forget themselves”; is not His making the forgetting of self to depend upon forgetting Him done so as to awaken the attention to His closely binding the remembrance of Him with the remembrance of self, and the knowledge of Him with the knowledge of self, scilicet of one’s own soul? Furthermore, I have read in the books of the ancients that the hard task of going deeply into the knowledge of self had been enjoined upon them by an oracle that had descended upon them at one of the temples of the gods, which says: “Know thyself, O man, so shalt thou know thy Lord.” I have also read that this saying was engraved in the façade of the temple of Aesculapius, who is known among them as one of the prophets, and whose most famous miracle is that he was wont to heal the sick by mere loud supplication; and so did all priests who performed sacerdotal functions in his temple. From him have philosophers got the science of medicine.

Thus I have thought fit to make for the Prince a book on the soul, in the form of a compendium; and I ask the Most High God to prolong his life, to keep intact from the evil eye his frail and mortal body, to refresh through him wisdom after its fading, to revive it after its languishing, to renew its might through his might, and to give it length of days through length of days to him, in order that by his prestige the advantages accruing from the prestige of its kin shall become all-embracing, and that the number of the seekers after its fullness shall abound. Nor shall I achieve this my ambition save through God: He is my all-sufficient stay, and best helper. I have arranged the Book in sections, ten in all: —

Section First

To Establish the Existence of the Spiritual Faculties, the Detailed Analysis of which I have undertaken.

Whoso wishes to describe anything whatsoever before proceeding to establish first its reality of existence, such a one is counted by the wise among those who deviate from the broad beaten track of perspicuous statement. It is incumbent upon us, therefore, to first set to work to establish the existence of the spiritual powers, before starting to define each one of them singly, and enlarge upon it.

And whereas the most peculiar characteristics of spiritual properties are two — one of them Setting in Motion (Impulsion), and the other Perception — it is incumbent upon us to show that to every moving body there is a moving cause (ground, reason, motive, pretence). Then it will become evident to us therefrom that bodies moving in motions over and above the natural motions — an example of natural motions is the sinking of the heavy, and the rising of the light — have moving causes, which we call souls or spiritual powers; and that we further show that any body, in so far as it shows signs (traces) that it is perceptive, such perception by it cannot be validly ascribed to its body, except because of powers (faculties) in it that are capable of perception.

We now start by saying that not a shadow of doubt or perplexity hampers the mind, as to things, that some of them share some one thing in common, and differ in an other; and that that which is shared in common is other than that in which they differ. The mind encounters all bodies whatsoever as having this in common, viz. that they are bodies; and afterwards it encounters them as differing in that they move (in different ways); otherwise there would be no such thing as rest of a body, and not even such a thing as motion of a body, except along a circle, seeing that of motion in a straight line it is established by its very form that it will not proceed save from stoppings and to stoppings (resting-places to resting-places). Hence it is evident that bodies are not to be clothed with the attribute of motion because they are bodies, but for reasons (causes) above and beyond their corporeity, from which causes their motions proceed, like the resulting of the footprint from the walker (or, just as the effect proceeds from the agent).

So much having become clear to us, we say that we find, among bodies generated from the Four Elements, such as moves, not by constraint, in two kinds of motion between which there is more or less difference: The one kind inherent in its element by reason of the supremacy over it of the power of one of its constituents, and thus decreeing its motion towards the position in space naturally appointed for it, as for example a man’s moving by the nature of the preponderating heavy element in his body downwards; nor will this kind of the motions of bodies be found to take place save in one direction and with a constant tendency; The second kind of motion going against the decree of its element, which decree is either rest in the natural position as soon as it reaches that position, as for example a man’s moving his body along its natural home which is the Earth’s surface; or else a moving away from the natural position when already separated from it, like a flying bird’s motion with its heavy body high up through the sky. It has thus been made manifest [to the reader] that the two motions have two accounting causes, and that they are quite different one from the other: the one is called Natural, and the second called Soul or Spiritual Faculty. Hence it is quite sound, as to motion, to affirm the existence of spiritual faculties.

Whereas, in respect of Perception, because that bodies exist with this in common, viz. that they are bodies, and with this in distinction, viz. that they are repeatedly perceptive, it is quite manifest by the first (preceding) process of discrimination that perception will not ever differ from bodies through difference of their substance, but by certain powers or faculties borne within those bodies. It therefore becomes quite clear by this sort of exposition that spiritual faculties have an existence: and this is what we wished to demonstrate.

Section Second

Of the Division of the Spiritual Faculties and their Classification into Three Main Classes, and the Definition of the Soul in a General Way.

Sub-Section A:

It has been clearly shown by us in the foregoing that of things there are some which have one thing in common and differ in an other, in that the one in common is other than the one differed in. Then we found compound ensouled bodies — I mean possessing souls — to have agreed and differed in the properties both of their impulsion and their perception. As to impulsion, they agree and differ, in that one and all of them has in common that they move in quantity the motion of growth; and they differ, in that one sett among them moves, together with that growth, in local motions according to the will; and one other sett among them does not so move, such as plants. Likewise living beings have in common that they are both sentient and perceptive, up to a certain sort of sensuous perception; and then afterwards they differ in that one sett among them perceives, together with that sort of sensuous perception, by intellectual perception; and one other sett among them does not so perceive, such as the ass and the horse. We further found the power of impulsion to be more widely embracing than the power of perception, in that we found plants to lack the latter utterly. Hence we knew for certain that the faculty in which the animal agrees with the plant is more general than this perceptive faculty, and than the impelling faculty which is in the animal; and each one of them is more general than the speaking (rational) faculty, which belongs to man. Thus then, the spiritual faculties come forth (or stand out) before us set and ranged, in respect of the common and the peculiar, i.e., according to the general and special under three classes or ranks:

The first of which is known as the plant or vegetable power, on account of the participation therein of the animal and plant;

The second is known as the animal power;

The third, as the speaking power, or rational faculty.

Therefore, the primary parts of the soul, in contemplating it from the standpoint of its powers, are three.

Sub-Section B:

To treat now of the definition of the Soul at large, I mean the universal, absolute, generic soul. This will become apparent, according to the tenets I hold, that among truths that are plainly manifest one is that every one of all natural bodies is compounded of “hyle” I mean matter, and of form. As for hyle, one of its properties is that through it a natural body is affected (or acted upon) in its very self; seeing that the sword, for instance, does not cut through its iron, but through its sharpness, which is its form; whereas it gets jagged owing to its iron, and not owing to its form. Another of those properties is that bodies do not differ through it, I mean through the hyle; for earth does not differ from water through its matter, but through its form. Still another property is that it — the hyle or matter — does not afford (supply, furnish) natural bodies their characteristics peculiarly belonging to them, save potentially; since in man, e.g., his humanity — his being man — is not actually derived from the four elements, save potentially.

As for the form, its peculiarity is 1.o that through it bodies put forth their actions (or perform their manifold deeds and workings); since a sword does not cut through its iron, but through, its sharpness; and  2.o that bodies differ one from the other only through their genus or  kind, I mean the form, since earth does not differ from water save through its form, whereas in its matter it does not; and 3.o that natural bodies get (derive, acquire) their being what they in fact are from the form, since as to man, his being a man (his humanity) is in fact through his form, and not through his matter, which is of the four elements.

Let us proceed a little further, and we shall say that a live body is a natural compound body that discriminates the non-living through its soul, and not through its body; and that performs multifarious animal works through its soul, and not through its body; and is alive through its soul and not through its body; and its soul is within it. Now, what is within a thing, while this form of its continues, is its form [or, this its form being so and not otherwise, is etc.]. Thus then the soul is a form; and forms are realized perfections (enteléchia), since through them the features (identities, characteristics) of things become perfect. The soul, therefore is a perfection (realized identity). And perfections (enteléchias) come under two divisions: either the principles underlying the doings and their effects, or the very doings and effects themselves. The one of the two divisions is first, and the other is second. The first is the principle (or source and origin), and the second is the doing and the effect (or trace). In this sense the soul is a first perfection (or prime actuality); for it is a principle (source), not an outcome of a principle (source). And of perfections, there are such as belong to bodies, and such as belong to incorporeal substances. In this sense the soul is a prime perfection attaching to a body. And among bodies, there are such as are artificial, and such as are natural. Now the soul is not a perfection of an artificial body; hence it is a prime perfection attaching to a natural body. Again, among natural bodies there are such as perform their multifarious workings through organs (tools, instruments), and such as do not perform their workings through organs (tools); as, for example the simple bodies, and those acting through the prevalence (constraint) of the simple forces. In other words we may say, if we like, that among natural bodies there are those whose design is, among other things, that they produce of themselves [whose task or business is to perform animal acts voluntarily, of their own will,] manifold animal actions; and there are those whose design is, among other things, not so to produce. Hence again, the soul is not a perfection attaching to the two last divisions in both the foregoing manners of statement. Therefore its full and finished definition is to say that —

It is a prime perfection (consummation, realization) attaching to an organic natural body; and, if we wish, to say further, a prime perfection attaching to a natural body having a life potentially (a first, perfection belonging to a natural body which body may have life); that is to say, a source of the manifold animal actions potentially (it is the source and origin of the deeds done by such beings as may be alive). Thus then we have divided (described) the generic soul, and defined it — which is what we had undertaken.

Section Third

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