Abū al-Walīd Muḥammad ibn Aḥmad ibn Rushd (1126-1198), known to the West as Averroes or as “the Commentator” for his 38 commentaries on Aristotle, was also a prominent jurist, qāḍī, theologian, and physician who lived in various cities in Andalusia (now Spain) and the Maghreb (now Morocco). He was born in Córdoba, where both his father and grandfather had served as qāḍī, where he received a medical and legal education, apparently receiving his legal license (ijāza) at the age of 16. He probably first encountered Aristotelian science and philosophy in his medical studies. By the age of 30 he served as advisor to the caliph ʿAbd al-Muʾmin at Marrakesh, where he appears to have also conducted astronomical observations. In Marrakesh, he met Ibn Ṭufayl, author of the philosophical novel Hayy ibn Yaqzan, who introduced him to ʿAbd al-Muʾmin’s successor, Prince Abū Yaʿqūb Yūsuf, who in turn apparently commissioned Averroes to write commentaries on Aristotle. Later, when Abū Yaʿqūb Yūsuf became caliph (in 1163), Averroes enjoyed his good favor; he served as qāḍī of Seville from 1169, then of Córdoba from 1171, and by 1182 returned to Marrakesh to succeed Ibn Ṭufayl as personal physician to the caliph, only to return to Córdoba as chief qāḍī. Averroes continued to enjoy the favor of the caliphate, even when Abū Yaʿqūb Yūsuf died and his son, Abū Yūsuf Yaʿqūb al-Manṣūr took over as caliph. Yet Averroes’ status apparently soured in the mid-1190s; in 1197 he was subjected to an inquisitorial prosecution (miḥna) and subsequently exiled to Lucena. This miḥna, which was decreed by the caliph himself, also extended to the study of philosophy and even ordered the public burning of books of philosophy. It is not known precisely what was behind this decree, other than the opposition of radical Muslim theologians to philosophy and science, but the caliph seems to have had regrets and recalled Averroes from exile in 1198. Averroes died shortly thereafter in Marrakesh, and a few months later the caliph al-Manṣūr also died. Whatever regrets al-Manṣūr may have had, we do not find Andalusians professing to study philosophy after Averroes, and it seems that the Islamic West was no longer safe for philosophy.

The political intrigue surrounding Averroes’s life was only a part of vast political and ideological changes that swept across the Islamic West. While Averroes’ father and grandfather had served under the Almoravid regime, Averroes from the start appears to have been associated with the ascending Almohads. The Almohad movement was started by a charismatic Berber named Muḥammad Ibn Tūmart who claimed, like the original prophet Muḥammad, to have had a revelation in a cave somewhere in Southern Morocco or perhaps Algeria. Subsequently he reformed Islam and called himself “Mahdī,” i.e., a kind of messianic ruler who would restore Islam to its original perfection. Ibn Tūmart’s reforms were of a fundamentalist bend, advocating strict observance of Islamic law. Ibn Tūmart also wrote a number of theological works, in which he focused on knowledge and affirmation of God’s unity (tawhīd, the root of the word Almohad and a central doctrine of Islam) in abstract intellectual terms. It seems that Averroes felt he could work within Ibn Tūmart’s religious framework and his legal works clearly reflect the new Almohad context. Averroes even wrote a commentary on the Almohad profession of faith and a work on Ibn Tūmart’s thought, both of which are no longer extant. The massive reworking of his philosophical commentaries that Averroes undertook in the 1190s may have been in response to criticism that the views of those commentaries were not in accord with the professions of the regime. It is not clear whether Averroes really thought his philosophical views could be made to align with those of Ibn Tūmart, but it is certain that by the end of his life the general consensus was that philosophy and Almohadism could not mix.

–Yehuda Halper, Visiting Assistant Professor of Hebrew and Jewish Studies, Tulane University