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On religion and philosophy: Ibn Rushd and Rambam

Category: Religion

Posted at: 12:45 PM - 13 Nov 2008

In my Qur'an class, we've been reading Abu al-Walid Muhammad Ibn Ahmad Ibn Rushd (commonly called Ibn Rushd; also known as Averroes, a Latinate distortion of Ibn Rushd), specifically his "Decisive Treatise Determining What the Connection Is Between Religion and Philosophy."

Ibn Rushd was born in Cordoba, Spain, in 1126. He studied Islamic jurisprudence and dialectical theology. On the request of the amir Abu Ya'qub, who reigned in Morocco in the late 1100s, Ibn Rushd took on the task of rendering Aristotle's work in a way that would be intelligible within a Muslim framework. In 1182, Ibn Rushd took on the position of chief physician to Abu Ya'qub in Marrakesh; he was also engaged, during those years, in writing the Decisive Treatise, a fatwa which aimed to answer the question of "whether the study of philosophy and logic is allowed by the Law, or prohibited, or commanded -- either by way of recommendation or as obligatory."

Some of you may recall that I've been reading Rambam in my Codes class. Rambam (the name is an acronym for his Hebrew name, Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon; in Arabic he's known as Musa ibn Maymun, and in Greek as Maimonides) was a rabbi, physician, and philosopher. Like Ibn Rushd, he was born in Cordoba (in 1135), and like Ibn Rushd he later moved to Morocco. (Rambam also lived in Egypt.)

Both men were doctors. Both men were philosophers. Both men were religious leaders. And both men argued against the stance that philosophy (the science of the day) was incompatible with religious belief. On the contrary, they argued, the truths of reason and philosophy are entirely consonant with God's revelations to us. It is incumbent on us as people of faith to seek to know God, and one of the ways we seek to know God is through understanding God's creation using every tool available to us -- including philosophy.

(I'm not the first person to make this leap. Jacob Bender has a lovely essay about Rambam, Ibn Rushd, and Aquinas called Lessons from Three Wise Men: Averroes, Maimonides, Aquinas. So it's not a new connection, but it's a new one for me, and I think this is so cool.)

It is written in the Qur'an, "Reflect, you have vision." From this Ibn Rushd derives the understanding that the Law "render[s] obligatory the study of beings by the intellect." In other words: God gave us brains, and we're meant to use them. The Law, he says, urges us "to have demonstrative knowledge of God, the exalted, and all the beings of His creation." In order to do that, one needs science and philosophy -- even if they come from sources outside of Islam. That was something of a radical perspective in his age. (It's still a radical perspective in some communities today.)

Rambam's assertion that philosophy was appropriate for Jews to study was likewise somewhat radical, though real opposition to his teachings didn't arise until after his death. (So saith his MHL article.) Maimonides strove to reconcile Aristotelian philosophy and science with the teachings of the Torah. His Guide for the Perplexed (which can be found online in a slightly archaic translation here) is a meditation on Jewish thought and practice which aimed to resolve the tension between religious and secular knowledge. He held that there can be no contradiction between the divinely-revealed truths of Torah and the findings of the human mind in science and philosophy.

According to Maimonides, all of Jewish law aims at two things: the improvement of the body and the improvement of the soul. The former is in every case a means to the latter. The soul is improved by acquiring correct opinions and eventually knowledge on everything humans are capable of knowing. The more knowledge the soul acquires, the more it is able to fulfill the commandment (Deuteronomy 6:5) to love God. The biggest stumbling block to love of God is the belief that the only way to remain true to the Bible is to interpret it literally. The result of literal interpretation is a material conception of God, which, in Maimonides' opinion, amounts to idolatry.

 

(That's from his entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.) Ibn Rushd says something similar in the Decisive Treatise. He argues that demonstrative study leads to knowledge. If that knowledge doesn't conflict with the Qur'an, there's no problem. And if/when it does appear to conflict with something in the Qur'an, then there is a call for interpretation. "[W]henever the conclusion of a demonstration is in conflict with the apparent meaning of the Law," he writes, "that apparent meaning admits of interpretation according to the rules for such interpretation in Arabic. This proposition is questioned by no Muslim and doubted by no believer." And, he continues, everybody knows it is not obligatory either to read all of the Law literally, or to read none of the Law literally. A range of interpretation is always called-for, and needless literalism is a stumbling-block.

 

The reason why the Law came down containing both an apparent and an inner meaning lies in the diversity of people's natural capacities and the difference of their innate dispositions with regard to assent. The reason why the Law came down containing apparent meanings that contradict each other is in order to draw the attention of those who are well grounded in science to the interpretation that reconciles them.

 

It's clear that Rambam knew Ibn Rushd's work. "Maimonides set the tone of this Jewish approach to Averroes by affirming in his letter to Samuel Ibn Tibbon: 'Take care not to read Aristotle's books without the commentaries on them: those by Alexander (of Aphrodisias), those by Themistius, and those by Averroes." (Source: Influence of Arabic and Islamic Philosophy on Judaic Thought.)

 

I get the sense that both men shared a certain temperament, too, and a certain cautiousness about the dangers of propagating their teachings to a broad audience. Ibn Rushd writes, "When something of these interpretations is expressed to anyone unfit to receive them -- especially demonstrative interpretations because of their remoteness to common knowledge -- both he who expresses it and he to whom it is expressed are led into unbelief...Interpretations, then, ought not to be expressed to the multitude[.]" Rambam falls into a similar intellectual elitism from time to time. Take this, from the preface to the Guide:

 

The object of this treatise is to enlighten a religious man who has been trained to believe in the truth of our holy Law, who conscientiously fulfills his moral and religious duties, and at the same time has been successful in his philosophical studies. Human reason has attracted him to abide within its sphere; and he finds it difficult to accept as correct the teaching based on the literal interpretation of the Law, and especially that which he himself or others derived from those homonymous, metaphorical, or hybrid expressions. Hence he is lost in perplexity and anxiety.

 

He's writing for an educated audience, and I'm pretty sure he would agree with Ibn Rushd that this is heady material, not intended for the am ha-aretz or hoi polloi. I can only hope that as a humble rabbinic student I qualify to thumb these pages, and to share them in my own way with all of you!

Technorati tags: religion, Judaism, Islam, Rambam, IbnRushd.

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