Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Islamic and Jewish Philosophy

While introductions to the life and thought of Moses Maimonides abound and studies and editions of his texts are thriving, the distinguishing feature of Herbert Davidson’s magnum opus is its detailed and exhaustive intellectual biography of all features of Maimonides’ life. An important figure of Islamicate philosophy and philosophical theology, Moshe ben Maimon or Musa b. Maymun, better known in medieval thought through his hellenized name Maimonides or among Jewish scholars as Rambam, was born in Cordoba in 1137 in the Almohad period. Probably fleeing persecution, he settled in Morroco, studying and teaching in Fez. Later in life, he moved to Egypt in 1167 where he died in 1204. His life and travels not only exemplifies the life of a scholar in the world of medieval Islam but also the itinerant fortunes of the Jewish minority in the Islamic West. What is most striking about Davidson’s excellent study is the obvious comparison that comes to mind with his contemporary Averroes (d. 1198) who like him was also a jurist, theologian and philosopher. They shared a common culture. It is heartening in the times in which we live to reaffirm and recognise commonalties: the intellectual and spiritual heritage of Jews in medieval Islam was expressed in the common language of Arabic, whether in an Aramaic or Arabic script, and the assumptions about the world and the role of faith in life was remarkably convergent. As individuals attempt to re-create such convergences and common concerns in contemporary Britain between religious specialists both Jewish and Muslim, it is well worth paying attention to the example of Maimonides, whilst acknowledging his distinction and difference. After all, dialogue and intellectual exchange take place in the presence of difference and alterity. It is symbolically significant that the British organisation that seeks to foster understanding and reconciliation between Muslims and Jews is called the Maimonides Foundation.

Davidson divides his study into ten chapters and focuses on Maimonides’ intellectual contribution. Chapter one is an exhaustive account of Maimonides’ life, sifting through the various primary sources (mainly in Arabic) and piecing together a life devoid of polemics, and one which judiciously considers the issue of persecution. Chapter two presents his education and intellectual formation and provides the critical contextualisation and background for understanding his works that follow. Chapters three, four and five consider his rabbinic works; of particular significance is the discussion of the Mishneh Torah in chapter four, the abiding authoritative work that he produced. To describe it in Islamic terms, it is an exhaustive work of furu‘ al-fiqh prefaced by a theological proemium on the nature of the divine and the imperative to seek religious knowledge. Chapters six and seven focus on his philosophical works in particular his major Arabic theological treatise Dalalat al-Ha’irin (Guide for the Perplexed, available in an excellent two volume English translation by the late Shlomo Pines with an intriguing introduction by the gurus of the neo-cons Leo Strauss). Maimonides proposes in this text a rational theology that is critical, like Avicenna before him was, of the ‘sophistries’ and rational shortcomings of the theology of kalam. Davidson demonstrates the continuity of Maimonides’ thought with the other medieval Muslim Aristotelians. The influence of Avicenna is clear and he accepts both the famous Avicennan proof for the existence of God and the theory of the emanation of the hierarchy of existence through a chain of intelligible entities from the One. Davidson had earlier written two important studies of medieval philosophy which ought to be read alongside these chapters: Proofs for Eternity, Creation and the Existence of God in Medieval Islamic and Jewish Philosophy, and Alfarabi, Avicenna and Averroes on the Intellect. Chapter eight discusses his medical works which have been the subject of the research of Gerrit Bos in recent years. Chapter nine concludes the survey of his works, in particular discussing the famous Epistle to Yemen, whose attribution is disputed but not by Davidson. The Epistle was a response to a question posed by a Yemeni Jew concerning what one ought to do in the face of persecution. As such it is akin to a fatwa. Most interesting, Maimonides urges that there are two recourses for Jews in the face of religious persecution: suffering for their faith, which in a Muslim idiom one would call shahada, or dissimulating and pretending to convert but keeping the faith internally, taqiyya. The final chapter by way of conclusion attempts an analysis of how Maimonides saw himself and his world. Much of the material is presented in a fresh and innovative manner.

Davidson’s book will probably become the standard reference on Maimonides for some time to come. It collates and examines a large body of material; the footnotes are so detailed that it is understandable that he decided to forgo a bibliography. Whether it could be a good model for further studies on medieval thinkers is a bit more debatable. Davidson’s approach and method is quite traditional, focusing as he does upon careful reading of texts and assuming on the whole a unity in the literary purpose of Maimonides. The resultant volume is solid but perhaps unexciting and old-fashioned in its presentation. But it is difficult to fault the content.

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