Known in Hebrew as Moshe ben Maimon and in Arabic as Musa ibn Maimon, Moses Maimonides was a major Jewish philosopher, theologian and leader of the Jewish community in the 12th century CE. He was born in 1135 CE in Cordoba, a great centre of Islamic culture and Jewish learning, at the height of the ‘Golden Age’ of the Muslims and Jews in Spain. In this milieu, Maimonides studied science, medicine, Arab-Islamic philosophy, which was known as falsafa, and the Jewish religious tradition.
Historically, Jews and Muslim share a unique cultural heritage. Maimonides’ life is a symbol of the best of this common past and of humankind’s ability to transcend and overcome intolerance, hatred, bigotry and ignorance. He was the product of an era of enlightened religious tolerance and cultural co-existence between Jews and Muslims.
Organized by The Maimonides Foundation in association with The Assembly of Masorti Synagogues in Great Britain, the presentations of the day engaged students, scholars and local community members in discourse about the legacy of Islamic Philosophy and the specific contributions of Maimonides.
In his presentation, Dr. Dhanani noted that, towards the end of his life, Maimonides had composed ‘The Guide of the Perplexed’, his magnum opus and a cornerstone of Jewish rational medieval philosophy, for his student Joseph. His objective was to inform Joseph about how to understand the allegorical aspects of Jewish scripture and to be able to determine the validity of competing views of metaphysics, the study of divine matters and natural philosophy that were held by the falasifa (Islamic Neoplatonist-Aristotelian philosophers like Ibn Sina, al-Farabi, Ibn Bajja, Ibn Rushd who, through the translations of Greek works into Arabic, accepted the Aristotelian system of the world with some Neoplatonic modifications) and the mutakallimun (philosopher-theologians, primarily Muslim, but also the Qaraite Jewish scholars).
In the Guide, which is written in Arabic, Maimonides notes the importance and influence of the falasifa on his system of thought and criticizes the mutakallimun, like the Mu‘tazilites and Ash‘arites, who rejected the views of the falasifa.
Dr. Dhanani noted that Maimonides was committed to the position of the falasifa and elaborated that their system not only discussed what we would today consider to be philosophical questions, but it also included aspects of natural science that we no longer consider valid, for example the geocentric universe and the rejection of the view that matter is constituted out of atoms. The falasifa were also engaged in the discussion of theological matters, like the nature of God and His activity in the world. Their view of God’s activity in the world has the implication that because events in the world have natural causes, God’s direct activity is very limited and in fact where God may act, He must act necessarily, which means without having the choice of not to act.
Like his fellow falasifa, Maimonides was against the system of the mutakallimun, who, despite their primary engagement with theological questions, were also interested in questions of natural science and philosophy. Their perspective on matter was that it is constituted out of atoms. Unlike the falasifa, the mutkallimun rejected natural causes and instead believed that events in the world happen as a result of God’s direct intervention, that is to say God’s direct will and intention for the event to occur. Some mutakallimun allowed that human beings can also cause events in the world, for example when they throw a ball or hit an object or person.
Dr. Dhanani pointed out that the opposition between the falasifa and mutakallimun reflected an earlier debate between the Greek Atomists and those who opposed them, the most famous of these being the followers of Aristotle. In this earlier debate, the position of the Atomists was that things happened through the chance or random meeting of atoms and that there was therefore no order in the world. On the other hand, the Aristotelians believed that there is a purpose and goal in the natural world and that this means that order pervades the world. Thus, Maimonides regarded the explanation of the mutakallimun, who rejected natural causes in favour of God’s direct intervention, to be equivalent to not having order, by which he meant natural order as it was understood by those who followed Aristotle.
In concluding his presentation, Dr Dhanani remarked that the question of purpose and order are still with us today in discussions of Darwinian evolution and quantum physics. “It seems to me, that despite our advances and movement away from Aristotelianism, kalam and falsafa, we are still ‘perplexed’ and in need of a modern-day Maimonides to guide us.”
The Maimonides Foundation is a Jewish-Muslim interfaith organisation that strives to foster understanding, dialogue, and co-operation between Jews and Muslims through cultural, academic and educational programmes based on mutual respect and trust.