The "Arabs" of Thomas Aquinas Weren't Arabs At All

Returning to the site Ite ad Thomam, I saw an advertisement for the “Annual Fall Workshop on Aquinas and the ‘Arabs'” at Marquette University (not, these days, an ideal venue for such a traditional Catholic conference.)  For someone like myself who started the Summa as an undergraduate and finished it as a PhD candidate, it looks to be interesting.

The two main scholars from the Islamic world that Aquinas cites are Avicenna and Averroes.  The first thing the conference needs to establish is that neither of these two worthies are Arab, although they certainly wrote in Arabic.

Avicenna (Abū ʿAlī al-Ḥusayn ibn ʿAbd Allāh ibn Al-Hasan ibn Ali ibn Sīnā) was Persian.  Having spent five years with Persian scholars, I can tell you that they’re a world apart from their Arab counterparts.  I’ll go a step further: if there is an “Islamic Civilisation,” it’s Persian, not Arab.

Averroes (ʾAbū l-Walīd Muḥammad Ibn ʾAḥmad Ibn Rušd) lived in Moorish Spain.  His family was prominent under the Almoravids, a Muslim dynasty of Berber origin, from North Africa.  Some Berbers at least are very defensive about being called “Arabs.”

As an aside, Averroes’ chief opponent, Al-Ghazali, was also Persian.  About ten years ago I dealt with the difference between Al-Ghazali and Aquinas; it remains an often visited piece on this site.

So perhaps this will be the first order of business of the conference.   Such differences may seem trivial, but if they and others were better understood–especially by those making the decisions these days–our world would be a better place.

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