Ibn Rushd (Averroes), theology and philosophical-and-scientific inquiry

I heart Barkingside Library. You go in on a whim, you nose around and you come out with a treasure like Islam and the West. A Dissonant Harmony of Civilisations by Christopher J. Walker (ISBN 0-7509-4104-9). I’ve been reading Ch3 – Europe’s Loss and Recovery of Knowledge.

I got it out to help with bothering the Islamophobes. Specifically, it’s helpful against the charge that ‘free-thinking Muslim’ is an oxymoron. Later (it deals with Muslim history chronologically) maybe, hopefully, it might help me figure out what it would be reasonable to make of these findings about some countries’ unfavourable attitudes to Jews.

Arab philosopher Ibn Rushd was born in Cordoba in 1126 and settled in Morocco where he was physician to the caliph. His major contribution was to prise theology away from the the realm of philosophy-and-science. He was an avid Aristotelian and translated a number of his works, adding his own commentaries. Ultimately and ironically it was the subtlety of these commentaries, which were carried to Europe at the height of the clerico-aristocratic crusades, which smoothed the way for Aristotle’s work to become incorporated into the Christian Church. Walker attributes the spark of the Renaissance which unshackled Europe from the Dark Ages to Ibn Rushd. He was a Muslim. Here’s what Walker says about his attempt to draw lines between theology and science (p63-4)

Filled with admiration for Aristotle, Averroes sought to reconcile him with Islamic belief. This he did by delimiting, for the first time, the territory governed by religion and that covered by philosophy and science. He became known as the philosopher of ‘double truth’. It was claimed that he asserted that religious truths were allowed to be called truths, even if they contradicted philosophical-scientific truths, which likewise might be claimed to be true. Averroes appears not to have been saying that a proposition could be true in theology while a contradictory proposition was true in philosophy. Rather, he was trying to measure out the areas of applicability of relition and philosophy; to draw the boundaries between the two. They dealt, he asserted, with different things. He held strongly that faith was irrelevant to logic, mathematics or science, and that theologicans had no business dabbling there.  There is a hostility to theologicans in his writings, although he favoured religion, insofar as it related to the emotions and the inner life. Only those who continued to confuse the areas of applicability of faith and science could accuse himk of saying that a proposition could be true and not true at the same time. Averroes was, however, determined that theology should be subordinate to philosophy, if only because philosophy had to be the distinguishing index between theology and science-and-philosophy. Philosophy held the enviable position of being, by its very nature, both referee and a player in one of the teams.

This view was naturally highly unpopular among theologicans; they believed it was their job to act as referee.

And they began to move to close the doors on speculation and intellectuality. In a counterproductive act Baghdad caliph al-Mamun did something mad – he enforced scepticism in 827, making it practically inevitable that he would be succeeded by reactionary conservative orthodoxy. This included a cleric, Ahmed ibn Hanbal, whose bleak anti-intellectual rallying cry was “Don’t ask how“. Between then and the Mongol sack of Baghdad in 1258, which effectively ended this golden age of Muslim inquiry, Europeans who wanted to learn were travelling to the Arab cities, learning Arabic, translating scientific and philosophical works, and taking them home. The ideas of Ibn Rushd were carried widely, and Walker gives him a lot of credit for the progressive, humane strand of thought which carried Europe out of the Dark Ages.

3 thoughts on “Ibn Rushd (Averroes), theology and philosophical-and-scientific inquiry

  1. Thank you for saying kind things about my book Islam and the West.

    No publication has offered it a single review! So unofficial comments are much valued.


  2. Indeed I’ve found your book hugely informative and a robust antidote to the looming post-9/11 islamophobia. Neither do you lapse into Islamophilia, a seriously flaw of many apologists for hard Islam on the British Left. What you provide is a dispassionate look at the global history of Islam which problematises the manichean theories of a ‘clash of civilisations’. I recommend your book to anybody and I am surprised nobody would review it.

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