Friday, May 18, 2012

Thomas Aquinas and Islam




The work of Thomas Aquinas may be distinguished from that of many of his contemporaries by his attention to the writings of Moses Maimonides (1135–1204), a Jew, and Ibn Sina [Avicenna] (1980–1037), a Muslim. His contemporaries, especially in Paris, were responsive to the work of another Muslim, Ibn Rushd [Averroës] (1126–1198), for his rendition of the philosophical achievements of Aristotle, but Aquinas’ relation to Averroës and to those who took their lead from him was far more ambivalent.

Aquinas respected “Rabbi Moses” and Avicenna as fellow travelers in an arduous intellectual attempt to reconcile the horizons of philosophers of ancient Greece, notably Aristotle, with those reflecting a revelation originating in ancient Israel, articulated initially in the divinely inspired writings of Moses.

So while Aquinas would consult “the commentator” [Averroës] on matters of interpretation of the texts of Aristotle, that very aphorism suggests the limits of his reliance on the philosophical writings of Averroës, the qadi from Cordova. With Maimonides and Avicenna his relationship was more akin to that among interlocutors, and especially so with “Rabbi Moses”, whose extended dialectical conversations with his student Joseph in his Guide of the Perplexed closely matched Aquinas’ own project: that of using philosophical inquiry to articulate one’s received faith, and in the process extending the horizons of that inquiry to include topics unsuspected by those bereft of divine revelation.

We may wonder at Aquinas’ welcoming assistance from Jewish and Muslim quarters, especially when we reflect on the character of his times: the popular response to the call to arms of the crusades as well as a nearly universal impression on the part of Christians that the new covenant had effectively eclipsed the old.

Aquinas may have shared these sentiments, for all we know, yet his overriding concern in reaching out to other thinkers was always to learn from them in his search for the truth of the matters at hand.

In this respect, he epitomized the medieval respect for learning with its conviction that “truth was where one found it”. So he was more inclined to examine the arguments of thinkers than their faith, trusting in the image  of the creator in us all to search out those traces of the divine handiwork, a theological premise that will prove useful in guiding our explorations into Aquinas’ reliance on Islamic thinkers, and better than attributing to him an ecumenical or interfaith perspective avant la lettre. Yet it would not be untoward for us to note how other thinkers attempting to employ the inherited philosophy to elaborate their faith-perspective were for that very reason helpful to Aquinas in his vocational task.

It is worth speculating whether the perspective of Aquinas and his contemporaries was not less Eurocentric than our own. What we call “the west” was indeed geopolitically surrounded by Islam, which sat astride the lucrative trade routes to “the east”. Moreover, the cultural heritage embodied in notable achievements in medicine, mathematics, astronomy, and well as the logical, philosophical commentary, translation, and original work in metaphysics begun in tenth-century Baghdad, represented a legacy coveted by western medieval thinkers.

The rest of this essay is available at

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