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Volume 13, Number 10December 1962

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Master Of Logic

From Islamic Spain a beacon of enlightenment pierced the haze of ignorance and superstition that clouded Europe in the twelfth century.

The tall, grey-bearded man in the scholar's robe smiled indulgently at the twelve-year-old boy who was speaking so gravely. "This son of our distinguished host," he was musing, "thinks he can define a point of logic that has baffled Spain's best philosophers." As with the others in the learned circle, good manners kept him quiet. But as the boy brought his argument home to an irrefutable conclusion, the silence spoke of profound respect for a master logician. His arm around the boy's shoulder, the grey-bearded scholar turned to the host. "Be proud of your son," he said. "This boy has the finest mind in Spain."

The compliment offered was no small one. For this was said in the twelfth century, when Spain was often thought of as the most enlightened country in Europe. The twelve-year-old Abu al-Walid Muhammad ibn Ahmad ibn Rushd was surrounded by an assembly of philosophers, artists, historians, poets, scholars of a brilliance that has never been surpassed. When the Spanish Caliphate ranged from lush Andalusia to the northern mountains, the culture and civilization of Spain were like a warming beacon to the surrounding cold and darkness of the continent. The rest of Europe was still trying to struggle out of the miasma of the Dark Ages, when the conquerer and soldier were the only admirable figures. Only in Islamic Spain was a man of learning and creative thinking held in high esteem.

The youngster who spoke so boldly in his father's house grew up to crown with his personality and achievements the tree of learning his ancestors had planted. For centuries, in Cordova, which was Spain's center of scholarship, his forebears had been judges, physicians, scholars and respected members of the intelligentsia. Their name was already high in the annals of the learned. The boy was eagerly received by the teachers in the Cordovan schools, who felt that here was a mind they could ripen to a fine level of development. But it wasn't long before the youngster was explaining theology to the theologians, law to the lawyers, mathematics to the mathematicians, medicine to the physicians.

His real learning came from the books he devoured in his own time. Soon his questing mind found one line of thought to which it returned time and again. Philosophy seemed to the youngster to hold the answers not only to the meaning of life, but the ethics by which a man could live and make his own life meaningful. Thus he discovered Aristotle. He ranged through the entire spectrum of great thinkers of the past. He read the dialogues and discussions of them all. He was impressed by the vaulting imagination of Plato. But always he came back to Aristotle. It seemed to the young Spanish Muslim that Aristotle, of all the brilliant thinkers, had been of the greatest service in furthering man's knowledge, for the Greek had set down the principles of logic—that science that forced man to explain his world in terms of what he could see and prove. Long accepted explanations derived from folklore or superstition were disallowed.

While he was eagerly absorbing all the intellectual riches of the Aristotelian system, he was also under the obligation of choosing a profession for himself. He had been officially certified as a master in all the courses he had studied, but none really appealed to him as a life work. He thought astronomy might be the answer and went to Morocco to study at the celebrated North African observatory. But he found this was not his course either and chose the one which seemed the most immediately useful. He became a physician.

Even here his enthusiasm for the logic of Aristotle took over. Aristotle had studied the world from observable facts; his young follower did the same. He used the observations of a practicing physician to formulate a new theory of medicine, which he wrote down in a scientific treatise called Universal Medicine.

This was the beginning of fame for the man who later became called the "Master of Cordova." Because Latin was still the cultured language of Europe, and in fact was still current in high circles in Spain, Abu Walid was better known by the Latinized form of his name: Averroes.

The physician Averroes was summoned to the court of the Caliph Yusuf, a cultured man who surrounded himself with the finest minds in Spain. At first it was Averroes' healing skill which the Caliph sought, but when the Caliph found his physician could also untangle the most knotty points of law, Averroes was asked to stay. So attached to Averroes did the Caliph become that he began affectionately referring to the physician-lawyer as "my wizard."

High indeed was the place to which Averroes was raised, but the very height brought its dangers. There were men at the court envious of his close relationship with the Caliph, and jealous of the fact that Averroes had been appointed to judgeships in Seville and Cordova. So much honor to one man was more than petty minds could tolerate.

There was another, greater danger which the narrow-minded felt emanated from the Caliph's wizard. The Caliph Yusuf was intrigued by Aristotle, and when he found how much of Averroes' discoveries stemmed from the philosopher's influence, he asked his wizard to write an analysis of the Greek's philosophy. The analysis grew into a series of scholarly works whose remarkable insight caused Averroes to be known throughout Spain as "the Aristotelian."

For instance, the logical mind of Averroes was able to present clearly the meaning of Aristotle's great invention, the syllogism. This is a logical scheme of formal argument. It consists of three propositions, called the major premise, the minor premise and the conclusion. As an example: Every virtue is laudable; kindness is a virtue; therefore kindness is laudable. The whole Iberian peninsula, both within the borders of the Spanish Caliphate and outside it, gratefully seized upon Averroes' clarification of these and other Aristotelian thoughts. But at the height of his fame, Averroes was being mentioned as a dangerous thinker who was best ignored. His detractors waited their chance, and when the Caliph Yusuf died, they persuaded the new Caliph, a rather naive man, that the Aristotelian was really a dangerous influence. Averroes was promptly exiled from court.

But his exile did nothing to dim the lustre of his name. He was still the Master of Cordova. Beyond the borders of the Caliphate his name was Hispanized to Aven Ruiz. And even beyond those borders his works carried their message of enlightenment. The eager boy was now grown to a tall, lean, piercing-eyed man, with a hawk-like nose and wide forehead, and wherever he went he was hailed with respect and affection for his work in spreading the thinking of the man he regarded as his master and real teacher.

Despite the stagnation of the Dark Ages, there were those in Europe who were looking for intellectual enlightenment. To this segment, welcoming the riches of classical Greek thought, Aristotle was known simply as "the philosopher." For further understanding of that great mind, they seized on the published works of Averroes. And throughout France, Italy, England, Germany and other European countries the Islamic philosopher became known as "the Commentator." Whole cults of Averroist followers sprang up, identifying themselves with the Master of Cordova and with the systems of thought he had evolved from his Aristotelian studies. One group, calling themselves the Latin Averroists, made a whole school of philosophy out of one idea developed by "the Commentator."

Averroes himself was not interested in cults or in mere segments of his philosophy. More important to him than any concept was the system of thinking that lay behind it. He opened to the world the mind of Aristotle, father of logic, who made philosophy rigorously rational, who demanded that every step of an argument be guaranteed by strict logical reasoning. What might have seemed cold and inhuman became, in the hands of the Master of Cordova, a warm, bursting cornucopia of thought that, far from restricting original thinking, opened up new intellectual and human possibilities. A current of speculation on all aspects of living began to trickle through the Middle Ages, shining forth brilliantly in the Renaissance.

Averroes, at the age of 70, was welcomed back to the court of the Caliph in Cordova. Two years later, in 1198, he died. The poet Dante paid simple tribute a century later in these words: "Averroes, who wrote the great commentaries."

This article appeared on pages 10-11 of the December 1962 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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