A statue of Ibn Rushd, physician, lawyer and theologian, in Córdoba, Spain, where he was born Image Credit: Supplied

Abul Walid Mohammad Ibn Ahmad Ibn Rushd, who is better known in the West as Averroës, became an outstanding Aristotelian in the Islamic world. Neglected by his own, Ibn Rushd revolutionised philosophy in Christian and Jewish Europe and was credited with having been a strong influence on the movement that ushered in the European Renaissance.

He was a physician, lawyer and theologian and, according to his contemporary biographer Oliver Leaman, “became a significant political and legal figure in Córdoba, Spain, during the period of Islamic rule under the Almohad, something that made his life difficult at times especially when political conditions changed.”

Ibn Rushd was exiled more than once, including to North Africa at the end of his life, though precisely why remains a mystery. His long and fulfilling life was crowned by the acknowledgement of many of his contributions in understanding Aristotle, one of the most, if not the most, important founding figure(s) in Western philosophy.

It is critical to note that less than two decades before his birth, the great critic of Islamic philosophy, Al Ghazali, died after striking a near-fatal blow on Muslim philosophers such as Ibn Sina, who espoused Platonism.

Still, Spanish-Muslim philosophers, of whom the jurist and physician Ibn Rushd came to be regarded as the final and most influential, added significant value. The Córdoban rejected the facile contention then in vogue among theologians that philosophers were outside the fold of Islam, especially since no supporting evidence could be identified in the Quran to back such assertions.

Ibn Rushd insisted that it was possible to arrive at truths through philosophy and that its study should not be prohibited. Naturally, such a position required that he challenge Asharite, Mu’tazilite, Sufi, and “literalist” conceptions of God’s attributes and actions — all of which he embarked upon with courage noting the philosophical issues that arose out of their interpretations from temporary phenomena.

He demonstrated the value of unearthing the deeper meanings of traditions by engaging with religion critically and philosophically. Only such an approach, he believed, could eliminate deviant understandings of the divine.


Life and times

Ibn Rushd was born in Córdoba, Spain, to a family with a long and well-respected tradition of legal and public service. His grandfather, the influential Abdul Walid Mohammad, was the chief judge of Córdoba, under the Almoravid dynasty. Ibn Rushd’s father, Abdul Qasim Ahmad, although not as well recognised as his grandfather, held the same position until the Almoravids were ousted by the Almohad dynasty in 1146.

After he received a traditional education that covered classic introductions to Hadith, linguistics, jurisprudence and scholastic theology, Ibn Rushd became interested in the sciences and philosophy. In 1160, he was made a <qadi> (judge) of Seville, Spain, and served in several court appointments in Seville and Córdoba.

It was during the reign of Ya’qub Al Mansur, the third Almohad ruler, that his political career abruptly ended as he faced severe criticism from jurists questioning his methods.

Although duty required that he study the law and serve his masters as a jurist, Ibn Rushd was attracted by the philosophy of Ibn Bajjah, who may have tutored him, and actually enrolled in medical school under Abu Ja’far Ibn Harun in Trujillo, a key Arab fortress southwest of Madrid. In fact, his aptitude for medicine was noted by his contemporaries, and can be seen in his enduring work, Kitab Al Kulyat Fil Tibb. Together with Kitab Al Tai’sir Fil Mudawat Wa Al Tadbir, written by Abu Marwan Ibn Zuhr, Ibn Rushd’s medical opus was used as a textbook by Jewish, Christian and Muslim physicians for several centuries.

Early in his adult life, Ibn Rushd travelled to Marrakech, Morocco, and came under the patronage of the Caliph Abdul Mu’min. The Almohads, like the Almoravids earlier, were northwest-African Kharijites who were also greatly influenced by Berber reform movements.

The theology of Ibn Tumart (1078-1139) — whose main principle was a rigid Unitarianism (that is why his followers are known as Muwahhidun), which denied the independent existence of the attributes of God as being incompatible with his unity — influenced Ibn Rushd.

Consequently, the Córdoban emphasised divine unity (see below), which led him to devise a positive system of law whereby divinity could co-exist with a rational and practical theology.

This led to the concept that law needed to be primarily based on revelation instead of the traditions of the jurists. Still, while Ibn Tumart’s theology affirmed that the existence and essence of God could be established through reason alone, Ibn Rushd posited an ethical legal theory that depended on divine inspiration.

A fortuitous encounter in Marrakech with Ibn Tufayl, a philosopher who was the official physician and counsellor to Caliph Abu Ya’qub Yousuf, son of Abdul Mu’min, changed Ibn Rushd’s life.
The well-connected Ibn Tufayl introduced Ibn Rushd to the ruler, who was impressed by the aspiring philosopher and quickly secured his services — first as chief judge and later as chief physician. The caliph sought Ibn Rushd’s views on Aristotle, which may have encouraged the erudite man to dig deeper, especially when so few Arab rulers could overcome the challenges propounded by the Greek philosopher’s texts.

Whether Ibn Rushd compiled his commentaries to meet his caliph’s requirements or whether he evaluated them on his own are impossible to know. Suffice it to say that the request opened new venues for the intellectual, who welcomed the challenge to provide fresh commentaries.

Through his years of service, Ibn Rushd noticed that the Almohads became more liberal, which eventually led them to reject Ibn Tumart’s theology. In 1229, the Almohads adopted Maliki law, which meant that Ibn Rushd’s ideas fell out of favour. The die was cast and in 1195, the physician was exiled to Lucena, a largely Jewish village outside of Córdoba.

Tragically, his writings were banned and his books burnt, which ushered in a disgraceful period even if it did not last long. In 1197, Ibn Rushd returned to Córdoba but died the following year. Doubts about Ibn Rushd’s orthodoxy persisted, and although interest in his philosophy waned, his writings found new audiences in Christian and Jewish intellectual circles.


Philosophical ideas

Ibn Rushd provided annotated commentaries on most of Aristotle’s works, explaining and clarifying the difficult and technical thinker in such a way that others — including the overwhelming majority of Western philosophers — could more readily engage with his ideas and develop them. He wrote three different kinds of commentary on Aristotelian texts — a long one for scholars, and medium-length and shorter ones for a wider public.
Frequently, it was in these briefer commentaries that Ibn Rushd expressed his own opinions quite directly on a range of philosophical and theological issues, but in the long commentaries he tried, successfully on the whole, to preserve a dispassionate academic tone.

As stated above, Ibn Rushd argued in his Decisive Treatise that not only is it acceptable to study philosophy, Muslims are in fact obliged to do so, and they ought to delve into philosophical matters to find pertinent solutions to theological problems, especially because theologians could not, by themselves, resolve such dilemmas as how to interpret the Quran.

Ibn Rushd’s articulate arguments reconciled religion with reason, thus bringing together religion and modernity and science, one of the pressing ideological issues of the Middle East in the pre-modern period and, of course, today. Whether the radical directions in which his work was taken actually represented his own views seems unlikely.

He did, however, develop the thesis that religion and reason were different routes to the same truth. Within the cultural contexts where religion was regarded as the major route to the truth, as in medieval Europe and, regrettably in certain narrowly defined contemporary extremist arenas, Ibn Rushd may seem to represent a subversive vision.

In fact, the philosopher was a deist, even if he did not view the Greeks masters with suspicion. As the Hanbali current gained ground starting in the 10th century, however, Ibn Rushd wished to avoid tensions vis-à-vis the more conservative elements within society, with little success.

On the 'existence of God'

Shortly after writing his Decisive Treatise, Ibn Rushd composed Al Kashf `An Manahij Al Adillah Fi `Aqaid Al Millah (The Exposition of the Methods of Proof Concerning the Beliefs of the Community), which was nothing short of a major treatise on the doctrine of God.

This was a fantastic undertaking to determine whether religious doctrines that are held by the public in the four key sects distorted scriptures to make them more incompatible with Islam. Ibn Rushd’s polemic thus could be interpreted as a clear expression of his doctrine on God.

In this opus, the author first examines the “arguments for the existence of God given by the different sects, dismissing each one as erroneous and harmful to the public”. He contends, for example, that only two arguments are worthy of observance, both originating in the Quran, surahs 25:61, 78:6-16 and 80:24-33. The first reference is the argument of “providence”, in which one can observe that everything in the universe serves the purpose of humanity.

“Ibn Rushd speaks of the sun, the moon, the earth and the weather as examples of how the universe is conditioned for humans”, and advances the notion that “if the universe is, then, so finely tuned, then it bespeaks of a fine-tuner God”.

This interpretation was similar to Voltaire’s argument several centuries later as the French Enlightenment philosopher defended liberty. The second reference was based on the argument of “invention”, arising from “the observation that everything in the world appears to have been invented. Plants and animals have a construction that appears to have been designed; as such a designer must have been involved, and that is God.”

Ibn Rushd maintained, as did most of his theologian contemporaries, that there were seven divine attributes that were analogous to human attributes — knowledge, life, power, will, hearing, vision and speech.

“For the philosopher, the attribute of knowledge occupied much space in his writing on the attributes of God,” and he contended that divine knowledge was analogous to human knowledge only in name, the latter being the product of effect while the former was a product of cause. God, Ibn Rushd believed, was the very reason of the universe. As such, he possessed true knowledge, whereas humans acquired knowledge based on the effects of such causes.


Legacy on Arabs and Muslims

Although Arab and Muslims philosophers and theologians shunned Ibn Rushd, it must be emphasised that the vast majority of his commentaries left a strong influence on the Jewish and Christian communities of his time. As times passed, his true influence grew among academics, as he was acknowledged for being the commentator par excellence on Aristotle.

Under his Latin name Averroës, he continued for many centuries to be read in Latin as the principal authority on Aristotle. A movement grew in “Christian Europe” called “radical Averroëism”, which based itself on some of his arguments and posited for a radical split between religion and reason. This provided the grounds for those who argued that he led the way to the tendency of the European Renaissance itself and the later Enlightenment to depose traditional religion and elevate reason. Although difficult to affirm such a leap, since so many other conditions were met to give rise to European Enlightenment, it certainly was true that he laid the groundwork for such a development. Undeniably, his genius was to think of clear approaches as to how religion and philosophy interpreted various concerns, and it was this principle that was felt to be so subversive and exciting in the Jewish and Christian intellectual worlds. After the 19th century, Arab and Muslim worlds’ intellectuals once again rediscovered him, as they grappled with the fundamental quest for individual liberty while channelling such quests through scriptures.


Dr Joseph A. Kéchichian is an author, most recently of Faysal: Saudi Arabia’s King for All Seasons (2008).