Maimonides in his world : portrait of a Mediterranean thinker

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 Maimonides In His World
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Sarah Stroumsa
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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.1

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.2 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,”3 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.

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Even the study of Maimonides’ communal activity, based on his (usually Judaeo-Arabic) correspondence, tends to paint the Mus- lim 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.4 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.5

Mediterranean Cultures

The historical reflection on the cultural role of the Mediterranean, as a unifying principle of culture, began already with Henri Pirenne’s ground- breaking Mohammed and Charlemagne.6

 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.7

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.8 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 manu- scripts 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.9

 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” be- came very much in vogue. References to the Mediterranean appeared in titles of many works, and provided a conceptual frame for others.10

 The awareness of the concept’s popularity led to a conscious attempt to ex- amine its validity. Peregrine Horden and Nicholas Purcell, in their dra- matically titled monumental work The Corrupting Sea, thus embarked on an analysis (and defense) of Mediterraneanism.11

But what is “the Mediterranean” for the historian? Unlike the well- defined geographical 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 geo- graphical confines of the Mediterranean stretched Braudel’s “greater” or “global Mediterranean,” which he described as “a Mediterranean with the dimensions of history.”12

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For the sixteenth century, these dimensions expanded to include the Atlantic shores as well as the Portuguese, Span- ish, French, and English colonies in the Americas.13

By contrast, the Mediterranean society described by Goitein on the basis of the docu- ments 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” dimen- sions stretched eastward, as far as India.

The term “Mediterranean” is problematic not only because of its geo- graphical inaccuracy. In recent years, the usefulness of treating the Medi- terranean 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 cul- tures of the Mediterranean have, or have had, in common.”14

He notes “the fact that Mediterraneanism is often nowadays little more than a re- flex” and adds that “the Mediterranean seems somehow peculiarly vulnerable to misuse.” As noted by Harris, “for many scholars Mediterra- nean unity has meant . . . primarily or indeed exclusively cultural unity.”15

These scholars, he says, were looking for “the basic homogeneity of Mediterranean civilization,” a homogeneity the existence of which Har- ris then proceeds to disprove.

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 “Medi- terranean” do so with an acute awareness of its shortcomings.

 The Arabist Gerhard Endress, for instance, seems to be addressing the above- mentioned 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.”16

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.17

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.18


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.19

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 inter- connections in anachronistic terms of universalism and tolerance.20

In treating Maimonides as a Mediterranean thinker I seek to study the relative intellectual openness of his world, not to promote its tolerant im- age. 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.”21

Whether or not these pluralistic circum- stances also entailed religious tolerance is a different issue, which will be discussed in its proper context.22

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.”23

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”).24 For that reason, it probably would never have occurred to me to describe Maimonides as “a Mediterranean thinker” were it not for Goitein’s insis- tence 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…..

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