On 20 January 2015, I started reading Maimonides. I was looking forward to reading his autobiography because he’s a highly acclaimed Jewish scholar. I’m rather pleased that I’ve completed this 596 page book (including notes), although I found his sad-sack face on the cover difficult to look at. Maimonides referred to himself as being melancholy and his remedy to improve melancholy-ness was to do more reading and study, I’m guessing it didn’t work.
Maimonides (Moses ben Maimon the Rambam) was born 30 March 1135 and died 13 December 1204. He lived a reasonably long life considering he lived in such a turbulent era. For the most part Islam ruled during his lifetime. Jews and Christians were persecuted and subjected to Islamic State laws. Synagogues, churches and monasteries were destroyed. Although, it seems some professional Jews and Christians were given a reprieve, especially if they were qualified in law, medicine, philosophy and trade. Maimonides was one of those professionals who avoided persecution.
This was the so-called “Golden Age” of Islam, not so “Golden” for non-Muslims as they were not permitted to hold views contrary to that of Islam. They were permitted to exist, that was all, with very limited freedom. The term convivencia was used to describe racial relations during this period, convivencia means co-existing for economic/cultural reasons.
Here’s a couple of new Islamic word I learnt – jamaá, which means only Islamic males are free; slaves, woman and infidels (Jews and Christians) are not. And, tamyiz, to purge out anything and everything that is not Islam.
Maimonides mother died in childbirth, his first wife also died. He had one son, Abraham who was born to his second wife. Maimonides was able to trace his roots back to the Jerusalemites who were exiled after the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD by the Romans. There were also some ambitious talk that he was a descendent of King David, although he never made such claims himself.
He had a brother whose name was David who supported him financially, David ended up drowning in the Indian Ocean during a business trip to India.
I discovered that is was possible to become a Rabbi without having read the Bible, something which surprised me a lot! Apparently, this was the case with the Ashkenazi Jews. The only teaching the students received was in the Talmud, I then understood Maimon’s desire to produce the Mishnah to complement the Talmud, which is long and laborious. In 1168/70 Maimonides completed the Mishnah whilst living in Egypt.
During his lifetime the Islamic world adopted the mathematical system developed by the Indians. The same system we use today, nine digits and one zero.
Maimonides also wrote about Jesus, he called Him Isa, Isa is the Arabic word for Jesus, and it’s interesting he chose to call Him Isa, rather than Yeshu or Yeshua which is what other Jewish people call Him.
Both Maimonides and his father converted to Islam, now that was a surprise to me…but they still considered themselves Jews. So, maybe that’s the reason why Maimonides survived Islamic Rule. He wrote The Epistle of Forced Conversion (1160-1165) about the life of outward Muslims and inward Jews. A Jew could recite the Shahada (Muslim confession of faith but it didn’t have to heart-felt) and still remain a Jew.
I found Maimonides to be a bit of an opportunistic, he seemed to always position himself nicely in order to advance his career.
It’s obvious that Maimonides preferred Islam to Christianity, he wrote that Christians were the descendants of Esau, and that both Jesus (Isa) and Muhammad were fore-runners of the real Messiah who was yet to come.
I’m of the opinion that most Jews still hold the view that YHWH and Allah are the same – the ancestral God of both Isaac and Ishmael. This was certainly the case with Maimonides, for him, Muslims believed in the same God as he did. Both Jews and Muslims believe that God is ONE, and that this ONE God, had no Son. Maimonides viewed people who believed that God had a Son, as polytheists and not monotheists. Only Jews and Muslims were and still are the true monotheists according to this theory.
Maimonides lived during the Crusades. During the First Crusade, the Crusaders had killed Jews and Muslims, those that weren’t killed were sent into slavery, although generally speaking the Crusaders found slavery distasteful. The Crusaders captured Jerusalem in 1099 and Jews were only allowed access to The Holy City for the festivals. This was the case when Maimonides visited Jerusalem in 1165. The Muslims did have a conquest in Jerusalem prior to that in 638, they partially lifted the Jewish ban, but it was overturned in 1099 (The First Crusade).
In 1174 Saladin became supreme commander of Egypt, Syria and Iraq. Maimonides served as a physician to Saladin and during 1171-1173 he also served the Jewish community by being the Head of the Jews (Ra’is al-Yahud). Saladin was not a Muslim he was a Kurd.
Saladin, captured Jerusalem in 1187 and Jews were allowed access to the city once again. Saladin restored the al-Aqsa Mosque (Dome of the Rock) which was then called ‘Great and Holy House’, when it was a Church. Saladin was a great Muslim/Kurdish leader and sought to unify various Muslim territories, in order to wage war against the Christians. I couldn’t help feeling that history is repeating itself in 2014/15. Too many similarities to ignore….
These are the similarities I found between Saladin and our modern-day ISIS:
- Desired the same area (Egypt, Syria and Iraq) before advancing to Jerusalem
- The same agenda to wipe out Christians and Jews from the region
- Practiced slavery, collected and sold slaves to generate revenue
- Sought ransom for people (according to Islamic law – the piety of ransoming)
- Swapped traditional white clothing for black clothing
Saladin died in 1193.
The other major work that Maimonides completed was the Mishnah Torah, the Mishnah Torah is the codification of Jewish Law and was completed in 1178/80. It is the most influential text in Judaism, it also influenced the legal systems and institutions of Britain and Holland in the seventeenth-century. It appears however, that Maimonides had his own reasons for producing this work, one of the reasons he gave was to help him study in his old age.
Whenever I read about prominent men like Maimonides, I’m always curious to find out how they viewed woman and a woman’s ability to learn/teach. In Maimonides time it was illegal for a woman to study, so apart from the occasional woman scholar, most remained unlearned. Woman did however obtain enough literacy for reading and pray in the synagogues. He himself didn’t appear to be too strict on woman learning, and said they would get a reward if they studied Torah. At the same time it appears he held the view of other Rabbis such as Eliezer who claimed woman had a tendency to transform Torah into nonsense. Such a shame really that some of these views are still held today in these three major religions.
My journey with Maimonides ends here, I enjoyed reading about him and at least now I know the intent and motivation behind the book I read often; The Mishnah. I also know a bit more about the man who so much of Jewish literature boasts about.
Maimonides wrote many more works, on science, on law and on medicine. I only listed a few. He developed many remedies for everything from erectile dysfunction to asthma. I think he was a holistic healer rather than a physician as we know a physician today.
After reading so much about the period in which Maimonides lived, I decided I must return to The Crusaders and do the course again with Professor Thomas F Madden.