The Philosopher who laid the foundation of Modern Europe
A critical re-examination of over four centuries of work put forth Averroes at the highest pedestal of Aristotelian expression
The Philosopher who laid the foundation of Modern Europe
It is 1492 and Christopher Columbus is preparing to sail from the Spanish port of Palos de la Frontera, hoping to find a new world towards west, the riches of which are thought unprecedented.
While the seeds of European colonialism were being sown in the far west, mainland Europe after an aeon of dark ages was foraging tools of scientific method, courtesy of two centuries of scholasticism that revived its intellectual atmosphere. It was here three centuries ago in 1128 AD, in the cosmopolitan capital city of Al- Andalus — Cordoba, that Abul Walid Muhammad Ibn Rushd was born, commonly referred to in West by his Latinized name — Averroes. He was born in family of Jurists but his affair with philosophy soon began to cause him trouble and he fell into trouble. He subsequently left Cordoba and migrated to the city of Lucena where he dedicated his time to writing exhaustive works of Philosophical tradition. Later he would move further south to Marrakesh where he died in 1198 AD.
The fall of Muslim Spain has been subject of ‘foretold reprimand by God’ for a nation that contrives on the use of mantiq and falsafa — Logic and Philosophy — instead of the revealed text. In orthodox circles, the rational means to demonstrate the fundamentals of religion which Ibn Rushd and its predecessors attempted, are seen as a deviation from truth that was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) in the form of the Qur’an. But to most of the Muslim philosophers of the Islamic golden age, it wasn’t so. Ibn Rushd believed that ‘One truth’ (Revealed religion) cannot contradict another truth (Philosophical Inquiry). Nonetheless, such belief was paradoxical to theologians as well as common believers.
Ibn Rushd mastered Aristotle and translated his copious works and simultaneously presented and ‘improved on’ his thought. The works of Aristotle were translated by the fall of the 13th century into Latin making him the bridge of knowledge transfusion between the Islamic World and Europe, which was recuperating from centuries of intellectual inactivity. He became the leading teacher for those who explored Peripatetic philosophy. Emerging centers of learning taught him, scholastics quoted him and revered him. Raphael’s (d.1520) famous renaissance painting, ‘The School of Athens’ bears testimony to this by portraying Ibn Rushd along with Plato and Aristotle. Dante Alighieri (d.1321) had Ibn Rushd secured the position in the ‘limbo of the unbaptized’ in his famous work Inferno along with Plato and Aristotle among others, away from hellfire.
Along with Al-Farabi (d.950) and Ibn Sina (d.980 ), Ibn Rushd is among the major Islamic thinkers who shaped the course of logic and philosophy in the Islamic World by the tools expounded by the Greek philosophers. However, by the time he was born, Greek Philosophy, which had made lasting inroads in the Muslim world since the opening of the House of Wisdom (Bait-ul-Hikmah) during the reign of Abbasid Caliph Harun al-Rashid (d. 809), had suffered hugely at the hands of Muhammad al-Ghazali (d. 1111) whose Tahafut al-Falasifa, or The Incoherence of Philosophers had swayed a deathly blow to the advancing Greek Philosophy. Ibn Rushd wrote a line by line refutation of the Tahafut called the Tahaful al-Tahafat — The Incoherence of the Incoherence, but the damage was already done.
Apart from the natural cravings to seek wisdom and knowledge; as Immanuel Kant said ‘that everyone has an urge to philosophize’, Ibn Rushd was also influenced to pursue Aristotle by the Almohad King Abu Yaqub Yusuf (d.1184) who was an avid reader of philosophical texts especially ones by Aristotle. However, by that time, the tradition of Aristotle was altered to an extent, due to multiple translations across space and time, copying errors and interpolation. The available wholesale corpus was in no sense a credible source of his actual work. Irritated, the King asked Ibn Rushd to parse through all translations and pen down the authentic corpus anew. The critical re-examination of over four centuries of work put forth Averroes at the highest pedestal of Aristotelian expression ever since.
Ibn Rushd’s contribution to European development of thought can be gauged, among many reasons, by the fact that much of his work despite being written in Arabic originally, came to pass to later generations in Hebrew and Latin translations implying the propagation his work enjoyed in European lands. His ideas gained root, but not where he would have had anticipated. There were impediments like the Bishop Trempier’s Condemnation of 1277, an effort to set loose the perpetuity of philosophy with Christianity, much like as Muslim world had witnessed post-Ghazali’s Incoherence. But Averroes’s work endured, more in Hebrew than in Latin, reaching as far as the time of Spinoza (d.1677).
Aristotle is called the first genuine scientist for his method and deductive reasoning and hadn’t it been for Ibn Rushd’s stupendous and gargantuan translation of his works, supplemented with Ibn Rushd’s likewise massive commentaries, which in fact consisted his original thought as well, Europe’s infatuation with The Philosopher would have been delayed, if not entirely hampered. Moreover, the quality of Ibn Rushd’s translations were unmatched. In total, he wrote 38 books of commentaries on the works of Aristotle.
Ibn Rushd soon became a prominent figure in the European philosophy and was known as The Commentator, the epithet for being the most credible source of Aristotle, whom Ibn Rushd like most, used to call The Philosopher. In the Islamic World however or as Historian Peter Adamson prefers, the Arabic philosophical world, no interest was bestowed upon him since the heretical nature of Greek Philosophy was shunned, primarily in the Sunni circles.
Ibn Rushd wrote immensely and not just on philosophy. His subjects included astronomy, medicine, law, and physics. As far as his translations of Aristotle are concerned, one can categorize them under three phases — Short, Middle and Long Commentaries, as Richard C. Taylor has classified. Then, are his original treatises which he wrote mostly in the latter half of his life. Major of those are his Decisive Treatise on the Harmony of Religion and Philosophy (Fasl al-maqal fima bayn al sharia wal-hikma min ittisal), the Explanation of the Sorts of Proofs in the Doctrines of Religion ( Kashf ‘an manahij al-adilla), De Anima or Appendix on Divine Knowledge and his famous Incoherence of the Incoherence ( Tahafut al-tahafut).
His philosophical convictions, much like his fellow Aristotelian thinkers composed of believing in the eternity of the world and the impossibility of the physical resurrection. A unique postulate of his met a good share of hostility, alike from religious and philosophical blocks, that there is a sort of universal intellect from which individuals procure capacity to reason. He had probably taken the concepts of ‘Agent Intellect’ and ‘Material Intellect’ from earlier Muslim thinkers, most notably the esteemed Andalusian Ibn Bajja (d. 1138) and Al-Farabi (d.950). As a Jurist, his most notable work probably was the Decisive treatise written in a legal judgment style (Fatwa). He concluded that not only was the pursuit of philosophy encouraged but even obligatory (only for those who possessed high intellect). To buttress his argument, he cited Quranic verses such as “Learn a lesson, then, O you who are endowed with insight!” (59:2) and “Then do they not look at the camels — how they are created? And at the sky — how it is raised?” (88:17–18). He also denied the literal interpretation of the Quranic verses about recompenses of the afterlife.
He was an ardent critic of the dialectic weakness of Ashʿarite theology and their inability to field demonstrative tools to supplement their proclamations. Theologians lack the clarity of argument because they presuppose the existence of a transcendental super-being and all whatever is established by the sound tradition of the religion. Their tendency to favour these presuppositions ahead of reasoning was to Ibn Rushd their major shortcoming due to which they had to rely completely on rhetorical argumentation to persuade their opponents. This, in fact, is the main difference between a theologian and a philosopher, he argues.
Today he is little known in the Islamic World, except for those who take pains to find him in the oblivion of forgotten masters. He was once a chief judge and the court physician to Almohad Kings. After the fall of Muslim Spain, the philosophic tradition faded in the Islamic world, though the same cannot be said for the theological philosophy which continued to thrive. Influence of theological philosophers like Al- Suhrawardi (d.1191) and Mulla Sadra (d.1640) bears testament to that fact. But it was in Europe where he gained prominence and even had an emulation in the form of a philosophic school known as the ‘Latin Averriosts’. He paved the way for rational methodology through his works which became the new normal in the coming centuries, pushing Europe stepping into the Age of Enlightenment.
Sheikh Muzamil Hussain is an architect and urban planner. He is an alumnus of CEPT Ahmedabad.
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