Islam's rational cuckoo

Averroes and the Enlightenment

April 24, 1998

Westerners may have heard of Averroes (ibn Rushd in Arabic) as a uniquely rational Muslim philosopher who was a commentator on Aristotle. Averroes was born in 1126 in Islamic Spain within whose lenient orthodoxy he worked as a judge and writer. He died in Morocco in 1198. At once European, Arab, Muslim and African, Averroes is seen by the editors of this volume as a cultural bridge-builder.

This is a collection of papers and speeches delivered at two conferences. The participants emphasise the Graeco-Arab roots of modern western thought. This year is the 800th anniversary of Averroes's death and there will be many more conferences. Devout Muslims will not make amends even retrospectively for ignoring "the Muslim Aristotle". Western scholars also feel indebted to Averroes and will honour a thinker who had no honour in his native locale.

Averroes was commissioned by a liberal caliph to interpret Aristotle. He wrote 38 commentaries of varying size and depth commenting on all of Aristotle's works apart from his Politics, for which he substituted Plato's The Republic. The "long" commentaries concede the least to official Islamic orthodoxy. Averroes did not have the privilege of classical Greek: he relied on translations into Arabic, made by Christian Arabs, sometimes via Syriac.

The editors are keen to rescue the name of Averroes and to use him, as a symbol, native to Islam, of the enlightened approach to religion. The Muslim contributors believe that Averroes's project of creating a rational society should be completed by modern Muslims, his intelligent successors. All would admit that Averroes presents religious opinions so refined that only philosophically sophisticated believers would be able to comprehend them.

Here I share Stefan Wild's reservations. Great thinkers, like dead prophets, easily become puppets in the hands of posterity. The question concerning Averroes's real opinions is unanswerable. He may have even intended it this way for, like some philosophers in Christian Europe, he needed to conceal his real views. Descartes was fond of saying Bene vixit, bene qui latuit, (He lives well who lives well hidden). Thus, the question of Averroes's real opinions is part of an endless and pointless debate that amuses experts.

Averroes recognises only philosophy and the holy law, shariah. He rejects theology. The pursuit of Greek philosophy is, he argues, not merely permitted but commanded by the shariah, but only for those of sufficient ability. The shariah is "the milk sister" of philosophy. We must eliminate theology, a meddlesome relative who creates needless problems, including the false opposition between faith and reason.

Many of the contributors defend Averroes's view. Yet surely the conflict between faith and critical reason is genuine, perhaps irresolvable. The fact that Averroes uses the Koran to justify the necessity of philosophy shows that scripture is plastic to our wishes. In fact, Averroes creates a heretical theology while pontificating that religion can do without theology.

Averroes saw revealed religion as merely a popular form of philosophy, a metaphysics for the masses. For him, religious truth is an allegorical form of philosophical truth; the Koran and Aristotle are compatible and complementary. But, he insists, philosophy has a degree above other valid routes to knowledge. For the philosopher there are no mysteries in the world: all is intelligible through organised reflection.

This is hardly a religious view of the world. It is therefore dishonest of the editors and the Muslim contributors to present Averroes as the architect of an "Islamic" Enlightenment. Averroes stood for the absolute sovereignty of reason; his inspiration was Aristotle, not the Koran. He uses the sacred book to justify alien philosophical convictions found naturally in Greek thought. For believers, such as Averroes's predecessor Al-Ghazzali, the most resolute enemy of Greek philosophy, the Koran is directly the source of every significant true belief. Moreover, believers are religiously obliged to deny that objectivity of ethics and causation and the eternity of the world: all radically depends on God's direct volition. For Averroes, however, the meaning and causation of events lies in this world and only contingently, if at all, in the transcendent. Greek philosophy is genuinely subversive of revealed religion, including Judaism and Christianity. The faithful are entitled to believe that philosophy is the discipline in which the devil has always had his greatest following.

It is difficult to see how Averroes could defend himself against these charges. However, on the charge of religious elitism, he is ably vindicated by Oliver Leaman, the leading interpreter of Averroes in the West. Leaman thinks that elitism based on excellence and expertise is not objectionable. Averroes believed that the inner meaning of the Koran was hidden from the masses; only philosophers had access to these esoteric significances. Ironically, Averroes was dismissive of the claims of Muslim mystics who claimed the same privilege.

Averroes was, however, guilty of epistemological apartheid: the genesis of an idea in the varied faculties of reason, faith, intuition, and experience is thought to privilege or debase it without regard for its intrinsic merit. For Averroes, in effect, faith merely seeks truth, revelation finds a part of it; only philosophy fully possesses it. This is hardly a religiously acceptable epistemology.

The editors misconceived this project because the whole intended comparison with the European Enlightenment is based on an incorrect reading of European history. Preceding the Enlightenment was the Reformation, a crucial movement that established new Protestant organisations in Christendom. The Reformation permitted free inquiry into the Bible and implied the legitimacy of individual choice and limited respect for private agnosticism. If that is granted, secularism and all its works follow. The Enlightenment had an ambiguous potential: it could be seen also as a force that purified religion rather than dethroned it completely.

The Islamic Enlightenment will not happen simply by a Muslim decision to mimic European history. It will be established as the by-product of a major new heretical movement within Islam guided by Muslims who are recognisably Muslim, not lovers of Greek philosophy who were born in the wrong religion. I have sympathy, based on experience in Muslim lands with those Muslim contributors who have grievances against the administration of third-world intellectual life. Politicians interfere regularly in the universities; there is no freedom. Admittedly, in any culture where there is no philosophical reflection and inquiry, education is indoctrination, politics is dictatorship, and the shariah is slavery. Yet how could Averroes rescue us from this kind of tyranny?

Shabbir Akhtar is writing a biography of St Paul.

Averroes and the Enlightenment

Editor - Mourad Wahba and Mona Abousenna
ISBN - 1 57392 084 3
Publisher - Prometheus
Price - £25.00
Pages - 291

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