Visible Brushstrokes: The Politics of Myth-Making in Painting Ibn Rushd’s (Averroes) Portrait

There can be no doubt that one of the most remembered thinkers of 12th century al-Andalus is Ibn Rushd. How he is remembered varies from author to author, with some focusing on his philosophical achievements, crediting him as ushering in the foundations of the European Enlightenment through his Neo-Aristotelian exegesis and others preferring to contextualize his philosophical achievements within their political-religious contexts. In her book, Ornament of the World, Maria Rosa Menocal falls into the former category, elevating Ibn Rushd to the level of extraordinary and even characterizing him as a victim of the “single-mindedness” of the Almohad conquerors who overtook al-Andalus in his lifetime.[1] While this makes Ibn Rushd’s successes seem all the more incredible in the face of the alleged fundamentalist, unReasonable Almohad regime, the fact is that only part of Ibn Rushd’s story is being told. Both Richard Fletcher and Olivia Remie Constable paint a much different picture of Ibn Rushd as not only a revered philosopher but also a supporter of the Almohads, and a physician and advisor to the Almohad rulers. Why is there such a discrepancy in these recountings? The answer to this question has less to do with Ibn Rushd himself than how he fits into the overall project of each author. Ibn Rushd as an Almohad protagonist compromises Menocal’s overall counter-myth-making plan of upholding al-Andalus as an integral part of the European Renaissance and later Enlightenment against the typical “barbaric” African fundamentalist backdrop of Almohad al-Andalus.

In “The Myth of Westernness in Medieval Literary Historiography,” Menocal follows in similar footsteps as the likes of Hayden White and other Critical Memory theorists who concur that “our writing of history is as much a myth-making activity as that of more primitive societies.”[2] She explores Western discourse’s preoccupation with their own intellectual heredity, shattering notions of the East-West dichotomy by pointing out how their particular myth comes with a dominant and selective forgetting of al-Andalus’ instigation and propagation of the so-called “West’s” intellectual Renaissance.[3] Her call for the inclusion of Andalusian influence in Western literary historiography is characterized as involving a major paradigm shift of unimaginable proportions because it requires the reimagining of Western civilization as “indebted to and dependent on a culture… regarded as inferior…and as the quintessence of the foreign and the Other.”[4] As such, a reading of her more popular text, Ornament of the World might be read as the development of a counter myth challenging the hegemonic discourse that excludes and Others al-Andalus from European intellectual history. Indeed, Menocal is unabashed about her project in its introductory chapter, Beginnings, arguing that much of Europe “was shaped by the deep-seated vision of complex and contradictory identities that was first elevated to an art form by the Andalusians.”[5] And while this project might be noble in itself, especially in terms of more accurately nuancing our understanding of the development of European intellectualism, Menocal’s book is permeated with instances of problematic Othering – upholding al-Andalus as exceptional and acceptably European (particularly for its legacy). This is done at the expense of the Almoravid and Almohad dynasties who are conflated together as both barbaric, fundamentalist and, ultimately, foreign Muslim conqueror. The underlying story that is then told is that the Muslims that are acceptable for Europeans are those that most resemble Europeans.

One of the most glaring instances of this unfortunate consequence of Menocal’s project is found in her depiction of Ibn Rushd. Flip to the name Ibn Rushd in the index of Maria Rosa Menocal’s Ornament of the World and the reader is directed to “see Averroes.”[6] Though it can be argued that this choice was that of the publisher, particularly for a commercial book whose audience might not be aware that Ibn Rushd and Averroes are the same Muslim person, the point is that an Andalusi-Euro-fication of Ibn Rushd is definitely at work elsewhere in Menocal’s book. When Menocal formally introduces us to Ibn Rushd, she sets him alongside Musa ibn Maymun, arguing that their work was shaped “by the advent of the Almohads” and their “single-mindedness” or “repressions” that dominated Andalusian society.[7] She goes on to pitch him as primarily a philosopher in an age of great Andalusian discourse, where the place of Reason beside religion was negotiated or accepted and rejected, back and forth, by the likes of Ibn Sina, Al-Ghazali, ibn Maymun and Ibn Rushd himself.[8] She concludes that although Ibn Rushd’s work made him a hero in Europe, he died in Marrakesh under “suspicious circumstances” (possibly Almohad house arrest) and implies that his philosophy received “a markedly different reception” within his own culture.[9] Is she referring to his Islamic culture, Andalusian culture or to the Almohad-dominated culture of his day? In all instances, and any combinations of these as well, her implication that his death or house arrest had something to do with his philosophical paradigm might be purposeful conjecture and requires an equally purposeful dismissal of the important political roles he held under the Almohads which allowed for his philosophy to develop.

While the index of Richard Fletcher’s Moorish Spain also diverts readers in search of Ibn Rushd to Averroes, Fletcher presents a much less contrived version of this character. While Fletcher notes that the Almoravids and Almohads shared some similar characteristics, particularly in terms of the beginning of their movements around charismatic leaders, their methods of conquering al-Andalus and their characterization as “fundamentalist”, he does distinguish between their brands of Islam. Fletcher is careful to show that the Almohads represented: a rejection of Almoravid (and Andalusian) Maliki legalism, a theology based on the immanence of God, and a move to “spiritual interiority” that would later find its most formidable philosophical expression in the work of Ibn Rushd.[10] Ibn Rushd flourished as a philosopher (and in many other roles) because philosophy –contrary to other depictions – was actually an integral part of Almohad rule in al-Andalus. Fletcher points to the example of Ibn Tufayl who was the physician of Almohad ruler, Yusuf I, who not only sought to marry religion and philosophy in his own writing, but also was responsible for introducing Ibn Rushd to Almohad court circles (which he was an early supporter of) where he served as qadi of Seville and Cordoba, but also inherited the position of physician and trusted advisor to Yusuf (and Ya’qub). [11]

The argument that Ibn Rushd was rejected by the rulers of his time for his philosophical endeavours is simply wrong. He was immersed in Almohad political and cultural circles, and given his prominent position with the ruling group, there is little reason to think that the Almohads were repressive of his way of uniting Islamic creed and Aristotelian Reason. In fact, The Almohad Creed of 1183, composed at a time when Ibn Rushd was the closest advisor of Yusuf I, is explicit in its unification of these two concepts, declaring reason to be the main criterion for religious truths[12]. Olivia Remie Constable argues that, in all likelihood, this important document was written by Ibn Rushd. With its appeal to the use of Reason and the finding of “common ground on which to establish faith propositions,” the creed of the Almohads seriously challenges Menocal’s depictions of them as barbaric exclusionists.[13]

The Almohad openness to Ibn Rushd’s discourse (despite early inspiration from the works of Al-Ghazali which rejected the marriage of Reason with philosophy) is what made his prolific writing possible. And this alone, presents a much different image of the Almohads than what Menocal wants to put forth as part of her counter-myth. Her project, while a response to forgetful European intellectual hereditary myths (which is a noble cause) simply does not go far enough. Menocal falls short of following her own imperative in the study of “Muslims” and “Arabic culture” in medieval Europe by excluding the Almohads from the discussion. If such work is to be done and it “must be…rooted in the rejection of the simplicities an isolations of its own categories and terms, in an appreciation of the profound ambivalence of such readily nameable identities and of the necessary interconnectedness with other (equally ambivalent) identities,”[14] then the inclusion of Almohads in a European narrative becomes the necessary response to such an imperative. Rather than the European Renaissance being derived of purely “Andalusian” intellectual development, tolerance, and reverence for ancient philosophy (which the Almohads allegedly are outsiders to), the rise of Reason in Europe, through the discourse in writings of philosophers like Ibn Rushd, must be seen for what it, at least in part, is: an Almohad inheritance.

[1] Menocal, Maria Rosa. The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain. Back Bay Books: New York. 2002, p 208

[2] Menocal, Maria Rosa, “The Myth of Westernness in Medieval Literary Historiography” in The New Crusades: Constructing the Muslim Enemy, eds. Emran Qureshi and Michael Sells, Columbia University Press: New York, 2003, p 249.

[3] Menocal, “The Myth”, p 250.

[4] Ibid 257

[5] Menocal, Ornament of the World, p12.

[6] Menocal, Ornament of the World, p 307.

[7] Ibid, p 208

[8] Ibid, p 211

[9] Ibid, p 212

[10] Fletcher, Richard. Moorish Spain. University of California: Berkeley. 1992 p119

[11] Ibid, p 132-33

[12] “The Almohad Creed (1183)” in Medieval Iberia: Readings from Christian, Muslim, and Jewish Sources. Olivia Remie Constable, ed. Majd Yaser Al-Mallah, trans. University of Pennsylvania Press: Philadelphia, 2012:p. 245-6.

[13] Constable, Ibid; Menocal, Ornament of the World, p 195-6.

[14] Menocal, “The Myth”, p 268.


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