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Ibn Bajja and A Duel with Duality

Berna Berian Baran

2013-09-01 00:00:00

Abu Bakr Muhammad ibn Yahya al Saigh or Ibn Bajja (Avempace) is a well-known twelfth century Spanish philosopher.1 Ibn Bajja was something of a renaissance man; while a vizier, a poet, a doctor, and a composer, he was also a scholar of Arabic, literature, medicine, music, mathematical sciences, logic, astronomy, natural philosophy and metaphysics.2 He finished his academic career at Saragossa. He wrote masterpieces in areas as diverse as medicine, nature, astronomy and political philosophy.2 According to Ibn Rushd (Averroes), he was the first scholar who proposed a way for the “Rule of the Solitary” in Spain.3

Ethics in Ibn Bajja’s philosophy

In Ibn Bajja’s philosophy, beings are created in order to achieve a goal. This goal, if achieved, will lead them to happiness. One who realizes this goal is, thus, happy.4 This goal is to know God and to worship God properly. Continuous pleasure can only be attained by the intellectual knowledge of the Eternal One.5 In Ibn Bajja’s own words:

“The one, who knows God (the only one God, with no partners) truly, knows that the greatest suffering is in God’s displeasure and being away from Him, and that the greatest happiness is in God’s pleasure and being close to Him. To be close to God can only be achieved through knowing ones own self.” 4

According to him, one should be considered a human to the extent that he or she differs from other beings (animals, plants, etc.). Among different kinds of animate beings, only humans can perform actions through free will.6 This is possible only through using their intellect, and controlling corporeal pleasures, instead of being controlled by them or banishing them totally.4 Actions are human in nature insomuch as they lead to this goal. For example, eating is an animal action if it is done to fulfill desire. On the other hand, it is a human action if it is done to preserve strength to achieve spiritual blessings.2 When someone breaks a stone only because they were hurt by it, this is an animal action. If they do the same action in order to prevent somebody else from being hurt, this is a human action.6

Ibn Bajja believes that reaching happiness is not obtained by sudden leaps but through gradual steps.4 One should give priority to spiritual forms over corporeal forms, and if possible, should not socialize with pure materialists or those who mix their spiritual form with the corporeal one, except in some indispensable situations. Otherwise, as in the case of today’s materialistic world, one can easily be distracted from thinking about critical questions that would normally come to each and every individual’s mind, such as who we are, where we come from, where we are going , why we exist, and how to know about God. Secondly, one should go beyond the spiritual forms to reach the intellectual level, and socialize with those who also seek intellectual forms.3

Rule of the “solitary individual”

The “solitary individual” (tadbeer al-mutawahhed) holds an important place in Ibn Bajja’s thought. The term “tadbeer” or governance in Ibn Bajja’s philosophy means the actions done towards an end. On the other hand, al-Mutawahhed means a solitary individual who lives in a society, but who is different, intellectually, from his or her peers.1 They are, thus, alone in their thoughts within the society.4 Al-Mutawahhed is free and active when exposed to various influences, and they achieve the highest moral virtues: a balance between spiritual and material aspects of life.4 Unvirtuous people, on the other hand, are passive under various influences, and make decisions under the influence of their corporeal pleasures or animal desires, but not through using their intellect, which is what makes them human beings.

Ibn Bajja classifies cities before he gives a recipe to the solitary individual on how to achieve happiness. The cities are classified as stressing the moral values of the society. The perfect or ideal city is based on love. The citizens of this city do not quarrel at all. All views are true and all actions are right. They eat properly. Hence there is no need for doctors or judges. Ibn Bajja supports his claim with the question, “Cannot the healthy body rouse itself to resist diseases whose obscure causes come from outside?”6 On the other hand, if there is any contention in a city, it results in the need for a judge who can establish justice. Similarly, if people get harmful foods, they will need a doctor who has knowledge of treatments. So in an imperfect city, there is need for a doctor and a judge. As Ibn Bajja puts it: “The more a city needs them, the more honorable is the rank of both these classes.” 6

The imperfect city, being based on temporary corporeal pleasures, is not suitable for the metaphysical essence of humanity. Still, the imperfect city inherits a way to a virtuous society through solitary individuals.4 If one is in an imperfect city which does not supply any method to obtain knowledge, and is morally corrupted, and if there exists a perfect city, one should migrate to it; thus, they can gain knowledge.1 If there is no such option, he or she should protect themself from the corruptions of their present society, and simultaneously build a social project which will provide happiness to individuals, and begin converting the society into a virtuous one.1 The solitary individual is in a state of transition. During this state, they continue their personal education, and at the same time help convert an imperfect city into a perfect one.4

Contemplative seclusions

The Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, provides a great example of a “solitary individual.” Before he started receiving revelations, he would retreat to the mountain cave of Hira. He continued these retreats later on, especially during Ramadan, the month of fasting, when he went into seclusion for ten days, and spent time in prayer. This tradition, or itiqaf, is still being observed throughout the Muslim world. We can argue that these seclusions and contemplative retreats paved the way for him to transform a an “imperfect city” (Mecca), that was mired in ignorance, paganism, violence, and immorality, to a community of believers who exceled in ethics, learning, and peace; this was the perfect city of Medina. Yet, the Prophet was not just a solitary individual. He engaged with society in all possible ways during and before his prophethood, as a tradesman in caravans, as a social activist in a league dedicated to protect and support the distressed (Hilf al-Fudul), as a peacemaker among tribes, and as a husband and father.


Ibn Bajja’s philosophy on the governance of a solitary individual finds perfect embodiment in Prophetic practice. Personal education and social life are two processes that co-exist, whether in a perfect or an imperfect city, and the Prophetic practice of seclusion is a perfect way of linking the two. The construction of a perfect city joins these two processes after a period of personal education which leads to personal perfection. The solitary individual is always on the way: he or she is reading, contemplating, observing and acting constantly, and he or she does this independently of the status of the society within which they live.


  1. Köroğlu, Burhan. 1996. “Ibn-i Bacce’nin Ahlâk ve Siyaset Düşüncesi,” (The Ethical and Political Thought of Avempace), Divan, 1, 45-46.
  2. Sharif, M. M. 2004. “A History of Muslim Philosophy,” Pakistan Philosophical Congress, 3, 508-526,.
  3. Al-Allaf, M. 2003. “The Solitary Being (al-Mutawahhed): Definitions and Dimensions of Ibn Bajja (Avempace) Philosophy,” The Essence of Islamic Philosophy, ILC-Classic.
  4. Aydınlı, Y. 1997. Ibn Bacce’nin Insan Görüşü, (The Human in the Thought of Ibn Bajja), Marmara Üniversitesi Ilahiyat Fakültesi Vakfı Yayınları.
  5. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Ibn Bajja,
  6. Dunlop, D. M. 1999. Ibn Bajjah’s Tadbiru’l-Mutawahhid (Rule of Solitary), Ibn Bajja Texts and Studies II, Islamic Philosophy (77), Strauss Offsetdruck.
  7. Sahih Bukhari, 3, 33(260).


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