Maimonides and Islam

Abrogation in the Koran garnered a very interesting discussion. One person offered some quotes from Maimonides and concluded

    “Maimonides certainly did not take the position that that Islam was a satanic invention or that Muslims were followers of an alien (pagan or idolatrous) religion (avoda zara).”.

Here’s what Andy Bostom has to say in his forthcoming, “The Legacy of Islamic Antisemitism”

[..] Moses Maimonides [1135 -1204], Jewish rabbi, physician, and philosopher, was fleeing the Muslims, the intolerant Almohads who conquered Cordoba in 1148. The Almohads persecuted the Jews, and offered them the choice of conversion to Islam, death, or exile. Maimonides’ family and other Jews chose exile. But this did not bring any peace to the Jews who had to be on the move constantly to avoid the all-conquering Almohads. After a brief sojourn in Morocco and the Holy Land, Maimonides settled in Fostat, Egypt, where he was physician to the Grand Vizier Alfadhil, and possibly Saladin, the Kurdish Sultan.

Maimonides’s The Epistle to the Jews of Yemen 3 was written in about 1172 in reply to inquiries by Jacob ben Netan’el al-FayyÅ«mi, the then head of the Jewish community in Yemen. The Jews of Yemen were passing through a crisis, as they were being forced to convert to Islam, a campaign launched in about 1165 by ‘Abd-al-NabÄ« ibn Mahdi. Maimonides provided them with guidance and with what encouragement he could. The Epistle to the Jews of Yemen gives a clear view of what Maimonides thought of Muhammad the Prophet, “the Madman” as he calls him, and of Islam generally. This is what Maimonides wrote:

    You write that the rebel leader in Yemen decreed compulsory apostasy for the Jews by forcing the Jewish inhabitants of all the places he had subdued to desert the Jewish religion just as the Berbers had compelled them to do in Maghreb [i.e.Islamic West]. Verily, this news has broken our backs and has astounded and dumbfounded the whole of our community. And rightly so. For these are evil tidings, “and whosoever heareth of them, both his ears tingle (I Samuel 3:11).” Indeed our hearts are weakened, our minds are confused, and the powers of the body wasted because of the dire misfortunes which brought religious persecutions upon us from the two ends of the world, the East and the West, “so that the enemies were in the midst of Israel, some on this side, and some on that side.” (Joshua 8:22).

Maimonides points out that persistent persecutions of the Jews by the Muslims amounts to forced conversion:

    …the continuous persecutions will cause many to drift away from our faith, to have misgivings, or to go astray, because they witnessed our feebleness, and noted the triumph of our adversaries and their dominion over us…

He continues:

    “After him arose the Madman who emulated his precursor since he paved the way for him. But he added the further objective of procuring rule and submission, and he invented his well known religion.” Many Medieval Jewish writers commonly referred to Muhammad as ha-meshugga’, Madman—the Hebrew term, as Norman Stillman notes, being “pregnant with connotations.” 4

Maimonides points to one of the reasons for Muslim hatred of Jews:

    Inasmuch as the Muslims could not find a single proof in the entire Bible nor a reference or possible allusion to their prophet which they could utilize, they were compelled to accuse us saying, “You have altered the text of the Torah, and expunged every trace of the name of Mohammed therefrom.” They could find nothing stronger than this ignominious argument.

He notes the depth of Muslim hatred for the Jews, but he also remarks on the Jewish tendency to denial, a feature that he insists will hasten their destruction:

    Remember, my co-religionists, that on account of the vast number of our sins, God has hurled us in the midst of this people, the Arabs, who have persecuted us severely, and passed baneful and discriminatory legislation against us, as Scripture has forewarned us, ‘Our enemies themselves shall judge us’ (Deuteronomy 32:31). Never did a nation molest, degrade, debase and hate us as much as they …. Although we were dishonored by them beyond human endurance, and had to put with their fabrications, yet we behaved like him who is depicted by the inspired writer, “But I am as a deaf man, I hear not, and I am as a dumb man that openeth not his mouth.” (Psalms 38:14). Similarly our sages instructed us to bear the prevarications and preposterousness of Ishmael in silence. They found a cryptic allusion for this attitude in the names of his sons “Mishma, Dumah, and Massa” (Genesis 25:14), which was interpreted to mean, “Listen, be silent, and endure.” (Targum Pseudo-Jonathan, ad locum). We have acquiesced, both old and young, to inure ourselves to humiliation, as Isaiah instructed us “I gave my back to the smiters, and my cheeks to them that plucked off the hair.” (50:6).

    All this notwithstanding, we do not escape this continued maltreatment which well nigh crushes us. No matter how much we suffer and elect to remain at peace with them, they stir up strife and sedition, as David predicted, “I am all peace, but when I speak, they are for war.” (Psalms 120:7). If, therefore, we start trouble and claim power from them absurdly and preposterously we certainly give ourselves up to destruction.”

3 Moses Maimonides, Moses Maimonides’ Epistle to Yemen: The Arabic Original and the Three Hebrew Versions, Edited from Manuscripts with Introduction and Notes by Abraham S. Halkin, and an English Translation by Boaz Cohen. New York: American Academy for Jewish Research, 1952.

4 Norman Stillman. The Jews of Arab Lands. A History and Source Book. 1979, Philadelphia p.236, and p. 236 note 8

And:

Moreover, fearing the widely prevalent doctrinal fanaticism of the Muslim masses, Maimonides cautioned Jews never to teach Muslims Torah, to avoid being accused by their Muslim interlocutors of blasphemy, and punished; in contrast Maimonides had no such reservations about Jews teaching Torah to “the uncircumcised”, i.e., Christians. 527a

    …it is permitted to teach the commandments and the explanations according to [rabbinic] law to the Christians, but it is prohibited to do likewise for the Muslims. You know, in effect, that according to their belief this Torah is not from heaven and if you teach them something, they will find it contrary to their tradition, because their practices are confused and their opinions bizarre mippnei she-ba’uu la-hem debariim be-ma`asiim [because a mish-mash of various practices and strange, inapplicable statements were received by them.] What [one teaches them] will not convince them of the falseness of their opinions, but they will interpret it according to their erroneous principles and they will oppress us. [F]or this reason…they hate all [non-Muslims] who live among them. It would then just be a stumbling block for the Israelites who, because of their sins, are in captivity among them.

    On the contrary, the uncircumcised [Christians] admit that the text of the Torah, such as we have it, is intact. They interpret it only in an erroneous way and use it for purposes of the allegorical exegesis that is proper to them Ve-yirmezuu bah ha-remaziim hay-yedu`iim la-hem [They would exchange secret signs known only to them.] If one informs them about the correct interpretation, there is hope that they will return from their error, and even if they do not, there is not stumbling block for Israel, for they do not find in their religious law any contradiction with ours

527a. Rambam (Maimonides)’s Teshuvot Responsa.. A. Freimann, ed. no. 364. Cited in Georges Vajda. “Juifs et Musulmans Selon Le Hadit” Journal Asiatique 1937, Vol. 229, p. 120, note 2. Translated from the French by Susan Emanuel.

September 9, 2007 | Comments Off on Maimonides and Islam

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