Islamic political thought/The Spanish-Muslims, continued

Lecture continued…

IV. Ibn Tufayl

a.Ibn Tufayl (d. 1185) was born in the first decade of the 12th century in Spain, and lived most of his life in Granada and Marrakesh. He was a court advisor to the Almohads.

b.Tufayl’s Hayy the Son of Yaqzan is important because it follows Ibn Bajja, and Ibn Tufayl is, in some major ways—esotericism and Sufism—indebted to Ibn Bajja, and because Averroes was a protégé of Ibn Tufayl. Thus we can infer that he must have had some impact on the young man who would become the commentator par excellence on Aristotle.

c.The impetus for this piece of philosophical fiction (not a dialogue but a short story, an interesting form in and of itself for a philosophical piece to take) is because a friend of Ibn Tufayl’s asked about the “oriental” philosophy of Avicenna. In the introduction to Hayy the Son of Yaqzan, Ibn Tufayl examines why this pursuit of knowledge is so necessary: “Your question has awakened in me a noble intention that led me, praise be to God, to partake in the vision of a state I had not experienced before. It made me reach a point so extraordinary that words cannot describe and clear exposition cannot render an account thereof, because it is of an order and realm not belonging to them….Now, if one who experiences this state lacks scientific skill, he will speak about it inconclusively (Ibn Tufayl 1963, 136). We can see that the influence of Sufism is deep. Here we have reconciliation between the tools of philosophy and the “taste” of the divine that is mysticism. Philosophy is a tool to shed the outer kernel of illusion that cloaks inner realms of truth.

d.What political implications does this commitment to Sufism carry? For one, it is a way to push back typical orthodoxy. The atmosphere for this mind of talk and thought was restricted by location, and, once again, as with the Weeds, those who followed this path needed to be garbed in symbols. “Moreover, whoever comes to acquire any portion of it does not communicate it to others except through symbols. The Hanifite religion and then true Law have prohibited delving into it and warned against pursuing it” (139).

1. An Exposition and Questions within the text

a. Hayy the Son of Yaqzan is a story of coming to knowledge, and the result of trying to inform others of truth. It is a highly mythological story, using characters borrowed from Avicenna’s writing (symbols to those aware of his philosophy), and placing his main characters on a journey of discovery. A detailed exposition is unnecessary, as the story of Hayy is a story that parallels discovery of branches of philosophy and theology, with the protagonist, through various encounters, becoming aware of metaphysical truths, etc. Eventually, these truths are shed for the inner truths of Sufism. Montada glosses, “Ibn Tufayl sees philosophy as establishing the need for mystical union, as explaining how it is possible, and even as something necessary to avoid confusion on the way, but he does not admit that the mystical state is a part or result of the philosophical inquiry itself” (Montada 2005, 175).

b. This is the political part of the tale, when Hayy and his companion decide to return from their isolated island—Hayy is experiencing civilization for the first time—they decide to impart truth to people, to help them follow the proper religion, and they are thwarted. The passage is dense, and deserves to be quoted at length. Hayy the son of Yaqzan kept entreating them [a group of men] night and day….But this did not produce any effect except to increase their disdain and aversion, despite their love of goodness and desire for the truth….So Hayy despaired of reforming them and lost hope in their ability to receive the truth. Examining afterwards the different categories of men, he found that each party was rejoicing in what it had, taking their caprice to be their god, and worshipping their desires….All good advice is lost upon them, and kind words have no effect….They were submerged in ignorance….When he saw the pavilion of punishment surrounding them and the darkness of the veils covering them—all of them, except a few, do not take seriously anything but the worldly aspects of their religion….The greatest benefit the multitude could get from the religious Law concerned their mundane life alone….Only the exceptional and the rare among them would attain the happiness of the hereafter….Certain kinds of men are fit for certain kinds of work and each man is more fit to do that for which he is made. (Ibn Tufayl 1963, 159-160) You can see many themes we have touched upon. Hayy is a weed who sees “true” truth beyond the mundane and capricious truths’ of most people. To attempt to educate them is in most instances futile. The religious law as such merely serves to keep them placated and confined to the corporeal, with no true knowledge of the metaphysical or mystical ever imparted. And even if the Law did attempt to guide people towards this truth, peoples’ corporeal nature denies them that understanding. In the end, Hayy goes back with his companion to their isolated island in order to pursue their mystical union with God and truth, away from the distractions of the imperfect city.

2.Larger Themes

Ibn Tufayl should be noted for mirroring the view of the city held by Ibn Bajja. Hayy wants desperately to impart his hard earned, and true, knowledge to those in society, but is met with disdain, hatred, and rejection. This is a not-so-subtle commentary by Ibn Tufayl on the state of Islamic society. In Ibn Tufayl we see a true focus on esotericism and mysticism; whereas in Ibn Bajja these things were implied by the nature of the problem—the solitary intellectual. Ibn Tufayl seems to take the next step and say, “why don’t we just divorce ourselves from society, they will not listen to arguments anyways.” I find it interesting that buried in Ibn Tufayl’s political critique of society rests a view that Sufism is the proper orthodox religion. This is mysticism in the most extreme sense. It is an utter rejection of the truth claims for traditional orthodoxy. Rather, those aspects of life are meant for a political reason—to control and make people (hopefully) behave properly.

V. Ibn Rushd (Averroes)

a. Born in Cordoba Spain in 1126, Ibn Rushd (d.1198), known to the West as Averroes, had a long and interesting scholarly life. He came from a long line of jurisprudential scholars of fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence), and was well schooled in Islamic law, theology, science, math, and logic. His connections and astuteness allowed him to have a career within various ruling courts. Most of his scholarship was done under the umbrella of patronage. Averroes is perhaps the most vital Islamic thinker for the development of Western philosophical thought. Indeed, St. Thomas Aquinas calls Aristotle “the Philosopher,” and calls Averroes “the Commentator.” His work within the Aristotelian rationalist frame allowed for the nascent scholastic movements of the West to develop rapidly, and to synthesize complexities via his commentaries. Interestingly, his work is essentially dormant in the East, never having exerted the influence (at least metaphysically and theologically) that his political ideas did.

b. a small note on rationalism: rationalism is the idea that human reason alone (or, mostly alone) can gain profound truths and insight without the aid of direct revelation or a busy occasionalist God. For instance, as Taylor writes, “Averroes himself held that the truth, not as grasped per accidens by the methods of persuasion or dialectic, but in its fullest sense as per se, is to be found in his “books of demonstration,” that is, in his philosophical works and in particular his commentaries on Aristotle” (Taylor 2005, 181).

1. An Exposition and Questions within the text

For purposes of this lecture, we will examine Averroes’ rationalism and its relation to political philosophy. In his Decisive Treatise and Commentary on Plato’s Republic, Averroes tackles the issue of rationalism and philosophy qua the State. The subtitle of the Decisive Treatise is “Determining what the Connection is Between Religion and Philosophy.” As Averroes, on the first page of that work writes, “[t]he purpose of this treatise is to examine, from the standpoint of the Law [Islamic Law], whether the study of philosophy and logic is allowed by the Law” (Averroes 1963, 165). This claim, that religion and philosophy cannot co-mingle, is the result of the rationalist vs. traditionalist debate. For most traditionalists, one must accept that contradictions, ambiguities, and vagueness that is within the text of the Qur’an without question. The rationalist finds passages and impetus within the text itself to use ones intellectual faculties to prove to oneself that God exists, and further, that the apparent contradictions are resolvable through reason. In other words, one is perhaps more justified using reason to talk about religion than faith. Averroes: “[W]e are under an obligation to carry on our study of beings by intellectual reasoning. It is further evident that this manner of study; to which the Law summons and urges, is the most perfect kind of study using the most perfect kind of reasoning, and this is the kind called demonstration” (165).

d. However, Averroes shares a similar view to Ibn Bajja and Ibn Tufayl in that he truly believes in a hierarchy of peoples and abilities. While he persuasively argues that the truths of religion are discoverable by reason, he also believes that not everyone is capable of discerning the truths of philosophy. Thus, he divides people into three classes of relation to the Law: “One class is those who are not people of interpretation at all: these are the rhetorical class. They are the overwhelming multitude, for no man of sound intellect is exempted from this kind of assent. Another class is the people of dialectical interpretation: these are the dialecticians, either by nature alone, or by nature and habit. Another class is the people of certain interpretation: these are the demonstrative class, by nature and training, that is, in the art of philosophy. [This interpretation ought not to be expressed to the dialectical class, let alone to the multitude.]

e. Here that particular strain of elitism surfaces again. We can extract the political doctrine from these passages. Against those traditionalist rulers who would argue that rationalists are innovating heretically, Averroes would argue that those rulers and theologians are, in fact, heretical themselves because the Book tells humans to use their reasoning abilities. Further, Averroes would argue that the traditionalists are doing a further disservice to the lay people by putting forth dialectical and rhetorical arguments that are, for the most part incorrect. In addition, in attacking the methods of the philosophers, they have sown dissent and unbelief when in fact the philosophers are the ones who hold the true interpretation of things. Thus, Averroes, balancing on a thin line, will claim that the philosophers are not holding the truth while others are denied truth (and thus salvation), but that God has provided many ways of getting at truth for many people. He was just concerned with rhetoricians sowing false belief. I think, however, that Averroes did in fact hold the position of so called “double-truth,” in which philosophers should run things and advise rulers, while noble lies for ethical guidance and control are spread amongst the lay people.

f. In his Commentary on Plato’s Republic, Averroes further develops this division between classes and commoners by supporting many of Plato’s ideas about the philosopher-king. It is interesting, however, that at the same time Averroes has to counter many of Plato’s ethnocentric claims. First off, Plato reserved the virtuous city for the Greeks alone. The main counter to all ethnocentric claims by Plato is the Hadith by the Prophet that states “I have been sent to the Red and the Black” (Averroes 1974, 46). So, if wisdom is the goal of humanity, then one must use ones reasoning faculties, and if the Message is universal, then knowledge must be spread by word and sword to the world. Thus, the virtuous city is, logically, a possibility in any part of the world.

g. Averroes, for the most part, follows Plato’s plan. He advocates the expulsion of adults from the city and the indoctrinating of all children under ten. He advocates the eugenic programs, the marriage and birth structures, etc. Averroes even goes so far as to leave open the question of whether the ruler of this city should be a prophet: "Hence these names are, as it were, synonymous—i.e., “philosopher,” “King,” “Lawgiver;” and so also is “Imam,” since imam in Arabic means one who is followed in his actions. He who is followed in these actions by which he is a philosopher, is an Imam in the absolute sense. [As to whether it should be made a condition that he be a prophet, why, there is room here for penetrating investigation], and we shall investigate it in the first part of this science, God willing. [Perhaps if this were so, it would be with respect to what is preferable, not out of necessity]" (Averroes 1974, 72). Thus, we can see that Averroes is following Plato to almost the fullest extent.

2. Larger Themes

What can one gather about the political thought of Averroes from these texts? Well, for one, it is very Platonic, a theme that has run through all three of these Spanish thinkers. This includes an emphasis on the lonely nature of the intellectual life. Being philosophers, one is prepared for truths beyond what lay people can handle. Even the theologians, as Averroes points out, only serve mainly to propagate corrupted views of what difficult passages within holy texts mean. If this is the case, then the philosopher is confronted with two options: hide within the diseased cities that exist (as the virtuous ones rarely if ever are actualized), or, try to influence the avenues of power subtly, controlling things from behind the scenes (what Strauss might call a covert rule of the Wise). The danger with the second option is persecution—with the paragon example being Socrates, who died for his public philosophizing. Averroes also held a view of humanity, which, while negative, appears less negative than Ibn Bajja or Ibn Tufayl. After all, Ibn Bajja calls intellectuals “Weeds,” and Ibn Tufayl advocates an escape into esotericism. Averroes at least holds out the possibility of instructing people, even if they could never grasp demonstrative truth. It also becomes apparent that all three saw the ruling regimes of their time as corrupted, both in religion and in proper virtue. If they could, all three would advocate an authoritarian rule of truth over the diseased ruler. Another question that arises from these texts is just how Orthodox these philosophers were. I would say that Ibn Bajja and Ibn Tufayl were actually, because of their Sufism, radically heterodox; while Averroes was more orthodox on the surface. Averroes, however, ends up relegating prophets and religion to the rule of truth, which, he thinks exist within the Word. This, of course, to the ruling theologian and political class, is the essence of heterodoxy. Overall, these three philosophers are fascinating for their unique synthesis of religion, politics, heterodox views, and Sufism. Their writings and thoughts are informative not only in a historical sense or because of their influence in the East and West; but rather, they are informative because of the resonance their views hold in contemporary times.

Possible Exam Questions:

1.What does Ibn Bajja mean by intellectuals within the diseased cities being “Weeds?”

2.In what ways does this view of the lone intellectual match up with Ibn Tufayl and Averroes? In what ways does it possibly differ?

3.How does Sufism influence the political thought of Ibn Tufayl?

4.Some would claim that Averroes, in his exposition of why religion and philosophy are necessarily tied by reason, is actually advocating a “double truth,” in which philosophers hold the “real truth” while others are denied it? Do you agree with this?

5.In what main way does Averroes differ from Plato?