Editor’s note: This reading is reproduced from a special issue of the UNESCO Courier magazine (September 1986) dedicated to two great figures of universal learning, Averroes and Maimonides, the former a Muslim and the latter a Jew. We begin with an introduction excerpted from the Courier’s editorial, followed by the late Mohamed Arkoun’s article “Two Mediators of Medieval Thought” and conclude with an interesting miniature anthology of Averroes. The link to the magazine’s PDF version is provided below. The images shown in this reading are from two different sources: Wikipedia and the Web site of the Wellcome Library, London, which has granted Simerg the permission to reproduce its images.
Twelth-century Córdoba was the setting for a glorious chapter in the history of human culture. It saw the flowering of four centuries of the civilization of al-Andalus, Muslim Spain, which covered an area essentially that of Andalusia today. It also saw the apogee of the even older classical Arab Muslim civilization of which al-Andalus was but a part, although a distinctive part, and which extended from India to north Africa and the Iberian peninsula. Until the beginning of the thirteenth century, Córdoba, capital of al-Andalus, was the most populous, the wealthiest and the most cultured city in Europe. Its Great Mosque, a legacy which has come down to us largely intact, provides magnificent testimony to its splendour. But the crowning glory of Córdoba and al-Andalus undoubtedly lay in the sphere of intellectual creativity. In this region of southern Europe flourished a galaxy of great minds which would influence the development of modern thought and literature: poets such as Ibn Hazm, al-Mu’tamid and Ben Quzman; mystics such as Ibn ‘Arabi; thinkers such as Ibn Tufayl; geographers such as al-Idrisi; physicians such as Avenzoar; philosophers such as Ibn Gabirol (Avicebron), Ibn Masarra, Ibn Bajja (Avempace) and, above all, Maimonides and Averroes.
Moses ben Maymun (Maimonides in Latinized form) and Ibn Rushd (the Averroes of the Europeans) were both born in Córdoba within a few years of one another. The former Jewish, the latter Muslim, both writers in Arabic, they took the great tradition of Classical Antiquity and transmitted it, enriched and modified, to medieval Christendom. These two great Cordobán philosophers symbolize the cultural universalism of al-Andalus, a tradition which made for the fruitful co-existence of cultural traditions that sprang from the three great monotheistic religions, Islam, Judaism and Christianity, in a spirit of tolerance which, despite religious persecution as the period drew to an end, still stands as an example and was almost unique in its time.
Two Mediators of Medieval Thought
By Mohamed Arkoun
Ibn Rushd (1126-1198) and Musa Ibn Maymun( 1135-1204), more commonly known in the West as Averroes and Maimonides, dominated the twelfth century by the power of their thought, the volume and the variety of their writings, their intellectual commitment to the service of their respective communities and, not least, their wide influence in the Western world. Both were born in Córdoba, the brilliant capital of what was then Muslim Andalusia, into families of jurists (of qadis, for the Muslim Averroes, of rabbis, for the Jewish Maimonides). Both lived for a time in Morocco – Averroes at Marrakesh (where he died in 1198), under the patronage of the Almohad ruler Abu Ya’qub (1163-1184) and of his successor Ya’qub al-Mansur (1184-1199), and Maimonides at Fez, where he took refuge in 1160. In 1165 Maimonides was obliged to seek refuge again, this time in Cairo, where he became head of the Jewish community and physician to al-Fadil, vizier of the Sultan Saladin, and where he died in 1204, just six years after Averroes.
To be born into a family of magistrates whose task it was to apply the standards of religious law within a society totally subject to the dogmas of revealed religions, to be oneself a judge or doctor of religious law and yet at the same time to devote one’s energies to the secular sciences grouped together under the name of philosophy – this was the mark of a certain society and a certain age. Confrontation between the revealed religions and the Greek philosophical tradition went back to Philo of Alexandria and the Fathers of the Church. In the Islamic context, it became more intense from the third century of the Hegira (ninth century AD). Maimonides claimed intellectual kinship with the Muslim philosopher al-Farabi (878-950) and held the philosopher-scientist Ibn Sina (Avicenna, 980- 1037) in great respect, whilst expressing some reservations on his teachings. He also acknowledged his debt to Averroes who, with his critical re-examination of four centuries of Arab Muslim research, endowed the twelfth century with the most faithful expression of Aristotelian philosophy.
It is in this historical context that the work of these two mediators should be considered. I call them “mediators” because they did much to reconcile rational philosophy with revealed religion and also because they created a meta-theological language which made possible enduring communication between the three great religious communities stemming from the same initial phenomenon of revelation yet irremediably opposed and divided by mutually exclusive theological systems.
Even today, Christians and Jews are reluctant to admit an intellectual and cultural debt to classical Arab Islamic thought. Certain Jewish thinkers take this reluctance so far as failing to mention that a large number of Maimonides’ works were conceived and written in Arabic. Some biographers maintain that Maimonides may even have been converted to Islam; even if such a conversion was forced, it throws some light on the possibilities of cultural communication and the differences of rites and dogma between the religious communities of the Middle Ages.
At all events, it is important to stress that the works of these two sages are concerned both with philosophy and religion. In examining Aristotle’s rationalism in depth in his closely-argued commentaries, Averroes created a new intellectual climate which Maimonides, for the Jews, and St. Thomas Aquinas, for the Catholics, took advantage of to elaborate theological theories which are not wholly outdated even today.
To the Neoplatonism of the “oriental” philosophers, the dialectical weakness of the Ash’arite school  and the simplistic, legalistic dogmatism of the jurists, Averroes opposed the demonstrative (Analytical) method, dialectical (Topical) reasoning and persuasive (Rhetorical) argumentation, the categories of logic (Organon) which reflect Aristotle’s philosophical practice and approach. In this attempt at the rationalization of knowledge Averroes does not seem to have been aware of the contribution of the Mu’tazilites . The teachings of this important Islamic school, which, as early as the second to the fourth century of the Hegira (eighth to tenth century AD), did so much to restore confidence in rationalism, did not spread to the Muslim West (Andalusia, the Maghreb) owing to the opposition of the Malekite jurists . It was these same Malekites who succeeded in obtaining the banishment of Averroes himself towards the end of his life. The political and social position of the jurists (fuqahas) was an abiding factor in the history of the intellectual activity and religious thought of the Muslim West. Strong ideological pressure had everywhere established the teachings of the Malekite school as the exclusive expression of Islam. With the fall of the Caliphate of Córdoba (1031), the break-up of Muslim Spain into petty kingdoms and the growing pressure of the Christian reconquest, the Reconquista, Islam fostered an ideology of combat (jihad) so as to mobilize its forces; this gave added importance to the role of the jurists and, even more, of the popular preachers. Thus, rather than deplore the fanaticism of the Almoravids and the Almohads, the historian would do better to examine the social and ideological context of intellectual activity in the Muslim West.
The difficulties Averroes encountered and the conversion of Maimonides, whether feigned or sincere, are indicative of the general climate of the time and also, going beyond the specific situation in Andalusia, of the tension between the “rational” or “intrusive” sciences (‘aqliyyadakhila) and the “religious” or “traditional” sciences (duniyya-naqliyya) throughout Islam. The struggle between the Mu’tazilites and the Hanbalites  in Baghdad in the third century of the Hegira/ninth century AD reflected both a socio-cultural split and a philosophical difference regarding the faculties, the paths and the seats of knowledge.
Ghazali (1058-1111 AD) had added a speculative dimension to the argument which, nearly a century later, captured the attention of Averroes. In his lhya ‘Ulum al-din (“The Revival of the Religious Sciences”), Ghazali inveighed against the stultifying literalism of the jurists, the gnostic constructs of the esotericists (al-Batiniyya) and the heretical deviations of the philosophers (falasifa) all this in the name of a spiritual religion open to rational knowledge but nevertheless with the strict limitation that the body of revealed knowledge was not susceptible to critical investigation.
Averroes chose to contest the views of Ghazali as a means of furthering philosophically (today we would say scientifically) the crucial debate on the relationship between philosophy and religion. In his Fasl al-maqal fima bayn al sharia wal-hikma min ittisal (“Decisive Treatise on the Harmony of Religion and Philosophy”) Averroes replied to Ghazali’s Faysal al-tafriqa bayn al-islam wal zandaqa (“Distinction Between Islam and Impiety”); and in Tahafut al-tahafut (“The Incoherence of the Incoherence”) he also refuted another work of Ghazali entitled Tahafut al falasifa (“The Incoherence of the Philosophers”). In more general terms he exposed the weaknesses of the methodology of the theologians (the Mutakallimu’n) in his Kashf ‘an manahij al-adilla (“Examination of the Methods of Proof Concerning the Doctrines of Religion”), as well as writing an important treatise on the basic sources of law (Bidayat al-Mujtahid).
All these works go to show how deeply Averroes wanted to remain a Muslim thinker and, with all his philosophical culture (the scientific knowledge of his age), to face up intellectually to all the problems arising from the confrontation between the Qur’anic revelation and the strictest philosophical standpoint. Latin commentators, and later the French writer Ernest Renan, distorted Averroes’ thought by thinking of him only in terms of his commentaries on Aristotle. For their part, Muslims so distrusted him as a philosopher that they forgot that he was also a Muslim thinker.
Maimonides, for the Jews, and St. Thomas Aquinas, for the Christians (the Catholic Church of pre-Reformation days), adopted Averroes’ intellectual scheme for the purposes of their own communities, using the same philosophical approach, the same conceptual guidelines and methodology to systematize the received corpus of revealed knowledge of their different traditions. For all three revealed religions the great problem remained the harmonization of faith and reason, the reconciliation of religious law and the essential tenets or universal of religion with Aristotle’s logical processes and categories. The Torah, Canon Law and the Shari’a, which express God’s commandments as interpreted by learned experts in the Law trained in the exegesis of the Word of God, retain their supremacy. The difficulties that arise are not concerned with the norms thus deduced from the revealed word, but with the dogma on which the Law itself is based. Three essential points are at the heart of the confrontation with philosophy: the creation of the world, causality, and the destiny of the soul (immortality and the body/soul duality).
This is not the place to enter into the subtle discussions of these questions, which modern science has shifted towards new fields of research; of greater interest, it seems to me, is to examine to what extent Averroes and Maimonides were, and remain today, mediators between three communities and three historic destinies.
Thought and culture as expressed in Arabic reached full flower in the sixth century of the Hegira/twelfth century AD thanks to the great works written in the East and the Muslim West from the second century of the Hegira/eighth century AD onwards. The intellectual and scientific supremacy of the Arab world of that time is confirmed by the many translations into Hebrew and Latin of studies on philosophy, medicine and the natural sciences written in Arabic by authors not all of whom were Muslims. Jews and Christians who lived in an Arab cultural setting thought and wrote in Arabic, thus enriching a body of knowledge and a range of intellectual activity that went beyond the limits set by the creeds of each of the three communities. Maimonides ranks among the greatest Jewish thinkers who conceived and wrote their works in Arabic in that area of intellectual and cultural convergence of which philosophy, as understood and practised in the Middle Ages, was largely representative.
His works were, however, very soon translated into Hebrew. As early as 1204 AD, his Guide of the Perplexed had been translated by Samuel ibn Tibbon, and this led the Jews to forget the cultural values and intellectual climate in which Maimonides had lived, worked and written. Today, the ideological tensions between Arabs and Israelis is such that many Jews are unwilling to take into account the great thinker’s deep links with the corpus of learned writing in Arabic. Yet it was precisely the existence of these links that made even more precious Maimonides’ historic role as a mediator.
The same could be said of St. Thomas Aquinas, even though he wrote all his works in Latin. His intellectual debt to Averroes in particular marks him out also as a leading light of a world of thought and human existence based on an axiological system common to that medieval intellectual milieu that I have elsewhere  referred to as the “Societies of the Book”. I call “Societies of the Book” all those communities whose existence, order and culture are based on the phenomenon of Revelation (a unique living God, revealing himself to men at a moment in history so as to communicate to them his commandments which then become the source of the Law) and on a philosophical culture which favours the search for a rational order of things. These two great lines of approach – Revelation and scientific and philosophical rationality – imposed an educative tension on all medieval thought, whatever its particular religious attachment, in which at times religion and the “orthodox” tradition, at times reason, held sway. The whole of medieval thought bore the mark of this duality. The question remained: how could revealed knowledge be reconciled and brought into harmony with the necessary constraints of reason?
Both Averroes and Maimonides succeeded in achieving a real, personally satisfying balance which they attempted to express in elaborately thought out systems in which they integrated rational knowledge (philosophy) and religious Law, the Shari’a with all its developments and the Torah and the whole rabbinical tradition Maimonides’ Mishne Torah (“The Torah Reviewed”), was a systematization of the oral Law, Mishna, and the Talmud.
Rationalist commentators on the two thinkers have attempted to claim them both as supporters of “pure” reason and a philosophy which, if not entirely secular, was at least distinct from religious ideas. However, the functions they fulfilled as judges in their respective religious communities have to be disregarded and their writings concerning the “religious sciences” of their time have to be ignored, if they are to be considered as “philosophers in disguise”.
Like all the sages of his time, Maimonides had a lofty view of his responsibility as an intellectual capable of explaining to the faithful the teachings of religious Law whilst taking into account the fact that men had not all attained the same level of learning. In Book III of The Guide of the Perplexed, with the aid of a rich parable, he explains clearly the various stages and levels in any true search for God. I quote this entire passage, since it has not been contradicted by Muslim thinkers and because it affords an example of that climate of intellectual, spiritual and cultural convergence in which the brightest Jewish, Christian and Muslim minds were active under the double impulsion of Revelation and a philosophical culture.
“I will begin the subject of this chapter with a simile. A king is in his palace, and all his subjects are partly in the country, and partly abroad. Of the former, some have their backs turned towards the king’s palace, and their faces in another direction; and some are desirous and zealous to go to the palace, seeking ‘to inquire in his temple’, and to minister before him, but have not yet seen even the face of the wall of the house. Of those that desire to go to the palace, some reach it , and go round about in search of the entrance gate; others have passed through the gate, and walk about in the ante-chamber; and others have succeeded in entering into the inner part of the palace, and being in the same room with the king in the royal palace. But even the latter do not immediately on entering the palace see the king, or speak to him; for, after having entered the inner part of the palace, another effort is required before they can stand before the king at a distance or close by hear his words or speak to him. I will now explain the simile which I have made. The people who are abroad are all those that have no religion, neither one based on speculation nor one received by tradition. Such are the extreme Turks that wander about in the north, the Kushites who live in the south, and those in our country who are like these. I consider these as irrational beings and not as human beings; they are below mankind, but above monkeys, since they have the form and shape of man, and a mental faculty above that of the monkey.
“Those who are in the country, but have their backs turned towards the king’s palace, are those who possess religion, belief, and thought, but happen to hold false doctrines, which they either adopted in consequence of great mistakes made in their own speculations, or received from others who misled them. Because of these doctrines they recede more and more from the royal palace the more they seem to proceed. These are worse than the first class, and under certain circumstances it may become necessary to slay them, and to extirpate their doctrines, in order that others should not be misled.
“Those who desire to arrive at the palace, and to enter it, but have never yet seen it, are the mass of religious people; the multitude that observe the divine commandments, but are ignorant. Those who arrive at the palace, but go round about it, are those who devote themselves exclusively to the study of the practical law; they believe traditionally in true principles of faith, and learn the practical worship of God, but are not trained in philosophical treatment of the principles of the Law, and do not endeavour to establish the truth of their faith by proof. Those who undertake to investigate the principles of religion, have come into the ante-chamber; and there is no doubt that these can also be divided into different grades. But those who have succeeded in finding a proof for everything that can be proved, who have a true knowledge of God, so far as a true knowledge can be attained, and are near the truth, wherever an approach to the truth is possible, they have reached the goal, and are in the palace in which the king lives.
“My son, so long as you are engaged in studying the Mathematical Sciences and Logic, you belong to those who go round about the palace in search of the gate. Thus our Sages figuratively use the phrase: ‘Benzoma is still outside’. When you understand Physics, you have entered the hall; and when, after completing the study of Natural Philosophy, you master Metaphysics, you have entered the innermost court, and are with the king in the same palace. You have attained the degree of the wise men, who include men of different grades of perfection.” (The Guide of the Perplexed, III, 51)
Averroes was even more insistent than Maimonides on the importance of not revealing “philosophical interpretations to those who are not able to comprehend them”. This was not because he had an aristocratic or elitist attitude towards philosophy or because he wanted to protect his reputation as a good Muslim; the fact is that he shared with other experts of the Law – Ghazali held the same view with regard to Kalam (Muslim scholastic theology) the specifically religious conviction that great caution should be exercised by teachers so as not “to lead the faithful away from the divine Law”, following in this the example of “the divine legislator [who] cares for the well-being of the soul as a doctor cares for the health of the body”.
It is true that Maimonides was much better received and respected within his community than Averroes ever was by the Muslims. This is no doubt due to the fact that Maimonides compiled “guides” to the orthodox faith to help the faithful avoid perdition and the loss of eternal salvation. Thus, in his “Commentary on the Mishna”, he summarized the thirteen articles of faith which every Jew must accept and which have been used, in verse form, since the fourteenth century in the daily ritual of Sephardic communities. Religious communities, especially when they are minorities, need the cohesion provided by beliefs and rituals that are valid for all and act as a “safety net” for believers. Maimonides was well aware of this need, whereas it was not so vital a matter of concern for Averroes who was a member of a broader and more dominant Umma (community), especially during the time of the Almohads.
At all events, the century of Averroes and Maimonides, succeeded shortly by that of St. Thomas Aquinas, is worthy of study with a view to a reassessment of medieval thought which goes beyond the claims of supremacy of militant theologies or a history of philosophy deprived of its medieval dimension, such as the secularized, positivist, anti-clerical West has long imposed. In university courses as conceived and followed in the West, Arab philosophy is generally left to departments of Oriental studies which themselves are considered of only marginal importance within the universities. If this state of affairs is to be rectified, a scientific revision must be undertaken of the overall history of the cultural climate of the Mediterranean during the Middle Ages, involving philosophy, theology and the history of the sciences. This is the lesson that emerges from the works of the two great mediators whom I have all too briefly presented here.
Notes (1 – 4 are by the editor of UNESCO Courier)
 The Ash’arite school: Followers of the Muslim theologian al-Ash’ari (873-935 AD) who reconciled a dialectic method with orthodox beliefs to create a new form of scholasticism in Islam.
 The Mu’tazilites: A Muslim philosophical school founded in the eighth century AD emphasizing reason in religious interpretation, free will in opposition to pre-destination and the unity and justice of Allah.
 The Malekites: One of the four Sunni schools of law founded in the eighth century AD. The Malekites preferred traditional opinions and analogical reasoning to a strict reliance on Hadith (traditions concerning the Prophet’s life and utterances) as a basis for legal judgement.
 The Hanbalites: School of religious law relying solely on a literal reading of the Qur’an and hadith in formulating legal decisions.
 Pour une critique de la raison islamique, Maisonneuve-Larose, 1984, and Lectures du Coran, 1982.
About the author: The late Algerian born scholar Professor Mohamed Arkoun (February 1, 1928 – September 14, 2010) taught both in Europe and North America in renowned academic institutions including the Paris 8 University, the New Sorbonne University of Paris, University of California, Princeton University, and the Pontifical Institute of Arabic Studies in Rome and the University of Amsterdam. He also served as a jury member for the Aga Khan Award for Architecture and at the time of his death he was a member of the Board of Governors of The Institute of Ismaili Studies, chaired by His Highness the Aga Khan, the 49th Ismaili Imam. Amongst his peers around the world, Professor Arkoun was regarded as one of the most influential scholars in Islamic studies contributing to contemporary Islamic reform. He was the author of numerous books in French, English and Arabic, including Rethinking Islam (Boulder, Colorado, 1994), L’immigration: défis et richesses (Paris, 1998) and The Unthought in Contemporary Islamic Thought(London, 2002), in addition to shorter studies which appeared in many academic journals. His works have been translated into several languages.
Averroes: A Miniature Anthology
The virtues of the use of olive oil
When it is derived from ripe and healthy olives and if its properties have not been adulterated in an artificial manner, the oil can be assimilated [perfectly] by the human organism. … Foodstuffs seasoned with the oil are nourishing, so long as the oil is fresh and not very acidic. … Generally, the entire substance of the oil agrees with man, and so at home [in al-Andalus] meat is seasoned only with this oil, because it is the best way to prepare it, while cooking it slowly. This is how it is done: place the meat in a casserole into which some oil has been poured, then add water and heat it on a low flame, without allowing it to boil. Book of the General Principles of Medicine
The base condition of the tyrant
This is necessarily the situation of the tyrant: he is detained among a class such as this, filled with hunger and fear. Moreover, he has great hunger [within] himself and cannot rule himself. Hence he cannot go wherever he wishes nor look at whatever he wishes. … One of the worst dispositions of such an individual is that he is unable to restrain and overcome himself, yet he attempts to lead other people at some level. . . . The tyrant is the most enslaved of people and has no device by which to put an end to his desires, but rather is forever in continual sorrow and mourning. The soul of one who is of this description is an impoverished soul; hence he is envious, violent and friendless. … Without any doubt, he is of necessity troubled and unlucky. (Source: Averroes on Plato’s “Republic”, idem The Third Treatise, pp. 142-3)
Necessity for social cohesion
Now there is no greater evil in the governance of the city than that governance which converts a single city into many cities, just as there is no greater good in cities than that which joins them together and makes them one. This being so, it is clear that community in advantages and damages will lead them to be bound to the city and befriend it. … That is why it is said that people’s being near other people is advantageous. In general, there is nothing more productive of evil and confusion to the city than its citizens saying of some particular thing: “This is mine and this is not mine.” (Source: Averroes on Plato’s “Republic”, idem The First Treatise, p. 64)
The psychology of sight
Sight has the property of capturing the colours of material reality, and so it must adapt itself adequately to matter. Thanks to this adequation, it can be abstracted by cogitation and understanding. … The sense of sight [also] receives the forms of objects in the following manner: first, the air receives the [sensible] forms by means of light, conducting them straight to the tissue; then, the common sense receives the forms of the objects. The tissue contains the vitreous humour, which resembles a mirror the nature of which is between air and water, thanks to which it can capture the image from the air, which functions [also] as a mirror, and transmits it to the aqueous humour which, through its very condition, can communicate with the two natures. … From this the common sense receives the forms which it transmits to the imaginative faculty where their reception, totally dematerialized, takes place. And so it is said that the received form shows three degrees: the first is the sensible [in the eye] , the second is dematerialized in the common sense, and the third is immaterial in the imaginative faculty. From these degrees, one then passes to others, more elevated and more noble [in the memory and in the understanding]. (Source: Book of the General Principles of Medicine)
The prime mover is devoid of movement and eternal
If a prime mover exists, which precedes all movements, whether temporally or essentially, then that movement will take place either in a generable and corruptible moving body, or in an eternal moving body. Thus [Aristotle] says that if it were a generable moving body, it would not be the prime mover, either by nature or temporally, because it cannot be asserted that the prime mover is a form generated in a moving body. Treatise on Physics The most elevated knowledge alone brings happiness Just as hunger and thirst are an emptying of the body and an emptiness that befalls it, so are ignorance and absence of knowledge an emptying of the soul and an emptiness for it. This being so, there are two people who are filled i.e., he who takes food and he who acquires knowledge. But the true fullness is only through the thing that has the noblest existence. … Now if, in general, fullness in what one apprehends is pleasant, whatever [he apprehends of what] is essentially nobler and [participates] more in truth and is more enduring, is necessarily a more choiceworthy pleasure. Such is the case of the pleasure of the intellect relative to the other pleasures. (Source: Averroes on Plato’s “Republic”, idem The Third Treatise, pp. 146-7)
Date readings posted on Simerg: April 18, 2011
For an obituary of the late Professor Mohamed Arkoun, please click A Courageous Intellectual Who Advocated A Tolerant, Liberal and Modern Islam
The complete special issue of UNESCO Courier dedicated to Averroes and Maimonides may be read in PDF format by clicking UNESCO Courier special issue on Averroes and Maimonides
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