Islamic political thought/The Spanish-Muslims

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Lectures on the Spanish Muslim Philosophers Ibn Bajja (Avempace), Ibn Tufayl, and Ibn Rushd’s (Averroes) Political Thought

By Jason Thomas Craig

Possible target date for lectures: Week 7-10 of the Pre-Modern Islamic Political Thought Class

Note: These lectures should be given in consecutive classes.

Learning Goals:

i. Understand the Spanish Muslim philosophy movement (general dates, governments in power, the Islamic philosophy movement in general, etc.) ii. Understand the political themes of these particular philosophers. iii. Connect these political themes to the larger issues covered in the course: human nature, traditionalists versus rationalists, political power, elites, etc. iv. Prepare for exams.

Reading Requirements for Lecture:

(Selections from)

Avempace: The Governance of the Solitary

Ibn Tufayl: Hayy the Son of Yaqzan

Averroes: The Decisive Treatise/Commentary on the Republic

Recommended Supplemental Reading

Averroës, & Rosenthal, E. I. J. (1969). Commentary on plato's republic (1st ed.). Cambridge Eng.: Cambridge University Press.

Averroës, Shaltūt, M., & Peters, R. (1977). Jihad in mediaeval and modern islam : The chapter on jihad from averroes' legal handbook 'bidāyat al-mudjtahid' and the treatise 'koran and fighting' by the late shaykh-al-azhar, mahmūd shaltūt. Leyden: Brill.

Berman, L. V. (1961). The political interpretation of the maxim: The purpose of philosophy is the imitation of god. Studia Islamica, (15), 53-61.

Butterworth, C. E. (1972). Averroes: Politics and opinion. The American Political Science Review, 66(3), 894-901.

Butterworth, C. E. (1972). Rhetoric and islamic political philosophy. International Journal of Middle East Studies, 3(2), 187-198.

Leaman, O. (1987). Continuity in islamic political philosophy: The role of myth. Bulletin (British Society for Middle Eastern Studies), 14(2), 147-155.

Rosenthal, E. I. J. (1953). The place of politics in the philosophy of ibn rushd. Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, 15(2), 246-278.

El Ghannouchi, A. "Religious Truth and Philosophical Truth according to Ibn Rushd" in Averroes and the Enlightenment, Wahba, Mourad (ed), 229. [Contribution] Prometheus, Amherst.

Abousenna, Mona. "Ibn Rushd, Founder of Hermeneutics" in Averroes and the Enlightenment, Wahba, Mourad (ed), 105-112. [Contribution] Prometheus, Amherst.

Gutas, Dimitri. “Avicenna's Eastern ("Oriental") Philosophy Nature, Contents, Transmission.” [Journal Article] Arabic Sciences and Philosophy: A Historical Journal. 10(2): 159-180, 2000.

Kochin, Michael S. “Weeds: Cultivating the Imagination in Medieval Arabic Political Philosophy.” [Journal Article] Journal of the History of Ideas. 60(3): 399-416, 1999.

Nasri, Hani Y. ”The ‘Mystic’ and Society According to Ibn Bajjah and Ibn Tufayl” [Journal Article] International Philosophical Quarterly. 26: 223-227, 1986.


In the sea of Western philosophy, from those great waves of Platonic and Aristotelian thought, through Aquinas, Descartes, and Nietzsche, it is often easy to get lost in argumentation and style. It is not often that the philosopher or student steps back and looks at the history, the genealogy, of the art and discipline of philosophy. How did the philosophy of the Greeks come to us? Most students do not know that for many centuries, those fundamental works of the two great masters—Plato and Aristotle—were rumors in the small academic circles of Europe. The works of The Republic, and The Metaphysics were vague mentions in commentaries of commentaries; most assumed they were lost. In fact, there was, by the 8th and 9th centuries C.E., a large, patronage based, scholarship endeavor going on in the young Islamic empire. As the nascent Islamic umma (Islamic community) began its march throughout Arabia, Persia, the Maghreb, etc., it began to assimilate texts and other forms of scholarship that were in these areas as a result of Hellenistic empires. There were already large groups of Christians and Jews in cities such as Alexandria, Baghdad, Damascus, and Toledo that were the direct heirs to the Platonic, Aristotelian, and Neo-Platonic traditions. A great translation project began, with thousands of texts being translated from Hebrew to Arabic. By virtue of inheriting this mother lode of knowledge, Arabic and Islamic scholars were able to digest and comment on philosophical works at a high level of innovation and complexity. Indeed, the scholarship resulting from these endeavors was not an abstract, isolated academic endeavor. The results were immediate and concrete, as the philosopher’s ideas were decried by some and accepted by others. The philosophy became in some instances (for instance, al-Razi) opposed to religious orthodoxy, and in others, such as Avicenna, the tools of philosophy became instrumental in a project to reconcile or justify the results of reason and the tenets of faith. As more and more penetration of space occurred between Christendom and the Islamic empires, as geography and blood was swapped and spilled, Christians came into possession of the texts they had long thought lost. It was this rediscovery that is the direct catalyst for the Western Renaissance and Enlightenment. Without them, the math, science, and theology of the West would not have developed as quickly, fully, or, perhaps, at all. The dense problems and thoughts of Plato and Aristotle inspired the Christian scholastic tradition—with such key thinkers as St. Thomas Aquinas. In other words, the debt we in the West owe to the unique and amazingly insightful groups of Islamic, Arabic, and Persian philosophers is immense—indeed, the world we know today would not exist without the scholarship of those individuals.

I. The Spanish-Muslim Philosophers

As Montada points out, Islam’s influence in Spain during its control of the region was immense. This conquest had come through “Eastern” powers (read Syrian and Persian), and so, in governmental style, etc. Andalusia was “subsidiary to that of the East” (Montada 2005, 155). This debt to the east resulted in a similar pattern of theological and philosophical thought—for awhile. Eventually, through various reformist movements, notably the Almohad and Almoravid, The schools of thought in Andalusia diverged from their Eastern predecessors. Spanish-Muslim philosophy developed distinctly from the philosophy of al-Farabi and Avicenna in two important ways:

1. Their philosophy became focused on Aristotle and rationalism as opposed to traditionalism.

2. There was also a strong strain of sufi mysticism present in their philosophy.

We should keep these two points in mind as we begin to discuss the three main figures of Andalusian philosophy.

II. A Few notes on the Republic

a.I think it would be of value if we began this lecture with a few key ideas from Plato’s Republic. It must be kept in mind that while the Spanish-Muslims were often working from a purely Aristotelian-Sufi mind-set, that they were aware of, and influenced by both Plato and the commentaries on his works completed by people like Farabi. From what we know of what texts were available to what thinkers, no one had a full copy of Aristotle’s Politics. Averroes, who is the only one of the Spanish or Arab thinkers to do a full commentary on Plato’s Republic, says that he does so because “Aristotle’s book on governance has not yet fallen into our hands” (Averroes 1974, 4). Keeping this in mind—that Plato’s political influence in many ways outstripped Aristotle’s by virtue of text availability, we can proceed to some quick points about the Republic.

b.Plato’s work has had perhaps the greatest impact of all political thought in the West. Agree or disagree, the issues raised in the Republic—the issues of sovereignty, just rule, just war, the proper role of the citizen in the city, proper education, eugenics, etc.—are all there to be dealt with. Plato does it systematically via the dialogue between Plato’s Socrates and other various interlocutors.

c.Plato sets out to build and defend his virtuous city by explaining why cities arise—for protection, and because people are better suited to focus on one craft rather than, in the state of nature, being forced to be their own cobbler, farmer, etc. However, the city needs to be just, and thus, the individual needs to be just. If either of these entities is unjust, then one runs into the problem of the city of fever, or the other despotic or tyrannical modes of government that plague humanity.

d.Plato arrives at measures to ensure security and ethical order by a long process of weeding out the various “diseases” inherent within the fevered city and implanting political, aesthetic, cultural, and sexual systems to strictly regulate and control activity and information. Thus, noble myths are created that justify a highly stratified society with philosophers on top, with other kinds of “metals” being resigned to certain lives. Marriage and procreation are controlled to ensure proper education. Poetry of the emotional variety is banned because it gives the wrong message about the relationship between humans and authority. The list of restrictions and actions goes on. But it is important to keep in mind the views on humanity, society, the availability of people who can grasp hard concepts, elitism, sexism, ethnocentrism, etc. that are espoused by Plato’s characters in order to ground our discussion of Islamic or Arabic figures.

III. Ibn Bajja

a.Ibn Bajja (d. 1138), known to the Latin West as Avempace, was born in Spain toward the end of the 11th century, and lived in Seville, Granada, and North Africa. He was a respected member of the Almoravid court, and, while not to much is known of his life, it is obvious from his and others writings that he was a master of many scholarly disciplines. It also seems as if he had many enemies; Montada states that “Ibn Bajja wanted to go to Oran but he died in Fez in May 1139. Ibn Ma’yub, a servant of his enemy the physician Abu al-Ala ibn Zuhr, was suspected of poisoning him with an eggplant” (156).

b.While Ibn Bajja wrote on many topics, including logic, and astronomy, his work that directly applies to our interests is his work in political philosophy The Governance of the Solitary.

c.What is the theme, or larger point of this work? What does the title imply?

i.Theme—the lone philosopher in the imperfect city.

ii.Plato was one of the first (perhaps the first in a systematic sense) to tackle the issue of the citizen, philosopher, and ruler within the city. How should these components of a city be related? What is the proper goal of the city as a whole and the individual within it? Al-Farabi, in his Attainment of Happiness, and Plato’s Laws, was the first Muslim philosopher to comment on these issues as dealt with by Plato.

iii.Now, it is unclear whether Plato or Farabi thought that the “virtuous city,” or, “the city in speech,” was actually a realistic possibility. the Republic seems to be an argument for why the virtuous city should be sought after. Plato himself experimented with implementing the rigid social and aesthetic controls he advocates within the Republic in a famous failed experiment in Italy (which I believe almost cost him his life).

iv.There are those who argue that Plato and Farabi saw the virtuous city as a realistic possibility. Averroes, as we shall see, had some reservations about parts of Plato’s doctrines, but, for the most part, he synthesized the Republic in a way that made it more universal (thus allowing for Islam to be a participant in the good cities—Plato was staunchly ethnocentric).

v.The Governance of the Solitary is Ibn Bajja’s attempt to answer this question. And, as the title suggests, he does not see the utopian society as constructed by Plato and Farabi as an actual possibility. Thus, his work is addressed, rather esoterically, to the “solitary.” To those philosophers who need to adapt to living in societies hostile to the aims and practice of philosophy. This book, then, is a guide to living and acting within a city opposed to ones very nature.

1. An Exposition and Questions within the text

a.Ibn Bajja owes a large debt to Plato, and, indeed, unless one has at least a passing familiarity with the tenets of the Republic parts of Ibn Bajja’s assumptions may leave one unclear as to his position. For instance, in this passage dealing with right and wrong governance, ibn Bajja opines that, “[a]s far as the governance of cities is concerned, Plato has explained it in the Republic. He explained what is meant by the right governance of cities and the source of wrongness that adheres to it. To trouble oneself with the task of dealing with something that has been adequately dealt with before is superfluous, a result of ignorance, or a sign of evil intent” (Ibn Bajja 1963, 124).

b. As the correctness of Plato is unquestioned, there remains the governance of the four imperfect cities as elucidated in the Republic. For Ibn Bajja, all other “households”—actual households within the city, and the “governance” of those households—are necessarily corrupt, as “[a]ll other households are imperfect and diseased in comparison in comparison with the [natural] household….Certain authors have gone through the trouble of treating the governance of these imperfect—that is, the diseased—households….[T]he position we stated is clear: except for the virtuous household, the households are diseased; and they are all corrupt; and they do not exist by nature but only by convention” (125). We can see from this passage that Ibn Bajja views all non-virtuous cities and households as diseased. The disease is not of nature, but of humanity’s own design, or convention.

c. The prefect city is free of art and adjudication, as its citizens will be in accord with each other, and trained and educated properly, dispensing with the need for bad rhetoric and judges (as there will be no need for that kind of education or judges to settle non-existing disputes). The health benefits of this harmony are discussed on page 126.

d. Not only is the perfect city perfectly ordered, but it is free of false opinion. “[A]ll of its opinions are true and there is no false opinion in it” (126). These benefits of the perfect city are totally absent within the four imperfect cities. Ibn Bajja, following Farabi, labels those who find truth or hold the opposite of the wrong opinion of the imperfect cities “Weeds.” He elaborates, “[s]trictly speaking, the term applies to these men alone. But it may be applied, more generally, to anyone who holds an opinion other than the opinion of the citizens of the city, regardless of whether his opinion is true or false” (127).

e. The perfect city is devoid of Weeds, but within the imperfect cities, in the dense brush of false opinion, they spring up, and, indeed, it is the existence of these Weeds which leads to the possibility of the perfect city. (127)

f. The danger for these Weeds is immediate and often violent. Ibn Bajja intends “to discourse here about the governance of this solitary man” (128).

g. Ibn Bajja begins his treatise proper with an elaboration on kinds of people—those concerned with their corporeal form, their particular spiritual form, or the universal spiritual form. He goes on to show how any person concerned with just one aspect of any of these three parts of a human cannot properly be called a philosopher, or gain true knowledge. Those focused on the corporeal (bodily) are bestial and hedonistic. It is equally bad to totally disregard the corporeal, as the noble-minded people do. The man of wisdom “shares with every class of men the best states that characterize them. But he stands alone as the one who performs the most excellent and noblest of actions….He will be free from the mortal sensible qualities, as well as from the high [particular] spiritual qualities: it will be fitting to describe him as a pure divinity” (132).

h. From Ibn Bajja’s views shown above, it becomes obvious that the Weeds must not associate with improper souls, or, at the least, minimize contact with those people. “[H]e must associate with those who pursue the sciences. Now since those who pursue the sciences are few in some ways of life and may in others…it follows that in some of the ways of life the solitary must keep away from men completely so far as he can” (132).

i. Some might claim that this insistence on solitary contemplation and hidden opinion contradicts the accepted notion of the basis of human life—being a political (social) animal. On top of that, there are questions as to how, if a philosopher holds knowledge, she could impart knowledge to guide others out of the “cave.” Is this a duty of philosophy? Are the diseased cities to far gone to be changed? Ibn Bajja answers that solitariness is indeed unnatural, but things that are unnatural may, in fact, at points be good. For instance, a substance that is poison to a body normally may in fact be a curative when one is ill. Thus, while it is contrary to the nature of the man of wisdom to be a weed, it is, because of the situation of the diseased cities, in fact the natural and proper course of action.

2. Larger Themes

a. What have we gathered from this exposition of Ibn Bajja? Well, we have caught a glimpse into a political philosophy of intense pessimism. The ideal utopia of Plato, while for Ibn Bajja structurally and argumentatively sound, is, alas, unattainable. What then? If it is the case that men are unable or unwilling to look beyond themselves and are doomed to perpetuate the life of the “fevered” cities, then this has forced Ibn Bajja into a course of guidance based off of the possibility of persecution by the false opinions of those in power. In this way, Ibn Bajja, like Plato, is a strong elitist. Here we have themes that crop up again and again in Islamic political philosophy—a negative view of humanity, a hidden but strong critique of the way cities and societies are being run, and a strong dose of elitism from Plato and Farabi. Interestingly, within the text, one can begin to see this elitism being married to esotericism, which, in turn, signals the burgeoning influence of sufi mysticism.

End of lecture one…