Paul L. Heck on Ibn Hazm of Cordoba: The Life and Works of A Controversial Thinker
Ibn Hazm of Cordoba, pious scholar and littérateur of eleventh-century Andalusia, may not be well known, but his ideas certainly generate controversy. Pope Benedict XVI cited him as a paragon of obscurantist religious thinking in his 2006 speech in Regensburg, Germany, which aimed to call Christian Europe to the rationality of its own faith tradition but infuriated Muslims across the globe. Benedict’s treatment of Ibn Hazm failed to do him justice by overlooking the wider context of his thought. But Ibn Hazm’s views are highly regarded today in the world of Salafism, a trend in contemporary Islam known for its literalist approaches to scripture. His writings on Judaism and Christianity rank among the harshest treatments of the so-called People of the Book in the history of Islam and continue to influence Muslim attitudes towards Jews and Christians. The same could be said of his treatment of Shi‘ism.
Ibn Hazm’s best-known work in Western universities is The Ring of the Dove, a literary masterpiece on the art — and tribulations — of love. Reflecting his upbringing in a high ranking family in the Umayyad Caliphate of Muslim Spain, it constitutes a series of penetrating reflections on the assorted longings one human being can have for another. Ibn Hazm admits the irrepressible nature of what he calls the sweetest of illnesses, and he even offers advice on seduction techniques. Given his reputation as scholar and polemicist, it never fails to astonish students to see this very human side of Ibn Hazm.
Ibn Hazm was a polymath who contributed to thinking in law, linguistics, art and aesthetics, theology, philosophy, ethics, history, genealogy, astronomy, and mathematics — on top of his contributions to interreligious polemics. These contributions deserve a more sustained look alongside his literary work, and this monumental collection of articles on his life and thought, edited by three leading scholars of Islam, consolidates over a century of Western scholarship on Ibn Hazm. It will serve as a critical reference point and provide firmer scholarly grounding for reflection on the meaning Ibn Hazm has for Islam today.
Ibn Hazm has much to say for our contemporary understanding of Islam, including Muslim attitudes towards non-Muslims as well as non-Muslim views of Islam. Not only was he a learned scholar but he was also deeply involved in the contestations for power in his day, a highly volatile moment in the history of Andalusia. He served as vizier to two caliphs, but another ruler, al-Mu‘tadid of Seville (r. 1042-1069), had his works publicly burned. Nonetheless, his ideas had political impact long after he was buried in his ancestral village of Huelva. The Almohads, a dynasty of Berbers who ruled North Africa and Andalusia from the twelfth to the thirteenth centuries, sought to turn Ibn Hazm’s legal thought into official policy. While his legal thought dismissed the rulings of traditional jurists that go beyond the plain wordings of scripture, it was useful to the Almohads in their attempt to discredit the authority of sharia scholars in society, especially those associated with the legal school of Malikism, known for assuming the role of arbiter of power in the Islamic West. This had its downside, though: Ibn Hazm’s minimalist approach to sharia, which could result in creative revisions of the law, made it difficult for judges to issue decisions without recourse to the tools of traditional jurisprudence. Indeed, could scripture give rulings for all court cases?
The studies in this volume illustrate the close connection between Ibn Hazm’s writings and his politics. While one did not flow automatically from the other, his life was one of earnest — even zealous — activism, both political and intellectual. One could characterize his activities on the whole as a twofold struggle for the rule of Islam over Andalusia and the truth of its beliefs over all other religions. He lived during the twilight of the Umayyad Caliphate and the beginnings of its fragmentation into city-states. He was also disturbed at the presence of Jews and Christians in well-placed positions in Muslim Spain and the willful neglect of its rulers to enforce God’s decree, revealed in the Qur’an, that the people of the book occupy a place of lowliness in the Abode of Islam. The image we have of Andalusia today is one of interreligious harmony, but the picture painted here is rather different.
The title suggests that Ibn Hazm was a controversial thinker. He was certainly a complex thinker. He assumed, first of all, that truth is obvious to the human mind and aligned himself with a school (Zahirism) known for its commitment to the obvious sense of scripture apart from scholastic interpretation. However, he took that school in a new direction by demanding clarity of religious discourse across the board. To this end, he penned a summary of Aristotle’s Organon in order, he claims, to give scholars easier access to the rules of logic. But he had a larger purpose in mind — namely, to upset hierarchies of traditional learning in Islam and to claim the rationality of logic for Islam over against other religions. Through force of logic, he argued, one could prove the existence of a single god who is creator of all and also the truth of the prophecy of Islam. (Proof for the latter included the so-called logic of accepting soundly transmitted historical reports about the miracles of Muhammad.) It follows that the right thing to do is to follow Islam as revealed to Muhammad. On this basis, Ibn Hazm claimed that all other religions — and also all the theological ideas and legal rulings that had accumulated in Islam since the time of Muhammad — were unequivocally false.
At the same time, Ibn Hazm, the pious scholar in search of religious clarity, never lost the passions of his earlier days that could embroil him in fervent nostalgia for a past love. Only now he turned those passions in their full force to disputation, doing so — as true lover for first love — with the aim of returning Islam to its origins. Against Islam’s traditional scholars, he maintained that one had no need of expertise in the arcane system of scholastic learning to qualify as a believer in good standing. (There was a tendency in the dominant school of theology, Ash‘arism, to suspect the faith of those unable to give proofs of Islam’s basic tenets. How could they claim to know what they believed?) He even admitted that all his scholarly training had not increased his faith but served only to correct a mistaken opinion or two. Thus, despite his passion for debate and his demand that opponents speak clearly, he entertained the possibility that faith is something God has placed in one’s heart more so than a product of the rational inquiries of the mind. God encourages us to think but does not command us to do so. We are obligated only to follow the message of Islam as revealed in scripture in its plain meaning.
There is something to Benedict’s portrayal of Ibn Hazm, but it is only one side of a more involved story. Ibn Hazm did reject the power of the human mind to know right and wrong on its own apart from God’s revelation, claiming that scripture is the sole source of moral knowledge. But he did so out of horror at the cacophony of beliefs at large in Andalusia of his day. How could the superiority of Islam be demonstrated amidst so many contradictory claims to truth within the community of Muslims? Since humans — even those who share a single faith — invariably differ in their views of right and wrong, which poses a threat to the integrity of knowledge, it must be left to God to determine good and evil. Only God can authoritatively communicate moral knowledge in the literal wordings of scripture, while humans must simply obey God’s revealed commands and prohibitions to earn salvation in the next world. To be sure, the human soul is fickle and stands in need of training in ethics if it is to realize that tranquility comes only by abandoning attachment to the fleeting things of this world and devoting oneself wholly to action pleasing to God, but it is not for the human mind to determine what such action might be. None but God can pretend to know what is pleasing to God. Thus, only in scripture can such knowledge be found.
The Zahirism of Ibn Hazm is often reduced to this image of unthinking obedience to scriptural pronouncements. There is a truth to it, but it is by no means the whole story, and it did not turn Ibn Hazm into a lunatic or hateful person despite his exclusivist religious views. It is important to grasp the complete picture of Ibn Hazm, and this collection helps us to do so. At his core, he was driven to show that there are no hidden mysteries lying beyond appearances, those of creation no less than those of revelation. Knowledge is obvious so long as one thinks clearly.
It is nicer and indeed more accurate to remember Ibn Hazm in this sense rather than as obscurantist. But all the same, he remains a controversial even if complex thinker. Ironically, his ideas had impact on mystical scholars, such as Ibn ‘Arabi (d. 1240), and anti-mystical scholars, such as Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya (d. 1350), alike. But it is also true that his Zahirism has left many Muslims distraught even if also appreciative of his efforts to claim the status of knowledge for the beliefs of Islam — and to simplify the faith in doing so. Rather than taking Ibn Hazm as anomaly, we can see him as representative of a deeper dynamic — and anxiety — within the community of the faithful. Islam, arguably more so than other systems of faith, makes knowledge — knowledge compelling to the mind — the measure of its claim to be God’s final message to humanity. On this view, Islam is not about God’s intervention to save sinners, nor is it simply a set of universal values that all humans have always known. It is about unparalleled knowledge of Judgment Day, communicated by God, along with the guidance needed for a successful outcome in the next world. One need not be perfect. There are ways to repent. Nevertheless, the worth of the message comes from its claim to be knowledge from God, and yet there have always been countless opinions about its meaning. It is this disagreement that can challenge its claim to communicate clear knowledge of humanity’s final end.
To rule over Andalusia, Islam, object of the love that God had implanted in Ibn Hazm’s breast, had to be defended as clear knowledge with a claim on the human mind. It also had to be shown to be true since other religions existed comfortably alongside it without challenge. Ibn Hazm had to clear the deck. All viewpoints, theological and juridical, that had accumulated since the time of Muhammad, had to be discarded for the sake of the plain sense of scripture. This sense conveyed moral teachings that the mind could not reach on its own but could still be acknowledged with the help of Aristotelian logic.
The controversial nature of Ibn Hazm’s thought is hardly novel. Many scholars before and after him spent their lives seeking to demonstrate that the message of God to Muhammad is not simply an object of faith but is truly knowledge from God. Ibn Hazm had his own way of undertaking the task, but he is certainly not alone. This volume offers a wealth of information to help us connect the dots on the thought of a controversial and complex figure — on his context but also his motives and, most significantly, how he fits into the overall legacy of Islam.
Are the texts of revelation to be preferred over the workings of the mind even when the latter give us reason to appreciate God’s message? Is human rationality a match for God’s knowledge? Or is it better to admit that one’s devotions originate in the heart? And what does a communiqué from God tell us about the purpose of rule? These and other questions emerge from the pages of this volume, helping us to better understand Ibn Hazm in his own day but also prompting us to take the next step to consider what this most controversial thinker of Andalusia means for us today.