By Habeeb Salloum
Abd al-Wald Muhammad Ibn Rushd, better known in the West as Averroes, but also
in medieval times as AvÈn Ruiz and Averrhoes, was born in 1126 A.D. in Cordova,
once the illustrious capital of Moorish Spain. The descendant of a distinguished
Cordovan family of scholars, he was the third generation of his lineage to hold
the office of Qadi (judge). One of the foremost figures of Arab civilization, he
became known as the 'Prince of Science - the master of jurisprudence,
mathematics, medicine and, above all, philosophy.
The twelfth century produced some of the most outstanding scholars of Al-Andalus
(Muslim Spain), like the neo-Aristotelian school developed by Avempace (Ibn
Bajja), Ibn Tufayl and Maimonides (Ibn Maymšn) which was to have considerable
influence on Christian Europe. However, Ibn Rushd, who it is said never missed
reading or writing except the day he married and the day his father died, in
medieval intellectual thought, was to overshadow them all.
In the Middle Ages, his ideas influenced the transformation of thought in
medieval Europe. The last of the great Muslim thinkers, his beliefs were to have
an affect of the minds of many of the Middle Ages intellectuals, living well
beyond the borders of Moorish Spain.
As was the practise of the well-known families in his time, Ibn Rushd acquired
his education within the family, excelling in Qur'anic studies, jurisprudence,
theology and tradition. In addition, he became versed in astronomy, literature,
mathematics, music and zoology, but his most outstanding accomplishments were in
the areas of medicine and philosophy.
Ibn Rushd owes much of his success in life to his ardour for learning and to
patronage by the two enlightened Almohade, (the ruling dynasty 1145-1269 A.D.)
caliphs Abš Ya'qšb Yusšf (1163-1184) and Abš Ya'qšb al-Mansšr (1184-1199). Under
their rule, toleration and friendship were generally experienced by
intellectuals in contrast to the hostility to philosophy by the Almoravides,
1056-1145 A.D., and the Malikite school in Islam which was the main intellectual
faction of Islamic thought in Al-Andalus.
After appointing Ibn Rushd in 1169 as Qadi in Seville, the Almohade Caliph Abš
Ya'qšb, two years later, brought him to Cordova and, bestowing on him favours
and honours, made him chief judge and his personal physician. Under his
sponsorship, Ibn Rushd took on the task of commenting on Aristotle works. From
their first meeting, arranged by their free-thinking companion Ibn Tufayl, Ibn
Rushd and Abš Ya'qšb became great friends. Livermore writes describing this
Averroes, the great reviewer of Islamic thought, tells how, on first being
presented to Abš Ya'qšb, he found him alone with Ibn Tufayl and 'after a few
friendly enquiries about my family, the Emir suddenly asked my opinion about the
nature of Heaven and Creationí. Aware of the narrow views of the faqihs,
Averroes cautiously replied that he had not given much thought to these matters,
whereupon Abš Ya'qšb opened the discussion by stating the opinions of Plato and
Thereafter in private, Ibn Rushd was able to discuss Greek philosophy freely
with Abš Ya'qšb who encouraged him to write his commentaries on the works of
Early in his life Ibn Rushd greatly admired Aristotle and considered him a giant
who had attained the truth. He regarded Aristotle as embodying the highest
development of the human intellect. It is said that Ibn Rushd understood, and
interpreted and analytically discussed Aristotle true thoughts more than any of
his Muslim predecessors or contemporaries.
Ibn Rushd maintained that the deepest truths must be approached by means of
rational analysis and that philosophy could lead to the final truth. He accepted
revelation and attempted to harmonize religion with philosophy without
synthesizing them or obliterating their differences. He believed that the Qur'an
contained the highest truth while maintaining that its words should not be taken
literally. He argued that as the milk-sister of religion, philosophy confirms
and does not contradict the shari'ah (revelation).
To Ibn Rushd, the supremacy of the human intellect did not allow for the
possible contradiction between science and revelation. He gives religion an
important role in the life of the state, considering that the scriptures when
philosophically understood are far more superior to the religion of pure reason.
Striving to bring the two together, he wrote that in case of differences,
provided scriptural language does not violate the principles of reason, that is,
it does not commit a contradiction, science should give way.
Ibn Rushd is also noted for developing a theory of the intellect, which greatly
influenced the history of Aristotelian scholarship. Many Aristotelian scholars,
past and present, believe that it represents a correct understanding of
Aristotle. It, however, goes beyond Aristotle and is rightly identified with Ibn
Rushd. The theory is difficult and there has been controversy in interpreting
it. It has been understood, in a general way, to mean that he envisaged the
human soul as part of an all-embracing divine soul. Like a number of others in
his time, he attempted to draw a picture of the ultimate truth by a mixture of
analytical arguments and innate intuition derived from man's participation in
the world soul.
He contended that philosophy is nothing more the systematic probing into the
phenomenon of creation, revealing God's wisdom and might. Hence, revelation
dictates the study of philosophy. Ibn Rushd tried to reconcile the Aristotelian
precept of the eternity, which seemingly denied the creation of the world, to
the creationism in Jewish, Christian and Muslim theology.
Ibn Rushd believed that God was timeless and His creative effort is continuous.
He theorized that the world is continuously developing on what existed before
and taking on new shape. According to Ibn Rushd, God created time as well as the
world, and He may have created it from all eternity inasmuch as He is Himself
Chejne explains further some of Ibn Rushd's ideas. He writes:
To Averroes, the world has been moving from eternity and has an Eternal Mover (Muharrik),
which is God. Matter and form are inseparable except in the mind; there is a
hierarchy of existing beings and forms. Matter is always in motion, whereas the
intellect is motionless and perceives itself. The soul is one in all men, but is
maintained separately by bodies, and its relation to the body is like the
relation between form and matter.
Better still, the views of Ibn Rushd are best expressed by himself:
The world and its workings were necessary and invariable because God Himself, by
definition, had to be and did not change. Informed by the active intelligence of
the deity, they could be scarcely be otherwise. The fantastic flight of the mind
into a realm of the ultimate, immaterial reality was thereby arrested. A world
which had to be could not be at the bottom of the scale of being. The qualities
which were the laws of its nature were realized in the physical objects they
found from the matter of the elements. Seen by the eye as fleeting individual
shapes, perceived by the intellect as permanent generalizations, they remained
locked into these things as the stamp of the die in the metal was locked in an
Almohad coin. Here lay knowledge, for the mind, being itself a necessary part of
the natural order, could be absolutely sure of its logic was that of creation,
and that it could in consequence learn the final truth. The disclosures of
revelation, the highest secrets of God, were susceptible to rational
explanation. In a law-abiding universe, that was as much an article of faith as
the converse, that rational explanation must be believed.
On the other hand, Ibn Rushd believed that the words of God express truth in
imaged symbolic language that the non-philosopher majority can understand.
Aware of the inconsistency between those who believed through religious faith
and others who believed by use of reason, Ibn Rushd held that both philosophy
and revealed religion were true, arguing that truth is comprehended on different
levels. He contended that even if philosophers were mistaken in their
interpretation of scriptures, their error is permissible.
One of the greatest exponent of Arab philosophy, he tried to modify
philosophical ideas to harmonize with those of religion. In an essay, The
Harmony of Religions and Philosophy, he asserts that since philosophy is true
and the revealed scriptures are true there can be no disharmony between them.
Ibn Rushd proposed a dual method of expounding theology, one for intellectuals
and another for the masses in general. Further, he wrote that Muslim leaders
should prohibit books of religious science for those not versed in these works.
To him, the holy texts are clothed in perceivable images and their truths can be
reached by exercising the process of thought. His views, in the intellectual
world of medieval Christendom, earned him the undeserved reputation of having
preached a 'double truth, a theory which he did not teach, namely 'a proposition
may be true in theology while its opposite is true in philosophy. Ibn Rushd
explains that there are three types of men: the first and largest in number, is
receptive to ideas that can be expressed logically; the second is amenable to
persuasion and the third, few in numbers, will only be convinced by conclusive
evidence. He believed that to the simple masses, one must speak of religion, but
to the enlightened few one may disclose scientific truth.
In his daily life Ibn Rushd did not like power or possessions and was humble and
generous, believing that a virtuous person is one who gives to an enemy. A
compassionate and tender human being, he decried the position of women in
society, who he said only lived for childbearing and suckling. Moved to
compassion for their misery, he wrote that women were so reduced in servitude
that all their capacity for higher pursuits had been destroyed. He was saddened
by their fate, stating that they only live like plants, looking after their men.
This compelled him to write:
ìOur 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 our cities, for women outnumber men by more than double and cannot
procure the necessities of life by their own labours.
Besides writing some 38 philosophical works, Ibn Rushd's works spanned a wide
field of knowledge which included: a commentary on Galen's writings; and books
in connection with astronomy, music, poetry and rhetoric. He was also a
distinguished physician, having studied medicine in Seville under the famous
physician, Abš Harun al-Tajali. His writings included 16 excellent medical
works, topped by Kulliyat fël-tibb, a medical encyclopedia of seven volumes
dealing with anatomy, diagnosis, materia medica, pathology, physiology and
The volumes were translated, in 1255 A.D., into Latin under the title Colliget.
This work was reprinted several times and surpassed all other medical works in
the Middle Ages. As a memorial, Ibn Rushd's statues have been placed in the
vestibule of the University of Barcelona and along the ancient walls in the city
In the Muslim world, Ibn Rushd is known, above all, for his Tah’fut al-Tah’fut
al-Fal’sifa (The Collapse of Collapse of the Philosophers) and Mab’di
ël-Fal’sifah) (The Beginning of Philosophy). In Tah’fut al-Tah’fut,
al-Fal’sifah, Ibn Rushd bitterly attacked Al-Ghaz’lÓís - Tah’fut al-Fal’sifah
(Self Destruction of the Philosophers), a work in which the l2th century
theologian Al-Ghaz’ali sought a strengthening of piety by attacking the
Ibn Rushd, point by point, discussed the error in Al-Ghazali's approach. He
asserted that the evidence brought out by Al-Ghazali's attack on philosophers
arise when isolated parts of philosophy are taken out of context, appearing to
contradict the remainder. He goes on to say that the only acceptable way would
be to show the entire system in question contradicting reality as it is.
In the Christian and Jewish worlds, Ibn Rushd is renowned for his important
commentaries on Aristotle; and in his works, namely Talkh's (resume), J’mi'
(summary), and Tafsir or Sharh (a long commentary). These had an important hand
in paving the way for the European Renaissance. Strange as it may seem, even
though Ibn Rushd's Great Commentary left a deep impression on western students
and caused an absolute upheaval in the West, it had hardly any effect on eastern
Islamic thought. Many of his commentaries have been lost. The only ones which
still exist are a number of his translated works which have survived in Latin.
Yet, even these few give us an idea of how outstanding were the thoughts of that
renowned Muslim philosopher.
When, in 1184, Al-Mansur took over as caliph, like his father, he kept Ibn Rushd
as his physician and advisor. In the same fashion as he had with Abd Yaqub
Yusuf, Ibn Rushd enjoyed great favour with the new caliph who always called him
brother and gave him in marriage to one of his daughters.
In the ensuing years, Ibn Rushd was prolific in his literary output. The upper
classes appreciated his controversial writings, but to the masses he was an
enemy. He came under attack by fundamentalists for his vigorous defence in
reconciling the tradition of Greek philosophy with the teachings of Islam. His
views were so offensive to the zealots that once they had him stoned in the
Great Mosque of Cordova. 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.
Even though Al-Mansur was an enlightened ruler, seeing the dangers facing Islam
and wishing to appease the conservative scholars, he accused Ibn Rushd of heresy
and ordered the burning of some of his books. He needed the support of the
Malikite jurists in his fight against the Castilians. To maintain appearance,
Al-Mansur had to remove Ibn Rushd from his post as Qadi and exile him for a time
from his court in Marrakesh to Al-Isalah, now known as Lucena, near Cordova.
However, another story has it that Ibn Rushd, in one of his works on zoology,
referred to Al-Mansur as 'King of the Barbers - a derogatory expression among
the Arabs in Muslim Spain. This is supposed to have greatly displeased the
caliph and was the reason for his exile.
After Al-Mansur, in 1195, won the Battle of Alarcos, Muslim Spain relaxed and
fanaticism subsided. Ibn Rushd was pardoned, but he was by this time utterly
disillusioned. He returned, a short time before he passed away on December 10,
1198, to once again serve in the caliph's court.
Nevertheless, his death did not sweep away his ideas. In the subsequent
centuries, they were to ignite the fire of change in Christian Europe. It was
through the translations of Ibn Rushd's Commentaries on Aristotle into Latin in
the 13th century by Michael Scotus, a Scot, and Hermannus Alemannus, a German,
that the revival of true Aristotelianism took place in the West. In fact, Roger
Bacon acknowledged that Scotus was largely responsible for the most important
change in the history of medieval thought which resulted from the introduction
of Ibn Rushd's Aristotle to the Christian West. Through these translations of
Ibn Rushd's works, the subject of harmony between reason and faith was passed on
to Christian Europe, giving impetus to the development of rationalism. This new
thought moving into Christian Europe, bringing about the West's emancipation
from the thoughts of Plato which was much less evident in the Muslim East.
In the previous centuries, before Ibn Rushd, there was much confusion among
Muslim thinkers in understanding Aristotle and, hence, a good number distorted
his thoughts. More than any other Muslim philosopher before him, Ibn Rushd was
able to recover the genuine Aristotle which the West, by way of the
translations, was later to discover. In the ensuing centuries Ibn Rushd's works
were taught in the universities of Christian Europe, unleashing a movement in
the West that led to the victory of Aristotelian ideas over the once prevailing
Platonic thought. Through his commentaries on the works of Aristotle Ibn Rushd,
now known in the West as Averroes, played a leading role in the revival and
development of Christian scholasticism.
In spite of the fact that many Muslim scholars found his approach too
rationalistic, his writings were a mine of ideas and information for Christian
philosophers, creating turmoil in the minds of many medieval European
intellectuals. For four centuries - from the 12th to the 16th - his works were
subject to heated dialogue among the scholars in Christian Europe, forcing the
Church to modify its teachings.
From among the medieval Latin religious literature, St. Thomas Aquinas's Summa
Theologia was to a great extent inspired by the views of Averroes, even though
it also took issue with some of these views. Many of the free-thinking
Latin-Christians of Europe felt him to be one of their own, even Hispanizing his
name to AvÈn Ruiz. However, his commentaries held views unacceptable to Orthodox
Christians and caused much perplexity for these traditional Christians since
many of Averroes's theories ran counter to the hallowed teachings of the Church.
Yet, his views had a very profound effect on medieval Christian theology.
On the other hand, a number of Christians studied his works solely to comment on
his errors. Some, like Arnold of Vila Nova (1240-1311), decried the reliance of
Christian thoughts upon infidel teachings and, in order to defeat them, openly
altered Ibn Rushd's ideas. At about the same time, a group of scholars, in the
13th century, known as Averroists, whose principal exponent was Siger of
Brabant, openly declared themselves as adherents of Averroes, incurring the fury
of the Church leaders.
Also, a number of European scholars misunderstood some of his teachings and this
led to a line of thought called 'Averroismí which was once thought to mean that
philosophy was true and revealed religion false. This Averroism was discredited
by Aquinas, but which, also, Averroes himself would have disavowed. This false
interpretation of Ibn Rushd's doctrine was considered as sacrilegious by the
Church and universally denounced by its leaders. Yet, the Averroist conception
of the eternity of matter and God's communication with things through the medium
of an active intellect, continued to be a vital factor in European belief until
the dawn of modern experimental science. Averroes and Averroism, for hundreds of
years, provoked intense arguments in the academic circles of Christian Europe.
Although the Islamic and Arab world were to see other great thinkers (Ibn
Khaldun, d. 1406, Mulla Sadr, d. 1641, for example), Averroes remains one of the
greatest of the Islamic philosophers. He became known in both East and West as
the Sha'ri (the Commentator) because of his explanation and comments on the
works of Aristotle. The most genuine and last of all the Aristotelian
philosophers, his ideas affected much of the philosophical and theological ideas
in medieval Europe, strangely with the exception of the Christians in the
Endowed with powerful logic, a keen understanding and an sharp mind, he believed
in the ability of reason to fathom the utmost secrets of the universe. However,
he came too late to bring about any revival of philosophy in the eastern Islamic
countries - there, the theories of Al-Ghazali, whose books were banned in
Al-Andalus by the Almoravides, were to reign supreme. With Averroes, philosophy
reached its epitome in Muslim Spain. But his ideas were far too advanced for the
world of his time. The sophistication of his teachings can be seen by the ease
with which his thoughts and interpretations can be adapted to include even the
notion of evolution. A convinced Aristotelian, his admiration of Aristotle never
wavered all through his literary career. One must agree with Read when he
The great virtue of Averroes work was that he did not allow later thinkers to
obscure the original; deeply imbued by Aristotle's thought, he transmitted his
writings for the first time in genuinely Aristotelian fashion.
With the passing away of what some historians say was the most eminent
philosopher who wrote in Arabic, the long practised toleration of the Muslims in
the Iberian Peninsula came to an end. Yet, thanks to Averroes, the seeds of the
Renaissance were sown in Europe.
Islam21 Publications -