Sarah Stroumsa, Maimonides in His World: Rambam as Cosmopolitan-Updated

There is a new book Sarah Stroumsa: Maimonides in His World Princeton University Press  2009. I await my copy to arrive and for the reviews to start appearing. In the meantime, in her first chapter she describes the Islamic Mediterranean culture in which Maimonides worked and which she will use as the framework for her book. She paints Maimonides as the end of an era of Arabic-Jewish integration.

In this approach, she is similar to the method of Steven Wasserstrom, Between Muslim and Jew: The Problem of Symbiosis under Early Islam. Between the 8th and 12th centuries, Jewish culture was tied up in Shiia and Ismaeli thought, in the formation of hadith collections, and Islamic legal schools, in the machinations of Caliphs, in Arabic poetics, and Islamic science.  Maimonides thoughts as he wrote them, were not the start of something new, rather the final summery, reflection, and synthesis of a different age. She credits this approach to S. D. Goitoin and others.

In this approach, the Maimonides of his time is different than the Maimonides of thirty years after his death and then the subsequent use in the Beit Midrash. The former Maimonides spoke and read Arabic and Berber, had Muslim colleagues, and needs to be situated in a world of Farabi, Ibn Sina, ibn Bajjah and the fiqh of Al Ghazzali and debates between Hanafi and Maliki schools of law, and the Ismaeli Qadi al- Nu man’s “Pillars of Islam.” In many aspects, Maimonides was quite conservative compared to the religious options his age. In contrast, the Maimonides of the Beit Midrash is a about a European reception of his works in Hebrew. In Provence, Maimonides was read with Hebrew translations of Farabi, and ibn Sina, but the original world has been lost.

First Chapter as pdf

The “Mediterranean culture” that shaped Maimonides had, of course,  produced other Jewish leaders and scholars. It is interesting to compare  Maimonides to another “Mediterranean thinker” of impressive stature, Saadia ben Yosef Fayyumi, alias Saadia Gaon (d. 942).80 Like Maimonides’, Saadia’s thought was shaped by his education, travels, readings, and personal encounters, and included the legacy of different schools
and religious communities. Like Maimonides’, Saadia’s originality lies in  his ability to integrate these diverse sources of influence into a coherent Jewish thought, speaking the universal cultural language of his time while  yet remaining entirely Jewish. The differences between the tenth-century  Saadia and the twelfth- century Maimonides are not only differences of  personality. The distinctive characters of their respective “cultural Mediterraneans” reflect the turning point in the twelfth century. Both Saadia and Maimonides can be seen as high- water marks of the Jewish Mediterranean society. Saadia, in the tenth century, marks the consolidation and coming of age of the Judaeo- Arabic Mediterranean culture. Maimonides, at the close of the twelfth century, marks the turning of the tide, the end of an era: the beginning of the waning of Islamic culture, the rise of Europe an intellectual power, and, as part of this process, the great shift occurring within the Jewish world.

In modern parlance, he could  perhaps be called “cosmopolitan,” that is, a person who belongs to more  than one of the subcultures that together form the world in which he  lives.

Even some of his famous statements in his commentary on the Mishnah reflect the world in which he lived and book that were known to his readers.

Ibn  Qutayba (d. 889), a traditional Muslim scholar, wrote an anthology of edifying material for the state secretaries, in the introduction to which we find him quoting the Prophet Muhammad’s learned cousin, Ibn Abbas, who had said: “Take wisdom from whomever you may hear it, for wisdom can come from the non- wise.”


I thank my reader Jeff for pointing me to a recent book review by David Burrell at NDPR- here. In general I recommend highly David Burrell’s Knowing The Unknowable God as an easy to read introduction to the trajectory of Farabi-Maimonides-Aquinas.

Burrell chose the same passage, which I chose, from the first chapter to illustrate her approach. According to Burrell’s summary of Stroumsa, in the chapters which I have not read yet—Maimonides was influenced by the Fundamentalist Almohad world of his youth, including his view of the unity of God, his definition of a leader, and his messainism. But unlike the Islamic world where jurist and philosophers were not the same social roles,  Maimonides in his rarely-found dual role could offer a more creative synthesis of fundamentalism and philosophy. Strousma finds a serious Ibn Sina influence on Maimonides’ vision of perfection as contemplative and erotic and ecstatic. She finds this is one of the places where Maimonides own religious belief is found.

She also attributes the Letter on resurrection to the Almohad heresy hunting against those falasifa who deny resurrection. (I thought for years that Bernard Septimus’ work on the resurrection controversy using only Jewish sources was barking up the wrong tree for similar reasons, any introductory work on medieval Islamic thought mentions the Islamic controversy on resurrection at the end of the 12th century.)

She suggests that Maimonides’ “identifying true monotheism with a noncorporeal perception of God” aligns him with Ibn Tumart’s school of thought (71). It is especially “Maimonides’ overall perception of the role of the ruler that is modeled according to Almohad thought” (77). In particular, his “depiction of the Messiah is characterized by an overwhelming insistence on his military role” (78). Yet it is here that we must recall that

the status of Maimonides within his own community was strikingly different from that of the Muslim philosophers of his generation within  their society[. Indeed], as the spiritual leader of a minority group, [he] could feel, perhaps more than a Muslim philosopher marginalized in the court, that he was able to shape the minds of his flock, [leaving] him, paradoxically, more freedom to adopt Almohad ideology than that left to his Muslim counterparts (79).

Chapter five, “A Critical Mind”, on Maimonides as scientist gives Stroumsa has :”a particular fascination for his obloquy towards pseudo-science, which he labels “ravings”

The chapter crowning the study, “‘From Moses to Moses’: Maimonides’ Vision of Perfection”, begins by comparing the Rambam’s concerns with those of Avicenna,… “the Guide gives us a glimpse of a positive description of Maimonides’ understanding of paradise.”

Commenting on this unusual use of evocative language by the Rambam, Stroumsa proposes (and I would concur) that “his description of the bliss of the perfect souls rings with the exultation and rapture of the believer” (164).

Maimonides’ own Treatise on Resurrection has elicited contentious commentary… Yet in the light of his clear predilection for immortality of soul, one wonders why Maimonides should insist, as he does in his ‘creed’, on obligatory belief in the resurrection of the dead. Stroumsa cuts the Gordian knot by suggesting that

in instituting a list of legally binding dogmas that define the boundaries of Judaism, [he] followed the example of the Almohads, [and especially of] their source of inspiration, Ghazali, who counted the denial of the resurrection as one of the marks of the philosophers’ heresy.

13 responses to “Sarah Stroumsa, Maimonides in His World: Rambam as Cosmopolitan-Updated

  1. I have been reading Joel Kraemer’s biography of Maimonides. He also places a lot of emphasis on the Islamic context. I am interested in this issue in terms of Maimonides’ non-apocalyptic messianism and possible Fatmid influences.

  2. It’s also interesting to contrast this kind of intellectual history with sparser philosophical readings of Maimonides. I have been reading Idit Dobbs-Weinstein’s book off and on for a while and have been thinking about these different approaches from a pedagogical perspective.

  3. have been thinking about these different approaches from a pedagogical perspective.

    And what are your tentative thoughts?

  4. Here is a review in the Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews

    by David Burrell, C.S.C., University of Notre Dame/Uganda Martyrs University

  5. Since David Burrel already wrote a fine summery of the philosophy in the book, what angle should I take if i write a newspaper review? The cultural element? The Islamic-Jewish synthesis angle? the contemplative angle?

  6. How about asking why this was the permanent twilight of the Jewish/Muslim encounter in the Mediterranean world? In other words, if we believe Stroumsa, thirty years after Rambam, we get the same misunderstandings we have kept for a thousand years. How did the entire social imaginary of this Mediterranean really just vanish? Or did it?

  7. lawrence kaplan

    From Burrell’s review I do not get the impression that Stroumsa deals with Maimonides the halakhist. Am I wrong?

  8. I believe that you are correct- but I am waiting for my review copy to arrive. She does name drop the works of Islamic law and Islamic schools of law that should be consulted. There is a lot to be done comparing the Mishneh Torah to Ghazzali’s Ihye Ulam Al-Din.

  9. Stroumsa deals with quite a few halakhic examples throughout the book. Among these are: Maimonides’s solution to a quarreling couple (borrowed from maliki jurisprudence), Maimonides’s putting knowledge of God in Halakha (from Almohads and Avicenna), Maimonides on a woman going to work against husband’s wishes (he does not really allow it) and other queries.

  10. lawrence kaplan

    Chakira: Not quite the same thing I was talking about. But I will wait and see. A treatment of Rambam the halakhist can be found in Davidson’s book. The other book on the Rambam which deserves a serious review is Moshe Halbertal’s book in Hebrew.

  11. Stroumsa is not as typological in separating out Halakha and whatever else– Halakha has Almohad and Maliki precedents, and everything else from Epistles to Moreh has those influences too.

    What WERE you talking about though? Maybe we are talking past one another?

  12. lawrence kaplan

    I was thinking of a full-fledged thorough discussion of the Sefer ha-Mitzvot and the Mishneh Torah. But let me get ahold of the book and see.

  13. You will not find what you want, but there is explanation of many recondite points in the Halakhic oeuvre. Even if it does not conquer the MT, still a great book. Would love to hear your thoughts when you get it.

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