With a flare-up of violence once again between Israelis and Palestinians, my thoughts turned to those figures who could bridge the gaps and heal the wounds.
There are few figures in history who can match the stature of the celebrated Rabbi Moses Maimonides. For Jews, the inscription on his tombstone in Tiberias, Israel, described well his stature: “From Moses to Moses, there has never been another Moses.” For the Muslims, he was Ubayd Allah—a faithful servant of God, a title reserved for those seen as closest to God.
For a scholar like myself, searching for a key to unlock the door to peace between Jews and Muslims, Maimonides may well provide the answer. It appears that Jews and Muslims cannot agree on anything: what is dark to one is light to the other, peace to this side is conflict to the other and a sense of grievance and anger blights their view of each other. The result is the cloud of misery and despair which hangs low over their relationship.
I believe that an introduction of Maimonides into the conflict between Jews and Muslims would not only establish how close Judaism and Islam are to each other, but why the relationship between them needs to be based on compassion and justice if the words of the great Rabbi are to be heeded. I cannot imagine any other historical figure playing this role at this time in history. As someone committed to promoting dialogue and friendship between the two communities for decades, it is with sincere hope of finding peace between the two that I turn to Maimonides.
Maimonides, or Rambam, a Hebrew acronym for Rabbi Moses Ben Maimon, was born in Cordoba and was a contemporary of Ibn Rushd (Averroes), a fellow Cordoban. After largely living in peace and prosperity for four centuries in what is commonly referred to as the Golden Age for the Jewish community, the Almohads, a fresh dynasty from North Africa, took power in Andalusia and launched an offensive against the Jewish community, forcing them to choose between conversion, migration or death. Synagogues and Jewish centers were destroyed and Jews found themselves forced to wear special clothing. The father of Maimonides, then a teenager, Rabbi Maimon ben Joseph, a respected elder and judge in the Jewish community, found everything was now disrupted. The family found itself on the run, first taking shelter at Fez and later relocating to Palestine and eventually arriving in Cairo. Maimonides wrote his celebrated note of consolation, Epistle on Martyrdom, suggesting that those who converted to Islam forcibly should maintain their faith, even if privately.
Maimonides emphasised the role and thought of Abraham, who lived among polytheists but moved strongly towards monotheism and rejected idolatry. Abraham emphasised monotheism and the belief that God created the universe and embraced all creation. Maimonides championed the concept of “negative theology,” that is understanding God through what he is not, as the best way to attempt to understand the true nature of the divine. God is transcendental, all-knowing and all-powerful, while man is made in God’s image and lives to realise that ideal. Maimonides also emphasised the distinction between the soul and the intellect, which are pure. He pointed to the body which is ‘base,’ dealing with physical and material matters. Maimonides’ life in Cairo allowed him to enjoy a relatively secure and stable environment after his dangerous and turbulent journey from Spain and through North Africa.
Maimonides continued to reach out to the Muslim community and was a revered figure in Muslim society. His Muslim name was Abu Imran Musa ibn Maymun ibn Ubayd Allah or Servant of Allah
Maimonides argued that in order to practice correctly the Jewish faith, you have to first be knowledgeable; you could not be ignorant in faith. He took much of Jewish scripture as allegorical and metaphorical, which other rabbis did not always agree with. His use of the word “perplexed” in the title of one of his most important books refers to the intelligent man who tries to understand and find a balance between inherited rabbinical law and the world around him. As a true philosopher, Maimonides first identifies the problem of existence and then illustrates how to move ahead in order to overcome it.
Maimonides argued that in order to best practice one’s faith, knowledge and intelligence are essential while ignorance must be eliminated. It was an argument Socrates used in discussing democracy, suggesting that only educated people who understand the ramifications of a democratic form of government should participate in it.
With reference to the main philosophic questions that interested Muslim philosophers and were discussed by them, Maimonides believed that the soul and the body, while distinct, are still unified, with the former holding sway over the latter. The soul is divided into five parts: the nutritive part, the perceptive part, the imaginative part, the appetitive part, which is concerned with emotions and sensations, and finally, the rational part which involves the capacity to interact with metaphysics. In his celebrated work, The Guide for the Perplexed, Maimonides sets forth his views on the creation of the universe, which essentially reaffirms the traditional Jewish view on creation. Examining such theories as laid out by Moses, Plato, and Aristotle, Maimonides rejects Aristotle’s argument that the world is eternal, instead championing Moses’ view that the world was created by God out of nothing. Maimonides does write that Plato’s view of a world created with pre-existing matter provides an acceptable alternative.
Maimonides was influenced by Aristotle, Al-Farabi, Ibn Sina (Avicenna) and Ibn Rushd (Averroes), a fact he acknowledged. A towering Judaic figure, he was also quintessentially a product of the age of the ilm-ethos. Like our other great philosophers of that time, Maimonides emphasised logic, rationality, knowledge, research, and—above all—piety in his writings.
Yet there was also Jewish opposition to his ideas and philosophical approach—for example, Rabbi Solomon of Montpellier in France instigated church authorities to burn The Guide as heretical. Maimonides’s views on resurrection received criticism from many rabbis and Jewish scholars of his period. In his Treatise on Resurrection (1191), Maimonides argued that the belief in the resurrection of the dead, those who had been righteous during their lives, was a fundamental aspect of Judaism, and that, on the issue of resurrection, Jews should not merely interpret Jewish scripture as allegorical.
In his work Maimonides explored the righteous figures of the Jewish people’s sacred history. He was inspired by Moses, who he saw as being closest to a perfect man, having both revelation and knowledge. But he also admired Aristotle and his writing on ethics and virtue. Maimonides was providing a theological charter and framework for being a good human being, writing for two Jewish audiences—the individual but also for the larger community.
Maimonides consistently emphasised the importance of philosophy in finding the best of human society, defining the subject in broad terms in the Guide: “The person who wishes to attain human perfection should study logic first, next mathematics, then physics, and, lastly, metaphysics” (Quotes, University of California, Berkeley).The writing of Maimonides contains a stark beauty that shines with the light of integrity and wisdom. “Truth,” wrote Maimonides in the Guide, “does not become more true by virtue of the fact that the entire world agrees with it, nor less so even if the whole world disagrees with it” (Nissen Mangel, Talmudist – Brooklyn, NY: Kehot Publication Society, 1985).
There are three distinct phases of Maimonides’s life spent alongside and with Muslims: first, the peace and prosperity that Muslim society gave to the Jewish community over the centuries and enjoyed by his family; then the abrupt change of policy of the new dynasty of the Almohads and the discrimination and persecution of the Jews in which his family suffered; and finally the power and success of working as the physician in the court of the great Sultan Salahuddin (Saladin) of Egypt with his inclusive attitudes to non-Muslims. The disruptions in his life had left the young Maimonides traumatised. He would have a love-hate relationship with Muslims for most of his life. In spite of this, Maimonides continued to reach out to the Muslim community and was a revered figure in Muslim society. His Muslim name was Abu Imran Musa ibn Maymun ibn Ubayd Allah or Servant of Allah. It is reported that Maimonides’ children and grandchildren rejected elements of his teaching and philosophy and some of them adopted certain Sufi practices.
In outward form, language and culture, Maimonides had absorbed Muslim civilization. His typical day in the Sultan’s court was always a full one, after which he hurried home to treat awaiting patients. Often, there would not even be time for a meal before attending them. His success in society can be gauged from the fact that his son and grandson both succeeded Maimonides as Chief Rabbis of the Egyptian Jewish community.
The life of Maimonides resembles that of the Muslim philosophers of the Golden Age of Islam a thousand years ago: intense creativity and serious life-threatening challenges. Like them, Maimonides was a man of genius in several disciplines such as philosophy, religious law and medicine. The titles of his books were as sharp as theirs: The Guide for the Perplexed as against Al-Ghazali’s The Incoherence of the Philosophers and Ibn Rushd’s The Incoherence of the Incoherence. His life took him from one part of the world to another; from living on the run in a cave at one stage of his life, to serving in the royal court in Cairo at another. In spite of the tumultuous life that he led, he successfully created his most ambitious work and magnum opus, the code of Jewish religious law (or the Halakha) which is called the Mishneh Torah or “The Repetition of the Torah,” considered the book of knowledge and its guide and commentary. Just as Al-Ghazali was called the “Defender of the Faith,” Maimonides, on the basis of his learned works, is considered one of the greatest rabbis of all time.
Maimonides is both a gateway and a bridge: he is a gateway for the Jewish people into the understanding of Judaism, and a bridge between Muslims, Christians, and Jews. He is thus in an extraordinarily relevant position a thousand years after his death
There are notable parallels between the career of Ibn Rushd (Averroes) the great philosopher of Andalusia and that of Maimonides. Both were quintessential citizens of Andalusia. Both wrote in Arabic.
They both used reason and logic in appreciating faith and argued for the compatibility of the two. Their books were burned by members of their own community. They were exiled by the same dynasty. Ibn Rushd never recovered, while Maimonides flourished. Maimonides promoted the work of Ibn Rushd among his students. Today both are recognised in the ranks of the greatest philosophers of history while their critics are lost in obscurity.
“In the laws of Kings chapter 11 Maimonides praises the Muslims (and Christians) whom he says brought the idea of redemption and of adherence to G-d’s laws far and wide so that this idea is known to all of mankind paving the road for the entire world to be aware of and accept these concepts of serving our Creator.” When I requested Rabbi Mendel Bluming, a passionate admirer of Rambam, to explain the reference to “Ismailites,” the word used in the original, he replied, “He is referring to the Prophet Muhammad who brought about a worldwide awareness of subservience to G-d.”
Studying Maimonides, we note how close Jewish and Muslim thought are on some central issues of their faiths: the definition and position of God, the centrality of Abraham and the importance of Moses, the rejection of idolatry, and the need to create a better world where people could live good lives and worship God. In his method of teaching, Maimonides underlined the need to avoid getting tangled up in the weeds and to keep the big picture in mind. For that, he stressed the importance of learning and knowledge. He is influenced by the Greek-influenced Muslim philosophers, and Maimonides himself is influenced by Aristotle. Maimonides is constantly balancing theology with practical common sense. He talks to us directly as a great teacher.
Maimonides is both a gateway and a bridge: he is a gateway for the Jewish people into the understanding of Judaism, and a bridge between Muslims, Christians, and Jews. He is thus in an extraordinarily relevant position a thousand years after his death. He is buried in Tiberias in Israel, and his grave on the shores of the Sea of Galilee is a popular pilgrimage site. There are many stories – which are now part of folklore – of how his bones were brought from Egypt and buried here. One story is about the Bedouin tribes who stopped the funeral procession in order to extract payment and then, realising whose procession it was, hung their heads in shame because of the reputation of the man who, without payment, treated them and other patients when they were ill.
Maimonides was the most celebrated Rabbi to emerge from Spain during the Golden age of Islam, but there were other notable figures such as Rabbi Moses de Leon. Leon is widely believed to have composed the celebrated Zohar which is a collection of Rabbinic teachings reflecting the mystic or Kabbalah aspects of Judaism. Zohar which means ‘Splendour’ or ‘Radiance’ is considered the foundation of Jewish mystical thought known as Kabbalah.
Kabbalistic knowledge is said to be given to Moses by God on Mount Sinai and some scholars go back further to Adam. The Zohar is a collection of esoteric writings explaining the relationship between the unchanging eternal God, the Infinite, and the mortal finite universe that is God’s creation. The Zohar includes commentary on the mystical aspects of the Torah. The Zohar also discusses other fundamental issues relating to Jewish theology such as the nature of God, and the origin and structure of the universe. The Zohar has been the center of discussion and controversy but is acknowledged as containing the essence of Jewish mysticism. Today Kabbalah is known internationally and has attracted celebrities like Madonna, Roseanne Barr, and Mick Jagger.
Let us give the last word about the Golden Age and the role of Maimonides in it to the late Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, himself one of the great Rabbis of our times. Here he describes to me in a 2015 interview the exchanges between the religions at the time as “Convivencia,” meaning coexistence, a term Spaniards still use to describe this period in Spanish history (in my Journey into Europe documentary and book published by Brookings 2018):
“This period of al Andalus and under benign Muslim rule was one of the most, not only one of the most benign, Convivencia—living together—but one of the most intellectually and spiritually creative in all of the Middle Ages. What had happened was that you had these extraordinary Muslim scholars who had recovered the classical tradition of the Aristotelians and Neoplatonists and they were the first people in Europe to do so, they lifted Europe out of the Dark Ages.
They then had an enormous impact on figures like Moses Maimonides, the greatest rabbi of the Middle Ages, whose not only his philosophy, but almost every aspect of his work was influenced by and stimulated by Islam. His creation of this magnificent legal code was inspired by Sharia codes. His formulation of the principles of Jewish faith was inspired by the fact that Muslim thinkers had done this wonderful presentation of Islamic faith. So, it spread from Islam to Judaism. It then spread to Christianity through Maimonides and influenced a figure like Aquinas. So, you have Islam leading Europe out of the Dark Ages.”
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