An intellectual earthquake
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.
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″.
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 is director of The Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy (TIMEP) Europe