(History of the World: The Middle Ages)

Article abstract: Jurist, physician, and philosopher, Ibn Rushd was one of the last of a line of medieval Muslim scholars who sought to reconcile the truths of revealed religion and dialectical reasoning. Known to the medieval Christian Schoolmen by the name of Averroës, he exercised an overwhelming influence upon Latin thought through his commentaries on Aristotle.

Early Life

Abu al-Walid Muhammad ibn Ahmad ibn Muhammad ibn Rushd, generally known as Ibn Rushd, and to the medieval Christian West as Averroës, was born in 1126 into a distinguished Spanish-Arab family of jurists in Córdoba, the former capital of the Umayyad Caliphate in Spain. His grandfather, who died in the year of his birth, had been a distinguished Malikite jurisconsult, who had held the office of chief qadi (Muslim judge) of the city, as well as imam (prayer leader) of its great mosque, still one of the most celebrated monuments of early Islamic architecture. Ibn Rushd’s father was also a qadi, and in the course of time he too would follow the family calling. His biographers state that he was given an excellent education in all the branches of traditional Islamic learning, including medicine, in which he was the pupil of a celebrated teacher, Abu Jafar Harun al-Tajali (of Trujillo), who may also have initiated him into a lifelong passion for philosophy. The young scholar was also influenced by the writings of one of the most famous thinkers of the previous generation, Ibn Bajja of Saragossa (died 1138), known to the Latin Schoolmen as Avempace.

By 1157, Ibn Rushd, now thirty years old, had made his way to Marrakech in Morocco, at that time the capital of the North African and Spanish empire of the Almohads, where he was perhaps employed as a teacher. Ibn Rushd lived during a very distinctive period in the history of Islam in Spain and the Maghrib. A century before his birth, the disintegration of the Caliphate of Córdoba had led to the fragmentation of Muslim Spain among the so-called Party Kings (Arabic muluk al-tawaif), who in turn had been overthrown by the Berber tribal confederacy of the Almoravids (Arabic al-murabitun, “those dwelling in frontier fortresses”). These fanatical warriors from the western Sahara had quickly succumbed to the hedonistic environment of Spanish Islam, only to be replaced by another wave of Berber fundamentalists, the Almohads (Arabic al-muwahhidun, “those who affirm God’s unity”). Under ʿAbd al-Mumin (reigned 1130-1163), who assumed the title of caliph, the Almohads conquered all southern and central Spain as well as the North African littoral as far east as modern Libya.

Within the context of the cultural and intellectual history of the Muslim West, the Almohads played a highly ambiguous role. The spearhead of a puritanical movement sworn to the cleansing of Islam of latter-day accretions and to a return to the pristine mores of the days of the Prophet and the “Rightly-Guided Caliphs” (Arabic al-Khulafa al-Rashidun), they were also the heirs, through their conquests, to the intellectually precocious and culturally sophisticated traditions of Muslim Spain. The ruling elite seems to have dealt with this paradox by developing a deliberate “double standard”: Within the walls of the caliph’s palace and of the mansions of the great, the brilliant civilization of an earlier age continued to flourish, while outside, in street and marketplace, obedience to the Shariʿa, the law of Islam, was strictly enforced at the behest of the clerical classes, the ulama (persons learned in the Islamic “sciences”) and the fuqaha (those learned in jurisprudence). The life of Ibn Rushd himself points to a similar dichotomy. Outwardly, he was a qadi and a faqih, a judge and a jurisprudent; inwardly, he was a faylasuf, a philosopher with an insatiable urge to pursue speculative inquiry by rational argument, and to delve deep into the infidel wisdom of the ancients.

In 1163, ʿAbd al-Mumin was succeeded by his son, Abu Yaqub Yusuf, who throughout his reign (1163-1184) was to be a generous patron and friend to Ib Rushd. Apparently, it was a contemporary scholar, Ibn Tufayl (c. 1105-1184), known to the Latins as Abubacer, who first presented Ibn Rushd to Abu Yaqub Yusuf, probably around 1169. Tradition relates that, at their first meeting, the caliph began by asking Ibn Rushd (who may already have been working on a commentary on Aristotle’s De caelo) about the origin and nature of the sky. While the latter hesitated, uncertain as to how to reply to questions which raised dangerous issues of orthodoxy, the caliph turned to converse with Ibn Tufayl, and in so doing revealed his own extensive learning. Reassured, Ibn Rushd embarked upon a discourse which so displayed the depth and range of his scholarship that the delighted caliph thereafter became his ardent disciple. It was on this occasion, too, that Abu Yaqub Yusuf complained that the existing translations of the works of Aristotle were too obscure for comprehension and that there was need for further commentaries and exegeses. Ibn Tufayl remarked that he himself was too old to assume such an undertaking, at which Ibn Rushd agreed to assume the task that was to become his life’s work.

Life’s Work

The name of Ibn Rushd is inextricably linked with that of Aristotle, and it is for his commentaries on the works of the latter that, under the name of Averroës, he became so famous in the Christian West. Since the end of antiquity, no one had studied the writings of Aristotle, or what passed for his writings, so carefully as Ibn Rushd, and in his numerous commentaries, many of which are now lost or are known only through Hebrew or Latin translations, he set out to remove the exegetical accretions of earlier ages. The Great Commentator, as the Latin Schoolmen liked to call him, did not perhaps have a very original mind, but he did have a highly analytical one, capable of great critical penetration.

Ibn Rushd understood Aristotle better than his predecessors had because his powers of analysis enabled him, almost alone in the Arabo-Aristotelian philosophical tradition, to circumvent the glosses superimposed upon Aristotle by a spurious tradition which had for so long concealed the real Aristotle, consisting of such works as the Theologia Aristotelis derived from Plotinus, the Liber de causis of Proclus, and the commentary on Aristotle of Alexander of Aphrodisias. This “contamination of Aristotle,” as David Knowles, in The Evolution of Medieval Thought (1962), has described it, laid upon medieval Arab and Jewish scholars alike the temptation to undertake “a synthesis in the systems of Plato and Aristotle,” but this was a false trail which, for the most part, Ibn Rushd avoided following, largely on account of his intellectual acuity. On the other hand, he was a man of his times. Preoccupied as he was with political thought and its relationship to personal conduct, he nevertheless did not have access to Aristotle’s Politics. He was therefore forced to rely upon Plato’s Republic and Laws and Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics, and was heavily dependent upon his predecessor al-Farabi. Ibn Rushd had no knowledge of Greek. Therefore, he was compelled to study both Aristotle and Aristotle’s Greek commentators in Arabic translations made from Syriac or, more rarely, from the original Greek. This fact alone makes his achievement the more remarkable. It helped him that, from the outset of his career as a scholar, his unabashed admiration for Aristotle as a thinker drove him to try to uncover the authentic mind beneath the palimpsests of later generations, the mind of the man who, in his words, “was created and given to us by divine providence that we might know all there is to be known. Let us praise God, who set this man apart from all others in perfection, and made him approach very near to the highest dignity humanity can attain” (quoted by Knowles).


(The entire section is 3315 words.)