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Islamic Philosophies

Averroës (ibn Rushd)

The Cordoban jurist, physician, and philosopher Averroës (Ibn Rushd; 1126–1198), more influential in the history of philosophy by his commentaries on Aristotle translated into Latin in the thirteenth century than for his work extant in Arabic, is famous for his commitment to the proper interpretation of Aristotle's philosophy and the rejection of the innovations of Avicenna, for his detailed response to the theologian al-Ghazali's attack on the philosophers in his Incoherence of the Incoherence and his rationalist critique of kalam, and for his own creative completion of Aristotle's doctrine of human intellect with the theory of a single shared receptive and incorporeal intellect (called "material intellect" following Alexander of Aphrodisias). While Averroës thought philosophy had attained its highest achievement in the thought of Aristotle ("I believe that this man was a model in nature and the exemplar which nature found for showing ultimate human perfection" [ Averroës, 1953, p. 433]), his Short, Middle and detailed Long Commentaries expounded the difficult texts of Aristotle and completed unfinished philosophical accounts. Although he followed emanationist views in some early works, in his own mature account he argued that God is "creator" as the ultimate final cause drawing generated things from potency into act, continuing the heavens in eternal motion, sustaining the separate intellects (angels in religious language), and generally attracting all things toward the perfection of which he is the exemplar. He rejected Avicenna's distinction of essence and existence as philosophically unwarranted insofar as it is founded on kalam and also Avicenna's theory of the soul as an immortal substrate for the reception of intelligibles by emanation from the agent intellect. While in his early works on psychology Averroës held that each person possesses a distinct receptive material intellect, his final position was that both the material intellect and the agent intellect are distinct immaterial substances in which human knowers share. He was prompted to this position by the need for there to be one set of intelligibles for intersubjective discourse and understanding and by the realization that intelligibles in act received into a plurality of particular minds would become particulars, not the universals needed for knowledge. As a consequence he held the eternality of the material and agent intellects and also of the human species that provides images for abstraction by the agent intellect to impress upon the receptive material intellect. Contrary to Ibn Bajjah, Averroës viewed conjoining with separate intellect not as the end itself but as the means to human happiness in intellectual understanding. These mature positions were expounded only after he had written several works critical of Kalam advocating for a central role for philosophy in the attainment of truth concerning God and his creation. Most famous of these is the Decisive Treatise, in which this jurist who served as chief judge (qadi) of Cordoba mounted a vigorous defense of the pursuit of philosophy on the basis of Islamic religious law. He argued that philosophy is not only permitted but is the surest method of the attainment of truth and philosophical demonstration and so is endorsed by the Koran. Holding that there can be no conflict between the truths of demonstration and religion, he declared, "Truth does not contradict truth but rather is consistent with it and bears witness to it"—without mention of his source in Aristotle's Prior Analytics—thereby dispelling any concerns about the issue of a double truth, one for religion and one for philosophy. Where conflict between religion and reason arises, particularly concerning scriptural interpretation, reason's method of demonstration of truth is primary in determining the need for allegorical interpretation of otherwise conflicting explanations.

Condemned and exiled toward the end of his life, Averroës founded no school, and his influence in the subsequent development of philosophy in the Islamic milieu is hardly detectible until a revival of interest in the nineteenth century in the Arab world, where his thought was used to support various causes current then and later. His greatest influence was through Latin and Hebrew translations of his work that taught Latin and Jewish thinkers to read Aristotle and stirred great controversies among religious authorities wary of reason acting independently of the traditions of faith.

Before, during, and after the time of Averroës, Sufi mystical thought was a strong presence in Andalusia, and it is reported that the elderly Averroës met the very young Sufi Ibn al-'Arabi (1165–1240). Ibn al-'Arabi's notion of the unity of all being (wahdat al-wujud) and the perfect human being as the mirror of the divine brought to the fore the importance of imagination in apprehending the divine and contributed powerfully to the development of mystical philosophy in the East. Detailed work on the texts of philosophy is evidenced in the work of the pantheistic Sufi Ibn Sab'in (c. 1217–1270), whose broad knowledge of philosophy made him a suitable candidate for answering philosophical questions posed by the emperor Frederick II of Sicily. Ibn Khaldun (1332–1406) of Tunisia was an astute reader of philosophy, including the work of Averroës, and in his Muqaddimah he set forth a philosophy of history explaining political change in terms of social and structural changes.

In the East, philosophy continued to flourish with new developments in which the philosophy of Avicenna was the centerpiece, particularly his Pointers and Reminders (al-Isharat wa'l-tanbihat), the last section of which was read literally as mystical and religious. The Ash'ari theologian Fakhr al-Razi (d. 1209) attacked Avicenna, as later did the mystic illuminationist Suhrawardi (d. 1191), for whom Avicenna's Peripatetic epistemology was to be replaced by the necessity of Platonic Forms for true knowing in a doctrine of knowledge by presence in the intellectual ability to apprehend essences. The illuminationism of Suhrawardi had a lasting impact on philosophy in the East, as did the continuing legacy of Avicenna in figures such as Nasir al-Din al-Tusi (d. 1274), who expounded Avicennian metaphysics and authored the widely influential Nasirian Ethics. The development of ishraqi or illuminationist philosophy was continued by Qutb al-Din al-Shirazi (d.1311), who studied Avicenna and wrote a commentary on Suhrawardi's Philosophy of Illumination. By the time of the founding of the School of Isfahan by Mir Damad (d. 1631) and Sadr al-Din al-Shirazi or Mulla Sadra (d. 1641), the Safavid dynasty had long supported mystical thinking in Twelver Shiism. This new school systematically completed the synthesis of philosophical and Sufi mystical teachings from Ibn al-'Arabi and others in ways that continue to be reflected dominantly in Shiite thought. One notion of lasting philosophical interest is that of knowledge by presence with a focus on the "I" as knowing subject in lieu of a role for Avicenna's separate agent intellect. In the early twenty-first century the writings of Mulla Sadra and Suhrawardi play a powerful role in Iran, where philosophy is taught not only in religious schools but also in universities. Contemporary thinkers of the Shiite tradition of Iran, such as Mehdi Ha'iri Yazdi, who studied in the West and published The Principles of Epistemology in Islamic Philosophy in 1992, continue these traditions by placing the thought of Avicenna, Suhrawardi, and Mulla Sadra in dialogue with modern Western thought.


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Richard C. Taylor

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Intuitionist logic to KabbalahIslamic Philosophies - Philosophical Theology In Islam, Transmission And Development Of Greek Science And Philosophy, Al-kindi And The Assimilation Of Greek Neoplatonic Metaphysics