Introduction | Life | Work | Books
AverroŽs (Ibn Rushd)
(Detail from 'Triunfo de Santo TomŠs de Aquino' by Andrea Bonaiuto c. 1368)
AverroŽs (AKA Ibn Rushd or Ibn Roschd or, in full, Abu al-Walid Muhammad ibn Ahmad ibn Rushd) (1126 - 1198) was a Spanish-Arabic philosopher, physician, lawyer and polymath from the Andalusia region of southern Spain in the Medieval period. After his death, the Averroism movement grew up around his teachings, and his work greatly influenced the subsequent development of Scholasticism in Western Europe.
In the Islamic world, he played a decisive role in the defense of Greek philosophy against the orthodox Ash'arite theologians led by al-Ghazali (1058 - 1111). Although during his lifetime his philosophy was considered controversial in Muslim circles, he had an even greater impact on Western European thought, and he has been described as the founding father of secular thought, becoming known as "The Commentator" in the Christian West.
AverroŽs (pronounced a-VER-o-ees, the Latinized distortion of the actual Arab name Ibn Rushd) was born in 1126 in Cůrdoba (Cordova) in Andalusia, the capital of Muslim Spain. He came from a family of Maliki legal scholars (Maliki is one of the four schools of religious law within Sunni Islam), and both his grandfather, Abu Al-Walid Muhammad, and his father, Abu Al-Qasim Ahmad, were chief judges of Cůrdoba under the Almoravid dynasty which ruled the region until replaced by the Almohads in the mid-12th Century.
His early education followed a traditional path in such a family, beginning with studies in hadith, linguistics, jurisprudence and scholastic theology. He was influenced (and perhaps was once tutored) by the philosopher Ibn Bajjah (1095 - 1138, known as Avempace in the West). His medical education was directed under Abu Jafar ibn Harun of Trujillo, and he showed a clear aptitude for medicine, (his compendium of medicine, "al-Kulliyat" became one of the main medical textbooks for physicians in the Jewish, Christian and Muslim worlds for centuries to come).
In 1169, AverroŽs was made a qadi (a sharia or religious judge) of Seville, and then, in 1172, chief judge of Cůrdova. Throughout this period of his life, he wrote many legal commentaries and treatises on legal methodology, legal pronouncements, sacrifices and land taxes.
During one of his periodic residences in Marrakesh (Marrakech), Morocco, the North African capital of the Almohad dynasty, he was befriended by Ibn Tufail (c. 1105 - 1185, known as Abubacer in the West), a philosopher and official physician and counselor to the caliph Abu Yaqub Yusuf. Ibn Tufail introduced AverroŽs to the caliph, and the prince was so impressed by the young philosopher that he employed him, first as his chief judge and later in 1182 as chief physician. He also commissioned AverroŽs to write a series of commentaries on the texts of Aristotle, (for whom AverroŽs professed the greatest esteem in all matters of science and philosophy), which became one of AverroŽs' main legacies to Western philosophy.
However, despite the general liberalism of the Almohad Dynasty, public pressure from the more orthodox Islamic elements under the third Almohad caliph, Abu Yusuf Ya'qub al-Mansur, led to the formal rejection of AverroŽs and his strict rationalist views in 1195. He was tried as a heretic by the religious community of Cůrdova, exiled to Lucena (a largely Jewish village outside of Cůrdoba) his writings were banned and his books burned. Just two years later, shortly before his death, he was rehabilitated, despite continued doubts about his orthodoxy.
AverroŽs died on 10 December 1198 in Marrakesh, Morocco, and his writings found new audiences after his death, mainly in the Christian and Jewish worlds.
AverroŽs is perhaps most famous for his translations and detailed commentaries on the works of Aristotle, which earned for him the title of the "The Commentator". These were based on imperfect Arabic translations, not Greek originals (it is believed that he was unacquainted with Greek or Syriac), and he did not have access to some of the texts (e.g. the"Politics"). The commentaries were organized into three levels: the Jami (a simplified overview), the Talkhis (an intermediate commentary with more critical material) and the Tafsir (an advanced study of Aristotelian thought in a Muslim context).
Many of his commentaries were translated into Hebrew and then into Latin (or sometimes directly into Latin) in the 12th and 13th Century. Many of the works on Logic and Metaphysics have been permanently lost, while others, including some of the longer commentaries, have only survived in Latin or Hebrew translation, and not in the original Arabic.
The significance of these works is that, before 1150, only a few translated works of Aristotle existed in Latin Europe, and they were not studied much or given much credence by monastic scholars, and it was through the Latin translations of AverroŽs' work that the legacy of Aristotle became more widely known in the West, with particular importance for the Medieval Scholastic movement. AverroŽs also argued for the emancipation of science and philosophy from official Ash'ari Muslim theology, and some writers regard him as a precursor to modern secularism, or even the founding father of secular thought in Western Europe.
His most important original philosophical work was "Tahafut al-tahafut" ("The Incoherence of the Incoherence"), in which he defended Aristotelian philosophy against the claims of al-Ghazali in his "Tahafut al-falasifa" ("The Incoherence of the Philosophers"). Al-Ghazali had argued that Aristotelianism, especially as presented in the earlier writings of Avicenna, was self-contradictory and an affront to the teachings of Islam. AverroŽs contended both that al-Ghazali's arguments were mistaken, but also that, in any case, Avicenna's interpretations were a distortion of genuine Aristotelianism, so that, in effect, al-Ghazali was aiming at the wrong target.
For AverroŽs, there was no conflict between religion and philosophy, believing rather that they were just different ways of reaching the same truth. He identified two kinds of knowledge of truth: knowledge of truth from religion (for the unlettered multitude, based in faith and untestable); and knowledge of truth from philosophy (the real truth, but reserved for an elite few who had the intellectual capacity to undertake such study). He was bold enough to claim the superiority of reason and philosophy over faith and knowledge founded on faith, and to emphasize the independent use of reason, and the idea that the philosophical and religious worlds are separate entities.
He believed in an eternal universe, and in a soul which is divided into two parts (an individual part, and a divine part which is eternal and shared by all). His belief in the then radical idea that "existence precedes essence" was developed much later by the Transcendent Theosophy of Mulla Sadra (c. 1571 Ė 1640) in the 17th Century and by Existentialism in the 20th Century.
AverroŽs was also a highly-regarded legal scholar of the Maliki School, and he produced a textbook of Maliki doctrine in a comparative framework, as well as detailed commentaries based on the works of other legal scholars. In medicine, he wrote a medical encyclopedia called "Kulliyat" (usually translated as "Generalities", i.e. general medicine), as well as a compilation of the works of prominent ancient Greek physician Galen (129 - 200 A.D.) and a commentary on the "Qanun fi 't-tibb" ("The Canon of Medicine") of Avicenna. He also made his own contributions to physics (particularly elements of mechanics such as force, kinetic energy and inertia), astronomy (arguing for a strictly concentric model of the universe, and describing sunspots and an opaque moon) and psychology (active and passive intellect).
See the additional sources and recommended reading list below, or check the philosophy books page for a full list. Whenever possible, I linked to books with my amazon affiliate code, and as an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases. Purchasing from these links helps to keep the website running, and I am grateful for your support!