Avicenna Live (ALIVE)

The Immediate Context of Avicenna’s Intellectual Formation

ALIVE explores a unique set of essential yet hitherto widely neglected source texts for the immediate context of Avicenna’s intellectual development and offers a new digital approach to the study of diverse and difficult textual corpora.

The Muslim polymath Avicenna (Ibn Sīnā, d. 428/1037) is the most influential philosopher of the Arabic-Islamic intellectual tradition and is justifiably regarded as one of the most important philosophers of all time.

He is often considered a philosophical wunderkind, as Mozart to music, who very early had completed his education and perfected his understanding of reality. Yet, throughout his life, Avicenna was also an eager student of his teachers and himself became a dedicated teacher to his students – leading to the key-question of ALIVE: to what extent have Avicenna’s personal relations with his peers influenced the formation and formulation of his own philosophy? Did he, perhaps, reform and reformulate his thoughts in light of his personal interactions?

Modern scholarship on Avicenna has often evaded these questions, frequently referring to his autobiography, in which his mature self declared that he never changed his mind after his eighteenth birthday: “everything which I knew at that time is just as I know it now; I have not added anything to it to this day.” What is more, scholars appear to be either unaware of the existence of a number of sources that would allow the examination of Avicenna’s possible indebtedness to and interaction with his peers, or – if aware – were deterred by the challenges involved in examining these sources systematically. As a result, the immediate context of Avicenna’s intellectual development remains a surprisingly understudied area of research despite its enormous potential for new insights not only into particular parts of his oeuvre but into his philosophy as a whole.– This is the premise of ALIVE and its point of departure.

ALIVE is the first systematic approach to a unique selection of essential yet hitherto widely neglected source texts that enable us to trace Avicenna’s engagement with his contemporaries. Bringing to life his personal interactions with both the generation of his direct teachers and the generation of his direct students, ALIVE aims to reappraise Avicenna’s innovations in light of his own development and, thereby, to provide a new vantage point for the study of Avicenna and for all future investigation on the history of philosophy in the Islamic world. At the same time, ALIVE will make an important contribution to the Digital Humanities by furnishing an open source online platform that will facilitate the study of diverse and difficult textual corpora.

As such, ALIVE consists of four subprojects:

  • ALIVE1 analyses a unique manuscript which is almost entirely unknown to the scholarly community and which contains the philosophical writings of the Christian philosopher and physician Abū Sahl al-Masīḥī (d. 401/1010), who was one of Avicenna’s closest teachers during his formative years.
  • ALIVE2 investigates another manuscript, this time one which is famously known but which has received only one-sided attention, having been employed to trace the development of late ancient Greek thought – not, however, to understand the Arabic philosophical tradition or, in particular, Avicenna.
  • ALIVE3 focuses on a fascinating collection of “discussions” (ar. mubāḥaṯāt) which Avicenna had with his students and which has been widely left aside in scholarship due to its inherently challenging complexity, even though it has been known as constituting perhaps the most pertinent research task in the field of Avicenna studies.
  • ALIVE4 studies the writings of Avicenna’s “star student” Bahmanyār ibn Marzubān (d. 458/1066 or as early as 430/1038), which generally have been disregarded on account of their supposedly unoriginal nature and alleged lack of sophistication, despite the fact that their author asserts to have written them as an outcome of conversations he had with the master himself.

Individually, each of the four subprojects targets a clear lacuna in the state of the art. Collectively, they explore the ways in which the immediate intellectual context of Avicenna may have shaped his philosophy, urging him to review, rethink, or even revise his thought on several occasions.

After five years of thorough research, ALIVE will be able to tell whether Avicenna’s works ought to be considered as a monolithic manifesto of a remarkably steadfast and imperturbable, perhaps even stubborn, genius or as the dynamic vision of a living being – a philosopher of flesh and blood – engaged in close interaction with his intellectual environment.


We aim to publish at least nine articles, four books, one volume of conference proceedings, and three special issues of journals.