Ibn Rushd – the Qur’an and Philosophy 

Ibn Rushd, known in the Western world as Averroes, wrote summaries and commentaries of Aristotle that made the philosopher  intelligible for the Muslim world in the 12th century, but his legacy is the impact his commentaries had on Jewish and Christian philosophy. St. Aquinas referred to Aristotle as the Philosopher, and Ibn Rushd as the Commentator. Everyone else Thomas Aquinas used their name.

Impressed by Ibn Rushd’s ability to explain Aristotle, the Almohad caliph (prince) employed him as chief judge, then chief physician (because Aristotle was a trusted authority on those subjects). It was for the caliph that he wrote the commentaries on Aristotle. His political position was surprising since his Muslim theology was unorthodox, but he remained in the position for about 25 years, until he was charged with polytheism (he failed to sufficiently distance himself from a quote he repeated from some Greek philosopher concerning a Greek god). He was exiled to the Jewish village of Cordoba, but allowed to return to Marrakesh two years later.

Ibn Rushd defined philosophy as the teleological study of nature, or being. Some Muslims questioned whether reading the ancient Greek philosophers should be permitted. Ibn Rushd argued that the Qur’an required the study of being, because the more one knows the art, the better one knows the Artist, God. And if the Qur’an requires the study of being, the best method of studying should be used. As with astronomy or theology, philosophy is best performed when one is steeped in the writings of those that came before. The logic and philosophical demonstrations of the Greek philosophers supply the best approach to discover the truth about being. Therefore, the Qur’an implies it is wrong to forbid the study of non-Muslim philosophy.

Philosophy conflicts with the literal reading of the Qur’an. Ibn Rushd holds that the Qur’an is true, and philosophy is a tool for discovering the truth, so apparent conflicts are opportunities for philosophers to interpret the scriptures metaphorically. All Muslims accept the idea that some scripture should be interpreted allegorically, though they disagree about which parts, and how. This is where philosophers can help. God made the scriptures in such a way that they could be understood by the less intelligent, while the more intelligent could read philosophy. The Qur’an recognizes that there are different methods appropriate to different people.

Muhammed says judges should be praised for the things they get right, and their effort should be appreciated even when they make errors. It is not their fault that, taking into account their education, their error appeared true to them. Rushd assumes this attitude applies to philosophers as well. God chose these philosophers, these scholars, to investigate allegorical interpretation.They should be given the space to error because they are doing God’s work.


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