From Avicenna to al-Farabi, the Islamic Golden Age produced dozens of thinkers ahead of their time. In fact, many of their ideas still enjoy currency in the Muslim and Western worlds, where universities in Africa, Asia, Europe, and North America teach the academic discoveries of Arab philosophers and Persian scientists. However, few of these medieval renaissance men represent as strong a bridge between the Middle East and the West as the Andalusian jack of all trades Averroes—known by his Arabic name, Ibn Rushd, in much of the Global South. Today, the world needs this intercultural connection more than ever.
Born in 1126 in Córdoba, Averroes became a renowned jurist, philosopher, and physician in the historical region of al-Andalus—the Muslim-dominated territories of the Iberian Peninsula that Christians reconquered in later centuries. The medieval polymath spent much of his life studying the writings of Ancient Greek philosophers such as Aristotle, whose ideas proved popular but controversial among the intelligentsia in the Muslim world at the time.
Among Averroes’ more provocative opinions, he expressed doubt about the immortality of the soul, portrayed philosophy as a higher form of knowledge and truth than Islam, and questioned the omnipotence of God. These ideas intrigued a range of Christian and Jewish thinkers who would change how their religions approached philosophy, but Averroes’ implicit rebuke of Islam earned him a far more hostile reception among the Muslim world’s traditionalists.
Averroes attempted to reconcile the faith-based provisions of Islam with the secular rationality underpinning the conclusions reached by Aristotle and his predecessors.
Averroes attempted to reconcile the faith-based provisions of Islam with the secular rationality underpinning the conclusions reached by Aristotle and his predecessors, an ambitious project that made him friends as well as enemies. On the one hand, Averroes’ insights into the writings of the Ancient Greeks impressed the inquisitive leader of the Almohad Caliphate, Abu Yaqub Yusuf, who appointed the philosopher as his royal court’s physician. On the other, conservatives in the region resisted Averroes’ Western-tinged, oft-sacrilegious ideas, burning his books and driving him into exile.
The philosophers who preceded Averroes, foremost among them the renowned renaissance men Avicenna in Persia and al-Farabi in Central Asia, encountered similar challenges. The Persian theologian al-Ghazali and other contemporaries lauded the intelligence of Avicenna, al-Farabi, and their fellow travelers, but al-Ghazali criticized their reliance on non-Muslim philosophers such as Plato as heretical. This condemnation tarnished Avicenna and al-Farabi’s reputations in the Middle East for centuries to come.
Al-Ghazali delivered his most devastating criticism of Avicenna and al-Farabi in 1111 with “The Incoherence of the Philosophers,” which refuted their ideas point by point. The resulting damage lasted for almost a millennium, given that Iranian clerics lambasted even Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the first supreme leader of Iran, for citing Avicenna in a 1989 letter to the Soviet Union.
Back in the Middle Ages, Averroes tried to mitigate the consequences of al-Ghazali’s words with a rebuttal of his own: “The Incoherence of the Incoherence,” an 1180s text arguing that Islam endorsed philosophy. Despite these efforts, “The Incoherence of the Incoherence” failed to make as lasting an impact as “The Incoherence of the Philosophers.” In 1195, Yusuf’s less tolerant successor as caliph ordered the burning of Averroes’ philosophical texts—only sparing his writings on astronomy, mathematics, and medicine. Three years later, the medieval polymath died in Marrakech, where he had relocated.
The philosophical texts that caused Averroes so much woe during his lifetime had a paradoxical effect: they made him the darling of Western philosophers. Translated from Arabic to Latin, his writings influenced much of Christendom in the Middle Ages.
Averroes’ fans included Thomas Aquinas, himself a jurist, philosopher, and theologian who shaped Western thought as well as the Catholic Church. Another of Averroes’ non-Muslim students, his fellow Andalusian Maimonides, integrated Averroes into Jewish philosophy. Today, Robert Pasnau, a professor of philosophy at the University of Colorado, Boulder, considers Averroes “the Islamic scholar who gave us modern philosophy.”
Professor of Philosophy, Robert Pasnau, considers Averroes “the Islamic scholar who gave us modern philosophy.”
Averroes’ achievements as a scholar on religious law have received far less attention in the West. While serving as the top judge in Córdoba, Averroes wrote “The Distinguished Jurist’s Primer,” a dissection of the four primary legal schools of thought in Sunni Islam. Even today, the text acts as one of the Muslim world’s most authoritative documents for how judges should apply religious law, explaining Islam’s varying guidelines for subjects such as divorce, inheritance, and war.
Nothing better illustrates the gap in Middle Eastern and Western understandings of Averroes than the writings of his that scholars choose to highlight. Whereas academics in Europe and North America have focused on analyzing “The Incoherence of the Incoherence,” “The Decisive Treatise,” and Averroes’ other books on aspects of philosophy, the most reliable English translation of “The Distinguished Jurist’s Primer” comes from a Pakistani professor. The West views Averroes as an Aristotelian philosopher while the Muslim world sees him as an expert on religious law.
Averroes’ legacy offers a chance to accomplish a goal he hoped to achieve in his lifetime: bridging the divide between East and West.
“The Incoherence of the Philosophers” has rendered Averroes’ philosophical conclusions taboo in the Muslim world, and only a handful of Western, non-Muslim scholars have taken an interest in his jurisprudential writings. Nonetheless, Averroes’ legacy offers a chance to accomplish a goal that he had hoped to achieve in his lifetime: bridging the divide between East and West.
Like Averroes, al-Farabi and Avicenna dabbled in a variety of academic disciplines, from physics to music theory. Averroes, though, distinguished himself from the Islamic Golden Age’s other polymaths by training himself as an expert on religious law and Western philosophy—a pair of subjects that al-Ghazali had portrayed as in conflict. Though scholars in the Middle East and the West celebrate Averroes for different reasons, they both recognize his intelligence and achievements. Middle Easterners and Westerners should also appreciate his efforts to unite two civilizations.
Having lived in lands that would later compose Morocco and Spain, Averroes always had one foot in the West and another in the Muslim world. As tensions between Western countries and their Middle Eastern counterparts grow amid a slew of conflicts and humanitarian crises, the type of intercultural communication that Averroes perfected centuries ago has increased in importance.
Intellectuals across Africa, Asia, Europe, and North America have long looked to Averroes for guidance. Córdoba hosts the New Averroes Hospital, and Arab intellectuals in Germany run the Ibn Rushd Fund for Freedom of Thought. No one historical figure could hope to bridge the cultural and geopolitical divides separating the West from the Middle East, but Averroes’ rich legacy gives his Muslim and non-Muslim successors a place to start.