Ibn Rushd, also Known as Averroes, and “The Commentator”.

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أبو الوليد محمد ابن احمد ابن رشد‎ (Abu I-Walid Muhammad Ibn Ahmad Ibn Rushd), known as Averroes in the West, was a prominent Islamic philosopher during the Islamic Golden Age. He was often called “The Commentator” due to his vast and extensive commentaries on everything Aristotle wrote, with the exception of Politics, where he instead wrote a commentary on Plato’s Republic. Coming from a line of judges, he was well versed in jurisprudence and was appointed qadi (judge) in Seville several times. Under the Caliph Abu Yaqub, he met Ibn Tufail in the same court, and it was he who told Ibn Rushd the Caliph desired to understand Aristotle’s books, resulting in his vast commentary on Aristotle we are able to enjoy today. Ibn Rushd served as a judge as well as a physician in the Almohad caliphate, but later met his misfortune and injustice due to political circumstances under the Caliph Al-Mansur, the son of Caliph Abu Yaqub.

His own manuscripts, including On the Syllogism, On the Intellect, On Conjunction with the Active Intellect, often defended Aristotelianism, as he believed Aristotle had the purest intellect. Whether this is may be considered haram is Islam is worth pondering about. He, as did many of the other Muslim philosophers, understood the prophets to have a pure Intellect that almost, in a way, reflected the Active Intellect (God’s Intellect). In this sense, what would he have said, if one asked him, why did Aristotle not receive or dispel any form of revelations? Perhaps he would have argued that Aristotle’s secular work was, in its own form, a revelation.

Regardless of what his answer might have been, many of his ideas and writings led to the mindless masses to collaborate and turn against him, declaring him a heretic and cursing his books as well as those who read it – essentially marginalizing him from society. Thus he joined the list of condemned philosophers. Of course, there was politics at play as well – the Caliph Al-Mansur wanted the support of Ibn Rushd’s rivals and thus turned against him. As a result, many of Ibn Rushd’s works were lost, as his works were declared illegal or burned by the Caliph. Ibn Rushd’s Incoherence of the Incoherence is arguably the main criticizing work against al-Ghazali’s Incoherence of the Philosophers. He argued that interpretation of the holy text does not make one a disbeliever, contrary to Al Ghazali’s ideas, but instead using ta’weel (تأويل , interpretation) to understand and strengthen faith is almost mandated by God, and he’d then support this with aya’s from the Quran.

One of his important and influential thoughts was that philosophy and religion (or faith) were not at odds, but rather philosophy reinforces faith. In his book Fasl al Maqaal (On the Harmony of Religions and Philosophy) he argued that the Quran itself urges contemplation and therefore is a must for Muslims. This leads us to his highly held regard for analogy as the strongest tool to attempt to reach Truth. Ibn Rushd’s emphasis on the importance of contemplation deems it a necessity for a Muslim, as, he argued, it is urged and invited by Allah to do so. Therefore, it is, in this sense, a duty to use the Intellect to examine all that exists around us.

Ibn Rushd discussed the idea of شرع (“shar”), which is for the masses who are unable to contemplate deeply (nor do they generally want to), while only those who are able to (the philosophers), should engage in ta’weel and furthermore, these philosophers should not discuss these ta’weel to the masses. However, as his persecution showed, this is not realistic. While ideally it is a sound idea, to separate the two, however in reality this is not possible – his books and his teachings still reached the presumably mindless masses, resulting in his exile and marginalization from society. So, then, perhaps we can contemplate a different methodology – instead of letting شرع for the masses and keeping the writings and compositions of the philosophers to themselves – perhaps dispelling these shocking and fear-inducing ideas in a different way is worth contemplating upon. The methodology of the Brethren of Purity in their The Case of the Animals Versus Man Before the King of the Jinn is entirely written in story-form, and yet philosophical criticisms, thoughts, ideas and the like are well versed in it, able to exist more freely as it is read, facing less opposition than Ibn Rushd’s works. This is due primarily to two things: the story-form of the writings as well as their anonymity.

Finally, Ibn Rushd’s respect for previously proven premises and knowledge is humbling and also useful. He understood that one should not limit oneself to one’s own time and era, disregarding those before, nor should one limit oneself to one discipline, instead- medicine, astronomy, mathematics, physics, ethics, philosophy, and so on, are all helpful in questioning and examining Truths as well as in attempting to reach Truths. In this sense, he understood the experimental sciences to be built on the accumulation of knowledge throughout the generations. While this point is valid, one must make sure to also question the very essence of the prior knowledge before basing one’s own assumptions and questioning after it.

We know Plato and Socrates, but who are Ibn Sina and Ibn Rushd?

Islamic philosophy must be understood differently from the Greek philosophers. The Islamic philosophers, or المتكلمون (“speakers”), flourished during the Islamic Golden Age between the 9th and 13th centuries. They were influenced greatly by the Greek philosophers – employing the dialectic method (attempting to discover some form of truth by examining opposing statements on a subject), originally invented by Aristotle and infamously used by other Greek philosophers like Socrates – and also in examining similar topics, those within the subject of metaphysics. Some of the greatest thinkers within Islamic Philosophy are Ibn Sina (known in the west as Avicenna), Al Ghazali and Ibn Rushd (known in the West as Averroes). Unfortunately, in many Western classrooms on philosophy the chronological order begins with Greek philosophy and often entirely misses the Islamic philosophers. Today many discuss the relationship and compatibility between Islam and democracy, but also Islam and science. Here is a crucial movement that first began questioning things in Islam and is therefore necessary as a basis in understanding the background information to be able to coherently and aptly discuss relevant topics today, such as whether Islam is inherently incompatible with science (or democracy) – for the moment disregarding the problematic insinuations within the wording of these topics/questions.

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Islamic philosophy first began to flourish under Ma’mun’s rule during the Abbasid Caliphate, and under him the دار الحكمة (House of Wisdom) came to be, in Baghdad, as the capital of the caliphate was Baghdad then, during a time of open trade: a luxurious age witnessing massive trade in commerce, textiles, and a rise in knowledge centres where academics, scientists, philosophers, etc., would come and discuss certain matters that intrigued them. Their name depicts the method in which they examined these topics – orally, by using the dialectic method or by discussions, at the beginning and only later evolved to being written and recorded. The flourishing of this time led to the simultaneous increase in the translation of works, from Greek and Syriac to Arabic, which led to much original research in the Islamic world, and which aided in the influx of ideas from other cultures and languages into the Empire, as well as the flourishing in education. Under Al Ma’mun it was an open society that flourished, with a meeting of different religions, with those that converted to Islam having a different set of schemata.

There was also political conflict, which led to more thinking about certain topics related to human governance, such as- “who has the responsibility to command the good and bad?” For example, the Kharijites did not support Ali for arbitration, as they believed Ali should have fought. Political conflicts as such led to more discussions on questions like, “is he considered a sinner?” Therefore, both economical flourishment and political conflict led to the emergence of new thoughts through knowledge centres like the House of Wisdom. As the Abbasid empire grew, and experienced much more contact with surrounding people’s from differing backgrounds, cultures, etc., there was increased discussion on the Quran, and things that were considered normative for a Muslim (i.e. what is considered “good” and “bad”, or the aforementioned who has the responsibility to command the good and prevent the evil- us, or leave up to God?). Therefore, the questions the “Speakers” asked unique, despite discussing things mostly confined to faith, as they also pondered metaphysical questions (largely within the frame of Islam).

It was here المعتزلة (Mu’tazila), meaning “those that isolate”, indeed, isolated themselves from the the “speakers”. They were the “rational thinkers”, who placed reasoning as superior and above to the revelation, and were the main school of thought until 848 AD when a new caliphate (under Al-Mutawakkil) replaced Ma’Mun’s. Basra and Khufu became more important than Baghdad in thought due to the Mongol invasion of 1258 and the “Siege of Baghdad”. However, by this time, the Mu’tazilites had already spread beyond the Islamic empire, into lands including Persia and Asia Minor (today’s Turkey). The Mu’tazilites  were now considered heretical with the demise of their movement. In opposition was the الأشعرية‎ (Ash’arites) of Basra, who placed the revelation as superior and above reasoning. The Ash’arites still used the dialectic method, like the Mu’tazilites, however they insisted that reason was subordinate to revelation. These are the defenders, as they believed that because our intellect is created from God, therefore reasoning must not presuppose the revelation.

However, relatively speaking to أصول الفقه‎ (Islamic jurisprudence), both the Mu’tazilites and the Ash’arites were similar in that they both believed reasoning was necessary in answering, pondering and discussing these questions. The Islamic jurisprudence‎ diverged from the other two in their view of the extent to which this reasoning was to be used in relation to the revelation. The Islamic jurisprudence believed that reasoning had no place in these matters, and the revelation was the most important and only source necessary. Their process, known as اجتهاد (Ijtihad), involved the Quran acting as the primary text, then consultation of the Hadiths, then the scholars’ consensus, attempting to use analogies, before reaching a ruling (fatwa).

The fourth theological group, (the other three being المعتزلة, the Mu’tazilites, the Ash’arites and the Islamic Jurisprudence), are the mystical Sufis. This spiritual way of Islam focuses on the individual, and it is a practical way of reaching the Truth, in other words, God (everything else is a mirage). This attempt to reach One-ness requires the abandonment of materialism, through singing, dancing, chanting; Sufis put emphasis largely on personal experiences, and the idea of الذوق (taste). In this sense, the Sufis have their own language, and thus their own interpretations of the revelations. In contrast to the other three groups, the Sufis are not trying to reach the Lord through analyses but through practical means.

Regarding the topic of cosmology, the Mu’tazilites believed that God first created the atoms, and then He bestowed the attributes/characteristics upon them, therefore creation was able to differentiate. In this sense, the attributes are not static, and can change between states. Dirar Ibn Amr argued differently- he argued that although atoms were first created, and then with attributes bestowed upon them by the Lord, they did not change after this. According to, this is because if an atom has certain attributes, it cannot combine and thus cannot change its state. Al Nazzam and Abu Bark Al-Asamm argued the atoms as mathematical points. In line with this, then, they should be continually “indefinitely visible”, and then God bestowed the third dimension attributes- which is followed by combination and therefore changing states. The Mu’tazilites focused strongly on the topic God’s Unity, which includes and led to other questions – such as if the Quran is created or not.

If the Quran is created, that means there must be an end. This, then, leads to the discussion of God’s attributes. The Mu’tazilites believed that there is God’s Essence, and then there is God’s Attributes. The “Essence” (صفات الذات) cannot be separated from him, they argued, and this included knowledge, ability/power (قدره), life (حياه), and also existence. Therefore, these essences are identical to him, while the attributes (صفات الأفعال), are related to the acts and deeds (i.e. speaking, willing) He does, and so they have a time and place. Therefore, following this line of thought, they believed the Quran must be created, as speaking is an attribute that has a time and place. It must therefore be accidental, and also have a time and place.

The major issues discussed by these four theological groups were- the topic of Divine Will, توحيد (God’s Unity), the question of “who can commend the good and bad”, and “who will be a sinner?” The main discussion of the Mu’tazilites was God’s Unity, which they used to defend their faith against atheists. His attributes, according to them, are just different from us, so therefore even talking or comparing about his attributes makes one an atheist. This is supported by the aya (verses in the Quran) “God is unique/none is like him” which negates certain attributes are his to prove his One-ness. They believed the Quran is created, due to the aya “we have made in Arabic, the Quran” (italics mine). The word “made” is emphasised here because this means that it was created.

Personally, my beliefs and method of thinking would fall more along the lines of the Mu’tazilites, rather than the Al’asharites, as the defenders. The fact that they are defenders defines the epistemological issue I have with their perspective, in that they are aiming to defend the revelation first and foremost, whereas the Mu’tazilites do not have this “burden”, if you will, but rather can focus solely on pursuing the “unshakable Truth”. In this sense, the Al’asharites are therefore constrained in their ability to think, as all their lines of thought, ideas, discussions, must be based on and stem from the underlying assumption that the revelations are not to be questioned. After all, as Socrates famously quipped, “the only thing I know, is that I know nothing.”