The Islamic Scholar Who Gave Us Modern Philosophy

Averroës' writings on Aristotle shaped Western philosophy as we know it.

HUMANITIES, November/December 2011, Volume 32, Number 6

According to Immanuel Kant, the urge to philosophize is universal: “In all men, as soon as their reason has become ripe for speculation, there has always existed and will always continue to exist some kind of metaphysics.” The truth of this is apparent in children at any early age, whose questions exhaust even the most profound and patient of parents. But it does not follow that there must inevitably be a place for philosophy in our educational systems. It is rare in the United States, for instance, to encounter philosophy before college, and rare outside Catholic universities for philosophy to be required in college. (It was a pleasant feature of a recent year spent living in Morocco to find that almost everyone there, from pharmacists to cab drivers, had a basic grasp of what philosophy is, acquired from their high school days. In this country, in contrast, even well-educated people often have little idea of what philosophy actually consists.) At the university, we think of philosophy as an essential offering in the humanities. But there is nothing inevitable even about this, as reflection on the history of the subject reveals.

Philosophy, as it is generally studied in the modern university, springs from ancient Greece and the writings of Plato and Aristotle. The various famous ancient schools long thrived during the Hellenic and Roman eras, but then slowly faded away during the sixth century CE. There followed several centuries of darkness—a true Dark Ages, as much as medievalists dislike the phrase—until philosophical forms of thought began to reemerge in the ninth century. Around the same time, one finds distinct and quite independent philosophical movements afoot in Byzantium, in Latin Western Europe, and in the Islamic world. In time, the Latin tradition would become ascendant, as fostered within the European university and eventually reinvigorated by the Enlightenment and the rise of modern science. These developments, however, were still centuries away. In the year 900, by far the most robust and impressive philosophical tradition was found not in Europe, but in the Middle East. Islamic scholars there had embarked on a wholesale program to recover the traditions of Greek philosophy (particularly the works of Aristotle), translate them into Arabic, and rethink their message in light of the newly revealed teachings of the Qur’an. Anyone able to observe from on high these distinct intellectual traditions at the end of the first millennium would surely have put their money on the Muslims as the group most likely to inherit the Greek philosophical legacy, and so it was for several centuries, as a series of brilliant philosophers and scientists made Baghdad the intellectual center of the early medieval world.

Eventually, however, the center shifted—first to the western part of the Islamic world in northern Africa and southern Spain, and then north to Christian Europe. What we call the Middle Ages was, in Islam, the great classical era of philosophy and science. After several centuries of flourishing, however, the study of philosophy and science faded in Muslim countries, even while it was being pursued with increasing vigor in the Latin West.

What happened? How did Western Europe, by the late Middle Ages, become the prime locus for philosophical and scientific research? These are, of course, complex matters. But to see something of the factors at play, we might consider the life and work of Averroës, one of the last great Islamic philosophers, and the one who made the strongest argument on behalf of philosophy. Those arguments would eventually take root, but not where he expected them to.

A Controversial Life

Abū al-Walīd Muhammad ibn Ahmad ibn Muhammad ibn Rushd—or Averroës, as he was known to Latin readers—was born in 1126 at the far western edge of the Islamic world, in Córdoba, Spain. His father and grandfather were prominent scholars and religious figures, and he, in turn, developed close ties with the Almohad caliphs who reigned over southern Spain and northwestern Africa during the twelfth century. These connections allowed him to serve as an influential religious judge in Seville and Córdoba and, later, as court physician in Marrakesh. Supposedly in response to the caliph’s complaint about the obscurity of Aristotle’s writings, Averroës devoted much of his scholarly efforts to a series of commentaries on Aristotle, producing both brief epitomes and exhaustive, line-by-line studies. These commentaries would eventually take on a life of their own, but the most striking feature of Averroës’s career is how little influence he had on the Islamic world of his time, despite his obvious brilliance. Many of his works no longer survive in Arabic at all, but only in Latin or Hebrew translation. Indeed, even during his life, Averroës became a controversial figure. For in 1195, when the then-reigning caliph felt the need to make concessions to conservative religious figures, he banished Averroës to the small Spanish town of Lucena, and ordered that his philosophical works be burned. Not long after, the caliph moved to Marrakesh, a position from which he evidently was able to restore Averroës to favor. The philosopher rejoined the caliph’s court, where he died in 1198.

What made Averroës so controversial, and what does this show us about the way in which philosophy has and has not persisted over the centuries? One can see something of the attitude among Muslim conservatives of that time from a popular Andalusian insult that has survived: “This fate has struck all the falsifiers who mix philosophy with religion and promote heresies. They have studied logic (mantiq), but it is said with reason that misfortune is passed through speech (mantiq).” Here an Arab proverb is invoked to play upon the twin meanings of mantiq as logic and speech. The jibe is fair enough, in a sense—Averroës did in his own way want to mix philosophy with religion, and, in particular, he promoted logic as the key to a true understanding of religion. As for whether the results were heretical, that, of course, is a matter of dispute; like all the great philosophers, Averroës arrived at his share of heterodox views.

Here, we might consider three views in particular that put Averroës outside the mainstream. First, he contends that both philosophy and the text of the Qur’an point toward the conclusion that the world has always existed in some form or another—that although God has shaped the nature of creatures, the physical world itself has eternally existed, just as God himself has. Second, he contends that although our souls survive death, our bodies do not, and will not be resurrected. Averroës seems to believe that our souls will acquire some kind of body in the next life, but he denies that this will be the same body we have now, or even the same kind of body, and he further denies that we should take literally the Qur’an’s various enticing pronouncements about the garden of delights that awaits the believer. Third, and most strange to our modern ears, Averroës denies that we each possess our own intellect. Instead, he thinks, the intellect is something separate from our souls, some singular, immaterial thing that we are able to access when we think, and that we all share.

Each of these views was disputed, and widely regarded as heretical. Averroës thought that each was at least consistent with religious teachings, if not positively supported by those teachings, and he thought that each could be decisively established on philosophical grounds, drawing on the teachings of Aristotle. Here, then, we can see the importance of philosophy, even in the context of religious questions, since, if not for philosophy, it is likely that the believer would come to the wrong conclusion about each of these problems. In one of his best-known works, the Decisive Treatise, Averroës argues at length for the value of philosophy: not just that it should be permitted, but that its study is, in fact, required for those who would truly understand religion. To ban philosophy would be “a wrong to the best sort of people and to the best sort of existing things.”

Here, as in much of his work, Averroës is countering the great figure from a century earlier, Abū Hamid al-Ghazālī, who had urged Muslims to set aside secular learning in favor of a Sufi-influenced program of spiritual purification. Ghazālī’s famous Revivification of the Religious Sciences argues that believers should set aside not just philosophy and logic, but also the contentious debates of the theologians. Indeed, even mathematics was suspect: “One should restrain anyone who would immerse himself in these mathematical sciences. For even though they do not pertain to the domain of religion, yet, since they are among the foundations of the philosophers’ sciences, the student will be infected with the evil and corruption of the philosophers.” Ghazālī himself was writing in opposition to the great earlier figures of Islamic learning such as al-Fārābī and Avicenna, who had been at the forefront of incorporating Aristotle’s philosophy into the Islamic worldview. Ghazālī’s ambition was to tear down that whole edifice of learning founded on Greek philosophical thought, and to put in its place the sort of spiritual practices promoted by Sufism. He himself famously acted on these principles when, at the height of his own academic career, he abandoned his distinguished position as professor of theology in Baghdad, and devoted the next decade to a life of ascetic meditation.

The "Spigot" of Philosophy

In responding to Ghazālī’s attack on philosophy, Averroës first insists that there can be no conflict between philosophy and faith: “Truth does not contradict truth.” Although this is so in principle, Averroës goes on to make an interesting and subtle concession—he accepts that not everyone is suited to pursue religious questions in the way that philosophy demands. Following Ghazālī, he distinguishes between “the people of demonstration” and “the people of rhetoric”—that is, between the few who are able to pursue philosophical reasoning, and the vast majority, who can only follow simple and superficial teachings. The masses, the people of rhetoric, ought simply to accept at face value the words of the Qur’an and the Prophet—such material was, indeed, meant for them. But this does not mean that everyone should follow such crude methods. Those who have the aptitude and the training have the obligation to go much deeper. To prohibit such people from studying philosophy would be quite wrong: “those who prevent someone from reflecting on the books of philosophy when he is adept at so doing, on the grounds that some very disreputable people are supposed to have erred due to reflecting upon them, are like those who prevent thirsty people from drinking cool, fresh water until they die of thirst, because some people choked on this water and died.”

Even if the spigot of philosophy should be left open for the right sort of people, it must be zealously guarded, Averroës insists, against those who would misunderstand. If, for instance, ordinary people were to be told that the Qur’an’s descriptions of the next life are not to be taken literally, Averroës fears that this would undermine their broader confidence in Islam. They would not understand the reasons for not taking these passages at face value, nor would they understand the interpretation Averroës wants to give such passages. Tell the ordinary Muslim that the next life is not what the Qur’an describes, but more like an endless philosophy seminar, and the consequences for religious piety might be very bad indeed. Thus, Averroës goes on to say that “anyone who declares these interpretations to those not adept in them is himself an unbeliever because of his calling people to unbelief.” This is, then, a highly attenuated defense of philosophy. For the select few, philosophy is an essential tool for understanding in religion and elsewhere. It is, however, a dangerous activity, to be taught only with care. We are very far from the familiar modern view of philosophy as a core ingredient in any humanistic education.

Given that even Averroës—the great Islamic champion of philosophy—goes only this far in its support, it is not surprising that the place of philosophy in medieval Islam was always marginal. The great philosophers of this era were, like Averroës, most often employed as physicians or religious judges. There were, of course, great institutions of higher learning in the Islamic world during this time. The Karaouine University of Fes, Morocco, dates from the ninth century, and al-Azhar in Cairo from the tenth. But these were strictly religious institutions, with no place at all for philosophy or science in their curriculum. In general, despite the brilliant development of philosophical thought in the early days of the Islamic caliphate, by the later Middle Ages it and other fields of secular learning were regarded with deep suspicion and almost no institutional support. There was nowhere one could go to study philosophy in the Muslim world, and no way to make a career studying it. In the great debate over the place of philosophy in Islam, it was Ghazālī and not Averroës who won.

The West’s Guide to Aristotle

Ironically, however, Averroës’s efforts were not in vain. Just a few years after his death in Marrakesh, the great universities of Europe began operation, most notably in Paris and Oxford. Unlike the strictly religious character of their nearest Islamic counterparts, these European universities were, from the start, thoroughly secular in their undergraduate curricula. The usual course of studies ran through subjects such as logic, metaphysics, ethics, and natural science—in short, they were exposed to all the various parts of philosophy. Students might go on to the advanced study of medicine, law, or theology, but each of those disciplines were taken to have their foundation in philosophy. By the middle of the thirteenth century, that philosophical curriculum had become thoroughly Aristotelian, and the great guide to Aristotle was none other than Averroës, who became known in the Latin West as simply “the Commentator.” His various paraphrases and commentaries on the Aristotelian corpus were studied wherever Aristotle was studied, and this remained the case all the way into the modern era. Even though, by the end of the Middle Ages, there were countless Christian commentaries on the Aristotelian corpus, it was still the writings of Averroës that were most likely to be found alongside early printed editions of Aristotle’s work.

Many of Averroës’s interpretations of Aristotle were deeply contentious, especially since they were often incompatible with core teachings of Christianity. When Thomas Aquinas returned to Paris in 1268 for an unusual second term as master of theology, he had to deal with the so-called “Averroists” among the philosophy professors who defended the very views that had been controversial a century earlier in Muslim Spain. Against Averroës, then, Aquinas argued that the world has not always existed, but was brought into existence anew by God, that the very bodies we possess now will be resurrected in the life to come, and that we each possess our own intellect, making us distinct individuals with our own individual destiny. Yet even while Aquinas and other Christian theologians such as Albert the Great and John Duns Scotus disagreed with Averroës on various high-profile questions, they gladly profited from Averroës’s commentaries on countless other matters, great and small.

Averroës found the sort of posthumous fame in Christian Europe that eluded him in the Islamic world. His passionate defense of philosophy, and his career-long efforts to make Aristotle intelligible even to the likes of a busy caliph, found few readers among Muslims, who by the next century had largely turned against philosophy. If history had turned out differently, it is imaginable that Averroës might have been one of the last of the great philosophers—as he was indeed one of the last great Islamic philosophers. The Islamic tradition bears witness to the fact that there is nothing inevitable about the place of philosophy in the modern world. But, as it happened, the ideas of Averroës took root in an entirely different cultural atmosphere, north of Spain, among Latinate, Christian readers, who shared his vision of a religion grounded in rigorous philosophical thinking, inspired by Aristotle. Philosophy thus took its place at the core of the European academic curriculum.