New Age Islam
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Islam and the West ( 9 May 2014, NewAgeIslam.Com)

Ibn Rushd: An Islamic Rationalist Who Enlightened Europe


By Nastik Durrani, New Age Islam

10 May, 2014

“Those who will not reason are bigots, those who cannot, are fools, and those who dare not, are slaves.” (Andrew Carnegie, a Scottish-American industrialist who led the enormous expansion of the American steel industry in the late 19th century).

Al-Walid Muhammad bin Ahmad Ibn Rushd al-Andalusi, widely known as Ibn Rushd or Averroes, was the last true philosopher of Islam. He was a man of manifold intelligence; a well-versed translator, physician, Islamic jurist (Faqih), judge, theologian, geographer, mathematician, astronomer, musician and a wonderful expert of the Maliki Islamic school of thought. Ibn Rushd’s contributions to philosophy captivated the Europe for four centuries. When St. Thomas Aquinas and Yaqub Anatoli stumbled upon the Latin and Hebrew translations of his original works, he turned into the spiritual and intellectual father of the Europe. His ideas greatly contributed to the creation of “Age of Enlightenment” in the Europe.       

Ibn Rushd was born in Cordoba in 1126 A.D. He belonged to a family of the Qazis (Islamic jurists). His grandfather used to be the Qazi al-Quzat (the supreme jurist) of Cordoba in the period of Murabiteen. Afterwards, Ibn Rushd’s father assumed this post and carried on with it until the fall of the Murabiteen’s regime.

Ibn Rushd learned law and philosophy from the great scholar of his time, Ibn Tufail. When he attained maturity, he chose to live in company with the renowned physician, Ibn Zuhr, with an aim to get expertise in physics and medical sciences. He outshined his teachers and masters in sciences and went so far as being the private physician of the Caliph Abu Yusuf al-Mansur. His teacher, Ibn Zuhr took great pride in him declaring him the greatest physician after Jalinus Fahmi (Galen).

What distinguished Ibn Rushd from both of his teachers, Ibn Tufail and Ibn Zuhr, was that he did not believe blindly in metaphysics and supernatural things, because his thoughts and ideas were based on rationality. Ibn Rushd was the first to discover Parkinson's disease (PD) (which is a chronic and progressive movement disorder, meaning that symptoms continue and worsen over time). He also suggested cures for this disease. He wrote a comprehensive commentary on Ibn Sina’s (Avicenna) book “Al-Qanun Fi al-Tib” (The Canon of Medicine) as well as an encyclopaedia of medicine titled “al-Kulliyat Fi al-Tib” ((General Medicine). In addition, he proved that the earth is round on the basis of mathematical reasoning, did a great deal of work on Music and tremendously contributed to different branches of science and philosophy.

Apart from being the private physician of the Caliph, Ibn Rushd was given the post of the Qazi al-Quzat (the supreme jurist) like his father and grandfather. During this period, he authored a great number of seminal and ground-breaking works. Abiding by the order of his teacher, Ibn Tufail, he wrote the commentary on Aristotle’s work and made it very easy to understand. This commentary got so much popularity that he was given the noble epithet of “al-Sharih al-Akbar” (the greatest commentator). Many considered Ibn Rushd a pupil of Aristotle who was born six centuries after the death of Aristotle.

During his stay in Ashbilia, (now called Seville in Spain), Ibn Rushd fought a full-fledged cold war against Imam al-Ghazali and al-Ash’ari, the pioneers of Ilmul Kalam who declared philosophy Haraam (forbidden) and those engaged in the use of Ilmul Mantiq (Logic) heretics. Al-Asha’ri is reported to have declared Ibn Sina and Al-Farabi the followers of Aristotle and Plato, who he thought were disbelievers. Ibn Rushd wrote his book “The Incoherence of the Incoherence” (Tahafat al-Tahafat) with the intention of refuting the book of al-Ghazali “Tahafat al-Falasifa” (Incoherence of the Philosophers). In this book, Ibn Rushd expressed his ideas on Philosophy and proved the permissibility of learning philosophy in Islam. He strongly believed that philosophy was not Haraam (forbidden in Islam) and that it did not lead to disbelief. He averred that philosophy and religion are two different paths to reach the truth and if they are understood well, they will never come at odds with each other.

According to Ibn Rushd, truth has always two aspects; one is based on religion and spiritual faith, which is in no need for materialistic reasoning and brainstorming, and the other is based on sheer logic, reasoning and philosophy. In his book, Tahafat al-Tahafat, Ibn Rushd made it patently clear that there is no conflict between these two paths that lead to truth, because, he says, some people are born with spiritual minds and are imbued in faith and, therefore, they choose to tread this path, without any need for enquiry and questioning. But there are some people, Ibn Rushd explains, who cannot settle without questioning and clearing their doubts and, hence, it would be better for such people to opt for the second path. However, Ibn Rushd believes, reason and rationality should always be given preference.

In the same period when Ibn Rushd was in the position of the supreme jurist, he expressed his views on highly contentious issues particularly in his book “The Incoherence of the Incoherence” (Tahafat al-Tahafat) as well as in his general writings. Ibn Rushd believed that every soul has two dimensions in it, the first being human and thus mortal and the second being divine and hence everlasting and immortal. Going by this opinion, we, as human beings, are mortal. Ibn Rushd advocated the separation of religion from state and warned against the fatal consequences of the government’s mediation in provoking conflicts between the majority and minority communities. He stressed the importance of gender equality and held the view that violation of women rights was the main reason behind the collapse of Islamic civilisation in Andalusia.

Since Ibn Rushd was one of the most eminent figures of the Ilmul Kalam in his time, he extensively elaborated on this subject in his writings and treatises. He opined that if the Islamic Shariah does not speak clearly on a certain issue, it implies that the matter is left to the discretion of people. But if the Sharia gives clear injunction, it offers two options then: either the injunction is compatible with rationality or incompatible with it. In the first case, he says, we have no right to differ from the Islamic ruling, whereas we should have every right to use our faculties of intellect and reasoning in the other case. Citing an instance of the first case, Ibn Rushd stated that Sharia’s ruling that woman's testimony is worth half that of a man is not in synergy with reason and rationality, because it will cause injustice to half of the mankind. So, we should interpret this Islamic ruling using intellect and reason. The only way we can convince rationalists about this ruling is that we restrict its application to the matters of Hudud (punishments for crimes such as theft, adultery, rape, killing etc.). Except the Hudud cases, Ibn Rushd opined, the testimony of men and women weighs equally in Islamic Sharia.

Since the Caliph of the time Abu Yusuf al-Mansoor was not inclined towards science and philosophy, the enemies of Ibn Rushd succeeded in creating tensions between the caliph and Ibn Rushd. His strictly rationalist views collided with the orthodox views of the Caliph al-Mansur. As a result, the caliph sacked him from the post of the supreme Islamic jurist and ordered him to live in exile wherever he wished. Ibn Rushd chose to live in exile in Lucena, a largely Jewish village outside of Cordoba. But, ironically, the caliph banned his writings and philosophical works, because he considered him a kafir (disbeliever) and Mulhid (heretic). The caliph went so far as burning all the works and treatises of Ibn Rushd on philosophy, Ilmul Kalam and Mantiq (logic). The vicissitudes of life in exile gave Ibn Rushd a renewed energy to bring out the best of his scholarship and with a fresh insight. Fortunately, most of his books had been translated into the Latin and Hebrew languages before they were burnt at the order of the caliph. We would not have seen Ibn Rushd’s seminal works on philosophy such as the commentary on the Aristotle’s work and “The incoherence of the incoherence” (Tahafat al-Tahafat), had they not been rendered into European languages.

Sadly enough, the Caliph Abu Yusuf al-Mansur lifted the ban on Ibn Rushd only one year before he died in December 10, 1198 in Morocco. This was the time when the Arabs began to decline in Andalusia and the Catholic investigative courts had been established on a strong foundation. After two decades, these investigative courts embarked on their mission of forcibly converting Muslims and Jews to Christianity and burning alive those who refused to surrender. After the demise of Ibn Rushd, such a terrible time came when even the Protestant Christians were compelled to choose either of the two options: covert to the Catholic Christianity or get ready to be burnt alive.

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