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Ibn Rushd, Abū al-Walīd Muḥammad Aḥmad

By:
Oliver Leaman
Source:
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam

Ibn Rushd, Abū al-Walīd Muḥammad Aḥmad

Abū al-Walīd Muḥammad Aḥmad ibn Rushd (520 AH/1126 CE–595 AH/1198 CE) was often regarded as the outstanding Aristotelian in the Islamic world. Known as Averroës in Latin, he came to revolutionize philosophy in Christian and Jewish Europe and is sometimes credited with having been a strong influence on the movement to bring about the European Renaissance. He worked as a physician, lawyer, and theologian and became a significant political and legal figure in Córdoba during the period of Islamic rule under the Almohad regime, something that made his life difficult at times when political conditions changed. He was sometimes exiled, and indeed ended his life in exile in North Africa, though precisely why is unknown.

His main influence is undoubtedly his contribution to the understanding of Aristotle, on most of whose works he wrote a variety of commentaries, explaining and clarifying a difficult and technical thinker in such a way that others could more readily engage with his ideas and develop them. He wrote three different kinds of commentary on most of Aristotle 's texts—a long one for scholars, and medium-length and shorter ones for a wider public. Frequently in these briefer commentaries Ibn Rushd expressed his own opinions quite directly on a range of philosophical and theological issues, but in the long commentaries he tried, on the whole successfully, to preserve a dispassionate academic tone.

He was also a trenchant defender of his kind of philosophy, often labeled Peripatetic (mashshāʿī), which had been recently attacked by al-Ghazālī and had also come under suspicion by the religious authorities of al-Andalus for its apparent heterodoxy. Never one to avoid a challenge, Ibn Rushd argued in his Decisive Treatise that not only is it acceptable to study philosophy, Muslims are in fact obliged to do so, and they must also seek philosophical solutions to theological problems, since the theologians are incapable themselves of resolving such dilemmas as how to interpret the Qurʿān. It is hardly surprising that this sort of defiant response did not endear him to the enemies of philosophy. In fact, after his death his works fell very much out of favor in the Islamic world, even in the West, and he was largely ignored in the Arab world until he was rediscovered in the nineteenth century and viewed as one of the original inspirations of the Arab Renaissance (nahḍah). Ibn Rushd 's arguments showed how to reconcile religion with reason, thus bringing together religion and modernity and science, one of the pressing ideological issues of the Middle East in the pre-modern and modern periods. Whether the radical directions in which his work was taken actually represented his own views seems unlikely. He did, however, develop the thesis that religion and reason are different routes to the same truth, and within a cultural context where religion is regarded as the major route to the truth, as in medieval Europe and the modern Islamic world, Ibn Rushd seems subversive.

Ibn Rushd 's works had a strong influence on the Jewish and Christian communities of his time and, later, an influence entirely out of proportion to his status in the Islamic world. He was regarded as the commentator par excellence, particularly on Aristotle, the most popular and highly regarded thinker of the time. Under his Latin name Averroës he continued for many centuries to be read in Latin as the main authority on Aristotle. A movement grew in Christian Europe called “radical Averroism,” which based itself on some of his arguments and argued for a radical split between religion and reason. This provides the grounds for those who argue that he led the way to the tendency of the European Renaissance itself and the later Enlightenment to depose traditional religion and elevate reason. That this was actually Ibn Rushd 's own view seems unlikely, but it certainly is true that he laid the groundwork for such a development by laying out so clearly the distinctive approaches that religion and philosophy take to various issues, and it was this principle that was felt to be so subversive and exciting in the Jewish and Christian intellectual worlds. Often linked with Maimonides, Ibn Rushd was a significant figure in Jewish philosophy for a very long time indeed.

See also GHAZāLī, ABū ḤāMID AL-; PHILOSOPHY; and THEOLOGY.

Bibliography

  • Hourani, George, trans. Averroës on the Harmony of Religion and Philosophy. London, 1976.
  • Leaman, Oliver. Averroës and his Philosophy. London, 1997.
  • Urvoy, Dominique. “Ibn Rushd.” In History of Islamic Philosophy, edited by Seyyed Hossein Nasr and Oliver Leaman, pp. 330–345. London, 1996.
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