Book review: A Rosetta Stone on the complex theological debate during the Golden Age of Islam

“Averroes: On the Harmony of Religion and Philosophy” by George F. Hourani

Averroes, also known as Ibn Rushd, was a legal scholar of the Maliki school of Islamic law. He inspired St Thomas Aquinas and many Muslim, Catholic and Jewish scholars alike, while at the same time regarded as the “founding father of secular thought in Europe.” He is the only Muslim painted in the Sistine Chapel (the guy with the turban in the “Scuola di Atene” painting), and grouped by Dante in his 14th century masterpiece “Divine Comedy” among great philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle.

Famous for bringing back the almost vanished teachings of Aristotle through his commentary work, he was trained in law, medicine and philosophy, and became the chief judge of Cordoba during the Golden Age of inventions in the Muslim world in the 12th century (that brought us al-gebra, al-chemy, al-gorithm among many others).

His life story alone reveals so much about the lost Islamic history and the rich culture Muslims had way before the Renaissance (which started to civilise the West 2 centuries later). And his resulting thinkings are the product of the advanced knowledge during that Islamic Golden Age, which would make today’s Islamic culture (with de-facto caliphate of the descendants of Muhhamad bin Saud and Abdul-Wahhab) looks medieval and simplistic by comparison. But yet, just like Ibn Al-Haytam who wrote the theory of gravity 600 years before Isaac Newton, and Al-Tusi and Al-Gazali whose work on free-market economy were copied by Adam Smith, the work of Averroes remains unknown in our modern world.

This well-researched book (written in 1960) is the attempt to bring back the stories of the complex theological debates between Muslim scholars during the Golden Age of Islam. The book is divided into 3 parts: 1.) The fascinating introduction that sets the intellectual scene of c. 10-12th century Muslim world. 2.) the translation on Averroes’ own writings. 3.) the brilliant elaborating notes on the translation. And central to all of this is Averroes’ superb thoughts on the question of the era – the harmony of religion and philosophy – that may have already settled the age-old debate between religion and philosophy around 900 years ago.

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