views updated Jun 27 2018


As a designation applicable to a tradition or mode of philosophizing, "Averroism" cannot be used in any account of Arabic thought after the death of Averroes (c. 1198). After that, in a most unusual intellectual situation, Averroes's influence is to be found not in Muslim thought but in Western Latin philosophy between 1200 and 1650, for the dynamic speculative activity vital for five centuries in the Arabic tradition, which was founded in large part on Greek writings in philosophy and science (Aristotle's in particular), disappears after 1200, reappearing almost immediately in Western Latin thought. Throughout the century 11501250 a vast number of translations of most of Greek and Alexandrian philosophy and science were made from Arabic and Hebrew into Latin. This literary corpus, which had made its way around the Mediterranean littoral translated from Greek into Syriac and thence into Arabic and Hebrew, caught the attention of Latin scholars and such patrons of scholarship as King Frederick II of Sicily and Archbishop Raymond of Toledo. As a consequence, by about 1200 the indefatigable efforts of many translators working in many locations had made Greek thought, especially that of Aristotle, available to Latin thinkers. The impact of this solid and integrated corpus of natural science on the Western intellectual world was enormous, coming as it did into a climate where for centuries scholars eager for knowledge had had to content themselves with thirdhand encyclopedic compilations of inadequately developed science and scientific methodology.

Averroes's Commentaries

The translations of the Greek writings were normally accompanied by many Greek and Arabic commentaries. Commentaries by Alexander of Aphrodisias and by Simplicius were frequent, but those by the Arab Averroes on the Aristotelian works were ultimately the most influential. During a long and varied career as judge, teacher, philosophical and medical adviser to several Muslim rulers, Averroes found time to compose a series of glosses and commentaries on Aristotle's works. These fall into three categoriesshort (often called epitomes), intermediate or middle, and long, a differentiation which probably corresponds to stages in the academic curriculum. The particular argumentation of certain passages of Aristotle presented by Averroes in the mass of commentary had strong appeal for many Western Latin thinkers, and the reflection of his interpretations in their own philosophical analyses gave rise to attitudes which were first termed (by Christian scholars suspicious of their novelties) Arabic and later more specifically called Averroist.

initial impact in the west

Upon translation the Greek writings, with their attendant commentaries, were rather quickly absorbed into Western Latin scholarship, but not without some formal opposition. These writings were banned at the University of Paris in 1210 and 1215, deemed usable only if corrected in 1231, and not officially introduced into the curriculum until 1255. This literature was nevertheless being intensively read during these years; the philosophical writings of Albertus Magnus (active at least as early as 1230), William of Auvergne (d. 1249), and Alexander of Hales (d. 1245), to name only three prominent examples, reveal an intimate acquaintance with the recently acquired corpus of Greek science. Similarly, in England the philosophy of Robert Grosseteste (bishop of Lincoln, died 1253) shows strong influences derived directly from the newly inherited Greek literature. In Italy, too, the Greek tradition was rapidly assimilated into the scholarly milieu, but the Italian intellectual atmosphere was either medical, as it had been at the University of Salerno for several centuries, or else legal, as at Bologna. There do not appear proscriptions by Italian ecclesiastical authorities as stringent as those made at the University of Paris throughout the thirteenth century, and the possible intellectual conflicts raised by the introduction of these writings into a context of Christian philosophy do not seem to have been seriously felt.

Intellectual conflicts became extremely explicit, however, when the Aristotelian writings were conceived to be in direct confrontation with doctrines of Christian faith. Aristotle asserted, for example, the eternity of the world, the unlikelihood of individual immortality, the possibility of man's attaining ethical perfection in this life, and other theses incompatible with tenets of Christian belief. The appearance of such philosophical conclusions, apparently well reasoned and buttressed by Arabic commentary, occasioned some severe crises for Western Christian philosophy.

The chief agents presenting these, as well as other, renderings of Aristotle were the commentaries of Averroes. For centuries he was called simply the "Commentator" in Latin writings, and his expositions of the Aristotelian corpus were read into the seventeenth century. Cesare Cremonini (d. 1631), the last of the self-proclaimed Averroists, used these commentaries, and even at that late date he was considered unorthodox enough to be included in an array of formal proceedings along with Galileo Galilei himself. Unorthodoxy makes strange bedfellows when the resolute claimant of Aristotelianism and the architect of a scientific rupture with Aristotelian Scholasticism are included in the same condemnatory document.

Latin Averroism

Historically, Averroism is a designation applied to certain interpretations of Aristotelian doctrine by Western Latin thinkers. (There are medieval Jewish philosophers holding positions close to these, but the epithet itself does not seem to have been applied to them.) It was originally a term of opprobrium; no one called himself Averroist until possibly John of Jandun (c. 1286c. 1328), who was followed by Urban of Bologna (fl. 1334) and Paul of Venice (d. 1428). During the thirteenth century Averroists were the object of violent philosophical attack and severe authoritarian action.

Averroes insisted upon, and many scholars in the Western faculties of arts concurred in, the reliable logic of Aristotle's argumentation. Thus, there was clearly the necessity of the purely rational acceptance, given Aristotle's premises, of such "unorthodox" conclusions as have been mentioned. Acceptance is, however, intolerable for serious Christian thinkers, and so such conclusions were taken to be erroneous and thus subversive when pronounced in the schools. When thirteenth-century arts masters taught Aristotle in this fashion, they were awarded (by their opponents) the pejorative title Averroist, and official action often resulted. Siger of Brabant, Boethius of Dacia, and Bernier of Nivelles, masters in the faculty of arts at Paris, were all named in condemnations of the 1270s. This special mention seems to have had limited effectiveness; although these particular masters disappeared from the intellectual scene, countless commentaries on Aristotle dating from the last quarter of the thirteenth century offer similar interpretations and similar caveats as to the logical validity, if not truth, of these interpretations. No recorded disapprovals have been found.

Incidentally, this represents another aspect of the history of intellectual conflict. Explicit authoritarian condemnations were more often the result of a refusal to accept organizational discipline than of a genuine philosophical error or ideological heresy. This can be illustrated in the careers of Gottschalk (d. c. 868), Peter Abelard (10791142), and Roger Bacon (c. 1214/12201292), all of whom were subjected to ecclesiastical punishment although little of their thinking was drastically at variance with established or recommended philosophical systems.

The "Double Truth" Problem

Every exposition of Averroism must examine the problem, arising in the thirteenth century, of the "double truth." The masters of arts, reading Aristotle and following his rigorous logic to conclusions incompatible with certain propositions held by faith, tried to resolve apparent contradictions by including in their commentaries reservations of this nature: "Although this conclusion has been reached according to the method of Aristotle and the Commentator, nevertheless faith and truth declare otherwise." While proclaiming logical rigor and precise validity for Aristotelian arguments, they conceded the final determination of truth itself to the Christian faith.

In this historical context it has often been maintained, both in the thirteenth century and in contemporary scholarship, that such thinkers were actually practicing a system of "double truth," in which a proposition can be true in natural philosophy but contradict a proposition true in theology and conversely. But, as Étienne Gilson and other scholars have convincingly pointed out, no master of arts has yet been found explicitly holding such a radical position. Regardless of the apparent persuasiveness of Aristotelian argument, the truth itself was always the dominant prerogative of Christian faith. In the face of such overwhelming requirements, the limitations and inadequacies of natural reason were recognized by the arts masters.

Attempted Solutions

Thus, an intellectual crisis of the first magnitude appeared in Western scholarship in the early thirteenth century. The attempts to deal with this conflict between important arguments in Greco-Arab philosophies and Christian-oriented intellectual systems fall into several main categories.

reason not apodictic

First, the masters of arts, whose primary professional obligation was teaching natural philosophy, the core of which was Aristotle and his commentators, resorted to the attitude that although such science was orderly and rigorous, the unreliability of reason and the merely probable nature of its results suggested that conclusions based on such unaided reason must always yield, with respect to truth, to the apodictic proclamations of the faith. Such masters never claimed "truth" for a proposition of natural philosophy in conflict with a proposition of faith; they insisted on its logical validity, however, and conceded the determination of truth-value to faith. In this manner they endeavored to handle an intractable intellectual dilemma and at the same time to avoid subjecting themselves to overt charges of intellectual and ideological inconsistency.


Second, masters of theologyfor example, Bonaventure, Peter John Olivi, and, in the first decade of the fourteenth century, John Duns Scotusemployed a methodology often termed Augustinian. Their attempt to resolve the difficulties entailed, essentially, an assimilation of Aristotelian natural philosophy into a hierarchical scheme of knowledge. Such a resolution provided a coherent and orderly vertical relation among the several sciences, proceeding from the less perfect to the more perfect, from the less well known to the more surely known, from the less exact to the more exact. Such a structure, culminating in God himself, the ultimate source of perfection, knowledge, and precision, could be coherent and consistent and could accommodate both Christian doctrine and a qualified, because essentially incomplete, natural philosophy. But the achievement of this coherence was purchased at the cost of Aristotle himself, for his scheme of the sciences does not envisage a vertical, or hierarchical, ordering, whereby lesser sciences derive their logic, meaning, and reality from superior sciences. His sciences are basically ordered horizontally, diversified methodologically, and irreducible to any single set of common and univocally meaningful fundamental principles.

thomas aquinas

Third, the preeminent theologian St. Thomas Aquinas (1224?1274) attempted a massive resolution maintaining the logical integrity and autonomy of Aristotelian natural philosophy while setting forth a supplementary and compatible structure of Christian theology. The two disciplines run in parallel courses, with differences based on distinctive premises and arguments, but there are many points where the propositions in each discipline are the same and are concluded to be true in both domains. These points were taken by Thomas to ensure the compatibility of Aristotelian natural philosophy and Christian theology, and by this means Thomas sought to sustain a consistent intellectual whole comprehending Greek philosophy and Christian truth.

The carefully poised system of Thomas was not, however, influential in his own time, and most of his immediate successors in the theological faculties preferred to continue in the Augustinian methodology. By the early fourteenth century, moreover, both approachesthe Augustinian assimilative technique and Thomas's sophisticated and delicately poised structure of complementary systemswere abandoned. This becomes explicit in the philosophy of William of Ockham, in whose thought natural science and systematic theology are totally independent domains.

Insofar, then, as the masters of arts, reading Averroes in close conjunction with Aristotle, tended to bring forward the incompatibilities between the two systems, it is possible to affirm the judgment of Gilson that "the rupture of Christianity is from this moment an accomplished fact."

Italian Averroism

As a designation Averroism disappeared in the intellectual history of the University of Paris after the first quarter of the fourteenth century, although there are many manuscripts making explicit these crucial difficulties; however, their overt dependence on and acknowledgment of Averroes's commentaries diminish. From about 1300 to 1650 the term Averroism assumed favorably by some thinkers and in a derogatory fashion by othersis found associated with philosophical activity in the Italian universities, Bologna and especially Padua.

Renan wished to establish a dichotomy between Averroist and Alexandrist Aristotelianism in Italy at this time. This distinction was based on alternative interpretations of Aristotle's De Anima. The Averroist view emphasized that personal, individual immortality could not be established in Aristotle's writings. In this interpretation the soul, when separated from the body, loses all individualitya conception congenial to the Muslim doctrine of complete impersonal fusion at the apex of noetic experience. In purely Aristotelian terminology this is known as the theory of the unity of the active intellectthat is, that any form distinct from matter is one in species and never individuated. The Alexandrist analysis likewise denied the possibility of individual immortality but argued against the separate subsistence of the soul under any conditions whatsoever; when the soul-body composite dissolves, nothing remains.

This distinction is an oversimplification of the complexities of Italian Aristotelianism between 1300 and 1650, but it was employed by the scholars themselves and may thus be used with appropriate reservations. However, whether or not these thinkers were designated Averroist or Alexandrist, they all did agree in affirming the logical integrity of Aristotelian natural philosophy, even though some conclusions reached in this philosophy appeared in radical contradiction to dicta of Christian faith.

Although it would be misleading to speak crudely of an Alexandrist tradition in the later Middle Ages, there were eminent philosophers who, though thoroughly convinced of the logical autonomy of Aristotelian thought as such, did not adhere to the letter of Averroes's rather Platonic or Augustinian interpretation. Jean Buridan (d. c. 1358) at Paris and Pietro Pomponazzi (d. 1525) and Jacopo Zabarella (d. 1589), both at Padua, can be taken to fall within the non-Averroist but still naturalistic method of Aristotelian natural philosophy.

Averroism as a term designating a tradition, type, or method of philosophizing is difficult to make precise. Thinkers of varied methodological persuasionsfor instance, Siger of Brabant and John of Jandunhave been called Averroist. Averroism can, however, be solidly connected with Latin Aristotelianism where Latin Aristotelianism is taken to include philosophies that agree on the logical rigor and systematic autonomy of natural philosophy as exemplified in Aristotle's writings. Since such arguments appear to lead to conclusions inconsistent with truths of Christian faith, Averroism in its earliest usage was pejoratively employed. But the demands of reason, working with the Aristotelian corpus, were insistent, and by the middle of the fourteenth century philosophers began to proclaim themselves openly Averroist. Gilson has suggested that Averroism was essentially conservative and sterile, but it is clear that it was an integral part of the tradition of Aristotelian scholasticism and that its disappearance in the seventeenth century coincided with the demise of medieval Scholasticism itself.

See also Augustinianism; Averroes; Averroism in Modern Islamic Philosophy; Thomas Aquinas, St.


latin averroism

Ernest Renan's pioneering work on Averroism, Averroès et l'averroïsme, rev. ed. by H. Psichari (Paris, 1949), originally published in Paris, 1852, is now out of date. See rather Averroes and the Aristotelian Tradition. Sources. Constitution and Reception of the Philosophy of Ibn Rushd (11261198), edited by G. Endress and J. A. Aertsen (Leyden-Boston-Köln: Brill, 1999); Averroismus im Mittelalter und in der Renaissance, edited by F. Niewöhner, L. Sturlese (Zürich: Spur Verlag, 1994); and L'Averroismo in Italia, Atti dei convegni Lincei, 40 (Rome: Accademia nazionale dei Lincei, 1979). For new manuscript evidences on Hebrew and Latin translations of Averroes's commentaries and their impact in the West, see Carlos Steel and Marc Geoffroy, La béatitude de l'âme (Paris: Vrin, 2001); Colette Sirat and Marc Geoffroy, L'Original arabe du Grand Commentaire d'Averroès au De Anima d'Aristote (Paris: Vrin, 2005). On Boethius of Dacia, Siger of Brabant, and the "double-truth" problem, see Luca Bianchi, Censure et Liberté intellectuelle à l'université de Paris (Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1999); J. F. Wippel, "The Condemnations of 1270 and 1277 at Paris," Journal of Mediaeval and Renaissance Studies 7 (1977): 169201. On Aquinas, see Aquinas against the Averroists, on there being only one intellect, translated by R. MacInerny (West Lafayette, in Purdue University Press, 1993).

jewish averroism

Leaman, Oliver. "Jewish Averroism." In History of Islamic Philosophy, edited by S. H. Nasr and O. Leaman. London: Routledge, 1996.

Zonta, Mauro. La filosofia ebraica medievale. Storia e testi. Roma-Bari: Editori Laterza, 2002.

arabic aristotelianism

The major figures of Arabic Aristotelianism are al-Kīndī (d. 873), al-Farābī (d. 950), ibn-Sīnā (Latinized Avicenna, d. 1037), and Ibn-Bajja (Latinized Avempace, d. 1138). See The Cambridge Companion to Arabic Philosophy, edited by Peter Adamson and Richard C. Taylor (Cambridge: CUP, 2005); Storia della filosofia nell'Islam medievale, edited by Cristina D'Ancona Costa (Torino: Einaudi, 2005). These important works provide references to many other valuable and supplementary studies. For a reader, see Medieval Islamic Philosophical Writings, edited by Muhammad Ali Khalidi (Cambridge: CUP, 2005). For al-Ghazzali's Incoherence of the Philosophers see The Incoherence of the Philosophers: English Translation of Imam Ghazali's Tahafut al-Falasifa, translated by Michael E. Marmura (Brigham Young University's Islamic Translation Series), (Brigham Young University Press: 2000). For Averroes' reply, see his Incoherence of the Incoherence, translated by Simon Van Den Bergh (Gibb Memorial Trust, 1978). In this debate the term philosophers is a translation of the Arabic falasifa, which is in turn a transliteration of the Greek philosophoi. Falasifa thus has the special meaning of "thinkers following the Greek tradition" and not the general sense of philosophers as such.

transmission of greek and arabic philosophy

Rencontres de cultures dans la philosophie médiévale: traductions et traducteurs de l'antiquité tardive au XIVe siècle, edited by J. Hamesse and M. Fattori. Louvain: Brepols, 1990.

The Introduction of Arabic Philosophy into Europe, edited by C. E. Butterworth and B. A. Kessel. Leiden: Brill, 1994.

Stuart MacClintock (1967)

Bibliography updated by Alain de Libera (2005)


views updated May 29 2018


Córdoba, Spain

Marrakesh, Morocco

Philosopher, jurist, astronomer, and physician

"Philosophy is the friend and milk-sister of religion; thus injuries from people related to philosophy are the severest injuries [to religion] apart from the enmity, hatred and quarrels...which are companions by nature and lovers by essence and instinct."

—Averroës; quoted in Averroës: On the Harmony of Religion and Philosophy.

Known in the West by his Latin name Averroës (pronounced ah-vair-O-ehz), the Spanish Muslim, or Islamic, philosopher known in the East as Ibn Rushd was one of the greatest thinkers of the medieval world. His commentaries on the Greek philosopher Aristotle (384–322 b.c.e.), in which he attempted to balance faith and reason, not only shaped thought in the Islamic world in Spain, North Africa, and the Middle East but also introduced the works of the Greeks to later Latin and Christian philosophers of Europe. Living in Spain and North Africa at the time of the Crusades, he was one of the last in the great line of Muslim scholars of the Middle Ages (c. 500–1500 c.e.). Trained as a philosopher and as a doctor, lawyer, and judge, Averroës created dozens of works in his lifetime, only a fraction of which survive in translation. His major work remains Tahafut al-tahafut ("The Incoherence of the Incoherence"), a defense of philosophy or the use of reason.

Descended from a Family of Jurists

Averroës's full Arabic name was Abu al-Walid Muhammad ibn Ahmad ibn Muhammad ibn Rushd. He was born in the early twelfth century in Córdoba, Spain, which was then part of the Muslim world and one of the most intellectual and cultured cities in all of Europe. As Philip K. Hitti has noted in his Makers of Arab History, the royal library of Córdoba

is said to have housed 400,000 titles, filling a forty-four-volume catalog. ... The university, housed in the great mosque [religious building], embraced among its departments theology, jurisprudence [law], astronomy, mathematics, and medicine. Its certificate opened the way to the most lucrative [high-paying] posts in the realm.

While the fundamentalist (ultraconservative) Muslim rulers of Spain were outwardly very strict and strictly followed the rules of the holy book, the Koran, the court life they created allowed for intellectual freedom. During Averroës's lifetime two different Moroccan dynasties, the Almoravids and the Almohads, controlled Spain, or al-Andalus. Many of the rulers were well educated and curious to gain new knowledge even when it conflicted with the religious teachings in the Koran.

The son of famed jurists and legal minds, Averroës came of age in this rich climate. Both his father and grandfather had been Muslim judges, or qadi, in Córdoba, and the grandfather had also been the prayer leader, or imam, in the city's great mosque. Destined to follow in their footsteps, as a boy Averroës studied the Islamic sciences, philosophy, and medicine. At the university, located in the great mosque, Averroës studied medicine and law. Study of medicine at that time also implied a further study of philosophy. Averroës was influenced by the work of earlier Arabic philosophers, such as Avicenna (980–1037) and Avempace (c. 1095–c. 1138), who died in Saragossa, Spain, when Averroës was twelve. These scholars and philosophers attempted to create a compromise between religion and philosophy.

At the Court of Marrakesh

Little is known of Averroës's whereabouts from about 1153 to 1169. It seems that he was in Marrakesh, Morocco, by 1153, perhaps helping to develop the colleges that the Almohad caliph, or leader, was founding at the time. He also was involved in research in astronomy, which studied the movement of the planets. While he was in Morocco during this first stay, he observed the star Canope, which was not visible in Spain. This led him to accept Aristotle's theory that the Earth was round, not flat. It is possible that he was employed as a teacher during these years, and he was clearly also working as a physician. His seven-part encyclopedia of medical knowledge, Kitab al-kulliyat (Generalities), was written between 1153 and 1169. In this work he covered topics ranging from the anatomy of the organs to therapy and hygiene, or sanitation and cleanliness. He was the first observer to note that patients do not suffer from smallpox twice.

During this time in Morocco he met the court physician and philosopher Ibn Tufayl, who was impressed by some of Averroës's early commentaries on Aristotle. Around 1169 Ibn Tufayl introduced this bright scholar to the new caliph, Abu Ya'qub Yusuf (ruled 1163–84). During this first meeting the caliph asked the Cordoban philosopher how the sky came to be and what it was made of. According to early chroniclers of his life, Averroës, fearing a trap that might lead him to provide a less than traditional answer to this question, hesitated to respond. However, upon hearing the caliph talk with Ibn Tufayl in a learned and even scientific manner, Averroës decided to take a chance and proceeded to give this ruler as much information as possible about the subject from both a scientific and a religious viewpoint.

Taken by Averroës's vast knowledge, the caliph sent him away with gifts that showed his admiration. Soon the caliph had a commission for the Spanish scholar. He complained that the translated works of the famous Greek philosopher Aristotle were too difficult and poorly done to understand. Ibn Tufayl decided not to attempt to explain these works, since such a project might take many years. Averroës agreed to take on the project, and it became his main scholarly occupation for the rest of his life.

Commentaries on Aristotle

In 1169 Averroës was appointed chief judge in Seville, Spain, and thus returned to the region of his birth. Two years later he went back to Córdoba as qadi. With access to the great library of the university, he was now able to concentrate more fully on his research. But such work was never made easy, for during the 1170s it seems that he traveled as a roaming judge throughout Spain, and in 1182 he was brought back to Marrakesh to replace Ibn Tufayl as physician to the caliph. When this caliph died in 1184, he was succeeded by his son, nicknamed al-Mansur, "the Victorious" (ruled 1184–99). About this time Averroës was sent back to Córdoba as chief qadi, and he remained there until 1195. He died in 1198 in Marrakesh, where his tomb still stands.

Averroës worked on his commentaries of Aristotle and Greek philosophy from 1169 to 1195. They are divided into three types: the jami, "epitomes," or short summations, for beginning students; talkhis, middle or intermediate commentaries intended for those with some knowledge of the subject; and tafsir, extensive commentaries for the advanced student, in which Averroës explains more than just what the original source contains. Over the years Averroës wrote such commentaries on most of Aristotle's works, including the Organum, De anima, Physica, Metaphysica, Rhetorica, Poetica, and De partibus animalium, as well as other titles by that philosopher, plus works of the earlier Greek philosopher Plato (c. 425–347 b.c.e.), including his Republic.

Sometimes Averroës would write all three types of commentaries about the same work. What is amazing about such commentaries is that Averroës did not speak or read Greek. He therefore had to rely on earlier translated texts for his explanations; ironically, it was often these very texts that he was trying to correct. Both in Latin and Arabic scholarship there had been many mistranslations and misunderstandings of the writings of Aristotle. Averroës had to rely on the work of those earlier scholars who had been true to Aristotle but who did not go into great detail in their studies.

The shorter and middle commentaries appeared between 1169 and 1178, with the more extensive studies coming out later. These works as a whole earned Averroës the nickname "Great Commentator" from later Latin and Christian scholars. Between 1174 and 1180 Averroës completed his greatest original works. Of these works, the best known are "The Incoherence of the Incoherence" and Kitab fasl al-maqal (On the Harmony of Religion and Philosophy). In the first text Averroës defends philosophy and rational thought from attacks made by the Muslim theologian al-Ghazzali, whose Tahafut al-falasifa (The Incoherence of the Philosophers) had appeared ninety years previously. Averroës takes this earlier argument apart point by point, discussing the creation of the world, the characteristics of God's will and knowledge, and the fate of the soul.

Applying the freethinking reason of Aristotle to such topics, Averroës sometimes came close to being in opposition to pure Islamic thinking. The same is true of his On the Harmony of Religion and Philosophy, in which he attempts to bridge faith and reason. In this work he assumes that the two are completely compatible, or similar, or at least are able to coexist. He also notes that people really can believe only what they are able to understand. He wrote that Muslims are in complete agreement "in holding that it is not obligatory [necessary] either to take all the expressions of Scripture in their apparent [seeming] meaning or to extend them all from their apparent meaning to allegorical [symbolic] interpretation."

Because of such statements, Averroës became the enemy of conservative Muslims, for whom the word of the Koran could not be questioned. He also became known in the West as a champion of rational thought and reason over faith. The truth of his thought lies somewhere in the middle. He did apply the philosophy of Aristotle to questions of religion, but according to most commentators he wove this earlier Greek philosophy into Islamic religious thought.

Because his works were not all translated, or were translated gradually into Latin for European readers, two different schools of thought developed from Averroës's philosophy. The early translations, dating from the thirteenth century, seem to present a much more rational picture—one based on reason—of things than his entire body of work does. This more liberal reading influenced Latin scholars and was called Averroism. According to this philosophy, the world has an eternal nature not necessarily created by God. This God, in turn, is distant from human beings, and there is little sense of divine or godly involvement, or taking part, in human affairs. Similarly, there is no indication of an afterlife, or a life after death. Later readings, however, balance these views, showing that Averroës was no believer in a so-called double truth—that is, one truth for philosophy and another one for religion. Instead, being a faithful Muslim, Averroës noted that when the works of philosophy and the Koran disagreed, then the truth about religion came only from the Koran. Similarly, his idea of an afterlife included a form of resurrection, or rebirth, and if the world were eternal (never-ending) it was only because it depended on God, who is the eternal creator.

Paper and the Spread of Knowledge

Great thinkers such as Averroës would never have had the effect they did without the invention of something all of us take for granted today—namely, paper. The earliest written or sketched information appeared on cave walls tens of thousands of years ago. From there people progressed to stone and clay tablets, but these materials were not very portable and also required great effort to create. Many other materials were tried over the centuries, including bark, silk, metal, and even leaves. The ancient Egyptians developed papyrus from a plant found growing near the Nile River. They created what looked like sheets of paper by peeling and slicing the plant into strips and then layering and pounding them together. Not long after that, parchment was made from animal skins. It had several advantages over papyrus: it was stronger, both sides could be used, and if mistakes were made they could be scraped off.

No further advances in writing surfaces occurred until the Chinese invented paper (the name comes from "papyrus," which it resembles) during the time of Christ. This early paper was made from beaten or pulped plant material and water, which was spread on a bamboo frame to dry. This writing surface was better than earlier ones, because paper could be made much more easily and quickly. The art of papermaking spread throughout Asia to Japan, Korea, and Tibet, and by the seventh century it had reached Central Asia and Persia. From there it passed into Islamic lands, finding a welcome audience in Baghdad in the eighth century. The Arabs made improvements in papermaking, adding linen fibers to the wood to create a finer, smoother surface for writing. Most important, a paper mill was established in Baghdad, permitting the manufacture of paper on a large scale and enabling Arab writers and thinkers to fill libraries with their knowledge, including their translations of Greek texts.

The Christian West, however, resisted paper. The church declared paper was bad because it was a Muslim product. As late as 1221 Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II declared all official documents written on paper to be invalid, or worthless. Only those written on parchment were legal. All this changed with the invention of the printing press in the fifteenth century. Then paper became popular in Europe as well.

In reality, Averroës was walking a tightrope with his philosophy. He understood Greek free will and reason, but as a powerful qadi, responsible for maintaining Islamic law as stated in the Koran and the Shar'ia, or Book of Laws, he also needed to blend these two traditions. This position finally landed him in trouble. In 1195 al-Mansur needed to rally his people to fight the Christians in Spain. As a result, he had to please the more conservative elements of Islamic society, who had long criticized the work of Averroës. The philosopher was ordered to appear before a tribunal (court) in Córdoba, where he was blasted by his enemies with both true and false accusations. His books were publicly burned, and he was sent into exile in Lucena, a town south of Córdoba. Not long after this incident al-Mansur won a victory over the Christians at Toledo. Perhaps this made the political climate less difficult for the caliph. In 1198 he summoned the old philosopher out of exile and invited him to come to his court in Marrakesh. Averroës, however, did not have much of a chance to enjoy his changed fortune, for he died later that year.

Averroës was perhaps the most important philosopher of the Middle Ages. Although he lived during a time when two major Crusades were fought, it does not appear that his life was much disturbed by these conflicts. His commentaries on Greek philosophy, especially the works of Aristotle, preserved the thoughts and ideas of that early Greek scholar and introduced him to new generations of Muslim, Christian, and Jewish readers. For those Latin scholars who did not read the full range of his works, Averroës became a symbol of reason and free will. The great Catholic saint and scholar Thomas Aquinas (c. 1225–1274) drew upon the work of Averroës to try to balance faith and reason. Averroës wrote almost eighty books during his lifetime, totaling more than twenty thousand pages. Such works deal not only with philosophy but also with medicine, the law, astronomy, and even grammar. A Renaissance man (a man of many and various skills and interests) before the term was used to describe the rebirth of the arts and sciences in fourteenth-century Europe, Averroës was born into an age of Crusader intolerance but managed to rise above such narrow disputes. As Philip K. Hitti has concluded, Averroës—in his various roles as physician, philosopher, scientist, and commentator—made Aristotle accessible, fathered a long-lasting rationalist movement, and greatly contributed to Europe's Renaissance.

For More Information


Arnaldez, R. "Ibn Rushd." Encyclopedia of Islam. 2nd ed. Leiden, Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1999.

"Averroës." Encyclopedia of World Biography. 2nd ed. Detroit, MI: Gale, 1998.

Hitti, Philip K. Makers of Arab History. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1968.

Hourani, George F. Averroës: On the Harmony of Religion and Philosophy. London: Luzac, 1961.

Leamon, Oliver. Averroës and His Philosophy. Richmond, UK: Curzon, 1998.

Web Sites

"Averroës." Encyclopedia of the Orient.http://i-cias.com/e.o/index.htm (accessed on June 22, 2004).

"Averroës." New Advent.http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/02150c.htm (accessed on June 22, 2004).

"Ibn Rushd (Averroës)." Islamic Philosophy Online.http://www.muslimphilosophy.com/ir/default.htm (accessed on June 22, 2004).


views updated May 14 2018


Born 1126

Died 1198

Spanish-Arab philosopher

A s a thinker, Averroës represented the pinnacle of Islamic civilization in Spain; he was also the last of his line. Though devoutly committed to the beliefs of Islam, he placed great value on the workings of human reason, and in his many writings sought to explain how it was possible to be a person of both faith and thought. Unbeknownst to him, he would exert his greatest influence in the Christian lands of Western Europe, where his legacy brought about a renewed interest in the writings of the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle.

The world of Averroës's birth

His name at birth was Abu al-Walid Muhammad ibn Ahmad ibn Muhammad ibn Rushd, and to this day he is known in the Arab world as ibn Rushd (IB'n RÜSH't). In the West, however, he is best known by the "Latinized" version of his name, Averroës (uh-VEER-uh-weez).

Averroës was born in the Spanish city of Córdoba in 1126, at a time when Spain had long been ruled by Muslims. The first caliphs, or rulers, had come from the Arabian dynasty of Umayyads (oo-MY-edz), but in 1086 they had been replaced by the Almoravids (al-mohr-AHV-idz) from Morocco. In 1120, just before Averroës's birth, another group of Moors called the Almohads had overthrown the Almoravids.

The double life of the Almohads

Each successive wave of invaders had been less cultured, and more inclined to demand that their people maintain an unwavering belief in the principles of Islam handed down by the prophet Muhammad (see entry). Each had in turn been softened by the refined, sophisticated ways of the brilliant Spanish Muslim civilization. This softening had contributed to the overthrow of the Umayyads, and then of the Almoravids; therefore the Almohads, determined to hold on to power, had to lead double lives.

Inside the houses of the caliphs and other powerful figures, men were privately permitted to use their minds, and to discuss the great questions of philosophy, or the study of the underlying meaning of the world. Among the lower classes, however, no deviation from hard-line Islam was permitted. In this way, the rulers hoped to preserve their power over the people. It was the destiny of Averroës, on the one hand a philosopher, and on the other hand an Islamic judge or qadi (KAH-dee), to live such a double life.

Both his grandfather and father had been qadis, and when Averroës came of age, he accepted the family calling. He not only studied law, but also medicine and a variety of other subjects, and it was probably during his early years that he first became intrigued by philosophy.

An audience with the caliph

At the age of thirty, Averroës went to Marrakech in Morocco. The latter was the capital of the Almohad caliphate, a realm that included what is now Spain and Portugal, as well as all of North Africa to the west of Egypt and the north of the Sahara Desert. A few years after Averroës moved to Marrakech, 'Abd al-Mu'mim, the caliph who had subdued much of this empire, died and was replaced by his son, Abu Ya'qub Yusuf (ruled 1163–1184).

In about 1169, the scholar Ibn Tufayl (too-FYL; c. 1105–1184) introduced Averroës to the young caliph. It was said that on their first meeting, Abu Ya'qub Yusuf, knowing about Averroës's wisdom, tried to engage him in a discussion of the ancient Greek philosophers. Aware of the strict rules against "ungodly" forms of learning, Averroës kept his mouth shut, but was amazed when the caliph turned to Ibn Tufayl and began engaging in a learned discourse. As a result, Averroës felt safe to embark on a lively discussion with the caliph, who was so impressed with his learning that he called on Averroës to become his teacher.

Commentaries on Aristotle

Abu Ya'qub Yusuf commented that the existing translations of Aristotle were inadequate. As a result, Averroës undertook the translations himself, and this led to a series of books that would make his fame.

Considered by many to be the greatest of the Greek philosophers, Aristotle (384–322 b.c.) wrote on a wide range of subjects. In the realm of philosophy itself, for instance, he examined matters such as logic, or the system of correct reasoning, and metaphysics, or the fundamental nature of being. He was also concerned with psychology, literature, and drama, and as a scientist his achievements in areas ranging from physics to botany were many and varied. Aristotle's work represented a past high point in human thought, the "Golden Age" of Greece, when great minds explored the frontiers of possibility.

In contrast to Aristotle, Averroës was not an original thinker; rather, he was, as later admirers called him, "The Great Commentator," whose greatest contribution lay in helping others understand Aristotle's thought. This was particularly valuable because, in the confusion that had attended the fall of the Western Roman Empire—and with it the virtual collapse of European civilization—much of the learning from ancient times had been lost.

Averroës was handicapped by the fact that he read no Greek, and therefore had to rely on second- or third-hand translations into Arabic. Yet he managed to overcome much of the misunderstanding that had plagued earlier scholars of Aristotle. Many of these had confused Aristotle's ideas with those of his teacher, Plato, an equally brilliant figure whose views were almost exactly opposite of Aristotle's. Averroës, in his commentaries, helped to separate that which was truly Aristotle from things that later scholars had mistakenly attributed to him.

Other writings and ideas

Other than his many commentaries on Aristotle's works, such as the Rhetoric, Poetics, and Nichomachean Ethics, Averroës's writings included an encyclopedia of medical knowledge, which he wrote between 1162 and 1169. Further evidence of his interest in medicine was a commentary he wrote on Galen (c. a.d. 130–c. a.d. 200), a Greek physician in the Roman Empire who was the ancient world's last great scientist.

Averroës remained committed to the idea that man could apply his intellect to problems and solve them through reasoning power. This may not sound like a groundbreaking concept, but in the twelfth century it was. One of Averroës's most important works, written between 1174 and 1180, was The Incoherence of the Incoherence, a response to attacks on philosophy by the hard-line Muslim theorist al-Ghazali (gah-ZAH-lee) in his 1095 book The Incoherence of the Philosophers.

Later generations of admirers in Europe, perhaps wishing to separate Averroës from his Muslim roots, overestimated the degree to which he revolted against mainstream Islam. He genuinely believed that there was no contradiction between learning and faith in Allah, a point he demonstrated in On the Harmony of Religion and Philosophy, also written in the period from 1174 to 1180.

Disgrace under al-Mansur

In 1169, the same year he began his friendship with Abu Ya'qub Yusuf, Averroës was appointed qadi of Seville, another great city of Muslim Spain. Two years later, he returned to his hometown of Córdoba as qadi, but spent much of the decade that followed traveling around the Almohad caliphate, probably on business for the caliph.

Following the retirement of Ibn Tufayl, Averroës went to Marrakech in 1182 to become Abu Ya'qub Yusuf's personal physician. The caliph died two years later and was succeeded by his son, Abu Yusuf Ya'qub, known as al-Mansur, or "The Victorious." Al-Mansur took a generally favorable view of Averroës, but in 1195, when he needed the support of the fuqaha (a group of highly conservative Islamic scholars), Averroës suffered as a result.

The reason for this switch of allegiance was the fact that the caliphate was in grave danger of attack from Christian forces in the north who were undertaking the Reconquista (ray-kawn-KEES-tah) or reconquest of Spain for Christianity. Desperate wartime situations sometimes create witch-hunt atmospheres, and so it was in Córdoba, where Averroës's books were publicly burned and Averroës himself was subjected to great scorn for his unorthodox ideas. It was a sign of how al-Mansur truly felt about Averroës, however, that his actual punishment—a very short exile in the town of Lucena (loo-SAYN-uh)—was minor.

The sunset of Spanish Islam

Later in 1195, the caliph ended Averroës's sentence practically before it began, and sent orders for the philosopher to rejoin his court in Marrakech. This reversal of positions resulted from the fact that al-Mansur no longer needed the help of the fuqaha: on July 19, 1195, he had scored a victory against the Christians at Allarcos (ah-YAHdr-kohs), a town between Córdoba and Toledo. So Averroës went to Marrakech, where he lived less than three more years. He died in 1198, and al-Mansur followed him by just a few months.

Though it seemed that al-Mansur had saved the caliphate, in fact Allarcos was the last significant victory by Muslim armies in Spain. Fourteen years later, in 1212, the Spanish Christians scored a decisive victory at Las Navas de Tolosa, which effectively ended Moorish rule in Spain.

The brilliance of Muslim civilization had long before faded away in its homelands of Arabia, Syria, Iraq, and Persia far to the east. For a time, Islamic culture had thrived in the west, thanks to the successive caliphates that ruled Morocco and the Iberian Peninsula. Now that flame, too, had gone out; but in a turn of events that would have probably surprised Averroës, the torch of his ideas was passed to Christian Europe.


The career of Priscian, who flourished in c. a.d. 500, had many parallels to Averroës's life. Whereas Averroës lived in a European country dominated by an African power, Priscian grew up in a part of North Africa dominated by Vandal invaders from Europe. Both men represented the end of a civilization—Arabic and Roman, respectively—and both men preserved the learning of the distant past for future generations.

Priscian was a grammarian, or a specialist in grammar—specifically, Latin grammar. Grammar textbooks, as every student knows, require the use of sentences as examples; but instead of making up his own sentences, Priscian used great quotes from the esteemed poets of Greece and Rome. Thus thanks to Priscian, a whole range of materials by writers such as Homer in the earliest days of Greece to the late Roman scholars were preserved at a time when barbarians were destroying important texts.

Priscian wrote a long poem concerning the Roman weights and measures, which provides an encyclopedic array of knowledge to students of Roman life. In addition, he produced at least one example of a panegyric (pan-uh-JY-rik), a highly popular form in the later Roman Empire. Panegyrics were poems praising a ruler, in Priscian's case the Byzantine emperor Anastasius. Priscian's most significant work, however, was the sixteen-book Institutiones grammaticae, which became a classic grammar text used by Alcuin (see English Scholars, Thinkers, and Writers entry) and others in the Middle Ages.

Ever since Christians reconquered Toledo in 1085, Western Europeans had taken a renewed interest in the ancient treasures of Greek, Hebrew, and Arabic learning preserved by the Spanish caliphate. This interest had grown over subsequent years, and when the Reconquista brought a new flood of works by Averroës and others into Christendom, these were met with enthusiasm. Soon translations of Averroës's work appeared in English, German, and Italian, and more were to follow. Averroës would have an enormous impact on Europe in the years to come—and there was an irony in that, because as a devout Muslim, he would have had little admiration for the societies that admired him.

For More Information


Curtius, Ernst R. European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages. Translated by William R. Trask. New York: Harper and Row, 1963.

Hitti, Philip K. Makers of Arab History. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1968.

Peters, F. E. Aristotle and the Arabs: The Aristotelian Tradition in Islam. New York: New York University Press, 1969.

Web Sites

"Averroës As a Physician." [Online] Available http://www.levity.com/alchemy/islam21.html (last accessed July 26, 2000).

"Muslim Scientists and Islamic Civilization." [Online] Available http://users.erols.com/zenithco/index.html (last accessed July 26, 2000).


views updated Jun 11 2018


The Aristotleanism of Ibn Rushd (Averroës), combined with his thorough training in various aspects of Islamic scientific and philosophical traditions, contributed to the evolution of his discourse on the relationship between science and religion. He lived at a moment in time particularly suited to synthesizing a broad understanding of philosophy and the philosophical sciences in which religion had a central position. Ibn Rushd's dialectical treatment of the role of religion and philosophy in human affairs and his theory of knowledge remain relevant to the contemporary science and religion discourse.

Life and writings

Averroës, whose real name was Abu'l Walid Muhammad ibn Ahmad ibn Muhammad ibn Rushd, was an Arab philosopher known as "The Commentator" to the medieval West because of his commentaries on Aristotle. Ibn Rushd was born in Córdoba, Spain, in 1126 c.e. to an eminent family of jurists. His grandfather had been a Qadi (judge) and Imam (Muslim leader of the congregational prayers) of the mosque of Córdoba. Ibn Rushd's early education was in the traditional pattern of Islamic education. He studied Arabic, the Qur'an, traditions of the Prophet and, later, natural sciences.

In 1153, Ibn Rushd traveled to Marrakash in Morocco where he helped the Almohad ruler 'Abd al-Mu'min to establish colleges. In 1169 or slightly earlier, Ibn Rushd was introduced to the learned prince Abu Yaqub Yusuf by the philosopher Ibn Tufayl. When Abu Yaqub succeeded 'Abd al-Mu'min, Ibn Rushd found great favor with him throughout his rule (11631184). Ibn Rushd was made the Qadi of Seville in 1169. Two years later, he returned to his favorite Córdoba as Qadi. He traveled to various parts of the country, including longer sojourns in Seville, from where he dates several of his works between 1169 and 1179. In 1182, while in Marakash, Ibn Rushd succeeded Ibn Tufayl as the chief physician to Abu Yaqub Yusuf. Ibn Rushd remained in favor during the reign of Abu Yaqub's successor, Yaqub al-Mansur, except for a short period when his rivals were able to convince the ruler that his philosophical works were against the teachings of Islam. But al-Mansur called him back to his court as soon as he moved to Marrakash, where Ibn Rushd died in1198. He was buried in Marrakash outside the gate of Taghzut but later his body was taken to Córdoba where the young mystic Ibn ' was present at his funeral.

Ibn Rushd's commentaries on Aristotle can be divided into short (jawami' ), middle (talkhis ) and great (tafsir ); the first two types were written between 1169 and 1178. His greatest medical work, the Colliget (al-Kulliyyat, Book of generalities), also belongs to this period. He wrote most of his original works between 1174 to 1180. These include Kitab al-'aql (Treatises on the intellect), De substantia orbis (Nature of heavens), Fasl al-maqal (The Decisive chapter), Kashf al-manahij al-adillah (Discovery of the methods of proof), and Tahfut al-Tahafut (Incoherence of the incoherence).


Ibn Rushd's philosophy was strongly influenced by his training in the principles of jurisprudence (Usul ) on the one hand and by Aristotle and certain Muslim philosophers ( falasifa ), especially al-Farabi, Ibn Bajja and Ibn Tufayl, on the other hand. He criticized Ibn Sina's (Avicenna) philosophy but respected his medical works (indeed, he wrote a commentary on Ibn Sina's medical poem, al-Urjuza fi h l tibb [Recompense for medicine]). Ibn Rushd's relationship with Ibn Tufayl was one of deep respect for the elder philosopher who was also his mentor. But while Ibn Tufayl was mystically inclined, Ibn Rushd was not. The two philosophers recognized the convergence of philosophy and revelation but whereas Ibn Tufayl leads Absal, the second main character of his celebrated narrative Hayy ibn Yaqzan (The Living son of the awake), to a mystic vision of knowledge, Ibn Rushd remains strictly within the philosophical realm.

In his Fasl al-makal wa-takrib ma bayn alsharia' wa' l hikma min al-ittisal (Authoritative treatise and exposition of the convergence of religious law and philosophy), written before 1179, Ibn Rushd formulated a conception of philosophy that was in accordance with the Qur'anic teachings. For him, philosophy was a rational view of creation that leads to the knowledge of the creator. Thus formulated, philosophy becomes a valid path for discovery of truth, which is also to be found in revealed texts. Because different individuals have different levels of comprehension, God speaks to humans through three kinds of discourses: dialectical (al-aqawil al-jadaliyya); rhetorical (al-aqawil al-khitabiyya) and demonstrative syllogism (alaqawil al-burhanniyah). This validation of philosophy led Ibn Rushd to formulate his theory of knowledge, in which the findings of rational research are collaborated with the revealed text through a reinterpretation of the text in accordance with the established rules of the Arabic language. This interpretation (Ta'wil), Ibn Rushd points out, is in accordance with the Qur'an because the Qur'an itself distinguishes between those verses that have fixed and clear meanings (ayat almuhkamat) and those that are open to several interpretations (ayat al-mutashabihat).

Ibn Rushd cherished the honor given to scholars by the Qur'an and used this to demonstrate that scholars have the right to interpret those verses that lend themselves to rational speculation, but such interpretation, he held, should remain in the scholarly circles; it should not be passed on to the common folk who do not have the capacity to understand it. He criticized Muslim philosopher al-Ghazali for not following this rule. This criticism is present in many works of Ibn Rushd, in various forms and degrees, but it is in his master piece, Tahafut al-Tahafut (The Incoherence of the incoherence), that he forcefully attacks not only al-Ghazali but also all those neo-Platonic philosophers who had distorted Aristotle's teachings, including Ibn Sina and his followers.

Tahafut al-Tahafut deals with some of the basic problems of philosophy and it reconstructs Ibn Rushd's conclusive ideas about time, eternity, creation, divine action, causality, and other fundamental issues. Using al-Ghazali's Tahafut al-Falasifa (Incoherence of the Philosophers) as the lynchpin for his attack, Ibn Rushd attempts to prove the eternity of the world. Ibn Rushd rejects the emanationist doctrine that the "One" can give birth only to one. He also criticizes Ibn Sina's notion of "Necessary Being" on the grounds that it is not possible to separate essence and existence; the distinction is made only in thought. Ibn Rushd's God is conceived as the One who is part of the universe. Unlike Ibn Sina for whom God is transcendent and is situated beyond the moving intelligences, divinity is the cause of the physical order for Ibn Rushd. Thus Ibn Rushd conceives God in purely Qur'anic terms, but through Aristotelian method. He refuses to separate divinity from its attributes. It is only human thinking that distinguishes between the two according to what people consider to be one or another of the infinite divine perfections.


Ibn Rushd's influence on the Western scholars is well known. In canto four of the Inferno, Dante called him "che'l gran comento " (the great commentator) and gave him the place of honor along with Euclid, Ptolemy, Hippocrates, Avicenna, and Galen. In Europe, the University of Padua became the main center of Averroism, though the Universities of Paris and Bologna were not far behind. But it is his masterly and clear exposition of Aristotelian thought that earned Ibn Rushd the title of "The Commentator," not his original ideas. His originality was, in fact, belittled by nineteenth-century French philosopher Ernest Renan and those who followed him. However, a more correct appreciation of Ibn Rushd is slowly emerging.

See also Aristotle; Avicenna; Islam; Islam, Contemporary Issues in Science and Religion; Islam, History of Science and Religion


brockelmann, carl. geschichte der arabischen litteratur, vol.1. leiden, netherlands: e. j. brill, 1943.

bello, iysa, a. the medieval islamic controversy between philosophy and orthodoxy: ijma' and ta'wil in the conflict between al-ghazali and ibn rushd. leiden, netherlands: e. j. brill, 1989.

el-ehwany, ahmed fouad. "ibn rushd." in history of muslim philosophy (1963), ed. m. m. sharif. karachi, pakistan: royal book, 1983.

hourani, george. the life and thought of ibn rushd. cairo, egypt: american university press, 1947.

ibn rushd. tahafut al-tahafut, trans. simon van den bergh. london: luza, 1954.

ibn rushd. metaphysics, trans. charles genequand. leiden, netherlands: e. j. brill, 1986.

wahba, mourad, and abousenna, mona, eds. averroës and the enlightenment. amherst, n.y.: prometheus, 1996.

muzaffar iqbal


views updated May 18 2018


The Spanish-Arabic scholar Averroës (1126-1198), also known as Ibn Rushd, was a leading philosopher of the Middle Ages. His commentaries on Aristotle became a major source for understanding the work of that thinker in the 13th and 14th centuries.

The tradition of Arabic philosophy, one of the monuments of medieval Islamic civilization, culminated in the work of Avicenna (980-1037), Avempace (died 1138), and Averroës. Avicenna expanded upon the work of such earlier Arab philosophers as al-Kindi (died 873) and al-Farabi (870-950) to form a more unified system based on Aristotelian and Neoplatonic concepts. Averroës defended that achievement against the criticism of the more conservative al-Ghazali (died 1111) and provided, through his commentaries on Aristotle's works, a view of man and the universe that conflicted with various theological dogmas of Islam and Christianity.

Averroës was a Spanish Arab. He was born in Cordova, Spain, and was educated there in mathematics, philosophy, theology, law, and medicine. He came from a family prominent in law, a profession that in Islamic society was closely associated with religion and theological concepts.

In 1153 Averroës visited Marrakesh in Morocco and caught the attention of the sultan, a noted patron of scholarship. It may have been at the sultan's suggestion that Averroës planned a commentary on all the works of Aristotle. While there Averroës observed the star Canope, which was not visible from Spain. This confirmed, for him, Aristotle's belief that the world was round.

Judge and Physician

Through the sultan's support Averroës became a judge in Seville in 1169. Later he returned to Cordova, where he became the chief judge. During this period he wrote the commentaries on Aristotle that became so important in the development of philosophy and science in Europe. These commentaries are of three types: short summations, or epitomes; long, elaborate explanations of the text; and a group intermediate in length. Their purpose was to present the true Aristotle without the accretions and misinterpretations of earlier generations.

In 1182 Averroës went to Marrakesh as physician to the sultan. He composed a medical handbook and urged other specialists to write on the subject of medicine.

In 1195, seemingly under attack by conservative theologians, Averroës retired from public life. He lived for a short time near Seville and then returned to Marrakesh, where he died in 1198.

Thought of Averroës

Only a portion of the works of Averroës were known to the Latin West in the 13th century, as many of his works were not translated until the second quarter of the 14th century. Consequently the Averroës that was known in the 13th century, on whom Latin Averroism was based, is different from the Averroës revealed through a fuller examination of his works.

On the basis of 13th-century interpretation, Averroës was held to affirm the following doctrines, which were the foundation of the school of Latin Averroism: the world was eternal rather than created; God was impersonal and, consequently, there was no divine intervention; there was one active reason, or Agent Intellect, for all mankind; there was no personal survival after death; and some truths of philosophy and theology could contradict each other and still be valid or true in their respective domains. Inasmuch as these doctrines were in direct opposition to Christian belief, Western theologians rejected them and the philosopher to whom they were attributed.

During the 14th century several other works of Averroës were translated into Latin. They indicated a more balanced, sometimes theologically conservative, thinker who seldom, if ever, denied the accepted Moslem dogma. From these works it is clear that Averroës never affirmed the possibility of double truth. Truth was one, and where philosophy contradicted religious dogma as revealed in the Koran, truth lay with the Moslem scriptures. Although there was one Agent Intellect for all men, Averroës seems to have continued to affirm personal survival, reinforced by the doctrine of the resurrection of the body. The world is eternal, for Averroës, because it depends on God, the creator, who is eternal. Averroës's God remained a personal deity who knew particular things in creation, because he knew himself and thus his creation.

Averroës's philosophical writing had a twofold purpose. First, writing after al-Ghazali, who had attacked Avicenna and all philosophy, and living in a society where conservative religious forces threatened his personal safety, Averroës defended Avicenna and Islamic philosophy. Second, within the context of philosophy itself, Averroës attempted to reconstitute a pure Aristotle, free from the corruptions of all earlier commentators and interpreters, including Avicenna.

Apart from those ideas associated with Averroës that conflicted with Christian doctrine and caused a series of theological crises during the 13th century, some aspects of Averroës's thought contributed directly to the development of Western philosophy in that period. It was largely through the work of Averroës that the Latin West became familiar with the ideas of Aristotle, ideas that had great importance for the development of medieval philosophy and science. Averroës's emphasis on logical demonstration as the major tool of scientific and philosophical inquiry was generally accepted. His emphasis on the concept of motion and the Prime Mover shaped the development of metaphysics and the conception of God in 13th-century European thought. Finally, Averroës's description of the way in which the human mind receives knowledge of the sensible world around it was generally accepted up to the 14th century. Through his association with Aristotle and the establishment of a school of Averroism, the name and thought of this Islamic philosopher were kept alive well into the 17th century.

Further Reading

The two most important studies on the life and thought of Averroës are in French: Ernest Renan, Averroës et l'averroisme: Essai historique (1852; 13th ed. 1866; repr. 1949), and Léon Gauthier, Ibn Rochd (1948). Étienne Gilson, History of Christian Philosophy in the Middle Ages (1955), provides a good survey of the thought of Averroës. The distinction between the 13th-century view of Averroës and the view based on a fuller examination of his writings is described in Julius Weinberg, A Short History of Medieval Philosophy (1964). For an examination of the metaphysics of Averroës see étienne Gilson, Being and Some Philosophers (1949: 2d ed. 1952).

Additional Sources

Leaman, Oliver., Averroes and his philosophy, Oxford: Clarendon Press; New York: Oxford University Press, 1988. □


views updated May 21 2018



Spanish Islamic philosopher

The Last of the Great Muslim Commentators.

Ibn Rushd, known as Averroës to Latin-speaking peoples, was the last of the great Muslim commentators on Aristotle. Born in Córdoba in Spain (or al-Andalus, as the Arabs called it) in 1126 to a family of eminent jurists, Averroës was educated in law, medicine, philosophy, and theology. In addition, he had a deep interest in and knowledge of the literature of the Arabs, a knowledge he exploited in his commentary on Aristotle's Poetics.

Valuable Patronage.

A key moment in Averroës's life was his introduction to the caliph of Marrakech. Although reticent at first, Averroës learned in the course of the conversation that the ruler, Abu Ya'qub Yusuf, was sympathetic to philosophers. Feeling free then to reveal his position on the sensitive topic of the world's eternal duration—a view which Aristotle defended and which the Muslim clerics found sacrilegious—the young scholar revealed his Aristotelian sympathies. As a result of this fateful meeting, Averroës was not only appointed a judge in Seville but also commissioned to write a series of commentaries on the Arabic versions of the writings of Aristotle. With this patronage supporting him, Averroës began the task that was to occupy him for most of his life, writing more than thirty commentaries on Aristotle's treatises. Sometimes, indeed, he wrote as many as three different commentaries on the same work: a long commentary, a "middle" commentary, and an epitome or summary. He did not shy away from controversy, as is evident in his defense of philosophy against the writings of al-Ghazali. A century earlier al-Ghazali had written a work entitled Tahafut al-Falasifah (The Incoherence of Philosophy), in which—like David Hume centuries later—he attacked the principle of causality in an attempt to preserve God's infinite power. He argued that human beings do not in fact cause anything, but merely provide the occasion for God to act directly. Al-Ghazali's reasoning thus strips secondary causes of any role in action and in turn renders philosophy a useless pursuit. Averroës answered this attack on philosophy in his work Tahafut al-Tahafut (The Incoherence of the Incoherence), pointing out succinctly but effectively the sophistries in al-Ghazali's arguments:

Denial of cause implies the denial of knowledge, and the denial of knowledge implies that nothing in this world can be really known, and that what is supposed to be known is nothing but opinion, that neither proof nor definition exist, and that the essential attributes which compose definitions are void.

The Superiority of Philosophy.

So unbounded was Averroës' admiration for Aristotle that he penned the most exaggerated praise that one philosopher ever wrote of another.

I consider that that man [Aristotle] was a rule and exemplar which nature devised to show the final perfection of man … the teaching of Aristotle is the supreme truth, because his mind was the final expression of the human mind. Wherefore it has been well said that he was created and given to us by divine providence that we might know all there is to be known. Let us praise God …

Averroës was at pains, moreover, to defend the vocation of philosophy, arguing that not only is the pursuit of wisdom not forbidden by the Koran, it is expressly commanded—for those, that is, who have the intellectual acumen. No conflict need arise between the small and exclusive class of philosophers and the common people or even the theologians, if only these classes would confine themselves to the mode of argument of which they are capable. Of the three modes of proof outlined by Aristotle in the Rhetoric—exhortations, dialectics, and rational demonstrations—the first was the only appropriate approach to truth for the uneducated masses; the theologians' capacity to understand probable arguments meant that dialectics was most suitable for them; and the philosophers were the only ones able to follow rational demonstrations. They were enjoined, however, not to lord it over the lower classes, but to pursue their studies with the conviction that they enjoyed the most direct road to the truth.

The End of the Muslim Golden Age.

Averroës' privileged status came to an abrupt end when his patron died and the patron's son, having decided that the philosophers blaspheme the true religion, sent him into exile. Three years later, in 1198, he was exonerated and allowed to live in Marrakech where he died a short time later at age 72. With the death of Averroës the Golden Age of Philosophy among the Muslims came to an end, a victim of religious fundamentalism. It is ironic that this greatest commentator on Aristotle enjoyed his most avid and attentive readership, not among his own people, but in the Latin West.


Deborah Black, "Averroës," in Dictionary of Literary Biography. Vol. 115: Medieval Philosophers. Ed. Jeremiah Hackett (Detroit, Mich.: Gale Research, Inc., 1992): 68–79.

F. E. Peters, Aristotle and the Arabs; The Aristotelian Tradition in Islam (New York: New York University Press, 1968).

Richard Taylor, "Averroës," in A Companion to Philosophy in the Middle Ages. Eds. Jorge J. E. Gracia and Timothy B. Noone (London: Blackwell, 2003): 182–195.


views updated May 09 2018

Averroism. The views associated with Averroes (Ibn Rushd), which became influential in Jewish and Christian philosophy from 1230 onward. Since these attributed views included the absolute separation of God from his creation, the eternity of matter and its potentiality, and the notion of ‘double truth’, one (literal in relation to revelation) for the uneducated and the other allegorical, much of the Christian response became hostile: Averroism was condemned in 1270 and 1277, and was strongly criticized by Aquinas. Nevertheless, Averroist philosophers continued to defend this outlook, the most prominent being Siger of Brabant (c.1235–1284).


views updated May 17 2018

Averroës (Abu al-Walid ibn Rushd) (1126–98) Leading Islamic philosopher in Spain. He became physician to the caliph of Marrakesh in 1182, but was banished to Spain in 1195 for advocating reason over religion. His major work, Incoherence of the Incoherence, defends Neoplatonism and Aristotle. He exercised a powerful influence on Christian thought that persisted into the Renaissance. See also Aquinas; scholasticism

Averroes (1126-1198)

views updated May 23 2018

Averroes (1126-1198)

Name generally used for Abul-Walid Mohammed ibn-Ahmad ibn-Mohammed ibn-Rushd, one of the greatest Arabian philosophers, and a commentator on the works of Aristotle. He was born at Cordova and studied theology, mathematics, medicine, jurisprudence, and philosophy. He traveled widely and died in Morocco.

His writings greatly influenced Christian theologians, especially Thomas Aquinas, who obtained copies of his writings as a result of the Crusades. Averroes followed the concept of God as the source of emanation of intelligence and suggested that religious and philosophical truth may be in contradiction.


views updated May 17 2018

Averroës (c.1126–98), Spanish-born Islamic philosopher, judge, and physician. His extensive body of work includes writings on jurisprudence, science, philosophy, and religion. His highly influential commentaries on Aristotle sought to reconcile Aristotle with Plato and the Greek philosophical tradition with the Arabic.