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Book of the month

MaimonidesMaimonides: The Life and World of One of Civilization’s Greatest Minds

By Joel L. Kraemer (New York: Doubleday, 2008) Reviewed by Marina Rustow

Marina Rustow is Associate Professor in the Department of History and the Tam Institute for Jewish Studies at Emory University. Her most recent book is Heresy and the Politics of Community: The Jews of the Fatimid Caliphate (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2008).

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It used to be imagined that the great books of classical antiquity lay dormant and forgotten until the Italian Renaissance rediscovered them. A steady stream of scholarship, much of it specialized and daunting to read, has by now demonstrated that Greek philosophical and scientific works by the likes of Aristotle, Hippocrates, and Galen never really disappeared but passed through the hands of Eastern Christians literate in Syriac and Arabic, Jews who knew Arabic and Hebrew, Greek–speaking Byzantines, and—Sylvain Gougenheim’s recent claims to the contrary notwithstanding—Arabic–speaking Muslims. The implications of the new consensus are far–reaching for the history of Western thought: while an imaginary straight line used to run inexorably from Greece and Rome to modern Europe, it is now widely admitted that any history of European thought that does not look to the Middle East is woefully inadequate or willfully ignorant.

The problem is that most of these medieval transmitters remain known to us by little more than their names and handwriting. A few exceptions, though, achieved fame through commentaries and syntheses so monumental that they stole across the barriers of language and culture. Their authors came to bear Greekified names: the Bukharan–born physician and philosopher Abū ‘Alī al–Husayn ibn Sīnā (980–1037) is known to the West as Avicenna; the neo–Aristotelian philosopher, physician, and astronomer of Cordoba, Abū‘l–Walīd Muhammad ibn Ahmad ibn Rushd (1126–98), came down to us as Averroës. Figures such as these came to the notice of rulers, garnered the attention of medieval biographers, and passed on to posterity through their own works. Their lives tell us much about a medieval world in which religious divisions did not impose the obstacles to human understanding that we, looking back over the chasm of the European enlightenment, might suppose they did.

So it is with Abū ‘Imrān Mūsā ibn ‘Ubayd Allāh ibn Maymūn al–Qurtubī (1137/38–1204), the neo–Aristotelian philosopher and physician of Cordoba, who—as Moses Maimonides—found his way onto a very short list of medieval Jews known beyond the Jewish world even in their own time. Driven out of Islamic–ruled Cordoba during a rare period of intolerance toward Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike, Maimonides settled in the old city of Cairo (Fustat) around 1166, where he instructed students from Provence, Syria, and Yemen, and attracted visitors from as far away as Baghdad.

One such visitor was the misanthropic Muslim physician and polymath Muwaffaq al–Dīn ‘Abd al–Latīf al–Baghdadī (1162–1231), who found Maimonides to be “tremendously learned,” but also “overcome by the love of leadership and of service to worldly lords”—so caught up in administrative duties that they compromised his scholarship. Maimonides himself would not have disagreed with this assessment, to judge by frequent complaints of his lack of time for research. In a letter to his Hebrew translator in Provence, Maimonides complained that he commuted daily from the residential quarter of Fustat to the Ayyubid palace in Cairo to attend to the health of the Sultan, his family, and his high officials. If he managed to return home after midday, he found “all the vestibules” of his home “filled with gentiles, noble and common, judges and magistrates, a mixed multitude, who know the time of my return,” such that he barely managed to eat something light before writing prescriptions all afternoon and evening. “The result is that no Jew can speak with me or meet with me except on the Sabbath.” To another scholar in Provence, he complained that “the yoke of the gentiles is on my neck regarding medical matters, which have sapped my strength, and have not left me one hour, neither day nor night. But what can I do, now that my reputation has reached most countries?” (441)

This, in fact, is the central paradox of the man we know as Maimonides: the conflicting demands of the worldly (al–dunya) and the spiritual (al–ākhira). His skill in practicing medicine landed him in Cairo at the court of Salāhal–Dīn (r. 1171–93), the Muslim ruler who conquered Jerusalem back from the Crusaders in 1187. As if that did not occupy enough of the time he might have spent on scholarship, he also served as head of the Jewish community of Fustat, the largest and most important congregation of its day, renowned for its high proportion of long–distance traders, religious specialists, government bureaucrats, and other members of the literate elite. He also traded; as Kraemer explains in this readable biography, physicians often did so out of “a professional interest in precious and semiprecious stones, gold, spices, pharmaceuticals, perfumes, paper, and books” (162). Maimonides held to the unpopular view that scholars should work rather than rely on communal emoluments, declaring, “It is better to strip hides of animal carcasses than to say to other people, ‘I am a great sage, I am a priest, provide me’ [with a living]” (163). Despite all this, he produced enduring, monumental works of Jewish law (the Mishneh Torah, written in Hebrew) and philosophy (The Guide for the Perplexed, written in Arabic in Hebrew letters, or Judeo–Arabic), among many other types of writings.

The tension between the worldly and spiritual legacies of Maimonides is, in part, an artifact of choices he himself made. But this paradox also animated his philosophical style. He described The Guide of the Perplexed (Dalālat al–Hāirīn in its original Judeo–Arabic), the work for which he became best known outside orthodox Jewish circles, as “apples of gold encased in silver filigree.” The metaphor suggests that the book’s most precious content lies just out of reach, separated from the reader by an attractive but misleading exterior. Indeed, the book has surely created more perplexities than it has resolved.

Rare as it is to know anything at all about the extracurricular lives of the great medieval Islamicate thinkers, it is rarer still to possess the veritable mountains of detail that we have about Maimonides. There are letters in his own hand; the correspondence of his younger brother David, who until his death at sea ca. 1170 supported Maimonides with profits from the India trade1 a nearly complete copy of his Judeo–Arabic commentary on the earliest post–biblical code of Jewish law, the Mishnah2 and pages from drafts of his major works, including the Mishneh Torah, the Guide, and his legal opinions, all in his own hand, complete with crossings out.

That we possess such a wealth of first–hand evidence is due to a single, rare, and extraordinarily fortunate circumstance: the congregation in Fustat that Maimonides joined and where he spent the last forty years of his career never threw anything away. Instead, they paid heed to a Jewish custom that prohibited destroying any piece of writing bearing the name of God. This was the Syro–Palestinian congregation of Fustat (kanīsat al–shāmiyyīn), which, starting ca. 1025, filled the lumber–attic of its synagogue with so many discarded texts that by the time European scholars discovered them in the late nineteenth century, they numbered close to three hundred thousand. Maimonides and the amanuenses who wrote for him, like all members of the congregation, discarded their drafts and incoming correspondence in the lumber–attic, or bet geniza in Hebrew. More than half the haul is now at the Cambridge University Library. Specialized scholars are still identifying and cataloguing the Cairo Geniza’s contents. As recently as 2004, one leaf of an autograph draft of the Guide was pieced together from three fragments in two libraries.

There is no one better suited to bring together Maimonides the philosopher, physician, and worldly figure than Kraemer, who is thoroughly versed in all the relevant fields: medieval philosophy; Arabic literature; rabbinic thought; and the arcana of the Cairo Geniza. Any one of these fields requires uncommon linguistic and technical skill; Kraemer has mastered them all. In this book, he wears his learning lightly: it is an extraordinarily thorough work of scholarship yet eminently approachable by the non–specialist. He offers just enough analysis of Maimonides’ philosophical and legal works to render them comprehensible, but in general eschews complexities in favor of a narrative of Maimonides’ life that is both painterly—portraying the lush colors of the medieval Mediterranean on the basis of copious documentation—and detective–like—solving many of the perplexities that Maimonides left in his wake.

Born in Cordoba in 1138, Maimonides fled the harsh rule of the Almohads (1130–1276), a Moroccan dynasty that conquered much of the Iberian peninsula and whose severity and intolerance—otherwise unheard of in the Islamic Middle Ages—drove Christians, Jews, and any Muslim who did not adhere to their austere doctrine north, south, and east to safety.3 Flee though he might, we next find Maimonides in the early 1160s in Fez, close to the epicenter of Almohad rule at Marrakesh. Why leave the fryer for the fire? And how could he have survived in Fez as a Jew? Decades later, an Andalusian jurist arrived in Fustat and accused Maimonides of having converted to Islam and then reverted to Judaism, the latter a crime potentially punishable by death. Maimonides’ main patron at the Ayyubid court, the vizier al–Qādī al–Fādil, saved him from the charges.

As to why the young Maimonides gravitated to Fez in the first place, Kraemer connects the episode with shifts in Almohad religious policy: after the caliph ‘Abd al–Mu’min (1130–63) consolidated his conquests in the Maghrib and Iberia, Jews and Christians prospered economically. New opportunities probably drew the family southward. But after a revolt in Granada in 1162 in which Jews and Christians were complicit, the Almohad caliph Abū Ya’qūb Yūsuf (1163–84) developed a much harsher attitude toward Jews. The family’s decision to take refuge in Fez now “put them in danger” (84).4

As for whether Maimonides and his family really did convert to Islam, the question has polarized academic scholarship. Those wedded to idealized images of Maimonides’ rabbinic piety or reared on stories of Jewish martyrdom in the face of danger cannot accept that he evaded death through temporary apostasy. Others find ample evidence and even justification for a period of crypto–Judaism in Maimonides’ own works. When a Muslim convert to Judaism wrote to Maimonides with doubts about his teacher’s opinion that Islam was idolatrous, Maimonides replied that it was a pure form of monotheism and consoled his correspondent that he was a true son of Abraham. Kraemer, after judiciously weighing all the available evidence, sees no reason to deny Maimonides’ temporary conversion. The evidence and arguments he presents are strong. As a young man living in Fez, Maimonides had written a treatise on forced conversion, which another scholar had categorically forbidden, enjoining martyrdom instead (106). With characteristic impatience, Maimonides dismissed this opinion as fallacious and misleading, ordering Jews instead to save their skins by verbally professing the unity of God and Muhammad’s prophecy (shahāda). In refusing to regard utterance of the shahāda as a religiously significant act so long as it was performed without inner conviction, Maimonides took the position of Islamic law itself—as Kraemer ingeniously points out. He also connects Maimonides’ temporary apostasy with the Islamic doctrine of “prudent dissimulation” (taqiyya), which allowed anyone in mortal danger to assume a different faith publicly. When necessary, Kraemer writes, “People used concealment and wore veils. Deep inside the individual lived a private faith, which he treasured with a small circle of secret sharers” (101). Here again the esoteric–exoteric paradox surfaces in Maimonides’ life—as if history had conditioned him not to trust outward appearances.

Fustat and Cairo imposed far less constraint on Maimonides’ life. The philosophical world he inhabited was shared by Jews, Christians, and Muslims. All faced the same challenge: how to reconcile the revealed scriptures, which claimed that a single deity had created the world, with Aristotle, who argued that the world was eternal. Maimonides’ contribution was to tether that contradiction to the very words of the Hebrew Bible. He opened the Guide with a discussion of how his intended reader—the learned, observant Jew who has also studied philosophy and is perplexed by the contradictions—should understand flagrant anthropomorphisms and other passages that offend reason and so might lead him to abandon his faith. Unsatisfied with compartmentalization, unwilling to accept the notion that religion is irrational, Maimonides remained absolutely committed to the proposition that the universe is orderly and “governed by laws of a cosmic intelligence” (389). Even if the work in which he expounded those views was quite deliberately accessible only to a privileged few, the problems it addressed were hardly those of Maimonides alone. The similarities between Maimonides’ Aristotle and Ibn Rushd’s demonstrate as much.

Avoiding one of the pitfalls of many intellectual biographies, Kraemer deftly reflects on Maimonides’ daily life, including his position at court. He began his political life as a Jew in the entourage of the Ismā‘īlī Shī‘ī Fatimid dynasty, but under the patronage of their Sunnī Muslim administrator, al–Qāīd al–Fādil, who for a time allied himself with the Christian crusaders against the Sunnī forces of the Syrian Zengid ruler Nūr al–Dīn (r. 1166–85). Nor were such unpredictable alliances uncommon. When the Sunnī Salāh al–Dīn overthrew the Fatimids and established the Ayyubid dynasty (1171–1250), al–Qādī al–Fādil rose to the vizierate and gathered his protégés in learned dialogue in literary salons (majālis), including Maimonides, the Sunnī poet Ibn Sanā al–Mulk (1155–1218), and on at least one occasion, the Shī‘ī jurist Abū 'l–Qāsim alHalabī (d. 1186–87).

As this episode suggests, Kraemer’s book has the quality of a collective biography. It extends well beyond Maimonides to depict men of his network and others of similar rank who offer some perspective on the master. Kraemer admits that a sick person in medieval Fustat might have contacted not Maimonides but another Jewish physician, Abū 'l–Makārim Hibatallāh ibn Jumay’ (d. 1198), since it was believed that he had resurrected a man from the dead. (In fact, he merely detected that a man about to be buried was still alive.) While there is not always concrete evidence that the numerous contemporaries Kraemer discusses knew Maimonides or had much bearing on his thought, his impulse to engage as much circumstantial evidence as possible is understandable, since the sources hardly answer all our questions about him. And given Kraemer’s expertise in finding and deciphering the evidence, one can hardly begrudge him this generosity of context. It is likely that his book will remain—together with Herbert A. Davidson’s Moses Maimonides: the Man and His Works (Oxford, 2004)—a standard guide to this towering figure for many years to come.

1 Kraemer finds no evidence for the view that David’s death forced Maimonides to abandon scholarship for “service to worldly lords.” If anything, Kraemer writes, the event drew Maimonides further into scholarship, the pursuit of reason being his greatest consolation.

2 This manuscript was passed down through Maimonides’ descendants in Egypt until the fifteenth century, when one scion of the family brought it to Aleppo, whence British orientalists acquired it piecemeal. For the entire fascinating story, see pp. 168–69.

3 The targets of Almohad severity included Averroes himself, whom the regime initially favored but whose books were burned after 1195.

4 See also 95–96 for a Geniza letter written by a Maghribi Jew in Fustat containing first–hand reports of ‘Abd al–Mu’min’s conquests and his massacres of the Jews of Tlemçen and Sijilmāsa.


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