Countering Islamophobia in the classroom: Averroes as Antidote

Countering Islamophobia in the classroom: Averroes as Antidote

Coeli Fitzpatrick

Grand Valley State University


Teaching the eleventh-century thinker from Muslim Spain, Ibn Rushd (Averroes) to undergraduates can prove to be extremely beneficial in multiple ways for students. Not only does doing so introduce students to philosophical and legal writings from the medieval period that they are not likely to encounter otherwise, but it also allows them to think about Islam and Muslim contributions to global civilization in ways that are deeper and richer than headline stories and go beyond common stereotypes about Muslims.  In the Honor’s sequence that I team-teach, “The Middle East Beyond the Headlines,” I assign Ibn Rushd’s “Decisive Treatise” (“Fasl al-Maqal”) as one of the primary source materials in the course. Given that many of the stereotypes that persist about Islam today began to take shape in the medieval period, it makes good historical sense for students to start to examine the development of Western anti-Islamic attitudes, and my teaching of Ibn Rushd comes as a perfect complement to this examination. In what follows here, I discuss how I use the “Decisive Treatise” in the classroom, and how class discussions about the text and the culture that nurtured Ibn Rushd lead students to examine and critically think about common generalizations about the religion of Islam and about Muslim history. Although my main objective in teaching the “Decisive Treatise” is not to simply dispel stereotypes (I would teach it even if there were no stereotypes to dispel), I will argue here that the “Decisive Treatise” and discussions surrounding Ibn Rushd and the reception of his work lend themselves to dispelling or at least seriously questioning stereotypes.

There are several compelling reasons that Ibn Rushd has proved to be such an effective tool for helping students see beyond a monolithic image of Islam, and to see how Christianity and Islam connect in ways that are interesting and surprising. Among these reasons are the following:

  • When students learn about the biography of Ibn Rushd, and gain an understanding of history in Al-Andalus, they see the centrality of ancient Greek philosophy to the classical Muslim world and to the formation of the university curriculum in Europe. Ancient Greek philosophy is typically understood as only significant in the Western intellectual tradition, so having students see the development and evolution of these Greek ideas in the Muslim world is often a valuable lesson.
  • The “Decisive Treatise” argues for the legality of philosophy under Islamic law (shariah). Shariah law is typically associated with brutal practices, religious intolerance and misogyny, not with philosophical reasoning. Teaching Ibn Rushd therefore helps students to see beyond a narrow conception of what shariah is.
  • The way in which Ibn Rushd argues for the use of philosophy and against a narrow reading of scripture reveals an aspect of Islamic history that is often in contradiction with how students think about Muslims and their relation to their sacred texts.
  • When students are asked to read about and reflect upon the life and goals of a Muslim intellectual, they begin to understand both the humanity of an individual thinker and how he relates to his own society in complex, changing ways. Just through this one example of reading Ibn Rushd, students are able to see that Islam is not a stagnant, monolithic religion that produces only people enslaved to religious principles.

My honors course is a year-long, interdisciplinary, team-taught, 12-credit sequence that is offered as one of the choices for students in the honors college for their first-year. The honors college at my university dubs itself as an alternative General Education program that allows students to fulfill many of their requirements in sequences that are either civilization-based or theme-based. Our sequence fulfills a number of General Education credits, including philosophy, literature, history and art. Because the class is for first year students, almost none of the students comes to the class with any formal background study of Islam or the Middle East. However, they do often come with preconceived ideas that they have picked up from the media and the culture about what Islam is and about what Middle Easterners are like.

Arshin Adib-Moghaddam’s term “clash-mentality” seems to accurately describe the worldview most of our students enter the sequence holding. 1 In other words, most students see Islam as a religion and set of  historical circumstances that is opposed to (or clashing with) what they would un-problematically term “the West.” To state this another way, students typically see Islam as a monolithic religion, largely confined to the Middle East, and fundamentally at odds with their conception of the West as a Christian nation with very different values. Most of the students have no concept of the many Muslim contributions to human intellectual achievements in science, mathematics, literature or the arts.2 Reading Ibn Rushd can disrupt their very generalized and at times simplistic way of thinking about Islam and the Middle East. It also enables students to see history as a continuity of ideas and questions first raised by the Greek philosophers, but then passed on to the medieval Muslim world to be adapted and changed before later being translated and transmitted to Christian Europe after the death of Ibn Rushd.

Because the sequence is laid out chronologically, we cover the classical period of Islam through the apogee of the Ottoman Empire in the first semester, and more contemporary history and issues in the second semester. My colleague and I split taking the lead teaching position throughout the semester depending on the course content. The course content objectives include giving students an understanding of some of the major historical events in the Middle East (including North Africa and the Iberian Peninsula) and looking at the rise of Islam. To teach the history of the rise of Islam, I use multiple sources that offer different accounts of the rise of the religion so that students can see some of its historiography. Throughout their first semester students learn about some of the difficulties of accounting for some of the history of the rise of Islam, and about the military, cultural, and political successes of Muslims after the seventh century. Students also learn about the development of the religion of Islam over time. We cover topics such as how Islamic legal theory developed; the science of hadith scholarship;3 and how the interpretation of the Qur’an was used by different groups which often had competing concerns and agendas. We also examine some of the debates that historians engage in when trying to write history using sources that come from competing groups and which may be incomplete. In this way, first year students are asked to think critically about history and to see complexities in historical writing. This approach results in a meeting of the General Education skills goals (i.e., critical thinking, oral communication, historical analysis) with the content goals of teaching them about the Middle East that are specific to this sequence.

Because we organize the course chronologically, we do not begin to look at the work of Ibn Rushd until we have covered the time period from the pre-Islamic period through the eleventh century. At that point, students will have a good sense of the breadth of Muslim contributions to the fields of medicine, astrology, mathematics and philosophy, and of the massive wave of translations from Greek into Arabic of scientific and philosophical knowledge, translations which began under the Abbasid empire in the tenth century.4 To teach the history of Muslim Spain, we typically use sections from Maria Menocol’s The Ornament of the World,5 Richard Hitchcock’s Muslim Spain Reconsidered,6 and a chapter from Jonathan Lyon’s Islam Through Western Eyes.7 Ibn Rushd’s “Decisive Treatise” is available in a number of English translations. I use an abridged English translation by Albert Hourani, available in Lerner & Mahdi’s Medieval Political Philosophy.8 My students are unlikely to use the Arabic, and the abridged version serves the purpose of the class just fine.

After reading Menocol and Hitchcock, students will have a fairly good understanding of the historical events surrounding the Muslim presence in the Iberian Peninsula, the rise and fall of the Umayyad Caliphate in Cordoba, and the Almoravid and Almohad Berber dynasty’s rule in southern Spain. Menocol’s book is usually well-liked by students because of its accessibility and narrative style which presents historical events in their full, colorful details. She also has a good dose of literary references and quotations in the book. One criticism of Menocol’s book is that in showing the contrast between Christian and Muslim rule in the peninsula, she tends to gloss over some of the history in an effort to emphasize an idea of convivencia.9 The risk of reading only Menocol’s Ornament of the World is that students will have a too-rosy understanding of medieval history that stresses only the instances of cooperation and tolerance among the different religious groups in the peninsula.  Hitchcock’s history goes some way towards supplementing Menocol’s work with historical references to Christian-Muslim-Jewish pragmatic motivations, but without overcorrecting or ignoring the many instances of true religious toleration. My aim in teaching these two books is to expose the very real evidence of cooperation between different actors and groups (who did not always identify first and foremost with a religious identity) that was certainly present at times in the peninsula, without ignoring or deemphasizing times of clashes, discrimination, and asymmetries in power that were also present. Hitchcock is very good at showing that religious motivations were rarely the main factor in actors’ decisions until at least the late eleventh century.

Reading the text

Turning to the text, the Lerner & Mahdi text gives a small introduction to the biography of Ibn Rushd, who was born in 1126 during the last decades of Almoravid rule, which ended in 1147.10 I always spend a few moments on Ibn Rushd’s name. At this point in the class students are aware of the differences in the spellings of Arabic names, and are aware of how Arab names often become Latinized. I explain that we will use Ibn Rushd’s Arabic name until we get to the latter part of the semester, at which point we will be reading about his influence in Christian Europe and his name is Latinized to “Averroes.” The editors of the “Decisive Treatise” recount a popular story that comes from Muslim sources about how Ibn Rushd came to be acquainted with the Almohad ruler Abu Ya’qub (reigned, 1163-1184) in 1168. Reportedly, Abu Ya’qub had been complaining about the available translations of Aristotle and hoped to meet someone who could make the Philosopher’s works more accessible to him.

Even if this account of Ibn Rushd’s meeting at the Almohad court is an apocryphal story from a later period, the story itself can challenge the way students traditionally think about Muslims. For one thing, this story reveals the interest and importance that Muslim rulers were seen to have placed on philosophy and other non-religious subjects. Aristotle, for example, was known in Arabic from as early as the 9th century simply as “The Philosopher.” It bears emphasizing that the interest Muslims had in ancient Greek philosophy and knowledge was not an isolated phenomenon, but was sustained over time and across vast areas of Muslim rule. Furthermore, the fact that Ibn Rushd openly taught Greek philosophy at the court of the Almohads with the support of the Caliph Abu Ya’qub (and then later his son and successor Abu Yusuf) challenges the commonly held idea that Muslim rulers were simply autocratic leaders uninterested in higher secular learning and purely concerned with spreading the faith by the sword. Abu Ya’qub, like many Muslim caliphs before him, did not merely tolerate the intellectual arts, but sought them out and openly patronized them. Muslim sources depict Abu Ya’qub as someone who had a keen interest in philosophy and who surrounded himself with scholars and frequently engaged them in intellectual debate.  All of these facts serve to jar one of the major stereotypes about Islam: that it has always and uniformly been hostile to rational thought and scientific study. Reading about Ibn Rushd’s introduction to Abu Ya’qub, students see that we cannot maintain that there was uniform opposition to philosophy. Rather, like in other religions, Islam has factions (or sects) that have objected to the inclusion of the ancints (or Greek philosophy).

The next major point of discussion we have in the class is about the style of writing Ibn Rushd uses in the “Decisive Treatise” and his intended audience. Ibn Rushd wrote the treatise not intending it to be a philosophical work, but rather a clear legal treatise that argues for the permissibility of the study of philosophy. For the most part, the treatise is accessible to students without a philosophical background, provided that some key details are provided to them (this can be done through lecture). Ibn Rushd’s purpose in writing the treatise is to argue that the study of philosophy by those qualified to study it should not be prohibited by Islamic authorities. In order to make this argument, Ibn Rushd must discuss the purpose of Islamic law and argue his case by appealing to that law. Although the Almohad rulers themselves were important patrons of philosophy and other intellectual fields, they came to power with the support of a population that could be described as anti-intellectual, Qur’anic literalists. Powerful religious leaders in the society argued against philosophy, claiming that it was dangerous and might lead people to abandon their faith.

At this point in our discussion, I find it helpful to remind students that we have seen this argument from religious authorities before. Earlier in the semester the students learned that many Greek scholars had arrived in the Middle East to escape persecution by the Christian Emperor Justinian in the 6th century. Upon Justinian’s conquest of Athens, the Academy (the school founded by Aristotle, which had continued to house philosophers and scholars) was denied funding so that its scholars could not teach their heretical doctrines and corrupt Christian minds. The decree issued by Justinian to close the Academy reads in part:

We wish to widen the law once made by us and by our father of blessed memory against all remaining heresies (we call heresies those faiths which hold and believe things otherwise than the catholic and apostolic orthodox church), so that it ought to apply not only to them but also to Samaritans [Jews] and pagans. Thus, since they have had such an ill effect, they should have no influence nor enjoy any dignity, nor acting as teachers of any subjects, should they drag the minds of the simple to their errors and, in this way, turn the more ignorant of them against the pure and true orthodox faith; so we permit only those who are of the orthodox faith to teach and accept a public stipend.11

Many of the scholars from Athens sought refuge under the Sasanians in Persia, and brought with them their libraries, laying the foundation for Greek knowledge that would be seized upon four centuries later by the Abbasids during their massive translation movement.  Of course, Christians were also not the first to see danger in unorthodox ideas. I relate to students the events of the persecution and eventual execution of Socrates because he was perceived to have undue influence over young minds and to be a threat to the state. What these examples reveal is that ideas can often be threatening to the status quo and to those in power, leading to a persecution of those ideas and the people who espouse them. Ibn Rushd’s argument in the “Decisive Treatise” can be seen as another iteration of this ongoing debate about ideas, and about who is or is not a true believer.

The primary audience of the “Decisive Treatise” is the religious scholars who have decreed that philosophy should be prohibited as an area of study.12 In order to effectively convince his readers that there is no conflict between Islamic law and philosophy, Ibn Rushd needs to make his points by appealing to Islamic law. Religious authorities had argued that philosophy is not only problematic because it is secular and reason-based, but that it was inherently foreign to Islam because it was passed to the Muslims from the pagan Greeks. In order to address the idea of philosophy as foreign to Islam, Ibn Rushd draws an analogy with Islamic law. If, he argues, philosophy should not be permitted because the earliest Muslims (Muhammad and his companions) did not practice it, then, he asks, what does this mean for the science of Islamic law, which also did not exist for Muhammad and his companions? This line of questioning allows Ibn Rushd to defend the use of this “non-Islamic” practice (philosophy) while also showing that Islam itself, including its all-important legal code, was and continues to be, shaped by ideas outside of Islam. Ibn Rushd states that “most followers of this religion support intellectual reasoning, except a small number of gross literalists, who can be refuted by [sacred] texts.”13 Intellectual reasoning is something that we necessarily inherit from our intellectual predecessors, and further, he argues, it is of no importance what the religious views of those intellectual predecessors were. What is important is truth. If the ancient predecessors handed down ideas, it rests to those who inherit them to accept what is the truth and to eliminate any errors that might also have been handed down.

The “Decisive Treatise” is therefore a sustained argument against judicial overreach which would allow religious scholars and jurists to use the accusation of “unbeliever” or of something as “un-Islamic” to condemn a given position or idea. Ibn Rushd would be the last person to argue that nothing can be deemed un-Islamic.14 And, one could even argue that he trades a kind of judicial overreach for philosophical overreach. But he wants scholars to be alert to the improper use of religion to easily condemn positions without a thorough consideration of the position using logical analysis. At the very least such vigilance would prevent the kind of shaky legalistic statements of the sort which prohibit behavior or activities that are perfectly appropriate to human beings. Ibn Rushd sees philosophy as one such appropriate activity, and in his argument cites Qur’anic verses which he reads as calling believers to reflect philosophically on the world around them.

An important connection that I make in the classroom is to link what Ibn Rushd is writing about in the twelfth century to the contemporary era. The debate that he engages in mirrors some contemporary discussions about whether certain ideas are un-Islamic because they are “Western.” Some Muslims have argued that ideas such as feminism, human rights, and democracy have no place in Islam because they are foreign, Western concepts.15 Students can see that this debate over ideas and religious purity is an old one, and that Ibn Rushd is one contributor to this long conversation. One important contribution that Ibn Rushd makes to this conversation is to point out that no set of ideas or principles—religious or secular—is developed in isolation. Ibn Rushd inherited certain philosophical principles from the Greeks (principles which were debated and filtered through his own Muslim predecessors such as al-Farabi and Ibn Sina). His own writings would be translated into Latin and engaged by thinkers in the Christian West, which would in turn continue to change and adapt them. Ancient Greek philosophy, commonly taken as the rightful inheritance of the West, is as central to classical Muslim intellectual thought as it is to medieval Christian intellectual thought. In teaching the Honors class, I am able to make this shared centrality visible to students.16

Ambiguity in the law

Throughout the work, Ibn Rushd makes frequent references to Islamic law, or shariah. Shariah is commonly associated in students’ minds with punishments (e.g., chopping off hands, stoning.) because these are usually the topics reported in the media when shariah is covered. But in the “Decisive Treatise” we see Ibn Rushd appealing to shariah to make the case for philosophy as permissible, and to criticize the religious scholars for overstepping their authority by attempting to outlaw it. Coming from a respected jurist, this is not a critique to take lightly in a historical sense. Islamic law—like all law—is an evolving discipline and can involve taking positions based on ideas that are subject to interpretation. One thing that becomes clear to students as they read the text is that there is not (and Ibn Rushd argues cannot be) unanimity with respect to certain questions of a theological and philosophical nature. Ibn Rushd is comfortable with a certain level of ambiguity with respect to important theological questions. In no way is he a rigid, dogmatic cleric of the type presented in stereotypes about Muslim religious scholars. Although Ibn Rushd argues that not all humans are qualified to partake in philosophical inquiry owing to variations in what he calls human natural abilities (this Platonic idea is something we discuss in lecture prior to starting to read the “Treatise”), this does not mean that the discipline should be forbidden for everyone. Furthermore, even among those who are capable of demonstrative (that is, philosophical) reasoning, there will be certain questions about which there will always be a degree of uncertainty. Ibn Rushd writes: “It seems that those who disagree on the interpretation of these difficult questions earn merit if they are in the right and will be excused [by God] if they are in error.”  Further, “This [divergence of opinions] is due to the difficulty and ambiguity of this class of text. Anyone who commits an error about this class is excused. I mean any scholar.”17

The ambiguity to which Ibn Rushd refers results from his refusal to take certain Qur’anic verses literally. In articulating this refusal, Ibn Rushd also levels criticism against the theologians for believing that they can and are sticking with a truly literal reading of scripture. We have seen above that Ibn Rushd has no time for the dogmatic beliefs of the “gross literalists,” and that he expects that disagreements in interpretation will be unavoidable—even common—for certain difficult Qur’anic passages, even when scholars are using philosophical demonstration. Ibn Rushd cites Qur’anic verse 3:7 which states: “He it is who has sent down to thee the Book; In it are verses basic or fundamental (of established meaning); They are the foundation of the Book; others are not of well-established meaning”18 in support of the idea that the Qur’an is by God’s intent a work that contains ambiguous passages. Ibn Rushd places among the ambiguous passages in the Qur’an verses which describe the future life (that is, life after death). Accepting a literal reading of these verses (which give very vivid descriptions of heaven’s beauties and pleasures) is not intellectually conceivable for philosophers, who are expected to dig deeper into the meaning of the text with the aid of logic and reason. Moreover, commentary on Qur’anic verses by religious scholars who profess to be eschewing interpretation and are merely reading of the Qur’an literally display, upon closer examination, the insertion of the scholars’ own beliefs or presuppositions into their reading of the text. Ibn Rushd cites as an example of this the theologians’ position on creation ex nihilo. He argues that a literal reading of the text cannot get one to a position of creation ex nihilo, yet the prevailing opinion of the religious scholars of his day is that this is the unanimous position of the group.19 Only an interpretation—an injection of the scholars’ preconceived ideas into the text—can result in such a reading being perpetuated.

If all reading of the text is interpretation, is everyone qualified to interpret the text? To this Ibn Rushd answers a definitive “no.” Not all humans have the same level of intelligence. This is a position that borrows heavily from Plato and Aristotle in considering who is qualified to have certain knowledge. This argument is admittedly anti-democratic. But although he argues that not everyone is capable of the highest forms of reasoning, the last thing that Ibn Rushd wants is for believers to simply follow an authority figure blindly. He cites verses from the Qur’an itself which show that the Qur’an speaks on different levels to different types of human intellects.20 God has provided the Qur’an for all humanity. It is not a mysterious document that needs to be deciphered by only a privileged few. It is also not a document that is completely self-evident. It contains a multitude of styles meant for the intellects of all humans, but above all, it aims to speak most easily to the majority. Ibn Rushd ends the “Decisive Treatise” with the statement reiterating the complexity of the Qur’an and its availability to different levels: “This [He has done] by summoning the multitude to a middle way of knowing God, the Glorious, [a way] that is raised above the low level of the followers of authority but is below the turbulence of the dialectical theologians.”21

After we have completed our study of the text of the “Decisive Treatise,” including spending ample time on the many philosophical issues in the text that have not been the subject of this essay, I spend time with students on discussing the history of the transmission of Ibn Rushd’s works to Christian Europe. My aim is to teach students about the Arab and Muslim influences on European intellectual history so that they have a rich understanding of this tradition with which many of them are completely unfamiliar.  Averroes is the ideal figure to use to teach this history because we can easily trace his changing reputation in Europe between the late twelfth century onward in order to see how it rose and fell. Averroes was initially received in Christian Europe with great praise. He was known as “The most noble philosopher”22 and university scholars fought the Church in order to ensure access to translations of his work. But within a relatively short period of time the works of Averroes came to be stained with the blemishes that the Christians perceived to be connected with his religion, and the once praised scholar became associated with the heresy of Averroism.23 Averroes (and Islam’s) reputation sank as Christian scholars assimilated Muslim scholarship into Christianity under giants such as Thomas Aquinas and Giles of Rome. In the fourteenth century, Petrarch called Averroes “A dog…prompted by an indescribable fury to bark at his Lord and Master Jesus Christ and the Catholic faith”24 and wrote that “I shall scarcely be persuaded that anything good can come from Arabia.”25

This steady stream of criticism against Averroes ultimately resulted in such an effective erasure from history of his contributions to Western intellectual thought that his influence is little known or limited to his association with the Averroist heresy. Reading Ibn Rushd helps students learn about and acknowledge the Christian inheritance of this continuum from Muslim sources, and to recognize the long strides Muslim scholars made in the areas of science, literature, architecture, and the visual arts. The many Arab and Muslim contributions to human knowledge were the result of cooperation, including collusion and cooperation with Arab Christian scholars who worked alongside their Muslim counterparts to translate Greek (and later Arabic) texts and to further the fields of medicine, science and philosophy. Knowing about this interwoven history does not mean that we replace Christian accomplishments with Muslim ones, (or that we need to downplay Christian scholarship in order to favor that of Muslims), but it enables a more complete understanding of the many threads that contribute to advances in our human intellectual achievements. As Ibn Rushd points out, “…it is clear that we ought to seek help toward our goal from what has been said by such a predecessor on the subject, regardless of whether this other one shares our religion or not.”26


At this point it is helpful to review briefly what major points the class covered as we read the “Decisive Treatise.” The students learned Ibn Rushd’s argument in support of philosophy, and saw him draw on the Qur’an to make his points. As a class, we engaged his treatise with discussions of Islamic law, or shariah, and the subject of the discussions were not not brutal punishment nor misogynistic frenzy but how rational inquiry is useful in the service of religion. We discussed Ibn Rushd’s sustained critique of the religious scholars, who were claiming to give impartial, literal readings of the Qur’an, and then we discussed Ibn Rushd’s own ideas about how the meaning of certain verses in the Qur’an are not able to be known with certainty. We discussed how the ideas of Ibn Rushd that are outlined in the “Decisive Treatise” present a vision of Muslim scholarship that is in contrast with many contemporary perceptions of Muslim religious scholars as people who remain trapped in a seventh-century dogmatism. In our visit to Muslim Spain through the “Decisive Treatise” and our historical readings, we saw a portrait of an intellectually lively place, where ideas of philosophy, medicine, mathematics, and other subjects were debated with the support and patronage of the highest political authority, the caliph. Finally, students read about the transmission of these ideas to Christian Europe, and discussed how the Muslim contributions to philosophical and scientific discussions often became controversial or problematic. This allowed us to reflect upon possible reasons why we don’t typically see the whole history of intellectual ideas. The trajectory of this discussion eventually leads to the topic of the students’ own educations. They can see that knowing the history of thinkers such as Ibn Rushd are important to their own learning and thinking too, and yet, almost none of them had ever heard of him prior to taking the class. Finally, we discussed how incomplete the notion is of an “our” history (a pure European history) where ideas seem to have been transmitted neatly from Europe to the United States.

This course where we engage in careful reading of Ibn Rushd’s treatise fulfills all of its stated general education skills goals for students . After reading the “Decisive Treatise” and our other texts over the course of the semester, students will have met the philosophical reasoning and historical writing basic skills that are required from the course.   But we also accomplish more than this completion of skills goals. Using Muslim Spain as the focal point, we engage students’ minds in a critical exploration of history which shakes simplistic, easy, and stereotypical ideas about Muslims and their cultural achievements (or lack thereof). Students leave the class with complex ideas. They have not simply learned “the other side,” but have learned to think about human intellectual history differently altogether. Although it is not Averroes’ most important work, the “Decisive Treatise” contains a wealth of new ideas and is itself incongruous with the idea of a stagnant, monolithic portrait of Islam and therefore greatly disturbs the “clash mentality.”27 Reading and thinking about Ibn Rushd and his time leaves our students more comfortable with complexity and nuance, and therefore better equipped to think about the problems facing our complex and diverse world today.

1 Arshin Adib-Moghaddam. A Metahistory of the Clash of Civilizations. London: C Hurst & Co Publishers, 2011.

2 There are many excellent sources for the history of Muslim contributions to human intellectual history, which was particularly vibrant under the Abbasids. See Bennison, Amira K. The Great Caliphs: The Golden Age of the ‘Abbasid Empire. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009. See also Rashed, Roshdi. Encyclopedia of the History of Arabic Science, vol. 3. London: Routledge, 1996, 1026-1044.

3 The Arabic term hadith means “speech” and refers to the sayings attributed to Muhammad. In Muslim theology the hadith, along with the verses in the Qur’an, are considered the foundations of Islamic law. A science of hadith scholarship has evolved over the course of the history of Islam and refers to the scholarly study, interpretation and criticism of hadith.

4 It is impossible to overstate what a significant cultural accomplishment the translation movement was. Primary sources on the translation period note the high monthly salaries for the translators, indicating the strong caliphal support for their efforts. The major source for this history is Dimitri Gutas’s Greek Thought, Arabic Culture: the Graeco-Arabic Translation Movement in Baghdad and Early ʻAbbāsid Society (2nd-4th/8th-10th Centuries). New York: Routledge, 1998.

5 Menocal, Maria Rosa. The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain. New York: Back Bay Books, 2003.

6 Hitchcock, Richard. Muslim Spain Reconsidered. Edinburgh: University Press, 2014.

7 Lyons, Jonathan. Islam Through Western Eyes. New York: Columbia University Press, 2012. I use Chapters 2, 3 and 4 in the class, with the most emphasis on Chapters 3 & 4. In Chapter 3 Lyons uses a Foucauldian framework to analyze primary source material with the aim of revealing what he sees as Christian experience of Islam moving from what Foucault defines as an “undifferentiated experience” to becoming a clear religious and ideological threat at the beginning of the twelfth century. Lyon’s argument aligns well with Hitchcock’s history of Muslim Spain. Both authors hold that religious differences are not the primary motivation for conflict between Muslims and Christians until after the twelfth century. Chapter 4, “Islam and Science,” looks at the history of how science came to be associated almost exclusively with Western thinkers and seen as a Western achievement. This is done by downplaying, denying and obscuring Muslim contributions to science, and presenting Muslim history as a kind of “refrigeration” period of holding Greek philosophy and science until the time was ripe to hand it over (unchanged) to its rightful inheritors in the West.

8 Averroës. “The Decisive Treatise, Determining What the Connection is Between Religion and Philosophy” translated by George F. Hourani in Medieval Political Philosophy edited by Ralph Lerner & Muhsin Mahdi. Cornell: Cornell University Press, 1963, 163-186.

9 Conviventia is the idea that under Muslim rule, the Iberian Peninsula enjoyed religious toleration and that Christians, Muslims and Jews lived peacefully and respectfully together. The concept itself has an interesting history that in many ways parallels political attitudes towards Muslims in Europe and the United States.

10 The Almohads were a Berber dynasty from North Africa that ruled in parts of Al-Andalus from 1130-1269. They are known for their religious fervor, but more careful scholarship reveals a sophisticated leadership that patronized intellectual debate and culture during most of the dynasty. See Fletcher, Madeline. “The Almohad Tawhid: Theology Which Relies on Logic.” Numen, vol. 38, fasc. 1, June, 1991, pp. 110-127.

11 Hannam, James. “Emperor Justinian’s Closure of the School of Athens.” Bede’s Library. Accessed January 16, 2017.

12 In this conversation, Ibn Rushd is addressing his contemporaries living in the Almohad state, who have actively campaigned against philosophy. But he is also addressing a larger audience in the Muslim world as a whole, which has been engaged in a debate over philosophical ideas in theology since at least the early 10th century.

13 Lerner & Mahdi 166.

14 One section of the “Decisive Treatise” makes clear that there are fundamental positions about Islam that everyone must agree to. Examples are the acknowledgment of the existence of God, acknowledgment of the existence of the prophets and their missions, and acknowledgment of the surety of happiness or misery in the next life. See Lerner & Mahdi, 175-176.

15 One easy example of this kind of argument is the made by the Nigerian group Boko Haram, whose name translates as “Western education is forbidden.”

16 Gottschalk, Peter and Greenberg, Gabriel.  Islamophobia: Making Muslims the Enemy. New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2008. The authors note “…the shared centrality of ancient Greek thought in European and Arab philosophy seldom finds notice in popular publications. Nor do these sources commonly mention the mutual influence on one another of Judaic, Christian, and Islamic theologies…Until the recent challenges of multiculturalism, the custodians of American culture traced the historical trajectory of that culture backward along an arc reaching through Europe to the ancient eastern Mediterranean: Rome, Greece, and Egypt. Often overlooked is the fact that the Arabs of the medieval period bear primary responsibility for bequeathing the Greek classics to “the West” as it emerged from its self-described “Dark Ages,” having translated and developed them in Arabic over centuries.” 5-6.

17 Lerner & Mahdi 175.

18 Ali, Yusuf A.  The Holy Qur’an: English Translation. Lahore: Ashraf Printing Press, 1934, verse 3:7.

19 As in Judaism and Christianity, the debate over creation ex nihilo has a long history in Islamic thought. For some examples of this debate, see Davidson, Herbert A. Proofs for Eternity, Creation and the Existence of God in Medieval Islamic and Jewish Philosophy. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987. See also Adamson, Peter. “Al-Kind ī and the Mu‛tazila: Divine Attributes, Creation and Freedom.” Arabic Sciences and Philosophy, vol. 13, 2003, 45-79.

20 In explaining how humans have different levels of intellectual abilities, Averroes backs up what is a standard Greek philosophical position with Qur’anic verses. He writes: “Thus since this divine law of ours has summoned people by these three methods, assent to it has extended to everyone, except to him who stubbornly denies it with his tongue or for whom no method of summons to God, the Exalted, has been appointed in the Law owing to his own neglect of such matters. It was for this purpose that [the Prophet], peace on him, was sent with a special mission to “the red [white] man and the black man” alike; I mean because his Law embraces all the methods of summons to God, the Exalted. This is clearly expressed in the saying of God, the Exalted, Summon to the way of your Lord by wisdom and by good preaching, and debate with them in the most effective manner [xvi, 125].” Lerner & Mahdi, 169.

21 Lerner & Mahdi, 185.

22 Wolfson Harry. “The Twice-Revealed Averroes” Speculum, vol. 36, no. 3, July, 1961, 373-392. The quote from William of Auvergne is on p. 374.

23 “Averroism” is a derogatory designation which denoted a position of some Christian philosophers which developed after the thirteenth century.  Although philosophical positions might vary in details between philosophers, a general characteristic of Averroism was an interpretation of Aristotle which held that a philosophical conclusion could contradict revelation. Because such a position placed philosophy above revealed scripture, so-called Averroists were considered to be at the very least bordering on heresy, and at worst, promoting a heresy worthy of severe condemnation.  Siger of Brabant and Boetius of Dacia are the two most well-known Averroists.

24 Horowitz, Irving L. “Averroism and the Politics of Philosophy.” The Journal of Politics.  Cambridge University Press, vol. 22. no. 4 Nov. 1960, 698-727.

25 Lyons 73.

26 Lerner & Mahdi 166. Although Averroes was extremely influential in Europe in the thirteenth century, his reputation gradually declined over the next several centuries, particularly because he was deemed responsible for initiating the ideas that came to be associated with Averroism. He was, however constantly quoted by giants of the thirteenth century Scholastic movement, despite their critiques of him. A second wave of popularity met the writings of Averroes in the sixteenth century, when his works were translated again into Latin from Hebrew translations that had been done by Jewish scholars in the thirteenth century. Hellenists would question the usefulness of these works of Averroes and promote instead direct translation and study of Aristotle and Plato. See Wolfson, 1961.

27 Averroes most important works included over thirty-eight commentaries on Aristotle. These included commentaries on the Metaphysics, De Caelo, De Anima, and Physics. He also wrote a commentary on Plato’s Republic. His most important original philosophical work was his Tahafut al-tahafut or the “Incoherence of Philosophy,” a giant refutation of the ideas of his eleventh-century predecessor Al-Ghazali (d. 1111).

Works Cited

Adib-Moghaddam, Arshin. A Metahistory of the Clash of Civilizations. London: C Hurst & Co Publishers, 2011.

Adamson, Peter. “Al-Kind ī and the Mu‛tazila: Divine Attributes, Creation and Freedom.” Arabic Sciences and Philosophy, vol. 13, 2003, 45-79.

Ali, A Yusuf.  The Holy Qur’an: English Translation. Lahore: Ashraf Printing Press, 1934, verse 3:7.

Averroës, “The Decisive Treatise, Determining What the Connection is Between Religion and Philosophy” trans. George F. Hourani in Medieval Political Philosophy edited by Ralph Lerner & Muhsin Mahdi (Cornell: Cornell University Press, 1963), 163-186.

Bennison, Amira K. The Great Caliphs: The Golden Age of the ‘Abbasid Empire. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009.

Davidson, Herbert A.  Proofs for Eternity, Creation, and the Existence of God in Medieval Islamic and Jewish Philosophy. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.

Fletcher, Madeline. “The Almohad Tawhid: Theology Which Relies on Logic.” Numen, vol. 38, fasc. 1, June, 1991, 110-127.

Gottschalk, Peter and Greenberg, Gabriel.  Islamophobia: Making Muslims the Enemy. New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2008.

Gutas, Dimitri. Greek Thought, Arabic Culture: the Graeco-Arabic Translation Movement in Baghdad and Early ʻAbbāsid Society (2nd-4th/8th-10th Centuries). New York: Routledge, 1998.

Hannam, James. “Emperor Justinian’s Closure of the School of Athens” Bede’s Library, accessed January 16, 2017.

Hitchcock, Richard.  Muslim Spain Reconsidered. Edinburgh: University Press, 2014.

Horowitz, Irving L.  “Averroism and the Politics of Philosophy” The Journal of Politics.  Cambridge University Press, Vol. 22. No. 4, Nov. 1960, 698-727.

Lyons, Jonathan. Islam Through Western Eyes. New York: Columbia University Press, 2012.

Menocal, Maria Rosa. The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain. New York: Back Bay Books, 2003.

Rashed, Roshdi. Encyclopedia of the History of Arabic Science, vol. 3. London: Routledge, 1996, 1026-1044.

Wolfson, Harry.  “The Twice-Revealed Averroes.” Speculum, vol. 36, no. 3, July, 1961, 373-392.