Eric Voegelin on Averroes (Ibn Rushd)

In his Incoherence of the Incoherence (Ar. تهافت التهافت‎), Ibn Rushd, known to the West as Averroes, included a severe warning against spreading knowledge among the common people that was beyond their capacity to understand:

الكلام في علم البارئ تعالى بذاته وبغيره ممّا يحرّم على طريق الجدل في حال المناظرة فضلا عن أن يثبت في كتاب ؛ فإنّه لا تنتهي أفهام الجمهور إلى مثل هذه الدقائق ، وإذا خيض معهم في هذا بطل معنى الإلهيّة عندهم ؛ فلذلك كان الخوض في هذا العلم محرّما عليهم ؛ إذ كان الكافي في سعادتهم أن يفهموا من ذلك ما أطاقته أفهامهم ، ولذلك لم يقتصر الشرع ـ الذي قصده الأوّل تعليم الجمهور في تفهيم هذه الأشياء في البارئ تعالى ـ بوجودها في الإنسان كما قال تعالى : ( لِمَ تَعْبُدُ ما لا يَسْمَعُ وَلا يُبْصِرُ وَلا يُغْنِي عَنْكَ شَيْئاً ) بل واضطرّ إلى تفهيم معان في البارئ تعالى بتمثيلها في الجوارح الإنسانيّة مثل قوله تعالى : ( أَوَلَمْ يَرَوْا أَنَّا خَلَقْنا لَهُمْ مِمَّا عَمِلَتْ أَيْدِينا أَنْعاماً فَهُمْ لَها مالِكُونَ ) وقوله : ( خَلَقْتُ بِيَدَيَ ) فهذه المسألة هي خاصّة بالعلماء الراسخين الذين أطلعهم الله على الحقائق

ولذلك لا يجب أن تثبت في كتاب إلاّ في الموضوعة على الطريق البرهانيّ ، وهي التي شأنها أن تقرأ على ترتيب بعد تحصيل آخر يضيق على أكثر الناس النظر فيها على النحو البرهانيّ إذا كان ذا فطرة فائقة مع قلّة وجود هذه الفطرة في الناس.

فالكلام في هذه الأشياء مع الجمهور هو بمنزلة من يسقي السموم أبدان كثير من الحيوانات التي تلك الأشياء سموم لها فإنّ السموم إنّما هي أمور مضافة ؛ فإنّه قد يكون سمّا في حقّ حيوان شيء هو غذاء في حقّ حيوان آخر ، وهكذا الأمر في الآراء مع الإنسان

ولكن إذا تعدّى الشرير الجاهل فسقى السمّ من هو في حقّه سمّ على أنّه
غذاء ، فقد ينبغي على الطبيب أن يجتهد بضاعته في شفائه ، ولذلك استجزنا نحن التكلّم في مثل هذه الكلّيّات ، وإلاّ فما كنّا نرى أنّ ذلك يجوز لنا ، بل هو من أكبر المعاصي أو من أكبر الفساد في الأرض ، وعقاب المفسدين معلوم بالشريعة ، وإذا لم يكن بدّ من الكلام في هذه المسألة

Considering the “murder of God” that was committed in Western society when the progressivist “vulgar” got their fingers on the meaning of human existence in society and history, one must admit that Averroes had a point.

A tolerable and somewhat free rendering of that passage in English, adapted from a translation by Simon De Bergh, reads:

The problem concerning the knowledge of the Creator of Himself and of other things is one of those questions which it is forbidden to discuss in a dialectical way, let alone put them down in a book, for the understanding of the masses does not suffice to understand such subtleties, and when one embarks on such problems with them the meaning of divinity becomes void for them and therefore it is forbidden to them to occupy themselves with this knowledge, since it suffices for their blessedness to understand what is within their grasp. The Holy Law, the first intention of which is the instruction of the masses, does not confine itself to the explanation of these things in the Creator by making them understood through their existence in human beings, for instance by the Divine Words: ‘Why dost thou worship what can neither hear nor see nor avail thee aught?’, ‘ but enforces the real understanding of these entities in the Creator by comparing them even to the human limbs, for instance in the Divine Words: ‘Or have they not seen that we have created for them of what our hands have made for them, cattle and they are owners thereof?’ and the Divine Words, ‘I have created with my two hands’. This problem indeed is reserved for the men versed in profound knowledge to whom God has permitted the sight of the true realities.

And therefore it must not be mentioned in any books except those that are composed according to a strictly rational pattern, that is, such books as must be read in a rational order and after the acquisition of other sciences the study of which according to a demonstrative method is too difficult for most men, even for those who possess by nature a sound understanding, although such men are very scarce.

So to discuss these questions with the masses is like bringing poisons to the bodies of many animals, for which they are real poisons. Poisons, however, are relative, and what is poison for one animal is nourishment for another. The same applies to ideas in relation to men; that is, there are ideas which are poison for one type of men, but which are nourishment for another type.

And the man who regards all ideas as fit for all types of men is like one who gives all things as nourishment for all people; the man, however, who forbids free inquiry to the mature is like one who regards all nourishment as poison for everyone. But this is not correct, for there are things which are poison for one type of man and nourishment for another type. ‘And the man who brings poison to him for whom it is really poison merits punishment, although it may be nourishment for another, and similarly the man who forbids poison to a man for whom it is really nourishment so that this man may die without it, he too must be punished. And it is in this way that the question must be understood.

But when the wicked and ignorant transgress and bring poison to the man for whom it is really poison, as if it were nourishment, then there is need of a physician who through his science will exert himself to heal that man, and for this reason we have allowed ourselves to discuss this problem in such a book as this, and in any other case we should not regard this as permissible to us; on the contrary, it would be one of the greatest crimes, or a deed of the greatest wickedness on earth, and the punishment of the wicked is a fact well known in the Holy Law. And since it is impossible to avoid the discussion of this problem, let us treat it in such a way as is possible in this place for those who do not possess the preparation and mental training needed before entering upon speculation about it.

فإنّ السموم إنّما هي أمور مضافة ؛ فإنّه قد يكون سمّا في حقّ حيوان شيء هو غذاء في حقّ حيوان آخر ، وهكذا الأمر في الآراء مع الإنسان

Interestingly, shortly before his death, Richard Hooker, one of the most important English theologians of the sixteenth century, scrawled part of this passage in Latin translation in the margins of his copy of the Christian Letter, an anonymous Puritan pamphlet attacking him for using reason in his sermons. Hooker cited a 1573 Venetian edition of Ibn Rushd.

In his seminal 1952 work The New Science of Politics, Austrian political philosopher Eric Voegelin commented on Hooker’s citation of this passage from Ibn Rushd, writing:

In this passage Averroes expressed the solution which the problem of theoretical debate had found in Islamic civilization. The nucleus of truth is the experience of transcendence in the anthropological and soteriological sense; its theoretical explication is communicable only among the “sage.” The “vulgar” have to accept, in a simple fundamentalism, the truth as it is symbolized in Scripture; they must refrain from theoretization, for which experientially and intellectually they are unfit, because they only would destroy God. Considering the “murder of God” that was committed in Western society when the progressivist “vulgar” got their fingers on the meaning of human existence in society and history, one must admit that Averroes had a point.

 

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