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Ibn Rushd (Averroes) is regarded by many as the most important of the Islamic philosophers. A product of twelfth-century Islamic Spain, he set out to integrate Aristotelian philosophy with Islamic thought. A common theme throughout his writings is that there is no incompatibility between religion and philosophy when both are properly understood. His contributions to philosophy took many forms, ranging from his detailed commentaries on Aristotle, his defence of philosophy against the attacks of those who condemned it as contrary to Islam and his construction of a form of Aristotelianism which cleansed it, as far as was possible at the time, of, Neoplatonic influences.

His thought is genuinely creative and highly controversial, producing powerful arguments that were to puzzle his philosophical successors in the Jewish and Christian worlds. He seems to argue that there are two forms of truth, a religious form and a philosophical form, and that it does not matter if they point in different directions. He also appears to be doubtful about the possibility of personal immortality or of God’s being able to know that particular events have taken place. There is much in his work also which suggests that religion is inferior to philosophy as a means of attaining knowledge, and that the understanding of religion which ordinary believers can have is very different and impoverished when compared with that available to the philosopher.

When discussing political philosophy he advocates a leading role in the state for philosophers, and is generally disparaging of the qualities of theologians as political figures. Ibn Rushd’s philosophy is seen to be based upon a complex and original philosophy of languages which expresses his critique of the accepted methods of argument in Islamic philosophy up to his time. 

    1.  Commentaries

    2.  God and the world

    3.  The soul

    4.  Moral and political philosophy

    5.  The role of philosophy

    6   Philosophy of language

         List of works



1. Commentaries 

Abu’1 Walid Muhammad ibn Ahmad ibn Muhammad ibn Rushd, often known as Averroes (the Latinized version of his name), was born in AH 520/AD 1126 in Cordoba. He came from a distinguished line of jurists and theologians, who like him served as public officials. As a result of royal patronage he became both royal physician and qadi (judge) of Cordoba in succession to his father. Due to the political turmoil in Andalus (Islamic Spain) at the time, he was not always in favour, and was banished to North Africa when he was seventy during a period of persecution of philosophy. He died in AH 595/no 1198 after having been rehabilitated, but his religious orthodoxy still seems to have been suspected by the public.

There is a famous story that when Ibn Rushd was about forty-two there was a meeting between the caliph and Ibn Rushd, at which the latter was asked to summarize the works of Aristotle in order that the ideas of that thinker might be better understood by the caliph himself, and no doubt also by the intellec­tual community. Ibn Rushd’s reported nervousness at accepting this commission was well-founded, since changing political circumstances had in the past - and would in the future - put Aristotle and those influenced by him under a theological cloud; the interest of a ruler in philosophy could quite easily turn into hostility. Over the next twenty-six years, however, Ibn Rushd wrote commentaries on most of Aristotle’s works. These commentaries took a variety of forms. Often he would write a summary, medium commentary and long commentary of the same text, thus presenting the ideas of Aristotle to a variety of audiences; those who were seeking a detailed discussion of the whole text would look to the long commentary, while those who wanted just to get a flavour of the original could be satisfied with the paraphrase. As Aristotle’s Politics was not available to him, he used Plato’s Republic instead for his commentary on a political text.

The remarkable feature of these commentaries is the way in which Ibn Rushd tried to get back to the original arguments of Aristotle, cleansed of the Neoplatonic accretions which had developed. This was very difficult to do, since a long and well-developed tradition of Neoplatonic commentary had very much set the agenda over the previous centuries in the Islamic world (see NEOPLATONISM IN ISLAMIC PHILOSOPHY). However, Ibn Rushd was often able to distinguish between the points which Aristotle was trying to make and those which had been imposed upon him by the commentators. He certainly respected some of the classical commentators such as ALEXANDER OF APHRODISIAS and THEMISTUS, as well as some of the Islamic philosophers and especially his own countryman IBN BAJIA, but the style of his commentaries is to try to understand the text anew and to reconstruct the Aristotelian argument in a way which represents Aristotle’s original view. Sometimes he is more successful than at others, and he was not averse to adding his own comments on the text when he felt this would be useful. The paraphrases are certainly a very loose summary of the originals, and often give Ibn Rushd the opportunity to express his own views on an Aristotelian theme. However, the long commentaries are very impressive analyses of the text, especially given the nature of the translations with which Ibn Rushd was working, and they came to wield great influence in the Christian and Jewish worlds (see AVERROISM; AVERROISM, JEWISH.)


2 God and the world 

Although Ibn Rushd did discuss theological topics in his commentaries on occasion, he usually reserved them for his more polemical works, where he has a more contemporary philosopher in mind. His Tahafut al-tahafut (Incoherence of the Incoherence) is a response to an earlier attack upon philosophy, the Tahafut al falasifa (Incoherence of the Philosophers) written by AL-GHAZALI, who had argued in this work that there are two major problems with Islamic philosophy. The first problem is that it misapplies the very philosophical techniques which it advocates; that is, its arguments fall foul of the criteria for validity which philosophy itself advocates. The other problem is that the conclusions of philosophy go against the principles of Islam, which the philosophers pretend they are supporting. Al-Ghazali produced accurate descriptions of philosophical arguments and then set about demolishing them, using the same philosophical principles which his opponents try to employ. He argued that although the philosophers purport to prove that philosophy is merely a more sophisticated analysis of the nature of reality than that available to ordinary Muslims, the philosophers are in fact involved in dismantling the religious notion of God, the afterlife and creation in the guise of merely analysing these ideas. Although the object of his attack is primarily the work of AL-FARABI and IBN SINA, Ibn Rushd perceived that the whole peripatetic approach to philosophy was being challenged by al-Ghazali, and he rushed to its defence.

The nub of al-Ghazali’s attack on philosophy is what he regards as its misguided interpretation of the relationship between God and the world. The Qur’an is full of references to the creation of the world and to its eventual destruction should the deity feel it appropriate, yet Islamic philosophy tends to argue that the world is eternal. If God really is an agent, al-Ghazali asks, why cannot he just create the world ex nihilo and then later destroy it? Ibn Rushd replies that temporal and eternal agents act very differently. We can decide to do something, we can wait for a certain time before acting, we can wonder about our future actions; but such possibilities cannot arise for God. In his case there is no gap between desire and action, nothing stands in the way of his activity; and yet we are told by al-Ghazali that God suddenly created the world. What differentiates one time from another for God? What could motivate him to create the world at one particular time as opposed to another? For us, different times are different because they have different qualitative aspects, yet before the creation of the world, when there was nothing around to characterize one time as distinct from another, there is nothing to characterize one time over another as the time for creation to take place (see ETERNITY ).

Al-Ghazali argues that such a response is evidence of mental laziness. Even we can choose between two alternatives which appear to be identical in every respect except position. He gives the example of a hungry man being confronted by only two dates, where he is able to take just one. Since they are to all intents and purposes identical, it would seem to follow that if the philosophers are right he must just stand there and starve since there is no difference between them. Ibn Rushd criticizes this analogy, since it is not really about a choice as to which date to eat but about a choice between eating and not eating. What al-Ghazali is trying to do is establish some scope for divine action and decision-making which represents God as a real agent and not just as a cipher for natural events which would take place anyway. Ibn Rushd comments that the difficulty lies in distinguishing between the divine will and knowledge. Since an omniscient God knows exactly how the universe should be organized to produce the optimal arrangement, Ibn Rushd insists that there is no point in thinking of a gap in time existing between that conception and its instantiation. An omnipotent God does not need to wait for the appropriate moment to create the universe since nothing exists which could oblige him to wait, and he does not require time to bring about the creation. Ibn Rushd argues that given God’s nature, we cannot think of his acting in any different way from that represented by the organization of the world. This does not imply a lack of freedom or ability to choose, but is merely a reflection of God’s perfect nature (see OMNIPOTENCE).

Al-Ghazali followed the Ash’arites in being so concerned to emphasize the power and ubiquity of God that he refused to accept that the ordinary world really consists of stable material objects between which there are relationships of natural necessity (See ASH’ARIYYA AND MU’TAZILA §5; CAUSALITY AND NECESSITY IN ISLAMIC THOUGHT §2). Ibn Rushd claims that this theory leads to a denial of the possibility of knowledge of the world. Since al-Ghazali accepts causality as a practical guide to our everyday lives, one might wonder what point Ibn Rushd is trying to make here. The point is that the nexus between a term and its causal properties is not merely contingent, but is really one of meaning. Al-Ghazali gives the example of a decapitated person acting just like an ordinary human being, except for the absence of a head. No such event has ever taken place, but if God wills it it could happen, because God is omnipotent and we can imagine such a possibility. If God wants to activate a headless person, he could do so. This shows that the connection between having a head and being an active human being is merely con­tingent, without necessity. Ibn Rushd wonders whether this change to our conceptual scheme is really possible. There are some properties which are significant aspects of the meaning of the thing of which they are the properties, and there is a necessary relationship between what a thing is and what it does. The advantage of Ibn Rushd’s response is that it provides an account of how naming is possible. We can set about naming things because we can identify relatively stable entities with lawlike patterns of behaviour with other things. We may often go awry in our naming, but if we could not be sure that on the whole our names correspond with stable and fixed essences, naming itself would be an empty procedure.

Along with his insistence that the deity is a real agent, al-Ghazali was concerned to provide God with real knowledge of the everyday events of the world he created. IBN SINA argued that God is limited to knowing only very general and abstract features of the world, since any other sort of knowledge would diminish him as an eternal and immaterial being. Al-Ghazali objects that any God which is acceptable to Islam must know the everyday events of our world. Ibn Rushd suggests that on the contrary, this would make God into someone very like his creatures and would provide him with knowledge that is beneath his dignity. God’s knowledge is superior and unique because he is not limited to receiving information from the world, as is the case with finite creatures like human beings. He is the creator of the objects in the world, and he knows them in a more perfect and complete way than we can hope to attain. This suggests that God cannot know individuals as such. The best knowledge is abstract and universal, and this is the sort of knowledge which God can be thought to enjoy.

One might expect Ibn Rushd to share Ibn Sina’s view that God’s knowledge is limited to universal judgments, but he does not adopt this line, arguing rather that God’s knowledge is neither universal nor individual, although it is more like the latter than the former. Our knowledge is the result of what God has brought about, whereas God’s knowledge is produced by that which he himself has brought about, a reality which he has constructed. The organization of the universe is a reflection of God’s thought, and through thinking about his own being he is at the same time thinking about the organization of the world which mirrors that essence. He cannot really be identical with contingent and accidental phenomena, yet his essence is not totally unconnected with such phenomena. They represent contingent aspects of the necessary and essential relationships which he has established. To take an example, God knows which physical laws govern the universe, but he does not need to observe any moving objects to understand the principles of movement. Such observations are only appropriate objects of knowledge of sentient creatures with sensory apparatus and are far beneath the dignity of the creator. Ibn Rushd argues that this is not to diminish God’s knowledge, but rather emphasizes the distinctness of the deity from his creatures and their ways of finding things out (see GOD, CONCEPTS OF).


3 The soul 

Another charge which al-Ghazali brought against philosophy was that it fails to allow the physical resurrection of human beings and the provision of physical rewards and punishments appropriate to their behaviour during their lives. He has in mind here the Aristotelian notion of the soul, which makes the idea of an afterlife difficult to grasp. This is because the soul is the form of the living being, an aspect of the being itself, and there is no point in talking about the matter existing without the form when we are considering living creatures. Persons are combinations of soul and body, and in the absence of the latter there are no persons left (see SOUL IN ISLAMIC PHILOSOPHY.

Ibn Rushd appears to argue that as we become more involved with immortal and eternal knowledge, and with universal and abstract principles, our mind becomes identical to a degree with those objects of knowledge. So, once we have perfected ourselves intellectually and know everything that there is to know about the formal structure of reality, there is no longer really any `us’ around to do the knowing. Ibn Rushd regards our progress in knowledge as equivalent to a lessening of our ties with our material and individual human characteristics, with the radical result that if anything survives death, it must be the species and not the individual. Temporal and finite creatures are destructible, but as members of a species we are permanent, although only the species itself is entirely free from destruction.

This seems even more incompatible with the traditional religious view of the afterlife than the position which al-Ghazali attacks. Ibn Rushd follows this with a political account of the function of the religious language, describing the afterlife as providing ordinary believers with a motive for virtuous action and dissuading them from immorality. He does not entirely rule out the possibility of the sort of physical afterlife on which al-Ghazali insists, but it is clear from his work that he regards such a possibility as wildly unlikely. The only meaning which can be given to such a notion is political, and there is nothing irreligious about such an interpretation, according to Ibn Rushd. It is difficult for unsophisticated believers to understand that it is worthwhile to act well and avoid evil, or that their actions have a wider reference than the immediate community of acquaintances, so any religion which is able to motivate them must address them in ways that they comprehend and in a language which strikes an emotional chord. Richly descriptive accounts of the afterlife, of God seeing everything which happens and of his creation of the world out of nothing, help adherence by the majority to the principles of religion and are the only sort of language which most members of the community can understand. The arguments which Ibn Rushd presents for hedging in the notion of the immortality of the individual soul would not mean much to the unsophisticated believer, while the more intellectually alert are expected by Ibn Rushd to understand how that notion fits in with the basic principles of Islam.


4 Moral and political philosophy 

Ibn Rushd presents a firm critique of the Ash’arite theory of moral language, which interprets rightness and wrongness entirely in conformity with the commands of God. The purpose of that theory is to emphasize the power and authority of the deity over everything, even over the meaning of ethical terms (see ETHICS IN ISLAMIC PHILOSOPHY. What we ought to do then is simply equivalent to God’s commands, and we ought to do it because God has commanded it, so that everything we need to know about moral behaviour is encapsulated in Islam. Ibn Rushd argued that on the contrary, a distinction should be drawn between moral notions and divine commands. Here he follows an Aristotelian approach. Since everything has a nature, and this nature defines its end, we as things also have natures and ends at which our behaviour is directed. The purpose of a plant is to grow and the aim of a saw is to cut, but what is the purpose of a human being? One of our ultimate aims is to be happy and to avoid actions which lead to unhappiness. It is not difficult here to align Islamic and Aristotelian principles: moral virtue leads to happiness since, if we do what we should in accordance with our nature, we will be able to achieve happiness. This happiness may be interpreted in a number of ways, either as a mixture of social and religious activities or as an entirely intellectual ideal. However, the latter is possible only for a very few, and neither religion nor philosophy would approve of it as the ultimate aim for the majority of the community. There is an essential social dimension to human happiness which makes the identification of happiness with correct moral and religious behaviour much easier to establish. It is conceivable that someone would try to live completely apart from the community to concentrate upon entirely intellectual pursuits, but this way of living is inferior to a life in which there is a concentration upon intellectual thought combined with integration within the practices of a particular society.

One might expect that a thinker such as Ibn Rushd, who was working within an Islamic context, would identify happiness and misery with some aspect of the afterlife, but as we have seen, he was unable to accept the traditional view of the afterlife as containing surviving individuals like ourselves. What the notion of the afterlife is supposed to achieve is an understanding that the scope of personal action is wider than might immediately appear to be the case. Without religious language and imagery, ordinary believers may find it difficult to grasp that our moral actions affect not only ourselves but the happiness of the whole community, not just at a particular time or in a particular place but as a species. When we behave badly we damage our own chances of human flourishing, and this affects our personal opportunities for achieving happiness and growing as people. It also affects our relationships with other people, resulting in a weakening of society. While it is possibly true that the misery consequent upon evil-doing may not follow us personally after our death, it may well follow the community. The importance of the notion of an afterlife is that it points to the wider terms of reference in which moral action has life.

In his commentary on Plato’s Republic, Ibn Rushd modifies Plato in terms of his own Aristotelian views and applies the text to the contemporary state. He uses Plato’s idea of the transformation and deterioration of the ideal state into four imperfect states to illustrate aspects of past and contemporary political organization in the Islamic world (see POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY IN CLASSICAL ISLAM). He takes mis­chievous pleasure in comparing the theologians of his own time, the mutakallimun, to Plato’s sophists (see ISLAMIC THEOLOGY §2). He describes the theologians as a genuine danger to the state and to the purity of Islam, and suggests to the ruler that a ban on the publicizing of their activities is advisable. In this and many of his other works, Ibn Rushd stresses the importance of a careful understanding of the relationship between religion and philosophy in the state. Revelation is superior to philosophy in that it makes its message more widely available than is possible for philosophy. The prophet can do things which the philosopher cannot such as teaching the masses, understanding the future, establishing religious laws and contributing to the happiness of the whole of humanity. Through divine revelation or inspiration, the prophet establishes laws which make it possible for people to attain an understanding of how they should behave. The credentials of the prophet are to be established by political skill. Miracles are irrelevant here; only legislative abilities count.

The philosopher has all the theoretical knowledge which the prophet has, but only the latter can embody this knowledge in a law and persuade the general public that this is a law which must be obeyed (see LAW, ISLAMIC PHILOSOPHY OF). What the prophet has is practical knowledge as well as the theoretical knowledge which he shares with the philosopher, and so the content of the prophetic law (shari’a) is no different from the content of the philosophical law (namus). The prophet is much better at putting this content across to the community, and can transform abstract ideas about human happiness into political ideas and social norms which then are capable of regulating the life of the community. However, it is worth emphasizing that the only advantage which religion has over reason is that the former involves a practical form of knowledge which is not necessarily possessed by the latter. The issue of the relationship between philosophy and religion fascinated the Islamic philosophers (see EPISTEMOLOGY IN ISLAMIC PHILOSOPHY §5), and Ibn Rushd was no exception in this respect. He tried to refine this issue time and time again throughout his works.


5 The role of philosophy

The role of the philosopher in the state was a topic of continual interest for Ibn Rushd. He noticed that ARISTOTLE (§26) seemed to hesitate between the view that the prime constituent of the good life is intellectual thought and the alternative, based upon a broader collection of virtues. These two alternatives have very different implications, especially within the context of a religious philosophy. The identification of a more social notion of happiness as living in accordance with a general mixture of virtues would make happiness more generally available to the public, since it would mean that the unsophisticated but dutiful believer could achieve a high level of perfection in their life. The idea that intellectual excellence is the highest form of human wellbeing or happiness implies that the great majority of the community, unable or disinclined to concentrate completely on intellectual issues, is thereby deprived of the very best form of life. No religion such as Islam with its claims to universality could tolerate such a confining restriction on human happiness. Ibn Rushd thinks he can avoid this dilemma. The basis to his solution is the argument that religion and philosophy are not incompatible. Islam is a rational system of beliefs and it requires its adherents to attend to rational arguments concerning how they are to behave and think. The rational arguments are there in the Qur’an and other places for those who can follow them, and for those who cannot there are other forms of presentation of the truth which are easier to understand.

This might seem a patronizing way to describe the faith of the ordinary believer, but Ibn Rushd suggests that if we look at examples from law and medicine we shall see how acceptable it is. Lawyers may study in detail the principles behind legislation, yet most of the community just follows the law without thinking deeply about its rationale. Those who work in medical fields have a good understanding of how the body works and how different forms of treatment affect the health of the individual. The ordinary person does not understand much of this, and just goes along with what they are told by the medical experts. There is nothing wrong with this; there is no necessity for everyone in the community to be either a lawyer or a doctor. Different people have different attitudes to both the law and medicine, some based upon real understanding and some based upon casual acquaintance, and these differences do not interfere with the ability of everyone in the community to live in an organized and healthy society.

Any religion with claims to general acceptability must present its message in a suitable form for the particular audience it is addressing. Ibn Rushd argues that Islam is an especially excellent religion because it has the ability to present the important issues to the greatest variety of people. Some people will be attracted to Islam and strengthened in their faith if the philosophical arguments for being a Muslim are pursued and developed. Others, perhaps the majority, cannot really understand such arguments but can understand simpler arguments and parables which describe in simple terms what is wrong with other religions and why Islam is superior to them. Still others will not even be able to grasp such simple arguments and so must be persuaded by rhetorical devices, which include a grain of logical force but mainly consist of persuasive imagery and exhortation. The way in which Ibn Rushd makes this distinction has led some commentators to think that his real view is that philosophy alone reveals the truth, and religion is only suitable for the intellectually weak who have to be satisfied with stories and doctrines which are, strictly speaking, false. Such a disingenuous interpretation is not required, however. Ibn Rushd is trying to highlight the fact that there are a variety of ways of coming to know something, some of which are surer than others, but all of which are acceptable. Once the object of knowledge is acquired then it is known, however that knowledge has been achieved. We know religious truths in different ways, but we really do know exactly the same thing.

One of the excellences of Islam, according to Ibn Rushd, is its accessibility to a wide range of adherents. In many of his works, and especially in his Fasl al-maqal (Decisive Treatise), he argues that the highest form of demonstrative reasoning cannot clash with the principles of religion. He claims here that philosophers are best able to understand properly the allegorical passages in the Qur’an on the basis of their logical training, and that there is no religious stipulation that all such passages have to be interpreted literally. Where demonstrative reasoning appears to conflict with the sense of Scripture, then those capable of demonstration (the philosophers) know that the passages must be interpreted allegorically so as to cohere with the demonstrative truths. Philosophers should be careful when they do this not to offend the religious sensibilities of the less sophisticated, in sharp contrast with the practice of the theologians. The latter frequently interpret such passages so crudely that they either throw doubt on religion itself, or threaten the pursuit of philosophy by raising doubts in people’s minds concerning the orthodoxy of the conclusions reached by the philosophers. Language should be seen as a sophisticated vehicle for communicating information to different categories of audience. Religion is a means for the easy comprehension of the majority of the people, and where a hidden meaning exists it is up to the philosophers to discover it and keep it to themselves, while the rest of the community must accept the literalness of Scripture.


6 Philosophy of language

Ibn Rushd is in a difficult position when trying to respond to al-Ghazali’s attacks upon philosophy, since the former tried at the same time to distance himself from the sort of Neoplatonic approach to theoretical issues which Ibn Sina advocated, and it was Ibn Sina who was the direct object of al-Ghazali’s critique. One of the most significant methodological disputes between Ibn Rushd and Ibn Sina lies in their differing analyses of the relationship between essence and existence, and this has an important influence upon Ibn Rushd’s approach to meaning. Ibn Sina held that a state of affairs is possible if and only if something else acts to bring it into existence, with the sole exception of the deity. Ibn Rushd characterizes this view, quite correctly, as one in which possible states of affairs are nonexistent in themselves, until their existence is brought about by some cause. The possible is that whose essence does not include its existence and so must depend upon a cause which makes its actuality necessary, but only necessary relative to that cause. In this modal system there are really only two kinds of being, that necessary through another and that necessary in itself (that is, God), so that the realm of the possible becomes identical with both the actual and the necessary.

Both Ibn Rushd and Ibn Sins. maintain that there is a logical distinction between essence and existence, but the former accuses the latter of conflating the order of thought with the order of things, the logical order with the ontological order. Ibn Sins. does indeed start with the logical distinction between essence and existence and then proceeds via his theory of emanation to show how existence comes to essence from the necessarily acting Necessary Being (see NEOPLATONISM IN ISLAMIC PHILOSOPHY §3). The occasionalism Of AL-GHAZALI Is like the theory of emanation of IBN SINA, in that both doctrines interpret the contingent world as radically dependent upon something else. The account of essence and existence provided by Ibn Sins. is perfectly acceptable to al-Ghazali, with the proviso that direct divine intervention is required to bring existence to the essences. Ibn Sins. divides up the world into existing things and essences, into what we can think about and what really exists, and into things which are necessary through another and are possible in themselves. These distinctions throw doubt on the sort of realism and emphasis upon substance that is so important for Ibn Rushd and his form of Aristotelianism. This latter is based upon a model of the world as one entity, as a single order of nature with no impenetrable barriers to human understanding and investigation. This leads Ibn Rushd to argue that although a logical distinction can be drawn between the existence and essence of a thing, there is nonetheless a necessary relationship between existence and essence. Without such a relationship, one could conceive of all sorts of things happening to essences without regard to how they are actually instantiated - the sorts of thought-experiments which al-Ghazali advocates - which Ibn Rushd argues seriously misrepresents the nature of philo­sophy. The meaning of the name of a thing is intimately connected with the way in which it is instantiated, and it is a radical error in the philosophy of language to separate essence and existence (see EXISTENCE; MEANING IN ISLAMIC PHILOSOPHY §3).

To understand Ibn Rushd’s account of a variety of paths to the truth, we have to grasp his theory of meaning. He emphasizes the importance of notions such as equivocation and ambiguity in language because he thinks it is important to be able to explain how names can be used in similar ways in different contexts. Ibn Rushd agrees with Aristotle that there can be no priority or posteriority within the same genus, and so he develops an account of meaning which is based upon the pros hen rather than the genus-species relation. If the latter were used, meaning would come out as univocal and al-Ghazali would be entirely justified in expecting the philosophers to account for God and his activity in the same sort of language as we use to describe ourselves If meaning is expressed in terms of pros hen equivocals (bi nisba ila shay’ wahid), then we can look for some similarity in the objects which form the basis to the sharing of the name, but we do not have to insist that exactly the same name be used in its different contexts with precisely the same meaning. We can also insist that the different contexts in which a name is used have to be taken into account when we come to ask for the meaning of the name. For al-Ghazali, abstract terms have a meaning which is independent of their reference in the external world. The meaning of such terms is equivalent to the series of pictures or images in which the events they describe are characterized in particular ways. All that we have to do to conceive of God miraculously creating something out of nothing is to imagine it happening, and so it is possible. Ibn Rushd argues that, on the contrary, it is not enough to have a series of images in one’s mind to establish the meaningfulness of that combination of images. A meaningful use of language is possible only through the connection of linguistic terms and ideas with a framework in which they make sense, and such a framework is connected to the varying uses of the terms and to the way in which the world is.

The concept which Ibn Rushd wants his account of language to characterize is that of a point of view. In Ibn Rushd’s thought there is a continual contrast between different points of view, not just a distinction between God’s point of view and the human point of view, but also a differentiation of the standpoints of the whole of humanity based upon their forms of reasoning. For example, in the Fasl al-maqal he talks about demonstrative, dialectical, rhetorical and so­phistical people, all of whom are using similar language to discuss what is important to them, namely their faith, morality, the next life and so on. This language is not identical regardless of the way in which it is used, nor is it completely equivocal. There are connections between different applications of the same name, and these connections are strong enough for it to make sense to say that these uses are of the same name; so we can talk a ut there being a variety of routes to the same destination, a variety of views based upon the same ideas and beliefs, and a variety of ways of living which together add up to a morally and religiously desirable form of life.

Ibn Rushd extends the use of the notion of ijma’ (consensus) from its theological role of establishing what is acceptable within Islam to an even more important role, that of establishing what words mean. If there is agreement in the community that particular scriptural passages are clear, then they are clear and that is the end of the matter. If it is felt by some that there is ambiguity in some passages, then there is ambiguity which has to be resolved in some way if practice is not to suffer. Those who feel that there is ambiguity have to try to resolve that ambiguity in a way which enables them to follow the route to salvation. They must do this without challenging the views of the rest of the community, since to do so would threaten the ordinary meanings of the terms which are being used. Ibn Rushd suggests that if the theologians publicize their confused thoughts about the meaning of the Qur’an, ordinary believers would doubt that they understood the texts they originally thought they knew. If doctors were to do this sort of thing, then their patients would come to think that there is no such thing as health and illness.

Ibn Rushd argues that we know from our everyday experience that there exists health and illness, and that religious texts contain important information as to how we should behave. We also have to pay attention to the different ways in which different people relate to these facts. There exists a whole variety of different views on a particular issue, and this variety of views is represented by the variety of language which is available to describe this continuum of views, ranging from the entirely demonstrative to the purely poetic and expressive. Equivocation in language is not something to be challenged; rather it is to be accepted, since it represents a feature of our lives as different people living in a community with a whole range of ends and purposes. We should respect the different uses of the same word because they represent different points of view, different perspectives on the same thing. When Ibn Rushd tries to reconcile apparently contradictory views his approach is to argue that all these views are acceptable as different aspects of one thing. Throughout his philosophy he tries to show how it is possible for one thing to be described in a variety of ways.



List of works

Some of Ibn Rushd’s works are now only extant in Hebrew or Latin, and some not at all. The most useful bibliography is Rosemann, P (1988) `Ibn Rushd: A Catalogue of Editions and Scholarly Writings from 1821 onwards’, Bulletin de philosophie medievale 30: 153-215.

 Ibn Rushd (1169-98) Commentaries on Aristotle,

Aristotelis opera... cum Averrois Cordubensis vards in eosdem commentariis, Venice: Juntas, 1562-74; repr. Frankfurt: Minerva, 1962. (Ibn Rushd’s commentaries as they appeared in Latin and formed part of the approach to Aristotle in Christ­ian Europe.)

- (c.1174) Middle Commentaries on Aristotle, ed. C. Butterworth, Averroes’ Middle Commentaries on Aristotle’s Categories and De Interpretatione, Prin­ceton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1983. (Translation and commentary on two of Ibn Rushd’s major works on philosophical logic and language.)

- (before 1175) Short Commentaries on Aristotle, ed. C. Butterworth, Averroes’ Three Short Commentaries on Aristotle’s ‘Topics’, ‘Rhetoric’ and ‘Poetics’, Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1977. (A translation and commentary on three of Ibn Rushd’s main discussions of different forms of language.)

- (1179-80) Fasl al-maqal (Decisive Treatise), ed. G. Hourani, Averroes on the Harmony of Religion and Philosophy, London: Luzac, 1961; repr. 1976. (Translation and discussion of the Fasl al-maqal and two other short pieces on the same topic.)

- (1180) Tahafut al-tahafut (The Incoherence of the Incoherence), ed. S. Van den Bergh, Averroes’ Tahafut al-Tahafut (The Incoherence of the Incoherence), London: Luzac, 1954; repr. 1978. (The standard translation of Ibn Rushd’s response to al-Ghazali, incorporating the latter’s text.)

- (c.1190) Long Commentary on Aristotle’s Metaphysics, ed. C. Genequand, Ibn Rushd’s Metaphysics, Leiden: Brill, 1984. (A translation and commentary of Ibn Rushd’s commentary on Aristotle’s Metaphysics, Book Lambda.)

- (1194) Middle Commentary on Plato’s Republic, ed. R. Lerner, Averroes on Plato’s ‘Republic’, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1974. (The most modern translation with extensive commentary of Ibn Rushd’s commentary on Plato’s Republic.)


References and further reading

Allard, M. (1952-4) ‘Le Rationalisme d’Averroes d’apres une Etude sur la creation’ (Averroes’ Rationalism in his Study on the Creation), Bulletin d’Etudes Orientales 14: 7-59. (An account of some of the stresses between the philosophical and theological approaches to creation.)

Fakhry, M. (1958) Islamic Occasionalism and Its Critique by Averroes and Aquinas, London: Allen & Unwin. (The way in which Ibn Rushd’s approach to the topic of causality became part of wider philosophical thought in Christian Europe.)

Hayoun, M.-R. and Libera, A. de (1991) Averroes et l’averroisme, Paris: Presses Universitaires de France. (A concise but comprehensive description of Ibn Rushd’s thought and its philosophical impact through the Averroist movement.)

Kogan, B. (1985) Averroes and the Metaphysics of Creation, Albany, NY: State University of New York Press. (Comprehensive treatment of Ibn Rushd on causal necessity, miracles, God’s knowledge and emanation.)

Leaman, O. (1988) Averroes and His Philosophy, Oxford: Clarendon Press; 2nd edn, Richmond: Curzon, 1997. (A general account of his philosophy.)

- (1994) ‘Was Averroes an Averroist?’, in F. Niewbhner and L. Sturlese (eds) Averroismus im Mittelalter and in der Renaissance, Zurich: Spur Verlag, 9-22. (A discussion of the links between the thought of Averroes and the Averroist movement.)

- (1995) Averroes’, in F. Niewéhner (ed.) Klassiker der Religionsphilosophie, Munich: Beck, 142-62. (Concise account of the contribution of Averroes to philosophy.)

- (1996) Averroes and the West’, in M. Wahba and M. Abousenna (eds) Averroes and the Enlightenment, New York: Prometheus, 53-67. (The links between Ibn Rushd and Averroism should be acknowledged as close, as should the role of Ibn Rushd in the growth of modernity in the West.)

Urvoy, D. (1991) Ibn Rushd (Averroes), London: Routledge. (An account of his thought which lays particular emphasis upon contemporary events in Andalus.)

- (1996) `Ibn Rushd’ in S. H. Nasr and O. Leaman (eds) History of Islamic Philosophy, London: Routledge. 330-45. (General account of his thought, with particular attention to the context within which he was writing.)

Wolfson, H. (1961) `The Twice-Revealed Averroes’, Speculum 36: 373-92. (A highly influential and suggestive summary of Ibn Rushd’s standing in the history of philosophy.)