Happy Birthday, Averroes (Ibn Rushd)! By Eric Gerlach

Averroes by Giorgione893 years ago today, on April 14th, 1126, the great Islamic philosopher, theologian, political theorist, and scientist Ibn Rushd, or as he is known by the Latinate version of his name in Europe, Averroes, was born.

Among his many achievements, Averroes is credited with popularizing the study of Aristotle in Europe, inspiring the work of Thomas Aquinas and the Christian Scholastics.  Averroes was known as “The Commentator” and Aristotle “The Philosopher” to Aquinas and the Scholastics, as Averroes wrote multiple commentaries to help others understand Aristotle’s thought. To the left is an image of Averroes standing between and above an ancient Greek sage, likely Aristotle, and an Italian scholar of the Renaissance, sitting at their feet, painted by Giorgione of Venice. Averroes was also a major influence on Maimonides, Giordano Bruno, Pico della Mirandola, and Baruch Spinoza, and was one of the great souls that Dante wrote was dwelling in limbo with the Greek sages who lived before Jesus.

Aquinas Averroes and Scholastics

Thomas Aquinas

Averroes’ grandfather and father both served as chief judge of Cordoba, the place where Averroes was born, which later became part of Spain. Averroes wrote prolifically, twenty-eight works of philosophy as well as important treatises on law and medicine.  As a rationalist, Averroes argued that philosophy and religion teach the same truth and thus are not in conflict, such that intellectuals pursue the same matters that common people comprehend through religion and rhetoric.  He also argued that analytic thinking was important for the proper interpretation of the Quran, as Christian Scholastics would argue later about the Bible in Europe.  Averroes’ works were banned and burned in Islamic and Christian lands at different times, but they were revered enough to survive in both places.

Averroes was opposed to the work of Al-Ghazali, the Sufi mystic and author of The Incoherence of the Philosophers.  Ghazali argued that philosophers such as Plato, Aristotle, Al-Farabi and Avicenna contradict each other, and are thus incoherent as a set, and also contradict the teachings of Islam.  Ghazali also argued that Aristotle and those who follow him are wrong to assert that nature proceeds according to established laws, as all things proceed directly through the will of God.  Averroes wrote his most famous work, The Incoherence of the Incoherence, in response to Ghazali. Averroes defended Aristotle and argued that philosophy does lead to coherent truth, which is not in conflict with Islam, and that nature proceeds indirectly from God via the laws of nature, which God established during creation.

Portrait of Baruch de Spinoza (1632-1677), ca. 1665, by an unknown artist

Portrait of Baruch de Spinoza (1632-1677), ca. 1665, by an unknown artist

Averroes is also famous for his idea of monopsychism, that we all share the same divine soul, mind, and awareness, with each taking a part such that the lower soul is individual and mortal but the higher soul is universal and immortal, the source of true inspiration and reason.  Spinoza, who said that each of us is like a wave on the great sea of being, was a pantheist, inspired in part by Averroes.  Much later, when Albert Einstein was asked if he believed in God, he said, in the spirit of Averroes, “I believe in Spinoza’s god”.

In these and countless other instances, we can discern the influence of Averroes throughout both Eastern and Western thought. Thank you for your wisdom and insight, Averroes!

*A version of this piece was previously published at Ordinary Philosophy

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*All views and opinions expressed by guest writers are their own and do not necessarily express those of Ordinary Philosophy’s editors and publishers

When Philosophy Needed Muslims, Jews and Christians Alike, by Peter Adamson

From The Three Philosophers, attributed to Giorgione, ca. early 1500’s. It likely portrays a young Italian philosopher, Averroes, and Plato

If you were asked to name the most important philosopher of 10th-century Baghdad, you would presumably not hesitate to say ‘al-Farabi’. He’s one of the few thinkers of the Islamic world known to non-specialists, deservedly so given his ambitious reworking of Platonic and Aristotelian metaphysics and political philosophy. But if you were yourself a resident of 10th-century Baghdad, you might more likely think of Yahya ibn ‘Adi. He is hardly a household name now, but was mentioned by the historian al-Mas‘udi as the only significant teacher of Aristotelian philosophy in his day. But ibn ‘Adi is not just a good example of how fame wanes across the centuries. He is also a fine illustration of the inter-religious nature of philosophy in the Islamic world.

Ibn ‘Adi was a Christian, as were most of the members of the group of philosophers who wrote commentaries on Aristotle at this time in Baghdad. The Muslim al-Farabi, who was apparently ibn ‘Adi’s teacher, was an exception to the rule. Completing the ecumenical picture, ibn ‘Adi was involved in an exchange of letters with a Jewish scholar named Ibn Abi Sa‘id al-Mawsili, who wrote to him with questions about Aristotle’s philosophy that he was hoping to have cleared up. Admittedly, Baghdad was an exceptional place, the capital of empire and thus a melting pot that drew scholars from all over the Islamic world. But philosophy was an interfaith phenomenon in other times and places too. The best example is surely Islamic Spain, celebrated for its culture of convivencia (‘living together’). Two of the greatest medieval thinkers, the Muslim Averroes and the Jew Maimonides, were rough contemporaries who both hailed from al-Andalus. After Toledo fell into the hands of the Christians, the Jew Avendauth collaborated with the Christian Gundisalvi to translate a work by the Muslim thinker Avicenna from Arabic into Latin.

That last example is a revealing one. Philosophy in these times often involved representatives of different faiths because it often presupposed translation. Hardly any philosophers of the Islamic world could read Greek, not even Averroes, the greatest commentator on Aristotle. He and other Muslim enthusiasts for Hellenic wisdom had to rely on translations, which had mostly been executed by Christians in the 8th to 10th centuries. Knowledge of Greek had been maintained by Christian scholars in Byzantine Syria, which explains why Muslim patrons turned to Christians to render works by Aristotle, Ptolemy, Galen and many other ancient thinkers into Arabic. Thus the very existence of Hellenic-inspired philosophy in the Islamic world was a manifestation of inter-religious cooperation.

All of which is not to say that the Islamic world was free of inter-religious dispute. On the contrary, it seems that one reason those Muslim patrons were interested in Aristotle was that his logic would give them the tools to keep up with Christian opponents in theological debate. A vivid example is provided by al-Kindi, the first Muslim thinker to draw on Hellenic sources. He wrote a short refutation of the Trinity in which he used Greek logic to argue that God must be wholly one, not one and three – mentioning that Christian readers should be able to follow the argument, given their familiarity with logical concepts. A nice twist to the story is that we know of this refutation only thanks to the aforementioned ibn ‘Adi, who quoted al-Kindi in order then to rebut his attack on the Christian dogma.

While men such as al-Kindi were appropriating Greek ideas to defend Islam and attack Christianity, others disapproved of the importation of these same ideas into Muslim culture: al-Kindi responded to unnamed critics who deplored the use of pagan philosophy, and the founder of the Christian Baghdad school got into a public dispute with a Muslim grammarian over the usefulness of Aristotle’s logic. The grammarian mocked the pretensions of the Christian Aristotelians, and delighted in pointing out that all this logic had not prevented them from believing that God can somehow be both one and three.

Still, it remains the case that philosophy and the sciences more generally offered a kind of meeting point or neutral ground for intellectuals of different faiths. Muslims, Christians and Jews who shared an interest in Aristotle’s metaphysics or the medical theories of Galen read each others’ commentaries and elaborations on the Hellenic tradition. This is shown even by the disputes that they had with one another: using Greek logic to debate the Trinity implicitly suggested that this was a topic that could be resolved by appeal to reason. And many of the thinkers mentioned above argued that philosophy offered the best resource for the interpretation of sacred texts, whether the Torah, the Christian Bible, or the Quran. So it is no coincidence that in the Muslim al-Kindi, the Christian ibn ‘Adi, and the Jew Maimonides, the One God of Abrahamic tradition bears a striking resemblance to the god of Aristotle’s Metaphysics. Their shared enterprise as elite philosophers meant that they had more in common with one another than they did with most of their co-religionists.Aeon counter – do not remove

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

Peter Adamson is a professor of philosophy at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich. He is the author of several books, including The Arabic Plotinus (2002) and Great Medieval Thinkers: al-Kindi (2007) and Philosophy in the Islamic World (2016), and hosts the History of Philosophy podcast. (Bio credit: Aeon)

~ Ordinary Philosophy is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Any support you can offer will be deeply appreciated!

*All views and opinions expressed by guest writers are their own and do not necessarily reflect those of Ordinary Philosophy’s editors and publishers


Encourage a More Progressive Islam: The Peaceful Muslim Majority Should Dominate the Conversation

The debates around the Charlie Hebdo shooting have been raging hot and fast: should there be a stronger military response to militant Islamists? Does the Quran promote or at least allow violence, and if so, is Islam really a religion of peace? Are principles of the right to free speech and basic respect for the feelings of religious people compatible?
We’ve tried, and mostly failed, the military response tactic. Even where gains appear to have been made in the short term, a new crop of fanatics soon rise up to strike, as they feel their country’s honor has been violated by invaders who have no right to dictate what they should believe, what laws they should make, or what form of government they should create. It’s a fact of history that invasion, real or perceived, by foreign armies invariably provokes those disposed to violence to take up arms; these, in turn, convince the young, the aimless, and the self-righteous to join them in their ‘sacred’ cause. Even if the intention of the ‘invaders’ is to liberate or to protect (though I’m not convinced that’s entirely or even usually the case on the part of governments), these military interventions usually turn out worse for everyone in the long run. Consider the domino effect from our early intervention in Afghanistan against the Russians to our seemingly endless war(s) in the Middle East. While each intervention on its own seemed justified to many in the short term, the deeper all parties dig themselves in with more fighting, the more the bodies pile up and the deeper the tensions run, generating yet more conflict.
So how about the religion itself, and its holy book? The Quran indeed contains violent passages, allowing and even commanding its readers to kill those who violate certain commandments or who don’t believe. The Bible is also chock-full of both divinely tolerated and divinely commanded violence, including rape, murder, mutilation, and lots of genocide. Christians, for centuries, invaded other countries, overthrew rulers, tortured and killed heretics and ‘witches‘ (including little girls), and harshly oppressed the Jews, from baptizing and kidnapping their babies to murderous pogroms. All this with consent, by silence or by instruction, of religious authority figures, including the Pope.

So why does the western world widely consider Christianity a religion of peace, and Islam a religion of genocide? Well, Christianity has undergone a pretty thorough reformation through the influence of better philosophical and evidence-based ideas, starting with the Protestants, continuing with the Enlightenment, and up to the Age of Science and Human Rights. With widespread literacy and open trade came the awareness that the old dogmatic, sin-obsessed, holy-war-glorifying ways are actually quite awful for human well-being, and that hey, if God loves us, maybe he doesn’t actually want us to live that way. Now, except for abortion clinic bombers, the odd Timothy McVeigh or Anders Behring Breivik, and certain pundits, fundamentalists, and warmongers who seem to long for the days of the Crusades, Christianity is now, in comparison, mostly a benign family of religions of tolerance, peace, and good works. Even if, as I believe, they get a lot of stuff wrong (mostly the metaphysical stuff; otherwise, many of the ethical systems they promote are not half bad), Christian religions bear little resemblance to their forebears who enacted Old Testament values with gusto. Same goes for (most of) the Jewish family of religions.

This takes to our modern Age of Human Rights, in which the rights and interests of individual persons are of primary concern, so that any and all human institutions, be it religion, corporation, community, or government, is judged by how well it serves to protect and expand human rights. Is Islam compatible with this new understanding of the importance of human rights, in that they are at least on equal footing with religion, if not taking precedence over it? (From the religious viewpoint, of course: most modern, reformed, and mainstream religions seem to promote a robust conception of the centrality of human rights in their moral systems, and see no real conflict. The most progressive believers, as well as atheists and secularists, think that too many religions are still retrograde and unjust in their beliefs regarding gay, women’s, and children’s rights.) Should the threat of offending religious people be sufficient to limit that most sacred of human rights to the western world, free speech? We’re still figuring that one out when it comes to extreme cases, such as those that specifically incite violence, or ‘hate speech’. But for the most part, I think the general attitude of the western world towards free speech is the correct one: it should rarely be constrained, except when’s demonstrable that severe and direct harm will almost surely result from it. Even the speech of people with the most disgusting views must be tolerated in the interests of being an informed person, since it’s important to know who they are and what the bad ideas are that influence them. Most religions in the western world have become pretty comfortable with the idea of free speech and have come to value it highly, including the more moderate forms of Islam.

So how to stop the seeming spiral of parts of the Muslim world into an orgy of violence and the ideological dominance of its most extreme and retrograde forms? Encourage and promote those who stand against those violent ideologues. Most Muslims belong to this category of believers, and number among the most humane, thoughtful, and decent people you may care to meet. These are the Muslims who feel most, and most justifiably, beleaguered. They are as horrified as anyone else at all the atrocities committed in the name of the religion they identify with, perhaps more so since it’s other Muslims committing these crime, and like most Christians today, emphasize the nice parts of their holy book and interpret away the rest. And I’m sure they feel, as this thoughtful piece successfully argues, that it’s as ridiculous to blame Muslims as a group for the actions of Muslim killers, as it is to blame all Catholics for child-raping clerics, all Jews for the ultra-Orthodox few slinging feces at schoolgirls, or all atheists for Stalin’s genocide. It’s as ridiculous to expect all Catholics, Jews, and atheists to apologize and justify themselves following such atrocities, as it is to expect all Muslims to.

While there are still large parts of the Muslim world living under the rule of governments whose laws still carry out a retrograde understanding of justice, it’s just not true that most Muslims condone terrorist acts. Indeed, while doing research for this piece, I had a far harder time finding Muslim leaders who justify any kind of violence, even physical punishment for ‘apostates’ and criminals, than those that do. Outside of the rantings of pundits, who jump on the relatively rare examples of communities where a significant demographic believe violence is justified, it’s just not the case that Islam necessitates violence any more than Christianity does. Both revere holy books rife with passages promoting violence, but few Muslims and Christians are guided more by those passages than the peace-promoting ones. Yet it seems the pundits’ rantings dominate the major media outlets, while the voices of the peaceful majority of Muslims are all too often drowned out.

So if you’re one of those screaming and pointing fingers at ‘The Muslims’, let’s all stop being so damned self-righteous and smug in our own ‘enlightened’ point of view (yes, you too, my fellow atheists). Those of us who are interested in living in a more just, peaceful, tolerant, and free world should encourage such progress wherever it’s found, by praising it and trumpeting it from the rooftops. While I, too, feel that the world will be a better place when religion has lost its still too widespread dominance over the human heart and mind, I also know that many religious people feel a deep sense of identity with whatever faith they were brought up in, and this rarely changes quickly.

Who, then, will change the minds of those Muslims who hold beliefs contrary to principles of human rights and personal liberty? Will it be vitriolic Christians who point out the speck in their eye while ignoring the historical plank in their own? Will it be atheists who shout ‘Look, I told you so, that’s what happens when you consider ancient tribal texts the source of your morals’? I don’t think so, if history and a large body of research into why and how humans form their beliefs are any indication. The people who will change the mind of Muslims will generally be other Muslims.

So share widely every story of Muslims who hate violence and love tolerance, knowledge, and freedom, and let it it drown out the fundamentalists; I, for one, am rooting for their side in the fight over what broadly defines their religion. After all, they have the credentials and the inside knowledge of how it is to be a Muslim, to demonstrate to their fellow believers that the best way to be Muslim is to believe in a God of peace, tolerance, and justice. If you support these good people, you will become a help, and not a hindrance, on the journey of the human race, religious and secular alike, towards a more peaceful, tolerant, just, and wise world.

Here are prominent and influential Muslims and Muslim groups who stand against violence, to which I’ll keep adding as I discover them… and there are plenty to discover. Please share as widely as you can!

The Arab League and Al-Azhar condemn the Charlie Hebdo shooting:

The Council on American-Muslim Relations condemns the Charlie Hebdo shooting:
The Grand Mosque of Paris condemns the Charlie Hebdo shooting:
Imam Hassen Chalghoumi condemns the Charlie Hebdo shooting:
Imam Imtiaz Ahmed condemns the Charlie Hebdo shooting:
President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi condemns the Charlie Hebdo shooting: 
The Union of Islamic Organizations of France condemns the Charlie Hebdo shooting: