Ibn-Rushd: Plato and Islam? An Analysis of Islamic Philosophical Views.

With the rise of Christianity as a common school of religious and social thought following the decline of Rome, previously popular European philosophical intellects lost ground, subsequently absorbed by the “prosperous and enlightened Arab civilisation.” (Rubenstein, 2003 – p1). A civilisation that could be considered mostly unified in thought, language and text, the works of philosophers such as Aristotle, Plato or Socrates, the defining characters of the philosophical Zeitgeist during the time, were consumed by Arab philosophers at a pace amounting to a fraction of the time taken to produce the works. As a result of this, the absorption of the philosophy of such prominent European philosophers, some argue diluted, what in their opinion was the ultimate form of truth, the Quran, and with it Islamic culture and socio-religious thought. Particular advocates of this view were the likes of Ibn Hanbal. In contrast, Ibn Rushd, or his teacher Ibn-Tufayl considered philosophical logic and reason a fundamental aspect of not only the Quran and Islam, but religion, while intellects such as Ibn Sina stood in an area of ground that could be considered compromising between them both. In this essay I will address the argument behind Ibn-Rushd’s theory of rationality, and consider the defence of this school of thought against conflicting theories, such as traditionalism. I consider this this most suitable way of confronting such a question, given the strength of the argument for including philosophy in common religious practice, rather than the traditional interpretation.

Ibn-Rushd’s ‘Decisive Treatise’ is introduced with the quote; “The purpose of this treatise is to examine, from the standpoint of the study of law, whether the study of philosophy and logic is allowed by law, or prohibited, or commanded – either by way of recommendation or as obligatory.” (1959, p. 1). Ibn-Rushd’s work was devoted to the establishment of philosophy as legitimate in Islamic thought. Indeed, his work ‘Decisive Treatise’ clearly outlined the nature in which the Quran commanded reflection on its writings, and thus itself required the reader to philosophise. (1959, p. 1). Ibn-Rushd, perhaps correctly, considered this a logical argument for the acceptance of philosophical reason and rationality in Islamic religious thought. Hellenists like Ibn-Rushd or Ibn Tufayl acknowledged Greek insight, insisting that reason was a privileged source of knowledge and wisdom, thus, Islamic doctrine must be modified if reason deems it necessary. Such a school of thought also suggested that ultimate authority should be ceded to philosophers and theologians, or those most capable of reason, a concept born of Greek philosophy. Through this, authority is legitimised through logical philosophical demonstration. For Ibn-Rushd, the philosopher was the “guardian of reason and rationality”, and thus should be distinguished from those who use reason in vacuous, or self interested way, Ibrahim Y. Najjar argues. (1996-199). This indeed highlights the weight Ibn-Rushd placed behind the practice of philosophy, the importance of finding truths in everything, including Islam, and the alleged elitism that in many ways one could argue reflected the idealistic views of Plato, and the superior natural abilities of the few over the many. Thus, in the mind of Ibn-Rushd, the good Muslim must philosophise as the Quran commands it, it does not matter if the tools used to philosophise were Hellenistically fabricated, or if the results of rigorous exposure of religion to reason and philosophising alter interpretation of scripture, given the ultimate place of reason and philosophy in life, the unity of truths will inevitably highlight the truth of the Quran, allowing the philosopher, theologian or commoner to find truth, unlike in the traditionalist context where every person, able to philosophise or not is subject to the same interpretation. (Groff 2007). Thus, the truth of religion must meet the truth and reason of philosophy for it to be, true.

Indeed, Najjar points out that Ibn-Rushd approached this in a scientific manner, first by identifying the proposition being investigated based on its primary sources, encompassing all surrounding views given about that proposition, selecting the arguments that support each position, evaluating them from a logical, linguistic and scientific standpoint, and then by stating your position supported by appropriate arguments, either by adopting an already established argument, or by creating your own. (1996 – 198).

Other interpretations of such a ‘truth’ in the Islamic context disagreed ferociously with this concept. In this paragraph I will provide an account of traditionalist interpretations. While Ibn-Rushd rejected the unfounded conclusions of Ash’arite and Mu’tazilite theologians, or the anthropomorphism of Zahirite interpretations (Taylor 2002 – 185), such theologians clashed with the comparatively liberal thought of Ibn Rushd. The influential school of thought in the Islamic context, traditionalism, identified the superiority of Islamic scripture and tradition as the highest form of human knowledge. Traditionalists, or ‘people of tradition’ (ahl al-hadith) consider the most important source of authority as the Prophet Muhammad (Sunna), after the holy scripture. Sunna translates into ‘the trodden path’, and represents the traditional methods of governance and socio-religious thought during the pre-Islamic era, something that traditionalists again, consider the ultimate model of authority. (Groff 2007 – 217). A prominent advocate of such a view was Ibn-Hanbal, staunchly in favour of the Quran’s ultimate superiority. Such an advocate would be against metaphorical interpretations of the Quran and speculation about issues left unclear by revelation. Thus, the view of Ibn Hanbal, in which according to reason and a scientific approach to approving or disproving ‘fact’, the scripture could be amended if proven untrue by the logic of philosophy, was heretical innovation, and thus rendered Ibn Rushd a disbeliever.

In defence of Ibn-Rushd, he rightly said in his work that truth, rather than opposing Islam, must bear witness to Islam and accord with it, if Islam is true. Therefore, the total avoidance of philosophy by traditionalist theologians simply undermines the real truth of the scripture, suggesting it would not stand up to the rigorous exposure to the cold reason of philosophy. Thus, if the position of the traditionalist theologians is inherently incorrect, or weak, upon what foundation do they stand to criticise the logic and correctness of Ibn Rushd? Peter S. Groff (2007 – 207) also correctly points out that theologians tended to indulge in ‘hasty and often groundless interpretations of the text’. Thus, in the process of doing this, violating reason, and exposing common believers to their incorrect interpretation of the scripture. This also provides the basis for the argument behind Ibn-Rushd’s ‘tripartite division of human intellectual abilities’ (Taylor 2002 – 185), an argument that not only holds considerable weight, but is ignored by the theologians of traditionalism, who simply subject the same presentation of Islam to all believers. Thus, the conclusions of theologians may be beyond the capacity of the common person, undermining their faith and in the process doing them harm. In contrast, Ibn-Rushd accepts the diverse nature of Islam’s readership, and the various ways in which such people will interpret Islam for their own benefit. In ‘The Incoherence of the Incoherence’, Ibn Rushd identifies such philosophers as Ibn-Sina, a philosopher one could consider to be compromising in belief between the two opposites, as ‘failing to reach the standards of methodology he himself set’ (Groff 2007-198), once again undermining the argument of the traditionalists, (for example Al-Ghazali, who Najjar argues fails to meet Ibn-Rushd’s scientific standard, criticising Aristotle without looking into his works) (1996 – 198) while I also argue that the establishment of Ibn-Sina in the centre ground undermines the position of the traditionalists, through the use of logic to discount itself. Thus the only position truly capable of engaging the likes of Ibn-Rushd (unlike the staunch traditionalists who avoid rational thought altogether (Groff 2007 – 208) is forced to use logic to discount Ibn-Rushd’s use of logic, in the process entirely discounting their own position.

To conclude, in this essay I have presented an account of Ibn-Rushd’s philosophy, speaking about the necessity of philosophy and thus rationality in religion, not necessarily with a conscious view to altering it, but to reaffirm it, as the ‘unity of truth’ would suggest. In contrast, I have spoken about philosophers such as Ibn-Hanbal who clearly finds this thought process disturbing, the concept of philosophising, especially using the tools of a non-Islamic society, impeding upon a scripture that represents the ultimate form of law for the Muslim. I have then gone on to discount this viewpoint, and defend Ibn-Rushd’s argument of logic and reason, as I argue that this is a stronger argument, speaking of such issues in traditionalism as the ignorance towards Ibn-Rushd’s ‘tripartite’ view of society, and thus the ‘one size fits all’ approach to the presentation of the faith, for example.

Averroes : Decisive Treatise (1967), On the Harmony of Religion and Philosophy: A Translation, with Introduction and Notes. George F. Hourani, London: Luzac

Groff, P. (2007) Islamic Philosophy A-Z, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. 208 / 217.

Rubenstein, Richard E. (2002) Aristotle’s Children: How Christians, Muslims, and Jews Rediscovered Ancient Wisdom and Illuminated the Dark Ages. Orlando, FL: Harcourt.

Najjar, I. (1996) Ibn Rushd’s Theory of Rationality / ﻧﻈﺮﻳﺔ ﺍﺑﻦ ﺭﺷﺪ ﻓﻲ ﺍﻟﻌﻘﻼﻧﻴﺔ / Journal of Comparative Poetics. 16: 191-216.

Saeed. A (2006) Islamic Thought: An Introduction. P33-43. Routledge, Abindgon-On-Thames.

Taylor, R. (2002) A Companion to Philosophy in the Middle Ages. Blackwell Publishing Ltd, Hoboken. P. 182, C. 18.


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