Cultural relations between the Muslims
and Christian Europe were established in two ways: first via Spain and second by
way of Sicily and the Kingdom of Naples. The translation of Arabic works into
Latin was closely associated with the name of the theologian Raymond who was the
Archbishop of Toledo from 1130 to 1150 AD. In Toledo, the Muslims lived side by
side with the Christians. They lived in the capital and the seat of the
Archbishop spurred their neighbours into taking an interest in the intellectual
life of the Muslims. In Toledo, Raymond established a translation bureau the
purpose of which was to render Arabic masterpieces into Latin. Among works
translated were Arabic versions of Aristotle’s works as well as original works
by Fārābī, Ibn Sīnā (Avicenna) and Ibn Rushd (Averroes). These translations were
made under the supervision of Gundiaslivus (d. 1151) followed by Gerard of
Cremona (d. 1187).
The result of translating Arabic works
into Latin was a new intellectual effort on the part of both supporters and
opponents. Thus the point of view of Western thinkers was broadened and Islamic
thought acquired a new importance with them.
It is an accepted fact now among Western
thinkers that Fārābī exercised a great influence on the philosophy of the Middle
Ages; his book Ishā’ al-‘Ulūm was translated into Latin and was established in
Christian schools, just as it had been in Islamic schools, as an indispensable
reference. Many thinkers made use of this work, such as Roger Bacon (1214-1280
AD), Jerome of Moravia (the first half of the 13th century), Raymond Lull
(1235-1315 AD) and many others.
In an interesting research work on the
influence of the Arabs on music, Farmer showed that this book was of great value
to research workers on the theory of music from among Europeans. He explained
that the value of this book lies in the fact that it has drawn the attention of
Western thinkers to Arabic science. Farmer came to the conclusion that Fārābī’s
book led research workers, who flocked from all parts of the world, to Islamic
Spain to quaff from the spring of Arabic works on music, by men like Kindī,
Fārābī, Ibn Sīnā and Ibn Rushd. In his book on Spinoza, Dunnin Borkoswki has
shown that Fārābī exercised great influence in the Middle Ages on Hebrew
thinkers who translated his works into Hebrew. It seems that this influence
travelled through some Jewish theologians such as Maimonides and Ben Gerson and
came down to modern times until it reached Spinoza. In fact anyone who reads
Spinoza’s De Emendatione Intellectus would be struck by the great similarity
between this book and Fārābī’s book What Should Precede the Study of Philosophy.
The succession of ideas in the two books is the same and the motive behind
philosophizing in both is the same. Even the final aim of the two books is the
same, namely, the knowledge of God “in order to follow His example as much as
lies in the human capacity,” as Fārābī puts it.
It is not surprising that Spinoza should
find in the doctrines of Islamic philosophers, mentioned by his masters, what he
missed in thinkers of the Jewish creed such as Ben Gerson, Crescas and Ben Ezra.
Scarcely did one century elapse after
the first translations of Arabic works when the European thinkers decided to
choose the philosophy of Ibn Sīnā as representative of Islamic Philosophy.
Gundislivus translated al-Shifā (The Book of Cure) into Latin while Gerard of
Cremona translated al-Qānūn which became a text-book for Medicine in all
European Colleges from the 13th to the 17th century. It was due to this book
that Ibn Sīnā achieved fame in the West, so much so that Dante put him on a
level between Hyppocrates and Galenus, while Scalinger went as far as to placing
him in the same category as Galenus in medicine, but on an even higher level in
In a series of valuable research works,
Professor Gilson has explained the extent of Ibn Sīnā’s influence on European
thought in the Christian Middle Ages. He has also shown the close relation
between this Muslim philosopher and the theologians of the school of Augustinus,
asserting that western philosophy in the 13th century was no more than diverse
attitudes towards Aristotle on the one hand and Ibn Sīnā and Ibn Rushd on the
other. The followers of Augustinus took from these new ideas a certain set to
complete their doctrine (with a few interpretations), at the same time
discarding other sets. They took from Ibn Sīnā, for instance, the illumination
of the “active intellect”, yet they apply to God the same meanings as he gives
to the intellect of the moon’s sphere. Gilson proposed that this trend of
thought in Europe should be given the name of “L’Augustinisme Avicennisant” (Avicennian
Augustinism). After Gilson, other Western scholars extended their study of this
important subject and dealt with scholastic thinkers who were not Augustinians.
In 1934, Pere de Vaux published his research on “L’Avincennisme Latin” in the
12th and 13th centuries. In that research, he showed that Christian theologians
with a tendency to Avicennism quaffed at the springs of Islamic philosophy,
using it as a source of their inspiration. Besides these, however, there were
other thinkers who followed the doctrines of Ibn Sīnā even where it diverged
from Christian beliefs. Those were called by Pere de Vaux “Latin Aviceninans”.
The first Christian thinkers to be
influenced by Ibn Sīnā was Gundisalivus, the head of the Translation Bureau in
Spain. He wrote his book: The Soul in which he started with Ibn Sīnā and ended
with Augustinus. He adopted Ibn Sīnā’s proofs of the existence of the soul,
indicating that it was a substance and not an accident, immortal and spiritual.
He also adopted from Ibn Sīnā his famous symbol known as “the man suspended in
space” with no relation with the outside world, and yet his mind revealing to
him that he is a thinking being which exists. That symbol was mentioned by many
authors of the Christian Middle Ages, and so it is possible that Descartes (17th
century) received it from them and expressed it in his Meditations in the
formula cagito ergo sum.
An evidence of Ibn Sīnā’s influence on
Christian Middle Ages can perhaps be revealed in the strong attack launched by
Guillaume d’Auvergne (d. 1249) against Aristotle and his “disciples” (Fārābī,
Ibn Sīnā and Ghazālī). This theologian mentioned Ibn Sīnā about forty times in
his books sometimes opposing his ideas, other times citing his definitions and
examples. He adopts Ibn Sīnā’s definition of truth as “what corresponds in the
mind to what is outside it.” He also adopts Ibn Sīnā’s distinction between
“essence” and “existence”, as well as his inference that the soul can be
conscious of itself without resorting to the body. This is the proof mentioned
in al-Shifā and al-Ishārāt and has just been mentioned as the “symbol of the
Roger Bacon was a true representative of
what Gilson called the Avicennian Augustinism. He saw in Ibn Sīnā the greatest
leader of Arabic thought and a philosopher next only to Aristotle. Bacon admired
Ibn Sīnā’s forceful proof of the immortality of the soul, and of happiness in
the other world, of reincarnation, of creation and of the existence of angels.
There is not doubt, then, that Ibn Sīnā
enriched philosophy and science to an extent which made him one of the glories
of human thought.
When we move on to Ibn Rushd, we find
that his commentary on Aristotle’s philosophy won for him great admiration in
Europe, to the extent that Dante called him “The Great Commentator”. It is a
well-known fact that the people at the school of Padova in Italy were followers
of the doctrine of Ibn Rushd, and that Siger de Braban was the leader of the
school of Ibn Rushd in France during the 13th century. The doctrine ascribed to
Ibn Rushd continued to be studied in Europe, both in books and universities from
the middle of the 13th century to the early part of the 17th century.
Scholars of Spinoza’s philosophy will
find that the attitude of this Jewish philosopher towards matters of philosophy,
religion, divine inspiration and prophecy similar to that of Fārābī and Ibn
Rushd before him. Perhaps Spinoza learnt something of Muslim theories through
Maimonides and especially those of Ibn Rushd through the Jewish physician Joseph
del Medigo, one of the followers of the school of Ibn Rushd in the 17th century.
Lastly we must refer to the debt which
Jewish philosophy owes to Arabic philosophy. Suffice it to say that Aristotle’s
works were not translated into Hebrew, but Jewish philosophers were content with
what the Muslims wrote as summaries and commentaries. It was discovered by
western scholars that Jewish theologians followed in the steps of Muslim
philosophers, and that thinkers before Maimonides owed their methods and ideas
in religion to them. They also discovered that The Guide for the Bewildered by
Maimonides, although full of criticism of the opinions of Muslim philosophers,
shows beyond any doubt the importance of Muslim philosophy, and its influence on
We do not, however, want anyone to think
that we are trying to boast unjustifiably of the achievements of the Muslims; in
actual fact, what we have briefly given here is derived from what western
scholars themselves have written, both in the Middle Ages and in our own time.
According to their testimony, western culture has greatly profited by the
material contributed by the thinkers of Islam.
When the time comes for the doctrines of
Islamic philosophers to be studied as they should, and when their unpublished
heritage comes to light, we shall then be able to truly show the right place of
Muslim philosophy in the intellectual heritage of humanity.
The philosophers of Islam we have
mentioned above are close to us; indeed they still live in us. We shall not get
rid of our history however much we may recant it, just as man cannot get rid of
his past life, however much he may try to forget it.