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Who was Avicenna?

Avicenna (980-1037) was a Persian physician and commentator on Aristotle. He was born near Bukhara, which was then the capital of the Samanid dynasty (located in present-day Uzbekistan). By the age of 10, he had mastery of the Qu'ran and Arabic grammar and literature. By 16, he was highly knowledgeable about natural science, metaphysics, and theories of medicine. He also treated the sick and helped the Samanid prince Nuh Ibn Mansur (976-997). His reward for that was access to the prince's library.

Avicenna became an expert on the writings of Aristotle, wrote extensive commentaries, and also produced many treatises of his own on science, religion, and philosophy. His medical encyclopedia, Al-Shifa (The Healing) was based on Aristotle's work, and his Al Qanun fi Tibb (The Canon of Medicine), written when he was 21, became famous throughout the Middle East and Europe. As an Aristotelian interpreter, he was well known for claiming that the universality of our ideas is a product of the mind.

He was not a complete nominalist about universals, however, because he thought that there were differences and similarities among things of the same kind, which existed independently of thought. The products of thought were the formal qualities of things. This doctrine, known as intellectus in formis agit universalitatem, neatly corresponded with Aristotle's claim that scientific knowledge consisted in truths about forms or essences. However, although Avicenna's interpretation of Aristotle seemed to be rather staid and unoriginal, his claim that it could be reconciled with Islam was soon challenged by al-Gazali (1058-1111); and in the generation after that it was radically revised, along with al-Gazali's objections, by Averroes (c. 1126-c. 1198).

Who was al-Ghazali?

Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (1058-1111) was a philosopher, theologian, jurist, and Sufi mystic. Born in the Middle Eastern region of Khurisan (or Khorasan), and educated in the intellectual center of Nishaur, he became head of Nizamiyah, a seminary in Baghdad, where his teachings in law and theology were renowned. He sought certainty in knowledge, and when he could not find it in his academic studies he resigned his academic post, left his family, and became a Sufi mystic. He wandered for a decade and, as the result of those experiences, returned to Nishapur to resume teaching.

Al-Ghazali came to believe that truth can be found only as the result of God's grace. In Deliverance from Error, his spiritual autobiography, he related his futile quest for truth and certainty through both Islamic and Western intellectual traditions and concluded that sensory information and reason were just as lacking. His alternative to rational and sensory knowledge was "a light which God Most High cast into my breast ... the key to most knowledge."

His attack on philosophical authorities as a guide to truth and certainty, particularly in the writings of Avicenna (980-1037), culminated in The Intensions of the Philosophers. And in The Incoherence of the Philosophers he offered a detailed intellectual attack on the views of Plato and Aristotle, which was again directed against Avicenna.

What is Sufism?

Sufism is the mystical branch of Islam. Its classical period, or "Golden Age," was from 1000 to 1500. Sufism is believed to have branched out from Baghdad to spread through Persia, India, North Africa, and Spain. The movement supported lodges and hospices for students, Sufi adepts, and others visiting on retreat. Sufi practitioners

The Persian philosopher Avicenna was an erudite commentator on the philosophy of Aristotle, among other talents (Art Archive).

The Persian philosopher Avicenna was an erudite commentator on the philosophy of Aristotle, among other talents (Art Archive).

were expected to go through different levels of spirituality. First were the "stations," requiring acts of will and actions to suppress individual egos and attachment to and desire for worldly things. This would lead to God's grace. Once God's grace was granted it could be experienced individually as love, mystical knowledge, or the loss of ego consciousness.

Sufism began as a marginal practice but was accepted by Islamic leaders in the eleventh century, mainly through al-Gazali's (1058-1111) efforts. Sufism then developed along distinct practical and intellectual directions. The practical paths required training in religious formulas and initiation into orders. It was accompanied by many fraternal and social organizations that continue in the present Islamic world.

The intellectual path developed philosophical terminology and absorbed Neoplatonic influences, culminating in Ibn Arabi's (d. 1240) system of theosophy. Within that system, God was held to be the only being. Everything else in existence was the result of his self-manifestation. The individual who could identify with all of God's self-manifestations would have the goal of becoming The Perfect Man, thus far attained only by the Prophet Muhammad. It is perhaps ironic that this intellectual path of Sufism developed when al-Gazali had embraced Sufism as part of a belief that knowledge and reasoning was not a reliable way to experience God.

Why was Averroés considered important by other philosophers?

Averroes, known as ibn-Rushd in the Islamic world (c. 1126-c. 1198), was born in Córdoba, Spain. He brought the tradition of comparative philosophy—begun by Avicenna and rendered problematic by al-Gazali—to a new level of intellectual sophistication. His main project was to settle the debate among his contemporaries about whether

Aristotle's philosophy was compatible with Islam, as Avicenna had claimed, or opposed to it as al-Galzali (1058-1111) had objected.

What was impressive about Averroés' life and work?

Averroes (c. 1126-c. 1198) was born into a prominent family of lawyers and judges and was himself trained as a lawyer in both civil and religious affairs. He traveled from córdoba to Marrakesh in 1153 and decided that Aristotle had been correct in stating that the world was round when he was able to observe canope, a star not visible in Spain. He served as

Averroes continued the work of Avicenna, commenting on the debate about Aristotle an philosophy and its compatibility with Islam (Art Archive).

Averroes continued the work of Avicenna, commenting on the debate about Aristotle an philosophy and its compatibility with Islam (Art Archive).

both advisor and doctor to the sultan of Marrakesh, who encouraged a series of commentaries on Aristotle. His writings include treatises on medicine and astronomy, but he is best known for his The Incoherence of Incoherence, which was a reply to al-Gazali's (1058-1111) The Incoherence of the Philosophers. In his Incoherence of Incoherence, Averroes defended natural reason as a means to attain knowledge in all domains. By natural reason Averroes, and others after him, meant ordinary thought processes rather than religious intuition or revelation.

Averroes also wrote a set of commentaries on Aristotle that was influential in Western medieval scholarship. When his interpretations of Aristotle did not square with his own assumptions, he wrote detailed "supplements" of his own. For example, Aristotle's Physics and On the Heavens were composed as two separate works and based on different types of observations. Under Plato's influence, Averroes assumed that they were united.

What were Averroes most noteworthy ideas?

Overall, Averroes' (c. 1126-c. 1198) Aristotelian views were shaped by Platonic ideas, partly because he mistakenly believed that the whole of ancient Greek thought was one unified system that had been composed cooperatively. He also believed that, according to Aristotle, all of the sciences could be studied with the same meaning of "being," whereas Aristotle had insisted that the sciences were diverse and their subject matter inherently different. Averroes viewed all of nature as one harmonious order. On the subject of immortality, this holism was related to his idea that individual souls are not distinguished from one another after death, but combine into one form.

Averroes also interpreted Aristotle as claiming that Earth was eternal, which was against Christian doctrine of the creation. In On the Harmony between Religion and Philosophy, Averroes tried to show that the same truth can be reached through different means: dialectic in law, philosophy for those skilled in the use of pure reason, and rhetoric for those with only a general education.

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