Jews and Muslims: Discovering Non-Christian Philosophies

views updated

Jews and Muslims: Discovering Non-Christian Philosophies


Traveling Scholars. During the early twelfth century Western Christian scholars began traveling to cities in Spain, Sicily, Antioch and Tripoli , where they came into

contact with the works of non-Christian philosophers and began translating them into Latin. The arrival of Peter the Venerable in Spain in 1142 led to the first translation of the Koran, the Muslim holy book, into Latin. In the 1240s Dalalat al-Ha’irin (Guide for the Perplexed, written 1190) by the great Jewish legal thinker and philosopher Moses Maimonides (1138–1204) of Cordoba, Spain, was translated from Arabic into Latin and discussed in Christian schools, especially at the University of Naples, where Master Peter of Ireland, the teacher of Thomas Aquinas, placed great emphasis on this work, which influenced not only Aquinas but also Meister Eckhart and other medieval thinkers. Scholar-travelers also discovered and brought home works by Arabic philosophers, especially Avicenna (Abū ’Alī al-Husayn ibn ’Abd Allāh ibn Sīnā, 980–1037), from northern Persia (Iran) and Averroes (Ibn Rushd, 1126–1198) of Cordoba. Avicenna’s works became a staple of university reading and commentary, and his metaphysics influenced every western philosopher from the twelfth century up to and including Rene Descartes in the seventeenth. After 1230 all medieval philosophers read Aristotle in conjunction with Averroes commentaries. In fact, he became known as “The Commentator” and Aristotle was called “The Philosopher.”

Moses Maimonides. As Colette Sirat has written, “The whole history of Jewish medieval thought revolves about the personality of Maimonides… he is the term of reference as Thomas Aquinas is for scholasticism, and it is no accident but rather the mark of a profound affinity that the latter so often cites Rabbi Moses.” Keenly aware that prophecy cannot be expressed by natural science, Maimonides acknowledged the limitations of human reason when speaking about the Divinity. Yet, he firmly believed that there is no necessary conflict between natural philosophy and knowledge of the Divine. Indeed, accurate natural knowledge can serve as preparation for the quest to understand the Divine. Like Thomas Aquinas, Maimonides held Aristotle in high regard. Indeed, following Aristotle, he showed that while one can expect rigor in mathematics, it is less possible in morality and religious understanding; yet, they do not lack foundation. Maimonides was concerned with precision in speaking about God. He took issue with thinkers who used anthropomorphic language to describe God because God does not have the human form or attributes those words imply. Instead he stressed that the best way for humankind to understand God was to determine what God is not—that is, how he differs from human beings. His theology is one of reverential silence in the face of divine mystery.

Averroës. In North Africa in 1168–1169 Averroës began a series of commentaries on the works of Aristotle, some of which—including Averroës work on Aristotle’s Poetics—were translated into Latin in the thirteenth century. His coherent explanations of Aristotle’s difficult and elliptical texts were a great benefit for the medieval philosophers of western Europe. Regardless of their disagreement with Averroës on the interpretation of Aristotle’s doctrines on some philosophical and theological issues they welcomed his clarification of Aristotle. The Averroës that influenced western European scholars was Averroës the philosopher. They do not seem to have known about his Islamic religious and legal writings. The western European followers of Averroës philosophy were commonly called “Latin Averroists” and included Siger of Brabant and Boet-hius of Dacia. Even if they disagreed with Averroës on significant issues, most medieval philosophers made use of his commentaries on Aristotle.

Avicenna. Some medieval scholars considered Avicenna the most important philosopher next to Augustine. Roger Bacon calls Avicenna the “Leader of the Philosophers.” That is, Bacon believed that he was the leading interpreter of Aristotle, more important even than the Commentator on Aristotle, Averroës. Avicenna was a medical expert, a logician, a philosopher, a poet, and a government adviser. The most important of his works for the Christian West was Al-Shifa’ (Healing, written 1020–1027), a philosophical synthesis of logic, physics, and metaphysics. In the influential metaphysics part of this work, which deals with the basic structure of reality, Avicenna made an important distinction between essence (what a thing is; the definition of the thing) and existence (that a thing is). In only one being are essence and existence identical: that being is God. Therefore, God exists necessarily, his existence is part of his very nature or definition. Every other being—whether angel, human, animal, plant, celestial body, or inanimate terrestrial object—is a composite of essence and existence. Therefore, anything else is only a possible, not a necessary, being, and if it is to exist, it must be brought into and preserved in existence by some cause external to itself. Avicenna also made an important distinction between a spiritual soul and a living body, and he helped focus attention on the fact that the human being is made up of a “plurality of forms” (or essential structures, including mineral, vegetative, animal, and rational).


H. A. Davidson, Alfarabi, Avicenna and Averroes on Intellect: Their Cosmologies, Theories of the Active Intellect, and Theories of Human Intellect (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992).

Idit Dobbs-Weinstein, Entry on Moses Maimonides, in Dictionary of Literary Biography, volume 115: Medieval Philosophers, edited by Jeremiah Hackett (Detroit & London: Gale Research, 1992), pp. 263–280.

Oliver Leaman, Averroes and His Philosophy (Oxford: Clarendon Press / New York : Oxford University Press, 1988).

Leaman, Introduction to Medieval Islamic Philosophy (Cambridge & New York: Oxford University Press, 1988).

Colette Sirat, History of Jewish Philosophy in the Middle Ages (Cambridge & New York: Cambridge University Press / Paris: Editions de la Maison des Sciences de l’Homme, 1985.

About this article

Jews and Muslims: Discovering Non-Christian Philosophies

Updated About content Print Article