Al-Ghazali and Averroes: Islamic “Nominalism” vs. Islamic “Realism,” Pt. I

While I’m not sure if the characterizations of “nominalist” and “realist” properly apply to the 11th and 12th century Muslim philosophers Al-Ghazali and Averroes,:”(Indeed, over the past several years I have found myself increasingly having to revise my early thoughts on both “nominalism” and “realism,” because both are far more complex than I realized during my early studies.)”: it seems evident to me that the two were working with some of the same categories as Medieval Christian “nominalists” and “realists.” In my next entry I will offer an exposition and commentary on a section of Averroes’ famous work The Incoherence of the Incoherence. This will represent (courtesy of a course at the University of Dallas) my first foray into Medieval Islamic philosophy.

In this entry I will offer a very brief introduction to these Arab thinkers. The first thing to understand is that the great project of “faith seeking understanding,” of the attempt to rationally explicate, as far as is possible, revealed religion, is common to all three major monotheistic religions of the world – Medieval Christians, Muslims, and Jews all engaged in it, and all were working with various construals of the Aristotelian heritage. Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas stand in their various ways on the Christian side; Al-Ghazali, Avicenna, and Averroes stand in their various ways on the Muslim side; Philo, Isaac Israeli, and Moses Maimonides stand on the Jewish side.

To me, just getting into Medieval Islamic thought for the first time, I would like to say that (provisionally) Al-Ghazali is a kind of Tertullian figure and Averroes a kind of Clement of Alexandria figure. That is, Al-Ghazali was very cautious about the utility of Greek philosophy in Muslim theological discourse. While he did not quite issue a scathing diatribe like Tertullian’s, namely, “Away with a mottled Islam…our instruction comes from the porch of Mecca,” he strongly believed that many of the Arab philosophers had compromised Islamic doctrine through uncritical acceptance of pagan ideas. On the other hand Averroes was the great Arab champion of the doctrines of Aristotle, holding, in essence, I think, that Aristotle’s philosophy was the “handmaiden” of the Koran. Again, while I wouldn’t press these parallels too far, they do seem useful at this initial stage of inquiry.

Al-Ghazali (1058-1111):”(The following provisional sketches are drawn loosely from John Marenbon, Medieval Philosophy: An Historical and Philosophical Introduction [London and New York: Routledge, 2007], and A Companion to Philosophy in the Middle Ages, ed., Jorge J.E. Gracia and Timothy B. Noone [Blackwell Publishing, Ltd., 2003.)”:

Al-Ghazali was initially a renowned legal scholar, but having studied the kalam tradition (the tradition that theological truth should be found by dialectical arguments between different sects), he was well placed to evaluate the works of the Arab Aristotelian philosophers (falasifa). His major target was Avicenna (980-1037), and his major work against the syncretizations of such men was called The Incoherence of the Philosophers.

Self-described as a passionate seeker after truth, there is some evidence that Al-Ghazali went through a similar crisis of skepticism as that of Descartes some 550 years later, but he tells us that this only lasted for a few months and that God cured him of it. After this bout, he came to see three options open to him: Ash’arite theology, Aristotelian (Avicennian) philosophy, and Sufi mysticism. His chief area of concern regarding Avicennian philosophy was the defective principles of causality which it drawn from Aristotle – especially causal necessitarianism and the lack of freedom of choice which it implied about God. Al-Ghazali was jealous to preserve God’s freedom to act in any way he wished rather than in subservience to philosophical ideas about his nature and the demands of reason. To this end, he adopted a form of “occasionalism,” which is the idea that God is the real cause of every event, those things which we tend to think of “causes” being merely conventional or accidental connections.

It is this element in particular of Al-Ghazali’s philosophy, and Averroes’ scathing response to it, which will occupy my next entry.

Averroes (1126-1198)

Also known as Ibn Rushd, Averroes spent his early life studying the religious law of Islam (the Shar’iah). His public introduction into the world of philosophy came at the behest of the elderly polymath Ibn Tufayl, who referred his prince to Averroes for a learned exposition of Aristotelian doctrine. If for Medieval Christian Scholastics Aristotle was often known simply as “The Philosopher,” Averroes’ expository and analytical output on practically every aspect of Aristotle’s corpus earned him the nickname “The Commentator.”

Averroes paid extremely close attention to Aristotle’s texts, and oftentimes took exception to the philosophical interpretations of them which had been given by his tenth / eleventh century predecessor Avicenna. Unlike other Muslims more concerned with the primacy of the Koran than philosophy, Averroes believed that Aristotle was nature’s model for final human perfection. In keeping with this, he enthusiastically embraced ideas of Aristotle’s which other pious Muslims rejected with horror – such as the eternality of the world, the non-immortality of the human soul, and God’s ability to know finite particular things.

Averroes was deterministic in his philosophy, and believed that if causal necessity of an Aristotelian type did not obtain, no knowledge of the world could be had and not just the world itself but human society in it would descend into voluntaristic (will-driven) chaos.

The major work of Averroes’ with which my next entry will be concerned is his refutation of Al-Ghazali’s The Incoherence of the Philosophers, which refutation Averroes titled, appropriately enough, The Incoherence of the Incoherence. In the selection from that work on which I will comment, I believe the seeds of what I am with great cautiousness calling “nominalism” and “realism” are clearly present.


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