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Ibn Rushd
Jamil Ahmad


Muslim Spain has produced some of the brightest intellectual luminaries of the Middle Ages. One of them was Ibn Rushd, better known as Averroes in the west who is universally acknowledged as the greatest philosopher of Islam and one of the greatest of all times. Being a versatile genius, he influenced the course of thought both in the east and in the west in more than one domain of knowledge. According to George Sarton: `He was great because of the tremendous stir he made in the minds of men for centuries. A history of Averroism would include all the essential elements of a history of thought from the end of the twelfth century to the end of the sixteenth, a period of four centuries which would perhaps deserve as much as any other to be called the Middle Ages, for it was the real transition between ancient and modern methods.'

Abu’l Walīd Muhammad Ibn Ahmad Ibn Muhammad Ibn Rushd, known as Averroes in the west was born in Cordova, the metropolis of Muslim Spain in 1126 AD. He came of an illustrious Muslim family of Cordova which held the high office of the Grand Qazi for the last two generations, Ibn Rushd himself occupying the same post in the third generation. His grandfather Abu’l Walīd Muhammad Ibn Rushd (1058-1126) was an eminent Māliki theologian, who was the Imam of the Grand Mosque of Cordova. His father also occupied the high office of the Qazi. The young Ibn Rushd received his education in his native city which was the highest seat of learning in the west. He was taught Tradition by Abu’l Qāsim, Abū Marwān Ibn Masarrat, Abū Jāfar Ibn Azīz and Abū Abdullāh Marzi. He learnt fiqh from Hāfiz Abū Muhammad Ibn Rizq. Abū Jāfar, a reputed scholar, taught him medicine. Ibn Rushd soon acquired great scholarship in literature, law, philosophy and medicine. He was a contemporary of some of the outstanding thinkers of Muslim Spain, including Ibn Zuhr, Ibn Bāja and Ibn Tufayl. Ibn Rushd was a juris-consult of the first rank and was appointed Qazi of Seville in 1169-70. In 1182-83, he was invited by the Almohade Caliph Abū Yāqūb (1163-84) to Morocco and replaced Ibn Tufayl as the Court Physician. In the beginning, he was patronized and respected by the succeeding Almohade Caliph Yāqūb al-Mansūr (1184-99), but, when the pent-up Berber fanaticism burst forth, he fell victim to religious fanatics who were jealous of his genius. The Caliph had to banish him to Lucena, a Jewish colony near Cordova. His entire library consisting of invaluable books except the scientific ones was reduced to ashes in 1194-95. In 1198, when the religious fanaticism subsided, Ibn Rushd was recalled to Morocco by the Almohade Ruler Yāqūb al-Mansūr, but he did not live long to enjoy the favours of his patron and died on December 10th, 1198 at the age of 75.

Ibn Rushd was known for his humility and hospitality. Being pensive by nature, he abhorred position and wealth. He passed most of his time in study. He did not make any distinction in his treatment towards friends and foes. He was a great lover of his native land. Like Plato who in his "Republic" has highly praised Greece, Ibn Rushd has claimed his native land, Spain, to be the rival of Greece. According to Ptolemy, Greece possessed the best climate in the world, but Ibn Rushd claims the same distinction for Cordova, the capital of Muslim Spain.

Averroes, who was considered Avicenna of the west, applied himself to philosophy, mathematics, medicine, astronomy, logic and Islamic jurisprudence. His works have been given to the world by Renan. `He was one of the profoundest commentators', says Munk `of Aristotle's works'. According to Ibn al-Abar, his writings are spread over more than twenty thousand pages, the most important works being on philosophy, medicine and fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence). He was an eminent legist of his time and worked as a Qazi for a considerable period. His "Bidāyatu’l Mujtahid wa Nihāyatu’l Muqtasid" is, according to Abū Jāfar Dhahabi, the best book ever written on this subject. Renan has given a detailed list of his writings in his "Averroes" (3rd Ed, Pgs 58-79). The list totals 67 works of Ibn Rushd, including 28 on philosophy, 5 on theology, 8 on law, 4 on grammar and 20 on medicine. He was an astronomer of repute who wrote "Kitāb fī Harkati’l Falaq", a treatise dealing with the motion of the sphere. He also summarized the "Almagest" of Ptolemy which was translated into Hebrew by Jacob Anatoli in 1231. He is credited with the discovery of sunspots.

Muslim rulers had the reputation of being the greatest patrons of learning in the world. Writing in his well-known book "The Making of Humanity" Robert Briffault admits: `The incorruptible treasures and delights of intellectual culture were accounted by the princes of Baghdad, Shiraz and Cordova, the truest and proudest pomps of their courts. But it was not a mere appendage of their princely vanity that the wonderful growth of Islamic science and learning was fostered by their patronage. They pursued culture with the personal ardour of an over mastering craving. Never before and never since, on such a scale, has the spectacle been witnessed of the ruling classes throughout the length and breadth of a vast empire given over entirely to a frenzied passion for the acquirement of knowledge. Learning became with them the chief business of life. The Caliphs and the Amīrs hurried from their Dīwāns to closet themselves in their libraries and observatories ... Caravans laden with manuscripts and Botanical specimens plied from Bukhara to Tigris, from Egypt to Andulusia; embassies were sent to Constantinople and to India for the purpose of obtaining books and teachers; a collection of Greek authors or a distinguished mathematician was as eagerly demanded as the ransom of an Empire.' The Umayyad Caliph of Spain, al-Hakam had founded a magnificent library containing about half a million books. He had accumulated a rare collection of books on eastern philosophy and was instrumental in creating a taste for philosophy in Spain which in later years produced some of the greatest Muslim philosophers in the west, including Ibn Rushd. About two centuries later, another Muslim ruler of the West, Abdu’l Mu’min, who was himself a great scholar had drawn to his court a galaxy of talented thinkers, including Ibn Tufayl and Ibn Rushd. The learned Averroes owed his knowledge in philosophy to Abū Ja`far Hārūn, a well-known rationalist of Andulusia. But the philosophy of Ibn Bāja reached its climax in Averroes who surpassed his teacher and rose to be the greatest commentator and exponent of Aristotelian philosophy in the world. Together with Ibn Massara and Ibn Arabi, Ibn Rushd forms the trio of the greatest Arabian thinkers of Spain. The first two were essentially mystic, while the third (Averroes) was a rationalist.

His chief philosophical work is "Tahāfutu’l Tahāfut" (The Refutation of the Refutation), which was written in refutation of al-Ghazāli's work, "Tahāfutu’l Falāsifa" (The Refutation of Philosophy). This work of Averroes evoked severe criticism and stirred bitter reaction throughout the Muslim world. A strong refutation of Ibn Rushd’s arguments in "Tahāfutu’l Tahāfut” was made by a Turk, Mustafā Ibn Yūsuf al-Bursawī, commonly known as Khwājah Zādā (d:1487) who wrote a third refutation. This indicated once more the weakness of human understanding and the strength of faith. But, contrary to Muslim reactions, the philosophical writings of Averroes produced a great impact on Christian Europe and he still continues to be the most popular Muslim philosopher in the West. Alfred Gillaume in his article on philosophy and theology in his "Legacy of Islam" writes: `Ibn Rushd belongs to Europe and European thought rather than to the east ... Averroism continued to be a living factor in European thought until the birth of modern experimental science. Latin is said to have preserved more than one of Ibn Rushd’s works which Arabic had lost.' His "Tahāfutu’l Tahāfut" is essentially a reply to al-Ghazāli's attack on rationalism. His fame as a philosopher, specially in the west, both in Christian and Jewish circles is based on his three commentaries of Aristotle's works known as the "Jāmi`" (Summary), the "Talkhīs" (Resume) and a long "Tafsīr or Sharah" (Commentary). These commentaries were translated into Hebrew by Samuel Ibn Tibbun in the first half of the thirteenth century, by Jacob Anatoli in 1232 and by Michael Scott and Hermann into Latin. These translations were later revised in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Among his other philosophical treatises are "Kitāb Fasl u’l Maqāl" and the "Kitāb Kashfu’l Manāhij", which were edited by M.J. Muller and published in Munich in 1859.

Regarding predestination, Ibn Rushd maintained that man was `neither the absolute master of his destiny nor bound by fixed immutable decrees, but, that the truth lay in the middle' `Human actions depend partly on free-will and partly on outside causes. These causes spring from general laws of nature, God alone knows their sequence.' According to him, man should make utmost efforts to attain perfection which implies complete identification with the active universal intellect. This human perfection can only be attained through study, speculation and negation of desires specially those relating to the senses.

Ibn Rushd considered the Pious Caliphate as the model republic in which the dreams of Plato were realized. He claimed women to be equal to men in all respects and possessing equal capacities to shine in war and peace. He has cited women warriors among Greeks, Arabs and Africans.

Ibn Rushd was the most learned commentator of Aristotelian works and was more Aristotelian than Ibn Sīnā. He corrected some of the misconceptions of Ibn Sīna about the rational philosophy of Aristotle. A number of his invaluable works perished when the Christian conquerors set fire to the intellectual treasures of the Moors (Spanish Muslims) amassed after centuries of intellectual activity. More than eighty thousand rare manuscripts were reduced to ashes in Grenada alone. Muslim thinkers like Ibn Sīna and Ibn Rushd formulated their ideas with logical precision and in the latter Arabic philosophy reached its apogee. It is all the more creditable for the learned Averroes that he compiled his varied and invaluable works in such a distracted state of mind and disturbed conditions.

In the beginning, philosophy was considered to be an irreligious subject in Muslim Spain where the society was formulated on true Islamic lines. Ishāq Ibn `Umrān, a physician of Baghdad was first to introduce philosophy in Spain, which flourished thereafter, specially during the reigns of al-Hakam and Yūsuf Ibn Mu’min. The ideas of Ibn Rushd were incompatible with the religious sentiments of the orthodox Muslims and he was accused of being an atheist. But, according to Phillip K. Hitti: `He was a rationalist and claimed the right to submit everything save the revealed dogmas of faith to the judgement of reason, but he was not a free thinker or disbeliever.' George Sarton also holds similar views: `Ibn Rushd was not by any means less honest and sincere, nor was he necessarily less pious, than the other schoolmen, but he was more intelligent, and his deeper vision enabled him to reconcile statements which seemed irreconcilable to others.' Ibn Rushd, being a rationalist wanted to explain religion in the light of reason. His contemporary Abdu’l Kabīr, a highly religious person, describes him as a person anxious to establish harmony between religion and philosophy. In his well-known book "Averroes and Averroism", Renan writes: `There is nothing to prevent our supposing that Ibn Rushd was a sincere believer in Islamism, especially when we consider how little irrational the supernatural element in the essential dogmas of this religion is, and how closely this religion approaches the purest Deism.'

Ibn Rushd, a versatile genius, is the author of about twenty medical treatises including his encyclopaedic work "Kitābu’l Kulliyāt fī al-Tibb" (General Rules of Medicine), better known as "Colliget" in Latin. This book written before 1162 comprises seven volumes, and gives elaborate treatment to physiology, general pathology, diagnosis, materia medica, hygiene and general theraeutics. He considered that none suffers twice from smallpox. He also fully understood the function of the retina. But his "Colliget" stands no comparison to "Continents" of Rhazes and "Canon" of Avicenna. Actually his fame as a physician was eclipsed by his fame as a philosopher. His "Kulliyāt" was first translated into Latin by the Jew Bonacosa in the latter half of the thirteenth century. It was again translated into Latin by Syphorien Champier in about 1537. It was twice translated into Hebrew. `In Spain, the philosophical bias predominated among medical men', remarks Max Meyerhof. `The prototypes of this combination are the two Muslims, Ibn Zuhr (Avenzoar) and Ibn Rushd (Averroes).'

Muslim Spain has produced some talented musicians both theorists and practical musicians. Ibn Bāja (d:1138) known as Avempace, who as a musical theorist, occupies the same place in the west which Fārābī occupies in the east. Ibn Rushd has also made invaluable contribution to musical theory by writing a commentary on Aristotle's "De Anima" dealing perspicuously with the theory of sound. This was translated into Latin by Michael Scot (d: 1232).

A number of his biographies have appeared in different languages but the most elaborate account of his life and works is found in "Averroes et j' averrosime" written by Ernest Renan published in Paris in 1852. `This admirable work', says George Sarton, `has justly become a classic; it is a penetrating study which every student of mediaeval philosophy ought to read, but it must be used with caution.'

It has been customary with the western writers to minimize the intellectual attainments of Muslim thinkers, but now the less partial researches have lifted this veil and their achievements stand in all their glory. Alfred Guillaume says: `We may be sure that those who accuse the Muslim scholars of lack of originality and of intellectual decadence have never read Averroes or looked into Algazel but have adopted second hand judgements. The presence of doctrines of Islamic origin in the very citadel of Western Christianity, the `Summa' of Aquinas, is a sufficient refutation of the charge of lack of originality and sterility.'

The works of Ibn Rushd which were very popular in the west were translated into several European languages including Latin, Hebrew, German and English. It was through his commentaries that the west learned about Aristotle and other Greek thinkers. The Latin "Editio Princeps" of Aristotle with Averroes' commentaries was published about fifty times in Venice alone. Andrea Alpago of Belluno in Italy (d:1520) translated into Latin, Avicenna's "Canon" and the minor works of Averroes. The Italian emperor Frederik, the Great, who, on account of being a great patron of Muslim culture, was accused by the Bishops to have embraced Islam, was instrumental in getting translated a number of Arabic books, including those of Averroes.

Thus, the works of Averroes which were not so popular in Islamic countries wielded considerable influence in the western thought, both Christian and Jewish.`He deeply influenced Jewish philosophy through many translations and disciples', writes George Sarton, in his monumental work "An Introduction to the Study of Science". `Jewish Averroism reached its zenith under Levi ben Gershon in the first half of the fourteenth century, and it continued to prosper until the end of the fifteenth century. The Christian schoolmen were influenced by the Jewish, and in various ways.' According to Phillip K. Hitti: `The last of the great Arabic writing philosophers, Ibn Rushd belonged more to Christian Europe than to Muslim Asia or Africa. To the west, he became the commentator as Aristotle was `The Teacher'. From the end of the twelfth to the end of the sixteenth century, Averroism remained the dominant school of thought, and that, in spite of the orthodox reaction, it created first among the Muslims in Spain, then among the Talmudists and finally among the Christian clergy ... After being purged of objectionable matter by ecclesiastical authorities, his writings became prescribed studies in the University of Paris and other institutions of higher learning. With all its excellence and other misconceptions collected under its name, the intellectual movement initiated by Ibn Rushd continued to be a living factor in European thought until the birth of modern experimental science'.


(Extracted from "The Hundred Great Muslims")

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