Avicenna’s Cannabis Medicine and Mysticism

Regarded as one of the greatest intellects of Islam’s Golden Age, the geographer, astronomer, poet, theologian, Avicenna, Ibn Sina, (980-1030) is probably best known for his contributions to medicine, and his works, after being translated into Latin became deeply influential in Medieval and renaissance Europe.

“In his Canon on pharmacology he named over 760 drugs and chemicals, many used by alchemists and physicians (e.g. narcotics such as opium, cannabis, mandragora, and hemlock)… Avicenna was among the first of several medieval skeptics who questioned the transmutations of metals and minerals into gold” (Krebs, 2004). A 1595 edition of Avicennae Arabum Medicorum Principis Canon Medicinae ex Gerardi Cremonensis versione, etc., ‘Avicenna’s Canon of Medicine, by the Prince of Arab Physicians, according to Gerard of Cremona’s Version, etc.’, holds a number of entries under cannabis, including cannabis and other pulverized herbs infused in wine, as well as an elaborate sounding combination of herbs, including cannabis, poppy and harmaline containing syrian rue seeds, under the elaborate sounding name Confectio Cognominata Imperialis (Confection Named Imperial).

Confectio Cognominata Imperialis

…and 8 oz. of parsley root stem and iron dross, cleaned and abraded for three weeks, together with sugar for one week, with water and honey for a week, and for a week with vinegar. Then begin and infuse it in vinegar for a day. Then convert it to sugar in the morning and on the third day convert it into water of honey. Do that in this fashion for three weeks. Then dry it in the shade and (stir?) it until it becomes smooth, like alcohol, and rub the remaining medicines and pulverize them and the crumbs themselves . . . . Of red and white tuder and ammis and [text corrupt]and fennel seed and cinnamon and balsam and (?) and harmel seed and some grains of myrrh and mustard and cannabis and shelled sesame and fenugreek and baucis seed, all up to 5 grams. Of secacul and ginger, both up to 4 drams. The (tendrils?) of (?) and white pepper and gariofoil and of the flowers of all-cane and pyrethrum, all . . .

Avicenna utilized the whole cannabis plant as a medicine, and there are references to the use of seeds, roots and leaves for various treatments taken both topically and internally. “Juice of cannabis leaves” is specifically mentioned as well, roots, seeds, and the “woody [cortex]part of cannabis” , which could refer to everything from stems, to the calyxes around he seed and other vegetable matter. Some examples from Avicenna include: “The dose is like that of chick pea with water of fennel bark and parsley and make the caput purgium in proportion to one grain of wheat with water of cannabis”; “…with oil and the must of quinces and althaea and dragonflower and (gum Arabic?) and chymolea, properly in its own juice (?).

One hour afterwards it is poured over the head. And he (the patient) becomes placid due to damp willow leaves, since they are ripest and with tamarinds, and is sedated with a decoction of parsley and its juice and with the leaves of cannabis and sesame and the taste of both is perhaps enjoyed”. The problem for which this is prescribed is not mentioned in the text provided, and this is true of the following as well, which seems to be more of a delicacy for enjoyment “In a vessel cleaned with sugar cane and its granules mix a dram of cannabis and licorice roots, up to a pound, and when these medicines are ground and crumbled, blend with bleached honey, and use after six months”.

Avicenna’s connection with cannabis based medicines was strong enough that The Pharmacopoeia of Bauderon written in 1681 refers to “Cannabis ex Avicenna,” in reference to the herb.

Like Ibn Arabi, Avicenna saw alchemy as more of a spiritual process and as well shared a deep interest in cannabis. Avicenna wrote of the inebriating substance ‘hushish’ [hashish], prepared from the plants bruised leaves, as well as the drink made from the plant, under the name ‘banghie’, (Ainslie, 1826). Avicenna’s father was initiated into the Islamic sect the Ismailis, who have long been associated with the esoteric use of hashish, and Avicenna was familiar with their teachings.

Avicenna’s “father was… an intellectual who belonged to a hashish cult” (Simmons, 2002). There has also been the long standing suggestion, that some members of the Persian Ismai’ili mixed hashish with wine. “There can be no doubt that the use of hemp as an intoxicant was encouraged by the Ismailians in the 8th century, as its effects tended to assist their followers in realizing the tenets of the sect: ‘We’ve quaffed the emerald cup, the mystery we know, Who’d dream so weak a plant such mighty power could show!’” (Dymock, 1892).

“Ibn Sina (Avicenna) introduced neo-Platonism into Islamic philosophy. Neo-Platonic theory of emanation of nature from God especially appealed to the Sufis… the distinction between the individual and the absolute vanished; the Sufi proclaimed himself thus: I am the Truth, I am the Reality. Sometimes this conclusion was reached by artificial means, by adequate dose of hashish.” (Chatterji, 1973).

Excerpted from Chris Bennett’s forthcoming book Liber 420: The Cannabis Arcanum

Chris Bennett
Chris Bennett

Chris Bennett has been researching the historical role of cannabis in magic and religion for over a quarter century, his books include 'Green Gold the tree of Life: Marijuana in Magic and Religion' (1995); 'Sex, Drugs, Violence and the Bible' (2001); 'Cannabis and the Soma Solution' (2010. He Currently resides in Vancouver, BC, Canada, where he runs his ethnobotanical shop The Urban Shaman.