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Aristotelian purist

Ibn Rushd (Averroes)

By Aristotelian purist, Controversy with Al-Ghazzali, Ibn Rushd philosophy

Fourteenth century painting of Ibn Rushd by Andrea di Bonaiuto of Florence

The setting for Ibn Rushd (1126-1198) was Islamic Spain, where he was born in Cordova. In this city of Andalusia, his grandfather had been a prominent judge (qadi). Ibn Rushd was trained as a Maliki jurist; in that capacity (like his father also), he gained a distinguished career as a qadi of Cordova. He also became physician to the Almohad Sultan of Morocco.

Ibn Rushd eventually became famous in the Christian world as an Aristotelian philosopher, a role in which he achieved an unusual degree of conceptual purism. The “Eurocentric” interpretation views him merely as a bridge between the Greeks and the moderns. An alternative angle has been urged.

Ibn Rushd devoted much of his time to learning and composition.
In addition to philosophy, he was skilled as a medical doctor (Prince of Science). His talents in medicine are attested by his al-Kulliyyat fi al-Tibb (General Points on Medicine), an influential encyclopaedia which included some original observations and gained a well known Latin translation (Colliget). This early book related to his concern with philosophy as the medium for a digest of scientific data.

The output of Ibn Rushd encompassed many subjects. His Bidayat is a legal treatise representing the Maliki law school. He compiled the medical works of Galen, and also wrote on physics and astronomy (a subject in which he conducted observations at Marrakesh). His Mukhtasar al-Majisti is a summary of Ptolemy’s Almagest. Ibn Rushd here “challenged Ptolemy’s astronomical system on philosophical grounds and made interesting theoretical contributions to the Andalusian criticisms of the Greek astronomer” (M. Forcada, Ibn Rushd al-Hafid).

For many years, Ibn Rushd was composing diligent commentaries on nearly all the works of Aristotle. In some instances, he produced short, medium, and long commentaries on the same text, apparently for the purpose of encouraging different audiences. His three levels of explanation commenced with simple overview (jami) and proceeded to advanced study (tafsir). He produced these triple commentaries on the Physics, Metaphysics, De Anima, De Coelo, and Analytica Posteriora. “To these commentaries or paraphrases should be added a series of original philosophical writings, some of which have survived in Arabic, Hebrew or Latin” (Fakhry 2001:3). These original works include the evocative On Conjunction with the Active Intellect (Bland 1982). 

The Politics of Aristotle was not available to Ibn Rushd; he employed Plato’s Republic as a substitute, his commentary surviving only in a Hebrew translation (Rosenthal 1956). Plato was not highly rated amongst the Andalusian Aristotelians. Maimonides (1138-1204) wrote in a letter that the writings of Plato were parables and difficult to understand.

Ibn Rushd notably attempted to retrieve the original arguments of Aristotle, resisting the accretions of Neoplatonism which had infiltrated the Arabic tradition. He launched “a sustained attack against the Muslim Neoplatonists, led by al-Farabi and Avicenna, on the double charge that they either distorted or misunderstood” the teaching of Aristotle (Fakhry 2001:5). His predecessors had been misled by the prevalent confusion in Islam between Aristotle and Plotinus, also between Aristotle and Proclus. The drawback was exemplified by the so-called Theology of Aristotle, an Arabic text which is actually a paraphrase of Enneads IV-VI, composed by Plotinus. The anonymous author is now identified with the ninth century translation circle of the Arab philosopher Al-Kindi (who may have composed the prologue). A reworking of the original Plotinian passages occurred to suit the needs of contemporary debate in the early Islamic intellectual milieux (Adamson 2002).

The short commentaries by Ibn Rushd comprise “a very loose summary of the originals.” He did add his own interpretations. However, “the long commentaries are very impressive analyses of the text, especially given the nature of the translations with which Ibn Rushd was working” (Oliver Leaman, Ibn Rushd Abu’l Walid Muhammad).

Ibn Rushd is strongly associated with the Almohad dynasty, whose patronage he gained via periods of residence in Marrakesh, where he exercised the role of a court physician. The Almohads had conquered Cordova in 1148, zealously abolishing state protection for non-Muslims. This severe predicament left Jews and Christians prone to forced conversion, exile, or death. On another front, philosophy (falsafa) was attacked by orthodox critics.

Around the period of his second mandate in Seville (1179) he [Ibn Rushd] did not refrain from launching into an open polemic against detractors of philosophy. His response in the Decisive Treatise (Kitab Fasl al-maqal) was all but apologetic, going so far as to enjoin whole sectors of society – to wit, all capable Muslims – to engage with professional philosophy. (M. Di Giovanni, “Averroes, Philosopher of Islam,” in Adamson and Di Giovanni 2019:10)

Conservative tendencies in the political climate led to the official rejection of his writings at the end of his life. The presiding Almohad Sultan was Abu Yusuf Yaqub al-Mansur (rgd 1184-1199). This ruler defeated a Christian army at Alarcos in 1195; returning to Seville, the Sultan supported doctrinaire jurists who had accused Ibn Rushd of heresy, the issue here being the latter’s reconciliation of Greek philosophy with Islam. The militant Almohad attitude also aggravated against other heretics. “Ibn Rushd was thus the victim of a political gesture, and was sacrificed by the Sultan in order to win over the masses” (Urvoy 1991:35). 

On one occasion, Ibn Rushd “was actually driven from the mosque of Cordoba by an angry crowd of worshippers” (Leaman 1998:4-5). Some of his books are reported to have been burned. In 1195, Ibn Rushd was exiled from Cordova to Lucena, a small Spanish town largely inhabited by Jews. The Almohad regime now imposed forced conversion to Islam in that town. The inhabitants wrongly associated Ibn Rushd with the aggression. When eminent men in Seville learned what had happened, they petitioned in his favour. The banishment was revoked two or three years later, when the Sultan summoned Ibn Rushd to the Almohad court at Marrakesh, where both of them died shortly after.

The Almohad regime was based on a combination of a royal household, a hierarchical religious organisation, a tribal military elite with Berber and Arab tribal allies, and a Spanish-type administration. (Lapidus 1988:375)

In his Fasl al-Maqal (Decisive Treatise), Ibn Rushd “contended that the claim of many Muslim theologians that philosophers were outside the fold of Islam had no base in scripture.”  He “strived to demonstrate that without engaging religion critically and philosophically, deeper meanings of the [religious] tradition can be lost, ultimately leading to deviant and incorrect understandings of the divine” (H. Chad Hillier, “Ibn Rushd,” Internet Enyclopaedia of Philosophy).

Ibn Rushd was here arguing for the obligatory status of studying philosophy, amongst those who had the capacity for scientific reasoning (qiyas burhani). His opponents were evidently “the conservative Malikite lawyers and their popular supporters, and the rising class of Asharite theologians” (Hourani 1961:1, 16).

The major controversy related to the Asharite exponent Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (1058-1111), an Iranian theologian who gained repute as a Sufi. After renouncing his academic role at Baghdad, Ghazali created a new “philosophical theology,” adapting  elements of falsafa and Sufism to Sunni Islam (Griffel 2009). Ghazali repudiated the relevance of philosophy in his treatise Tahafut al-Falasifa (Incoherence of the Philosophers). In response to Ghazali, Ibn Rushd composed the Tahafut al-Tahafut (Incoherence of the Incoherence), which is a systematic refutation.

Ghazali argued that philosophers became infidels (kafirs), meaning in relation to issues such as their support for the Aristotelian doctrine of eternity of the world, and their denial of bodily resurrection. The major target for Ghazali was Ibn Sina, with whom Ibn Rushd also disagreed, while adopting a very different angle (to Ghazali) as an Aristotelian purist. 

Averroes undertakes a thorough and systematic refutation of al-Ghazali’s arguments one by one. His primary aim both here and elsewhere is to defend Aristotle against the strictures of the Asharites, in general, and al-Ghazali, in particular, on the one hand, and to correct the errors of his Muslim interpreters, especially al-Farabi and Avicenna, on the other…. Averroes is particularly scathing in his attack on the Asharite theologians who, in their obsession with the notion of God’s absolute omnipotence, have reduced the created order to total impotence or passivity…. The three principal issues on which the philosophers are charged with irreligion (kufr) are found on close scrutiny to rest on a misunderstanding or misinterpretation of the Quranic texts in question. (Fakhry 2001:17-18)

As events transpired, Ghazali was victorious in the Islamic world. However, the eclipsed Ibn Rushd gained a significant new incarnation in both the Jewish and  Christian spheres of commentary.

Ibn Rushd has the repute of being a rigorous Aristotelian. “More explicitly than Aristotle himself, the regarded the study of logic as a necessary propaedeutic to the study of physics, and by extension the other sciences, including metaphysics and ethics” (Fakhry 2001:165). Not everyone is happy with the systematic application. For instance, Ibn Rushd followed Aristotle in defining psychology as part of physics, an approach contradicting the Platonist and Neoplatonist perspectives. The eclectic Sufi philosopher Ibn Sabin (1217-71) described  Ibn Rushd as “lacking in intuition” (ibid:167). Both Ibn Sabin and Ibn Rushd were castigated by the Syrian Hanbali conservative Ibn Taymiyah (1263-1328), “who reacted violently against the use of all the methods of proof, whether theological or philosophical, and went so far as to question the very foundations of Aristotelian logic in his Refutation of the Logicians” (ibid).

It was only in the thirteenth/nineteenth century that the Arabs became interested again in Ibn Rushd, and in a polemical climate which for a long time distorted the meaning of this rediscovery. His fortune is only due to his reception outside the Muslim world, notably among Jewish writers, who contributed to transmitting him to the Latin West, which eventually was to betray him. (Dominique Urvoy, “Ibn Rushd” (330-45) in Nasr and Leaman 1996:343)

Many of his works are lost, while others survived in Latin or Hebrew. The heresies of Ibn Rushd included a theme of the eternally existing physical world. He also denied resurrection of the body, an Islamic belief supported by literal interpretation of the Quran. Ibn Rushd emphasised that the soul survives death, whereas the body cannot do so. He argued that such contentions could be philosophically confirmed via resort to Aristotle. Ibn Rushd distinguished between the “people of demonstration” and the “people of rhetoric,” meaning the philosophical minority and the generality who upheld the literal sense of the Quran (Robert Pasnau, The Islamic Scholar who gave us Modern Philosophy).

A few years after his death at Marrakesh, in Christian Europe secular universities commenced, notably at Bologna, Paris, and Oxford. By the mid-thirteenth century, Aristotelian philosophy was elevated at those universities as a crucial avenue of learning. In a cultural shift and telling reversal, Averroes (Ibn Rushd) was now celebrated as the important guide to Aristotle. Nevertheless, the guide often transpired to be in conflict with Christian doctrine. Paris and Oxford have been described as ecclesiastical centres.

By 1300, there were 23 universities in Europe, favouring Latin as the language for tuition. As a general rule, women could not receive instruction in Latin, and were prohibited from taking academic degrees.  Presiding theologians employed Aristotle for the support of Christianity. They used his logical apparatus to systematise Church doctrine. The Dominican Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) was the exemplar of this trend, utilising Aristotelian logic, metaphysics, and ethics in his influential work Summa Theologiae.

In 1268, Aquinas returned to Paris, in his role as master of theology. He was deputed to confront the “Averroists,” radicals amongst the professors of philosophy. These dissidents were defending the same themes for which Ibn Rushd had been harassed many years earlier. They emphasised the superiority of reason over faith.

The dogmatic Aquinas insisted upon orthodox religious doctrines such as resurrection of the body. He opposed the Averroists as a danger to religion. Dissidents had no chance against the ruthless Papal system of eliminating opposition. In 1277, the Roman Catholic Church condemned 219 teachings of Averroes. Meanwhile, the early Franciscan rivals to the Dominican strategy were suppressed. In 1252, Pope Innocent authorised the Dominican use of torture to elicit confessions. By 1254, Franciscan Inquisitors were influential against heretics. The Inquisition contradicted any viable philosophy.

The history of philosophy in al-Andalus cannot be told as separate stories of Muslim or of Jewish philosophy. Nor can intellectual history be told as an abstract history of ideas, while ignoring the politico-religious circumstances in which these ideas grew and developed. (Stroumsa 2019:169).

Another contention is: “The pantheistic beliefs of Baruch Spinoza flowed from Averroistic monopsychism, as did his belief in the higher state of the philosophers and tendencies toward secularism” (Averroism).


Adamson, Peter, The Arabic Plotinus: A Philosophical Study of the ‘Theology of Aristotle’ (London: Duckworth, 2002).

Adamson, Peter, and Matteo Di Giovanni, eds., Interpreting Averroes: Critical Essays (Cambridge University Press, 2019); for a review, see Fouad Ben Ahmed at Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews (2020).

Baffioni, Carmela, ed., Averroes and the Aristotelian Heritage (Naples: Guida, 2004).

Bland, Kalman P., ed. and trans., The Epistle on the Possibility of Conjunction with the Active Intellect by Ibn Rushd with the Commentary of Moses Narboni (New York: Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 1982).

Butterworth, Charles E., trans., Averroes – Decisive Treatise and Epistle Dedicatory (Brigham Young University, 2001).

Endress, Gerhard, and Jan A. Aertsen, eds., Averroes and the Aristotelian Tradition (Leiden: Brill, 1999).

Fakhry, Majid, Averroes: His Life, Works and Influence (Oxford: Oneworld, 2001).

Genequand, Charles, trans., Ibn Rushd’s Metaphysics: A Translation with introduction of Ibn Rushd’s Commentary on Aristotle’s Metaphysics (Leiden: Brill, 1984).

Griffel, Frank, Al-Ghazali’s Philosophical Theology (Oxford University Press, 2009).

Hourani, George F., Averroes: On the Harmony of Religion and Philosophy (London: Luzac, 1961).

Ivry, Alfred L., ed. and trans., Averroes: Middle Commentary on De Anima (Brigham Young University, 2002).

Lapidus, Ira M., A History of Islamic Societies (Cambridge University Press, 1988).

Leaman, Oliver, Averroes and his Philosophy (1988; revised edn, Richmond: Curzon, 1998). 

Nasr, Seyyed Hossein, and Oliver Leaman, eds., History of Islamic philosophy Pt 1 (London: Routledge, 1996).

Rosenthal, Erwin I. J., ed. and trans., Averroes’ Commentary on Plato’s Republic (Cambridge University Press, 1956).

Stroumsa, Sarah, Andalus and Sefarad: On Philosophy and Its History in Islamic Spain (Princeton University Press, 2019). 

Urvoy, Dominique, Ibn Rushd (London: Routledge, 1991).

——–Averroes. Les ambitions d’un intellectuel musulman (Paris: Flammarion, 1998).

Van Den Bergh, Simon, trans., Averroes’ Tahafut al-Tahafut (2 vols, London: E. J. W. Gibb Memorial Trust, 1954).


Kevin R. D. Shepherd
May 1st 2010 (modified 2021)

ENTRY no. 19

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