Ibn Bajja, Abu Bakr al-Sa’igh


Ibn Bajja, Abu Bakr al-Sa’igh
(d. 533/1138)
   A polymath of sorts, Ibn Bajja (Latin: Avempace) was a physicist, physician, musician, poet and vizier, as well as the first great Andalusian philosopher of the Islamic West. Although his philosophical output was far less prolific than al-Farabi, Ibn Sina or Ibn Rushd (involvement in worldly affairs and an early death limited his productivity in this respect), Ibn Bajja is traditionally ranked with these giants as one of the great philosophers of Islam. His key philosophical writings are Letter on the Conjunction of the Intellect with Human Beings (Risalat al-ittisal al-‘aql bi al-insan), Governance of the Solitary (Tadbir almutawahhid) and Letter on Bidding Farewell (Risalat alwada‘). At the heart of Ibn Bajja’s thought is the idea of conjunction (ittisal), that is, the union of the soul with the active intellect, and through that, a kind of intellectual contact with the divine. This connection with the innermost, eternal reality of things is available neither to the ignorant multitude nor even to the Sufis (who misunderstand the nature of their mystic experiences), but only to philosophers, who grasp by means of their reason the true objects of knowledge: immaterial, timeless, universal and intelligible forms. In this act of knowledge, the souls of the knowing philosophers become indestructible and eternal, like their objects of knowledge. They also become numerically one with each other, since they all cognize the same intelligibles (Ibn Bajja subscribes to a form of monopsychism). But most importantly, through this knowledge they actualize and complete their rational nature, thereby realizing the highest end of life and attaining happiness. With this, we run up against the practical dimension of Ibn Bajja’s thought. Like his predecessor al-Farabi, he agreed with Plato that the appropriate role of the philosopher involves not just theoretical contemplation of first principles, but also wise governance of the virtuous city. However, instead of focusing on the seemingly unrealizable ideal of the philosopherking, Ibn Bajja grappled with the grim fact that few, if any, cities are actually virtuous, and that, unfortunately, the philosopher is most often a marginal, disenfranchised figure. He thus advocated a life of solitude and relative isolation for philosophers, so that they do not become corrupted by the ignorance and vice of the cities in which they must live. Ironically, in describing these ostensibly happy, self-sufficient knowers, he appropriates a term that al-Farabi had reserved for unreformed troublemakers in healthy cities: ‘weeds’.
   Further reading: Ibn Bajja 1963; Leaman 1985/2002; Rosenthal 1958/85

Islamic Philosophy. . 2007.

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