Dr. Sebastian Gunther Speaks on Ibn Rushd and Thomas Aquinas

Dr. Sebastian Günther, Professor and Chair of Arabic and Islamic Studies at the University of Göttingen, Germany, and President of the European Union of Arabists and Islamicists, examined the educational concepts of Ibn Rushd (also known by the Latinized form of his name, Averroes) and Thomas Aquinas in his Kareema Khoury Annual Distinguished Lecture on November 11. He asserted that an awareness of these medieval scholars’ positions on the aims, contents, and methods of teaching and learning may be of help when dealing with contemporary educational issues.

Ibn Rushd, who hailed from twelfth-century Muslim Spain, argued for a connection between divine law, philosophy, and logic. He asserted that logic and demonstrative syllogism are the basis of dealing with almost all of the sciences, be they religious or profane. In this way, he followed Aristotle, and advised his students to learn from the ancient masters, despite the fact that they were not Muslim.

The thirteenth-century Italian thinker Thomas Aquinas was one of the most important disciples and critics of Ibn Rushd, and also discussed education within a theological and philosophical framework in his major writings. While he agreed with certain of Aristotle’s and Ibn Rushd’s key concepts, he differed from Ibn Rushd in his conceptualization of the so-called “passive” (or information processing) intellect. For Ibn Rushd, there exists only one “passive” intellect shared by all humans. In contrast, for Thomas Aquinas, each individual person possesses his own “passive” intellect, whose nature it is to receive, retain, and process information. Thomas Aquinas thus called on the individual to make use of his mind, which promoted the idea that each human being thinks “on his own”—an understanding that promoted the secularization of knowledge and education in medieval Europe.

The concepts that Ibn Rushd and Thomas Aquinas share include: 1) the centrality of scriptural truth as a source of wisdom; 2) the priority of logic in learning and teaching; 3) the usefulness of careful contemplation; 4) the duty of learning from the past; and 5) the idea that students and teachers should enjoy academic freedom in the educational process.

While Thomas Aquinas was canonized in 1323 and declared patron of all Roman Catholic educational establishments in 1880, Ibn Rushd as a scholar has remained controversial in the Muslim world. The rationalism of his thought, however, plays an increasing role in intellectual debates in the Arab world. For certain prominent secular Muslim intellectuals, Ibn Rushd has become a leading figure “of their pleas for a modern, Muslim civil society which acknowledges its debt to its own Islamic past and heritage but is at the same time open to other cultures and civilizations,” said Dr. Günther.

Dr. Günther ended his talk with the assertion that the rediscovery of the classical Islamic and the medieval Christian intellectual heritage is an opportunity for the Muslim and Western worlds given the potential universality of all rational knowledge. “Ibn Rushd and Thomas Aquinas’s educational ideas have lost nothing of their initial thought-provoking appeal,” he said. “Indeed, they appear to be as relevant and useful even today when considering contemporary issues in education, be it in the Middle East or the Western world.”