August 14, 2003

In Search of Averroes

In the midst of last month's madness -- towards the end of it, actually -- the always thoughtful Joe Katzman of the must-read Winds of Change, emailed to alert me to this post by Tarek Heggy, an Egyptian author and thinker and Renaissance man, in which he laments the wrong turn that Islam took when it rejected Ibn Rushd, perhaps better known in the West as Averroes, in favor of Al-Ghazali. It's well worth reading the post, although I have a few quibbles with it. On paleo Ideofact, the original incarnation of this blog, I used to note, over and over again, that while their Arab contemporaries far outstripped them in terms of classical philosophy, Medieval Europeans geared their energies in a different direction: toward technology. Averroes may have reintroduced Aristotle to the West, but it wasn't Aristotle who gave us eyeglasses, the steam engine or electricity. And by the Renaissance, Aristotelian thought was stultifying rather than informing thinkers like Galileo. When the intellectual heirs of Averroes looked at the heliocentric model of the universe, for example, they concluded it was wrong because Aristotle said it was wrong. So when Heggy writes,

...the Muslims lost a historic opportunity to use Ibn Rushd’s ideas as a springboard that could have placed them on a path similar to the one which took Europe from the obscurantist thinking of the thirteenth century to the vigorous intellectual climate which encourages debate, free thinking, general freedoms and creativity in literature, art and science...

...he's really oversimplifying the situation in Europe.

I'm also not quite comfortable with his next bit, when he contrasts cosmopolitan Islam with bedouin Islam (which he identifies with Mohamed bin Abdul Wahab, of Wahabbi fame, among others). If I'm not mistaken, Ibn Taymiyyah, who in many ways was a precursor of bin Wahab and railed against innovations in Islam, was educated in Damascus -- hardly a bedouin backwater of the world of Islam. Beyond that, Egypt wasn't quite Ottoman, and in the wake of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, Egypt enjoyed pride of place among the Arab nations by dint of its population, its movie industry, and its radio broadcasting service. It was Saudi Arabia that felt imperiled by Egypt through most of the post-World War Two period, and not the other way around. It is also worth noting that Sayyid Qutb, often described (on paleo Ideofact especially) as the "brains of bin Laden," was Egyptian, as was the Muslim Brotherhood. I do not think one can necessarily blame the Saudis exclusively for the development of Islamic fundamentalism.

But Averroes is definitely worth reading about, and worth reading, and thank you Joe for letting me know about this essay.

Posted by Ideofact at August 14, 2003 11:23 PM

Actually, the main problem seems not to be the choosing of Al-Ghazali over Averroes. It seems to be mistaking al-Ghazali's attack on reason, to mean that reason itself has no place (except in 'rational proofs' for God, i.e. defence of the dogma - Fakr ad-Din ar-Razi, for example, was a better 'theologian' than al-Ghazali).

As for Averroes, I agree with you; though very important, sometimes his would-be influence is exaggerated, especially by 'modernist' Muslims.

Lastly, Ibn Taymiyyah's critique of logic ought to have led to a reform in Muslim thought. In fact, Hallaq, the translator of his "Against the Greek Logicians" bemoans that the full extent of Ibn Taymiyyah's criticism was missed on Muslim thought of that period, even his own students.

Posted by: Thebit at August 16, 2003 04:40 PM