The grandfather of the European Enlightenment was Muslim

What is the Muslim philosopher Averroes doing in the famous fresco “The School of Athens” of the Italian Renaissance painter Raphael? The painter brought together all thinkers and scientists that influenced the West. So, it’s no surprise that Plato and Aristotle are in the centre of this 16th century painting. More surprising is that two ‘Eastern’ persons are made part of the school: Zoroaster and Averroes. A similar surprise might occur to the readers of the Divina Commedia of Dante Alighieri. In this 14th century Renaissance masterpiece Dante gave his description of Heaven, Purgatory and Hell, with a special chapter on Limbo where good non-Christians were allowed to have a decent afterlife. In Limbo we not only find ancient Greeks and Romans, but also three Muslims: Averroes, Avicenna and Saladin.

The fact that two Renaissance masterpieces dealing with the fundaments of Western civilization are putting a Muslim in the centre of it, is odd to say the least. We learn that the Renaissance, Humanism and the Enlightenment were a purely European accomplishment. In this view, humanists like Petrarch would have found lost Greek and Roman manuscripts in old abbey libraries. This would have triggered the end of the Dark Middle Ages, the revaluation of men over the Church and critical thinking over dogmas.

This historical narrative is simply wrong. Even though Roman books were indeed rediscovered, this is not true for the Greek texts. The most important Greek philosophers and scientists came to Europe because they were translated from Arabic, a translation movement that was initiated by the Caliphs of Baghdad in the 8th century. At the epicentre were Ptolemy’s astronomy, Euclid’s geometrics, and Galen’s medicine. At the same time, Indian and Persian scientific texts were translated. In turn, Muslim scientists wove these ideas together, both elevating them and creating new fields of science, such as chemistry and algebra. Their calculations were the basis of the discoveries of Copernic and Newton.

No less important at the court of Baghdad was philosophy. Plato and Aristotle were very popular and were the subjects of much study, discussion, and debate. However, Islamic philosophers ran into the same problem that both preceding Christians and those that would follow faced: how to reconcile philosophy with theology and sacred texts. In Europe, Saint Augustine (died 430 AD) had halted this debate in favour of theology, with critical thinking being banned ever since. Those that attempted to reopen this debate were quickly silenced or even excommunicated by the Church. Not so in the Arab World, at least not until the end of the 12th century.

The last and most famous Muslim philosopher was Ibn Rushd, better known under his Latin name Averroes. He was born in 1126 in Cordoba, the capital of Al Andalus, which had become, alongside Cairo, the intellectual centre of the Muslim World after the decline of Baghdad. In Europe, Averroes was called ‘The Commentator’ as he had written comments on Aristotle more extensively than anyone else. Moreover, it was through the translation of Averroes’ comments into Latin that Aristotle was introduced in Europe.

Averroes caused nothing short of an intellectual earthquake in Europe. His thesis was that there is only one truth, which was reachable in two different ways: through belief but also through philosophy. When both ways contradict, it means we have to read the sacred texts in an allegorical way. In other words, the search for truth philosophy (or science) is more important than belief. Apart from that, Averroes argued against the immortality of the soul and against creation of the universe.

The theses of Averroes were adopted and taught at the first European universities: Paris, Bologna, Padua and Oxford. This caused panic within the Church. The force of his arguments and the philosophical concepts of Aristotle were too strong. In 1277, the bishop of Paris condemned and banned the ideas of Averroes, though not in his own words. He had to copy the arguments of an Islamic opponent of philosophy: Al Ghazali. However, it was Thomas Aquinas who defeated Averroes’ theses in his book “Against Averroes” and the “Summa Theologica,” which did put theology back on top of philosophy.

However, that didn’t stop the ideas of Averroes and his freethinking. Until deep into the 17th century, Catholic thinkers wrote tirelessly in defence of the immortality of the soul. Even Descartes felt it necessary to denounce Averroes, although not very successfully. The ideas of Averroes snuck back into European philosophy through the backdoor of Jewish thinking. To explain that we have to go back in time again, to Maimonides. This important Jewish thinker (and personal physician of Saladin) was a contemporary of Averroes. When he read the books of the latter, he adopted his philosophy almost entirely. The books of Maimonides were considered standard works for centuries in the Jewish World.

One of the central 15th century Jewish thinkers in Europe was Elia de Medigo, a professor at the university of Padua who referred to himself as a ‘follower of Maimonides’. At the time, Padua was known as a breeding ground of Averroism. There, de Medigo was the teacher of humanist Pico della Mirandola, who wrote the influential “Oration on the Dignity of Man” (1486), often called the “Manifesto of the Renaissance”. The biography of Pico was immediately translated into English by Thomas More, after Erasmus encouraged him to do so. The so-called Jewish-Christian tradition appears to have had some Muslim detours.

Averroes probably won his most important victory more than 400 years after his death. Baruch de Spinoza, one of the Fathers of the Enlightenment, came from a Jewish family that had to flee Spain and Portugal for Amsterdam after the Reconquista. Via the Jewish intellectual tradition, Spinoza discovered Aristotle, de Medigo, Maimonides and Averroes. Spinoza too was accused of denying the immortality of the soul and the very existence of God. His advocacy for critical, independent thinking had a lasting influence on the Enlightenment.

There is no doubt that Muslim scientists and philosophers had a constituent role in the formation of European thinking. That being said, it is also true that the Arab world has faced an intellectual crisis that spans centuries. Dictatorships and religious bigotry have destroyed Arab science and philosophy while the West has made spectacular leaps forward. However, denying the role of the Muslim World in the world history of thinking is a rape of history itself. The West cannot be credible if it reproaches others for falsifying history while not doing much better itself. It is time to give the historical truth a new place in our own history education.


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