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A polymath who used logic in nirvana's quest.

A classic polymath-philosopher, physician, astronomer, mathematician, and poet, Abu Bakr Mohammad Ibn Yahyah Ibn Al Sayigh Al Tujibi Ibn Bajjah, better known as Ibn Bajjah -- Avempace in the Latinised version -- was a master of logic. Born in Saragossa, Spain, towards the end of the 11th century and most probably poisoned to death by rival physicians in Fez, Morocco in 1138, Ibn Bajjah excelled in the study of logical treatises, with critical commentaries on Aristotle and others mostly preserved at the Escorial, a remarkable building at the Monasterio de San Lorenzo about 44 kilometres northwest of Madrid.

His opus, "The Hermit's Guide", shows how man (represented in the work by the hermit) may, by the "development of his own powers of mind, attain a union with the Active Intellect". His was a lifetime devoted to attain high spiritual levels, which went beyond Sufi teachings, all in the quest for nirvana.

Ibn Bajjah's logical interpretations distinguished two kinds of action for man to pursue: animal actions, which were products of the animal soul to satisfy basic needs, and human actions, which the philosopher posited were a product of the human soul that were, in turn, based on free will and reflection.

Ibn Bajjah introduced specific ethical norms in his reflection too, educating the hermit to teach himself, at least as a first step, to be ruled by will and reason, so that his actions may all be human. Once man reaches such a level, he reasoned, he must strive to higher perfection, so that his actions may become divine.

Doing so will mean that his efforts will lead to fulfilling spiritual norms that, gradually but surely, will evolve ideas into the intellect and utmost spirituality, just one step below celestial bodies, that is to say, below spiritual substances that will help reach those levels. It was that quest that lead to eventual perfection.


When Ibn Bajjah was born in Saragossa around 1085, the city was the capital of the Taifah Kingdom of the Banu Hud, under the rule of Yousuf Al Mu'tamin Ibn Hud (r. 1081-1085) who was succeeded by Al MustaaACAyin II (r. 1085-1110) who, in turn, was overthrown by the Almoravid Sultan aACAyAli Ibn Yousuf Ibn Tashufin (r. 1107-1143).

Ibn Bajjah worked in Court as a minister [wazir] and served the sultan's brother-in-law Abu Bakr aACAyAli Ibn Ibrahim Al Sahrawi, better known as Ibn Tifilwit, then the Governor of Saragossa. The relationship between the two men was mutually rewarding as both enjoyed poetry and music, though many others resented both men that, at times, led to Ibn Bajjah's imprisonment after Ibn Tifilwit died in 1116.

When King Alfonso conquered Saragossa from the Almoravids in 1118, Ibn Bajjah hastiley left town and sought refuge at the Court of Abu Ish'aq Ebrahim Ibn Yousuf Ibn Tashufin, in XEatiba, in the Eastern part of al-Andalus. This was not a happy time for the polymath, though it was in XEatiba that he learnt medicine and practiced with one of the most renowned names at the time: Abu Marwan aACAyAbdul Malik Ibn Abul-aACAyAla' Zuhr.

Regrettably, the teacher grew jealous of the student when the latter excelled. Although Ibn Bajjah remained in the Almoravid circle, he first moved to Seville before settling in Fez, Morocco, in 1139. Legendary reports alleged that Ibn MaaACAyyub, a servant of the physician Abul-aACAyAla' Ibn Zuhr, poisoned Ibn Bajjah, although this could not be verified by fact as few knew what caused his death.


Notwithstanding his checkered life, which was typical of thinkers in medieval times, and giving credit to the Almoravids whose leaders "based their legitimacy on religious observance and were therefore hostile to philosophy and other disciplines that could challenge their concept of orthodoxy", Ibn Bajjah found solace in their court bon in al-Andalus as well as North Africa. Ibn Tumart, the founder of the Almoravid dynasty, encouraged Ibn Bajjah to discuss religious matters with him, given the latter's love of knowledge. Such exchanges were rare and seldom occurred in abstract form since wise leaders were aware of dramatic changes all around them and sought expert knowledge to help them govern with poise.

To be sure, the thirst for scientific discoveries was widespread, at a time when leading scholars delved in epochal steps, despite numerous controversies that were encouraged by challenged clerics.

Physicians and astronomers, in particular, were the vanguards of those who could enlighten medieval rulers, many of whom operated under the influences of established Greek [Aristotle, Ptolemy, etc] traditions.

The Almoravids in particular believed that Al Andalus was the perfect crucible for the development of fresh ideas, which was why Ibn Bajjah and others were encouraged to proceed with their work.

As he proceeded with his investigations, and according to Al Farabi, who provided us with insights on Ibn Bajjah's logic, the Andalusian commented that all knowledge came in the five syllogistic arts [that are employed for their own sake without any need to have an action as their end]: "philosophy and the [four] arts", which include dialectics, sophistry [an argument apparently correct in form but actually invalid], rhetoric, and poetry.

According to Ibn Bajjah, philosophy embraced all beings "insofar as it knows them with convincing science" that, by necessity, required the existence of certainty in knowledge and universality in scope. Again, these two conditions were critical to buttress the five divisions of philosophy: metaphysics, physics, practical philosophy, mathematics, and logic.

In as much as the scientist/philosopher espoused mathematics, astronomy, and medicine, his focus was on how the human mind acquired and absorbed wisdom "because such properties and their knowledge [were the] instruments for apprehending the right and the truth in beings". It was largely for this reason that logic was perceived as an instrument of philosophy.


Given the scholar's razor-sharp observations, Ibn Bajjah's views of metaphysics deserve special attention, because he knew that while scientific knowledge was produced by human will, it necessitated ethical norms. His ideas were included in an opus titled "Rule of the Solitary" that exposed that while Plato opined in his Republic that the human soul was the model for the perfect city, Ibn Bajjah started from the ideal city and transferred its organisation to the individual.

This reversal is the result of imperfections in how human beings governed themselves, which were illustrated by timocracy, oligarchy, democracy, and tyranny. Of course, Ibn Bajjah did not entirely dismiss Plato, though his version was characterised by the absence of falsities -- which citizens were programmed to accept as being accurate -- that, in turn, required them to learn how to differentiate between right and wrong.

Such an endeavour to free one from false opinions necessitated several things. To preserve health, for example, Ibn Bajjah reasoned the physician engaged in the tadbir al-Sahhah, which mandated knowledge of the natural sciences. Similarly, he concluded, that to deliver justice, one needed to have a knowledge of political science. In all his investigations, the philosopher relied on his "reasoning" as having some spirituality that, consequently, indicated the quest for perfection. Yet, because spiritual forms could be both true or false, one needed to rely on common sense to make sure that they are true since spiritual forms play a role in every aspect of human life.

What is remarkable about this reasoning is that Ibn Bajjah considered even the prophetic revelation to be part and parcel of this logic, with a caveat. He believed that the inspiration received by all of the prophets belonged to the "category of particular spiritual forms, which do not pass through the common sense, but are received directly from the active intellect" that, at face value, highlighted the philosopher's deep religiosity.

In his own words: "These instances go beyond the natural world, they are divine gifts."


Because Ibn Bajjah believed the spirituality of most men was limited to particular forms -- he posited that only philosophers attained the highest degree of spirituality as they distanced themselves from material things -- it was critical to note that he counselled philosophers to take care of both the corporeal as well as particular spiritual forms to live honourably.

He advanced the notion that spiritual acts rendered a philosopher nobler while his intellectual contributions made him divinely virtuous. Such a soul could, therefore, aspire for divine solace because he was embarked on the search for truth and whatever he did, he strove to accomplish with flying colours.

Such accomplishments allowed the philosopher -- in time man as a moral entity -- to achieve substantial intelligences (aACAcentsuqul). In his later treatise, "Conjunction of Intellect with Man", Ibn Bajjah "described how man first acquires the spiritual forms, then he apprehends the intelligibles, and by means of the latter he approaches the final intelligence (al-aACAyaql al-akhir)". To reach that level, nevertheless, he needed to free himself from material objects.

Perhaps Ibn Bajjah's true legacy was his apprehension that an indirect approach to the last intelligence was not sufficient and that man needed to reach absolute intelligibles without any relations to the material intellects. Indeed, and as his many successors would expound upon, true existence was premised on absolute intelligibles that, in short, must be the creator. Although he never says that God is the last intelligence, which he compares with the sun and its light, Ibn Bajjah advanced the notion that a happy soul was the one who succeeded in reaching the highest step of knowledge and thus became light himself. This stage, of course, left behind scientific knowledge behind and "became unarticulated mystical experience".

Notwithstanding that intellectual pleasure was almost always caused by the very fact of knowing, metaphysical knowledge, or the state of mystical experience, was man's uppermost stage as well as source of highest pleasure. Perhaps even a divine gift. Thus, and by explaining these permutations, it was safe to posit that Ibn Bajjah earned the position of one of the most prominent figures of philosophy, one who encouraged music and poetry, which Arabs and Muslims craved, and who lived life to the fullest.


There are several manuscripts in print, mostly in Arabic, though a few were also translated into English and French. The following is a small sample:

Ibn Bajjah, Kitab al-nafs, ed. Mohammad Saghir Hasan Al MaaACAysumi; Damascus: al-MajmaaACAy al-aACAyilm' al-aACAyArabi, 1379 AH/1960 CE [first published in Majallat MajmaaACAy al-Lugha al-aACAyArabiyyah, vols. 33 (1958) pp. 96-111; 278-301; 424-442; 609-632. 34 (1959) 112-126; 332-344; 490-506; 634-645; 35 (1960) 114-122.

aACAyIlm al-nafs, English translation and notes, M. S. H. al-MaaACAysumi, Karachi: Pakistan Historical Society, 1961. Reprinted in Publications of the Institute for the History of Arabic and Islamic Science. Islamic Philosophy 75, Franfkurt am Main, 1999.

Ibn Bagga (Avempace): La conduite de l'isolEa et deux autres EapEaAtres (EpEaAtre de l'adieu; Conjonction de l'intellect). Introduction, Eadition critique du texte arabe, traduction et commentaire par Charles Genequand. Paris : Vrin, 2010.


Lawrence, Berman, The Governance of the Solitary in R. Lerner and M. Mahdi, Medieval Political Philosophy, A Source Book, Toronto: The Free Press of Glencoe, 1963, pp. 122-133.

Vincent LagardEaA re, "L'EaAepEaAtre d'Ibn Bajja sur la conjunction de l'intellect avec l'esprit humain," Revue des EaAetudes Islamiques 49 (1981), pp. 175-196.

Jamal al-Din al-aACAyAlawi, Mu'allafat Ibn Bajjah, Beirut-Casablanca: Dar al-Thaqafah & Dar al-Nashr al-Maghribiyyah, 1983.

Michel Allard, "Ibn Bagga et la politique" Orientalia Hispanica sive studia F. M. Pareja octogenario dicata, v. 1 (1974), pp. 11-19.

Stephen Harvey, "The Place of the Philosopher in the City according to Ibn Bajja," in C.E. Butterworth, ed., The Political Aspects of Islamic Philosophy: Essays in Honor of M.S. Mahdi, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University, 1992, pp. 199-233.

Remke Kruk, "Ibn Bajja's commentary on Aristotle's De animalibus," in G. Endress and R. Kruk, eds., The ancient tradition in Christian and Islamic Hellenism, Leiden: Research School CNWS, 1997, pp. 165-179.

E.I.J. Rosenthal, "The place of politics in the philosophy of Ibn Bajja," Islamic Culture 25 (1951), pp. 187-211.

This article is the twenty-seventh of a series on Muslim thinkers who greatly influenced Arab societies across the centuries.

Dr. Joseph A. KEachichian is the author of the forthcoming "Iffat Al Thunayan: An Arabian Queen", London, Sussex Academic Press, 2015.

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Publication:Gulf News (United Arab Emirates)
Geographic Code:6MORO
Date:Aug 15, 2014
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