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  • 2/25/2006

The influence of Islamic Philosophy on Maimonides's Thought

The overall purpose of the Law is twofold: to promote the welfare of the body and to promote the welfare of the soul. The welfare of the soul is achieved inasmuch as sound views are implanted in the minds of people, to the extent they are capable of grasping them. For this reason, certain ideas are stated directly while others are expressed through symbols, since it is not within the natural capacity of common people to grasp the latter class of truths directly.

MAIMONIDES, Moreh Nevukhim, III: 27 [1]

Jewish culture, which had flowered under the Ummayad Caliphs, received a terrible blow when Southern Spain was conquered by the Almoravids. Jews were persecuted and forced to pay a heavy tax to preserve their religion. Mosheh ben Maimon, called Maimonides by Latin authors and known in the Arab world as Musa Ibn Maymun, Moses son of Maimon, was born in Cordova in 1135. The Almohads, who succeeded the Almoravids, took over Cordova in 1148 and destroyed the beautiful synagogue that had been built there. Jews, like Christians, were forbidden to practice their religion. The family of Maimonides fled into exile and wandered from city to city in Spain and North Africa. Maimonides's father was a Rabbi and a judge of the rabbinical court and he decided to establish his residence for a time in Fez. He wrote an epistle encouraging the Jews to hold fast to their faith and to practice taqiyya (dissimulating their faith in periods of danger). The taqiyya is commonly practiced by minorities in Islam such as Shi'ites and Sufis. The father of Maimonides comforted the Jews who were forced to outwardly profess Islam by assuring them that their real faith was the genuine belief concealed within their hearts. He urged the Jews to believe firmly that God would not change Jewish revelation by abrogating the Torah in favor of the Qur'an. This latter idea will be developed by Maimonides in his Treatises. Eventually, the family was unable to continue hiding in Fez and decided to journey to Palestine before finally setting in Cairo, where there was a substantial Jewish population.

The Jewish community in Cairo was divided into two groups: Karaites and Rabbanites. Maimonides positioned himself on the side of the Rabbanite authorities by maintaining Jewish Rabbinical tradition. He rejected the Karaite point of view that everyone has the capacity to develop his own authoritative interpretation of the Law. For Maimonides, the [p.14] point of view of the Karaites led to a rejection of the notion of divine legislation which was the foundation of Judaism. Maimonides refused to earn his living as a Rabbi and decided to learn most probably medicine by reading Arabic translations of texts by Hippocrates, Galen as well as Arabic works of Muhammad b. Zakariyyâ’ al-Râzî, Avenzoar (Ibn Zuhr), and Avicenna (Ibn Sina). Later he was hired as a physician by the Fâtimid court. The Fâtimid court also appreciated him for his knowledge of Greek sciences and philosophy. When the Fatimids were overthrown in 1171, Maimonides was retained as a physician under the ruler Salâh al-dîn (d. 1193).

During that time Maimonides, influenced by Islamic philosophical tradition, decided to consider the difficult problem of reconciling faith (îmân) and intellect (‘aql). Previous Jewish authors such as Abraham Ibn Daud, Saadia Gaon and Samuel b. Hophni preceded him in this attempt to understand how the Holy Scripture can be interpreted in the light of the truths of science and reason. Uneducated people, according to Maimonides, do not see any problem in the meaning of Scripture, but to the more critical philosophical mind the Torah appears problematic. Guidance could only be reached by going beyond the problematic apparent (zâhir) meanings of the Torah to its deeper (bâtin) significance. For Maimonides, philosophy and science became essential as a means to develop a deeper understanding of divine Scripture. All these ideas were integrated in his 1190 work composed in Arabic and entitled Dalâlat al-Hâ’rîn (Guide of the Perplexed). Maimonides was one of the greatest Jewish philosophers of the Middle Ages and the Guide is his most important philosophic work. Maimonides preferred the Aristetolian interpretations given by al-Fârâbî, Avempace (Ibn Bâja) and Averroes (Ibn Rushd) to the more mystically oriented ones of Avicenna.

Philosophy, as an organized discipline, traced its origins to Greek philosophical theory; this understanding was relatively new in Judaism during Maimonides's time, for it came from the Muslim initiatives in philosophy during the ninth century. The growing interest of Muslims in Greek sciences such as medicine, astronomy, mathematics, logic, and philosophy led to an extensive movement of translation from Greek (often via Syriac into Arabic). Greek philosophy left a tangible imprint on Islam and on all those who came in contact with Islamic civilization. Two Muslims philosophers, al-Fârâbî (d. 950) and Avicenna (d. 1037), undertook the task of integrating the philosophical tradition of Plato, Aristotle, and Plotinus into their religious philosophy. Al-Fârâbî developed the theory of prophecy and of the function of the state which was adopted by Maimonides. To Maimonides, it is evident that material wealth is not an end in itself, but a means to study and contemplate divine creation. He argues that the function of the state is to create the conditions of peace and security enabling men and women to fulfil their human needs through the use of their intellect, thus enabling them to come closer to God. Avicenna inspired Maimonides to overcome metaphysical problems. Since worldly things are contingent, they must ultimately be produced by a Being who is necessary through Himself.

Even though Maimonides based his theory of prophecy on many concepts inherited from al-Fârâbî, he used these ideas to consolidate his Jewish faith. He conceived the Prophet as a statesman who brings the law to his people. This notion of the Prophet-statesman is derived from the Republic of Plato where the Philosopher-King administers the ideal state. Maimonides, in [p. 15] his halakhik writings, placed the Prophet Moses in a unique position. In his view, Moses had attained the highest rank of humankind one which could not ever be reached by anyone else. Every Prophet except Moses received the divine revelation through an angel. Maimonides accepted al-Fârâbî's definition of prophecy as an emanation from God, which, through the Active Intellect (al-‘Aql al-fa‘‘âl) flows first upon the rational Prophetic faculty before reaching the imaginative faculty of the Prophet, who then transmits it to the people. According to Maimonides, when Moses received the revelation, his imaginative faculty remained untouched. The knowledge of Moses was absolute and unsurpassed by that of any other Prophets. Moses overcame the interference of corporeality in the acquisition of the divine truth. He, unlike all other Prophets, received his revelation without an intermediary, while completely awake, without being physically perturbed and whenever he so desired. Moses attained the highest knowledge of God and thus surpassed the rest of mankind. Moses pierced all the veils which separate man from God. No material obstacle stood in his way. Only his pure intellect remained to receive the divine Truth.

In the second chapter of the Guide of the Perplexed, Maimonides explained that: “nothing is similar to the call addressed to us by Moses.” For Maimonides, the purpose of the Law is both the welfare of the soul as well as the body. The commandments are only intended for man to control the impulses of matter. The Mosaic Law assimilates itself to nature, perfecting the natural realm. The Law of Moses, full of wisdom, was considered by Maimonides superior to all human laws, even to the laws revealed to other Prophets whose apprehension of nature was only partial. The Law was meant to bring people to their final perfection and to make them wiser. Only a being who belongs to both worlds, the spiritual and the material, could have produced such a perfect Law. According to Maimonides, in the history of mankind there was only one man who reached such a level of perfection: it was Moses. Since no other man can apprehend God more fully than Moses, the Mosaic Law is the most perfect and cannot be abrogated. For Maimonides, Christianity and Islam, which preached a new revelation, are more dangerous to Jewish faith than Hellenism. However, Maimonides recognized the purely monotheistic nature of Islam and did not classify Muslims as idolaters.

Maimonides criticized the teachings of Islamic and Jewish theologians who were relying mainly on their imagination rather than on reason and consequently were not able to give satisfactory explanations of the existence, unity, and incorporeality of God. As for the demonstration of the creation or the eternity of the world, this is beyond human capacity.

Maimonides integrated many Islamic philosophical concepts into his Jewish philosophy. He was a controversial figure and his works were not universally welcomed nor understood. His three most important works are: his commentary on the Mishnah (in Hebrew), the Mishneh Torah (in Arabic initially and translated in Hebrew later) and the Guide (in Arabic). The Mishneh Torah was written for the common people, who do not see contradictions between philosophy and religion; its aim was to explain how to live in accordance with the Jewish Law. The Guide addressed itself to an intellectual elite which was perplexed about religion; its aim was to bring those belonging to it back to Judaism. The anthropomorphic terms of the Torah have both a spiritual (bâtin) and an apparent (zâhir) meaning. Only the spiritual meaning should be applied to God. The Mishneh Torah, which claimed to supersede the Talmud, replacing its deliberations by a systematic code of Jewish law, was new and disturbing to some orthodox Rabbis.

Maimonides had a decided impact on western philosophical thinking. Muslims, Jews, and Christians studied the Guide of the Perplexed in the Arabic, Latin, and Hebrew languages. But the work nourished debates between rationalists and anti-rationalists throughout the Middle Age. The Maimonidean controversy is at the heart of Jewish faith and simultaneously part of a set of problems common to Christianity and Islam alike. The great Christian theologian, Saint Thomas Aquinas, considered Maimonides a trustworthy guide who helped him to reconcile Christian faith with philosophy. For him, Maimonides pointed the way to a philosophical approach to religion which did not discard Scripture but he discovered in the Revelation some insightful guidance which might illuminate human intellect. Duns Scotus and Leibniz were inspired by Maimonides. Through Leibniz, Maimonides reached Kant. The Guide of the Perplexed affected Jewish thought even more deeply. Michael Friedländer listed more than forty commentaries, all written by Jews, except for the one by Leibniz and another written by a Muslim, al-Tabrîzî.


Bland, Kalman P. “Moses and the Law According to Maimonides”, pp. 49-66 in Mystics, Philosophers, and Politicians. Essays in Jewish Intellectual History in Honor of Alexander Altmann. Edited by Jehuda Reinharz and Daniel Swetschinski. Durham (North Carolina): Duke Univerity Press, 1982.

Maimonides, Moses. Dalâlat al-Hâ’irîn (The Guide of the Perplexed).Translated by Shlomo Pines. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969.

 “Maimonidean Controversy” and “Maimonides, Moses” in Encyclopaedia Judaica, vol. 11 (1971): 745-781.

Readings in the Philosophy of Moses Maimonides. Selected and Translated with Introduction and Commentary by Lenn Evan Goodman. New York: The Viking Press, 1976.

Wolfson, Harry Austryn.Repercussions of the Kalâm in Jewish Philosophy. Cambridge (Massachusetts):  Harvard University Press, 1979.

Diana Steigerwald

Religious Studies, California State University (Long Beach)

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