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When Muslims, Jews and Christians lived side by side

Maimonides: Faith in Reason Forfatter
Forfatter: Alberto Manguel Yale
Forlag: University Press, (USA)
ETHNICITY / Maimonides is considered one of the most important Jewish thinkers ever. In his time, the relationship between the Muslim, the Arab and the Jewish was mutually enriching. Rather than viewing the relationship between Jews and Arabs in a polarized way, Maimonides' example shows that their enmity is redundant and intellectually debilitating. The conflict is not about religion, because Judaism and Islam have far too many central similarities.


The Sephardic-Jewish filosofone and the theologian Maimonides (1135–1204) makes an interesting case in light of the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Not only is Maimonides one of the most important Jewish philosophers and theologians to have lived, but he wrote most of his works in Arabic and lived his entire life in the Muslim world. Through him we can observe that at the core of the Islamic and Jewish golden ages in Spain there is a unifying point to look back on.

Maimonides grew up in the city of Córdoba in Muslim Spain. 'Sephardic Jew' denotes Jews who descend from the Iberian Peninsula and follow the traditions of the Jews from this area. Today, the term is also used for Jews from the Middle East, so that an Iraqi or Kurdish Jew falls under the category 'Sephardic'. Although Maimonides and his family were chased out of Spain when he was relatively young, he never stopped reminiscing about his original hometown.

During the Almoravid Empire (c. 1050–1147), in which Maimonides grew up, was Cordova both financially and intellectually the richest city in Spain. The city was built on Roman ruins, had 1600 mosques, the world's largest fleet and a quarter of a million inhabitants. Here Jews and Muslims lived side by side. Cultural historian María Rosa Menocal claims that the flowering of Jewish culture in Córdoba went hand in hand with the unfolding of Islamic culture.

Had to flee Córdoba

According to the book, Maimonides can Maimonides: Faith in Reason by Alberto Manguel is largely understood as a son of his hometown, and it is this legacy that we benefit from looking back on today. Especially in light of today Gaza conflict, as well as the increase in both anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, it is central to observe how the religions and cultures of Córdoba unfolded in a tolerant and pluralistic sphere – but also how they were destroyed by the lack of ditto.

The flowering of Jewish culture in Córdoba went hand in hand with the unfolding of Islamic culture.

Not only did Maimonides refer to The Quran in his works, he was also strongly influenced by Islamic philosophers such as Averroes, al-Farabi and Avicenna. The Jews in Spain also developed an Arabic-Jewish language which Maimonides used in several of his works. This means that Maimonides was far more than one Jew who simply lived in the Islamic world: He spoke and thought actively in relation to his own Muslime and Arabice surroundings.

But Maimonides and his family eventually had to flee Córdoba in 1148, when the Berber Almohad Caliphate took over the city and revoked the dhimmi status of the Caliphate's Christian and Jewish population. The issue denotes non-Muslims living in an Islamic state, and literally means 'protected person'. The details of what this entails have varied widely, but broadly it has boiled down to protecting non-Muslim believers and granting them exemption from public duties as long as they pay a sum for the protection and exemption.


So Maimonides and his family traveled south, further into the Islamic world. They used the same route that many Jews and Muslims fled along when the Catholics expelled them from Spain in the 1500th century. The route was better than anti-Semitic Europe, where the Jews were considered Christ's murderers and religious enemies. In the Islamic world, both Jews and Christians were 'people of the book', monotheists from previous revelations.

But not all Islamic caliphateare were equally tolerant. The years after the expulsion from Córdoba were difficult for Maimonides, and for a period he even had to hide his Jewish identity completely. It wasn't until he finally arrived in Egypt in 1168 that he became world famous. Although today Maimonides is best known as a philosopher and theologians, he was a famous player in his time Saladins secretary in Egypt. He considered it wrong to charge for religious work, which motivated Maimonides to a secular profession.

The Jewish, the Arab, the Christian and the Islamic were closely intertwined.

Being a doctor in demand was demanding for Maimonides. In a letter we can read how the old man mostly worked shifts that lasted all day. Manguel writes that Maimonides probably died of exhaustion.

Maimonides i dag

What Maimonides can teach us is how deeply intertwined Islamic and Jewish culture really is. The influence Maimonides had on his contemporaries was enormous. His Arabic books on medicine were used as standard works in large parts of the Islamic world. Not least, Maimonides' life also shows that the interaction between religions varied greatly at this time, but that a mutual and enriching relationship was certainly possible. Maimonides is also important for us in the West to return to because he has had a lot to say to Western philosophy. Spinoza and Leibniz were influenced by Maimonides' rationalism.

In light of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, through Maimonides we can gain an insight into the difficulties and opportunities linked to the relationship between Jewish and Islamic culture. He teaches us that the conflict is not about religion: Judaism and Islam have far too many central similarities. In Maimonides' long passages about God's unity and transcendence, one recalls the most central part of Islamic theology, tawheed: the unification of God. Opposite of i Christianity God's immaterial existence and the ban on images constitute central parts of both Islam and Judaism. Maimonides himself wrote that "when it comes to [the question of] God's unity, they [Muslims] lack nothing".

Not only is the theological foundation of both religions compatible, so is the philosophical style used by Maimonides and the Islamic philosophers. More specifically, it is the rationalist legacy of Aristotle that constitutes the ultimate unifying point: Faith must always be supplemented by reason for Maimonides. In that way, Judaism and Islam were not only united by the fact that both were Semitic siblings and children of Abraham – Isaac as the ancestor of the Jews, Ishmael as the Arabs (Maimonides called the Muslims 'Ismaelites'). Rational faith characterized both Jewish and Islamic intellectual life at this time.

To be enriched by the relationship

The question then becomes how Maimonides can be applied to today's situation. A noteworthy point is to look at Maimonides' birthplace, where Muslims, Jews and Christians lived side by side. In more recent times, Spain in Maimonides' time and up to 1500 has been an interesting historical case for understanding the intercultural and interreligious dynamics that unfolded. It can be particularly interesting in light of the fact that today's Jerusalem is a disputed territory that has a distinctive position in all three Abrahamic religions.

Another central point concerns Maimonides as a human being, who lived, thought and worked in a sphere where the Jewish, the Arab, the Christian and the Islamic were closely intertwined. Maimonides had great respect for his fellow men and was more often prepared to see the possibility of being enriched by the relationship than to seek conflict. Nevertheless, Maimonides held fast to his faith and viewed Jewish converts to Islam and Christianity with distaste. He thus shows that coexistence is not at odds with a strong identity.

In conclusion, Manguel adds that Maimonides would have been deeply disappointed by Israel's current existence as a violent and intolerant power. It is probably difficult to imagine anything that constitutes a stronger contrast to Maimonides' diverse and curious Judaism than the ideological racism and closed-mindedness that , the Rael#ske state enlivens today.

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