Islamic History Judaism

Musa Bin Maimun, the Jewish Scholar who Studied and Flourished in the Islamic Countries

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Reem Shraiky, UK

In an Arabic book called The Muslim Between the Islamic Identity and the Pre-Islamic Identity (by Ali Bin Naief Al-Shahoud) we read:

When Muslims arrived in Spain, the indigenous people of the country at that time were suffering from the rule of a strange aristocracy, while the Jews were subject to persecution by the Church… With the conquest of Seville in 716 AD, the foundation of the geographical framework was laid in Spain in which a multicultural society flourished throughout approximately eight centuries.

The indigenous people did not consider the conquering Muslims to be primitive savages. On the contrary, they admired the high lifestyle, luxury, and delicacy that the Muslims brought, and soon the Christians began to imitate the Muslims. This cultural assimilation and integration had come so far that a Spanish priest wrote angrily:

“My Christian brothers are enjoying the Arabic poetry and stories, and they study the sciences of religion and Mohammedan philosophy, not for the purpose of refuting them, but to refine their tastes and possess the high style. Is there now anyone who is able to read Latin commentaries on the holy books? No, unfortunately, not. The gifted young Christians only know Arabic literature, they only read and study Arabic books, they spend dear and cheap to collect Arabic books, and they praise and glorify at every opportunity the Arab customs.”

And Ingmar Carlson says: 

“The Islamic conquest liberated the Jews from the persecution they had suffered under Christian rule. The Jews adapted to Arab culture and reached high official positions during that period of prosperity. The Jews also contributed their share to the scientific, philosophical, and literary development that was achieved during that period which was centred around Cordoba.

Life was breathed back into the Hebrew language under Arab support and protection. Although the Jews used to write in Arabic when dealing with philosophy and science, Hebrew was their preferred language when writing poetry. Perhaps this was the first time that Hebrew was used for purposes other than religious rituals.

Jews migrated to Arab Spain from all over the world, to the point that Granada became a city with a Jewish character. In this regard, it is sufficient to point out that an Israeli publisher in the early eighties published a collection of works under the title Treasures of Jewish Thought, and all these six published volumes in this collection are works written in Spain during the period 1050 – 1428 AD. In fact, five of the six works were originally written in Arabic. The works included two books by the author Gabriel (better known by his Latin name Avicebron), poems by the poet Yehuda Halevi, and works written by Musa Bin Maimun”’. 

[Note: this passage has been translated by the author herself; she is a professional translator]

All these three great Jewish Scholars and intellectuals were Andalusians but I would like to shed light on the life of Musa bin Maimun of Cordoba (note: “Musa” is Arabic for “Moses” and “bin Maimon” means “son of Maimun”).

He is known in the west as “Maimonides”. He was a Sephardic Jewish philosopher who became one of the most influential Torah scholars in the Middle Ages. He was also a prominent astronomer and physician. He was born in Cordoba in Andalusia in the 12th century AD, and from there his family moved in 1159 to the Moroccan city, Fez, where he studied at the University of Al-Qarawiyyin. Then, in 1165 they moved to Palestine, before eventually settling in Egypt, where he lived until his death.

He is considered one of the most knowledgeable rabbis. Due to his great knowledge of the Torah, the Jews say about him that there is no other “Moses” between the prophet Moses (as) and Moses son of Maimun. 

He was unique in his time in the field of Medicine, skilled in sciences and had a good knowledge of philosophy. In Egypt, he was the personal physician of Sultan Al-Nassir Saladin Al-Ayoubi.

Among his most important books are a summary of the sixteen books of Galen; an article on haemorrhoids and their treatment; an article on health management that he compiled for Ali, son of Saladin; an article on poisons and avoiding fatal medicines; and the book Sharh Al-‘Aqar. 

He also wrote books in the Arabic language such as Dalalat al-Haireen (دلالة الحائرين) or “The Guide for the Perplexed” which reconciles philosophy with monotheism using philosophy and Jewish theology.

In Cairo, Maimonides learned Syriac and Greek, and after seven years he became a professor at the school established by Egyptian Jews in Fustat to teach Judaism, philosophy, mathematics, and medicine. He was also the head of the Jewish community in Egypt.

This scholar was known to the Arabs as Abu Imran Musa bin Maimon Ubaidullah. One of his most prominent students was Yusuf ibn Aqnin, known to the Arabs as Abu al-Hajjaj, Yusuf ibn Ishaq al-Sabti al-Maghribi, who was famous as a physician and a brilliant astronomer.

Ibn Maimon lived in an Arab and Islamic environment. He received knowledge at the hands of three Muslim scholars. While he learned directly from Ibn al-Aflah and from one of Ibn al-Sayegh’s students, he learned indirectly from Ibn Rushd as he himself mentioned that he studied Ibn Rushd’s works for thirteen years.

This illustrates how a distinguished Jewish scholar flourished within a predominantly Islamic environment, and that different ideas and faiths were easily and harmoniously coexisting.

In fact, the commingling of different schools of thought led to philosophical and intellectual advancement. Religious convictions of any form were not a means of division but were instead respected. 

In truth, Muslims of Al-Andalus and other Muslim countries exemplified the value of interreligious tolerance which is an integral part of the teachings of Islam, as the Holy Prophet (sa) stated: Whoever harms a nonMuslim citizen, he is my enemy and I will be his enemy on the Day of Judgment’. (Al-Jami’ Al-Saghir).

About the Author: Reem Shraiky is a life devotee of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community – International Arabic English Translation & Research Office, UK.

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