The Muslim caliphates

Ibn Rushd and the Challenge of Reason


Ibn Rushd, known in Europe as “Averroes,” was a scholar and a philosopher born in Cordoba in al-Andalus in 1126 CE. Born into an established family of administrators and judges, Ibn Rushd received an education in Islamic theology and jurisprudence, but he also studied medicine. He is most famous for his detailed commentaries on the work of Aristotle, which he strongly defended against those who regarded Aristotle as an infidel who knew nothing about the teachings of the Quran. Ibn Rushd, that is, defended reason above revelation. Or rather, the believed that revelation, as presented in the Quran, is knowledge of ultimate truth as conveyed to the illiterate masses. Religion teaches by signs and symbols, but philosophy presents the truth itself. Ordinary people are literal-minded and they need miracles in order to believe. To them, the God of the Quran is a being with human features who acts and reacts much as human beings do – he gets angry, suspicious, revengeful, and so on. Proper philosophers, however, know that God is nothing like that. If God was like a human being, he would quite obviously not be God. Miracles happen, but they must always correspond to the laws which govern the universe, or the universe will become arbitrary and unintelligible.

Ibn Rushd worked as a judge in Sevilla and as a scholar at the court of the Almohad rulers in Marrakesh, and it was apparently the caliph himself who had asked him to write the commentaries on Aristotle. Ibn Rushd devoted the best thirty years of his life to this task. The Almohad rulers appreciated his teachings since they too rejected a literal-minded interpretation of the Quran, and they liked his emphasis on philosophical understanding, which they interpreted as an esoteric teaching. Yet Ibn Rushd made many enemies among the establishment, including among jurists who had made a career for themselves by interpreting the literal meaning of the Quran. Late in his life, in 1195, Ibn Rushd was accused of heresy and exiled. He was returned to favor in 1198, but died soon afterwards. Ibn Rushd is buried in the family grave in Cordoba.

Ibn Rushd, and in particular his commentaries on Aristotle, came to have a far-reaching influence on intellectual developments in Europe, in particular on Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas was the great theologian of the Middle Ages, the Church Father who in his Summa theologica defined the official position of the Church on next to all matters of philosophy and dogma. Aquinas asked himself the very same question as Ibn Rushd concerning the relationship between revelation and reason, and his conclusions were basically the same. That is, there is ultimately no conflict between the two. To make this point as forcefully as possible, Aquinas naturally turned to Ibn Rushd for support. After all, Ibn Rushd’s commentaries provided the most extensive, and most sophisticated, introduction to Aristotle’s thought available. Aquinas disagreed with many of Ibn Rushd’s substantive conclusions, but he always referred to Ibn Rushd with the greatest respect, calling him “the Commentator,” much as he called Aristotle “the Philosopher.” However, subsequent generations of Europeans were not equally generous. In the later Middle Ages, Ibn Rushd became the very epitome of a misguided Muslim who was wrong on every account. Yet this was also why his work was rediscovered during the Renaissance. Philosophers in Florence, Italy, were excited by Ibn Rushd’s doctrines, precisely because they had been rejected by the medieval philosophers who preceded them.

The seminal contribution which Ibn Rushd made to the intellectual development of Europe had no counterpart in the Muslim world itself. Here Ibn Rushd left no “school” and no disciples, and his works were barely read. His thought, with its defense of Aristotle in the face of the literal statements of the Quran, was considered too close to a heresy. It was instead only at the end of the nineteenth-century that Ibn Rushd was discovered. The reason was a book by the French Orientalist Ernest Renan, Averroës et l’Averroïsme, 1852, in which Renan made a strong case for Ibn Rushd’s importance. Translating Renan’s book into Arabic, Muslim intellectuals discovered exactly what they had been looking for – a Arab who had made a seminal contribution not only to Arabic civilization but to the civilization of the world. Ibn Rushd mattered to them since he mattered to the Europeans; stressing his importance was thus a way of stressing their own importance.

To some contemporary Muslim intellectuals, Ibn Rushd has become a symbol of a more liberal, more rationalistic, intellectual tradition. By emphasizing reason at the expense of revelation, Ibn Rushd would seem to stand closer to a scientific, modern, world-view. Yet Ibn Rushd was obviously neither a liberal nor a democrat – no twelfth-century intellectuals were.