Ibn Rushd: Prime Proponent of Reason
(Unabridged version of the article published in the journal, The Ambition [Vol. 15 No. 4])
By Zeshan Shahbaz
“We maintain that the business of philosophy is nothing other than to look into creation and to ponder over it in order to be guided to the Creator -- in other words, to look into the meaning of existence,” states the dynamic philosopher of Muslim Spain - Abul-Waleed Muhammad Ibn Rushd.
Ibn Rushd, born 520 A.H. (1128 C.E) in Cordoba, was not only an eminent philosopher, but was a judge, scholar of Maliki jurisprudence, Imam of the Jamia Mosque of Cordoba, and court physician.
Ibn Rushd, who is also known as Averroes in Latin, wrote well over 87 books on philosophy and over 20 books on medicine. He also wrote books on Maliki jurisprudence, astronomy, mathematics, zoology and music. His father and grandfather had both been court judges. His grandfather was well versed in the Maliki School of jurisprudence and was also the Imam of the Jamia Mosque of Cordoba. Ibn Rushd, in his youth, was educated in Cordoba, Spain and lived a quiet life, dedicating most of his time to academic pursuits. Ibn Rushd was a pupil of another renowned Muslim philosopher named Ibn Bajja (Avempace) and Ibn Rushd himself was a teacher of the popular Jewish philosopher Maimonides. It is reported that Ibn Rushd never missed a day of reading or writing except on two occasions - his wedding day and the day of his father’s death.
Even though Ibn Rushd is well known for his works in the fields of medicine and science, length permitting, this article will focus on the exposition of his philosophical views and works. Ibn Rushd was known foremost for his commentaries on Aristotle's works. He wrote commentaries on Aristotle’s Organon, De Anima, Physica, Metaphysica, De Partibus Animalium, Parva Naturalia, Meteorologica, Rhetorica, Poetica, and the Nicomachean Ethics. As well, Ibn Rushd wrote a commentary on Plato’s Republic. For his works on the interpretations of Aristotle’s works he was bestowed with the title of "The Commentator.” Ibn Rushd also wrote The Decisive Treatise on the Harmony of Religions and Philosophy (Kitab Fasl Al-Maqal), The Exposition of the Methods of Proof (al-Kashf `an Manahij al-Adillah) and The Incoherence of the Incoherence (Tahafut al-Tahafut), which was a rebuttal to Al-Ghazali's Incoherence of the Philosophers (Tahafut al-Tahafut al-Falasifa).
In the Decisive Treatise and Exposition of the Methods of Proof, Ibn Rushd points out the harmony between religion and philosophy or revelation and reason. He stressed that revelation must be rationally comprehended so that we may have an accurate understanding of the truth. He saw no conflict between revelation and reason, as the aim for both revelation and reason was to guide one to the truth. Before proceeding further in discussing Ibn Rushd’s view on reason and revelation, "Reason" must be defined. Reason is nothing but an interconnected thought process of logically making sense of action, things and/or ideas. An analogy may be made to fitting pieces of a jigsaw puzzle together. Reasonable or rational thought and action is based on our understanding of cause and effect relationships - as this universe is based on cause and effect. For example, if an able bodied man (assuming he’s apt at using his reason) is standing in the middle of a road and he observes a car fast approaching him, he would quickly move away from the vicinity of this car. In this case, the man rationally infers that if he does not move away, the car will strike him (cause) and he will be injured, if not mortally (effect). Ibn Rushd makes evident that the knowledge of our universe (which is based on cause and effect) leads to our knowledge of God and the Quran demands us to observe and seek this knowledge by using our reason, so, that we may come to know God. In support of this assertion he cites verses such as "Or do they not contemplate the kingdom of heaven and earth and the things which God has created..." [Quran 7:185] and "In the origination and design of the universe, and in the alternating succession of night and day, evidence indeed exists for those who use their minds, who remember their Creator, while standing, sitting and reclining on their sides, and contemplate on the creation of the universe, exclaiming: 'Our Sustainer! You have not created all this without a meaningful purpose. Glory be to you!'" [Quran 3:190-191]. “There are many other verses on this subject, too numerous to be enumerated,” states Ibn Rushd.
In the Decisive Treatise, he also tackles the timeless issue of free will and predestination. Ibn Rushd viewed that human beings had very limited freedom. The very little freedom of intending and acting was a power given to us by God, but our intentions and actions are based on outside causes, the causes and effects (our intentions and actions) are maintained by God. In other words, within God's will we have limited free will, but everything is ultimately bounded by God's will -- He sustains everything we do. Ibn Rushd explains:
Their (causes) existence also depends upon Him
(God). He alone has made them to be causes, nay,
He only preserves their existence as creative
agents, and protects their effects after their actions.
He, again, produces their essences at the moment
when causes come together. He alone preserves
them as a whole. Had there been no divine
protection they could not have existed for the least
moment of time.
...man and woman are only the agents, while God
is the real creator of the child, and the life in it. Such
is also the case with agriculture. The earth is
prepared and made ready for it, and the seed
scattered in it. But it is God who produces the ear of
the grain. So there is no creator but God, while
created things are but essences. (Ibn Rushd, Decisive Treatise)
Incoherence of the Incoherence is Ibn Rushd’s response to Al-Ghazali’s book Incoherence of the Philosophers. Ibn Rushd does not systematically defend the two philosophers (Ibn Sina & Al-Farabi) attacked by Al-Ghazali. Instead, he attempts to clear misinterpretations and fallacies irrespective of who has made them, with the result that he differed as much from the views of Ibn Sina and Al-Farabi as from those of Al-Ghazali. All the while he works to show a compatibility, rather than a conflict, between reason and revelation. Many issues are dealt in this work, but the major point of contention between Al-Ghazali and Ibn Rushd lies in their divergent views on cause and effect. Ibn Rushd attempts to refute Al-Ghazali’s assertion that there is no necessary connection between cause and effect. To Al-Ghazali, for every effect there not need to be a specific cause and for every cause there not need to follow a specific effect, in Al-Ghazali’s words, “…the satisfaction of thirst does not imply drinking, nor satiety eating, nor burning contact with fire, nor light sunrise….” (Al-Ghazali, Incoherence of the Philosophers). This was a skeptic's view, which paralleled the skepticism of David Hume who was an 18th century philosopher known for his skepticism of cause and effect. Like Hume, Al-Ghazali downplayed the ability of reason to discover truths. Ibn Rushd responds:
Now intelligence is nothing but the perception of
things with their causes, and in this it distinguishes
itself from all the other faculties of apprehension,
and he who denies causes must deny the intellect.
Logic implies the existence of causes and effects,
and knowledge of these effects can only be
rendered perfect through knowledge of their
causes. Denial of cause implies the denial of
knowledge, and denial of knowledge implies that
nothing in this world can be really known...
(Ibn Rushd, Incoherence of the Incoherence)
For Ibn Rushd, the intelligible order of the universe, based on cause and effect, leads to the knowledge of The Intelligence (i.e. God). Knowledge would be useless; actually, there would be no such thing as knowledge if there was no necessary connection between the causes and effects found in the processes that make up the universe.
Also, Ibn Rushd underscored that truths uncovered by rational inquiry should be accepted no matter whom, when and where it came from. “It is quite immaterial whether that man is our co-religionist or not; for the instrument by which purification is perfected is not made uncertain in its usefulness by its being in the hands of one of our own party, or of a foreigner, if it possesses the attributes of truth,” says Ibn Rushd.
In retrospect, what we must take away from Ibn Rushd is his keen employment of Reason in all matters -- be it in discovering metaphysical truths or in mere discourse. It is worth noting that, even though he made plain his refutations of many of Al-Ghazali's views, in a passage in the Fasl Al-Maql he actually recommends one of Al-Ghazali's books. In Ibn Rushd's writing one will observe an objective attitude -- a person who dispassionately engages the opponent's argument rather than engaging the opponent. Instead of influencing the adherents of the Quran, Ibn Rushd greatly influenced the non-adherents of Islam in the West. It was the West that ran away with Ibn Rushd's ideas that helped foster the growth of the Enlightenment and Renaissance in Europe, while the Muslim world was in an intellectual decline. It is high time that we reclaim Ibn Rushd's rational methodology and apply it to promote a new age of Reason among the thinking populace. To underline the prime importance of utilizing Reason, I leave you with the following verses from the Quran and words of the Prophet Muhammad (p.b.u.h.):
“…We explain our signs clearly for those who reason.” [Quran 30:28]
“They will say: If only we had listened or used reason, we would not have ended up as inmates in the burning fire.” [Quran 67:10]
“Be not as those who say, "We hear," but listen not. Verily, the vilest of all creatures in the sight of God are those deaf, those dumb ones who do not use their reason.” [Quran 8:21-22]
“We have made the revelations clear to you, if you will use your reason.” [Quran 3:118]
“Reason well, therefore, O People, and understand my words which I convey to you.” [Prophet’s last sermon, see Al-Bukhari, Hadith 1623, 1626, 6361]
Zeshan Shahbaz is a researcher and freelance writer. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org