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Avicenna (980-1037) was a Persian writer and scientist who is regarded as one of the founders of modern medicine. I found it interesting to discover that his textbook on medicine was written in the form of poetry, in a verse form as well as a prose form. Why was this?

Was it a common practice in Persian literature of the time to write scientific textbooks as poems? Either way, what was the reason - to make the writing more entertaining / likely to hold the reader's attention, or for a sense of aesthetic beauty, or what?

  • I haven't read these in detail, but there may be some material for a good answer in sources such as this and this. (OK, maybe that means I haven't done my research thoroughly enough, but I still think it's a question and information worth having on this site.) – Rand al'Thor Nov 17 '18 at 13:35
  • Just a guess, but medical students would not have been able to afford to buy a hand-written book. They might have been expected to memorise it. Poetry is much easier to memorise. – mikado Nov 17 '18 at 15:30
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The phrase "his textbook on medicine" in this question about Avicenna is a bit misleading, since Avicenna wrote more than one treatise on medicine:

Gotthard Strohmaier notes in his book Avicenna (München: C. H. Beck, 1999, p. 117) that the authenticity of some of these works (except for the Canon and The Book of Healing) has sometimes been questioned.

Avicenna had an exceptional memory. By the age of ten he had already memorised the Quran and much Arabic poetry (Encyclopaedia Brittanica, 2007, Micropedia Volume 1, p. 739).

According to Strohmaier (p. 116) didactic poems already existed before Avicenna, especially to make memorization easier, but they usually employed complex types of metre. The Book of Healing, however, uses the rajaz, which is the simplest Arabic metre. Strohmaier compares it to the German Knittelvers, which tended to be used more for humouristic purposes. (Or, as Wikipedia says, the rajaz orginally "tended to be used for low-status, everyday genres such as lullabies, or for improvisation".) This seems to imply that from a poetic point of view, Avicenna choice of metre broke with the existing conventions for didactic poems.

However, the use of didactic poems in medical education appears to have been something new. Rabie El-Said Abdel-Halim writes:

Another influence of Ibn Sina's medical poem was the spreading popularity of composing didactic poems and utilizing it in medical education. In the Islamic world, several of those medical poems written after Ibn Sina are still extant but only in the form of unedited manuscripts.

(Rabie El-Said Abdel-Halim: "The role of Ibn Sina (Avicenna)'s medical poem in the transmission of medical knowledge to medieval Europe", Urology Annals, 6.1 (January-March 2014).

  • Ah. I tried to research about exactly what Avicenna had written, but it was a bit confusing. Feel free to edit the the-medical-poem tag in the OP if it's not appropriate when he wrote more than one medical treatise. – Rand al'Thor Dec 23 '18 at 7:03
  • Also, although this is very interesting information, it still needs more in order to directly answer the question. "Avicenna choice of metre broke with the existing conventions for didactic poems" - why? "the use of didactic poems in medical education appears to have been something new" - so why did he do it? – Rand al'Thor Dec 23 '18 at 7:05
  • @Randal'Thor The why is answered by "to make memorization easier". The only reason I could find in Strohmaier's book is the one I cited. After all, simpler metre = easier memorisation. – user800 Dec 23 '18 at 9:21
  • Yep, that does answer the question, but only very briefly. Any chance you could add the quote from Strohmaier's book? I'm interested to learn more here :-) – Rand al'Thor Dec 23 '18 at 16:05
  • @Randal'Thor I'll check again on 2/3 January, when the library opens again... – user800 Dec 23 '18 at 18:28

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