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Averroes & the European Renaissance

Ibn Rushd was a philosopher, physician and Islamic jurist of Muslim Spain. He spent a great part of his life as a judge and physician in Morocco and in the Andalus. He is also celebrated in medieval and Renaissance Europe for his commentaries on Aristotle and for his influence on the European medieval philosophy.

Born into a family of prominent judges, he studied religious law, medicine, mathematics, and philosophy. In 1153 he was in Marrakech engaged in astronomical observations. Ten years later, the philosopher Ibn Tufayl (Abubacer) recommended him to the Almohad ruler, Abu Ya’qub Yusuf, who was seeking someone to write commentaries on Aristotle’s works.

In the ensuing years he occupied the office of chief judge in Seville, then in Cordoba. In 1182 he was attached to the Almohad court in Marrakech as chief physician. He served Abu Ya’qub until the latter’s death in 1184, and his son and successor, Ya’qub al-Mansur.

Sometime after 1195, mainly for reasons of political opposition of some oppnonent scholars to Ibn Rushd, he fell out of favor with his patron and was exiled. He was reinstated, however, soon after and resumed his service in the court until his death.

Averroes & the European Renaissance - About Islam

Figure 1: Interior of the Great Mosque of Córdoba. (Source).

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2. His corpus

A significative part of Ibn Rushd’s output consists in his commentaries on Aristotle. Besides the extant Arabic versions of these works, several of those writings have survived only in Latin or Hebrew translations after the loss of the original Arabic versions.

The commentaries can be classified in three types: a short epitome or paraphrase (jami’) which presents just a summary of the subject; the middle commentary (talkhis), an interpretive exposition, often including considerable expansions on the original, and finally the large or major commentary (tafsir), where the original text is quoted and commented on sectionally. This monumental task of philosophical exegesis range over Aristotle’s entire corpus, including logic, natural philosophy, metaphysics, psychology, and other works. For some texts Ibn Rushd wrote all three types of commentaries; for others two or one. The exhaustively detailed study was applied only to the Posterior Analytics, Physics, The Heavens, The Soul and Metaphysics.

Ibn Rushd’s writings in medicine and astronomy shape his scientific contribution. His views in astronomy are exposed in his commentaries on Aristotle’s Heavens, in the epitome of Ptolemy’s Almagest (Mukhtasar al-majisti), and in a treatise on the motion of the sphere, Kitab fî-harakat al-falak. The former was translated into Latin whereas the latter survived only in a Hebrew translation.

The Mukhtasar displays an early version of Ibn Rushd’s project of a radical reform of Ptolemaic astronomy. But until a new astronomy is elaborated, he is resigned to follow the theory upon which the “experts of the art” do not disagree. Proceeding from the works of his predecessors, especially Ibn al-Haytham and Jabir ibn Aflah, he denounced the non-scientific character of the Ptolemaic system with respect to the Aristotelian doctrine and raised objections against the hypotheses of eccentrics and epicycles.

Since the early XIIth-century, criticisms were leveled in the Andalus by the philosophers Ibn Baja and Ibn Tufayl against Ptolemy’s theories.

Ibn Rushd took up these objections and formulated the program of a new astronomy based on Aristotelian principles. His program was realized by the astronomer al-Bitruji (Alpetragius), who represented the heavens exclusively by nested homocentric spheres and perfect uniform circular motions around the Earth. However, his model was completely useless from a mathematical point of view, and it was neither numerically verifiable nor could it be used for predicting planetary positions.

Averroes & the European Renaissance - About Islam

Figure 2: Koutoubia Mosque front in Marrakesh (Source).

Ibn Rushd’s medical production includes commentaries on some of Galen’s and Ibn Sina’s works, a treatise On Theriac, and a major medical work, Kitab al-Kulliyyat (Book of Generalities), well known in its Latin version as the Colliget. The structure of the treatise was organized so as to produce a compendium of the art of medicine which would form a vital basis of knowledge acting as a springboard for more detailed investigations, and an aide-mémoire for those already versed in the subject.

The text is oriented by the idea considering that in the field of medicine general truths lie beyond those gathered by observation, in the linking up of phenomena with their causes. As it is stated in Book I, the medicine reposes on demonstrations founded in natural philosophy, challenging the kind of medicine which is centered entirely on results. But when it comes to the treatment, the author founds his remedies on an inductive approach based on observing the effects of medicines.

3. Defence of philosophy

The philosophical works of Ibn Rushd relate mainly to the defense of philosophy against the severe attack of the scholar Al-Ghazali (Algazel, d. 1111). They include Tahafut al-Tahafut (The Incoherence of the incoherence), a systematic response to al-Ghazali, and three closely related texts: Fasl al-maqal (The decisive treatise), a defense of philosophy in terms of Islamic legal categories, al-Kashf ‘an manahij al-adilla (Exposition of the methods of proof), presenting a theological system based on the interpretation of scriptural language, and al-Dhamima (Appendix), a short tract where it is argued that the philosophers do not deny God knowledge of particulars.

Ibn Rushd did not present his philosophy as a system. His philosophical doctrine has to be reconstructed from his numerous works. This doctrine is rich and multifaceted enough to be summarized easily. A survey of two emblematic themes, his causal theory and his thesis of the relation of religion to philosophy, shall provide an idea on his practice of theoretical discourse.

Averroes & the European Renaissance - About Islam

Figure 3: Logo of the Ibn Rushd Fund for Freedom of Thought. (Source).

Ibn Rushd developed his causal theory against al-Ghazali’s occasionalist doctrine embodied in the latter’s denial of necessary causal connection in nature. Al-Ghazali had claimed indeed that the world order has no inherent necessity, and the uniformity of nature is only a habit (‘ada) arbitrarily decreed by God who can disrupt it at will.

In contrast to this occasionalist account, Ibn Rushd relies on a central metaphysical argument based on his concept of real essence, which intimately relates essence to causal action. Things, he maintains, “have essences and attributes that determine the specific action of each existent and by virtue of which the essences, names and definitions of things are differentiated.”

If this were not the case, then all the existents would either become one existent or cease to exist altogether. For, if it is one, the question arises as to whether such an existent has or does not have a specific act (for example, whether or not fire has the specific act of burning).

If the answer is that it has, then the existence of a specific act proceeding from a specific nature is acknowledged. If the answer is that it does not, then “the one is no longer one. But if the nature of oneness is removed, the nature of existence is removed and the necessary consequence is nonexistence.”

For al-Ghazali, it is possible for fire to contact cotton without burning it. Ibn Rushd answers that this can happen only when there is an impediment, but this does not deprive fire of having the property of conflagration “so long as it retains the name and definition of fire.” Fire, to be fire, must have the property of burning something. A denial of this is not only a denial of objective truth, but a violation of the normal way we name things and speak about them.

Another important concern of Ibn Rushd was to prove the harmony between philosophy and religion, and hence to build a specific defense of philosophy.

Al-Ghazali not only endeavored to refute the Islamic philosophers logically, but condemned them as infidels for affirming the world’s eternity, for their denial that God knows terrestrial particulars, and for their denial of bodily resurrection. The charge of infidelity was a serious one in terms of Islamic law. It was also a challenge to the deeply religious commitment of Ibn Rushd. In several of his writings, he defends the philosophers against the charge of infidelity. He begins by raising a more general question, namely, whether Islamic religious law allows or prohibits the study of philosophy. Basing himself on certain Qur’anic statements, he argues that the study of philosophy is allowed, for philosophy is the proper study of nature that leads to the proof of the existence of God.

In Fasl al-maqal, Ibn Rushd formulates a conception of philosophy which was in accordance with the Islamic teachings as it was considered as a rational view of creation which leads to the knowledge of the Creator. Thus formulated, philosophy becomes a valid path for discovery of truth which is also to be found in revealed texts. Because different individuals have different levels of comprehension, God speaks to humans through three kinds of discourses: dialectical, rhetorical and demonstrative syllogism.

The distinction between three levels of discourse and of the audiences to which they are addressed is an important device in Ibn Rushd’s attempt to contextualise philosophy in the Islamic environment. Hence, the philosophy can be practiced only by the demonstrative class, the members of which possess a specific capacity and training. The two other classes are capable of reasoning only on the dialectical or rhetorical levels.

The scriptural statements are also divided into three classes: those that must be accepted literally because they have clear and unambiguous intent, those that should not be taken literally, and error in their metaphorical understanding or in their interpretation is permissible; finally, a class of statements that must be interpreted by each class according to its intellectual capacity.

Error here again is permissible. It is within the framework of this theory of interpretation that Ibn Rushd defends the Islamic philosophers against the charge of infidelity. Their condemned doctrines relate to scriptural statements where error in interpretation is permissible. Furthermore, in practical matters, it is the consensus of the Muslim community that rules on whether or not an act constitutes infidelity. On this basis, Ibn Rushd shows that consensus in matters of theoretical belief is impossible.

4. Influence

Despite his philosophical achievements, Islamic philosophy of the sort Ibn Rushd practiced did not survive after him. Actually, he did not have any significant Muslim disciple. In the world of Islam, his books were largely ignored, and several of his writings disappeared in their Arabic original versions.

Fortunately, interest in Ibn Rushd’s thought remained vivace among Jews and Christians, to the languages of whom his works were translated. By this way, his philosophical works as well as his commentaries on Aristotle were read all along the European middle ages and the Renaissance. As a result, a philosophical doctrine, known as the Averroism, emerged among his Latin and Hebrew followers.

5. Bibliography


The most useful bibliography on Ibn Rushd’s works is Rosemann, P (1988), “Ibn Rushd: A Catalogue of Editions and Scholarly Writings from 1821 onwards”, Bulletin de philosophie medieval vol. 30: 153-215.

Ibn Rushd (1169-98) Commentaries on Aristotle:

Aristotelis opera… cum Averrois Cordubensis vards in eosdem commentariis, Venice: Juntas, 1562-74; repr. Frankfurt: Minerva, 1962. (Ibn Rushd’s commentaries as they appeared in Latin and formed part of the approach to Aristotle in Christian Europe.)

  • (c.1174) Middle Commentaries on Aristotle, ed. C. Butterworth, Averroes’ Middle Commentaries on Aristotle’s Categories and De Interpretatione, Prin¬ceton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1983. (Translation and commentary on two of Ibn Rushd’s major works on philosophical logic and language.)
  • (before 1175) Short Commentaries on Aristotle, ed. C. Butterworth, Averroes’ Three Short Commentaries on Aristotle’s ‘Topics’, ‘Rhetoric’ and ‘Poetics’, Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1977. (A translation and commentary on three of Ibn Rushd’s main discussions of different forms of language.)
  • (1179-80) Fasl al-maqal (Decisive Treatise), ed. G. Hourani, Averroes on the Harmony of Religion and Philosophy, London: Luzac, 1961; repr. 1976. (Translation and discussion of the Fasl al-maqal and two other short pieces on the same topic.)
  • (1180) Tahafut al-tahafut (The Incoherence of the Incoherence), ed. S. Van den Bergh, Averroes’ Tahafut al-Tahafut (The Incoherence of the Incoherence), London: Luzac, 1954; repr. 1978. (The standard translation of Ibn Rushd’s response to al-Ghazali, incorporating the latter’s text.)
  • (c.1190) Long Commentary on Aristotle’s Metaphysics, ed. C. Genequand, Ibn Rushd’s Metaphysics, Leiden: Brill, 1984. (A translation and commentary of Ibn Rushd’s commentary on Aristotle’s Metaphysics, Book Lambda.)
  • (1194) Middle Commentary on Plato’s Republic, ed. R. Lerner, Averroes on Plato’s ‘Republic’, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1974. (The most modern translation with extensive commentary of Ibn Rushd’s commentary on Plato’s Republic.)
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