Maimonides in His World: Portrait of a Mediterranean Thinker

Overview

"Stroumsa paints a richly documented, nuanced portrait of Maimonides as a bold, open thinker whose sometimes revolutionary conception of Judaism draws freely from the multiple philosophical, theological, scientific, and ideological currents of his contemporary Mediterranean world. This intellectual biography covers the full range of Maimonides' writings, from law and philosophy to polemics and medicine, exposing novel and unexpected sources, for example, in Islamic theology and Almohad thought. Stroumsa points scholars in new directions for ...

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Overview

"Stroumsa paints a richly documented, nuanced portrait of Maimonides as a bold, open thinker whose sometimes revolutionary conception of Judaism draws freely from the multiple philosophical, theological, scientific, and ideological currents of his contemporary Mediterranean world. This intellectual biography covers the full range of Maimonides' writings, from law and philosophy to polemics and medicine, exposing novel and unexpected sources, for example, in Islamic theology and Almohad thought. Stroumsa points scholars in new directions for future study of the greatest Jewish figure of the Middle Ages."—Josef Stern, University of Chicago

"A stimulating, absorbing read. Stroumsa is a valuable and unique voice in a lively complex of debates about this extraordinary thinker. Her fundamental point—that Maimonides must be understood as a well-read and active participant in a diverse multiconfessional culture—is emphatically confirmed by sheer accumulation of data and clever argument."—Everett K. Rowson, New York University

"This is a serious piece of scholarship filled with many very fine insights. Sarah Stroumsa is a leading scholar in Judeo-Arabic studies, and one of those whose writings I value most."—Steven Harvey, Bar-Ilan University

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Editorial Reviews

Times Literary Supplement
Stroumsa considerably broadens our understanding of Maimonides's Graeco-Arabic sources. . . . Stroumsa does a fine job in bringing to life the Mediterranean setting in which Maimonides encountered this ideal, and tried to direct it towards the heart of Judaism. She challenges scholars of Jewish and Muslim thought to look beyond the artificial confines of their disciplines, and raises intriguing questions about the fluid intellectual boundaries of Jewish identity.
— Carlos Fraenkel
London Review of Books
Fascinating.
— David Nirenberg
AJL Newsletter
The book is well written, presenting its dense material in an accessible way. Though there are many quotations in Arabic, nothing essential is left untranslated or unexplained. Stroumsa makes her points forcefully and persuasively, positioning Maimonides as a thinker of great importance to Muslims as well as to Jews.
— Pinchas Roth
Talmud Blog
Sarah Stroumsa's erudite and accessible Maimonidies in His World . . . is an exceptional work of critical scholarship that remains readable and relevant beyond the ivory tower. Indeed, its true significance might be found among a more general readership. . . . In the future conversations that are sure to ensue about Maimonides' place in contemporary Jewish life, Stroumsa's portrait will be a most welcome, indispensible guide.
— Shai Secunda
Shofar
Stroumsa is an intellectual historian whose mastery of her material is impressive on many levels. . . . Maimonides in His World . . . is a book that will be considered required reading for anyone who works on Maimonides' life and thought. Stroumsa's scholarship is much too good for anyone in the field to ignore.
— Kenneth Seeskin
Journal of the American Oriental Society
[T]he methodological underpinnings of Stroumsa's approach are rock-solid and eminently worthwhile. Stroumsa is never strident or lacking in critical self-reflection. For every bold position she stakes out, she raises the contra-indications and gives them their due. In trying to understand the personal biography, the intellectual, the theologian, the scientist, and the halakhic authority, Stroumsa has conceived the richest portrait yet of 'The Great Eagle.'
— Ronald C. Kiener
Times Literary Supplement - Carlos Fraenkel
Stroumsa considerably broadens our understanding of Maimonides's Graeco-Arabic sources. . . . Stroumsa does a fine job in bringing to life the Mediterranean setting in which Maimonides encountered this ideal, and tried to direct it towards the heart of Judaism. She challenges scholars of Jewish and Muslim thought to look beyond the artificial confines of their disciplines, and raises intriguing questions about the fluid intellectual boundaries of Jewish identity.
London Review of Books - David Nirenberg
Fascinating.
AJL Newsletter - Pinchas Roth
The book is well written, presenting its dense material in an accessible way. Though there are many quotations in Arabic, nothing essential is left untranslated or unexplained. Stroumsa makes her points forcefully and persuasively, positioning Maimonides as a thinker of great importance to Muslims as well as to Jews.
Talmud Blog - Shai Secunda
Sarah Stroumsa's erudite and accessible Maimonidies in His World . . . is an exceptional work of critical scholarship that remains readable and relevant beyond the ivory tower. Indeed, its true significance might be found among a more general readership. . . . In the future conversations that are sure to ensue about Maimonides' place in contemporary Jewish life, Stroumsa's portrait will be a most welcome, indispensible guide.
Shofar - Kenneth Seeskin
Stroumsa is an intellectual historian whose mastery of her material is impressive on many levels. . . . Maimonides in His World . . . is a book that will be considered required reading for anyone who works on Maimonides' life and thought. Stroumsa's scholarship is much too good for anyone in the field to ignore.
Huffington Post - David Shasha
The book delves into even more detail to discover many of Maimonides' innovations and the way in which they were enabled. Critical to Stroumsa's reading of Maimonides is her insistence that it is impossible to understand any of his texts without taking into account the scholarship of the Arabo-Islamic thinkers of his day.
Journal of the American Oriental Society - Ronald C. Kiener
[T]he methodological underpinnings of Stroumsa's approach are rock-solid and eminently worthwhile. Stroumsa is never strident or lacking in critical self-reflection. For every bold position she stakes out, she raises the contra-indications and gives them their due. In trying to understand the personal biography, the intellectual, the theologian, the scientist, and the halakhic authority, Stroumsa has conceived the richest portrait yet of 'The Great Eagle.'
From the Publisher
"Stroumsa considerably broadens our understanding of Maimonides's Graeco-Arabic sources. . . . Stroumsa does a fine job in bringing to life the Mediterranean setting in which Maimonides encountered this ideal, and tried to direct it towards the heart of Judaism. She challenges scholars of Jewish and Muslim thought to look beyond the artificial confines of their disciplines, and raises intriguing questions about the fluid intellectual boundaries of Jewish identity."—Carlos Fraenkel, Times Literary Supplement

"Fascinating."—David Nirenberg, London Review of Books

"The book is well written, presenting its dense material in an accessible way. Though there are many quotations in Arabic, nothing essential is left untranslated or unexplained. Stroumsa makes her points forcefully and persuasively, positioning Maimonides as a thinker of great importance to Muslims as well as to Jews."—Pinchas Roth, AJL Newsletter

"Sarah Stroumsa's erudite and accessible Maimonidies in His World . . . is an exceptional work of critical scholarship that remains readable and relevant beyond the ivory tower. Indeed, its true significance might be found among a more general readership. . . . In the future conversations that are sure to ensue about Maimonides' place in contemporary Jewish life, Stroumsa's portrait will be a most welcome, indispensible guide."—Shai Secunda, Talmud Blog

"Stroumsa is an intellectual historian whose mastery of her material is impressive on many levels. . . . Maimonides in His World . . . is a book that will be considered required reading for anyone who works on Maimonides' life and thought. Stroumsa's scholarship is much too good for anyone in the field to ignore."—Kenneth Seeskin, Shofar

"The book delves into even more detail to discover many of Maimonides' innovations and the way in which they were enabled. Critical to Stroumsa's reading of Maimonides is her insistence that it is impossible to understand any of his texts without taking into account the scholarship of the Arabo-Islamic thinkers of his day."—David Shasha, Huffington Post

"[T]he methodological underpinnings of Stroumsa's approach are rock-solid and eminently worthwhile. Stroumsa is never strident or lacking in critical self-reflection. For every bold position she stakes out, she raises the contra-indications and gives them their due. In trying to understand the personal biography, the intellectual, the theologian, the scientist, and the halakhic authority, Stroumsa has conceived the richest portrait yet of 'The Great Eagle.'"—Ronald C. Kiener, Journal of the American Oriental Society

Huffington Post
The book delves into even more detail to discover many of Maimonides' innovations and the way in which they were enabled. Critical to Stroumsa's reading of Maimonides is her insistence that it is impossible to understand any of his texts without taking into account the scholarship of the Arabo-Islamic thinkers of his day.
— David Shasha
Read More Show Less

Product Details

Meet the Author

Sarah Stroumsa is the Alice and Jack Ormut Professor of Arabic Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where she currently serves as rector. Her books include "Freethinkers of Medieval Islam".

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Read an Excerpt

Maimonides in His World

PORTRAIT OF A MEDITERRANEAN THINKER
By Sarah Stroumsa

PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS

Copyright © 2009 Princeton University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-691-13763-6


Chapter One

Maimonides and Mediterranean Culture

From the many honorific titles appended to Maimonides' name, "The Great Eagle" has come to be identified as his particular, personal title. This biblical sobriquet (from Ezekiel 17:3) was meant, no doubt, to underline his regal position in the Jewish community. At the same time, the imagery of the wide-spread wings does justice not only to the breadth of Maimonides' intellectual horizons, but also to the scope of his impact, which extended across the Mediterranean, and beyond it to Christian Europe.

To the extent that the quantity of scholarly studies about an author is a criterion for either importance or fame, Moses Maimonides (1138-1204) stands among the most prominent figures in Jewish history, and certainly the most famous medieval Jewish thinker. The continuous stream of publications dedicated to Maimonides is, however, often characterized by overspecification. Following what appears to be a division in Maimonides' own literary output, scholars usually focus on a particular section of his work-philosophy, medicine, religious law, or community leadership-complementing it by forays into other domains. Each such subject creates its own context: the intellectual or historical environment that we reconstruct in our attempts to understand Maimonides' treatment of a certain topic.

The prevalent tendency to overemphasize disciplinary partitions within Maimonides' own work reinforces, in turn, another already existing tendency: to overemphasize the distinction between Maimonides the Jewish leader and Maimonides the Islamic thinker. Although Maimonides, like many great thinkers, defies categorization, we are prone to search for familiar tags, convenient pigeon-holes in which we can neatly classify his work. The ensuing scholarly result does not do justice to Maimonides. The image it paints resembles Maimonides' famous, very late portrait: imposing and yet flat and two-dimensional. In particular, it depreciates Maimonides' participation in the cultural world of Medieval Islam. In the realms of philosophy and science, and in these realms alone, Maimonides' connection to the Islamic world has been duly and universally recognized. Most (although by no means all) of the scholarly works treating his philosophy are based on his original Arabic works, which are analyzed in the context of contemporary Muslim philosophy. Even in the study of philosophy, however, where Maimonides is recognized as "a disciple of al-Farabi," his contribution is seldom fully integrated into the picture of medieval Islamic philosophy. Studies that offer a panoramic view of a particular philosophic issue in the medieval Islamic world would thus, more often than not, fail to make use of the evidence provided by Maimonides. In the study of other aspects of Maimonides' activity, it is mostly the Jewish context that is brought to bear, whereas the Islamic world recedes into the background. Maimonides' legal works are thus studied mostly by students of Jewish law, many of whom treat their subject as if it can be isolated from parallel intellectual developments in the Islamic world. Even the study of Maimonides' communal activity, based on his (usually Judaeo-Arabic) correspondence, tends to paint the Muslim world as a mere background to the life of the Jewish community (rather than seeing it as the larger frame of which the Jewish community was an integral part). At the same time, all too often this Judaeo-Arabic material remains ignored by scholars of Islamic history and society. Maimonides is thus widely recognized as a giant figure of Jewish history, but remains of almost anecdotal significance for the study of the Islamic world.

The aim of the present book is to present an integrative intellectual profile of Maimonides in his world, the world of Mediterranean culture. This world, broadly defined, also supplies the sources for the book. Only by reading Maimonides' own writings in light of the information gleaned from other sources can we hope to paint a well-rounded profile, and to instill life in it.

Mediterranean Cultures

The historical reflection on the cultural role of the Mediterranean, as a unifying principle of culture, began already with Henri Pirenne's groundbreaking Mohammed and Charlemagne. Shortly thereafter Fernand Braudel, in his pioneering work on the Mediterranean world in the time of Philip II, argued that only a comprehensive approach that treats the Mediterranean as a single unit can enable the historian to understand local developments properly and to evaluate correctly their ramifications and implications. Around the same time that Braudel's book appeared, Shlomo Dov Goitein was working on his magnum opus, the multivolume A Mediterranean Society: The Jewish Communities of the Arab World as Portrayed in the Documents of the Cairo Geniza. Like Braudel, Goitein believed that our sources require that we constantly bear in mind the close interconnections and interdependence of the various parts of the Mediterranean. The fragments of the Cairo Geniza-the hoard of manuscripts discovered at the end of the nineteenth century in the Ben Ezra synagogue in Cairo-reflected, like so many snapshots, the life of the Jewish community in Cairo from the tenth century up to modern times. Goitein skillfully brought these snapshots to life, reconstructing the web of economic alliances across the Mediterranean and beyond it, the political and personal ties between the individual writers, and their religious and cultural concerns.

Although Braudel and Goitein did not belong to the same circle of historians, for a half-century following them "Mediterraneanism" became very much in vogue. References to the Mediterranean appeared in titles of many works, and provided a conceptual frame for others. The awareness of the concept's popularity led to a conscious attempt to examine its validity. Peregrine Horden and Nicholas Purcell, in their dramatically titled monumental work The Corrupting Sea, thus embarked on an analysis (and defense) of Mediterraneanism.

But what is "the Mediterranean" for the historian? Unlike the well-defined geo graphical boundaries of the Mediterranean Sea, the cultural boundaries of "the Mediterranean world" are surprisingly flexible, and at times reach impressive dimensions. The center of gravity of Braudel's Mediterranean lies in its western and northwestern part: Spain, the Maghreb, and Italy, whereas Palestine and Egypt play a relatively minor role in his study-smaller, in fact, than the role accorded to decidedly non-Mediterranean countries such as the Netherlands. Beyond the geographical confines of the Mediterranean stretched Braudel's "greater" or "global Mediterranean," which he described as "a Mediterranean with the dimensions of history." For the sixteenth century, these dimensions expanded to include the Atlantic shores as well as the Portuguese, Spanish, French, and English colonies in the Americas. By contrast, the Mediterranean society described by Goitein on the basis of the documents or the Cairo Geniza tilted toward the east and south. Moreover, it occupied not only the shores of the Mediterranean, but also those areas defined today as the Near East, and its "global" or "historical" dimensions stretched eastward, as far as India.

The term "Mediterranean" is problematic not only because of its geographical inaccuracy. In recent years, the usefulness of treating the Mediterranean as an historical, anthropological, or economic unit has been increasingly questioned. In an interesting volume of essays dedicated to the examination of the thesis of Horden and Purcell, the classical scholar William Harris, for example, cites the definition of "Mediterraneanism" as "the doctrine that there are distinctive characteristics which the cultures of the Mediterranean have, or have had, in common." He notes "the fact that Mediterraneanism is often nowadays little more than a reflex" and adds that "the Mediterranean seems somehow peculiarly vulnerable to misuse." As noted by Harris, "for many scholars Mediterranean unity has meant ... primarily or indeed exclusively cultural unity." These scholars, he says, were looking for "the basic homogeneity of Mediterranean civilization," a homogeneity the existence of which Harris then proceeds to disprove.

fl From various angles scholars now question not only the existence of enough unifying criteria for either the coastland or the deeper littoral countries, but also the existence of criteria sufficient to distinguish these countries from others. Even those who continue to use the term "Mediterranean" do so with an acute awareness of its shortcomings. The Arabist Gerhard Endress, for instance, seems to be addressing the abovementioned questions when he asserts that, in the Mediterranean world of the Islamic middle ages, "Business interactions, the exchange of goods and books, practical science and intellectual disputes, come together to make a multi- faceted picture; a picture which is in no way that unified, but in which one can recognize many surprising aspects of unity." For Rémi Brague, "The Mediterranean played a role only when there was a single culture around its shores. This was achieved only with the Roman empire." Reluctant to abandon the concept altogether, however, Brague counts the world of medieval Islam as an expansion ("une sortie") of the Mediterranean toward the Indian Ocean.

Regarding the place of the religious minorities in the Islamic world, adherence to "Mediterraneanism" introduces yet another set of problems: that of anachronistic value judgments. In his attempt to capture the place of the Jewish community within the fabric of the wider Mediterranean society, Goitein used the term "symbiosis," which he borrowed from the field of biology, to illustrate the separate identity that Jews managed to preserve within the dominant Muslim culture, while still being full participants in it. Subsequent discussions of this topic, however, tend to highlight the comfortable, irenic aspects of symbiosis. This tendency is particularly pronounced regarding Maimonides' birthplace, al-Andalus (Islamic Spain) where the relations between the religious communities are described in terms of convivencia, in which las tres culturas (Islam, Christianity, and Judaism) enjoyed a parallel golden age. Such presentations play down the political, legal, and social differences between the ruling Muslims, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, the Christian and Jewish minorities living under Islamic rule, and present their interconnections in anachronistic terms of universalism and tolerance.

In treating Maimonides as a Mediterranean thinker I seek to study the relative intellectual openness of his world, not to promote its tolerant image. From the religious point of view, this world presented what Thomas Burman, in his study of the Christians in Islamic Spain, judiciously called "pluralistic circumstances." Whether or not these pluralistic circumstances also entailed religious tolerance is a different issue, which will be discussed in its proper context.

Maimonides as a Mediterranean Thinker

Like Braudel, Goitein was interested in human rather than in physical geography. Although the bulk of his Mediterranean Society deals with social and economic history, already in the introduction to this work Goitein clearly defined the focus of his interest: "The subject that interests us most: the mind of the Geniza people, the things they believed in and stood for." In its fifth and last volume, titled The Individual, Goitein included portraits of seven prominent intellectuals, as they emerge from their own writings as well as from the documents of the Geniza. Indeed, Goitein's original intention was to dedicate the last two volumes of his work to what he called "Mediterranean people," the individuals whose mind and intellectual creativity were shaped by the Mediterranean society in which they lived.

One should note that the Mediterranean basin did not provide group identity to its inhabitants. In all likelihood none of the persons described by Goitein as "Mediterranean" would have chosen this description for himself, and the same holds true for Maimonides. Born in Cordoba, he saw himself throughout his life as an Andalusian, and identified himself as such by signing his name in Hebrew as "Moshe ben Maimon ha-Sefaradi" ("the Spaniard," or, in less anachronistic terms, "al- Andalusi"). For that reason, it probably would never have occurred to me to describe Maimonides as "a Mediterranean thinker" were it not for Goitein's insistence on calling the Geniza society "Mediterranean."

In so far as my choice of calling Maimonides "a Mediterranean thinker" depends on Goitein, it is open to all the criticisms of Mediterraneanism mentioned above. In the case of Maimonides' thought, however, the term is appropriate in ways that do not apply to the society as a whole. Maimonides' life circled the Mediterranean basin. The cultures that fed into his thought were, by and large, those of the wider Mediterranean littoral. Those cultures that came from outside this region reached him only to the extent that they were translated into Arabic and thus became part and parcel of the culture of the Islamic Mediterranean.

Furthermore, in contradistinction to the historians who, in choosing this term, have sought to underline the Mediterranean's distinctive unity, I employ it precisely in order to highlight the diversity within it. Maimonides is a Mediterranean thinker in the sense that he is more than a Jewish thinker, or more than an Islamic philosopher (that is to say, a philosopher pertaining to the world of Islam). In modern parlance, he could perhaps be called "cosmopolitan," that is, a person who belongs to more than one of the subcultures that together form the world in which he lives. This last term grates, however, because of its crude anachronism as well as because of its (equally anachronistic) secular overtones.

The personal life-cycle of Moses Maimonides remained close to the shores of the Mediterranean, but the main events that affected his life occurred in a much larger area, stretching from the Iberian peninsula to the Indian subcontinent. The Islamic polity that Maimonides encountered during his lifetime was not made of one cloth, and his life was spent in no less than four major political entities:

1. From his birth in 1138 in Cordoba until 1148, Maimonides lived under the rule of the Berber dynasty of the Murabitun (or Almoravids, according to their Latinized name) in al-Andalus. In the Cordoba of his childhood, ruled by the Almoravids, the Jewish (and Christian) communities were relatively protected, as decreed by Muslim law.

2. In 1148 Cordoba was captured by another Berber dynasty, that of the Muwahhidun (or Almohads), whose highly idiosyncratic interpretation of Muslim law deprived the religious minorities of their traditional protected status. Almohad persecution forced Maimonides' family out of Cordoba, and their whereabouts in the following few years are unclear; they may have taken refuge in northern, Christian Spain (as others, like the Jewish philosopher Abraham Ibn Daud, did), or they may have spent some time in Seville. At any rate, in 1160, when Maimonides was in his early twenties, the family moved to Fez, close to the North African capital of the Almohads, where it remained for about five years.

3. Around 1165 the family left Fez for Palestine, which was then controlled by the Crusaders, and then finally settled down in Fatimid Egypt. There, Maimonides became involved in the trade of precious stones, but he was mainly supported by his brother David, until David's drowning in the Indian Ocean.

4. Egypt was conquered by the Ayyubids in 1171, and it is under their rule that Maimonides lived until his death in 1204. The premature death of his brother forced Maimonides to seek another source of income, and he worked as a court- physician to the Ayyubids in Fustat (old Cairo).

Each of these political entities is closely associated with a specific school of Muslim law (madhhab), and, to some extent, it is also associated with a particular school of thought. The Almoravids are identified with Maliki law, and typically (or stereotypically) described as opposed to rational speculation in all its forms. An extreme manifestation of this attitude was the public burning of the books of Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (d. 1111) in the Maghreb in 1109, during the reign of 'Ali b. Yusuf b. Tashufin (d. 1143).

Like the Almoravids, the Ayyubids were Sunni Muslims; they, however, followed Shafiite law, and adopted Asharite kalam or speculative theology.

(Continues...)



Excerpted from Maimonides in His World by Sarah Stroumsa Copyright © 2009 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Preface xi
Acknowledgments xvii
Abbreviations xix

Chapter One: Maimonides and Mediterranean Culture 1
Mediterranean Cultures 3
Maimonides as a Mediterranean Thinker 6
Horizons 13
Transformations in the Jewish World 18
Maimonides and Saadia 22

Chapter Two: The Theological Context of Maimonides’ Thought 24
Islamic Theology 24
Heresies, Jewish and Muslim 38

Chapter Three: An Almohad "Fundamentalist"? 53
Almohads 53
Maimonides and the Almohads 59
Legal Aspects 61
Theology 70
Exegesis and Political Philosophy 73
Philosophy and Astronomy 80
Conclusion 82

Chapter Four: La Longue Durée: Maimonides as a Phenomenologist of Religion 84
Sabians 84
Maimonides as an Historian of Religion 106
"A Wise and Understanding People?": The Religion of the People 111

Chapter Five: A Critical Mind: Maimonides as Scientist 125
Medicine and Science 125
"Ravings": Maimonides’ Concept of Pseudo-Science 138

Chapter Six: "From Moses to Moses": Maimonides’ Vision of Perfection 153
"True Felicity": The Hereafter in Maimonides’ Thought 153
Issues of Life and Death:
The Controversy Regarding Resurrection 165
"Gates for the Righteous Nation": The Philosopher as Leader 183

Conclusion 189
Bibliography 193
Index 219

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