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.

No less important at the court of Baghdad was philosophy. Plato and Aristotle were very popular and the subject of much study, discussion and debate. However, Islamic philosophers ran into the same problem that both preceding Christians and those that would follow faced: how to reconcile philosophy with theology and sacred texts.

Saint Augustine who died in 430 AD had halted this debate in Europe in favour of theology: critical thinking had been banned ever since. Those who attempted to re-open this debate were quickly silenced or even excommunicated by the Church. Not so in the Arab World, at least not until the end of the 12th century.

Enter 'The Commentator'

The last and most famous Muslim philosopher was Ibn Rushd, better known under his Latin name Averroes. He was born in 1126 in Cordoba, the capital of Al Andalus, which had become, alongside Cairo, the intellectual centre of the Muslim world following the decline of Baghdad. In Europe, Averroes was called ′The Commentator′ as he had penned more comments on the work of Aristotle than anyone else. Moreover, it was through the translation of Averroes′ comments into Latin that Aristotle was introduced in Europe.

Illustrated manuscript dating from 1347 showing Maimonides teaching "the measure of man" (source: Wikipedia; public domain)
Europe through the back door: one of Averroes′ contemporaries, the Jewish thinker Maimonides was very taken with the Muslim′s brand of philosophy, more or less adopting it in its entirety. Maimonides own writings subsequently became standard works in the Jewish world, influencing generations of philosophers, right down to Pico della Mirandola, whose fourteenth century pamphlet ″Oration on the Dignity of Man″ became known as the manifesto of the Renaissance

Averroes caused nothing short of an intellectual earthquake in Europe. His thesis was that there is only one truth, which was reachable in two different ways: through belief, but also through philosophy.

When both ways contradict, it means we have to read the sacred texts in an allegorical way. In other words, in the search for truth, philosophy (or science) is more important than belief.

Apart from that, Averroes argued against the immortality of the soul and against creation of the universe.

The theses of Averroes were adopted and taught at the first European universities: Paris, Bologna, Padua and Oxford. This caused panic within the Church. The force of his arguments and the philosophical concepts of Aristotle were too strong.

In 1277, the bishop of Paris condemned and banned the ideas of Averroes, though not in his own words. He had to copy the arguments of an Islamic opponent of philosophy: Al Ghazali.

However, it was Thomas Aquinas who defeated Averroes′ theses in his book ″Against Averroes″ and the ″Summa Theologica″, which did reassert the position of theology above philosophy.

Yet that didn′t halt the spread of Averroes′ ideas and his free-thinking attitude.

Although Catholic thinkers were still writing tirelessly in defence of the immortality of the soul until deep into the 17th century  even Descartes felt it necessary to denounce Averroes, although not very successfully the ideas of Averroes re-entered European philosophy through the back door of Jewish thinking.

To explain that, we need to step back in time again, to Maimonides. This important Jewish thinker (and personal physician of Saladin) was a contemporary of Averroes. Confronted with Averroes′ writings, he adopted the former′s philosophy almost entirely. For centuries thereafter, the books of Maimonides were considered standard works in the Jewish world.

The manifesto of the Renaissance

One of the central 15th century Jewish thinkers in Europe was Elia de Medigo, a professor at the university of Padua who referred to himself as a ′follower of Maimonides′. At the time, Padua was known as a breeding ground of Averroism. There, de Medigo was the teacher of humanist Pico della Mirandola, who wrote the influential ″Oration on the Dignity of Man″(1486), which is often referred to as the ″Manifesto of the Renaissance″.

Portrait of Baruch de Spinoza (1632-1677), ca. 1665 (source: Wikipedia; public domain)
Baruch Spinoza, advocate of independent, critical thought: one of the great rationalists of 17th century philosophy, Spinoza picked up where Averroes left off. Not satisfied with denying the immortality of the soul, he went one step further and questioned the existence of God himself

The biography of Pico was immediately translated into English by Thomas More, after Erasmus encouraged him to do so. The so-called Jewish-Christian tradition appears spun through with Islamic influence.

Averroes probably won his most important victory more than 400 years after his death. Baruch de Spinoza, one of the Fathers of the Enlightenment, came from a Jewish family that had to flee Spain and Portugal for Amsterdam after the Reconquista. Via the Jewish intellectual tradition, Spinoza discovered Aristotle, de Medigo, Maimonides and Averroes. Spinoza too was accused of denying the immortality of the soul and the very existence of God. His advocacy for critical, independent thinking had a lasting influence on the Enlightenment.

There is no doubt that Muslim scientists and philosophers played a considerable role in shaping European thought. That being said, it is also true that the Arab world has faced an intellectual crisis spanning centuries. Dictatorships and religious bigotry have destroyed Arab science and philosophy, while the West has made spectacular leaps forward.

However, denying the role of the Muslim world in the history of philosophical thought is a violation of history itself. The West cannot be credible if it reproaches others for falsifying history while not doing much better itself. It is time to restore the historical truth its rightful place.

Koert Debeuf

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Koert Debeuf is director of The Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy (TIMEP) Europe

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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