Like many a medieval Muslim thinker who followed in the footsteps of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, the 12th-century philosopher Ibn Rushd had better luck building an audience in the Western world than in his own region. In the Middle Ages, Muslims who espoused the ideas of polytheists from Ancient Greece often faced accusations of heresy. Ibn Rushd’s teachings proved so controversial that he had to flee his homeland. As a scholar of religious law, however, he made a lasting impact on the Muslim world that the West has only begun to measure.
Ibn Rushd, better known to Western academics by the Latinized name Averroes, became famous as a renaissance man, dabbling in astronomy, linguistics, mathematics, medicine, philosophy, physics, psychology, and theology. For a number of years, though, he served in a lesser-known role as a judge in Córdoba and Seville (Ishbiliya in Arabic), respectively his birthplace and a key node in an Islamic state on the Iberian Peninsula, which Muslims controlled for centuries throughout much of the Middle Ages.
At one point rising to the top judicial post in Córdoba, Ibn Rushd developed a sophisticated understanding of religious law. He codified this knowledge in a text that, in comparison to his philosophical and theological writings, has received little attention from Western scholars: “The Distinguished Jurist’s Primer.” The tome contrasts the approaches that four leading Islamic legal schools of thought—the Hanafi, Hanbali, Maliki, and Shafi’i doctrines—take to a range of issues. Ibn Rushd’s book covers topics as varied as charity, divorce, and even animal sacrifice.
“The Distinguished Jurist’s Primer” paints a more nuanced portrait of Islam and religious law than sources that portray the religion as puritanical and unforgiving.
“The Distinguished Jurist’s Primer” paints a more nuanced portrait of Islam and religious law than sources that portray the religion as puritanical and unforgiving. The news media tends to focus on episodes such as the Taliban amputating the limbs of thieves under its ultraconservative interpretation of Islam. Ibn Rushd, on the other hand, dedicated dozens of pages to discussing the best methods for pre-prayer rituals, one of the most important rites in Islam.
Religious law in the Muslim world most often addresses how to go about daily life in an Islamic way, not how to dole out headline-grabbing punishments for common crimes. Some websites even advise Muslims on how to brush their teeth according to religious law. “The Distinguished Jurist’s Primer” reflects this order of prioritization, offering insight into how Islam’s legal schools deal with burials, fasts, marriages, and other aspects of the private sphere. Later sections go into mind-numbing detail about Islamic finance, an obscure topic and hardly a controversial one.
The differences between Islamic legal schools noted in “The Distinguished Jurist’s Primer,” while sometimes arcane, speak to the exchange of ideas underpinning Islam. The book observes that, though Hanafis, Hanbalis, Malikis, and Shafi’is agreed about the importance of fasting during Ramadan in Ibn Rushd’s era, they argued over the circumstances that must precede “the first appearance of the new moon” marking the end of Ramadan and the related fast.
In Islam, religious law remains subject to a variety of interpretations—even among mainstream thinkers.
Only scholars exploring the most esoteric corners of religious law will have an immediate use for this information. Nonetheless, “The Distinguished Jurist’s Primer” highlights a wider truth that seems obvious but rarely receives acknowledgement: in Islam, religious law remains subject to a variety of interpretations—even among mainstream thinkers. Most established jurists in the Muslim world hold that the Hanafi, Hanbali, Maliki, and Shafi’i schools enjoy the same level of legal validity. Which interpretation a courtroom applies often has to do with geography, not ideology.
Ibn Rushd followed the Maliki doctrine, the dominant legal school in North and West Africa and Iberia before Christian forces retook it in a bloody campaign that concluded in 1492. As an official in an empire built on conquest, Ibn Rushd also had plenty to say on the laws of war.
“The Distinguished Jurist’s Primer” includes a section on jihad, a term that continues to evoke images of religious fanaticism in the West. The manual appears intent on courting a wave of controversy with this chapter, explaining the circumstances under which leaders may wage war on “disbelievers,” loot their property, and even enslave them.
“The majority of the jurists maintained that the imam [Islamic religious leader] has different types of choices regarding the prisoners of war including their pardon, enslavement, execution, demand for ransom, and the imposition of jizya [poll tax] on them,” Ibn Rushd wrote about several extrajudicial actions that experts on international law today would likely consider war crimes or even crimes against humanity. “A group of jurists maintained that it is not permitted to execute the prisoners.”
While Ibn Rushd was just referencing the opinions of other jurists, his position as a judge in an Islamic state at war with its non-Muslim neighbors suggests that he shared their conclusions. This reality feels all the more striking in light of Ibn Rushd’s philosophical beliefs: he challenged the immortality of the soul and the omnipotence of God, a sharp break with Islamic orthodoxy that some of his contemporaries viewed as sacrilegious. Ibn Rushd’s contradictory roles as a philosophical skeptic of Islam and a jurisprudential defender of it have bifurcated his legacy.
Ibn Rushd’s contradictory roles as a philosophical skeptic of Islam and a jurisprudential defender of it have bifurcated his legacy.
In the Maghreb and the Muslim world as a whole, many celebrate Ibn Rushd as a renowned scientist and accomplished jurist, only mentioning his history as an iconoclast in passing. In the West, scholars have cited Ibn Rushd’s philosophical treatises for centuries but glossed over his jurisprudential achievements. The most authoritative English translation of “The Distinguished Jurist’s Primer” comes not from the United Kingdom or the United States but from Pakistan.
Imran Ahsan Khan Nyazee, a Pakistani lawyer, translated “The Distinguished Jurist’s Primer” into two volumes with the assistance of Mohammad Abdul Rauf, an Egyptian-born academic. Their efforts to bring the text to a Western audience has created a crucial opportunity to learn more about the Muslim world and another side of Ibn Rushd. No shortage of Western universities teach about his work as a philosopher. Budding Western scholars of religious law in the Muslim world, however, must look to “The Distinguished Jurist’s Primer” for a deeper understanding.