Saturday, 1 May 2010

Ibn Rushd (Averroes)

The setting for Ibn Rushd (1126-1198) was Islamic Spain, where he was born in Cordova. In this city of Andalusia, his grandfather had been a prominent judge (qadi). Ibn Rushd was trained as a Maliki jurist, and in that capacity (like his father also), he gained a distinguished career as a qadi of Cordova. He was skilled in medicine and became physician to the Almohad Sultan of Morocco. He became famous to the Christian world as an Aristotelian philosopher, in which field he achieved an unusual degree of conceptual purism. The “Eurocentric” interpretation has viewed him merely as a bridge between the Greeks and the moderns, though an alternative angle has been urged.

Ibn Rushd devoted much of his time to learning and composition. His talents in medicine are attested by his Kulliyyat fi al-Tibb (General Points on Medicine), an influential encyclopaedia which included some original observations and gained a well known Latin translation (Colliget). This early book related to his concern with philosophy as the medium for a digest of scientific data.

The output of Ibn Rushd encompassed many subjects. His Bidayat is a legal treatise representing the Maliki law school. He compiled the medical works of Galen, and also wrote on physics and astronomy (a subject in which he conducted observations at Marrakesh). Ibn Rushd's Mukhtasar al-Majisti is a summary of Ptolemy’s Almagest. Ibn Rushd here “challenged Ptolemy’s astronomical system on philosophical grounds and made interesting theoretical contributions to the Andalusian criticisms of the Greek astronomer” (M. Forcada, Ibn Rushd al-Hafid).

For many years, Ibn Rushd was composing diligent commentaries on nearly all the works of Aristotle. He produced short, medium, and long commentaries on the same text, apparently for the purpose of encouraging different audiences. The Politics of Aristotle was not available to him, and so he employed Plato’s Republic as a substitute. He notably attempted to retrieve the original arguments of Aristotle, resisting the accretions of Neoplatonism which had infiltrated the Arabic tradition. His short paraphrase commentaries have been considered “a very loose summary of the originals,” and he did add his own interpretations, though “the long commentaries are very impressive analyses of the text, especially given the nature of the translations with which Ibn Rushd was working” (O. Leaman, Ibn Rushd Abu’l Walid Muhammad).

Ibn Rushd is strongly associated with the Almohad dynasty, whose patronage he gained via periods of residence in Marrakesh. However, some conservative tendencies in the political climate led to the official rejection of his writings at the end of his life. The presiding Almohad Sultan was Abu Yusuf Yaqub al-Mansur (rgd 1184-1199). This ruler defeated a Christian army at Alarcos in 1195, and returning to Seville, he appeased doctrinaire jurists who had accused Ibn Rushd of heresy, the issue here being the latter’s reconciliation of Greek philosophy with Islam. The militant spirit of the time also aggravated about other heretics. “Ibn Rushd was thus the victim of a political gesture, and was sacrificed by the Sultan in order to win over the masses” ( D. Urvoy, Ibn Rushd, London: Routledge, 1991, p. 35).

Some of his books are reported to have been burned, and he was exiled from Cordova to Lucena, a small Spanish town largely inhabited by Jews. The Almohad regime now imposed forced conversion to Islam in that town, and the inhabitants wrongly associated Ibn Rushd with the aggression. When eminent men in Seville learned what had happened, they petitioned in his favour. The banishment was revoked two or three years later, when the Sultan summoned Ibn Rushd to the court at Marrakesh, where both of them died shortly after.

“The Almohad regime was based on a combination of a royal household, a hierarchical religious organisation, a tribal military elite with Berber and Arab tribal allies, and a Spanish-type administration” (I. M. Lapidus, A History of Islamic Societies, Cambridge University Press, 1988, p. 375).

In his notable Fasl al-Maqal (Decisive Treatise), Ibn Rushd “contended that the claim of many Muslim theologians that philosophers were outside the fold of Islam had no base in scripture,” and he “strived to demonstrate that without engaging religion critically and philosophically, deeper meanings of the tradition can be lost, ultimately leading to deviant and incorrect understandings of the divine” (H. Chad Hillier, Ibn Rushd, Internet Enyclopaedia of Philosophy).

Ibn Rushd was here arguing for the obligatory status of studying philosophy, amongst those who had the capacity for scientific reasoning (qiyas burhani). His opponents were evidently “the conservative Malikite lawyers and their popular supporters, and the rising class of Asharite theologians” (G. F. Hourani, Averroes: On the Harmony of Religion and Philosophy, London: Luzac, 1961, pp. 1, 16).

The major controversy related to the Asharite exponent Abu Hamid al-Ghazzali (1058-1111), an Iranian theologian who gained repute as a Sufi, and who had repudiated the relevance of philosophy in his treatise Tahafut al-Falasifa (Incoherence of the Philosophers). In response to Ghazzali, Ibn Rushd composed the Tahafut al-Tahafut (Incoherence of the Incoherence), which is a systematic refutation. Ghazzali argued that philosophers became infidels (kafirs) on issues such as their support for the Aristotelian doctrine of eternity of the world and their denial of bodily resurrection. The major target for Ghazzali was Ibn Sina (entry no. 18), with whom Ibn Rushd also disagreed, though from a rather different angle as an Aristotelian purist. The full details of these disputes cannot be treated in the scope of a blog.

As events transpired, Ghazzali was the victor in the Islamic world, though the eclipsed Ibn Rushd gained a significant new incarnation in the Christian and Jewish spheres of commentary.

“It was only in the thirteenth/nineteenth century that the Arabs became interested again in Ibn Rushd, and in a polemical climate which for a long time distorted the meaning of this rediscovery. His fortune is only due to his reception outside the Muslim world, notably among Jewish writers, who contributed to transmitting him to the Latin West, which eventually was to betray him.” Quotation from D. Urvoy, “Ibn Rushd” (330-45) in S.H. Nasr and O. Leaman, eds., History of Islamic philosophy Pt 1 (London: Routledge, 1996), p. 343.

See further S. Van Den Bergh, trans., Averroes’ Tahafut al-Tahafut (London, 1954); O. Leaman, Averroes and his Philosophy (Oxford, 1988); D. Urvoy, Averroes: Les ambitions d’un intellectual musulman (Paris, 1998); M. Fakhry, Averroes: His Life, Works and Influence (Oxford, 2001); C. E. Butterworth, trans., Decisive Treatise and Epistle Dedicatory (Provo, 2002); C. Baffioni, ed., Averroes and the Aristotelian Heritage (Naples, 2004).

Kevin R. D. Shepherd
May 1st 2010

ENTRY no. 19

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