THE ISLAMIC SCHOLAR: Who Gave Us Modern Philosophy

By Pasnau, Robert | Humanities, November/December 2011 | Go to article overview

THE ISLAMIC SCHOLAR: Who Gave Us Modern Philosophy


Pasnau, Robert, Humanities


aCCORDING TO IMMANUEL KANT the urge to philosophize is universal: "In all men, as soon as their reason has become ripe for speculation, there has always existed and will always continue to exist some kind of metaphysics." The truth of this is apparent in children at any early age, whose questions exhaust even the most profound and patient of parents. But it does not follow that there must inevitably be a place for philosophy in our educational systems. It is rare in the United States, for instance, to encounter philosophy before college, and rare outside Catholic universities for philosophy to be required in college. (It was a pleasant feature of a recent year spent living in Morocco to find that almost everyone there, from pharmacists to cab drivers, had a basic grasp of what philosophy is, acquired from their high school days. In this country, in contrast, even well-educated people often have little idea of what philosophy actually consists.) At the university, we think of philosophy as an essential offering in the humanities. But there is nothing inevitable even about this, as reflection on the history of the subject reveals.

Philosophy, as it is generally studied in the modern university, springs from ancient Greece and the writings of Plato and Aristotle. The various famous ancient schools long thrived during the Hellenic and Roman eras, but then slowly faded away during the sixth century CE. There followed several centuries of darkness - a true Dark Ages, as much as medievalists dislike the phrase - until philosophical forms of thought began to reemerge in the ninth century. Around the same time, one finds distinct and quite independent philosophical movements afoot in Byzantium, in Latin Western Europe, and in the Islamic world. In time, the Latin tradition would become ascendant, as fostered within the European university and eventually reinvigorated by the Enlightenment and the rise of modern science. These developments, however, were still centuries away. In the year 900, by far the most robust and impressive philosophical tradition was found not in Europe, but in the Middle East. Islamic scholars there had embarked on a wholesale program to recover the traditions of Greek philosophy (particularly the works of Aristotle), translate them into Arabic, and rethink their message in light of the newly revealed teachings of the Qur'an. Anyone able to observe from on high these distinct intellectual traditions at the end of the first millennium would surely have put their money on the Muslims as the group most likely to inherit the Greek philosophical legacy, and so it was for several centuries, as a series of brilliant philosophers and scientists made Baghdad the intellectual center of the early medieval world.

Eventually, however, the center shifted - first to the western part of the Islamic world in northern Africa and southern Spain, and then north to Christian Europe. What we call the Middle Ages was, in Islam, the great classical era of philosophy and science. After several centuries of flourishing, however, the study of philosophy and science faded in Muslim countries, even while it was being pursued with increasing vigor in the Latin West.

What happened? How did Western Europe, by the late Middle Ages, become the prime locus for philosophical and scientific research? These are, of course, complex matters. But to see something of the factors at play, we might consider the life and work of Averroës, one of the last great Islamic philosophers, and the one who made the strongest argument on behalf of philosophy. Those arguments would eventually take root, but not where he expected them to.

Abu al-Walïd Muhammad ibn Ahmad ibn Muhammad ibn Rushd - or Averroës, as he was known to Latin readers - was born in 1126 at the far western edge of the Islamic world, in Córdoba, Spain. His father and grandfather were prominent scholars and religious figures, and he, in turn, developed close ties with the Almohad caliphs who reigned over southern Spain and northwestern Africa during the twelfth century. …

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