Caroline Stone, Sunday 11 May 2003
A man can be adopted by a civilization other than his own and can there become a symbol of something very different from that which he signifies to his own civilization. This was the case with Abu ‘I-Walid Muhammad ibn Rushd, who came to be known to the west as Averroës. And just as the medieval Arab world and the medieval European world knew him by two names, so did they value two different aspects of his scholarships: In the Arab world, he is remembered primarily as a medical pioneer, while the West esteemed his philosophy.
Ibn Rushd was born in Córdoba, in southern Spain, in 1126. His family was one of those dynasties with a multigenerational tradition of learning and service to the state that were so much a part of the Arabic-speaking world. The Crusades had begun, and when Ibn Rushd was young, Jerusalem was a Crusader state.
Al-Andalus – as Muslim Spain was called – was splintered into numerous petty principalities and local kingdoms, independent but vulnerable, known as the “taifa kingdoms” (from the Arabic ta’ifah, meaning “party” or “faction”). Weak as they were, many of them were nonetheless admirable cradles of learning and the arts, as each ruler tried to outdo the others in the magnificence and prestige of his court and the caliber of the scholars he could attract to it. From the north, however, the newly unified Christians had embarked on the reconquest of Spain from the Muslims that would finally conclude in 1492. The taifa kings urged two successive North African dynasties to support the Muslims of Spain against the resurgent Christians. The resulting northward influx of people and puritanical ideas – secular learning, science and music were increasingly viewed with suspicion – along with the consequent social upheavals and greatly increased contacts with Morocco would all be of consequence to Ibn Rushd.
The Christian-Muslim rivalry also took peaceful forms, symbolized by the impressive construction activity of this time. The great Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in northwest Spain, the third most important pilgrimage site in the Christian world, was completed in the year that Ibn Rushd was born. During his middle years, working in Marrakech, he must have watched the construction of that city’s most famous mosque, the Kutubiyyah, or Booksellers’, Mosque. As an old man in Seville, he would have witnessed, rising from its foundations, the Giralda, still the symbol of the city to this day. During his lifetime, two of the three cities he loved best, and to which he was most closely linked, were building their greatest monuments.
Although these buildings physically proclaimed the differences between the faiths, the intellectual activities of these years often took a far less competitive direction. This was a time when thoughtful men were searching for areas of common ground where they might escape destructive fanaticism from either side. Hence the many translations that each culture made of the other’s works, and the rising awareness that sciences, such as mathematics, medicine or astronomy, could be a terrain where exciting and productive work could be done and differences of faith at least briefly forgotten. This attitude was very different from the confident intellectual curiosity of ninth-century Baghdad that had triggered the first wave of translations from the classics into Arabic, preserving many of them in the only form we have today. Those efforts established the roots, while the works of al-Andalus were fundamentally new creations, new intellectual ventures. They were the shoots, and their ultimate blossoming would be the time we call the Renaissance.
The political disturbances of Ibn Rushd‘s years would also lead to the dispersal across Europe of learned men from southern Spain who, as they moved, scattered new ideas, new techniques and new books like seeds. These would be nurtured especially in the new, relatively secular institutions of learning called “universities” that had been founded at Bologna, Oxford and Salerno. There students were taught the works of the great scholars – many of them Muslims – together with the Greek learning at their roots. Among those scholars, Ibn Rushd was one of the most admired, perceived by the West as a bridge between two faiths and between past and present. The ultimate fruitfulness of the many individual hardships that must have informed this intellectual diaspora can perhaps be compared to the extraordinary flourishing of American science in the wake of the disruptions of World War II. Certainly this period of dissemination and cultural cross-fertilization definitively shifted the balance of intellectual initiative from south to north.
A good deal is known of Ibn Rushd‘s family background, but very little about his own life or upbringing. His grandfather was a well-known jurist of the Maliki school of Islamic law. One of the most prestigious of the positions he held was that of qadi, or chief justice, of Córdoba. Ibn Rushd was appointed to the same position in 1180 and earlier served as qadi of Seville in 1169. These were appointments of great importance, for the qadi held a three-fold responsibility: he was the religious authority, the representative of the ruler and the up holder of civic order. That Ibn Rushd held the position in not one but two cities indicates the respect in which he was held and testifies to the soundness of his legal training. But he moved on: In addition to his service in law, Ibn Rushd studied medicine, and it is for this aspect of his learning and writing that he was most esteemed in the Islamic world.
In 1148, the North African Almohad dynasty began its – initially welcomed – takeover of al-Andalus. The Almohad capital was at Marrakech, in today’s Morocco, a city founded only some 80 years earlier and which the Almohad ruler was anxious to make a center of the arts and scholarship. To this end, he encouraged education, and Marrakech, like Córdoba, was already famous for its bookshops and libraries when Ibn Rushd traveled therein 1153. He received his first official appointment as inspector of schools there.
Ibn Rushd was to produce more than 100 books and treatises in his lifetime, and it was in Marrakech that he began his first philosophical work, sometime before 1159. This was quickly followed by his substantial Compendium of Philosophy (Kitab al-Jawami’ al-Sighar fil-Falsafa) with its sections on physics, heaven and earth, generation and corruption, meteorology and metaphysicssome of the main interests that would occupy him the rest of his life. It has been suggested among scholars that Ibn Rushd‘s work may have been inspired by the desire to prove that man is rational and can learn, that nature is intelligible and its interpretation a legitimate task of man, and that ultimately science and divine revelation need not be at odds. Part of this philosophy is derived from the Greeks, especially from Plato and Aristotle, whom Ibn Rushd admired and on whose works he wrote numerous commentaries and paraphrases – books that to a large extent won him the respect he enjoyed in the West, where the struggle to reconcile science and faith still goes on.
The other major work which he produced during these years at Marrakech was the first draft of his Compendium of Medical Knowledge (Kitab al-Kulliyat fil-Tibb). Written at the request of the sultan, it is divided into seven books: anatomy, health, disease, symptoms, food and medicines, preservation of health and treatment of illness. Excellently arranged, though not on the whole the fruit of original research, this compilation brought together the work of the best physicians from both the classical Greek and the Islamic traditions, and became a standard text for generations of physicians in both East and West. As Averroes, Ibn Rushd appears, along with many of his main sources, in the list of authorities used by Chaucer’s doctor in the General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales – a measure of the extent to which he had become a household word in England 200 years later:
Well knew he the old Esculapius
And Dioscorides and also Rusus,
Old Hippocras, Hali and Galen
Serapion, Rasis and Avicen,
Averrois, Damascene and Constantine,
Bernard and Gatesden and Gilbertine.
It is to the Kulliyat and other medical works that Ibn Rushd owes his fame in the East today, where he is remembered as a great doctor. His philosophical works, which fascinated and influenced the West, were of relatively little interest to the Muslim world outside Al-Andalus. In a way this is surprising, for Islam too has been concerned since its beginning with the vision of a perfect society, albeit one based on the shar’iah, or holy law, as revealed in the Qur’an. The Islamic rejection of Ibn Rushd as a philosopher is no doubt partly because of the criticism that he subordinated religion to philosophy, suggesting that scientific research could teach people more than the revelations of faith’a criticism also leveled at him by the Catholic church in the West.
The Kulliyat, however, was a great success for Ibn Rushd. (Indeed, versions of it were still appearing on medical school reading lists around Europe as recently as 100 years ago.) In 1168, his teacher Ibn Tufayl, a scholar of Aristotle and follower of Ibn Sina (known in the West as Avicenna), introduced Ibn Rushd to the new Almohad ruler, Abu Ya‘qub Yusuf. The following year, Yusuf appointed Ibn Rushd qadi of Seville, and Ibn Rushd returned to al-Andalus.
His years in Seville were apparently happy and productive. He wrote numerous works on natural science and philosophy there, many of which – though they are paraphrases or commentaries on classical texts – need to be understood not as derivative but as truly original works. They were perceptive “updates” of some of the greatest thinkers of the classical world, men who provide models for how we think about things and study them even today. It is fascinating to compare Ibn Rushd‘s versions with the originals.
Ibn Rushd‘s great importance to western thought lies in his making available many of the philosophical works of ancient Greece, particularly those of Plato and Aristotle, but his most notable work is his commentary on Plato’s Republic. It was this book, with its idea that society is perfectible and its discussion of how society can and should be changed, that worried some secular rulers no less than the Musli m ‘ulama and the Catholic theologians, all of whom were inclined to see the order of the world as preordained and immutable. The Almohad rulers of al-Andalus, however, were more relaxed than the earlier Almoravid dynasty, and they allowed discussion of these questions – up to the limit of challenging their authority. It was thus largely Ibn Rushd‘s texts that inspired the thinkers of the Renaissance, such as Tomaso Campanella and Sir Thomas More, to produce their theories of Utopia, or the ideal state. The notion that this ideal is something definable, and that it can be attained through human endeavor and wise leadership – rather than only as a matter of God’s grace or mere good luck – has inspired reformers and socially conscious governments to the present day. Though his name – once a household word – is barely known in the West today, and though his works are now largely unread, the impact of this man’s thought remains immeasurable.
In 1171, at age 45, Ibn Rushd returned to Córdoba. There, for the rest of his life, he maintained his main residence and his library. His visits to Seville were frequent and long, and perhaps he was present when, five years later, the Great Mosque, designed to rival that of Córdoba in size and splendor, was inaugurated. He would have enjoyed its nearby Patio of the Oranges, where he would have meditated and debated with his friends.
Those were productive years for him. The ongoing political tensions caused by the Almohad conquest of Al-Andalus and the struggles with the Christians to the north seem not to have much affected the relative peace and prosperity of Seville and Córdoba, and Ibn Rushd produced a stream of works on a wide range of subjects, from his paraphrase of the Nicomachaean Ethics (Kitab al-Akhlaq), which has not survived intact, to his discussion of Aristotle’s Poetics (from the Talkhis Kitab al-Shi’r), as well as his Supplement to Questions on Ancient Science (Damima li-Mas’alat al-Ilm al-Qadim) and further medical treatises. His work on Ptolemy’s Almagest may also belong to this period.
After another visit to Marrakech, Ibn Rushd was appointed qadi of Córdoba in 1180 and personal physician to Sultan Abu Ya‘qub Yusuf at the Almohad’s new capital in Seville. Between the demands of these two appointments, he found time to write one of his most famous works, his parry of al-Ghazali’s Incoherence of the Philosophers, titled Incoherence of the Incoherent Philosophy of al-Gbazali (Tahafut al-Tahafut al-Falasifa lil-Ghazali).
It was a time of expansion and optimism in the Muslim world. Saladin retook Jerusalem from the Crusaders in 1187; in Spain, a Christian coalition was routed at Alarcos eight years later. Ibn Rushd‘s fame was spreading into the eastern Islamic world, and by 1190 his books were available and under discussion in Cairo.
Four years later, he wrote one of his most controversial works, the paraphrase of Plato’s Republic. While the original implies criticism of the existing social order and studies ways to perfect it, Ibn Rushd‘s version courageously applied Plato’s theories to Ibn Rushd‘s own times, citing chapter and verse of where the political system had failed. He pointed out, for example, that, strictly speaking, the government of Córdoba should have been considered a tyranny from 1145 onward – that is, since the end of Almoravid rule and the accession of the current Almohad dynasty, whose head was his patron. The following year, complaints were made against Ibn Rushd on various counts. He was briefly exiled, and the authorities burned his books. They forbade him to write on philosophy, politics or religion. It is probably fair to assume that the main reasons for his falling into disfavor were his defense of rationalism and the outspokenness of his social criticism. Perhaps too many people agreed with him.
This period of disfavor, however, did not last long. The ban against him was repealed, but as far as is known, he wrote no more, though his son began to publish about this time. The questions of how he was inspired to begin his life’s work and where he found his texts, as well as many of the most basic details of his personal world, remain largely unknown.
Ibn Rushd died at Marrakech on December 11, 1198. Three months later his body was returned, as he had wished, to rest in his beloved Córdoba. His rival, the mystic Ibn al-Arabi, describes the funeral: “When the coffin with his body was laid upon the bier, they put his works on the opposite side to serve as a counterweight. I was standing there…and I said to myself, ‘On one side the master and on the other his works. But, tell me, were his desires at last fulfilled?'”
Caroline Stone divides her time between Cambridge and Seville. She is working on a Gulf-based project to map pre-modern cultural contacts and build a website to teach world history. She has recently returned from Uzbekistan and is also working with Paul Lunde on translations of the Arab sources about the Vikings and peoples of the North and of ‘Abd al-Latif al-Baghdadi’s description of Egypt.
The second image in this article was taken by Ali Omar Ermes in Tunisia.