In the fall of 1893, the Arabist scholar Julián Ribera (1858–1934) addressed the students and teaching staff of the University of Zaragoza in the inaugural lecture opening the academic year, a common practice at the Spanish universities in the nineteenth century. Ribera chose as the topic for his lecture the history of the educational practices and institutions among Andalusi Muslims. What made his address remarkable was the explanation that Ribera provided in order to justify the interest and relevance of his chosen subject matter. At a moment of international decline of Spain, in which the idea of national “regeneration” was gaining ground among the Spanish intelligentsia, Ribera claimed that he had decided to engage in that study as a means to analyze “the spirit showed by our race toward the teaching of sciences and arts within a civilization that is so different from the Christian one”, with the aim of pondering whether any lesson could be drawn from the Andalusi experience that could serve as a “stimulus” for present-day Spaniards (Ribera 1893, p. 7
). Such a dissociation between “race” and “civilization” portrayed an inclusive understanding of Spanish national identity that allowed him to consider the Andalusi Muslims as part of the Spanish “race” and, therefore, as related to some extent to modern Spaniards. This was far from being universally accepted, and such a vision would have been hard to elaborate a century earlier. It was the work of Orientalist scholarship throughout the nineteenth century that allowed for new interpretations of the Muslim legacy to Spain (López García 2011
; Marín 2014
; Rivière 2000
). And that scholarship was not without nationalist purposes, reclaiming for Spain the riches of Andalusi culture. Ribera concluded his lecture affirming that it had been the “genius of Spain” that touched the Andalusi men of science and accounted for how “our motherland managed to become, through the endeavor and zeal of its offspring, the master of the Western nations” (Ribera 1893, p. 99
This article analyzes the research pursued at the turn of the twentieth century by Julián Ribera and his Arabist colleague Miguel Asín Palacios (1871–1944) into the philosophy and theology of Andalusi Muslims in light of the contextual realities and intellectual debates of the time, discussions that had a profound impact on their scholarship. Given the leading roles of both scholars in incorporating those type of studies within the body of Spanish Orientalism, the “presentist” concerns embedded in their investigations would have a great weight in the manner in which the Andalusi philosophical and theological legacy would later be considered and portrayed among several generations of scholars. The article highlights the support given by the leading conservative scholar and director of the National Library of Spain Marcelino Menéndez Pelayo (1856–1912) to Ribera and Asín Palacios in their surveys of the intellectual history of al-Andalus. Menéndez Pelayo encouraged them to strive for a better understanding of the influence of Oriental philosophies in the development of medieval Christian thought. I would argue that Menéndez Pelayo came to assume the value of the Orientalist field prompted by the fact that the Arabists’ findings were consistent with his program to vindicate the history of Spanish intellectual production. The analysis of the philosophical and theological exchanges between Islam and Christianity received renewed attention at the turn of the century due to the interest taken by Ribera during the 1890s in the educational institutions of the Islamic world, which he connected to the cultural preoccupations felt in Spain at the time and tied to the Regenerationist movement.
Just a few years later, Miguel Asín Palacios would argue that some trends of Islamic medieval thought had a determining influence on the development of Christian scholasticism. Paradoxically, such a claim, which if made some decades earlier would have received the unanimous condemnation of most Catholic men of letters, was raised by a Catholic priest—Asín Palacios had been ordained in 1895. I argue in this article that a process of “nationalization” of the Iberian Semitic heritage carried out by the Spanish Orientalists throughout the nineteenth century had lasting effects, and indeed, at the turn of the twentieth century, the scholars who would make the most dedicated efforts to demonstrate the influence of Iberian Islamic and Jewish thought and culture over Europe were all devoted Catholics of conservative leanings. Their works would even be favorably received in some ecclesiastical intellectual circles. A key to this success was the fact that Ribera and Asín Palacios, as is shown in this article, developed a theoretical framework which explained the whole of medieval Muslim philosophy as stemming from the reception in the East of the intellectual traditions of early Christian thought. Thus, to some extent, Ribera and Asín Palacios would “Christianize” Muslim and Andalusi philosophy, rendering it easier for the Catholic public to come to terms with the Arabist arguments regarding their lasting influence in Spain. This article seeks to expose how the Orientalist studies of Ribera and Asín Palacios and their interpretation of the Andalusi legacy to Spain are inseparable from the goals of a transnational movement that was looking to legitimate a Catholic science within European universities.
3. “Christianizing” Muslim Theology
In founding the Revista de Aragón
, Asín Palacios established the perfect outlet for his research agenda into the study of Iberian Muslim philosophy and its impact on Christian philosophy and theology. In a series of articles about the Zaragoza-born Muslim philosopher Avempace, he adapted the nationalized interpretation of Andalusi culture to the Aragonese regionalism promoted by the journal (Asín Palacios 1900
). Thus, he claimed that rarely had anybody suspected the fact that the city’s name “resonated among peoples of a different race, a different language, and what is more, a different religion” (Asín Palacios 1900, p. 193
). The Zaragozan philosopher had been influenced by other Muslim thinkers like the Persians Al-Ghazali and Avicenna, but, according to Asín Palacios, his was the exclusive credit for having introduced Oriental philosophy into Spain, where Muslim thought then reached new heights.
Asín Palacios’s analysis of the Spanish Muslim school was rooted in his knowledge of the philosophy of Al-Ghazali. To him, the thread tying most Iberian Muslim thinkers together had been the underlying weight that classical Greek philosophy had in all their intellectual systems. Al-Ghazali and Avicenna had been in his view the main channels through which that classical heritage had entered into Spain, despite Al-Ghazali’s ambiguous stance toward rational philosophy. Al-Ghazali had engaged with Neo-Platonic philosophy, but had been wary of the dangers that free rational inquiry could have for religious life, and seemed to have been inclined to argue for an esoteric approach to rational speculation, limited to the few (Sedgwick 2017, pp. 41–43
). Some personal notes of Asín Palacios reveal that at the time when he was composing his dissertation on Al-Ghazali, he was doubtful about the real, “intimate” attitude of Al-Ghazali toward rational philosophy.5
For his part, Averroes had adopted a pantheistic system, developed by his master Avempace, which was essentially a mixture of the doctrines of Greek philosophers that assumed Neo-Platonist and mystical forms in the works of earlier Muslim philosophers like Avicenna and Al-Farabi (Asín Palacios 1900, p. 196
). Although the importance that Avempace and Averroes had granted to the rational process distanced them from Al-Ghazali and his skepticism toward the virtues of science, they all constituted, through their works, a chain of knowledge connecting ancient classical culture and medieval Iberian philosophy.
Asín furthermore claimed that an alleged inherent distaste felt by Muslims for rational speculation had also gained these rationalist Muslim philosophers the hatred of the common people. The orthodox backlash against the medieval Muslim sects that had sought to make Greek thought compatible with Islam’s core beliefs had caused the legacy of these rationalist philosophers to be proscribed, both in Spain and in the Orient. However, for some time, their works had been popular in Spain, and even reached followers of other religions. Asín Palacios therefore sought to recover the memory of those cultural and religious exchanges:
The tolerance among men consecrated to the study of philosophy that can be appreciated in those medieval centuries, which many characterize as intolerant times, is a remarkable phenomenon. Muslims, Jews, and Christians, as they lived together and communicated peacefully in social commerce, except in the periods of political and religious warfare, so also did they cooperate in the quiet pursuit of truth.
In 1902, Asín Palacios resumed the analysis of the philosophy of Al-Ghazali in order to familiarize the readers of Revista de Aragón
with the doctrines of the Persian theologian on the question of religious belief (Asín Palacios 1902
). He looked to highlight the resemblance between Al-Ghazali’s doctrines and Christian theology on the topic of “faith”. Behind his argument lay his avowed purpose of demonstrating that “the theological literature of the first centuries of Christianity” was at the root of Muslim thought (Asín Palacios 1902, pp. 386–92
). Al-Ghazali’s teachings had attempted to simplify Islamic law. To him, from a dogmatic point of view, the Muslim believer should be contented with merely knowing the Islamic profession of faith. It itself provided enough knowledge for being a good Muslim, and further theological pursuits should only take place in order to expel any religious doubts the believer held. The common people therefore must be guided by a simple, non-theological faith. They did not need to understand, only to believe. Theologians should then strive, Al-Ghazali argued, to keep the traditional sacramental formulas alive and ensure that most people abstain from reflecting on religious dogma, since according to him most men were like children in matters of faith.
The fundamental assumption of Al-Ghazali was that rational reflection was to be exclusively reserved for a small group of worthy devoted men, while the masses should find truth in a blind form of religious faith. Asín Palacios contended that Al-Ghazali’s was not an original formulation, and that it must “be considered as a remnant of practices and doctrines that predate Islam, and which penetrated into Islam through ways that are yet unknown” (Asín Palacios 1902, p. 386
). This opened new rich prospects of research. Asín Palacios, however, harbored few doubts that the sources of Al-Ghazali’s views were located in the early Christian theological literature. He pointed to the condemnation of rational speculation made by Tertullian and the members of the Catechetical School of Alexandria as the most probable sources. Thus, Al-Ghazali’s thesis was in fact “originally Christian”, and as such, it reverberated, in its essence, “in all Catholic theologians”. According to Asín Palacios, Pascal and Leibniz, for instance, had echoed the positions of the Persian theologian (Asín Palacios 1902, pp. 389–90
The publications of the disciples of Codera in Revista de Aragón
and their protagonist role in the editorial enterprise of the Colección de Estudios Árabes
helped boost the image of the Arabist scholars as conforming to a homogeneous research agenda. The cohesion of the “School of Arabists” was strengthened by the organization of a volume of essays on Arabist themes that was arranged as a tribute to Codera as he retired from his position at the university in 1902. Asín Palacios would take the occasion of his homage to Codera to keep highlighting the contacts established between the philosophers of the three religions. This time, his text focused on the influence that the twelfth-century Islamic philosopher Averroes had over the theological views of the Christian scholastic theologian Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274). There had been, according to Asín Palacios, a very common misunderstanding that had led to considering Averroes to be taking sides with philosophy against revelation, and therefore that he was an enemy of Aquinas. But nothing was further from the historical truth. Averroes, “far from being the master and patron of Averroist rationalism, was indeed its most unyielding opponent” (Asín Palacios 1904a, p. 272
). What Asín Palacios claimed was that the theories elaborated by both Averroes and Aquinas for conciliating faith and reason, rather than being opposed, were indeed identical. Their philosophical systems had to be compared in order to realize that the Christian saint had actually emulated the Arabic philosopher. Aquinas had established that there were supernatural truths that the rational mind could not know by their essence. However, reason was one of the gifts that God had given to mankind and, therefore, the theologian should not fear putting it to use for unraveling the mysteries of revelation. On the contrary, the theologian “should resolutely put philosophy inside the atrium of faith, as a guide that illuminates the path, as an assistant that helps him in the possible clarification of the mysteries, and as the battle weapon that defends him against error” (Asín Palacios 1904a, p. 277
). Averroes had an analogous understanding, showing trust in the capacity of reason to gradually uncover the truth, but being at the same time aware that reason alone was impotent in unraveling the divine mysteries. Between the skepticism toward philosophy characteristic of the mystics, and the irreligious rationalism of the philosophers, both Averroes and Aquinas had opted for a middle way. Therefore, both had attracted the wrath of the traditionalists within their respective religions: Franciscan and some Dominican friars in the case of Aquinas, and Sufis, the Ulama, and the mutakallimun
(theologians), in the case of Averroes.
Asín Palacios indeed went on to argue that the “Angelic Doctor” had directly emulated the Muslim thinker. He held that the Christian scholastic synthesis of the thirteenth century had to be “explained on the basis of the reception in Europe of the Muslim encyclopedia” (Asín Palacios 1904a, p. 308
). The French philologist Ernest Renan (1823–1892) had argued that Christian scholasticism saw Averroes as a two-faced figure: as both the utmost impious philosopher, who had denounced the farce of the three religions, but also as the greatest commentator on the works of Aristotle. Asín Palacios claimed now to have demonstrated that Aquinas had only seen this latter aspect of Averroes. Asín Palacios then sought to elucidate the channels through which Aquinas could have had access to the thought of Averroes, indicating that Maimonides had likely been the main source, but pointing as well to Christian sources. The Dominican order of preachers, to which Aquinas belonged, had shown enthusiastic support for the study of science, and had been behind the creation of missionary schools under the patronage of the monarchs of Castile and Aragon for the study of Oriental languages in Tunisia and Murcia. Another Dominican friar of the thirteenth century, the Catalan Ramon Martí, had studied in those schools, and later composed several theological treaties intended to polemicize against Jews and Muslims, best known of which is Pugio Fidei
(The Dagger of Faith
). In Asín Palacios’s eyes, Martí had borrowed extensively from the philosophy of Averroes in that work, and Aquinas would have most likely taken the doctrines of the Andalusi thinker from his Dominican coreligionist:
And thus the scholastic synthesis incorporated the copious stream of the philosophy and even the theology of Averroes, purged from its errors against the Christian faith, as this theology was nothing else than an accommodation of the Christian dogma of the Oriental Church, adapted to the Islamic religion after an arduous and difficult gestation, made possible by the efforts of Al-Ghazali in the Orient, and by Ibn Tufail and Averroes in our Spain.
Drawing on the reception of the Eastern Christian adaptation of classical philosophy, Muslim thinkers such as Al-Ghazali and Averroes had developed a philosophical system that was to permit the harmonization of faith and reason, the ultimate goal of the contemporary movement for a Catholic science. Rather than seeing Al-Ghazali as a detractor of philosophy and Averroes as an impious rationalist, Asín Palacios praised both authors and their works as fundamental milestones in the formulation of the synthesis that Christian scholasticism would achieve between faith and reason, and which would later represent the theoretical underpinning for the apologetic works of the Neo-Thomistic revival. Spain had indeed played a fundamental role as a central location in the chain of these cultural transfers. The publications of Asín Palacios highlighting the encounters between Christian and Islamic thought gained him wide notoriety, a notoriety that was nevertheless not exempt from polemic. His articles riveted the attention of the ecclesiastical and the Catholic intellectual world on the findings of the Arabist school.
In 1901, his colleague in Zaragoza, Juan Moneva y Puyol (1871–1951), a professor on canon law, wrote a review in his volume about Al-Ghazali that defended Asín Palacios’s approach to the subject from the point of view of a Catholic scholar. Speaking of Asín Palacios’s clerical condition, Moneva y Puyol pointed out that “to some people, it is a rare combination to mix the priesthood with Arabic scholarship” (Moneva y Puyol 1901, p. 340
). He claimed that for the common people, Arabism constituted a sort of affront to the Catholic Church, and that “eight centuries of Reconquista
have nurtured such a level of hatred and distance that Moor and devil appeared to be similar things” (Moneva y Puyol 1901, p. 340
). However, as Asín Palacios had demonstrated, the Muslim world was pervaded by Christian doctrines, and “the spirit of our Bible” imbued the Orient. The remnants of Greek thought that had existed in the East were channeled through the schools of the Eastern Christian philosophy. The Christian religion had flourished among the Arabs and its spirit had permeated “the scientific conscience of the Muslim people” (Moneva y Puyol 1901, pp. 341–42
). The Quran, Moneva argued, contained many Christian ideas, and the doctrines of some Muslims philosophers were, for the most part, Christian, and even “identical to ours”. In his opinion, Asín Palacios had demonstrated that this was the case with Al-Ghazali. Indeed, the Persian author could be invoked for the vindication of Catholic science. Al-Ghazali’s arguments alleging the lack of conflict between reason and revelation stuck in the minds of the contemporary reader, at a time when “so many people devote themselves with great dedication to raising obstacles between science and faith, and to attack the Christian dogma all around”. At times like this, Moneva would argue, the efforts of Asín Palacios were all the more valuable, as it had become more necessary than ever to resort to all possible means for the defense of religious faith. Moneva criticized the most rigorous Catholics who did not dare to consider worthy of their interest anything that was not inscribed within the narrowest Catholic intellectual tradition. Describing such attitude as an “empty nominalism”, he went on to argue that if “we use electric light, the printing press, and machines that are all inventions made by heretics, and still we do not consider those inventions as wicked”, likewise, “non-Christians can also argue about truths of faith” (Moneva y Puyol 1901, p. 342
After Revista de Aragón
disappeared and was replaced by Cultura Española
), Asín Palacios would move his queries to the new journal. In 1906, he published a piece in which he claimed that the study of religious mysticism was relevant from the perspective of modern psychology (Asín Palacios 1906, pp. 209–35
). Modern studies in analytical psychology were showing an increasing scientific interest in the “phenomena of the soul”. According to this theory, in all times and places, mystics had sought divine truth in their inner intuitions, trained by ascetic lifestyle and meditational practices. The mystics thus tended to pay a great deal of attention to the psychological processes of the mind and its operations. This was a very conspicuous characteristic of Al-Ghazali’s works, as Asín Palacios had noted in his earlier studies of the Persian theologian, making him a good case study for modern psychological analysis. He proposed that Islamic mysticism, which emulated the ancient religious practices of Eastern Christianity, could prove to be of value for modern psychology, and its study could serve therefore to advance the goals of the movement for Catholic science in contributing to modern scientific production.
It is important to contextualize Asín Palacios’ argument in concerns over the sequestration of Catholic scientific thought in this era. In 1903, Alberto Gómez Izquierdo (1870–1930), Asín Palacios’s colleague at the section of philosophy of Revista de Aragón
, wrote an article exposing some traits of Joseph Mercier’s program for Catholic science at his institute for Thomistic philosophy in Leuven (Gómez Izquierdo 1903
). In it, the Belgium cardinal was shown to decry the isolation in which Catholic men of science lived, not being able to reach out beyond their own small circles. Mercier’s call to them was to cultivate science for science’s sake, and by joining the scientific world on an equal footing with their non-Catholic peers, break away from the idea of Catholics as merely “soldiers” in the defense of their faith. That would be in his mind the best way to stress the compatibility between faith and reason. By stating the relevance of his Orientalist queries for modern psychology, Asín Palacios seemed to be following the advice of Mercier.
Already in 1904, Asín Palacios had informed the readers of Revista de Aragón
with satisfaction that he had witnessed at the Second International Congress of Philosophy, convened that year in Geneva, the development of new scholarly trends that manifested “the emerging renewal of philosophy as a bulwark that reacts against positivism” (Asín Palacios 1904b, pp. 488–92
). In his 1906 article on mysticism and psychology, he referred to a recent work by the leading American philosopher William James (1842–1910), dealing with the multiple forms in which the religious experience is manifested (James 2008
). According to Asín Palacios, James’s book had a powerful impact within the intellectual community in relation to the manner by which the phenomenon of mystical ecstasy was understood. Before James’s publication appeared, the ecstasies described by the mystics had usually been addressed with derision and had not been considered as a subject worthy of scientific analysis. James had stirred a wave of new studies on that topic, but Asín Palacios complained that almost all of them focused on Christian mystical literature, which was not the only one available. He had then decided to enrich that trend with an analysis of Muslim mystical ecstasy, as described by Al-Ghazali and the Murcian Ibn ‘Arabi. These authors not only represented two individual models, but also two genuine ideal types: Al-Ghazali embodyied a moderate and calmer approach, while Ibn ‘Arabi represented a more “pathological” type of mysticism (Asín Palacios 1906, p. 210
). Additionally, both authors had a significant impact on the religious practices of Islam, inspiring many sects and religious brotherhoods. In his analysis of the writings of both authors, Asín Palacios found that Al-Ghazali’s were highly reminiscent of Christian Neo-Platonic doctrines. Indeed, he pointed out that such similarity of thought had forced Al-Ghazali to confess that, while the dogma of the Holy Trinity and the rejection of Muhammad were despicable aspects of the Christian faith, the rest of Christian doctrines in fact conveyed deep religious truths.