David Nirenberg on Sarah Stroumsa, Maimonides in his World from LRB

David Nirenberg wrote a thoughtful full length review of Sarah Stroumsa’s recent work Maimonides in his World, Princeton University Press, 2010 in November LRB. This blog has already had a discussion of the book and link to the first chapter. We have also discussed David Nirenberg on Medieval Jewish-Muslim relations.

The essay is about Nirenberg’s interest in how to situate Jews in medieval Islam. He develops the themes of the multiple aspects of Maimonides’ work and how much they are based on his Islamic milieu. Maimonides in Nirenberg’s hands is a radical theologian seeing much of scripture as an accommodation to the masses and that philosophers should keep their true philosophic views secret, yet false beliefs held by the masses could be changed by sword. In a word, open-minded toward toward philosophy and science, yet situated as an intolerant fundamentalist, an Almohad follower of Ibn Rushd. Nirenberg then offers reflections on how we retrograde images onto medieval civilization and was the society in which Maimonides worked really open-minded. It is a long review, here are some selections.

Maimonides’ discovery of what would eventually be called ‘historicism’ would, in the very long run, help shake the study of scripture to its foundations. Yet his goal was not to demolish the divine word, but rather to bring our understanding of that word into harmony with the other things we know about the world. According to Maimonides, the basic error of theology is that it wants to ‘consider how being ought to be in order that it should furnish a proof for the correctness of a particular opinion, or at least should not refute it’. Seekers after truth should instead attempt to ‘conform in our premises to the appearance of that which exists’. He thought Aristotle was wrong to believe that the universe was eternal, a belief that, if true, ‘destroys the law’, and ‘gives the lie to every miracle’. But, he insisted, if Aristotle’s belief were some day proved, then he too would interpret scripture to conform with Aristotle.

The RaMBaM, meanwhile, appears to have had a very different project. He writes in a self-consciously archaic Hebrew reminiscent of the Mishnah, the ancient (second century ad) core of rabbinic Judaism from which the Talmud later developed. His codification of that Judaism is dogmatic, and he articulates, in his Commentary on the Mishnah, the closest thing rabbinic Judaism has to a credo: the 13 ‘articles of faith’ that bind all Jews, even ‘children, women, stupid ones, and those of defective natural disposition’. Some of these principles, such as belief in the resurrection, sit uneasily with what Maimonides elsewhere presents as rational philosophical truths.

Maimonides in His World: Portrait of a Mediterranean Thinker is, among other things, a critical engagement with Strauss’s view. Sarah Stroumsa insists that ‘the Straussian dichotomy of esoteric versus exoteric writing does not do justice to Maimonides’ context-sensitive rhetoric.’

Stroumsa admits that her argument depends on a series of assumptions, first that Maimonides was ‘generally familiar with major books of his period’ published by Muslim theologians and philosophers. Moreover, a philosopher who was so fully immersed in Islamic philosophy and used it to shape his own could not disengage himself from Islamic culture when he delved into other kinds of intellectual activity, be it exegesis, theology or polemics. My assumption is therefore that, in writing on Jewish law, for example, Maimonides was not only toeing the line of Rabbinic, Gaonic tradition, but also bringing to bear the influence of his non-Jewish cultural context.…He used, she argues, a ‘double linguistic and textual register’, and ‘even when he writes in Hebrew, his philosophical frame of reference is that of Arabic philosophy.’

This innovative ‘fundamentalism’, according to Stroumsa, bears a strong resemblance to that put forward in the writings of Ibn Tumart, the founder of an Islamic movement that arose among the Berber tribes of the Atlas Mountains in the early 12th century. Ibn Tumart attacked what he saw as the anthropomorphising and polytheistic tendencies of Islam in his day; the treatises he wrote were designed to provide his followers with the prophetic foundations for the pure monotheistic beliefs and practices incumbent on every Muslim, uncluttered by the later disputes of the learned. The Almohad movement he inspired – from the Arabic al-Muwahhidun, meaning the ‘proclaimers of God’s one-ness’ – swept to power throughout North Africa and Muslim Spain. The Almohads, unlike nearly all their predecessors in the history of Islam, did not tolerate the presence of Jews and Christians on their territory.

Many Arabic-speaking Jews and Christians fled to the northern Christian kingdoms. Others, like Maimonides’ family, accepted forced conversion to Islam and began a long series of displacements or exiles. The family seems to have spent 12 years wandering from city to city in Muslim Spain before settling for five years in Fez, where, according to a Muslim biographer, Maimonides learned the Quran by heart and studied Islamic law. He then escaped the Almohads’ orbit, moving briefly to Palestine and then to Egypt, where he could live openly as a Jew.

His journey through these multiple Islams, Stroumsa maintains, enabled Maimonides to create his singular approach to religious teaching. From the Greek philosophical tradition transmitted by his Muslim and Christian predecessors he learned that God teaches humanity by stages, accommodating his message to the capacities of those whom he addresses. Maimonides referred to this strategy – sometimes called the ‘doctrine of accommodation’ – by the Arabic word talat.t.uf, which means ‘shrewdness in the service of loving kindness’.

From his Cordoban Muslim contemporary Ibn Rushd (known in the West as Averroes) he learned that scripture ‘speaks in different ways to the three levels of society: the multitudes, the theologians and the philosophers, and that the spiritual leader or philosopher should try to follow this model’.
And from the Almohads he learned that some of what the multitudes can’t be taught by reason, they can be taught by credo: hence the ‘fundamentalist’ style of his commentaries on the Torah.

But although he learned from Islamic philosophy, Maimonides was not a Muslim. He was the religious leader of a small and stateless community, and didn’t have a highly elaborated world of rival authorities to answer to. This meant that he could go much further than a Muslim like Averroes, even to the point of treating the ancient texts of his religion as the product of human history:

For Stroumsa, this is not a symptom of a split personality or a split text, but rather the product of a coherent if highly idiosyncratic system of thought.

The space between ‘intellectual openness’ and ‘tolerant image’ is not very well defined, and partiality is encoded in the argument. No reader will finish this book with any doubts about Maimonides’ ‘intellectual openness’, but that of ‘his world’ is much less clear, especially since for Stroumsa a key aspect of that world is the rise of the Almohad movement, which deliberately crushed, through conquest, forced conversion and mass exile, the pluralist traditions of the western Mediterranean Islamic world. To speak of Maimonides as the product of the ‘relative intellectual openness’ of the world he was forced to flee makes sense in more or less the same way that we might speak of the ‘relative intellectual openness’ of the liberal German world whose collapse drove Leo Strauss, Hannah Arendt and Gershom Scholem into exile.

From The London Review of Books, November 1, 2010

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