Ibn Rushd, in the Midst of an Ideological Warfare

In recent times,  Arabic and Islamic intellectual discourse has been predominantly a response to different aspects of modernity. One of the questions that scholars spent hours on is – why have the Arabs fallen behind? A more pragmatic formulation of the question is – how should we respond to and overcome the dominance of western cultural, economic, and military powers? Answers have varied between two main currents, one believes that the Islamic heritage must be abandoned, and we must imitate the western enlightenment with its secularism and conception of personal liberty. The other current believes that we must bring about a unique Arabic enlightenment that is formulated originally from its Islamic heritage and involves the return to traditional values. The main question posed by enlightenment thinkers was about the relationship between philosophy and religion, reason and revelation, where the latter was severely limited and shaped by the former. In the Islamic discourse, this question has been a significant point of discussion, and the name Ibn Rushed has been at the center of it.

Ibn Rushd, also known as Averroes, was a 12th-century Andalusian polymath and jurist. He is known for defending Aristotelian philosophy against the famous attack of Al Ghazali. Recently he has been at the center of an ideological warfare. He has been employed for different purposes, some saw him as someone who separated revelation and reason, religion and the state. They tried to showcase him as a gateway to reconciling modern life and Islam. Other more traditional scholars saw Ibn Rushd as a strict follower of Islamic doctrines and dogmas, and as such, they claim Islam already has modernity within it.

Such ideological warfare presents itself in the work of Farah Antun. He saw Averroes as a secularist and dismissed his dogmatic ideas by claiming that Averroes only wrote it due to cultural and social pressures. Muhammed Abduh was another towering figure who defended Ibn Rushd against such accusations but employed him to encourage toleration. We can highlight how he was used by Hasan Hanafi, a Marxist and Islamist, Muhammed Imarah, and Muhammed al Ansari. The most crucial figure was Al Jabri, who distinguished between demonstrative, revelation, and mysticism, three modes of thought in the Islamic culture. He states that a demonstrative way of thinking was a characteristic of western Islam (Andalusia and North Africa) and mysticism and revelation of that of the east. He says that the three modes of thought prevented any real progress, then in the same sentence, he states we should carry on the ibn Rushdian spirit and let go of the Ibn Sina and Ghazali, who represent the mystical side. Another critical point is that Al Jabri sees Averroes as the first to criticize tyranny and encourage reform through his political writing.

Such a different interpretation for one figure is highly puzzling and it seems not to be an accurate historical methodology. Nor did any of them want to reach the truth. Ibn Rushd's name was mentioned as a means to an end, to justify and ground their thinking. If one reads ibn Rushd or just a little of his work, one realizes the lack of any political agenda – his true aim, even in his criticism of Ghazali, was not to mobilize and reform the public, the purpose for which most enlightenment figures employed their philosophies. But instead to protect philosophy from the attacks of theologians. He saw reason as complementary and as an analytic tool to interpret certain aspects of revelation to understand it more accurately. Furthermore, such exploration of reason was not to be told to the public but kept within the circle of scholars. To maintain that Averroes was an enlightenment figure like Voltaire and Kant is either a misunderstanding of Averroes's thoughts or of the enlightenment thinkers.

Ibn Rushd, having mastered the Islamic sciences and the philosophes, was seen as a gateway for westernised intellectuals to enter secularist ideas grounded on reliable sources. The Islamic scholars saw him as a figure who exemplified the enlightenment within Islam. Such a political and instrumental use of thought is more of an enlightenment characteristic than an aspect of Averroes' writings. For further understanding of the topic, I would highly recommend “Averroes, Kant and the Origins of the Enlightenment: Reason and Revelation in Arab Thought” by Saud Al-Tamamy.