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Averroes an Enlightenment philosopher and his life story

Syncing Through Life and Times of Averroes

The unconditional commitment and dedication of Averroes Organization for Coexistence are achieving the goal of creating a bond of togetherness and a culture of Coexistence, Peace and Tolerance amidst various communities.

Through the leadership and guidance of Mohamed Dekkak, Executive President Averroes Organization for Coexistence based in Marrakech, Kingdom of Morocco, where Ibn Rushd marked history. May the organization become an opportunity for communities to build unity to achieve common aspirations and inspire to build bridges of togetherness.

We are also identifying potential community leaders to be trained on strengthening community-led monitoring mechanism to live inspired by the teachings of Ibn Rushd so that we can strengthen ourselves and our community,” said Mohamed Dekkak, Executive President of the organization.

Below, Let us rediscover the Life and Times of The Muslim Aristotelian, Abul Walid Mohammad Ibn Ahmad Ibn Rushd who was credited with having been a strong influence on the movement that ushered in the European Renaissance.

1. Biography

Averroes (or Ibn Rushd) was a prominent Andalusian Arab philosopher, thinker, doctor and jurist of the 12th century (1126-1198). He wrote numerous books (about seventy-eight) on topics as various as philosophy, theology, astronomy, physics, medicine, Islamic jurisprudence, law, and linguistics. He is considered to be a high-level intellectual of his time, and his works continued to influence intellectuals all over the world for centuries after his death. His wisdom and progressive ideas are praised.

Education and personality

Averroes was born in Cordoba in 1126 to a respectable family. His father and grandfather had themselves been prominent Qaadis (magistrates) of their time, and his family was highly respected among elites and knowledgeable people. Back then, Cordoba was a place of intense intellectual activity, and it is in this particular environment that Averroes started to get his education, under the guidance of brilliant professors. He began studying the Quran and Hadiths, grammar, poetry, writing and basic mathematics. His father trained him to Maliki Islamic jurisprudence. He then studied physics, astronomy, medicine and advanced mathematics.

His primary areas of interest were law and its principles (rather than Hadiths), along with Greek philosophy and sciences. Averroes was very competent in Khilaf (disputes in Islamic jurisprudence).

Averroes was a profoundly religious yet considerably progressive intellectual. His high spirituality did not prevent him, in any way, from having ideas, values, and philosophies that were ahead of his time. It even cost him his freedom, as he was imprisoned and exiled for a while, allegedly for his stance on the compatibility of religion with philosophy.

Life achievements

In 1153, at the age of 27, Averroes was invited to the capital of the Almohad caliphate (Marrakesh – present-day Morocco) by Caliph Abdul Momin Ibn Ali to offer consultations on astronomy, on the establishment of some schools in Morocco, and on the reform of the judiciary.

In 1169, he was introduced to Caliph Abu Yaqub Yusuf, with whom he discussed on subjects as the existence and the origins of the heavens. Caliph Abu Yaqub Yusuf himself was aware of what the works of Aristotle consisted in. As both the Caliph and Averroes shared similar views on different matters, Averroes remained in Abu Yaqub’s favor until the Caliph’s death in 1184. Initially, it is for the Caliph that Averroes started writing commentaries on Aristotle’s works. Averroes’ first commentary on Aristotle’s works dates back to 1169.

Also in 1169, Averroes was appointed Qadi in Seville until 1171, when he was appointed Qadi in Cordoba for ten years. It is mainly during those ten years that Averroes kept writing his Commentaries on Aristotle’s works. As a Qadi, he performed the same duties as a judge, except that his rulings were based on Islamic law and jurisprudence. In 1179, he once again became Qadi in Seville until he became a court physician in 1182. A little later during the same year, he was selected to be the chief Qadi of Cordoba, just like his grandfather had earlier been.

In 1184, Caliph Abu Yaqub died, and this was when Averroes’ fate started to change. He remained in royal favor for a while but was later charged with several serious offenses in 1195 and then tried in a tribunal in Cordoba. His teachings were condemned, and his works were partly burnt. Indeed, all his works on philosophy were burnt, but not the ones on medicine and astronomy. Averroes even had to exile to Lucena. It is assumed that the Caliph rejected him to gain more support from the more radical and orthodox Maliki jurists. Averroes was considered too progressive, and the orthodox jurists of the time did not agree with his views, that they qualified as a mere lack of faith in religion.

However, after a few years of exile, Averroes returned to Marrakesh and was in the Caliph’s favor again. Shortly after that, he died in 1189.  Later on, his body was shifted to his hometown, Cordoba.

2. Averroes’ Scientific Contributions For the Modern World

Averroes first wrote a book at the age of 31. He quickly began to increase his writings and the variety of the subjects that he covered. He wrote about philosophy, medicine, jurisprudence, linguistics, and astronomy. The work that made him famous on a global level was his commentaries of Aristotle’s works. He is said to have written approximately 78 books.

In the field of medicine

Averroes’ work in medicine dealt with research, analysis, and treatment of diseases, although he noticeably preferred to research and study. His best-known work, in medicine, is Kitab Al-Kulliyaat (General Principles of Medicine), written in 1162 before he was appointed as the royal physician of the Almohad court. His book served as a textbook, officially used in western medical colleges and universities for centuries (until the 18th century). It was a book of great importance at the time, as Averroes made interesting and new findings.

In this book, Averroes provided an introduction to physiology. He openly expressed that he adheres to the scientific medicine that we inherited from the Greeks and underlined the necessity to apply the Prophet’s practices and advice in the field of medicine and medical care. Besides this, Averroes made great medical discoveries in his writings.

Averroes gave great importance to observation and experimentation. He considered it a necessity to have an overall knowledge of what natural science taught us in the fields of dissection and the function of body organs. He also was in favor of doctors consulting one another on various matters and this allowed to bring significant progress in the field of medicine.

Averroes’ works reflect his being a deeply religious and well-aware man. He believed that “Anyone who studies anatomy will increase his faith in the omnipotence and the oneness of God the Almighty.”.

Kitab Al-Kulliyaat, Averroes’ main book in the field of medicine, is divided into seven chapters:

  • Anatomy of organs. Averroes described the spinal nerves and seven pairs of cerebral nerves and the two brains, mainly. According to Averroes, the ability to imagine, reflect and memorize belong to the brain. He also found out that the sensitive organ of the eye is the retina, and he was among the first ones to declare that it is the retina that perceives light.
  • Averroes explained that with smallpox if one survives it, is a disease that one only gets once in a lifetime.
  • Averroes gave answers and advice on diarrhea, commented on Galien’s De Febribus (On Fevers) and De Temperamentis. He devoted parts of this chapter to the semen (De Spermate), periodic fevers and putrid fevers. In another part of this chapter, he concluded that rabies is the disease that one gets after being bitten by a dog that is affected by rabies. He also agreed with Ibn Sina (Avicenna) on the fact that hereditary factors play a role in the transmission of certain diseases from father to son.
  • Averroes described a significant number of diseases, along with their symptoms and complications. He even dealt with psychologic conditions such as wrath, sadness, anxiety, and epilepsy.
  • Drugs and foods. Averroes firmly believed that a healthy diet, clean water, and good-quality pure air were the keys to good health. Medication, according to him, is a foreign body and the ingestion of medicines can potentially affect the functioning of body organs, especially the kidneys and the liver. His opinion on drugs was that, in medicine, one should first have recourse to speech, then herbs, and then, as a last resort, to bistoury.
  • Averroes was the author of the first outline of the description of the sarcoptic mange mites, which cause scabies.
  • Averroes dedicated a large part of his book to the different types of existing foods and remedies and their effects. He laid out the basic principles to follow to set the right dosages for medicines.

Besides Kitab Al-Kulliyaat, Averroes wrote other books on medicine. Nevertheless, it is Kitab Al-Kulliyaat that is widely known, even today.

In the field of astronomy

Kitab Fi-Harakat Al-Falak is the title of Averroes’ Treatise of Astronomy. It dealt with the movements of the spheres and the stars. He gave explanations on sunspots and justified the occasional opaqueness of the moon by the fact that the moon does not have the same level of thickness on every spot, but rather has thin and thick spots.

In the field of physics

Averroes came up with a new definition of force that is pretty similar to the definition of power used in physics today.

In the field of psychology

Averroes’ works on psychology evolved as he evolved. In his last work on psychology, he stated that there is only one material intellect. The material intellect does not differ from one human being to another, as it is the same for every human being. The reason behind the fact that different human beings may have different thoughts on the same matter is fikr (the process of active consideration). Some intellectuals disagreed with this idea of all human beings sharing the same “material intellect.”

In the field of law/Islamic jurisprudence

Averroes wrote three treatises in the area of Islamic theology. In The Decisive Treatise (Fasl al-Maqal), Averroes argued that Islam and philosophy are compatible. He wrote this at a time when most religious scholars considered that Islam needs to remain rigid and that it can not be interpreted with a philosophical mindset.

In the Exposition of the Methods of Proof, Averroes rejected orthodox and dogmatic viewpoints and gave his argument on the existence of God and His attributes. For example, arguments existed at the time (and they still exist) on whether God had a “body” or not. Many Orthodox scholars, considered it wrong to think that God may have a body and limited themselves to educating the masses about God being body-less. Averroes said that the reasoning of these orthodox scholars was misguiding and confusing the masses further and that the research made on the topic was poor. He further said that allusions were made in the Quran and the hadiths, about God being a “physical being” as well. So, in order not to misguide the population, it would be more appropriate to explain to them that God is a Light simply.

In Tahafut al-Tahafut (Incoherence of the Incoherence), Averroes once again argued that philosophy is entirely compatible with Islam, rejecting Imam Al-Ghazali’s arguments in particular.

In his book Bidayat al-Mujtahid wa-Nihayat al-Muqtasid, Averroes wrote on various subjects of Fiqh (Islamic law) and concluded that religion and law are not two separate things. These two areas of knowledge cannot be looked at separately. This conclusion made Averroes gain a respected reputation, even among Muslim scholars who were doubtful towards him.

In the field of philosophy

Averroes was mainly known to the world as the “Commentator,” as he commented and paraphrased Aristotle’s works. Averroes’ philosophy is a mixture of the thoughts of Aristotle in their purest form, and Islam. According to Averroes, nothing in Aristotle’s philosophy, if understood properly, contradicts the Quran or the Divine law that encourages to study all things with rationality. He elaborated the importance of uniting rationality/reason (ma’qul) with the tradition (manqul), considering that the truth can not possibly contradict the truth.

3. Main elements of Averroes’ thoughts

Averroes is characterized as a thinker and philosopher whose thoughts were significantly different from other thinkers of his time. Regarding several of his opinions, Averroes can be seen as an enlightened, wise, isolated and marginalized intellectual.

Islamic Philosophy and Aristotelianism

Hanbalite and Asharite schools were particularly skeptical towards philosophy. In a context of hostility towards philosophers, it is with great determination that Averroes kept arguing in favor of philosophy and open-minded reasoning. He kept demonstrating that philosophy and the use of intellect/reasoning/logic are encouraged in Islam.

According to him, Aristotelianism had been distorted and needed to be reinterpreted appropriately. Philosophy, he argued, is a set of conclusions reached using reason, cannot possibly contradict religion. And if there happens to be any conflict between religion and philosophy, then one should subject them to interpretation or allegorical understanding to remove the contradiction.

Averroes also made a distinction between three different modes of religious (and other) discourse. First, the rhetorical mode (consisting of persuasion), is the mode of discourse used in the Quran for instance. It is easily understandable for the masses. Second, the dialectal mode of discourse consists in debating. It is the mode of discourse used by theologians. Third, the demonstrative mode of discourse is used by philosophers, and it consists in logical deduction. He was in favor of using all these modes of discourse to reach better knowledge.

God’s Existence and Attributes

Averroes, In the treatise Exposition of the Methods of Proof, provided a critique of different doctrines of different Muslim schools, mainly the Asharite and the Hanbalite schools.

On the existence of God, Averroes demonstrated that the universe was designed as if it was made to support human life (Providence). He also suggested that God created all elements such as the Sun, the moon, the rivers, the seas, etc. for the welfare of humanity. He also pointed out that the mere appearance of other beings such as animals and plants showed that they were designed and therefore, there must be a Creator behind the creation: God.

On the attributes of God, Averroes was a strong believer in the doctrine of divine unity (tawhid). God has seven divine attributes: knowledge, life, power, will, hearing, vision, and speech, the most important one being knowledge. The knowledge that God possesses can’t be compared to the knowledge we, as human beings have. God knows the universe as its Creator whereas human beings are only the effects of the creation and therefore have limited knowledge.

The attribute of life is proved by the fact that God has the ability to will objects into being. Power is inferred from the fact that God brings creations into existence. Averroes argued that as long as God has power and knowledge, speech is one of his attributes too insofar as power and knowledge definitely result in the use of speech. Moreover, on the attribute of vision, Averroes argued that creating the universe without seeing it is impossible and therefore, God must possess the attribute of vision, too.

The origins of the universe according to Averroes

In his Incoherence of the Incoherence, Averroes expressed his stance on the creation of the universe.

Neoplatonic thinkers such as Al-Farabi and Avicenna argued that the world had always existed, to which Al-Ghazali responded in a furious manner, refuting all their theories and accusing them of unbelief. Averroes responded to Al-Ghazali in his book, arguing that the question of the universe being created in time or having always existed should not enable us to qualify any thinker of a disbeliever.  He also pointed out that some passages of the Quran themselves implied the pre-existence of some aspects of the universe. Averroes, therefore, considered that reading the Quran carefully would allow us to understand that only the form of the universe was created in time, whereas its existence had been eternal.

Averroes’ political ideology

In his commentary on Plato’s Republic, Averroes laid down his ideas while commenting on Plato’s. Averroes explained that the ideal political scenario is one in which Plato’s ideas are combined with the Islamic tradition. For him, the Sharia should be the foundation of the state and the “philosopher-king” should be the imam, who would not only give fatwas but play the role of a (knowledge-lover, wise, just, true, and courageous) philosopher-thinker as well. If the ruling is made impossible for philosophers, these should nonetheless play an important role in the state, by influencing the rulers to achieve the ideal state.

Rather than exerting coercion on the citizens, Averroes was in favor of exerting persuasion on them, with the help of rhetorical, dialectical and demonstrative modes of discourse. War should be a last resort, to defend the state against enemies.

Women, in Averroes’ ideal state, are allowed to share responsibility in the administration of the state. Women’s passive role in the public affairs of the state should not be seen as a positive thing, as their becoming rulers, soldiers and philosophers would guarantee the well-being of the state, according to Averroes.

4. Averroes’ legacy

Today, Averroes is still recognized as a brilliant and genius thinker, philosopher and doctor of the 12th century. His findings in medicine make him still highly respected today. The plant Averrhoa, Lunar crater Ibn Rushd, Asteroid8318 Averroes… all these were named after Averroes.

His findings and writings had a significant influence on intellectuals throughout the centuries following his death. Jewish scholars such as Maimonides were impressed by Averroes’ works. In 1260, Averroes’ works on medicine were first published, along with his commentaries.

Averroes’ also considerably influenced intellectuals belonging to the Latin tradition. Indeed, the fall of the Western Roman Empire had resulted in Europe’s cultural decline. The legacy of the Greek, including Aristotle’s, was lost and it is precisely Averroes’ works on Aristotle (commentaries and translations) that helped the Christian West, to some extent, to have proper access to knowledge again. Later on, some intellectuals in the West criticized Averroes’ positions on the concepts of “eternal, pre-existing world” and “Providence.”

In the Muslim tradition, Averroes’ works didn’t seem appealing at first. Aristotle’s works had already been studied and translated, and this is why Muslims did not pay too much attention to Averroes’ new interpretations. It is only in the 19th century that Averroes became more valued, partly because the Muslim world was going through a phase of modernization and re-awakening at that time.

In conclusion, Averroes is one of those intellectuals of the Andalusian Arab world of the 12th century who not only was able to achieve great things during his life but also managed to be followed and studied long after his death. For centuries after his death, intellectuals continued to study his works and writings and to be impressed by his findings.

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