Averroes, Maimonides, and Aquinas
By Jacob Bender
Presented on July 5, 2003 at the
ISNA Islam in America Conferences
event in Dallas, Texas
In the Name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate.
It is truly an honor for me, an American Jew, to stand before this great gathering of Muslims in America this afternoon and recite these sacred words of greetings and peace. I come before you not as a scholar, but as a humble student of the three great traditions that spring from our common father Abraham, peace be upon him, and of the bonds that tie Jew to Christian, Christian to Muslim, Muslim to Jew. I also stand before you as an artist, one who has attempted to utilize his art as an instrument of understanding, as a weapon in the struggle to create a world where, as the Biblical prophet tell us, “justice will flow down like water, and righteousness as a mighty river “; a world where we are obligated, in the words of the Holy Qur’an, to “do justice between human beings”; a world where, Jesus said, “
Yet truly, these are dark and difficult times, and we live in an age when war has replaced dialogue, when terrorism has replaced tolerance, when ignorance has replaced understanding.
We have been told in the mass media that 9/11 changed everything. I am not sure about this, but one small change was the number of books about Islam that suddenly began to appear on the counters of bookstores across the nation. And suddenly, countless commentators and columnists began to try to answer the question that seemed to be on the lips of millions of Americans: “Why do they hate us?” and to attempt to explain to America what, in their supposedly learned opinion, this strange and exotic religion of Islam was all about.
Yet, as Professor Seyyed Hossein Nasr writes in his newest book, The Heart of Islam, “the torrent of information about Islam that has flooded the media from books to journals, radio, and television, is largely based on ignorance, misinformation, and even disinformation. “
My own response to the events of 9/11 was to begin work on a documentary film that I entitled “Reason and Revelation: Averroes, Maimonides, Aquinas in Their Time and Ours.” Reason and revelation ¾ Al-shai`ah wa-al Hikmah, or the more modern Al`Aql wa-al-Naql. These are the two pillars upon which rest the Abrahamic traditions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam: on the one hand, the sacred revelations that have come to humankind from the time of Abraham to the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, and on the other hand, the ability of human beings to reason and explore the world in which they live; for as Ibn Rushd wrote, “reflect (upon the world), for you have vision.”
Yet who were these three men -Averroes, the Muslim, Moses Maimonides the Jew and Thomas Aquinas the Christian – these three geniuses from a long-ago age, and what, if anything, do they have to teach us today? Before we can answer that question, we must first explore, as will my film, the world into which they were born. In the case of Averroes and Maimonides, that world was Al-Andalus, the splendor of Spain, the centuries of Islam in Iberia.
I believe there are three reasons that learning about Al-Andalus is crucial to the world today:
First, the level of civilization that Al-Andalus achieved. At a time when the rest of Europe was shrouded in the Dark Ages, the Muslim city of Cordoba in Al-Andalus was the most advanced city on the entire European Continent, boasting some 400 libraries, public gardens, hundreds of mosques and synagogues, and street lightening that kept the city alive until the wee hours of the night. In philosophy, architecture, mathematics, astronomy, medicine, poetry, theology, and numerous other fields of human endeavor, medieval Islam was the world’s most advanced civilization.
Second, Al-Andalus in particular, and Islamic civilization in general, served as both the repository of ancient Greek knowledge and science, and the transmission point in its journey to the Christian-dominated West. The writings of philosophers like Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, mathematicians like Euclid, physicians like Galen, first came to the attention of the West only when translated into Latin from their Arabic versions.
And third, the culture of Al-Andalus is now justly celebrated for the extent that religious pluralism and tolerance were hallmarks of this most glorious age. I do not have to remind this audience, I am sure, of the respect that Islam, both textually and historically, has been shown for Jews and Christians, the “People of the Book,” ahl al-kitab. Allow me to cite just one example that you may not be familiar with.
When Al Gore choose Senator Joseph Leiberman, an Orthodox Jew, as his running mate for vice-president, American Jews, and other commentators, tried to outdo each other in their praise of “American tolerance,” and to argue that in no other country had Jews reached such heights. Yet, over nine centuries ago, in Muslim Spain, a Jew named Ishmail ibn Nagrel’a, (who is known in Jewish history as Shmuel HaNagid) was vizier, or prime minister, of the Muslim-ruled state of Granada and commander of her armies for over thirty years.
Now let us turn to our three wise men: Averroes, Moses Maimonides, and Thomas Aquinas.
Abû al-Walîd Muhammad Ibn Rushd, known in the West by as Averroës, was born in Cordoba in southern Spain in the year 1126 and died in 1198. He is without question the greatest mind produced by Islamic civilization in Al-Andalus. As a young man, Ibn Rushd already excelled in theology, religious law, astronomy, literature, mathematics, music, zoology, medicine and philosophy. Like his father and grandfather before him, Ibn Rushd also became a religious judge, a qadi.
It is in the field of philosophy, however, that Ibn Rushd left an indelible mark upon the intellectual history of Western civilization. In the year 1169, Ibn Rushd was asked by the Caliph to undertake new and up-to-date Arabic translations and commentaries of the works of Aristotle. Ibn Rushd’s commentaries on Aristotle have had an immense impact upon both Christian and Jewish philosophy for hundreds of years. They were translated into Latin and Hebrew, and become the standard text on Aristotle in European universities well into the Eighteenth Century; as a result, Ibn Rushd became known throughout Christian Europe simply as “The Commentator.” Indeed, in the century after the death of Ibn Rushd, a new school of philosophy arose in the West, known as “Latin Averroism,” and which played no small part advancing the cause of rationalism and scientific rationalism in the Christian West. Throughout the 13th century, the University of Paris was a stronghold of Averroism. It is here that the young Thomas Aquinas came into contact with his writings for the first time, and it is clear how much of his own understanding and assimilation of the Greek philosopher owes to his Muslim predecessor from Spain. The medieval philosophers Duns Scotus, Albertus Magnus and Roger Bacon were all avid readers of Ibn Rushd, and Bacon himself declared that “philosophy has come to us from the Arabs.” It is here that the young Thomas Aquinas came into contact with his writings for the first time, and it is clear how much of his own understanding and assimilation of the Greek philosopher owes to his Muslim predecessor from Spain. The medieval philosophers Duns Scotus, Albertus Magnus and Roger Bacon were all avid readers of Ibn Rushd, and Bacon himself declared that “philosophy has come to us from the Arabs.” It is here that the young Thomas Aquinas came into contact with his writings for the first time, and it is clear how much of his own understanding and assimilation of the Greek philosopher owes to his Muslim predecessor from Spain. The medieval philosophers Duns Scotus, Albertus Magnus and Roger Bacon were all avid readers of Ibn Rushd, and Bacon himself declared that “philosophy has come to us from the Arabs.”
Ibn Rushd’s two most important works of philosophy are his “The Incoherence of the Incoherence,” his defense of rationalism in Islam and his answer to Al-Ghazzali’s attack on philosophy, and “On the Harmony of Religion and Philosophy.” In both of these works he attempts to balance the revealed truths of the Holy Qur’an with the scientific truths that he believes he finds in Aristotle, and to advance the concept of taw’il, or the right to allegorically interpret verses of the sacred texts.
Rabbi Moses Maimonides was born 12 years after Ibn Rushd. His real name was Musa ibn Maymun al-Qurtubi, and he is universally considered the most important Jewish thinker in the last 2,000 years. Please note the similarities between Ibn Rushd and Rabbi Musa: both were born in Cordoba in Al-Andalus; both became “philosopher / theologians” and the foremost interpreters of Aristotle within Islam and Judaism, with both attempting to harmonize the truths of reason with the revelations of the Holy Qur’an and the Torah; both became jurists and authorities in religious law that is still central to Muslim and Jewish observance the sharia in Islam, the halakhah in Judaism; both lived part of their lives in Fez in Morocco; and both became physicians to their local rulers, Ibn Rushd to the Caliph of Cordoba,
It is a great tragedy, I believe, that most Jews, especially in America, are ignorant of the biography of Rabbi Musa, and that his native language and the language of almost all his many books, including those on particularly Jewish topics, was Arabic , that he lived all his life within Muslim societies, and that his works make frequent reference to the great Muslim thinkers of medieval Islam, including Ibn Sina and Al-Farabi.
Thomas Aquinas was born near Naples, Italy in the year 1225. He is the most important and influential Christian philosopher of the Middle Ages. His masterpiece, the Summa Theologiae, is widely considered the most comprehensive exploration of philosophy and theology in the entire history of Christianity. And like Ibn Rushd and Rabbi Musa before him, Thomas was primarily concerned with finding a way of incorporating Aristotle’s rationalism into Christian theology. Aquinas is also the patron saint of Catholic universities, colleges and schools around the world.
Although Aquinas believed, as did nearly all Christians in the Middle Ages, in the superiority of Christianity over all other faiths, it is abundantly clear in his writings how indebted he is to Ibn Rushd and Rabbi Musa, both of whom he quotes on numerous occasions . Even the present Pope, John Paul II, has recognized this, when he specifically mentions that one of the influences on Thomas Aquinas, the greatest theologian in Catholic history, was, “the dialogue that Thomas carried on with the Arab and Jewish thinkers of his time. “
One of the first things I did when I began to work on the film was to compile an Advisory Board of scholars from around the world who I could not only consult with about the writings of the three wise men, but who would also appear in the film as experts offering commentary. This Advisory Board, which is listed in the material I have brought with me, includes some of the most respected scholars of Islam writing today.
There have also been two articles published about “Reason and Revelation” in the press. The first was an article that appeared in December in The Arab News, the English-language newspaper of Saudi Arabia. The second was a column I wrote in The Daily Star of Beirut, Lebanon.
After both of these articles appeared, I received over a hundred emails from all over the world about my film project. I would like to read just a few:
Dear Mr. Bender,
If we have 100 films like yours about the three religions of Prophet Abraham (Peace Be Upon him), the problems of today around the world ¾ war, terrorism, hatred ¾ will vanish and peace will prevail.
Please continue this kind of work and encourage like-minded people from Islam and Christianity to join you.
We need more of these kinds of documentaries which create common bond among believers of the same God. May Allah help you in your project.
Your Muslim friend,
Of course, I also received a few emails like the following:
You should be ashamed of yourself for criticizing Israel. Will you next defend Islamic terrorists blowing up women and children on Israeli buses? You are a traitor to your people and your religion!
David, An American Jew
Now, given all that was achieved in Al-Andalus, given the immeasurable influence of Islam in the creation of the West, given the abundance of textual and historical evidence of Islamic tolerance, it is at first glance rather curious that there are those who today insist upon a “clash of civilizations” between what they view as “the freedom loving West and fundamentalist Islam.”
First, one wonders how those who now advocate this “clash” would react if they knew that their very own civilization of the West had at its core a Muslim and Arab foundation? Second, for many conservative commentators, 9/11 offered America what it had missed since the fall of communism a decade earlier, that is, a public enemy that could unite the nation around a military “crusade,” to use the rather unfortunate word uttered by our president shortly after the terror attacks. Third, at the root of this conservative opposition to Islam, perhaps best represented by Daniel Pipes and Richard Perle, is the question: “Is Islam compatible with democracy?
Now, this is an important question, and those who are honest and truthful while surveying the Muslim and Arab worlds will surely see numerous societies that would benefit by greater democratic governance and greater human rights.
However, the question of whether Islam is compatible with democracy is not the only question that is relevant to America’s and the world’s future, and those who repeatedly ask this question should also have the honesty to ask:
· Is the Israeli settlement policy compatible with democracy, when it has robbed the Palestinians in the occupied territories of their land, destroyed their homes, uprooted their farms and orchards, and created an apartheid system of injustice?
· After the massacre of thousands of Muslims in Gujarat in India: Is Hindu nationalism compatible with democracy?
· After the massacre of over 7,000 Muslim men and boys in the Bosnian city of Srebrenica, we can ask: Is Serbian nationalism compatible with democracy? · After Oklahoma City and Timothy McVeigh, we can ask: Is Christian fundamentalism compatible with democracy?
· And with all due respect to our hosts in the great state of Texas, we can also ask as well: Is the death penalty compatible with democracy?
· And finally, we might conclude by asking, given the wide infringement of the civil liberties of Muslims in America, is Attorney General Ashcroft compatible with democracy?
Now, what has all this has to do with our three medieval philosophers? I would answer: everything. Ibn Rushd, Rabbi Musa and Thomas Aquinas were not ivory-tower intellectuals, sequestered in some secret library, writing about how many angels one can fit on the point of a needle. They were men of this world, and while they wrote philosophy, they also wrote about the law. For all three, the law ¾ sharia for Ibn Rushd, halakhah for Rabbi Musa, natural law for Thomas ¾ was the means to create human societies endowed with justice.
Just one example: American civil liberties were greatly enhanced by the 1966 Miranda Decision of the United States Supreme Court which held that an arrested suspect must be read their constitutional rights. We have seen this scene dramatized countless times on TV cop shows and in the movies. And there in the Miranda Decision, written by Chief Justice Earl Warren himself, we find the following quote from Rabbi Musa: “The principle that no man is to be declared guilty on his own admission is a divine decree.” American justice is therefore immeasurably enhanced by a reference to Musa ibn Maymun, an 11th century rabbi, writing in Arabic, born in Muslim Spain, and who served for many years as the personal physician to the great Muslim ruler Salah-ah-Din.
But it is not only the writings of these three great thinkers that speak to us today; it is their life stories and their courage in pursuing, in the words of Rabbi Musa, “the truth from whatever source it proceeds.” Herein lies part of the contemporary importance of our three wise men, for they dared to advance the notion that wisdom about the universe was not the exclusive property of one tradition, one people, one faith.
In the Middle Ages, this was a controversial and even heretical idea, for the malevolence of intolerance and fanaticism, all too prevalent even in our own time, was there in the Middle Ages as well. And so Ibn Rushd was exiled from his beloved Al-Andalus, and his books were burned by other Muslims. And so Rabbi Musa, now celebrated as the greatest Jewish philosopher who ever lived, had his books burnt at the order of other rabbis. And so Thomas Aquinas, was denounced by church leaders at the University of Paris for daring to incorporate the writings of a pagan into Christianity.
Just as our three wise men were not afraid to challenge prevailing opinion within their own religious community in the Middle Ages, so today I believe we must also be willing to openly criticize our co-religionists when they engage in extremism and intolerance. Thus Muslim religious leaders around the world condemned the Taliban’s destruction of the ancient Buddhist statues in Afghanistan and the 9/11 terror attacks by Al-Qaeda. Thus many Christian ministers in the US denounced the bigoted attacks on Islam by Reverends Pat Robertson, Jerry Fallwell and Franklin Graham (all friends of the current Bush administration). And thus many Jews, like myself, have for decades supported the right of the Palestinian people to an independent state and condemned Israel’s brutal occupation with its assassinations, house demolitions, closures,
While working on this talk in New York, I found a poem from the Islamic Sufi tradition on the web. It reads:
I am like the sea;
many ships sail across the sea,
but who knows the depth of the ocean?
When I move through the streets,
I watch the sons of truth pass me by;
I do not say anything,
but I open my heart,
and they enter.
I believe that some eight hundred years after they lived, Ibn Rushd the Muslim, Rabbi Musa the Jew, and Thomas Aquinas the Christian can still all enter both our hearts and minds if we let them. Their words, and their life stories, can both inform and inspire us about some of the greatest issues confronting us at the beginning of this new century: the relationship between religion and the state, between faith and science, between reason and revelation; the dangers of political extremism; and the courage it often takes to oppose injustice and search for truth. By reading and interpreting their writings, we can discover that we – Muslims, Jews and Christians – are all Ibnu Ibrahim, the children of Abraham, peace be upon him. We can discover that in the struggle to create a more just and peaceful world,
Allow me finally to conclude with a verse from the Holy Qur’an:
In the Name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate.
Bismi’llah ir-rahman ir-rahim
For every one of you (Jews, Christians, Muslims), We have appointed a path and a way. If God had willed, He would have made you but one community; but that, He has not done, in order that He may try you in what has come to you. So compete with one another in good works.
For me, an American Jew and an artist, my film is merely an attempt in good works, an attempt to build bridges of understanding, illumination, and compassion, and I am most thankful to this great gathering for allowing me to speak to you this afternoon about “Reason and Revelation: Ibn Rushd, Rabbi Musa, and Thomas Aquinas in Their Time and Ours.”
Shalom. Salaam. Shukran.
Jacob Bender, a New York City-based documentary film-maker, can be reached at ReasonRevelation@aol.com.
Copyright 2003, Jacob Bender.