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                       Tigre , May 24 2004

 Rushd's Fence

Contents bulletIntroductionbulletAl-ghazali's claim that a righteous Muslim does not need philosophy is bloody nonsense!bulletHarmony of three social classesbulletConvenient implications of Rushd's philosophy for his work as a qadi (sharia judge)bulletRushd's fencebulletGo To: Dutch version


In 13th century Europe, the ideas of a 12th Century Cordoban Muslim, Ibn Rushd, became popular, and quickly spread. Why? It had to do with the growth of cities. The cities and towns, new phenomena by themselves, many grown to a serious size only in the past two centuries, were the places where craft and technical knowledge developed quickly. The way these arts discovered the working of God's creation, and how to control it, seemed to be governed by criteria of truth not found so clearly in the Bible. A serious philosophical problem started to be felt by many: that of the status of the knowledge of nature resulting from the increased mastery of techniques by the city artisans and scientists. In the Bible one could not read how best to build an intercontinental sailing vessel, how to harden steel, how to make and operate the latest firearms, etc.. Where did this knowledge come from? Clearly the catholic claim that everything is in the Bible and knowledge comes to us by reading the Bible and books written by its authorities was not satisfactory. But then what is the right answer? Rushd had it, partly based on many writings of Aristotle that had gotten lost in Europe because they had been bleached by monks to make copies of the Bible.
But if there is knowledge based upon other sources and principles than the Holy Book, how do the two type of knowledge relate? Rushd had a very diplomatic answer: scholarly educated people can see which of the Holy Book stories should be interpreted in an allegorical way and which should be taken literally. But how about simple people, the masses? How to avoid chaos among them, now handsomely disciplined by the absolute truth of the Holy Book? Rushd fences off common people from allegorical interpretation: they are legally - Gods law: sharia -  not allowed to such interpretations and should be punished if they persist.
Since most people are common people it is better to say that Rushd created a fence inside which scientists and artisans could develop their ideas on Gods nature, improve their techniques of observation, sailing, time measurement, warfare etc. without the nervous hot breath of ignorant religious zealots in their necks. Siger de Brabant spoke the voice of the scientists and artisans in Paris. Thomas Aquinas fought him subtly by conceding some essentials, but then the later Saint had Siger arrested. In the end Siger got killed.
But there was no way back. In many different forms and disguises, Rushd's ideas penetrated Christian European minds and streamlined the opposition against orthodox Catholicism that was burdening the European economy with a heavily overcrowded class of clerics, unproductive and unable to accomodate the life style of the artisanal town. And so it led to the Reformation, in which the Roman part of Europe, remaining catholic, degenerated to a backward province. Artisans and traders moved, even fled north to the economically and spiritually more efficient Protestant environment. The modern protestant Europe, Amsterdam and London first, hosted everyone suppressed elsewhere to do art and business. It became multicultural but dominantly Germanic in technical respect and with respect to philosophy, nobody dares to recognize it but it is obvious: Islamic (à la Ibn Rushd).

Picture: The multicultural society of 17th century Amsterdam (anonymous engraving): featuring Scandinavians, Frisians, Moskovites, Tartars, Arabs, Negroes, East Indians, West Indians, Guineans (Black Africans), exotic birds, foreign books and a camel (who would have ordered that one?).

Ibn Rushd (his name corrupted by Christians to "Averroes") lived in Cordoba, Spain, in the 12th century. That was Arab territory at the time. The Arabs originally were desert nomads, versed in using sharp swords in protecting their possessions - little more than some camels - against brother tribes. In the 7th century Mohamed  turned them to a united people with a mission: to convert mankind to Islam (thus getting very rich). Around the year 1000 they stood, in the East, in India. In the other direction they had conquered roughly three quarters of the former Roman Empire (the exceptions were Turkey - there were no Turks yet, it was populated by other people under Greek cultural dominance -, the Balkan, Italy and France so, that is almost negligible). They were the world's superpower, greater than the Romans ever had been, the only minus being that their government was even less centralized than that of the Romans.


But barely more than a century later, in Rushd's time, they had experienced some decline. From the East they had been forced to allow the entry of Turkish tribes, in the same way Romans 9 centuries earlier had signed their fate by letting the German tribes in. The trick was the same: you let some in, give them some privileges and turn them 180 degrees to let them fight against their tribesmen in an effort to keep the rest out. But just like the German Goths of Theodorik and the German Franks of Clovis earlier, the Turkish "Seldtjuks" gradually became the power elite of what respectfully kept being called the "Arabic" caliphates in the East..
But Rushd was elsewhere: in Cordoba, Spain. There, the Arabs had left their former border at the river Douro, which had given them three quarters of Spain (Valladolid and Porto are Douro towns). The border was down to nearby Rushd's Cordoba, because the Christians had chased the Arabs south of even the whole valley of the river Taag. Nevertheless, there was no threat yet for the Arabs to be chased out of Spain (the old Latin name "Hispania") completely, there was no such type of crisis. The last single boat trip of Arabs back to Africa would be as late as 1492. For its passengers, Ibn Rushd would be as long ago as the 17th century is now to us.
Rushd's age was a golden age for Cordoba, certainly in his youth: there was freedom of religion. Muslims, Christians, and Jews were in free debate about truth and the world. On a high intellectual level, because the old Greek literature as we know it was completely available, preserved or recovered from other parts of the Arab world, especially Syria, were it had been preserved and rediscovered

"Books" in those times were rolls of paper on which the original manuscript was copied with a goose feather. Many a copyist had his own opinions. Often, these reached the written pages of the manuscript. Thus, Bible, Koran and Aristotle profited from the growing and shrinking of insights.
Christian Europe was a sorry scene of intellectual poverty. Greek literature found in Romans libraries was bleached long ago in order to copy the Bible on the paper. The ignorance was stunning. If you realize that even today by only reading Plato and Aristotle (available in Cordoba) you will be near to completion of the knowledge you need to be a master in philosophy (except for remembering the later names that managed to have themselves counted as the originators), you will have some idea of the European intellectual disaster.

In Rushd's time, the Andalusian and bordering Arabs (and Islamic Berbers) were so little impressed by the Christians that they mainly fought among each other. But the pattern equaled the one in Christian Europe: primitive tribes typically succeeded in conquering areas where civilization has progressed. In 1148, Rushd was 22, the Almohads, fundamentalist Muslim Berbers, conquered Cordoba.

They defeated the Almoravids, who, when in a far past they entered had been tough primitive fundamentalist Berber Muslims as well, but that had long ceased to be a civilized subject of conversation.

Another scholar of Rushd's stature, Maimonides, was only 13 at the time. His bad luck was being a Jew, so his family had to flee in 1165. As a Jew, you had to convert to Islam (and keep fearing accusations it had been a fake) or to leave. Rushd managed to save himself with the help of his family network and the old elite and even became qadi (sharia judge) under the new caliph Abu Ya'qub Yusuf. He even became his personal physician. Fundamentalists managed to force the caliph to expel Rushd for a while but that issue came to a close and Rushed came back.

I short: Rushd had to run the gauntlet all his life. He balanced between the caliph, the fundamentalist clerics that formed a large part of the caliph's power base, and the old elite, which harbored many amateurs of reason and tolerance. This last group could only maintain itself under the Almohads by keeping a low profile, even though they all were Muslims. Jews and Christians were out, converted or pseudo converted.

Al-ghazali's claim that an orthodox Muslim does not need philosophers is, according to Rushd: bloody nonsense.

Now we are going to read what Rushd is writing, I have no objection at all to call it "philosophy" - it would be weird not to do so: even the Arabs called it after the Greek falasifah. But! That word had a very wide meaning at the time: it comprised science in general. And even the term science can be misleading, since many associate it with people working at private hobbies that nobody else understands, say in an old garage or in a study remote from the hassle and bustle of daily life and things like politics. For Rushd, a qadi, that is a sharia judge, by profession,  falasifah was no intellectual pastime. With his philosophy he contributed, often on request, as a referee or as the spokesman of a group - to outright dangerous discussions concerning hot issues between interest groups in the caliphate. There were real social problems. Those first addressed by Rushd concerned the kinds of expertise and the kind of authority that are required to interpret the holy law, the sharia, and hence who was, and who was not suitable to be a judge. After the Almohad invasion, the job of judge was popular with all kinds of shady figures with all types and degrees of scruple, and all kinds of professed and hidden agenda's. Rush was doing philosophy with the sword on his throat, if not the sword of one pressure group, then again the sword of the other. And exactly this lack of intellectual freedom is what makes Rushd's philosophy really interesting.

Almost a century before Rushd at the other end of Arabic territory, in Iran,  Al-ghazali had expressed the feelings of those who had always asked themselves why, as a Muslim, in addition to your religion and your weapons, you would need philosophers. He did so in a book called Tahafut al falasifa (the incoherence of philosophers). Any such attempt of a cleric to prove the inconsistency of philosophy is of course accident prone: if you want to beat philosophers with their own weapons you have to learn how to handle them.

In much the same vein, in the late Soviet Union, the economics department of Lomonosov University Moscow had, in a locked room, a locked book case with all books of economic Nobel prize winners. In the faculty, it was known as the poison case. In 1988, the economics poison case of Lomonosoff University, still intact and locked, was shown to me. The Roman Popes had a poison case as well, from which recently a manuscript of Spinoza's Ethica was found.

Thus a zealous anti-philosophical project like Al-ghazali's can easily lead on the hellish water of sinful philosophizing, where bad luck might make him sink with his theological gear, with or without some little "help" of the more professional sailors around. But Al-ghazali had read them, the great philosophers of Greece.

Ibn Rushd, a philosopher of great authority, in his book Tahafut al-Tahafut (The Incoherence of Incoherence), sets out to show that cleric Al-ghazali, wrote his philosophical text Tahafut al falasifa (The Incoherence Of Philosophers)  without any chance to get a satisfactory mark. It was really bad luck for Al-ghazali that he was already dead. Careful study of Rushd's criticisms could have led to a vastly improved second version of his book. For even supports of claims of a deplorable nature as Al-ghazali 's can, in the hands of a skillful philosophical professional be fortified for a small price. In The Incoherence of Incoherence, Rushd analyses Al-ghazali 's book The Incoherence Of Philosophers from claim to claim. Though Rushd poses as a fierce defender of Islam, and does not reject every single claim, he sets out to makes mincemeat of all his opponent's book's philosophical arguments. One can follow this some pages, but one soon concludes: "those guys surely disagree". A street fight can be interesting to follow, but you need bystanders who can explain what is the issue. That is the interesting thing, not so much the technical issues, like whether they use bare fists, sticks or knives. Moreover, Rushd fights Al-ghazali , a deceased cleric!
We must assume Rushd was annoyed by contemporaries impressed by Al-ghazali. There surely was more than enough annoying company: Rush was qadi. The new Almohad caliph was a leader of quite a savage and primitive a family that had just arrived from the Berber mountains in North Africa to conquer Cordoba. Rush had to compete for his favors with uncompromising Muslim fundamentalist rivals. His luck was probably that he got trusted to be the caliph's personal doctor. Not only for the dependence relation, but also because apparently the caliph, at least in set backs like disease, did not wish to rely exclusively on praying. Good for the remaining scientific elite of the now chased old caliphate. Nevertheless, the caliph also had to keep his fundamentalist customers satisfied.
The primitive Berber powers on which the caliph was resting had been molded to an expansionist force less than a century earlier - hence in Al-ghazali's time - in the home land of the caliph, the North West African Mountains by a man called Ibn Tumart, a Berber Muslim fundamentalist, rough violator and clerical leader who certainly himself never read any books, but may have been advised by a confidant to memorize the words Tahafut al falasifa and the name Al-ghazali. For the nuisances of the fundamentalist lobby in Cordoba, fields of philosophy like mathematics, architecture and medicine were not directly trades worth competing for with the "philosophers" (read: the civilized and enlightened old elite of Arabic Spain). But Rushd's judicial job, that of qadi, was of course desired. Hence Rushd had to argue and defend, for himself and his supporters, that a judge is and should be a "philosopher", someone with knowledge of Gods creation as a whole, and not someone only specialized in God's word. The latter specialist, the "theologician" sees only the verbal part of God, thus often even is unable to decide what is the proper interpretation of the words he is specialized in.
If Rushd would loose this argument, shady figures would acquire access to the job of qadi, and there would be a fair chance that all kinds of highly valuable people would be led to the qadi's dock. That would become and uneasy place to be.

Harmony of three social classes

By, hopefully convincingly, having established that Al-ghazali's claims ("real Muslims do not need philosophy") just form a heap of philosophical rubbish, Rushd had created the vacuum to fill with a proper account of the relation between philosophy and the Islamic law and order. An account of how the different groups and lobbies should view their roles and social careers without the clashes that would be bound to occur if ignorance concerning philosophy would continue to prevail: this book of Rush is called:  About the harmony of religion and philosophy.
For harmony some fencing is required, Rushd holds. The fencing material is supplied by Aristotle, who distinguished between three types of arguments: logical (or demonstrative) arguments, dialectical arguments an persuasive arguments.
In Aristotle, these distinctions go like this:
In a logical (or demonstrative) argument, claims are proven from axioms and principles. The proof renders the claim absolutely certain.
Unfortunately many claims have not yet been proven or disproved, and some might be impossible to prove of disprove. Some of those claims concern pressing issues. Hence, for many issues important in the practice of life we need a "second best" method to establish whether a claim is to be believed or not. This second best is the dialectical method: one lists all possible opinions on the matter, and for every opinion one lists the pro's and con's, and how these pro's and con's select between the opinions to be chosen from. This procedure can be followed by a group of discussants, all defending their own positions, but a single person can do the same by alternatingly taking up the different "person's" roles, and write his report like a intellectual theatre play. Whether real or imaginary, the case comes to a conclusion in the dynamical process of a debate or a discussion.
These are pretty sophisticated methods of coming to beliefs. The last method however is a kind of "free style", called the rhetorical method. Everything is allowed to convince your opponent, up to using his stupidity or ignorance.
That is Aristotle. Rushd uses these Aristotelian distinctions as follows: logical or demonstrative argument is exclusively the philosopher's field. Logic is a hard trade to learn, few are capable of it, even the talented need a deep education before they can act it out appropriately. Rushd frequently calls this elite, indeed, elite, or demonstrative class. That is, with the help of Aristotle's philosophical distinctions he defines a social class.
Similarly, Rushd mentions a dialectical class and a rhetorical class. Almost everywhere, he mentions the two in one breath. Often he simply distinguishes between the elite and the masses. I did not find any more clear instructions how to distinguish between the dialectical and the rhetorical class. One gets the impression that the masses, forming the rhetorical class are told the Koran text in the mosque and what is in the Koran simply should be believed the way in which is written there: the "apparent" (literal) meaning, should be the true meaning to them: this is how it is, this is what man the world are like. There are Koran texts taken literally by the elite too, the demonstrative class. That class, however takes other Koran texts as allegorical.

Example of allegorical interpretation. Eating an apple of the tree of knowledge: aquiring moral consciousness.

If you are in the rhetorical class, you are not allowed to do so. To them, eating an apple should mean eating an apple. A member of the rhetorical class is an unbeliever if he interprets a Holy text as allegorical. A member of the demonstrative class can demonstrate the allegorical character from the axioms and principles of Gods creation, and hence is not an unbeliever. 
Rushd had to judge such cases as a qadi. He introduces a type of class judicature. It nowhere becomes clear what proves your membership (birth? scientific education?) of the demonstrative class, entitling you to its more lenient judicature. This might be up to the qadi.
From the viewpoint of our modern egalitarian ideologies one could be appalled by Rushd's philosophical proposals, but he had good intentions: do not confuse simple people with allegorical interpretations, that only ends with stones thrown to the teacher. Do not even try! The greatness of the Koran, Rushd writes, is that every class is, in one and the same book, yes even one and the same sentence of that book, spoken to in its own way. Rushd is a pluralist.
How to distinguish between the two non-demonstrative classes, the dialectical class and the rhetorical class? I found only this passage:

But there may occur to students of Scripture allegorical interpretations due to the superiority of one of the common methods over another in [bringing about] assent, i.e. when the indication contained in the allegorical interpretation is more persuasive than the indication contained in the apparent meaning. Such interpretations are popular; and [the making of them] is possibly a duty for those whose powers of theoretical understanding have attained the dialectical level. To this sort belong some of the interpretations of the Asharites and Mutazilites, though the Mutazilites are generally sounder in their statements. The masses on the other hand, who are incapable of more than rhetorical arguments, have the duty of taking these [texts] in their apparent meaning, and they are not permitted to know such interpretations at all.

After that, Rushd rehearses his three class division with a small specification for every one except, again, for the enigmatic in-between dialectical class. Many experts in Arabic philosophy hold that with "dialectical class", Rushd means the theologists generally. But Rushd often deals with theologists and always avoids the term "dialectical class". Moreover, theologists are always wrong. "Theologists" à la Rushd do not seem to be very good candidates for Aristotelic judicial recognition as the "dialectical class". In Rushd terminology, "theologists" are simply a special kind of heretics, or at least stupid and weird Muslims. He seems to be reluctant in general to operationally define his Aristotelian social classes in terms of his contemparies' practical understanding of classes and professions. The quotation above, where some "non-demonstrative" people can see that "the indication contained in the allegorical interpretation is more persuasive than the indication contained in the apparent meaning"  is the best I found.
I venture to think however that, behind the Aristotelian scene, Rushd had good reasons not to be specific. Those are the following:

Comfortable implications of Rushd's philosophy for his job as a qadi

Many times Rushd repeats threatening that is absolutely forbidden to the demonstrative class to communicate allegorical Koran interpretations to the other two classes. Imams should bar access to learned books to those are not learned themselves. Popular books should not contain allegorical Koran interpretations. The public of popular books, the masses, are not served by allegorical interpretations, they will not understand them, will not know what to do with them, and will draw wrong conclusions from them. You only make the masses unhappy with allegorical Koran interpretations. And by barring the masses from the allegory you create clarity: thus any member of the masses entertaining an allegorical interpretation is an unbeliever. Only the demonstrative class requires a subtler judiciary.
Here, to a qadi, an in-between class, like the enigmatic dialectical class, seems useful. If you don't have it, then, if the qadi wants to forgive a suspect entertaining an allegorical interpretation, his sentence has to classify him immediately in the elite, the demonstrative class! The third, in-between option allows the qadi to condescendingly sentence that his powers of theoretical understanding have attained the dialectical level". The man still is part of the "masses", but can go home relieved, and stop worrying about the righteousness of what he is thinking.
It must have felt comfortable to Rushd to retain, as a qadi, a  free hand in how to classify suspects in his three classes. Nevertheless Rushd's Aristotelian architecture of social harmony was not without engagement: they were accepted as the foundation of justice, sharia. They  thus functioned as a kind of "constitution" of Cordoba. And beyond, probably, because Rushd's authority was widely felt.

Rushd's fence

In his youth, before the Almohad invasion, Rushd had witnessed free intellectual communication in Cordoba. Now that had become impossible he successfully set out to protect scientific liberty with a fence through which only the "demonstrative class" could enter, a fence behind which the old elite was together like in the old, late Almoravid days.

In Christian Europe, scholars knew all too well the disastrous intellectual climate that Rushd successfully prevented in Almohad Cordoba. The Christian clerics had always maintained that the Bible was the foundation of all knowledge and that, if there would be any allegorical interpretations, this was Gods business and certainly not the philosophers'.
But the towns of Christian Europe boomed and the atmosphere was one of artisanship, growing technical and scientific control over nature, allowing quality increase in production, transport and trade. It was obvious to everybody that the new techniques of art and science were not extracted from the Bible. The idea of "universities" got invented and quickly spread. Its scholars were ever harder to control by the clerics, at least those who stayed loyal to their style by limiting themselves to the reading of the Bible and its consecrated authorities. Ever more often, the clerics were forced to interfere violently. Bloodshed. But even in their own circles it was deemed increasingly disturbing that the most interesting conversations had to be held with a low voice. Many a scholar in university or clerical circles started to long for a nice officially recognized fence behind which a more free intellectual discourse would be thought to be religiously appropriate, as long as one would not disturb the masses.
But the orthodox catholic resistance was fierce. Thus Rushd, "Averroes" got praised and damned in the European cities. Aristotle and the attractive fence of Rushd cost many lives. This is illustrated by the intercourse between Thomas van Aquinas and Siger de Brabant in Paris, where the latter eventually had to flee the city, and finally got stabbed to death.
Before the fence could be fixed with judicial nails, it got outdated, obsolete and superfluous: book printing got invented. No fence could bar the spreading of ideas by the almost effortless means of printing books. Burning them is an ineffective rearguard action. It was a bigger revolution than our modern invention of the internet. Orthodox Catholicism maintained itself in backward Southern Europe, the Protestant North became the new spearhead of progress.