The Commentator : Throughline Today the foundations of philosophy are seen as a straight line from Western antiquity, built on thinkers such as Plato and Aristotle. But, between the 8th century and 14th century, the West was greatly overshadowed by the Islamic world and philosophy was in very different hands. This week, how one Medieval Islamic philosopher put his pen to paper and shaped the modern world.

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Hey, I'm Rund Abdelfatah.


I'm Ramtin Arablouei. And on this episode, how one medieval Islamic philosopher put his pen to paper and shaped the modern world.


ARABLOUEI: As a kid growing up here in the U.S., I heard the same general story you probably did about the history of Western civilization. First, there was Greece, where they invented democracy and philosophy. Then came the Roman Empire - until it eventually fell and Europe went into the dark ages - until the Renaissance, when people like Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo basically painted and wrote Europe's way out of ignorance. I was told that this is what began the process of the world moving into the age of science and secularism. And the main characters in this story were almost always white European men.

While this tale is partially true, it leaves out a lot of details that might have made that kid version of me - and you - think differently about what we call the Western world. The truth is that between 900 and 1300, most of the world's learning and scholarship was happening in places like Baghdad, Cairo, Timbuktu and Cordoba. In those cities existed vast libraries and schools that people traveled to from all over the world to study and practice medicine, astronomy, philosophy and mathematics. The people of Islamic lands created a canon of medicine that was used in Europe until the 1800s. They developed algebra and even invented the first corrective lenses.

It was the golden age of Islam, and that's where we're going to go in this episode - to meet a Spanish Muslim thinker whose story shows us just how much Islamic philosophy influenced the shaping of what we now call the Western world.


IGOR: Hello. This is Igor (ph) from Kigali, Rwanda, and you're listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR.


ARABLOUEI: We're going to start this story by discussing a painting - not just any painting, it's one of the most famous of the Renaissance period in Europe. It's called The School of Athens, and it's by the artist Raphael. It's colorful and bold and depicts all the great philosophers who influenced the thinkers of the Renaissance.

ROBERT PASNAU: At the center of the image are Plato and Aristotle striding forward. And then fanning out somewhat behind them in the wings are a whole host of minor philosophical figures. And one can go through and identify who these folk are in various ways.

ARABLOUEI: Socrates, Pythagoras, Euclid, Ptolemy - and they're all depicted as you'd expect. They're white men dressed in European robes. But then just beneath them in the bottom left portion of the painting is someone who immediately sticks out. He's dark-skinned with a green robe and a yellow turban and a big mustache. He's looking over the shoulder of someone who is writing in a book. His hand is pressed against his chest in a mix of veneration and awe.

ABDELFATAH: His name is Abu al-Walid Muhammad ibn Ahmad ibn Muhammad ibn Rushd, or, as he came to be known in the West...

ARABLOUEI: Averroes.

PASNAU: So Averroes is a figure of the 12th century living at a time at which Islam had already expanded incredibly from its beginnings in the Saudi peninsula.

ARABLOUEI: In just a few hundred years, the Islamic world spread all the way east to India and west to the Iberian Peninsula in Europe.

PASNAU: Islam was the dominant cultural force over a lot of the world at that point.

ARABLOUEI: Averroes was born in 1126 in Cordoba, a city in what we today call Spain. By the time he was born, Spain had been ruled by an Islamic caliphate for hundreds of years. Today it's easy to imagine him as a Middle Eastern man. But really...

PASNAU: He was just an ordinary European. It's just that, at this time, Europe was not entirely a Christian continent.

ARABLOUEI: This is Robert Pasnau.

PASNAU: I'm a professor of philosophy at the University of Colorado in Boulder.

ARABLOUEI: Robert explained that southern Spain at that time was...

PASNAU: Was an extremely complicated mix of different religions, of different languages. This was just the normal situation.

ARABLOUEI: Historians don't know a lot of details about Averroes' upbringing, but we do know he received a formal education in all kinds of subjects and grew up to practice many of them.

PASNAU: He was a jurist. He was a physician. He was an important political adviser. He was a scientist, a mathematician. But what he's most famous for, of course, is for being a philosopher.

ARABLOUEI: During this time, Averroes was an obscure but respected philosophical thinker.

PASNAU: People thought of Averroes as being way out in the provinces in Spain, which was the hinterlands of the Islamic world, and he was important enough among his contemporaries that, within a short time after his death, most of his writings, indeed, were translated into Latin, into Hebrew. You could say he was world-famous.

ABDELFATAH: So, I mean, you mentioned he was a doctor and a scholar and a judge and, I mean, a true renaissance man - right? - before the term renaissance probably existed. But, I mean, what was it about his philosophical outlook that distinguished him at that time from other philosophers?

PASNAU: Well, what distinguished him and what made him so controversial to future generations is that he thought that religion and philosophy didn't need to be set apart as distinct domains, that one could do philosophy in a full-throated, rigorous way and follow the arguments to where they lead and still be religious and not have to see these as being in any way in tension.

MOHAMED EL-BARDISI: (Reading) That the law summons to reflection on beings and the pursuit of knowledge about them by the intellect is clear from several verses of the book of God, such as the saying, reflect; you have vision.

PASNAU: And he thought that the true philosophy, the philosophy that he spent his life pursuing, was the philosophy of Aristotle. So he dedicated much of his life to trying to understand Aristotle's philosophy, and he just flatly insisted that there was no incompatibility between the teachings of Aristotle and the teachings of Islam.

EL-BARDISI: (Reading) To master this instrument, the religious thinker must make a preliminary study of logic just as the lawyer must study legal reasoning. This is no more heretical in one case than in the other, and logic must be learned from the ancient masters regardless of the fact that they were not Muslim.

ARABLOUEI: How would he have come across Aristotle's work?

PASNAU: Yeah, right? I mean, that's a great question, and to ask that question really requires kind of re-appreciating the history of Western philosophy. At this time, Europe was kind of a provincial backwater in a lot of ways. The real intellectual heart of things was eastward in the area of Baghdad in the Middle East, which was the heart of the Islamic world. Aristotle was first translated out of Greek. You might think, well, he would have first been translated into Latin, but that's, in general, not the case. In general, Aristotle was first translated into Arabic.

The Arabic tradition and the Islamic world was the first tradition outside of Greek culture to really sink their teeth into Aristotle, to really try to come to grips with his ideas, to translate his ideas into their own language. And so it was in that way, via of these Arabic translations that spread all through the Islamic world - those were the translations that Averroes was using.

ABDELFATAH: What was it in Aristotle's work that really captured his interest?

PASNAU: He saw in Aristotle what a lot of people thought they saw in Aristotle, which is, here is a completely comprehensive - if you - like, a theory of everything.

MATIAS BLANCO, BYLINE: (Reading) The natural way of doing this is to start from the things which are more knowable and obvious to us and proceed towards those which are clear and more knowable by nature.

PASNAU: Aristotle was completely remarkable in that he thought that he could bring all of intellectual inquiry under a kind of systematic organizing field of study. So he studied biology. He studied logic. He invented logic.

BLANCO: (Reading) Now what is to plain and obvious at first is rather confused masses, the elements and principles of which became known to us by aid or analysis.

PASNAU: He studied politics. He studied ethics. He studied metaphysics, epistemology. He studied the philosophy of science and the proper principles for conducting science and on and on and on. For every field of study, Aristotle had a systematic account.

BLANCO: (Reading) One thing alone not even God can do - to make undone whatever hath been done.

PASNAU: One of the distinctive features of Aristotle's thought, particularly in comparison to a lot of later, more religious thinking, is that Aristotle really gives very little weight to the hand of God as playing some sort of special role in defining human affairs. Aristotle believed there was a first mover. In some sense Aristotle, believed in a God, but Aristotle didn't think that we should use those sorts of principles to try to construct our philosophical theories. Instead, he thought we needed to look at the principles of nature, and this was extremely important to Averroes. He thought that those are exactly the correct philosophical principles and that we should do philosophy in a way that's not constantly making appeals to religious doctrine.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: God would never give us reason, then give us divine laws that contradict such reason.

PASNAU: You know, that was controversial, and in the eyes of Islamic folk who were of a more sort of aggressively religious bent, that looked extremely controversial to them.

ABDELFATAH: Why would that have been so controversial?

PASNAU: Well, it's because it leads Aristotle and then it led Averroes to a lot of doctrines that, on their face, did not seem to fit very well with Islam and, for that matter, nor with Christianity. For instance, Aristotle argued that the world never had a beginning; it's always infinitely existed. Averroes endorsed that conclusion, endorsed Aristotle's arguments, tried even to make Aristotle's arguments stronger. And a lot of folk in the Muslim world just thought that's incompatible with the faith, that Muslim teaching requires thinking that the world was created by God at a certain time, finite many years ago.

But Averroes said, look - there's nothing in Islam that requires supposing that the world has only been around for a finite period of time. And Averroes even put forward the somewhat paradoxical sounding notion that even if you think the world has always existed, you could still think that God is the creator of that world. That puzzled people.


ARABLOUEI: I see why it might have puzzled philosophers at that time, but why did it create so much concern? Like, what were they afraid of?

PASNAU: Well, the worry is, is that if you study the natural world just using reason, using experience, you don't know what sorts of results you're going to get; you don't know what the answers are going to be. You might find yourself arriving at answers that are flatly inconsistent with your religious faith.

And so for some people, that sort of methodology was just unacceptable and that the only safe way to approach scholarship was an approach that began with the religious texts and used those as sort of guide rails, if you like, for studying the natural world. Averroes just flatly insisted that that sort of approach was not necessary, that we could, as it were, let the chips fall where they may and that we could pursue the study of nature using purely philosophical methods and that, if what we're arriving at is the truth, then it will be in sync with the religious truth because truths don't conflict.


ARABLOUEI: What were the stakes for him? Like, what were the consequences he could face and he did face as a result of putting forth this stuff?

PASNAU: Yeah, he - Averroes did run into trouble. Now, we don't know - we're not sure about exactly why. It's natural for us to think that his philosophical teachings got him into trouble. But some people have thought that he got into trouble for more sort of mundane political reasons. That's unclear. We do know that he was exiled for a while.

ABDELFATAH: Exiled from where?

PASNAU: Exiled from Cordoba. And he had to spend time in some more remote places in Spain. It's the kind of thing that he could have been put to death for.


PASNAU: It's the sort of thing that did happen to other people. It didn't happen to him; he was just thrown out of town for a while. But by the end of his life, he was back in good graces with the rulers in Cordoba. But yeah, it illustrates the kind of precarious nature of someone who's putting forth these kinds of seemingly radical ideas.


ARABLOUEI: Averroes dies. But his ideas are reborn in Paris and London - when we come back.


ARABLOUEI: So Averroes spends his life in and out of trouble with the authorities and scholars in Spain, and he dies in 1198. With that, his influence quickly wanes in the Islamic world. But it was just the beginning for his ideas in Europe.

PASNAU: This was precisely the point in time in which in Northern Europe universities were beginning. The University of Paris and the University of Oxford opened their doors. The notion of universities arranged like this was a novel thing. The way Oxford and Paris were organized was something brand new. It was an attempt to provide a secular education, bringing together faculties of scholars. And they had to agree on a common curriculum, and it was completely unclear for a while what that common curriculum would look like. But what they eventually settled on is that the common curriculum would consist of Aristotle and Averroes' commentaries.


PASNAU: And so for all of the 13th into the 14th century and beyond, a university education just was an education in Aristotle with Averroes as The Commentator by his side, and that's really the thing that gave these texts and gave the person of Averroes that sort of fame that he had in Europe.

ABDELFATAH: All right. So by the time his work makes its way into European universities, he's known as Averroes, sometimes even just The Commentator, right? That was the nickname he was given. But his real name was Arabic.


ABDELFATAH: And I wonder, was there some effort to hide his Islamic identity or kind of rebrand him in order to introduce his work in the European academic setting? Because I imagine there would be some hostility towards Islamic scholars in medieval Europe.

PASNAU: No, I don't think so. I think, in fact, your question, in a way, is taking the modern perspective on this situation, as if there's something problematic about an Islamic source for these figures. The reality is, really, that this was a much more multicultural time, and it just seemed perfectly natural to people that they would take this material from a source that was a non-Christian source.

I mean, admittedly, as soon as Averroes got into territory where there seemed to be a conflict with Christianity, people would, of course, point out, well, you know, he's a Muslim, so, you know, we shouldn't take him seriously on this topic. But they said the same thing about Aristotle, too, and I really think if you look at the actual texts from this period, there's very little indication that there was much animus against Islamic sources. They were taking material from whatever source they can find, and they were happy to use it.

And I think perhaps part of it is because - I mentioned before that Europe was something of a backwater, and Christians in Europe did not necessarily see themselves as the intellectual elites of civilization. They were well aware that, in many respects, the Islamic world was far ahead of them - in technology, in learning, economically - that that had been the case for quite a while. And so it just didn't strike people as strange that they would be learning so much from an Islamic source.

We think of Europe as a distinct kind of place and category, and we define something called European civilization or Western civilization. They didn't have that category. They had a picture of civilization that ran through Africa, that ran into the Middle East and then, you know, made its way into Europe.

ARABLOUEI: So going back to Averroes, through his ideas making it into what you describe as the beginning of medieval universities and libraries, did he live on through his influence of philosophers that studied at those universities?

PASNAU: Oh, yeah, absolutely. I mean, when you read someone like Thomas Aquinas in the later 13th century, who was born just a few decades after Averroes' death, you see the influence of Averroes all over his writing, and that extends all the way through the middle ages all the way into the modern period. It's everywhere.

Now, it became controversial. By that time, people were worried about Averroes, that he'd had too much influence, and you can see the thought that the Christian tradition needed to go back to the pure strains of antiquity and get Plato and Aristotle themselves in full color, not as interpreted by The Commentator. They re-translated Aristotle. They tried to get rid of Averroes' commentary from the texts. They translated Plato for the first time. Plato had never been translated into Latin. That was a Renaissance achievement to do that.

ARABLOUEI: So essentially, Averroes' writing goes from being widely read and influential in the medieval period and acknowledged - right? - but then in the Renaissance period, the trend kind of reverses, where people are downplaying his influence. Is that right?

PASNAU: Yeah, that's right. I mean, it was a struggle. It's not as if everyone was reading him in the 13th and 14th century and then everybody stopped during the Renaissance. Averroes had his critics early on. He had his champions. The phrase Averroist is often used throughout this period to describe people who are fans of Averroes and influenced by his thought to a degree that some would characterize as excessive. It was often a term of condemnation to call someone an Averroist. It's - at some point in the Renaissance, certainly, the balance starts to shift, and Averroes starts to become less and less influential.

ABDELFATAH: And is this because of his philosophy or just who he was?

PASNAU: It did not happen on the philosophical merits. It's not as if anybody showed that Averroes' views were, you know, faulty or somehow less worth of study than people used to think. I mean, it was part a matter of prejudice, but there's definitely a part of it that's a change in worldview and a privileging of Greek antiquity and a diminishment of other traditions. You know, that's a legacy that endures to this day.


ARABLOUEI: The modern legacy of Averroes in the Islamic world and the West when we come back.


ABDELFATAH: So I'm just wondering how his legacy in the Islamic world compares to his legacy in the West, which initially was one of kind of celebrity and eventually obscurity. But, you know, in comparison, how did his legacy play out in the Islamic world?

PASNAU: Well, that's a somewhat sad part of the story. He had this enormous triumph in Europe for quite a long time. In the Islamic world, he didn't get nearly so much attention. He was not regarded as one of the great philosophical figures, and that seems to be because his ideas were just so out of step with how things were going within Islam.

Philosophy within Islam was extremely controversial, much more so than in the European context. Within Christian Europe, philosophy was accepted as an important part of an education. Culture in Islam went in a very different direction; it went in a much more religious direction, and universities in the Islamic context were invariably religious universities. It's not that there was no philosophy by any means in the Islamic world; there was a lot of philosophy in the Islamic world, but it was - it did not have the prestige or the autonomy that it had in Christian Europe. Averroes was a victim of that. His ideas did not get the hearing in Islam that they did in Europe.


ARABLOUEI: Without Averroes and his commentary on Aristotle, would we have the modern, secular, kind of science-based world we live in today? Was his influence that big, that we're kind of living with the legacy of his work?

PASNAU: It would certainly be different. I love that question. In fact, I've sometimes wanted to hold a whole conference...



PASNAU: ...In which we devote ourselves to these kind of counterfactual questions - what would have happened if such and such had been the case?


PASNAU: Or if so-and-so hadn't lived?

ABDELFATAH: I would attend that conference.

ARABLOUEI: Let us know if you do.



ARABLOUEI: We'll both come.

PASNAU: So I love questions like that. Obviously, you just have to make it up in answering it, and so it kind of goes against my scholarly inclinations. But it's kind of funny. I mean, we've been talking about Averroes' influence in insisting on the autonomy of philosophy, and I was just saying that that didn't really take hold in the Islamic world. It did take hold in the Christian world, and I think ironically Averroes is one of the most important voices who made that case. Ironic because, as a Muslim, he was having that kind of influence in the Christian world even though he wasn't in the Islamic world.

And so I think that's the place where Averroes really had an impact. He set this example for how philosophy ought to be done. And by the force of his very long, formidable philosophical texts, he set this sort of standard for how one ought to approach philosophy without worrying about the religious implications.


PASNAU: It's an argument that simply won in the Christian world. It shaped the whole future of European intellectual history.

ABDELFATAH: So even if he's not there in name anymore as much, in the way that Aristotle is, he's definitely there in ideas and spirit?

PASNAU: Yeah. I mean, I'd like to say he won that argument, but maybe the battle's still going on. You know, sometimes it feels as if maybe these issues haven't entirely been decided. But I think he is certainly one of the leading voices for the autonomy of intellectual inquiry and the notion that philosophical thinking is something that we should teach young people, that we should encourage them to follow their ideas wherever they may lead.


ARABLOUEI: That's it for this week's show. I'm Ramtin Arablouei.

ABDELFATAH: I'm Rund Abdelfatah. And you've been listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR.

ARABLOUEI: This episode was produced by me.

ABDELFATAH: And me. And...





N'JERI EATON, BYLINE: (Laughter) OK, smizing and somber - N'Jeri Eaton.

ARABLOUEI: Thanks also to Anya Grundmann, Lu Olkowski and Jason Fuller.

ABDELFATAH: Our music was composed by Ramtin and his band Drop Electric.

ARABLOUEI: Fact-checking for this episode was done by Kevin Vogel (ph). And a big thank-you to Mohamed El-Bardisi (ph) and Matthias Blanco (ph) for playing Averroes and Aristotle. If you like something you heard or you have an idea for an episode, please write us or hit us up on Twitter at @throughlinenpr.

ABDELFATAH: Thanks for listening.


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