Written by Alex Robinson
Al-Andalus produced two of the medieval world’s greatest philosophers, the Aristotelian Muhammad ibn Rushd, known to the West as Averrões, and the mystic Ali Ibn Arabi.
Both thinkers lived in the 12th century and were born in Spanish al-Andalus just as it was coming to the end of its golden age of tolerance. Averrões is better known to Europeans – immortalised by Dante in The Divine Comedy and Raphael in his fresco The School of Athens. The philosopher was Europe’s first great Aristotelian. After his commentaries on Aristotle were translated into Latin, Aristotle’s ideas – initially as interpreted by Averrões – spread and became dominant in Europe. Aristotelianism postulated that nature could best be understood by empirical observation and reason – thus, as Averrões stated, ‘knowledge is the conformity of the object and the intellect’. This empirical-rational epistemology formed the foundation for Renaissance science and the modern scientific method that developed from it. Averrões could therefore be considered the father of modern European thought.
An aged pair of sculptural adornments overlook Alentejo © Adrian Phillips
Ibn Arabi has only become known to the West in relatively recent times, but his ideas have been of considerable influence in the East. While he did not call himself a Sufi, the later Sufi tradition called Ibn Arabi al-Shaykh al- Akbar – ‘the Greatest Master’. Few thinkers have been more influential within liberal, mystical Islam. Ibn Arabi’s ideas are the polar opposite of those of Averrões. He teaches that as humans are not primarily rational, reason cannot lead to knowledge. Knowledge, he argues, is partial and limited, for the direct apprehension of being-in-itself must always precede it. The person who perceives correctly – the gnostic – does not confuse being with external forms, as ‘knowing the kernel of all belief, he sees the interior and not the exterior.’ Ibn Arabi likens being to light: ‘Were it not for light, nothing whatsoever would be perceived, neither the known, nor the sensed, nor the imagined’ (Ibn ‘Arabî, al-Futûhât, 1911 edition, 3:276). And just as being is beyond reason, so it is beyond belief: ‘If a gnostic is really a gnostic he cannot stay tied to any form of belief’ (Kernel of the Kernel, 1:1). Being for Ibn Arabi is the Divine constantly and ineffably revealed in time.
Check out our guide to Alentejo for more on historical figures of the region: