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.

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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