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Averroes (1126-1198)

Medieval Spanish-Arab philosopher, physician, and
jurist of the Shariah law, who reintroduced
Aristotelian thought to Western Europe. After Latin
versions of Averroes' commentaries on Aristotle
started to circulate among scholars, the works of
the great Greek philosopher were rediscovered.
Averroes tried to unite Aristotle with religious
thinking. He argued that the teachings of Aristotle
are not in conflict with the Holy Law. "He gave to
Aristotle the sort of reverence that is given to the
founder of a religion," said Bertand Russell in A
History of Western Philosophy (1946). In the West
Averroes was a very important thinker, but in the
Islamic world his rationalist theology had little
influence until the nineteenth century.
"For it is evident from more than one verse in the
Book of God Almighty that He calls upon men to
believe in the existence of the Originator, glory be to
Him, through rational arguments detailed specifically
therein, such as the saying of the Almighty: "O
people, worship your Lord who has created you as
well as those who came before you"; and as the other
saying of the Almighty: "Is there any doubt about
Allah, Maker of the heavens and the earth?" in
addition to many other verses in the same vein." (in
Faith And Reason In Islam by Averroes, translated by
Ibrahim Najjar, Oneworld Publications Ltd, 2001)
Abu al-Walid ibn Ahmad ibn Rushd, know in Europe
as Averroes, was born in Crdova, the capital of
Muslim Spain, where he spent the most of his life. He
was a scion of a long line of religious judges and
statesmen in Andalusia. Following the traditions of
his family, Averroes was educated in Islamic law, but
also in Hellenistic sciences in their Arab form. Later
he served as the religious judge (qadi) of Seville
(1169-1172), and chief judge of Crdova (1172-1182).
The turning point in Averroes' career came in 1169.
His friend Ibn Tufayl, a physician and the author of
the philosophical allegory Hayy Ibn Yaqzan,
introduced him to the calip Abu Ya'qub Yusuf, who
was genuinely interested in philosophy. According to
the historian al-Marakushi, the caliph asked
Averroes, "What do the philosophers believe
regarding heaven? Is it eternal or created in time?"
Averroes feigned ignorance of philosophy, but Ibn
Tafayl recommended Averroes' talents as the
Commentator of Aristotle. Thus he was invited to
write his famous comments on the texts of the
philosopher in their Arabic translations. He often
produced short, medium, and long commentaries on
the same work. The short
commentaries he frequently peppered with insights
into contemporary issues.
"How wonderful is this man and how different is his
nature from human natures generally," Averroes
wrote on Aristotle in Kitab al-Qiyas. "It is as though
divine art brought him forth so as to inform us,
humans, that ultimate perfection is possible in the
human species perceptibly and demonstrably."
However, it is probable that he was not acquainted
with Greek and based his views on Syriac and Arabic
translations.
In 1182 Averroes succeeded Ibn Tufayl as royal
physician to caliph at the court of Marrakesh. The
caliph died a few years later. When his son Abu
Yusuf Ya'qub, nicknamed al-Mansur, succeeded his
father, Averroes continued to enjoy the royal
patronage until 1195 when he was tried as a heretic
by the religious community of Crdova. According to
some sources, Averroes had referred al-Mansur in
the Book of Animals as the "king of the Berbers" (al-
barbar), which could be read as Barbarians.
Averroes was banished in disgrace and many of his
works were burned. After a period of exile, he was
restored to grace and the edicts against him were
rescinded. Averroes died in 1198 in Marrakesh,
Morocco. With his death, Muslim philosophy in Spain
ended.
Even during his lifetime Averroes' philosophy was
considered controversial, but he had a great impact
on Western-European thought. Also his compendium
of medicine, al-Kulliyat (in Latin, Colliget) was used
for centuries. In Islamic lands, where orthodoxy and
al-Ghazali's intuitive and mystical sense of the Divine
won, Averroes' rationalism did not have following
and he has remained a marginal figure. Farah
Antun's translation of Ernest Rnan's (1823-1892)
historical essay Averros et l'Averrosme (1866, rev.
ed., 1882) revived interest in him; Averroes was seen
as the harbinger of an attempt to modernize Islam.
In his study of the life and philosophy of Averroes,
Antun represented him as a victim of religious
persecution.
During the Middle Ages, Islamic scholars preserved
ancient Greco-Roman learning. At the same time
Western scholars had almost completely forgotten
Aristotle and the great cultural legacy of the Greeks.
In Islamic Spain there were numerous important
libraries, and Christian scholars travelled south to
make use of these resources. Greek texts had been
translated into Arabic already after the Arab armies
marched into Syria and Iraq. Severus Sebokht, who
died in 667, wrote commentaries on the Rhetorica of
Aristotle in the Monophysite monastery of Qinnesrin
in northern Syria. Also Athanasius of Balad (d. 696)
and George, Bishop of the Arabs (d. 724) produced
commentaries and translations. Alexandria, the
most important center for the study of Greek
philosophy in the seventh century, fell in 641. Spain
was invaded and overwhelmed by Muslim army in
710-712. With its palaces, mosques and libraries,
Crdova became the most brilliant city in Europe.
After Greek and Arabic texts began to be translated
in great numbers, the writings of the great Arabic
philosophers, mostly importantly Avicenna (Ibn Sina,
980-1037) and Averroes, became available. They
also offered quite unfamiliar ideas. When Averroes'
works started to spread after 1230, they were
received with much enthusiasm and curiosity. Pope
Gregory IX ordered a commission to examine what
measures could be taken to permit Christians to
study books that were not allowed to be taught.
However, in the 1270s Siger of Brabant, Boethius of
Dacia, and Bernier of Nivelles were condemned for
Averroistic heresies at Paris. Dante was accused of
Averroism shortly after he died and his book, De
Monarchia, was burned by the order of Pope John
XXII.
From the thirteenth to mid-seventeenth centuries
scholars regularly read Aristotle with Averroes'
commentaries. In Raphael's celebrated fresco The
School of Athens (1510-11) in the Stanza della
Segnatura in the Vatican, the figure of Averroes is
found standing behind Pythagoras and looking over
his shoulder. And much later, Averroes' life inspired
the Egyptian film director Youssef Chahine's film
Destiny (1997), which warned of the dangers of
fundamentalism. The Argentinian writer Jorge Luis
Borges portaryed the scholar in 'Averros' Search'
(The Aleph, 1949) at work in his library, trying solve
the enigma of the words "tragedy" and "comedy".
Eventually he writes that tragedy means
"panegyric," and that comedy means "satire." Too
loyal to Islam, he cannot break circle of his own
culture.
One of Borges's sources was the French critic and
historian Ernest Rnan, who argued in Averros et
l'Averrosme (1852) that Averroes' paraphrase of the
Poetics of Aristotle evinces ignorance of Greek
Literature. Borges takes up the view: "Averros's
blunders in matters of Greek literature cannot but
make one smile. He imagines that tragedy is nothing
more than the art of encomium, comedy the art of
censure; he then claims to find tragedies and
comedies in the Arabic panegyrics and satires, and
even in the Koran!" Borges's story is a postmodern
fiction-about-fiction. At the end Averroes vanishes,
to give room to the voice of the author, who explains
that he tried to narrate the process of failure, but on
the last page he felt that "Averros, trying to
imagine what a play is without ever having
suspected what a theater is, was no more absurd
than I, trying to imagine Averres yet with no more
material than a few snatches from Renan, Lane, and
Asn Palacios."
Averroes' works include medical and astronomical
writings, commentaries, and judicial and conceptual
defenses of philosophy. As a physician he argued
that the most important aspects of preserving health
are a good digestion and a sound bowel-movement.
Fruits and herbs should be avoided. Averroes
became an authority among both Jews and
Christians, and his commentaries on Aristotle
influenced such theologians as Rabbi Moses ibn
Maimon (1135-1204), St. Thomas Aquinas, who
quoted him five hundred and three times, and Albert
the Great. Ibn Maimon declared himself to be a
disciple of a pupil of Ibn Bajja. Averroes'
commentaried he began to read in exile in Egypt.
Averroes opposed the Ash'arite theologians, led by
the great Muslim thinker Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (1058-
1111), whose onslaught on Greek-Arabic philosophy
is said to have signaled the death of philosophy in
the East. Al-Ghazali believed that it is impossible to
proof the existence of God rationally. As an answer
to al-Ghazali's Tahafut al-Falasifah (Incoherence of
the Philosophers) Averroes wrote Tahafut al-Tahafur
(Incoherence of the Incoherence). He also criticized
in it Ibn Sina's Neoplatonic metaphysics. In
Exposition of the Method of Proof Averroes dealt
with the question of God's existence and proposed
his own proofs. The treatise was not translated into
Latin but St. Thomas Aquinas' (1225-1274) famous
approach to the question in The Summa Theologica
rely upon Aristotle in similar way.
"Every prophet is a philosopher, but not every
philosopher is a prophet", Averroes thought. Not
everybody was capable of interpreting Qur'anic
texts only the adept or "people of demonstration"
are able to undertake the interpretation of
ambiguous passages in the Qur'an. But there are
certain doctrines about God, which must be
accepted in toto, such as the existence of God as
Creator and Sustainer of the world, the creation of
the world by God, the validity of prophecy, and the
resurrection of the body on the Last Day.
Averroes did not see any real conflict between
philosophy and religion, or philosophical texts
(Aristotle) and religious texts (Qur'an), "philosophy
has always existed among the adepts of revelation,
i.e. the prophets, peace be on them." Truth may be
discovered by philosophers through logic, but it may
also be reveled figuratively, as it is in scriptures. "All
that is wanted in an enquiry into philosophical
reasoning has already been perfectly examined by
the Ancients. All that is required of us is that we
should go back to their books and see what they
have said in this connection. If all that they say be
true, we should accept it and if there be something
wrong, we should be warned by it. " (On the Harmony of
Religions and Philosophy, in Arabic Kitab fasl al-maqal, see:
Medieval Sourcebook )
In the West, Averroes' support to the idea that there
are different paths to the truth, was
misunderstood. His attempt to harmonize religion
and philosophy led to accusations of accepting the
doctrine of "double truth," that a thing can be true in
philosophy or according to reason while its opposite
is true in theology or according to faith. The strict
Averroist Pietro Pomponazzi (1462-1525) went even
further and argued, that Averroes proved that
religious laws are neither true nor false, but
designed to lead people to salvation and
happiness (Averroes and his Philosophy by Oliver Leaman,
1997, p. 171).
Diverging from many Islamic thinkers, Averroes
showed little ethusiasm for mysticism. He believed
that the intellect is universal and immortal. The
relationship between the Active Intellect and the
material intellect is what form is to matter; the
Active Intellect is a "power of in the soul" and
common to all mankind and eternal. According to
Averroes, all generable and corruptible entities are
made up of matter and form; soul is the the form or
first perfection of a natural body. For these thoughts
he was condemned for not believing in the
immortality of the individual soul. In popular myth he
was regarded as an atheist refuted by St. Thomas
Aquinas.
For further reading: Averros et l'Averrosme by E.
Rnan (1852); Philosophie und Theologie von
Averroes by M.J. Mller (1875); Metaphysik des
Averroes by M. Horten (1912); Die durch Averroes
erhaltene Fragmente Alexanders zur Metaphysic des
Aristoteles by J. Freudenthal and S. Frnkel (1884);
Ma ba'd al-Tabi'a, ed. M. al-Qabbani (1303/1885);
Epitome der Metaphysik, by S. van der Bergh (1924);
Ibn Rochd (Averroes) by L. Gauthier (1948); Averros
on the Harmony of Religion and Philosophy by George
F. Hourami (1961); Ibn Rushd wa Falsafuh by Farah
Antun (1988, orig. publ. 1903); Ibn Rushd (Averroes)
by Dominique Urvoy (1991); Alfarabi, Avicenna, and
Averroes, on Intellect: Their Cosmologies, Theories of
the Active Intellect, and Theories of Human Intellect
by Herbert Alan Davidson (1992); Averroes, Aquinas,
and the Rediscovery of Aristotle in Western Europe
by Majid Fakhry (1997); Averroes and the
Enlightenment, ed. by by Murad Wahbah (1996);
Averroes and his Philosophy by Oliver Leaman (1997);
Averroes: His Life, Works and Influence by Majid
Fakhry (2001)
Editions:
In Meteorologica Aristotelis, 1488 (published in
Venice by Andreas Torresanus, Latin translation
of Talkhis al-Athar al-'ulwiyah, 1-3)
Abhumeron Abynzoar. Colliget Auerrois, 1497
(Venetiis, ed. Hieronymus Surianus, transl.
Jacobo Hebreo, translation of Taysir fi al-
mudawah wa-al-tadbir)
Quaestio Auerrois in librum priorum, 1497
(published in Venice by Aldus Manutius, Latin
translation of Talkhis kitab al-Qiyas)
Opera omnia Aristotelis Stagiritaecum
Averrois Cordubensis in ea opera Commentariis,
MDLX (11 vols.)
Collectaneorvm de re medica Auerrhoi
philosophi, 1537 (Lugduni: apud Seb. Gryphium)
Colliget Averrois: totam medicinam ingentibus
voluminibus ab alijs traditam mira quadam
breuitate [et] ordine sic ad amusim
complectens, 1542 (Venetiis, Latin translation
of Kitab al-Kulliyat)
In Moralia Nicomachea Expositione, 1562
Aristotelis Stagiritae Metaphysicorum libri XIIII
cum Averrois Cordubensis in eosdem
commentariis..., 1562 (Venetiis, by Junta)
Aristotelis opera cum Averrois commentariis,
1562 (Venetiis, 9 vols.)
Bidayat al-Mujtahid wa nihyat al-Muqtasid,
1353/1953 (2 vols.)
Averrois Cordubensis Commentarium Magnum in
Aristotelis De Anima Libros, 1953 (ed. F.S.
Crawford)
Averroes' Tahafut al-Tahafut (The Incoherence
of the Incoherence), 1954 (tr. S. Van den Bergh)
Incoherence of the Incoherence, 1955 (edited
by Simon Van Den Bergh)
Commentary on Plato's "Republic", 1956 (edited
by E. I. J. Rosenthal, repr. 1966)
On Aristotle's De Generatione et Corruptione,
1958 (edited by Samuel Kurland)
Katab fasl al-maqal, 1959 (ed. G. F. Hourani)
Averroes On the Harmony of Religion and
Philosophy, 1961 (edited by G. F. Hourani)
Opera Aristotlis cum Averrois Cordubensis
Commentaaris, 1962 (based on the 1562-74
Venice edition)
Talkhis al-Khataba, 1969 (ed. M.S. Salim)
Manahij al-adilla fi 'aqa'id al-Milla, 1969 (edited
by M. Qasim)
Talkhis Kitab Aristutalis fi-l-Shi'r, 1971 (edited
by M.S. Salim) - Averroes' Middle Commentary on
Aristotle's Poetics, 1986 (translated by C.E.
Butterworth)
Averroes' Three Short Commentaries on
Aristotle's Topics, Rhetoric and Poetics, 1977
(edited and translated by C.E. Butterworth)
Kitab al-Sama' al-tabi'i: al-jawami' fi al-falsafah,
1983 (edited by J. Puig)
Averroes' Middle Commentaries on Aristotle's
Categories and De Interpretatione, 1983
(translated by C.E. Butterworth)
Commentaria Averrois in Galenum, 1984
(translated by M.C. Vazquez de Benito)
Ibn Rushd's Metaphysics, 1984 (translated by C.
Genequand)
Ibn Rushd: Grand Commentaire et Paraphrases
des 'Seconds Analytiques' d'Aristote, 1984 (ed.
A. Badawi)
Averroes on de Substantia Orbis, 1986 (edited
by A. Hyman)
Rasa'il Ibn Rushd al-Tibbiyya, 1987 (edited by G.
Anawati and S. Zayid)
Kitab al-Kulliryyat fi'l-Tibb, 1987 (2 vols., edited
by J.M. Frneas Besteiro and C. lvarez de
Morales)
Ras'il Ibn Rushd al-tibbiyya, 1987 (edited by
G.C. Anawati and S. Zayed) - Medical
Manuscripts of Averroes at El Escorial, 1986
(translated by G.C. Anawati and P. Ghalioungui)
Sharh al-Sama' wa'l-'Alam, 1994 (edited by G.
Endress)
Averrois Commentaria Magna in Aristotelem. De
Celo et Mundo, 2003 (2 vols.)
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