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Can Philosophy and Religion be Harmonised? Averroes, Avicenna, Hegel

Interview by Richard Marshall.

The double truth thesis states that philosophy and religion do not hold the same views, in other words, their positions vary on given subjects. They explain reality in different, even incompatible, ways.’

My comparison between Averroes and Hegel on philosophy and religion is not purely historical but rather thematic. Averroes and Hegel have remarkably similar views on the relation between philosophy and religion. ‘

The key to harmonising all kinds of discourse consists in the manner of reading the Qur’an. Averroes states that philosophers, rather than theologians, should have the final say on how to interpret the Qur’an.’

The Bible is a greater authority than Plato or Aristotle. A non-literal reading of the Bible is already in place with Augustine and is also accepted by Aquinas, although the literal meaning of scripture cannot be overlooked. Aquinas accepts various kinds of metaphorical readings of scripture, but they must be subordinated to the literal sense of the text. ‘

Both Avicenna and Averroes seek to harmonise philosophy and religion, but Averroes does this explicitly, especially in his Decisive Treatise on the Harmony of Religion and Philosophy, while Avicenna does it implicitly, by incorporating Islamic themes into his philosophy.

In his Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion, Hegel equates his conception of spirit with the Holy Spirit of scripture and Christian theology. However, his views on spirit cannot be said to be compatible with Christian theology, Lutheran or Catholic, given that he downplays or appears to criticise the religious imagery to be found in the Bible, such as the notion of father and son as attributed to God.

Catarina Belo is a specialist in medieval Islamic philosophy, in particular Avicenna’s and Averroes’ physics and metaphysics. Other interests include medieval Islamic theology (kalam), and medieval Christian philosophy, with a focus on the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas. She has also conducted research on German Idealism, in particular Hegel’s philosophy. In addition, she has studied the intersection between philosophy and religion in the Middle Ages, and in Hegel’s works. She has more recently conducted research on the concept of ‘spirit’ in philosophy. Here she discusses the double truth thesis, the connection between Hegel and Averroes, their different contexts, Averoes’ version of the double truth thesis, his handling of chance and freewill, Avicenna and determinism, Hegel’s approach to the double truth thesis, how the thesis became associated with Averroes within Islamic philosophy, why medieval Christianity failed to manage the harmonisation of philosophy with religion, links between Averroes and Jewish thinking, whether Hegel was religious, and whether there are possibilities of harmonisation between religion and philosophy in contemporary Islam.

The Oxford Handbook of Islamic Philosophy

3:AM: What made you become a philosopher?

Catarina Belo: When I was growing up in Portugal, philosophy was a compulsory subject in secondary school. All schoolchildren had to take philosophy for two years, starting from the age of 15, with a possibility of a third year (the final year before university) if they were planning to enrol in a humanities subject at university. The first year of this discipline focused on ancient Greek philosophy, the second on philosophy of science and the third (the last before going up to university) focused on specific philosophers, namely Kant, Hegel, Marx and Nietzsche.

My brothers are older than me and were already taking philosophy at school. In my early teens I was learning about ancient Greek history and culture at school. In addition, I found some books by Plato in my father’s library, so I started reading them, a couple of years before starting taking the subject in secondary school. When I began reading Plato, I realised that I had found my favourite subject of study. As a result, I decided philosophy would be the subject I would enrol in at university. I was attracted to philosophy because it dealt with essential questions in great depth, more than any other subject of learning I had known until then.

3:AM: You’ve looked at Hegel and Averroes on philosophy and religion and the ‘double truth’ thesis that these two figures are enmeshed with. So can you first sketch for us what the ‘double truth’ theory claims, and is this the same as saying that we have to admit a double standard of truth?

CB: The double truth thesis states that philosophy and religion do not hold the same views, in other words, their positions vary on given subjects. They explain reality in different, even incompatible, ways. If we wished to illustrate this theory we might point out that while religion (Christianity, and Islam) states that the world is created in time, a philosopher like Aristotle holds that the world is eternal, in the sense that there was never a time when the world did not exist. This makes it difficult to equate Aristotle’s views with the Biblical and the Qur’anic account of creation.

The double truth theory emerged in medieval Europe, when Scholasticism was taking shape at universities. In medieval universities in Europe the faculty of arts and the faculty of theology were separate and philosophy professors could choose to confine themselves to teaching philosophy, independently of any theological positions. This implied that philosophy and religion did not hold the same view on a given matter. Arts professors would simply state the philosophical position without attempting to reconcile it with the religious or theological position on the same issue.

However, the double truth thesis was probably not explicitly propounded by arts professors, rather it was formulated by the religious establishment (in particular, Bishop Étienne Tempier in the 13th century), as a condemnation of any position that was contrary to theological doctrines, with a view to making religious truth prevail. One of the main targets of the criticism was Siger of Brabant, who emphasised the ability of natural reason and philosophy to enquire independently of revelation and faith.

The entire question must be seen in the context of the adoption of Aristotelian works in 13th century European universities. It was a gradual process of acceptance, with occasional condemnations by the bishops of Paris, to ensure the harmony between philosophy and religion which sought the subordination of religion (or rather, theology) to philosophy.

The work of Islamic philosophers had a central role in the introduction of Aristotelian philosophy and ideas into Europe. There were important translation movements in the Middle Ages. In a first instance, Aristotelian works were translated into Arabic in the Islamic Caliphate, starting in the 8th century. A few centuries later the same works were translated from Arabic into Latin and Hebrew in southern Europe. However, making Greek and Hellenistic philosophy and science available to European scholars was not just a matter of translation. The commentaries on Aristotle’s works by Averroes (which were translated into Latin and into Hebrew) were crucial in shaping the understanding of Aristotle in medieval Europe, since Aristotle’s text was considered to be dense and intricate. The condemnation of the double truth thesis was levelled directly at those who taught Aristotle in Averroes’ interpretation, who were known as Averroists, and thus the doctrine of the double truth came to be associated with Averroes.

Nevertheless, in a work which was not translated into Latin, Averroes explicitly defends that the truth is only one, whether phrased in a philosophical or in a religious way.

With regard to Averroes and Hegel, it must be said that neither of them defended the double truth thesis in the medieval sense of the phrase. They both advocated that the truth can be expressed in different ways by philosophy and by religion. The content which these disciplines conveyed remained the same. Perhaps an ambiguity remains in the case of both philosophers as to their views on religion, because they both stated that religion portrays the truth in a metaphorical way, while philosophy expresses the truth in a rigorous, explicit or literal way. There is clearly a preference for the philosophical way of expressing the truth in both Averroes and Hegel.

3:AM: Hegel didn’t actually study Averroes or have a very good opinion of Islamic medieval philosophy did he? So why is the connection important?

CB: Hegel made a very significant contribution to the study of the history of philosophy. It was a subject which he emphasised in his works, to the point of lecturing extensively on the topic in Berlin. He even identified philosophy with the history of philosophy. He is known to have incorporated the scholarship available in his own time into his lectures and into his philosophical works. However, research into Islamic philosophy as a scholarly subject was inaugurated by Renan’s Averroès et l’averroïsme, first published in 1852. In this sense, Hegel was limited by the sources available to him. He viewed medieval Islamic philosophers as simply commentators on Aristotle’s works. He identifies true Islamic thought with medieval Islamic theology (kalam). He appears to have studied Maimonides, who engages in a debate with Islamic theologians, as a source for his views on medieval Islamic thought.

My comparison between Averroes and Hegel on philosophy and religion is not purely historical but rather thematic. Averroes and Hegel have remarkably similar views on the relation between philosophy and religion. The historical connection could be further explored, although I have not done that in detail in my book. If we wished to trace back in greater detail the historical connection between both philosophers, we could point out that Hegel was acquainted with Maimonides and he was also a great admirer of Spinoza’s philosophy (who in turn was a reader of Maimonides). One of the great philosophical influences on Maimonides was al-Farabi (d. 950) a medieval Islamic philosopher who before Averroes defended, in his main work, the view that reality could be expressed differently by philosophy and by religion. In other words, Averroes’ position on the subject is not radically different from that of al-Farabi, and Averroes was conversant with al-Farabi’s thought. In other words, Hegel could have learned about the double truth thesis through Spinoza and Maimonides.

3:AM: Can you say something about the two very different contexts out of which these two figures were working. Can you say what are the main differences – and any overlaps if there are any – between  Averroes’s  medieval Sunni Islam and Hegel’s post-Enlightenment Lutheran Christianity?

CB: Perhaps it is easier to start with the differences between the respective historical contexts of Averroes and Hegel. The latter lived in a post-Enlightenment society, which led to a gradual secularisation of society. Averroes lived in medieval Islamic Spain and Islam was not simply a religion but a way of life which dominated all aspects of society. It must be noted, however, Hegel’s Germany was still profoundly conservative. It is well to remember that there were charges of atheism against philosophers, first against Fichte and later charges of pantheism against Hegel in Berlin. The latter did not lose his professorial position unlike Fichte before him, but Germany was a deeply religious society.

Averroes lived in a religious society but there were powerful individuals who were interested in, and promoted, philosophy, regardless of whether it was in harmony with religion, such as the emir who read Aristotle and commissioned some of Averroes commentaries, Abu Ya‘qub Yusuf.

In addition, Averroes has been considered by some as a precursor of the Enlightenment (given his emphasis on the powers of reason to speculate independently of revelation, a certain rationalism), while Hegel was deeply interested in religion, and integrated Christian themes into his philosophy. The most important work, in my view, expounding the Christian themes in Hegel’s works is Claude Bruaire’s Logique et religion chrétienne dans la philosophie de Hegel (Paris, Éditions du Seuil, 1964).

In other words, Averroes and Hegel lived in fundamentally different historical periods but they were both keenly interested in the intersection between philosophy and religion, reason and faith.

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3:AM: So how does Averroes lay out the ‘double truth’ theory in his ‘The Decisive Treatise’, ‘The Incoherence of the Incoherence’ and his works explaining Aristotle? In particular how does Averroes see the relationship between Islam and philosophy and the harmony between them? Is it an Islamic legal perspective that he uses and how radical was his non-literal reading of the Qur’an at the time? Was it easier then to be non-literal than nowadays?

CB: Averroes explicitly states that there is only one truth, but it is expressed in different ways in philosophy and in religion. He believes that the truth is expressed in a literal way by philosophy. When stated by philosophers, the truth cannot be phrased differently. However, religion expresses the truth in a metaphorical way. For instance, the Qur’an refers to God’s hand. However, according to the medieval Islamic philosophers, God cannot have human characteristics, such as a body (which would imply a limitation of God’s infinite nature), and therefore he does not truly have a hand. References to God’s hand must be understood in a metaphorical way as meaning God’s power. On this point Averroes distinguishes different approaches to the same reality, namely the demonstrative, the dialectical and the rhetorical. He explains the nature of these three kinds of language in his Decisive Treatise, which is formulated as a legal question as to whether Muslims should be allowed to study (ancient Greek and Hellenistic) philosophy. The distinction among these disciplines or kinds of discourse is based on Aristotle, demonstrative discourse being presented in his Posterior Analytics, a work on which Averroes composed several commentaries, including a very detailed long commentary. Demonstrative discourse is defined by Aristotle as required for science and scientific investigations. As such, it admits of no ambiguities and it does not use metaphors or allegories. Averroes subscribes to this view. Naturally, this kind of discourse or language applies not only to science in the modern sense of the term today but also philosophy, under which umbrella most forms of knowledge were included in the Middle Ages.

Averroes identifies religious language with dialectical and with rhetorical discourse. Aristotle writes on dialectic in his Topics and on rhetoric in his book titled Rhetoric. Averroes wrote commentaries on both of these works, as well as on Posterior Analytics, prior to composing the Decisive Treatise. Moreover, Averroes does not view these as simply methods, but identifies them with three classes of people in medieval Islamic Spain. The demonstrative class he identifies with the philosophers, who are a minority. Medieval Spain had a distinguished tradition of Islamic philosophy, having produced such distinguished thinkers as Ibn Hazm, Ibn Bajja and Ibn Tufayl (who was a personal friend of Averroes). The dialectical class he identifies with the theologians and the rhetorical class with ordinary Muslim believers. He is particularly critical of the theologians for having misled the majority of believers, who are not trained in philosophy or any kind of abstract thought. Islamic theology (kalam) engages in speculation about the meaning of the Qur’an but does not fully take into account ancient philosophy, on the one hand, and is too complicated for the majority of people to understand, on the other. Averroes holds that it is better for the philosophers (rather than the theologians) to indicate the way in which particular Qur’anic verses should be understood by the majority of Muslims.

The different ways in which fundamental truths can be grasped, such as the existence of God (which no one is allowed to question), means that the philosophers have to think of God in purely abstract ways, while the majority of Muslims, who do not have the ability to understand or engage in the study of philosophy, are allowed to think of God in more anthropomorphic ways. According to Averroes, the Qur’anic message suits all classes of people, from the philosophers to all other Muslims.

The key to harmonising all kinds of discourse consists in the manner of reading the Qur’an. Averroes states that philosophers, rather than theologians, should have the final say on how to interpret the Qur’an.

For Averroes philosophy and religion have the same content but express it differently, for instance with regard to God’s nature. The philosopher will understand God’s omnipotence as his being the absolute cause of everything, while the majority of Muslims can rely on the more anthropomorphic depictions of God available in the Qur’an. The anthropomorphic descriptions of God in the Qur’an must be read in a metaphorical way by the philosophers, but not by other Muslims. Averroes does not say that everything in the Qur’an is metaphorical, indeed some verses can be understood literally by any Muslim.

With regard to interpretation, in his Decisive Treatise Averroes stresses that from the early history of Islam it was accepted that metaphorical readings of the Qur’an were necessary with regard to certain verses, but not others. He lays out the rules for the interpretation of such verses in accordance with Arabic grammar and usage. He also states that when a Qur’anic verse is at variance with Aristotle’s thought, the verse must be read metaphorically, given that Aristotle’s texts are of a demonstrative nature and must be taken literally. In this way, he always seeks to harmonise Aristotle’s thought with the Qur’an.

For instance, he claims that the references to God’s sitting on a throne before creation, present in the Qur’an, indicate that something existed alongside God, eternally, and he used this as indication of the eternity of the world. This interpretation, however did not seem to convince some Islamic theologians, since the Qur’an also mentions God’s creation of the world in six days.

In medieval schools of Islamic theology an earlier school such as the Mu‘tazilites preferred a metaphorical reading of certain passages while a later school, the Ash‘arites, favoured a literal reading of the Qur’an. Today, the Ash‘arite school of theology prevails in Sunni Islam, but there have been attempts at reviving Mu‘tazilite views, so the way one reads the Qur’an is open for debate. There is clearly a medieval tradition of non-literal ways of understanding the Qur’an, and these can be revived by Muslim scholars.

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3:AM: Another area of controversy for reconciling a religious world view with one of philosophy is that of chance and determinism. So how did Averroes deal with issues such as freedom and responsibility alongside divine providence and God’s will? Did he think he should tailor his philosophy to his religion or vice versa? I guess all this comes down to the question of how does he manage to square his Aristotelian account of nature with that of the Qur’an?

CB: Yes, the question of chance and determinism is also indicative of Averroes’ attempts to reconcile religion and philosophy or science.

With regard to the question of freedom and responsibility one must take into consideration the two types of sources he employed, Aristotle on the one hand, and the Qur’an on the other. It must be said that Aristotle himself in his extensive works does not appear have a clearly defined position on the question of human freedom. While he appears to stress human responsibility in his ethical works, there is a sense of a strong emphasis on causality or causation and even necessity in his natural works. Moreover, for Aristotle chance is not an essential cause, rather it is an accidental cause associated with other essential causes, such as the final or the efficient cause, as he clearly states in his Physics.

Some Qur’anic verses indicate that human beings are free to believe or not, others indicate that God is the cause of belief and unbelief in human beings.

In medieval Islamic theology, with which the medieval Islamic philosophers were in dialogue, there are early schools which favour the notion of human freedom, as a safeguard of God’s justice, while later there is an emphasis on divine omnipotence and a downplaying of human freedom, which can never stand in the way of divine omnipotence and predestination

I believe that the progressive deterministic nature of medieval Islamic theology influenced the thought of Averroes, and that of Avicenna before him. Averroes stresses the strict necessity of natural processes in his commentaries on Aristotle. He views chance as an accidental, not an essential cause. This means that whenever we speak of a chance event, there is an essential cause to which the casual element is linked. For instance, if a musician accidentally builds a house, it is simply the case that the architect who built the house also happens to be a musician.

When Averroes discusses the theological aspects of God’s predestination of events in a work on Islamic theology, he notes the importance of upholding human freedom (otherwise God’s attribute of justice would be called into question) but he also states that the causality in human actions is subject to divine causation and omnipotence.


[Avicenna (ibn-i sina)]

3:AM: Avicenna was another giant of Islamic philosophy. Was Averroes’s approach to chance and determinism significantly different from that of Avicenna’s, and did they disagree about the harmonisation of philosophy and religion?

CB: I believe that Avicenna was much more explicit in his defence of determinism than was Averroes. Unlike the latter, Avicenna was heavily influenced by Neoplatonism – through the Theology of Aristotle, an Arabic version of sections of The Enneads by Plotinus falsely attributed to Aristotle – and its theory of emanation. This process consists in the way in which various intellects successively emerge from the first intellect (identified with God), leading to the production of their respective spheres and finally the production of the sublunary or terrestrial world. Avicenna is very keen on a strict notion of necessary causality in the celestial and the terrestrial world. There does not seem to be place in his philosophical system for an independent voluntary causation by human beings, and therefore Avicenna can be considered a thoroughgoing determinist. His metaphysics of modality imply that all that actually exists is necessary because of its cause. That which is possible is that which does not actually yet exist but can be made to exist through a cause. Whatever actually exists necessarily exists, through its cause. Only God is uncaused, and only he is necessary in himself, not through another.

In his writings on the theological theme of qadar (God’s determination or predestination of events) he states that everything is determined by God, directly, or indirectly through secondary causes, but nothing escapes God’s will and causation, including human actions and deliberation.

With regard to other differences between Avicenna and Averroes on this subject, Avicenna upholds a kind of mechanistic determinism, in which external or efficient causality is always at work, while Averroes stresses the subject of action (natural or human) and favours a more finalistic or teleological view of natural processes. In this sense, Avicenna stresses the association of the chance cause with the final cause, while Averroes associates the chance cause with the efficient cause.

Avicenna did not produce substantial works on ethics, and therefore the question of human freedom does not even appear to arise.

Both Avicenna and Averroes seek to harmonise philosophy and religion, but Averroes does this explicitly, especially in his Decisive Treatise on the Harmony of Religion and Philosophy, while Avicenna does it implicitly, by incorporating Islamic themes into his philosophy. For instance, when Avicenna writes on Aristotle’s theory of the soul, he expands on his theory of the imagination and stresses its role in the process of prophecy and prophethood.

Averroes and Hegel on Philosophy and Religion

3:AM: You look at Hegel’s approach to the ‘double truth’ theory through the prism of both epistemology and metaphysics. Can you say what the different approaches are and why they are both useful in trying to grasp Hegel’s understanding of the relationship between philosophy and religion?

CB: Hegel thinks of religion and philosophy as telling the same tale, but in different ways. One can think of reality in a conceptual way, through reason, or figuratively, through the imagination or representation; the term Vorstellung is sometimes also translated as ‘picture-thinking’. Religious thinking employs images and relies on the particular, unlike philosophical thinking relies on the universal. Hence the epistemological aspect of the question, given the different faculties or modes of thinking involved in understanding reality. At the same time, in Hegel the epistemological and the ontological or metaphysical are never truly separable. For instance, in the Phenomenology of Spirit there is a gradual progression from more simply ways of grasping reality, all the way to understanding and reason which grasp reality in a more comprehensive and complex way. Equally, there is often a correspondence between ways of thinking and actual periods in world history (including periods in the history of philosophy), such as Ancient Greece and the Enlightenment. According to Hegel, the rational is real and the real is rational and therefore our thinking actually mirrors reality, and reality and thinking go hand in hand. For that reason, he is certainly not arguing for a subjective kind of idealism but for absolute idealism and absolute knowing, which means that nothing is hidden from the subject, certainly not from an infinitely knowing subject.

3:AM: Philosophers and theologians before Averroes presented something like the ‘double truth’ idea didn’t they? So how did the theory come to be associated with Averroes within Islamic theology and philosophy? Was it controversial?

CB: The question of the double truth is a question about the relationship between philosophy and religion. These two disciplines of human knowing both claim to depict the whole of reality, hence a natural rivalry or competition. We know of various philosophers and thinkers who were accused of impiety in ancient Athens, such as Anaxagoras, Socrates, Protagoras and Aristotle. Plato put forward his theory of the ‘noble lie’ in the Republic to indicate the use of myth for the purpose of promoting social stability, and in the same work he thinks of faith (pistis) as ranking lower than reason (dianoia) or intellect (nous) in the scale of human thought processes. Naturally, in medieval philosophy, Jewish, Christian, and Islamic religious themes abound and religion appears to dominate philosophy. In medieval Islam, theology does not have a dogmatic character and is speculative in nature. This gave great scope for Islamic philosophers to adopt Neoplatonic or Aristotelian ideas. The need for an explicit harmonisation of philosophy and religion came in the aftermath of al-Ghazzali’s (d. 1111) attack on Islamic philosophers, particularly on Avicenna. In his Incoherence of the Philosophers, al-Ghazzali argued that many of the philosophers’ theories were not in line with the Qur’anic message, and on three particular issues he accused them of apostasy. Averroes had to deal with these charges explicitly, which he did in his Decisive Treatise and also in the Incoherence of the Incoherence, a point for point refutation of al-Ghazzali’s accusations.

In Islamic philosophy, the great precursor to Averroes on the question of religion and philosophy is al-Farabi.

In his magnum opus, the Perfect State (the literal translation of this work being The Principles of the Opinions of the Inhabitants of the Virtuous City) he asserts that every inhabitant of the perfect or virtuous state must have a correct notion of reality (in other words, of God and creation), in the way it is laid out in the work. This is a very comprehensive work which verses on metaphysics, theology, astronomy, theory of knowledge, ethics and political theory, incorporating many Islamic themes. According to al-Farabi, it is not possible for every inhabitant of the perfect state to understand these principles through philosophy, so they must do so through religion. Religion expresses the same reality as philosophy, but in a metaphorical way, a position which was to serve as an inspiration for Averroes in his treatment of the topic. According to al-Farabi, the founder of the perfect state (identifiable with Prophet Muhammad and the early Islamic community) was both a prophet and a philosopher with a keen imagination and also a most developed rational faculty. The founder of the perfect state receives the first principles from God and can translate them in a metaphorical way to the community at large. Al-Farabi’s views are foundational for later Islamic philosophers, and indeed he was considered by them to be the ‘second teacher’, after Aristotle, who was dubbed the ‘first teacher’. This position hinted at the superiority of philosophy with regard to religion, so it was certainly not accepted by a theologian such as al-Ghazzali.

Averroes came to be associated with the thesis of the double truth because of his commentaries on Aristotle. It is interesting to note that in his commentaries he praises Aristotle as the founder of the main philosophical disciplines, namely logic, physics and metaphysics, adding that Aristotle committed no mistakes on any significant issue. In other words, Averroes thinks of Aristotle as the greatest philosophical and scientific genius who ever lived. He also states that in the fifteen hundred years separating him from Aristotle nothing significant was added to Aristotle’s theories. He allows for a metaphorical reading of the Qur’an, but not of Aristotle’s works.

3:AM: Why didn’t medieval Christianity manage the harmonisation idea? After all, they worked with Aristotle as well didn’t they but seemed less accommodating of philosophy in some respects? Was it because Averroes recommends a non-literal reading of the Qur’an and this wasn’t something Christian and Jewish theologians were at liberty to do?

CB: Medieval Christian thought articulated the relation between philosophy and religion in a different way from the one we find in medieval Islamic thought. In Christianity, we can think of two distinct periods in which philosophy was integrated into religion. An early period is the Patristic period. For instance, Augustine incorporated Neoplatonic elements into his thinking. A later period, Scholasticism, sees the integration of Aristotelian thought into Christian theology, as aptly illustrated by the works of Aquinas. However, in both periods, scripture has a higher status than philosophical texts. The Bible is a greater authority than Plato or Aristotle. A non-literal reading of the Bible is already in place with Augustine and is also accepted by Aquinas, although the literal meaning of scripture cannot be overlooked. Aquinas accepts various kinds of metaphorical readings of scripture, but they must be subordinated to the literal sense of the text. In addition, for him philosophy, which relies on natural reason, must be subordinate to theology or sacred doctrine, which draws on God’s own knowledge and revelation to humankind, because the latter is more reliable than human reason.

Non-literal readings of scripture were allowed in medieval Islamic and Jewish theology. In Islamic theology, this approach to scripture became less popular with the passage of time.

In Jewish thought a kind of rationalism is at work in the thought of Maimonides, who propounds metaphorical readings of scripture and who also draws on Islamic philosophy (in particular al-Farabi) and Islamic theology (kalam).

It is clear that Averroes and Hegel, unlike the majority of medieval Christian theologians and thinkers, favour philosophical language which they consider to be more accurate than religious language. A backlash against philosophy is observable in later medieval Islam, while the integration of philosophy into theology in medieval Christianity is gradual and presupposes the superiority of theology. So there is a harmonisation in Christian thought by way of subordinating philosophy to theology, which was considered to be a science.

3:AM: Averroism was associated with the ‘blasphemy of the three imposters’ amongst other controversies wasn’t it? Can you say something about how Averroes’ thinking developed and spread, and what the relationship was between him and Jewish and Christian thinking as it developed?

CB: Yes, in modern philosophy we see some thinkers associate Averroes and his ideas with the claim that the founders of Judaism, Christianity and Islam did not teach a supernatural or divine theory but only a natural one, in other words, that their message was not divinely inspired. This was based on certain readings of Averroes’ works which were not considered to be in line with scripture. It is worth noting that Averroism was a phenomenon that was typical of medieval Latin and Jewish thought and not Islamic thought although it was based on certain ideas contained in Averroes’ commentaries on Aristotle. Many works by Averroes were translated into Hebrew, even works that were not available in Latin translation in the Middle Ages. Certain Averroist ideas were for instance the eternity of the world and the unity of the intellect (with the Active intellect). The latter meant that all human intellects, after death, become merged with an Active (celestial) Intellect, which is the real cause of thinking in all human beings. Naturally, this position precludes the possibility of the individual survival of the soul after death.

An early stage of Averroism is represented by Siger of Brabant and his defence of the possibility of reason to enquire by itself without being aided by revelation. Averroism develops and is found up to the Renaissance in Europe, with the likes of Pomponazzi engaging with Averroes’ commentaries on Aristotle and the question of the nature of the soul. There was also great interest in the thought of Averroes in medieval Judaism and a brand of Jewish Averroism developed in Europe too among the Jewish communities.

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3:AM: You say that both Averroes’s and Hegel’s thinking are charged with religious meanings. So when Hegel wrote his ‘Phenomenology of Spirit’, for example, was the Spirit he writes about religious, in fact, was he referring to the Holy Spirit of his Lutheran Christianity? Can you say something about how you think he understood Spirit and how this helps us understand his interest in harmonising religion and philosophy?

CB: In his Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion, Hegel equates his conception of spirit with the Holy Spirit of scripture and Christian theology. However, his views on spirit cannot be said to be compatible with Christian theology, Lutheran or Catholic, given that he downplays or appears to criticise the religious imagery to be found in the Bible, such as the notion of father and son as attributed to God. He holds that these are natural relationships that do not stand up to the true (infinite or universal) nature of the divine.

His understanding of spirit is quite complex. On the one hand, it has a human dimension but it also has strong religious connotations. In the Phenomenology of Spirit, he traces the development of human knowledge from its beginning as sense certainty to absolute knowledge, through reason and understanding. When we reach the level of spirit, and especially in discussing absolute knowing, at the conclusion of this work, it appears that Hegel has in mind divine knowledge and the possibility of attaining complete knowledge by human beings.

In his Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion, Hegel states that God is known as spirit, and this implies that human spirit can know divine spirit. In that sense, the concept of spirit allows for a bridge to be established between the human and the divine, philosophy and religion. Spirit is present in the early through to his later writings. In a later stage, Hegel is also appreciative of medieval Christian philosophy and theology. Naturally, this is a reaction against a turn to subjectivity in Lutheran theology as espoused by Schleiermacher, his colleague at the University of Berlin. Hegel is appreciative of the way in which reason and faith are intertwined in medieval Catholic theology. He also develops his views on spirit as expounded in the Phenomenology of Spirit later in the Encyclopaedia of the Philosophical Sciences, distinguishing three kinds of spirit, subjective, objective and absolute spirit. While the first two are individual and collective forms, respectively, of human spirit, absolute spirit can be identified with God or the infinite.

Moreover, when it comes to the fundamental dogmas of Christianity, the incarnation and the Trinity (God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit), we see that some of the most central themes in his philosophy, such as the idea of reconciliation between the finite and the infinite, the human and the divine, as well as his dialectics, are inspired by Christian theology.

In his works we should note that an evolution is underway with regard to religion: at an early stage, when is he under the influence of Kant, he is more interested in morality than theology, while later he comments explicitly on theological themes. That is not to say that he espouses an orthodox form of Christianity (for instance, he sees absolute spirit as evolving seamlessly from finite spirit) but his philosophy and ideas are deeply inspired by central themes in Christian theology.

3:AM: Do you think Hegel is a religious philosopher, and religious in a different way from someone like Kant, for instance, or more pantheistic thinkers within Romanticism? Are contemporary readings of Hegel that discount his religious interests anachronistic?

CB: I think that Hegel – unlike Kant, who was more interested in the role of religion in fostering morality rather than in theology as such – is more confident in the role of reason to grasp the nature of God and to reach absolute knowing. Hegel is very critical of the Enlightenment already in the Phenomenology of Spirit, for denying human access to the absolute, in its criticism of faith. In his Berlin lectures, Hegel discusses the proofs of God’s existence by Anselm where Kant had tied to disprove Anselm’s arguments. The Enlightenment position with regard to religion, as present in, for instance, Rousseau, claims that certain religious positions are important for fostering morality and the right social order, ideas such as God’s existence and the immortality of the soul. Religion and faith are clearly subordinated to philosophy and to reason. Hegel is not afraid of commenting on theological themes and incorporating them into his philosophy, something which we do not find as explicitly in Fichte or Schelling.

There has been a resurgence of interest in Hegel’s philosophy of religion, since the Seventies. Discounting the religious element in Hegel’s philosophy, it seems to me, must always result in a truncated view of Hegel’s philosophy. Naturally, Hegel’s conception of God does not correspond exactly with the biblical description of God, but is a personal conception. Nevertheless, we cannot disregard the religious themes in his philosophy or his interest in theology and the centrality of Christian religion and theology in the development of his ideas. A purely materialistic reading of Hegel is obviously out of place now. Nor do I think that Hegel’s conception of God can be interpreted as a mere projection of human thinking, as we find later in Feuerbach.

3:AM: Are there opportunities for this harmonisation between religion and philosophy to occur at the moment within Islamic theological circles, or is Averroes not seen as someone influential there anymore? And similarly, what hope do you see for religion, and in particular Islamic theology and contemporary philosophy to work in harmony? Are there examples of Islamic theology and modern science and naturalistic philosophy working in harmony on the contemporary scene?

CB: Contemporary Islam is very complex. In a country like Egypt, there was a revival of Averroism (and Averroes’ rationalism) in the 20th century. There are questions surrounding the interpretation of religious texts, among the different theological schools. Islamic theology was influenced by philosophy from the Middle Ages onwards, so there is inevitably a dialogue between the two disciplines. It also worth noting that there are differences between Sunni Islam and Shi‘a Islam. The latter is composed of different groups, and many of them were heavily influenced, to this day, by Plato’s philosophy and Neoplatonism, in their theological formulations. I think it is an entirely open question. There is also an attempt to reconcile science and Islamic theology. Many scholars have written on the contribution of medieval Islamic science to modern European science and some contemporary Muslim scholars also seek to demonstrate the compatibility of the Qur’anic message and specific Qur’nic verses with contemporary science.

3:AM: And finally, are there five books you could recommend for the readers here at 3:AM that will take us further into your philosophical world?

CB: I would like to recommend five classics in the history of philosophy:

Plato: Meno and Phaedo

Plato’s Phaedo lays out some central philosophical themes and principles which have endured beyond antiquity and the Middle Ages. In it, Socrates discusses the nature of the soul, but also the distinction between the efficient and the final cause which was so foundational for the history of philosophy and science.

Aristotle's Metaphysics

Aristotle’s Metaphysics contains fundamental philosophical principles which are not limited to metaphysics but also have important ramifications in logic, physics (his theory of causality) and ethics. It also illustrates Aristotle’s expertise as a historian of philosophy, since he often refers to the Presocratics, the Sophists, Plato, and other thinkers, before expounding his own views.

Decisive Treatise and Epistle Dedicatory

Averroes’ Decisive Treatise on the Harmony between Religion and Philosophy shows the explicit attempt by a philosopher to reconcile philosophy and religion, Islam in this case. The way he delineates the dialogue between the two disciplines, and his views on scriptural hermeneutics, is simply masterful.

Summa Theologica

Aquinas Summa Theologica is a work of philosophy and theology. The way in which Aquinas uses Aristotelian language to express Christian dogmas is fascinating. In this work there are also important concepts for ethics and jurisprudence, such as his treatise on law.

The Phenomenology of Spirit (the Phenomenology of Mind)

Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit is a philosophical epic which describes the development of the human spirit (or mind) as it seeks to attain absolute knowledge. In the process, Hegel discusses all fields of knowledge available then as well as the history of ideas. I believe that much of the subsequent philosophical debate in Europe is a direct or indirect commentary on Hegel’s ideas.


Richard Marshall is still biding his time.

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End Times Series: the first 302

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, May 19th, 2018.