Ibn Rushd: Harmony of Theological & Philosophical (Scientific) Truth

by The Editorial Team Published on: 27th April 2004

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Ibn Rushd is perhaps the best known Muslim scholar of Cordoba who was instrumental in influencing European theology and epistemology. Here is a facinating glimpse into his role in establishing the role of reasoning in religious faith.

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The most famous intellectual of Cordoba was Ibn Rushd. The “heresies” of iconoclasts, such as Ibn Rushd, generated unprecedented intellectual turmoil which for ever transformed social thought in both medieval Islam and Latin-Christendom.

Abul Walid Mohammad Ibn Rushd (known as Averroes in Latin-West) was the ultimate rationalist, the Aristotelian heretic of the medieval Islam and Christianity. His singular influence in stimulating the Western Renaissance is acknowledged “as the landmark in the history of Western civilization” (Gilson, 1938, 30). Along with Ibn Sina, he is “the greatest name in Arabian [Islamic] philosophy …. whose influence spread, in many directions, through the duration of the middle ages, then in the epoch of the Renaissance up to the very threshold of modern times” (Gilson, 1955, 217). Indeed, “he was the greatest Muslim philosophers of the West, and one of the greatest of medieval times” (Sarton, II-1, 356). Roger Bacon ranked Ibn Rushd next to Aristotle and Ibn Sina (Durant, 338).

Ibn Rushd came from a family of Cordoban scholars; his father was a local qadi, as was his grandfather (also the imam of the Cordoba mosque). Trained as a lawyer and a physician, his role as Caliph’s advisor initiated him into philosophy. He wrote extensive commentaries on Aristotle, and others. He also wrote a 7-volume medical encyclopedia, Kitab al-Kulliyat fil-Tibb (hence the Latin name Colliget, a corruption of the word “kulliyat,” meaning “generalities”), used at European universities until the eighteenth century. Though his scholarship in medicine has been eclipsed by his fame as a philosopher, he was “one of the greatest physicians of the time” (Sarton, II-1, 305).

Ibn Rushd’s philosophy was in the tradition of prevailing Islamic scholasticism, with attempts to synthesize Islamic faith and reason in light of the available Greek heritage. His commentaries on Aristotle were translated into Latin and Hebrew. There soon appeared super-commentaries on his commentaries–which itself is a commentary on the extent of Ibrn Rushd’s influence. The works of Aristotle and Ibn Rushd in their Latin translations were used not only in the curriculum at Naples (where St. Thomas studied), but were also sent to the Universities of Paris and Bologna. Nowhere did Averroism strike deeper roots than in the Universities of Bologna and Padua, the latter became the “hot-bed” of Averroism (Sharif, 1381).

Like others before him, Ibn Rushd was criticized for suggesting that revelation must be guided by reason. In his view, the noblest form of worship was to study God through His works, using the faculty of the mind. For his rebuttal (Tahafut al-Tahafut, or Incoherence of the Incoherence) of Al-Ghazali’s arguments, Ibn Rushd is rather well known. His dispute with Al-Ghazali provides a fascinating view of the issues which engaged medieval minds. In Al-Ghazali’s scheme, everything is the result of continuous divine intervention, the divine will; any causal link is secondary. But, for Ibn Rushd, while divine will may be the ultimate cause, “To deny the existence of efficient causes which are observed in sensible things is sophistry … Denial of cause implies the denial of knowledge and denial of knowledge implies that nothing in the world can really be known” (quoted in Hoodbhoy, 114).

Once the rediscovery of Aristotle through Ibn Rushd’s writings was complete, the philosophers and theologians alike found themselves in possession of the greatest intellectual reservoir ever developed up to that time. Ibn Rushd “the Great Commentator.” Influenced by his writings, philosophers and theologians split into two major groups: the “liberal,” pro-Averroists, known as the Latin Averroists, with Siger of Brabant at their head, generally identified with the Franciscan Friars; and the “conservative,” anti-Averroists, with St. Thomas Aquinas of the Dominician Monks at their head. The issues were legion-:metaphysical, philosophical, and practical. It may be noted, however, that even Ibn Rushd’s critics, including St. Thomas, did not escape his influence, and their understanding of Aristotle was conditioned by Averroes’ interpretations. In 1852, Ernest Renan expressed this paradox very well, “St. Thomas is the most serious adversary that the Averroan doctrine has encountered, and yet one can go further to say, paradoxically, that he is the greatest disciple of the Great Commentator. Albert the Great owes everything to Avicenna, St. Thomas, as philosopher, but above all to Averroes” (quoted in Fakhri, 5).

Etienne Gilson in his Reason and Revelation in the Middle Ages accords Ibn Rushd the distinction of having asserted the “primacy of reason”, or a purely philosophical rationalism, long before the Italian Renaissance. Rationalism was “born in Spain, in the mind of an Arabian philosopher, as a conscious reaction against the theologism of the Arabian divines.” (Fakhri, 6; Gilson, 1948, 37). Gilson adds that when Ibn Rushd died in 1198 “he bequeathed to his successors the ideal of a purely rational philosophy, an ideal whose influence was to be such that, by it, even the evolution of Christian philosophy was to be deeply modified” (Gilson, 1948, 38). Gilson attributes to Ibn Rushd the recognition, which became pivotal to St. Thomas’ own philosophy, “that nothing should enter the texture of metaphysical knowledge save only rational and necessary demonstrations” (Fakhri, 6; Gilson, 1948, 79). However, unlike some of his adversarial Latin Averroists, St. Thomas was not willing to concede that either Aristotle or Ibn Rushd were infallible.

Despite the enthusiasm in Paris during the thirteenth century for Ibn Rushd’s Aristotelian commentaries, serious questions arose as to the compatibility of Ibn Rushd’s Aristotelianism with the Christian doctrine. And there were condemnations en masse–medieval “McCarthyism” and even a thirteenth century Papal Inquisition against the Christian “heretics.” The focus was mainly on Latin Averroists, led by Siger of Brabant, who were suspected of subscribing to the “double-truth” doctrine: some truths philosophical, others theological; and reason was superior to faith. St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-74) in his On the Unity of the Intellect against the Averroists confirms this suspicion but denies the doctrine. Ibn Rushd himself did not subscribe to such a thesis and it is doubtful, according to Gilson and other medievalists, that even Siger himself did so. This doctrine, however, was a godsend for the scientifically-minded people in the West, who were condemned and persecuted by the Church and the State. They found their best support in this and other “Averroisms.” For this reason, de Wulf calls Ibn Rushd the “doctor of anti-Scholastics” (Sharif, 1380).

For Ibn Rushd, the primacy of reason is unquestioned but compatible with faith, and for this Gilson regards him as the herald of rationalism long before the Renaissance (Fakhri, 34). In his Harmony of Philosophy and Religion (Fasl al-M’aqal), which was not available to St. Thomas, Siger of Brabant or their contemporaries in Latin, Ibn Rushd maintains a position which may be called the ‘parity’ or ‘harmony’ of truth, philosophical and theological. Thus, philosophical truth, although superior to religious truth, is not really incompatible with, or even different, from it. The only difference is the path to truth–philosophical and the theological. For any ‘apparent’ conflict between the religious texts and the philosophical texts, it is the duty of philosophers, whom the Qur’an calls “those who are confirmed in knowledge” (Qur’an, Sura 3:5-6), according to Ibn Rushd’s reading, to resolve the conflict by recourse to the method of interpretation. Thus, in response to Al-Ghazali’s charge of infidelity (kufr), Ibn Rushd argues that, if the inner meaning of the Qur’anic passages is understood, the position of the philosophers accords with that of the theologians (Fakhri, 33-34).

However, Ibn Rushd’s Aristotelian commentaries and his own contributions rapidly became the ruling mode of social thought in the West. Scholars of medieval Europe were provoked and inspired by Ibn Rushd’s writings. Whereas some Muslim scholastics and their Latin successors tried to “Islamise” and “Christianise” Hellenism, Ibn Rushd’s commentaries and rationalism seemed to excessively “Hellenise” Islam and Christianity. Thus, his Muslim contemporaries persecuted him while Muslim posterity almost ignored him, allowing his works to be lost. But Jews preserved many of them. In Latin Christianity, the commentaries were translated into Latin from the Hebrew, fed the heresies of Siger of Brabant and the rationalism of the Italian school of Padua, and threatened the foundations of Christianity. Relying on the more compatible Al-Ghazali, St. Thomas recognized that some dogmas of religion were beyond reason and must be accepted by faith alone. “The aim of his life was to reconcile Aristotelianism and Muslim knowledge with Christian theology” (Sarton, II-2, 914); and “Thomas Aquinas was led to write his Summas to halt the threatened liquidation of Christian theology by Arabic interpretations of Aristotle … indeed, the industry of Aquinas was due not to the love of Aristotle but to the fear of Averroes” (Durant, 913, 954). Thus, driven by this fear, the Latin Scholastic constructed the medieval “synthesis;”so that the Aristotelian-Averroistic heresies were debunked with Ibn Rushd the “infidel” humbled, and St. Thomas’ followers saw his academic glory in this synthesis. So perceived, this conclusion is reflected in a medieval sketch that one medieval scholar reproduced in his book; the sketch entitled “St. Thomas Aquinas overcoming Averroes,” showing St. Thomas surrounded by angels and monks, displaying his “synthesis” to the vanquished Ibn Rushd lying at his feet; see Libby, 55.

It was not to be so, however. During the twelfth and thirteenth centuries Latin orientated-Averroism had far-reaching consequences for medieval and modern social thought, hardly foreseeable by the medieval scholastics. It established “a tradition in which it became possible to question the status of religion” (Daniel, 107); and from the end of the twelfth century to the end of the sixteenth century Averroism remained the dominant school of thought, in spite of the orthodox reaction it created first among the Muslims in Spain and then among the Talmudists, and finally, among the Christian clergy. These were the centuries that witnessed revolutions in the evolution of social thought, with medieval Islamic sources always providing the background. As the Greek heritage “had aroused the great age of Arabic science and philosophy, so now it would excite the European mind and inquiry and speculation … would crack stone after stone of that majestic edifice to bring this collapse of the medieval system in the fourteenth century, and the beginnings of modern philosophy in the ardor of the Renaissance” (Durant, 913). The results were monumental in Western history. It is suggested that Harold Nebelsick puts it well. He discusses the achievements of the Arab-Islamic scholars and how they “appropriated, appreciated and preserved Greek classical learning and built upon it” (p. 5), and “thus, laid the foundations for a quite unprecedented revival of learning in Europe” (p. ix). And, “The results were the Renaissance in the thirteenth century, the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century, and eventually the rise of modern science in the seventeenth” (p. 9). Even in our own time the contributions of those scholars, in the world of Islam and in the Christian West, represent the source of the most beneficent form of intellectual enlightenment (Fakhri, 7).

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