Faculty Scholarly Dissemination Grants


Averroes as Centerpoint: Using the life and works of Averroes comprehensively in undergraduate courses


Honors College


Brooks College of Interdisciplinary Studies

Date Range





This paper outlines a multi-disciplinary approach to teaching undergraduates about the Islamic world that uses the figure of Averroes as one of the centerpoints of the class. Averroes is an ideal figure for looking backwards from the 12th century as well as forwards as far as the instructor would like (there are contemporary debates centering around whether Averroes was truly enlightened and therefore an enlightened Islam is or is not possible, whether he was a feminist, whether there truly was a convivencia in medieval Spain etc.). The examples I use in this paper come from my experience teaching a class in the Honors College for undergraduate freshmen who have either no or very little prior knowledge of Islam, and often very little background knowledge of medieval history and philosophy. The class must cover the subject from the perspectives of literature, history, art history, philosophy and religious history. In the first third of the semester students read works treating the rise of Islam, the Sunni/Shia split, and about the Umayyad and Abbasid periods. Our focus on Islamic Spain and Averroes comes takes the second third of the semester. Students read Menocals The Ornament of the World and Averroes shorter essay The Decisive Treatise. Menocals book thoroughly situates the historical and cultural history of Muslim Spain and prepares students for reading Averroes essay. Because The Decisive Treatise is a legal work, studying it allows review of some of the central philosophical problems that had become both religious and legal questions for the Islamic community, such as whether philosophical study is permissible in Islam and how legal questions that are not clear from the Quran or Hadith can be settled rationally. The text also highlights some of the dissent in the Muslim community between what can carefully be labeled conservative and moderate voices. The study and discussion of Averroes life and times reveals that many of the issues which were contemporary during his day continue to resonate today, such as Christian-Muslim-Jewish relations, approaches to interpreting the Quran that are literalist or metaphorical, the role of rationalism in Islam, European views of Islam from the medieval period onward, Islamic architecture and achievements in math, poetry, science and art. I have found that this Averroist approach to teaching is highly effective with undergraduates and gives them a comprehensive view of the medieval Islamic world and indications of how many of these issues have played out after the fall of Muslim Spain.

Conference Name

49th International Congress on Medieval Studies

Conference Location

Kalamazoo, MI

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