How Godless Arabs Changed Europe

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In the world of Islam, some philosophers went against religion. The secularist ideas that European scholars found in these thinkers’ writings shook both Muslim and Christian theologians

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Koert Debeuf

Koert Debeuf is an associate researcher at the Institute for European Studies, Brussels University.

October 18, 2020

Illustration by Joanna Andreasson for Newlines.

One year before he died in 1142, the French thinker and priest Peter Abelard finished his last book. Collationes, written in Latin, tells the story of a dialogue between a Christian, a Jew and a Philosopher. The Philosopher is the central character. He wants to know which of the two religions, Christianity or Judaism, is most consonant with reason. After the first round of discussions, the Philosopher concludes that “the Jews are stupid and the Christians mad.” Not surprisingly, the Jew and the Christian do not agree, and the discussion restarts.

The question is who is this Philosopher? Abelard introduces him as “a son of Ismael, who belongs to a people that circumcise boys at the age of 12.” Scholars agree that he must be a Muslim. However, even though the Philosopher was born Muslim, he doesn’t seem to be a believer. Instead, he “defends, against the Jew and the Christian, a natural morality and a natural religion.” He learned what is good and bad, and how people can reach the good life by studying philosophical schools.

Abelard didn’t know any translations of Arabic philosophers. He died a century before these Muslim thinkers would change the way Europe would look at philosophy and theology. There was no sign yet of the coming secularization of European thought. So, how did Abelard make the connection between rationalism and Islam, and even more intriguing, where did he get the idea that in the Muslim world, there were philosophers who left their religion behind and chose the rational life?

When Abelard was writing his book, he lived in exile. In his early years, he had caused a furor by disputing texts of the Church Fathers in several Parisian schools, which would later become Paris University. After years of trying to stop Abelard, the Church condemned all of his ideas, excommunicated him and his followers. The Church forced him to live in the abbey of Cluny, the most powerful monastery of the late Middle Ages, and burned all his books. It was Peter the Venerable, the abbot of Cluny, who offered a room to Abelard where he would stay until his death. Abelard is, however, best known for his love affair with Heloïse, a nun, and for the love letters they wrote to each other. They are buried next to each other in the famous Paris Père Lachaise cemetery.

Peter the Venerable had a deep interest in Islam. He went several times to Spain, Saragossa, and Toledo to study Islam, the bête noire of Europe during the Crusades. He ordered the first Latin translation of the Quran in order to learn Islam from its own texts instead of hearsay. It is most probably during these visits that Peter learned of Arabic philosophers who followed “natural morality” instead of the law of religion. According to some scholars, there was even a concrete example of them, living in Spain at that very moment: Ibn Badjdja, or Avempace as his name was Latinized. A contemporary Arabic historian, Ibn Haqan, said Avempace would have rejected the Quran and denied resurrection. Avempace also didn’t care at all, according to Ibn Haqan, about divine law because he only believed in science. The life of man wasn’t guided by God but by the planets and the stars.

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Whether or not Ibn Haqan embellished Avempace’s secularism, it must have still come as an astonishing discovery to Peter the Venerable and his excommunicated charge at Cluny. In the world of Islam, there were philosophers who went against religion. And this was just the beginning.

The rumor that there was a mountain of knowledge to be discovered in Spain shot like a lightning bolt through Europe. Translators from England, France, Italy, and Germany made the long trip to Toledo. There they could find ancient Greek books translated into Arabic, Arabic comments on these books, and scientific and philosophical texts from Arabic polymaths. The jackpot, however, was Aristotle.

In Latin Europe, only the first few chapters of his Analytics, a book on logic, were known. Suddenly, his entire body of work could be found. Aristotle’s thinking was important for three reasons: his scientific methodology or demonstrative reasoning, his natural science, and his ethics of Ethica Nicomachea. However, the books of Aristotle were only to be found in so-called commentaries: Each paragraph of Aristotle was quoted and then explained by a commentator. As Aristotle’s thinking is very difficult to understand on its own, European scholars were very happy to have Arab philosophers explaining every part of it. That is why Aristotle came to be known in Latin Europe in the 13th century through the interpretation of Arab commentators.

The most famous Arab commentator was Ibn Rushd, or Averroes in Latin. Averroes was born in 1126 in Cordoba, the capital of Al Andalus, the long-standing Muslim part of Spain. Just like his father, Averroes was a qadi, the main judge of the city. Asked by the Almohad ruler to explain Aristotle, he started his monumental work of commentating on all the works of the Greek philosopher. Less than 20 years after his death in 1198, Michael Scot, a well-known Scottish intellectual, translated the commentaries of Averroes. Thus, in the 13th century, Aristotle became The Philosopher and Averroes The Commentator. However, Averroes didn’t just explain Aristotle; he also interpreted the philosopher and added some original ideas.

One idea was that there is one universal intellect shared by all living persons. Every person receives at birth a part of this universal intellect, and thus universal truth. When a person dies, according to this idea, his individual intellect rejoins the universal intellect. A second idea was that, contrary to the intellect, the soul is material and thus mortal. In short, according to Averroes, the intellect is immortal but the soul is not. A third idea, derived from Aristotle’s though, was that the world was eternal and thus not created by God.

These were not just philosophical ideas. They were considered scientifically proven through the analytical method of Aristotle. These were obviously problematic ideas, as they went — and still go — against the fundamentals of Islam and Christianity: God created the world, and when people die they go to heaven if they have led good lives.

As if these heretical theses weren’t enough, Aristotle and Arab philosophers introduced an even more dangerous idea. In his Ethica Nicomachea (X, 6-8), Aristotle claimed that the philosophical life is the best life and that “if reason is divine, then, in comparison with man, the life according to it is divine” and it can “make us immortal.” Arab philosophers like al-Farabi (872-950), Ibn Sina/Avicenna (980-1037), Avempace (1085-1138) and Averroes (1126-1198) all seemed to support this idea, as did the Jewish philosopher Moses ben Maimon, popularly known as Maimonides (1138-1204), who lived most of his life in Cairo and wrote in Arabic. So, it was not the religious life, but the philosophical life that was deemed the best. For both Muslim theologians (mutakallimun in Arabic, following the kalam, the study of the Islamic doctrine) and their Christian counterparts, this was more than one bridge too far. However, the impact of this thinking was stronger in Europe as it came at the very same time the first European universities were established.

When Paris University was founded in 1200, there were four faculties: medicine, law, theology, and philosophy or arts. Philosophy or arts were prerequisites for the other studies. Just as with the Greek filosofia and the Arabic falsafa, it included the study of rhetoric, mathematics, natural sciences, and astronomy. Philosophy was the handmaid of theology, the highest of studies. When the works of Aristotle and the Arab philosophers reached Paris University, the professors of philosophy or maîtres ès arts started to see things differently. Wasn’t the philosophical life the best life, and wasn’t the method of philosophy the real scientific method? In other words, wasn’t scientific truth higher than the truth of the Bible? The arts faculty scholars started teaching the heretical ideas of Averroes and other Arab philosophers. The Church started panicking.

The first three attacks from the Catholic Church against the Arab philosophers came in 1270. The best known is Thomas Aquinas’ On the Unity of the Intellect, Against the Averroists. Aquinas was born in the Kingdom of Sicily, a country where Catholic and Orthodox Christians lived together with Arab Muslims. Michael Scot, the translator of Averroes, moved with his family to the kingdom, where he continued his translations. Aquinas, a Dominican friar, studied philosophy at the University of Naples where he most probably studied Aristotle, Averroes, and Maimonides. After that, he studied arts and theology in Paris. Like all other philosophers, he couldn’t ignore the Aristotelian scientific methodology. So he decided to use this methodology to counter the ideas of Averroes. He “proved” that Averroes wrongly interpreted Aristotle and that there cannot be one intellect for all people. Aquinas calls Averroes “the corrupter of Aristotle” and blames Averroes for “believing in two truths” — the philosophical and the religious — which is impossible. He also warned the Parisian followers of Averroes that the ideas of the Commentator were incompatible with Christianity.

The second attack was much broader. Giles of Rome, an Augustinian friar, wrote a book on the “errors of the philosophers.” For Giles, “the philosophers” were Aristotle, Averroes, Avicenna, al-Ghazali, al-Kindi, and Maimonides, or one Greek, four Arab Muslims and one Arab Jew. One may be surprised that Giles saw al-Ghazali, or Algazel in Latin, as one of the philosophers. In fact, al-Ghazali played in the Muslim world the same role as Aquinas in the Latin one: attacking philosophers through their own arguments. In his Incoherence of the Philosophers (Tahafut al-Falasifa), written between 1091 and 1095, he attacked the two main Muslim philosophers: al-Farabi and Avicenna. Just like the Europeans after him, he complained in his book that the philosophers were taken more seriously by the people because they used a scientific method that gave them credibility in religious affairs as well. But before he wrote this attack, he first wrote a book to summarize the philosophy of Avicenna (The Aim of Philosophers, or Maqasid al-Falasifa). In 13th century Europe, only this book was translated, which is why the Europeans believed al-Ghazali was actually a follower of Avicenna and thus a philosopher.

Just like al-Ghazali wrote in his Incoherence of the Philosophers, Giles of Rome accused the Arab philosophers, and mainly Averroes, of being unbelievers. He says Averroes “is more to be opposed” than Aristotle, as he “reviles the law [Bible] of the Christians, that is our Catholic law, and also the law [Quran] of the Saracens, because they maintain that the universe was created,” and claims that the theologians are “babblers” (loquentes in Latin) who act “without reason.” According to Giles, Averroes also propagated that “no law [religion] is true, although it can be useful.” In other words, Averroes was blamed for being an elite atheist — as were the other philosophers. The scientific truth, according to this accusation, was the purview of an enlightened few while religion was for the benighted masses. It would be wrong to think that Giles’ book was just one attack by one unknown Christian apologist. The Errors of the Philosophers was used by the Inquisition up to the 17th century. Many people were tortured or burned because they believed in one of the “errors.”

The third attack in 1270 came from the bishop of Paris, Etienne Tempier, who published a list of 13 philosophical theses that were forbidden at Paris University. The first thesis is the unity of the intellect from Averroes. The third is that “all that happens here on earth is submitted to the necessity of the celestial bodies,” an idea broadly supported by all Arab philosophers. The teachers of the Paris arts faculty apparently didn’t care about these condemnations, as seven years later the same bishop published a list of 219 theses that were forbidden to be taught. They said it was forbidden to teach that “theological discussions are based on fables” or that “the only wise men of the world are philosophers.”

The condemnations and accusations of 1277 appeared to be effective. Those philosophy professors who wanted to put philosophy next to (or even above) theology and had been teaching Arab philosophy backed down or had to flee Paris. That meant the end of the rule of Arab philosophy in Paris for more than a century but not the end of it in Europe. Some professors fled to Germany; others went to Italy, where Arab philosophy remained popular until the end of the 16th century. In his Divine Comedy, Dante Alighieri (c.1265-1321) even paid tribute to the Arab philosophers by putting Avicenna and Averroes, together with the main Greek philosophers, in Limbo, a special place in hell where there was hardly any suffering and where they could keep on discussing philosophy and science. Dante also honored the main professor of philosophy in Paris, Siger of Brabant, who was probably the main target of the attacks of Thomas Aquinas and of Bishop Tempier. Siger inhabited Dante’s Paradise because he taught the new scientific method at Paris University.

In Latin Europe, from the 12th century on, philosophy was considered to be Greek and Arab. But whereas the Greek philosophers were consigned to antiquity, the Arabs were contemporary provocateurs, pushing secularism, unafraid of defending ideas that went against the prevailing theocratic traditions, or deriding them outright. They found holy books replete with myths “proven” to be falsehoods but nonetheless useful for the masses, who were too ill-educated or too stupid to countenance scientific truth. No wonder the Church panicked.

Even after such heresies were supposedly stamped out, the Islamic world remained for centuries a haven for free-thinking philosophers. In 1737, André-François Bourreau Deslandes published his Critical History of Philosophy in which he described how in the Muslim world foreigners were treated with utmost respect. With much sarcasm, Deslandes observed that Peter Abelard, the heretic of Cluny, would have had an easier time in a Muslim land.


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