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Opinion | The Muslims Who Inspired Spinoza, Locke and Defoe

What is less known is that Ibn Rushd also sought to harmonize his philosophical insights with Islamic law — the Shariah. At the core of Ibn Rushd’s effort was the vision of Ibn Tufayl’s philosophical novel: Religion and reason were both independent sources of wisdom. Religion had its written laws, while reason had its unwritten laws, the universal principles of justice, mercy or thankfulness. When there was a conflict between these two, Ibn Rushd argued, written laws of religion should be reinterpreted as they were inevitably bound with context.

Ibn Rushd applied this vision to the debate on jihad, criticizing the militant Muslims of his time who called for jihad “until they uproot and destroy entirely whoever disagrees with them.” He saw that position as reflecting “ignorance on their part of the intention of the legislator,” or God, who could not have reasonably willed “the great harm” of war.

He used the same perspective to critique the enfeebling of women in medieval Muslim society, which was a result of the denial of their intellectual capacity. He did his best to advance the most women-friendly views in Islamic jurisprudence: Women had the right to refuse polygamy, enjoy equal right to divorce, avoid the face veil, or to become judges.

Ibn Rushd’s other key contribution to modern Europe was his call for open debate, where views are freely expressed and rationally measured. “You should always, when presenting a philosophical argument, cite the views of your opponents,” he wrote. “Failure to do so is an implicit acknowledgment of the weakness of your own case.” The late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, a towering intellectual we lost last year, had traced how Ibn Rushd’s insight was picked up by the 17th-century Rabbi Judah Loew of Prague, John Milton and John Stuart Mill.

Yet conservatives in Islamic Spain abhorred Ibn Rushd’s indulgence in philosophy and accused him of being a polytheist after he cited a Greek philosopher who was a worshiper of Venus. He was publicly humiliated, exiled and forced into house imprisonment. His books on philosophy were burned. They survived in Hebrew or Latin translations in Europe, but most of the Arabic originals were lost.

This loss has had grim consequences for Muslims. Powerful orthodoxies in the Islamic world — although parochialism and bigotry have proliferated in other communities as well — are still denying values distilled from the “unwritten laws” of humanity: human rights, religious liberty, or gender equality. They rather preach blind obedience to old verdicts, without asking “why and how,” and without deploying reason and conscience. The result is a troubling religiosity that relies on coercion instead of freedom, and generates moralism instead of morality.

The way forward for the Islamic world lies in reconciling faith and reason. A good first step would be to reconsider what Ibn Tufayl’s “Hayy ibn Yaqzan” and the works of Ibn Rushd were trying to tell us.


Mustafa Akyol, a contributing opinion writer, is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. This essay is excerpted from his forthcoming book, “Reopening Muslim Minds: A Return to Reason, Freedom, and Tolerance.”

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