Averroës – The Great Muslim Philosopher Who Planted The Seeds of the European Renaissance

by Habeeb Salloum 

Abû al-Walîd Muhammad Ibn Rushd, better known in the West as Averroës, but also in medieval times as Avén Ruiz and Averrhoes, was born in 1126 A.D. in Cordova, once the illustrious capital of Moorish Spain. The descendant of a distinguished Cordovan family of scholars, he was the third generation of his lineage to hold the office of qâdî (judge). One of the foremost figures of Arab civilization, he became known as the ‘Prince of Science’, – the master of jurisprudence, mathematics, medicine and, above all, philosophy.

The twelfth century produced some of the most outstanding scholars of Al-Andalus (Muslim Spain), like the neo-Aristotelian school developed by  vempace (Ibn Bajja), Ibn Tufayl and Maimonides (Ibn Maymûn) which was to have considerable influence on Christian Europe. However, Ibn Rushd, who it is said never missed reading or writing except the day he married and the day his father died, in medieval intellectual thought, was to overshadow them all. 

In the Middle Ages, his ideas influenced the transformation of thought in medieval Europe. The last of the great Muslim thinkers, his beliefs were to  have an affect of the minds of many of the Middle Ages intellectuals, living well beyond the borders of Moorish Spain. 

As was the practise of the well-known families in his time, Ibn Rushd acquired his education within the family, excelling in Qur’anic studies,  jurisprudence, theology and tradition. In addition, he became versed in astronomy, literature, mathematics, music and zoology, but his most outstanding accomplishments were in the areas of medicine and philosophy. 

Ibn Rushd owes much of his success in life to his ardour for learning and to patronage by the two enlightened Almohade, (the ruling dynasty  145-1269 A.D.) caliphs Abû Ya’qûb Yusûf (1163-1184) and Abû Ya’qûb al-Mansûr (1184-1199). Under their rule, toleration and friendship were generally experienced by intellectuals in contrast to the hostility to philosophy by the Almoravides, 1056-1145 A.D., and the Malikite school in Islam which was the main intellectual faction of Islamic thought in Al-Andalus. 
After appointing Ibn Rushd in 1169 as qâdî in Seville, the Almohade Caliph Abû Ya’qûb, two years later, brought him to Cordova and, bestowing on him favours and honours, made him chief judge and his personal physician. Under his sponsorship, Ibn Rushd took on the task of commenting on
Aristotle’s works. From their first meeting, arranged by their free-thinking companion Ibn Tufayl, Ibn Rushd and Abû Ya’qûb became great friends.
Livermore writes describing this encounter: 

“Averroës, the great reviewer of Islamic thought, tells how, on first being presented to Abû Ya’qûb, he found him alone with Ibn Tufayl and ‘after a few friendly enquiries about my family, the Emir suddenly asked my opinion about the nature of Heaven and Creation’. Aware of the narrow views of the faqihs, Averroës cautiously replied that he had not given much thought to these matters, whereupon Abû Ya’qûb opened thediscussion by stating the opinions of Plato and Aristotle.” 

Thereafter in private, Ibn Rushd was able to discuss Greek philosophy freely with Abû Ya’qûb who encouraged him to write his commentaries on the works of Aristotle. 

Early in his life Ibn Rushd greatly admired Aristotle and considered him a giant who had attained the truth. He regarded Aristotle as embodying the  highest development of the human intellect. It is said that Ibn Rushd understood, and interpreted and analytically discussed Aristotle’s true thoughts more than any of his Muslim predecessors or contemporaries. 

Ibn Rushd maintained that the deepest truths must be approached by means of rational analysis and that philosophy could lead to the final truth. He accepted revelation and attempted to harmonize religion with philosophy without synthesizing them or obliterating their differences. He believed that the Qur’an contained the highest truth while maintaining that its words should not be taken literally. He argued that as the milk-sister of religion, philosophy confirms and does not contradict the sharî’ah (revelation). 

To Ibn Rushd, the supremacy of the human intellect did not allow for the possible contradiction between science and revelation. He gives religion an important role in the life of the state, considering that the scriptures when philosophically understood are far more superior to the religion of pure reason. Striving to bring the two together, he wrote that in case of differences, provided scriptural language does not violate the principles of reason, that is, it does not commit a contradiction, science should give way. 

Ibn Rushd is also noted for developing a theory of the intellect, which greatly influenced the history of Aristotelian scholarship. Many Aristotelian scholars, past and present, believe that it represents a correct understanding of Aristotle. It, however, goes beyond Aristotle and is rightly identified with Ibn Rushd. The theory is difficult and there has been controversy in interpreting it. It has been understood, in a general way, to mean that he envisaged the human soul as part of an all-embracing divine soul. Like a number of others in his time, he attempted to draw a picture of the ultimate truth by a mixture of analytical arguments and innate intuition derived from man’s participation in the world soul.

He contended that philosophy is nothing more the systematic probing into the phenomenon of creation, revealing God’s wisdom and might. Hence,  evelation dictates the study of philosophy. Ibn Rushd tried to reconcile the Aristotelian precept of the eternity, which seemingly denied the creation of the world, to the creationism in Jewish, Christian and Muslim theology. 

Ibn Rushd believed that God was timeless and His creative effort is continuous. He theorized that the world is continuously developing on what existed before and taking on new shape. According to Ibn Rushd, God created time as well as the world, and He may have created it from all eternity  inasmuch as He is Himself without cause. 

Chejne explains further some of Ibn Rushd’s ideas. He writes: 

“To Averroës, the world has been moving from eternity and has an Eternal Mover (Muharrik), which is God. Matter and form are inseparable except in the mind; there is a hierarchy of existing beings and forms. Matter is always in motion, whereas the intellect is motionless and perceives itself. The soul is one in all men, but is maintained separately by bodies, and its relation to the body is like the relation between form and matter.” 

Better still, the views of Ibn Rushd are best expressed by himself: 

“The world and its workings were necessary and invariable because God Himself, by definition, had to be and did not change. Informed by the active intelligence of the deity, they could be scarcely be otherwise. The fantastic flight of the mind into a realm of the ultimate, immaterial reality was thereby arrested. A world which had to be could not be at the bottom of the scale of being. The qualities which were the laws of its nature were realized in the physical objects they found from the matter of the elements. Seen by the eye as fleeting individual shapes, perceived by the intellect as permanent  eneralizations, they remained locked into these things as the stamp of the die in the metal was locked in an Almohad coin. Here lay knowledge, for the  mind, being itself a necessary part of the natural order, could be absolutely sure of its logic was that of creation, and that it could in consequence learn the final truth. The disclosures of revelation, the highest secrets of God, were susceptible to rational explanation. In a law-abiding universe, that was as much an article of faith as the converse, that rational explanation must be believed.” 

On the other hand, Ibn Rushd believed that the words of God express truth in imaged symbolic language that the non-philosopher majority can  understand. 

Aware of the inconsistency between those who believed through religious faith and others who believed by use of reason, Ibn Rushd held that both philosophy and revealed religion were true, arguing that truth is comprehended on different levels. He contended that even if philosophers were mistaken in their interpretation of scriptures, their error is permissible. 

One of the greatest exponent of Arab philosophy, he tried to modify philosophical ideas to harmonize with those of religion. In an essay, The  harmony of Religions and Philosophy, he asserts that “since philosophy is true and the revealed scriptures are true there can be no disharmony between them. 

Ibn Rushd proposed a dual method of expounding theology, one for intellectuals and another for the masses in general. Further, he wrote that Muslim leaders should prohibit books of religious science for those not versed in these works. 

To him, the holy texts are clothed in perceivable images and their truths can be reached by exercising the process of thought. His views, in the  intellectual world of medieval Christendom, earned him the undeserved reputation of having preached a ‘double truth’, a theory which he did not teach, namely ‘a proposition may be true in theology while its opposite is true in philosophy’. 

Ibn Rushd explains that there are three types of men: the first and largest in number, is receptive to ideas that can be expressed logically; the second is amenable to persuasion and the third, few in numbers, will only be convinced by conclusive evidence. He believed that to the simple masses, one  must speak of religion, but to the enlightened few one may disclose scientific truth. 

In his daily life Ibn Rushd did not like power or possessions and was humble and generous, believing that a virtuous person is one who gives to an enemy. A compassionate and tender human being, he decried the position of women in society, who he said only lived for childbearing and suckling.
Moved to compassion for their misery, he wrote that women were so reduced in servitude that all their capacity for higher pursuits had been destroyed.
He was saddened by their fate, stating that they only live like plants, looking after their men. This compelled him to write: 

“Our society allows no scope for the development of women’s talents. They seem to be destined exclusively to childbirth and the care of children, and this state of servility has destroyed their capacity for larger matters. It is thus that we see no women endowed with moral virtues; they live their lives like vegetables, devoting themselves to their husbands. From this stems the misery that pervades our cities, for women outnumber men by more than double and cannot procure the necessities of life by their own labours.” 

Besides writing some 38 philosophical works, Ibn Rushd’s works spanned a wide field of knowledge which included: a commentary on Galen’s writings; and books in connection with astronomy, music, poetry and rhetoric. He was also a distinguished physician, having studied medicine in Seville under the famous physician, Abû Harun al-Tajali. His writings included 16 excellent medical works, topped by Kulliyat fî ‘l-tibb, a medical encyclopedia of seven volumes dealing with anatomy, diagnosis, materia medica, pathology, physiology and general therapeutics. 

The volumes were translated, in 1255 A.D., into Latin under the title Colliget. This work was reprinted several times and surpassed all other medical works in the Middle Ages. As a memorial, Ibn Rushd’s statues have been placed in the vestibule of the University of Barcelona and along the ancient walls in the city of Cordova. 

In the Muslim world, Ibn Rushd is known, above all, for his Tahâfut al-Tahâfut al-Falâsifa (The Collapse of Collapse of the Philosophers) and abâdi ‘l-Falâsifah) (The Beginning of Philosophy). In Tahâfut al-Tahâfut, al-Falâsifah, Ibn Rushd bitterly attacked Al-Ghazâlî’s – Tahâfut al-Falâsifah  Self Destruction of the Philosophers), a work in which the l2th century theologian Al-Ghazâlî sought a strengthening of piety by attacking the philosophers. 

Ibn Rushd, point by point, discussed the error in Al-Ghazâlî’s approach. He asserted that the evidence brought out by Al-Ghazâlî’s attack on philosophers arise when isolated parts of philosophy are taken out of context, appearing to contradict the remainder. He goes on to say that the only acceptable way would be to show the entire system in question contradicting reality as it is. 

In the Christian and Jewish worlds, Ibn Rushd is renowned for his important commentaries on Aristotle; and in his works, namely Talkhîs (resume), Jâmi’ (summary), and Tafsîr or Sharh (a long commentary). These had an important hand in paving the way for the European Renaissance. Strange as it may seem, even though Ibn Rushd’s Great Commentary left a deep impression on western students and caused an absolute upheaval in the West, it had hardly any effect on eastern Islamic thought. 

Many of his commentaries have been lost. The only ones which still exist are a number of his translated works which have survived in Latin. Yet,  even these few give us an idea of how outstanding were the thoughts of that renowned Muslim philosopher. 

When, in 1184, Al-Mansûr took over as caliph, like his father, he kept Ibn Rushd as his physician and advisor. In the same fashion as he had with Abû Ya’qûb Yusûf, Ibn Rushd enjoyed great favour with the new caliph who always called him brother and gave him in marriage to one of his daughters. 

In the ensuing years, Ibn Rushd was prolific in his literary output. The upper classes appreciated his controversial writings, but to the masses he was an enemy. He came under attack by fundamentalists for his vigorous defence in reconciling the tradition of Greek philosophy with the teachings of Islam. His views were so offensive to the zealots that once they had him stoned in the Great Mosque of Cordova. Referring to fanatics destroying a famous library in Cordova, Ibn Rushd is reported to have exclaimed, “There is no tyranny on earth like the tyranny of priests.” 

Even though Al-Mansûr was an enlightened ruler, seeing the dangers facing Islam and wishing to appease the conservative scholars, he accused Ibn Rushd of heresy and ordered the burning of some of his books. He needed the support of the Malikite jurists in his fight against the Castilians. To  maintain appearance, Al-Mansûr had to remove Ibn Rushd from his post as qâdî and exile him for a time from his court in Marrakesh to Al-Isalah, now known as Lucena, near Cordova. 

However, another story has it that Ibn Rushd, in one of his works on zoology, referred to Al-Mansûr as ‘King of the Berbers’ – a derogatory  expression among the Arabs in Muslim Spain. This is supposed to have greatly displeased the caliph and was the reason for his exile. 

After Al-Mansûr, in 1195, won the Battle of Alarcos, Muslim Spain relaxed and fanaticism subsided. Ibn Rushd was pardoned, but he was by this  time utterly disillusioned. He returned, a short time before he passed away on December 10, 1198, to once again serve in the caliph’s court. 

Nevertheless, his death did not sweep away his ideas. In the subsequent centuries, they were to ignite the fire of change in Christian Europe. It was through the translations of Ibn Rushd’s Commentaries on Aristotle into Latin in the 13th century by Michael Scotus, a Scot, and Hermannus Alemannus, a German, that the revival of true Aristotelianism took place in the West. In fact, Roger Bacon acknowledged that Scotus was largely responsible for the most important change in the history of medieval thought which resulted from the introduction of Ibn Rushd’s Aristotle to the Christian West. 

Through these translations of Ibn Rushd’s works, the subject of harmony between reason and faith was passed on to Christian Europe, giving impetus to the development of rationalism. This new thought moving into Christian Europe, bringing about the West’s emancipation from the thoughts of Plato which was much less evident in the Muslim East. 

In the previous centuries, before Ibn Rushd, there was much confusion among Muslim thinkers in understanding Aristotle and, hence, a good number distorted his thoughts. More than any other Muslim philosopher before him, Ibn Rushd was able to recover the genuine Aristotle which the West, by way of the translations, was later to discover. 

In the ensuing centuries Ibn Rushd’s works were taught in the universities of Christian Europe, unleashing a movement in the West that led to the victory of Aristotelian ideas over the once prevailing Platonic thought. Through his commentaries on the works of Aristotle Ibn Rushd, now known in the West as Averroës, played a leading role in the revival and development of Christian scholasticism. 

In spite of the fact that many Muslim scholars found his approach too rationalistic, his writings were a mine of ideas and information for Christian philosophers, creating turmoil in the minds of many medieval European intellectuals. For four centuries – from the 12th to the 16th – his works were subject to heated dialogue among the scholars in Christian Europe, forcing the Church to modify its teachings. 

From among the medieval Latin religious literature, St. Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologia was to a great extent inspired by the views of Averroës, even though it also took issue with some of these views. Many of the free-thinking Latin-Christians of Europe felt him to be one of their own, even  hispanizing his name to Avén Ruiz. 

However, his commentaries held views unacceptable to Orthodox Christians and caused much perplexity for these traditional Christians since many of Averroës’s theories ran counter to the hallowed teachings of the Church. Yet, his views had a very profound effect on medieval Christian theology. 

On the other hand, a number of Christians studied his works solely to comment on his errors. Some, like Arnold of Vila Nova (1240-1311), decried the reliance of Christian thoughts upon infidel teachings and, in order to defeat them, openly altered Ibn Rushd’s ideas. At about the same time, a group of scholars, in the 13th century, known as Averroists, whose principal exponent was Siger of Brabant, openly declared themselves as adherents of Averroës, incurring the fury of the Church leaders. 

Also, a number of European scholars misunderstood some of his teachings and this led to a line of thought called ‘Averroism’ which was once thought to mean that philosophy was true and revealed religion false. This Averroism was discredited by Aquinas, but which, also, Averroës himself would have disavowed. This false interpretation of Ibn Rushd’s doctrine was considered as sacrilegious by the Church and universally denounced by its leaders. 

Yet, the Averroist conception of the eternity of matter and God’s communication with things through the medium of an active intellect, continued to be a vital factor in European belief until the dawn of modern experimental science. Averroës and Averroism, for hundreds of years, provoked intense  arguments in the academic circles of Christian Europe. 

Although the Islamic and Arab world were to see other great thinkers (Ibn Khaldun, d. 1406, Mulla Sadr, d. 1641, for example), Averroës remains one of the greatest of the Islamic philosophers. He became known in both East and West as the Shârih (the Commentator) because of his explanation
and comments on the works of Aristotle. The most genuine and last of all the Aristotelian philosophers, his ideas affected much of the philosophical and theological ideas in medieval Europe, strangely with the exception of the Christians in the Iberian Peninsula. 

Endowed with powerful logic, a keen understanding and an sharp mind, he believed in the ability of reason to fathom the utmost secrets of the  Universe. However, he came too late to bring about any revival of philosophy in the eastern Islamic countries – there, the theories of Al-Ghazâlî, whose  books were banned in Al-Andalus by the Almoravides, were to reign supreme. 

With Averroës, philosophy reached its epitome in Muslim Spain. But his ideas were far too advanced for the world of his time. The sophistication of  his teachings can be seen by the ease with which his thoughts and interpretations can be adapted to include even the notion of evolution. 

A convinced Aristotelian, his admiration of Aristotle never wavered all through his literary career. One must agree with Read when he writes: 

“The great virtue of Averroës’ work was that he did not allow later thinkers to obscure the original; deeply imbued by Aristotle’s thought, he  transmitted his writings for the first time in genuinely Aristotelian fashion. 

With the passing away of what some historians say was the most eminent philosopher who wrote in Arabic, the long practised toleration of the Muslims in the Iberian Peninsula came to an end. Yet, thanks to Averroës, the seeds of the Renaissance were sown in Europe.

* Habeeb Salloum is a writer from Ontario, Canada.


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