Averroes' Enlightenment legacy

An intellectual earthquake

Koert Debeuf, director of The Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy posits that it is high time the West revised the exclusionary narrative of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment and restored the historical truth to its rightful place

What is the Muslim philosopher Averroes doing in the famous ″School of Athens″ fresco by the Italian Renaissance painter Raphael? The painter brought together all thinkers and scientists that influenced the West. So, it′s no surprise that Plato and Aristotle are in the centre of this 16th century painting. Yet it is perhaps more surprising that two ′Eastern′ persons are included in the school: Zoroaster and Averroes.

Readers of the Divina Commedia of Dante Alighieri could be forgiven for feeling similarly taken aback. In this 14th century Renaissance masterpiece, Dante gives his description of Heaven, Purgatory and Hell, with a special chapter on Limbo where good non-Christians were allowed to have a decent afterlife. In Limbo we not only find ancient Greeks and Romans, but also three Muslims: Averroes, Avicenna and Saladin.

The fact that two Renaissance masterpieces dealing with the foundations of Western civilisation insert Muslims into the mix is odd to say the least. In school we are taught that the Renaissance, humanism and the Enlightenment were a purely European accomplishment.

This scenario has humanists like Petrarch rediscovering lost Greek and Roman manuscripts in old abbey libraries, thereby triggering the end of the Middle Ages and thus causing men to re-evaluate the position of the Church and indulge in critical thinking about dogma.

Indebted to the Caliphs of Baghdad

Yet, this historical narrative is simply wrong. Even though Roman books were indeed rediscovered, this was not true of the Greek texts. The most important Greek philosophers and scientists came to Europe because they were translated from Arabic, a translation movement that was initiated by the Caliphs of Baghdad in the eighth century.

At the epicentre were Ptolemy′s astronomy, Euclid′s geometrics and Galen′s medicine. At the same time, Indian and Persian scientific texts were translated. In turn, Muslim scientists wove these ideas together, both elevating them and creating new fields of science, such as chemistry and algebra. Their calculations were the basis of the discoveries of Copernicus and Newton.

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Comments for this article: An intellectual earthquake

One of the loveliest Egyptian film classics hit the movie theatres in 1997. Youssef Chahine, the legendary film director who discovered international stars like Omar Sharif, was strongly rooted in the multi-cultural "Levantine" Alexandria, and ingeniously combined popular Egyptian movie culture with song and dance with some exciting intellectual flavour, celebrated the heritage of one of the greatest Arab thinkers, Ibn Rushd, in that film. The film was a reaction of the persecution Chahine, himself a Levantine Christian with Lebanese roots, faced by Islamists, who had already in the Mubarak era infiltrated the Egyptian judicial system, when he published the film "The Emigrant" in 1994, about his biblical namesake Joseph. Since Joseph is also a prophet of Islam, Chahine was accused of blasphemy and even went on trial. This infuriated the intellectual so much that he started realizing his project "Destiny", which earned him the "Special 50th anniversary palm" of the International Film Festival in Cannes 1997, one of the greatest French cinema prizes ever awarded. This film is still largely unknown beyond the French-speaking world, it is high time that this great work of art is discovered by a wider audience beyond the Arab world and the Francophonie.

Jochen Schrader18.12.2017 | 16:09 Uhr