Great Ibn Rushd (latinized Averroes)


Averroes in “The School of Athens” (detail), by Raffaello Sanzio, 1509


In his book al-Kashf ‘an Manahij al-Adilla, Ibn Rushd (1126-1198) argues that the theologians, in general, and the Ash’arites, in particular, used the presumed superiority of their arguments for the existence of God to exercise unjustified power over the lives of the Muslim community.

In his famous book Fasl al-Maqal [“On the Harmony of Religion and Philosophy”], which he published after Tahafut al-Tahafut [“The Incoherence of the Incoherence”] against Al-Ghazali’s Tahafut al-Falasifa, Ibn Rushd advocates philosophy, aiming to allay the fears of the theologians who believed that it leads to pernicious and injurious effects on religious people:

«Thus people in relation to Scripture fall into three classes:
– One class is those who are not people of interpretation at all: these are the rhetorical class. They are the overwhelming mass, for no man of sound intellect is exempted from this kind of assent.
– Another class is the people of dialectical interpretation: …these are the dialecticians, either by nature alone or by nature and habit.
– Another class is the people of certain interpretation: these are the demonstrative class, by nature and training, i.e. in the art of philosophy. This interpretation ought not to be expressed to the dialectical class, let alone to the masses» – Kitab Fasl al-Maqal.

Al-Kashf ‘an Manahij al-Adilla fi ‘Aqaid al-Milla [“Exposition of the Methods of Proof Concerning the Beliefs of the Community”] is a sequel to al-Fasl and the two constitute along with the Damima [“Attachment”], a trilogy on the theme. In it, Ibn Rushd criticizes all schools of theology prevalent in his days. He does so in the name of reason, maintaining that any position or interpretation of Qur’anic verses that cannot withstand the scrutiny of reason is not worth holding; it is even dangerous to accept. Worse still, it is not worth imposing on the unsuspecting ordinary people by force, albeit in the name of God and the law.

According to Ibn Rushd, the theologians or al-Mutakallimun have interpreted the Scripture in a way that gave them sway over the believers’ minds and lives. The Mutakallimun defined true belief and heresy, thereby setting the ground for defining the true Muslim and exercising a tremendous influence on the political life of the Muslim community. They monopolized the access to the true faith and ostracized “whoever disagrees with them as heretics and unbelievers whose blood and property are free for all”. This uncompromising stand was cause, in Ibn Rushd’s view, of much of the bloodletting and infighting that befell the religious community. By criticizing the theologians’ positions and challenging their monopoly in setting the religious, moral and political standards of the Muslim community, Ibn Rushd hopes to undercut their political influence and absolve the common people from the obligation to follow them.

However, despite his best intentions and reassuring phrases in al-Kashf, Ibn Rushd’s criticisms were bound to raise dust and led instead to undermining his own standing in the community. His books were publicly burnt, the teaching of his philosophy was banned throughout the realm of the Western Arab Caliphate and he himself was banished from his hometown in Cordova.[6]

Ibn Rushd identifies four schools, sects or groups in Muslim theology or ‘Ilm al-Kalam, writing that “the most famous of these sects in our time are four: (1) The sect called the Ash’arite, which is believed by most people of our day to be the orthodox, (2) that which is called the Mu’atazilite, (3) the group which is known as the Batinis [Ibn Rushd identifies the Batinis with the sufis] and (4) the one called the literalist.”[9] 

He dismisses the Literalists because they suspend altogether the role of reason and adhere blindly to the apparent meaning of religion; their “method of knowing the existence of God Almighty, is by way of report not reason.”

According to Ibn Rushd, reason cannot be excluded from the methods of knowing God, because this is the most universal and common way open for mankind.

All human beings are capable of knowing God through reason, and the Qur’an cites numerous arguments to this effect. However, if due to certain natural or physical impediments or misfortunes, some people could not understand the religious arguments, they would constitute a rare exception and “they would be required to believe in God by way of report.”

The majority of people or al-Jumhur are capable of reasoning and understanding rational arguments, provided such arguments are presented to them in simple and straightforward way. Once arguments become complicated and longwinded, only those schooled in logic and philosophy are able to follow them.

Contrary to the Literalists, the Ash’arites have appealed to reason in defending our knowledge of God and Ibn Rushd lauds them for their rational perspective. But he faults them because they were led to this position via arguments that are not demonstrable. The outcome of Ibn Rushd’s criticisms of the Ash’arites’ supposition that what is created necessarily requires an Agent is that it involves logical difficulties that not only the Ash’arite theologians cannot answer, but the craft of dialectics itself cannot resolve adequately. Having shown that the supposition that the world is necessarily created by God is untenable on the Ash’arites’ premises, he argues that the ordinary people are not equipped to understand their reasoning, which is also furthest from the methods used by the Scripture.

Religion approaches the understanding of the common people in a simple and straightforward way. It does not resort to complicated and abstruse arguments that they cannot understand. Both the ordinary people in the Muslim community and the philosophers are justified in rejecting the Ash’arites’ abstruse arguments for the existence of God.

Being a thorough Aristotelian, Ibn Rushd asks “what wisdom would there have been in man, if all his actions and activities were to result from any organ whatsoever, or even without any organ, such that seeing could result, for example, from the ear just as it results from the eye, and the smell from the eye exactly as it results from the nose? All this negates wisdom and destroys the meaning by means of which He called Himself wise.”

To Ibn Rushd, the irony with the Ash’arites’ position, including Abu al-Ma’ali’s, is that they appear rational verbally when in fact they avoid to pursue vigorously a sufficiently rational course of explanation. The end result is that they espouse positions on the creation of the world and our knowledge of God’s existence, based on assumptions that lead to the repudiation of reason, God’s prized gift to humanity. Accordingly, the Ash’arites’ methods for knowing God are not reliable and the common people should not follow them, because in following them they all go astray.

After examining the arguments of the four different theological groups regarding the creation of the world and our knowledge of God’s existence, Ibn Rushd concludes that those arguments are very far from being conclusive and authoritative for legitimizing their doctrinal hegemony over the common people and setting the grounds for orthodoxy. Ibn Rushd criticized the theologians’ arguments for the existence of God in order to expose the logical defects involved in such arguments and deprive the theologians from the theoretical and religious justifications for their political influence in the Muslim community.

He proceeds to offer his own arguments for the creation of the world and our knowledge of God’s existence. According to him, our knowledge of the world leads us to know the existence of God.

In Tahafut al-Tahafut, he writes: «Individuation does not proceed from understanding, but from sensibility

The arguments that convince people of God’s existence are universal and simple and are two in number: the argument from design or providence (Dalil al-‘Inaya) and the argument from invention or creation (Dalil al-Ikhtira’).

The argument from design states that everything exists for a purpose, while the argument from invention states that things are invented or created, like the invention of life from matter. In defending the first argument, Ibn Rushd points to two principles: one stating that all things or existing beings are conducive to man’s existence and the other that this “conduciveness is necessarily predicated on an Agent intending and willing it [Fa’ilun qasid wa murid], because it is not possible that this conduciveness results from coincidence.” Ibn Rushd cites many examples to prove that what exists is conducive to man’s existence beginning with the cycles of nature to the presence of natural phenomena and animal and plant species necessary for man’s well-being.

The argument from invention is based on the observation of life issuing from material bodies and leading us to “know for certain that there is here a producer of life and a provider of it and that is God the Almighty.”

According to Ibn Rushd, philosophers and common people alike arrive at the knowledge of God through these two arguments. The philosophers and the common people alike, then, know of God’s existence through the created beings, but the knowledge of the philosophers is more sophisticated and complex, and the full extent of it remains beyond the comprehension of the ordinary people. “The difference between the two ways lies in the details, that is, the common people know of the design and invention of what can be known through primitive knowledge that is based on sense perception. But the scientists go further to know what can be perceived rationally on the basis of proofs … and the scientists do not reveal a greater understanding of these two arguments except in the manner of greater detail and more depth in the knowledge of the selfsame thing.”

However, there are some philosophers who do not believe in the existence of God and dismiss any form of argument that purports to prove the existence of God. Ibn Rushd concedes that some pre-socratic naturalists, who are known in Arab philosophy as al-Dahriyun, did not believe in God and they would reject his two arguments for the existence of God. However, this concession does not undermine the validity of these arguments because he did not claim that they constitute a demonstrative proof for the existence of God.

The arguments from invention and design do not lead us to necessarily infer the existence of God from the creation of the world. Given his view of human beings and their rational capacities as thinking beings and the limitations of inductive inference, Ibn Rushd believes that it is not unreasonable to infer from the existence of design and invention in the world the existence of an Inventor or Creator for it who is God. Ibn Rushd maintains that this is the utmost that we, as thinking beings, can reach. This line of argument is not demonstrable in the sense that it is logically necessary, but it is based on the knowledge of ourselves as rational beings and the principles of induction that we employ in knowing the world.

Ibn Rushd accepts the existence of two worlds: the world of nature or sense, which is based on experience and is finite, and the unseen world, which is infinite and is unlike anything we know, it is sui generis.

Any proof that can be offered regarding the latter world, based on the knowledge of the former, ought to be accepted guardedly: that is, those who accept the existence of God as Artisan, Creator or Originator of the world cannot do so with deductive certainty. Accordingly, we ought to be tolerant of those who, on philosophical grounds, disagree with us, since the proofs that apply to this world do not necessarily apply to the other.

Given this position, Ibn Rushd denies the naturalists’ conclusion that attributes design in the world of sense to coincidence, arguing that, based on our knowledge, as rational beings, experience justifies us in attributing the design we find in it to God. He writes: “if a person were to see a stone somewhere on earth and find it conducive to being sat on, in a certain position, and of a certain size too, he would realize that this [stone] must have been made in such a form and size by a maker who put it in that place. But when [that person] does not see it conducive to being sat upon, he would realize that its being in that place with a certain quality is due to coincidence and would not attribute a maker to it.”

According to Ibn Rushd, the world constitutes an organic unity and the organization of its parts and details could not have resulted from coincidence, but rather from an intentional Agent or Artisan, who is God. Existing things in the world are interconnected and are related to each other by causal laws.

Ibn Rushd buttresses his position by adding a principle of corruptibility, namely, that if any basic part were missing from this organic whole, life on earth would be seriously affected or jeopardized, the earth itself might even be destroyed altogether. For example, if the sun were closer to, or farther away from the earth than it actually is, then life would not be possible. So, since the world is an organic whole which is conducive to human life and since any substantial change in its organic constitution might lead to the corruption or destruction of the whole, then the world does not result from coincidence but from an intending and willing Agent.

Duns Scotus refers that Ibn Rushd’s «fantastic conception, intelligible neither to himself nor to others, assumes the intellective part of man to be a sort of separate substance united to man through the medium of sense images». The Christian calls the Islamic thinker «nothing more than an irrational animal which excels the other animals by reason of an irrational sensitive soul that is more excellent than others souls» (Scotus, “The Spirituality and Immortality of the Human Soul”).

In his daily life, Ibn Rushd decried the position of women in society: 

“Our society allows no scope for the development of women’s talents. They seem to be destined exclusively to childbirth and the care of children, and this state of servility has destroyed their capacity for larger matters. It is thus that we see no women endowed with moral virtues; they live their lives like vegetables, devoting themselves to their husbands. From this stems the misery that pervades in our cities, for women outnumber men by more than double and cannot procure the necessities of life by their own labours.” 

Referring to fanatics destroying a famous library in Cordova, Ibn Rushd is reported to have exclaimed, “There is no tyranny on earth like the tyranny of priests.” 

Averroes is mainly responsible for a kind of French Revolution, since his writings were adopted for teaching by a late thirteenth-century movement among Parisian philosophers whose views were not easily reconcilable with Christian doctrine. European scholastics, who had been heavily dependent on Platonism and Neo-Platonism, made a new acquaintance with Aristotle in the twelfth century, through Latin translations of the Arabic commentaries of Averroes (1126-1198). From about 1230 onwards, these commentaries exerted a powerful influence on Latin scholastics. Centering on Boetius of Dacia and Siger of Brabant (c. 1240 – c. 1284), the University of Paris (La Sorbonne was founded in 1257) became the center of this new ‘Heterodox Aristotelianism’ (labels from the nineteenth- and twentieth-century). The term Averroistae (followers of Averroes) began to be used around 1270. In 1277, the Bishop of Paris condemned 219 theses, including the concept of a shared intellect, and accused unnamed professors at the University of Paris of paying more attention to heathen philosophers than to Christian revelation. For example, a professor at the Sorbonne and an admirer of Aristotle, Master Simon of Tournai (1130-1201) proclaimed that «the Jews were seduced by Moses, the Christians by Jesus and the Gentiles by Mohammed» (“Collectio de scandalis ecclesiae”, Florence, 1931). This questioning of human religious leadership traces back to Abu Tahir (906-944), a Qarmatian that rejected Mohammedanism, by saying: “In this world, three individuals have corrupted mankind: a shepherd, a physician and a camel-driver. And this camel-driver was the worst pickpocket, the worst prestidigitator of the three”.

Adapted from here and other texts


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