Ibn Rushd

Background

Avveroes Paintaing

Abū 'l-Walīd Muḥammad ibn Aḥmad ibn Rushd, more well known as Ibn Rushd (in Arabic) Averroës (the Latinate version) was born in Cordoba, in what is now Spain, in 1126. He lived between this city and Marrakech, in what is now in Morocco, where he died on December 10, 1198. A Muslim Andalusian philosopher, physician and polymath [1], he possessed a broad knowledge of philosophy, theology, Maliki law, astronomy, geography, mathematics, medicine, physics, psychology and science [2]. Ibn Rushd is seen as the last and most influential Muslim philosopher. He lived at a time when interest in philosophy and theology was diminishing in the Muslim world, but increasing in Western Europe. He is famous for laying the foundations of secular thought and establishing the school of philosophy known as Averroism [3].

Life

Ibn Rushd was born into a family of important Maliki legal scholars; both his father and grandfather held the position of chief judge under the Almoravid dynasty.
A key influence in Ibn Rushd's formative years was Ibn Tufail, an Arabic philosopher, novelist and physician. It was he who introduced Ibn Rushd to the court and the Caliph Abu Yaqub Yusuf, to whom he became chief physician in 1182 [4]. Ibn Tufail was also responsible for inspiring the Caliph to commission Ibn Rushd to write his commentaries on Aristotle, because he found the Greek texts a struggle [5].

In 1160 Ibn Rushd became Qadi (a judge ruling in accordance with sharia law) of Seville, following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather. During Ibn Rushd's lifetime his political career spanned the courts of Morocco, Seville and Cordoba. However his public life came to an end when he was banished by the Caliph to Lucena, a mainly Jewish village outside Cordoba. His writings were also banned and his books burned, due to public worries about his orthodoxy. From this point, Ibn Rushd became fully focused on his philosophy and other studies. He was allowed to return to Cordoba after two years, but he died within a year of his return [6].

Philosophy

Ibn Rushd is most famous for translations of and commentaries on most of Aristotle's surviving texts, basing his work on Arabic translations. These commentaries were on three levels, whose names are taken from those of different forms of commentary on the Qur'an. They range from the Jami, or simple overview, to the Talkhis, a more in-depth study that included criticism, to the Tafsir, a sophisticated commentary that situated Aristotle's ideas in a Muslim context. Only one or two commentaries on each work survive and it is unknown whether an entire set of three commentaries was written on each. Ibn Rushd did not have a copy of Aristotle's Politics, so instead he wrote a commentary on Plato's Republic, claiming that the ideal state represented in this text matched the original Arabic constitution. His translations were later themselves translated into Latin in the 12th century, thus he was important in helping knowledge of Aristotle develop in the Western world.

Ibn Rushd's major original philosophical work was The Incoherence of the Incoherence (Tahafut al-tahafut). This text challenged the views of al-Ghazali in The Incoherence of the Philosophers (Tahafut al-falasifa), who stated that Aristotle's writings were both self-contradictory and offensive to Islam.

Another key philosophical work of Ibn Rushd was the Fasl al-Maqal (The Decisive Treatise), in which he proposed that philosophical investigation should be legal under Islamic law. It is for this work in particular that he is seen as important in laying the foundations of modern secularism [7]. Ibn Rushd argued that philosophy and religion are simply different ways of reaching the same truth and they are not incompatible. He went on to state that the truth deriving from philosophy can only be studied by a special few who are intellectually capable, whilst the truth gained from religion cannot be tested, as it is based in faith.

Works in other fields

Ibn Rushd was a well-renowned Maliki legal scholar, like his father and grandfather. His principal contribution in this field was the Bidāyat al-Mujtahid wa Nihāyat al-Muqtaṣidا, a comparative textbook of Maliki doctrine.

He was also interested in medicine and wrote a medical encyclopedia, Kulliyat, (Generalities), which became one of the most widely used medical textbooks throughout the Jewish, Christian and Muslim worlds for many centuries [8]. He supported the practice of dissection, believing that it ‘strengthens the faith' because the human body is 'the remarkable handiwork of God in his creation' [9]. Ibn Rushd was among the first to prescribe medication for the treatment of sexual and erectile dysfunction [10] and to suggest the existence of Parkinson's disease and he made several discoveries about the eye [11].

Ibn Rushd also produced writings on astronomy, in which he argued, among other things, that the moon is opaque and obscure, with some parts thicker than others, that receive more light from the Sun [12]. Meanwhile in physics, he came up with some of the first key ideas about forces and was the first to introduce the idea that bodies have a natural resistance to motion, a concept later termed ‘inertia' by the German Johannes Kepler [13]. His work in physics laid important foundations for the later work of Isaac Newton.

Influence

"Averroes was great because of the tremendous stir he made in the minds of men for centuries. A history of Averroism would include up to the end of the sixteenth-century, a period of four centuries which would perhaps deserve as much as any other to be called the Middle Ages, for it was the real transition between ancient and modern methods."[14]

Ibn Rushd Statue, Cordoba

Ibn Rushd has had a wide-ranging impact on philosophy, not just in the Islamic world but also, through Hebrew translations of his work, on Jewish philosophy. He was also very influential on Christian thought; for example, on the work of Thomas Aquinas, who believed him to be so important that he simply referred to him as ‘The Commentator', just as Aristotle, whom Ibn Rushd played a major role in rediscovering, was known simply as 'The Philosopher.' Ibn Rushd is also named by Dante in The Divine Comedy as 'he who made the great commentary.' He appears in many literary works, including a short story by Jorge Luis Borges, the novel Ulysses by James Joyce and Alamgir Hashmi's poem 'In Cordoba.'

 

[1] A person of broad knowledge or learning (Oxford Concise Dictionary) – other examples include Leonardo da Vinci and Archimedes.
[2] Majid Fakhry Averroes: His Life, Works and Influence. Oxford: Oneworld Publications 2001
[3] Internet Encyclopedia of Philsophy, Ibn Rushd
[4] Islamic Philosophy Online, Ibn Rushd
[5] Ibid.

[6] Internet Encyclopedia of Philsophy, Ibn Rushd
[7] The idea that government should be separate from religion - see: Internet Encyclopedia of Philsophy, Ibn Rushd
[8] Dr Albert Zaki Iskandar, 'Ibn ul-Nafees has Dissected the Human Body.' Encyclopedia of Islamic World
[9] A. Al Dayela and N. al-Zuhair, 'Single drug therapy in the treatment of male sexual/erectile dysfunction in Islamic medicine.' Urology 2006, 68 (1), p. 253-254.
[10] David C. Lindberg Theories of Vision from Al-kindi to Kepler. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981 p. 238
[11] Roger Ariew 'Theory of Comets at Paris During the Seventeenth Century,' Journal of the History of Ideas, 1992, 53 (3), p. 355-372
[12] Sorabji Matter,Space and Motion. 1988, p284 (reference from Wikipedia article on Ibn Rushd)
[14] George Sarton Introduction to the History of Science. Krieger, 1975.

Picture 1: Ibn Rushd, Wikipedia

Picture 2: Ibn Rushd (Averroes), by Vakas, Wikipedia

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Averroes - the last and most influential Muslim philosopher?