Ibn Rushd, Abu al-Walid Muhammad

(520–595/1126–98)
   The most important of the Andalusian philosophers, Ibn Rushd – or Averroës, as he was known to the Latins – was chief physician to, and favored intellectual companion of, the Almohad caliph Abu Ya‘qub Yusuf. He was also a respected jurist, grand judge (qadi) of Cordoba and the last great figure in the classical period of Islamic philosophy, at least in the West. His philosophical works can be divided into two general categories: (1) his polemical or dialectical works, which are concerned primarily with establishing the legitimacy of philosophy within the context of Islam and defending it against the attacks of theologians like al-Ghazali, and (2) his magisterial threetiered system of commentaries (short, middle and long) on Aristotle’s corpus, encouraged by his older friend Ibn Tufayl and commissioned by Abu Ya‘qub Yusuf. Among the first group are texts such as the Decisive Treatise Determining the Nature of the Connection Between Religious Law and Philosophy (Fasl al-maqal), Exposition of the Methods of Proof Relative to the Doctrines of Religion (Kashf ‘an al-manahij), and The Incoherence of the Incoherence (Tahafut al-tahafut). In the Decisive Treatise, Ibn Rushd argues that the Qur’an itself makes philosophical inquiry obligatory to those who are capable of it and that advocates of ‘orthodoxy’ who forbid such examination or accuse its earnest (if occasionally fallible) practitioners of unbelief (kufr) are acting contrary to religious law. Interpretation of unclear or ambiguous Qur’anic passages is unavoidable, as virtually all Muslims recognize, and when the apparent sense of scripture is at odds with the conclusions of strict, demonstrative reasoning, it must be interpreted figuratively. This is because ‘Truth does not contradict truth, but rather is consistent with it and bears witness to it.’ The overzealous theologians do more damage to religion than the philosophers, because they indulge in hasty and often groundless interpretations of scripture that violate its apparent sense as well as the dictates of reason. They also employ the same dialectical method of presentation indiscriminately to all believers, not realizing that the universal message of Islam requires different media for different audiences with different capacities. While the demonstrative, dialectical and rhetorical methods all are capable of arriving at essentially the same truth, the first is really only appropriate for a handful of intellectuals, the second for dogmatic but reasoning theologians, and the third for the common people. In short, abstruse metaphysical questions are best left in the hands of qualified experts. To broadcast the methods and conclusions of the philosophers or the theologians to simple believers (for whom the literal, apparent sense of scripture is sufficient) is to jeopardize their faith and do them harm. The Expositions of the Methods of Proof and the Incoherence of the Incoherence fill in the specific details of Ibn Rushd’s defense of philosophy and critique of the destructive overreachings of theology. The former examines the ways in which the methods and doctrines of the various theological sects fall short intellectually and create dissension, confusion and disbelief among the common people. The latter is a point-by-point rebuttal of al-Ghazali’s Incoherence of the Philosophers, a book which had effectively turned the tide against the onceinfluential Neoplatonic-Aristotelian mode of philosophy, charging figures like al-Farabi and Ibn Sina with failing to meet the rigorous methodological standards that they themselves laid down and wandering into the realm of heretical innovation and even unbelief in twenty of their theses. Ibn Rushd defends the eternity of the universe against al-Ghazali’s creationist critique, arguing that the creative action of an eternal agent such as God can have no beginning in time, and deftly deconstructing al- Ghazali’s Philoponian argument against the possibility of an actually infinite temporal series. Regarding God’s knowledge of temporal particulars, Ibn Rushd maintains that to conceive of God as knowing either particulars or universals in the way human beings know them is to reduce Him to inadequate, creaturely terms. For while originated, human knowledge is caused by objects of knowledge (which in turn are created by God), divine knowledge is the cause of its objects. That having been said, insofar as God’s knowledge is actual rather than abstract or merely potential, it is closer to our knowledge of the particular than to the universal. As for al-Ghazali’s famous critique of necessity in causal relations between natural events, Ibn Rushd argues that it rules out the possibility of scientific knowledge of the world, destroying God’s wisdom and providence in a misguided attempt to valorize His omnipotence. Unsurprisingly, he is a bit cagey on the question of miracles. While acknowledging their religio-political importance, he rejects the idea that they actually constitute divine violations of natural law (a selfcontradictory impossibility in his view), and casts them instead as rare and as yet unexplained natural occurrences. Although Ibn Rushd is primarily concerned with rebutting al-Ghazali’s criticisms of the Peripatetic philosophers, he takes great pains to distance himself from his predecessor Ibn Sina as well. He rejects emanation as a legitimate model for expressing the relation between God and the world, conceiving of the Creator both in more traditional Islamic terms as a willing agent and in more purely Aristotelian terms as first mover and final cause of an eternal universe. He reduces Ibn Sina’s essence/existence distinction from a fundamental ontological fact to a mere mental abstraction, and replaces Ibn Sina’s sometimes heavy-handed reliance on the modalities of necessary and possible existence with the more flexible explanatory categories of actuality and potentiality. In doing so, Ibn Rushd endeavors to extricate the true teaching of Aristotle from the numerous Neoplatonic accretions that had for so long obscured and hindered its vitality. This is a task he continues in his voluminous Aristotelian commentaries, particularly the long versions that were the fruit of his later years. These works are generally considered to offer the definitive statement of Ibn Rushd’s mature views in demonstrative form (rather than merely dialectical or persuasive form, as in his polemical works). Although the commentaries are recognized for their comprehensive scholarship, hermeneutic sensitivity and fidelity to Aristotle’s actual philosophy, the most important and exciting moments are those in which he ventures a new, creative interpretation in order to render intelligible some notoriously ambiguous passage or doctrine. The most well-known example of this is his Long Commentary on De Anima, where he arrives at the conclusion that there is ultimately only one material intellect and thus that immortality (which he interprets as a conjunction with the universal active intellect) is not individual or personal. Although in his earlier dialectical works Ibn Rushd had entertained the possibility (if indemonstrability) of personal immortality and bodily resurrection, such suggestions seem like more of a political sop thrown to common believers, who need to envision individual reward and punishment in order to be saved and attain happiness. The doctrine of ‘monopsychism’, as it is sometimes called, is generally believed to represent his mature, demonstrated position on the subject.
   Towards the end of Ibn Rushd’s life the political mood of al-Andalus turned against him and his unapologetic rationalism. His books were banned and burned, and he was exiled. However, the Almohad caliph soon changed his mind and Ibn Rushd joined him in Marrakesh, only to die of old age soon after. He left behind no real students or followers in the Islamic world; his real influence was felt most forcefully within the Jewish and Christian intellectual traditions, inspiring various forms of ‘Averroism’. In the Jewish tradition, Ibn Rushd’s deep understanding of Aristotle earned him respect and prompted a super-commentarial tradition. At the same time, his nuanced treatment of the relation between religious law and philosophy helped Jewish thinkers reconcile the seemingly conflicting claims of faith and reason in resourceful new ways. In the Christian tradition, ‘The Commentator’s’ writings were chiefly responsible for the resurgence of interest in (and better understanding of) Aristotle. However, several of Ibn Rushd’s ideas were officially condemned by the church (monopsychism, the attainability of happiness in earthly life, and the eternity of the world), along with at least one idea that was wrongly but persistently associated with him: the notorious doctrine of ‘double truth’ (i.e. that which is true according to religion can be false for philosophy), which Ibn Rushd, as well as many Averroists, actually would have rejected. Some scholars have argued that Ibn Rushd’s thought had a distant but formative effect on the European Enlightenments. In the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Arab modernists seized upon him as a kind of intellectual exemplar whose thought represented the true, rational spirit of Islam – a spirit that had for too long been stifled by an ossified, increasingly authoritarian tradition.
   Further reading: Arnaldez 2000; Ibn Rushd 1954/78, 1974/2005, 1977, 1983/98, 1984, 1999, 2001a, 2001b, 2002, 2007; Kogan 1985; Leaman 1988/98; Urvoy 1991

Islamic Philosophy. . 2007.

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