Interview with Elisha Russ-Fishbane — Judaism, Sufism, and the Pietists of Medieval Egypt: A Study of Abraham Maimonides and His Circle

Islam is essential to the future of Judaism.  Such a sentiment is not a modern political statement but the thinking of the thirteenth century Jewish leader Rabbi Abraham the son of Maimonides. Abraham thought that thirteenth century Judaism was in decline compared to the classical age of the Bible and Talmud and that it could only be restored by following contemporary Islamic practices, which in his mind, are reflective of original Jewish practices. He used his leadership, as best as he could, to create a pietistic revival seeking Sufi inspired divine illumination and contemplative prophecy.

sufi book cover

Elisha Russ-Fishbane, assistant professor at NYU recently wrote a study Judaism, Sufism, and the Pietists of Medieval Egypt: A Study of Abraham Maimonides and His Times on the fascinating Jewish leader Abraham Maimonides. Russ-Fishbane revisits the Arabic documents from the Cairo Genizah reading them afresh to give greater accuracy and detail in presenting the views of Abraham Maimonides. He relies on the prior work from Naftali Wieder, Paul Fenton and others, but subjects each document and fragment to a renewed scrutiny to offer us a wonderful rich account of this major figure in Jewish history. The monograph is fascinating and has many never before translated passages and excels in situating Abraham in his broader Egyptian context.

Abu-l Muna Ibrahim the son of Musa ibn Maymon, better known in English as Abraham Maimonides (1186-1237) was the only son of the famed Maimonides. Abraham became leader of Egyptian Jewry at age 18 after the death of his father in 1204 and officially ascended to the position of Ra’is (Nagid) in 1213 He was close to Muslim authorities and the Ayyubid Government, and became physician to Saladin’s brother  al-Malik al-Kamal. Abraham was described by a Muslim contemporary as tall and lean with refined speech and pleasant manners.

General knowledge already in our history books about Abraham Maimonides focus on his defense of his father in the 1232 Maimonidean controversy, in which, he shows that religious rationalism and treating the Bible as metaphor are the true Jewish positions while the anti- Maimonideans have fallen prey to the spurious beliefs, under the influence of Christianity, to anti-philosophic and anti-rational positions and read the Bible as anthropomorphism.

Abraham is also known from his great and very large work Kitāb Kifāyah al-`Ābidīn (A Comprehensive Guide for the Servants of God). The original was a voluminous 2500, of which we only have several extent sections, but those sections themselves are almost full treatises. The most famous section in the wider Jewish world is his essay on the aggadic sections of the Talmud (printed as Maamar al odot derashot Hazal)  where he treats the Talmudic stories as didactic allegory not based on a tradition, rather human insights, and they certainly they do not contain any truths about science or medicine. Paul Fenton, leading scholar of the era, insightfully states that in this work Abraham moved from his father prescriptive mode to a descriptive mode explaining the spiritual significance of Judaism in the same manner as al-Ghazzali did for Islam.

Many already know of Abraham Maimonides’ proposed changes to synagogue practice to enhance piety and bring the service more in line with Islamic piety. These practices include the washing of hands and feet before prayer, knelling in synagogue and arrangement in orderly rows like in a Mosque, full prostration when the Jewish custom is to bow, and prostration at the end of every Psalm in pesukei dezimra (pre-shema verses of praise) or paragraph of the Shema and raising one’s hands heavenward at the start of each paragraph.

Needless to say, that ordinary congregants of his time would not want such change or piety, hence leading families complained and even protested to the sultan that he was introducing “unlawful changes,” which is a serious charge in Islamic jurisprudence. In response, one Genizah letter states that Abraham produced two hundred letters of support in one controversy, which was the majority of the men in the community.  (What would this controversy have been in the age of social media?)

Ayyubid Context

Abraham’s Sufism as not a lone voice but part of bigger trends. Nathan Hofer, a scholar of medieval Sufism, documents how after the fall of the Fatimid Empire in 1177, the new Sunni polity under the Ayyubids “founded and funded hospices to attract foreign Sufis to Egypt.” This lead to local charismatic Sufi masters appearing throughout Egypt and organized Sufi brotherhoods emerging in the urban centers of Cairo and Alexandria.

Russ-Fishbane is to be thanked for finally putting together Abraham’s pietistic aspirations and the cadre of other spiritual seekers in an era of growing Sufi piety. “For Abraham Maimonides, Judaism was at a crisis point, a spiritual nadir in its age-old exile.” Jewish revival was to be found in piety similar to the practices of the Sufis.

These pietists around Abraham saw themselves as bearers of a religious mission and harbingers of a spiritual revival. The pious individual ought to pursue an inner path to communion with God and the cultivation of regular fasting and solitary prayer under the guidance of an experienced guide and in fellowship with a spiritual fraternity. Pietists adorned themselves with special articles of clothing and encouraged chant and music in worship.

jewish dervishes (Jewish-Sufi clothes from 1922 Iran —the post about this picture receives more hits than any other post on this blog).

Pietists emphasized inner ‘states’ of consciousness (known as maqāmāt), and spoke of an intellectual-mystical enlightenment as prophetic attainment, thereby combining Maimonidean philosophy and Sufi mysticism. They used the language of luminescence in which the devotee was said to receive an influx of radiance (known as ishrāq al-anwār), a perception or vision of reality beyond the world of the senses.

For the Pietists, Post Talmudic practice reflects an exilic accreditation and decline that can only be restored by restoring the Jewish doctrines that are preserved in Islam but lost in exilic Judaism

Islam

Like his father, Abraham vigorously affirmed Islam’s status as a pure monotheistic religion that exerted a positive influence on Jews, encouraging them to maintain the purity of its faith against lack of piety and against the literalism of the Christian world.  Beyond this, Abraham, considered Islam as both foretold by the Bible and affirmed by divine providence.  (Compare this to those Jews today who see a divine providence to Christianity.)

The well-known talmudic law prohibited Jews from imitating the ways of the gentiles (known as hukkat or hukkot ha-goyim) according to Abraham did not apply to the contemporary Muslims.

Abraham’s view according to Russ-Fishbane: “Muslims and Christians pray and give charity, and no Jew would ever dream of banning such activities simply because they are also gentile practices.  Why, he asked, should it be any different when considering practices like prostration and kneeling that were no less authentically Jewish than they were Islamic?”

Continuity

Pietist spirituality was gradually eclipsed by the path of Kabbalah, especially after the Safed revival, but continued for two hundred years in Egypt lead by five more generations of Maimonides descendants and is still practiced into the Nineteenth century among Jews in Iraq and Iran.

Despite Judaism, Sufism, and the Pietists of Medieval Egypt: A Study of Abraham Maimonides and His Times being a wonderful book as a detailed reader of genizah documents, the book at many points lacks any overview for the general reader of the life, times, and issues needed to understand and evaluate Abraham’s contribution. The monograph dives right into precise readings without always telling the reader why a point is important. For that, one should first read Paul Fenton’s introduction to the work of Abraham’s son Ovadiah (1228-1265) Treatise of the Pool where one would gain an overview as well as the recent article by Mordechai Friedman, and, for fun, the popularist articles of Tom Block based on Fenton’s research here and here).

Returning to close this post on this pietistic ethos, Ovadiah son of Abraham son of Maimonides (1228-1265) in his Treatise of the Pool invites his pious reader to “imagine a certain person who, possessing a very old pool, desires to cleanse the latter of dirt and mire and to restore it.” Ovadiah considers this “an allegory alluding to the purification, cleansing and purging of the heart, the correction of its defects and failings and its being emptied of all but the Most High.” If one properly purifies the heart, then one will “progress therein until thou attains an even higher state which man’s tongue is incapable of describing.”

Russ-Fishbane

1) What was the Sufi influence on Abraham Maimonides?

Abraham Maimonides could not help but be influenced by Sufism (Islamic mysticism), in that piety and spirituality in medieval Jewish culture of the Near East and North Africa was saturated with the core ideals of Sufism.

The idea that the individual ought to pursue an inner path to communion with God, the emphasis on elevating the spirit over bodily desires (otherwise known as asceticism), the cultivation of regular fasting and solitary prayer – were widely cherished ideals among all religious groups of the medieval Islamic world.

Historians of Jewish philosophy often consider it remarkable that the (only) son of the great Maimonides – considered a champion of rationalism and moderation over against mysticism and asceticism – would so blatantly stray from his father’s course and choose the mysticism of Sufism over the sober ideals of philosophy.  The truth, as usual, is much more complicated.

Philosophy, in its medieval guise, was no less dedicated to a personal liberation from physical attachments than its Sufi counterpart.  Mysticism, for its part, did not always entail a rejection of reason.  In practical terms, Jewish philosophers and mystics of the medieval Islamic world advocated a way of life that was remarkably similar in orientation.

Moses Maimonides was a case in point.  His famous principle of moderation, known as the golden mean, has often been interpreted as a rejection of asceticism.  In fact, it is more accurately a rejection of asceticism for those who do not understand its true goals, not a blanket condemnation.  Abraham Maimonides, for his part, designated the ascetic life an “elevated path” suited only for those who have adopted the general calling of pietism, or hasidut, not for the Jewish masses.

In my book, I argue against a ‘rejectionist’ reading of Abraham Maimonides.  While Abraham was not loath to disagree with his father when he believed it justified (which he did on several occasions), he understood the path of pietism as the logical extension of the core principles of his father’s doctrine.  That said, Abraham made far more extensive use of Sufism’s spiritual terminology than his father ever did (although there is consensus that the latter was not devoid of a modest Sufi vocabulary of his own).  Even more meaningfully, Abraham embraced concrete Sufi practices within his own pietist circle and openly praised his Muslim counterparts, at times holding them up as a model for his own community.

2) How did Abraham justify these adaptations?

While many Jewish intellectuals in the medieval Near East had, for more than two centuries, openly embraced Arabic literature and thought as a model for Jews, Sufism was different.  As popular as Sufi pietism was among Muslims and minorities alike, for Jews to acknowledge as much could be viewed as a betrayal of the Jewish tradition.  After all, Arabic letters and ideas did not pose a challenge to the Jewish religious establishment.  The Arabic intelligentsia and literati did not represent the Islamic faith and were not infrequently cast as heretics by their own religious leaders.  Sufism, by contrast, was by the thirteenth century an entrenched element of Islamic religious life from Persia to the Maghreb.  How could a Jewish religious authority accept key Sufi rites for emulation within the Jewish community?

The answer goes to the heart of my argument in the book: that Islam was, paradoxically, essential to Abraham Maimonides’ vision of Judaism.  Make no mistake, this was no postmodern vision of a pluralistic Judaism.

For Abraham, and for his followers, there was but one true faith.  But that does not mean that Judaism, in their view, was monolithic.  Abraham carefully distinguished between the authoritative religion of Israel, as enshrined in biblical and talmudic law, and what he called “exilic” practices, filled with problematic accretions to, and eliminations of, authentic Judaism.

In Abraham’s view, Islam borrowed heavily from original Jewish doctrines and rites (including such varied examples as monotheism and prostration), at the same time that Jews began to neglect many of their own traditions due to the hardships of the exile.

Herein lies the rub.  For Abraham Maimonides, Judaism was at a crisis point, a spiritual nadir in its age-old exile.  As he saw it, nothing short of a religious revival and a return to the abandoned roots of the religion could lift the Jews from the morass of exile and hasten the redemption.  Abraham envisioned his brand of hasidut as an essential part of that revival.

If Islam (Sufism included) had incorporated a number of those lost traditions, the path to Jewish revival – and the path to messianic redemption – required a profound engagement with the religion of Islam.  The result was a unique combination of inner Jewish traditionalism and an openness to the wisdom of a foreign religion.

 3) How did it express itself in devotional practices?

The movement of hasidim in Egypt was decidedly practical in orientation. Egyptian Jewish pietism had very little taste for metaphysical speculation about the nature of God or the universe.  Here, too, we see the footprint of Sufism.

The dominant models of Islamic mysticism to which Jews were exposed and which were adapted by the hasidim, emphasized inner ‘states’ of consciousness (known as maqāmāt), on the one hand, and a regimen of ascetic discipline and regular meditation, on the one other.  Both the Muslim mystics and their Jewish counterparts described the inner states and the outer regimen as a journey (sulūk or maslak), undertaken by the individual wayfarer (sālik), under the guidance of an experienced guide and in fellowship with a spiritual fraternity.  Abraham Maimonides extended the same language to the culmination of the path (described as a communion of the soul with the divine), which he aptly called ‘arrival’ (wuūl).

Because of their focus on praxis, the Egyptian pietists developed a sometimes fractious relationship with the larger Jewish community, parts of which viewed their reforms as a heretical imitation of Islam.

Pietists practiced forms of solitary meditation, adorned themselves with special articles of clothing, encouraged chant and music in worship, cultivated master-disciple relationships both as individuals and as fellowship circles – all of which were familiar features of Sufi mysticism and were viewed by their adversaries as an alien importation.  In spite of vigorous efforts by Abraham and his colleagues to defend each of these reforms as original to Judaism, they were embroiled in a variety of controversies, all of which left a trail in the Cairo Genizah.

4) How did it express itself in liturgical synagogue life? 

The Sufi-inflected regimen of asceticism and meditation, as remarkable as it is, was only the beginning of the Jewish pietist vision.  As the leader of the entire Jewish community, Abraham Maimonides hoped that the pietist movement would become the vanguard of a much larger religious revival among his fellow Jews.  For example, he promoted the idea (never realized) of pietists serving as permanent fixtures in the synagogue, available at any time for religious guidance and acting as spiritual mentors to other seekers.

Even more significant was a series of devotional reforms he hoped would be accepted in synagogue life.  These include changes to key rites and postures of worship, such as the washing of hands and feet before prayer, prostrating when bowing, kneeling when sitting, reorienting the worshipers from sitting around the walls of the synagogue to sitting in orderly rows, and facing Jerusalem during the entirety of the prayer service.  All of these bear the clear mark of the Islamic environment, more than any other Jewish movement before or after it.

The fact that prostration in worship was also practiced by Muslims was no more of a problem than the fact that facing Jerusalem in worship was also practiced by Christians.

The previous consensus among scholars was that Abraham instituted these reforms willy-nilly into Egyptian synagogues.  My own position in the book is that the evidence actually points in the opposite direction.  In other words, Abraham never actually imposed these devotional reforms on the Jewish community and we can establish for a fact (based on Genizah and other documents) that no synagogue ever adopted them.

The pietists did embrace them and were witnessed kneeling and prostrating both at fixed points in the service and even spontaneously when the spirit moved them.  But, as Abraham testifies in a responsum, they observed such practices when praying in private residences (including his own) but were careful to refrain from them when visiting the main synagogues, in conformity with communal norms.

Abraham Maimonides spilled much ink responding to his critics one by one (all, alas, anonymous), all in the effort at public persuasion, but to no avail.  He even bitterly observed that one of his father’s synagogue reforms had been accepted in spite of the fact that it lacked similar precedent in biblical or talmudic law.  (The reform in question was Maimonides’ removal of the silent ‘amidah during sabbath and festival prayers.  Worshipers who could were to pray in tandem with the hazzan.  The rationale for the change was the perceived desecration of God’s name caused by members of the synagogue talking loudly during the hazzan’s repetition.  The reform remained in place in Egypt until the sixteenth century.)

While we lack critical details on how much of the community supported or opposed Abraham’s efforts, one Genizah letter tells us that Abraham easily produced two hundred letters of support in one controversy, which our source tells us was the majority of the men in the community.

We also hear, importantly, that Abraham was criticized for welcoming women into his pietist prayer circles, mirroring the presence of women’s sections in the main synagogues but somewhat surprising given the intimate nature of these circles.

All of the evidence indicates that the chief opposition to the hasidim came from rival rabbinic figures, who disputed the legitimacy of the reforms, and certain communal judges.

5) Did Jews go to Sufi mosques? At that time, did they did do dhikr with Muslims?

We do have a report in the Genizah of a fourteenth-century Egyptian Jew who spent quite a bit of time with a local Sufi shaikh.  We learn about this from the Jew’s wife, who bitterly complained to the head of the Jewish community (who happened to be Abraham Maimonides’ great-grandson and an avowed pietist in his own right), and pleaded with him to bring her husband out of the mosque and back home.

There may have been other cases like this (there is plenty of evidence of Sufi proselytizing), but if there were they haven’t been preserved.  For his part, Abraham tells us that he witnessed key Sufi rites, although he does not tell us where.  He does not disclose information on any personal contacts he had with Sufi leaders, although it is highly unlikely that he did not have any.  He wrote of conversations he had with Muslim scholars and, given his interest in Sufi matters, we have every reason to believe that he was in conversation with Sufi shaikhs, even if this did not lead him into a mosque per se.

The Genizah preserves numerous examples of Sufi works copied by Jews during this period, some transliterated into Judaeo-Arabic and others in their original orthography, but none of them tell us who their owners were or where they obtained the originals.

Did Jew participate in dhikr sessions with Muslims?  Apart from the fourteenth-century letter from the disgruntled wife, there is no evidence of this.  But, given how prominent dhikr sessions were (and continue to be) for Sufis, it stands to reason that Jewish pietists at the very least adopted a similar rite.  The truth is that, while a number of pietist writers used the term dhikr to refer to a practice of calling God to mind (its literal meaning), they did not create a formal communal dhikr session in imitation of their Sufi counterparts.

This is actually not as surprising as it sounds.  After all, the pietists did not consider themselves to be imitating Sufism but reviving ancient Jewish practices long ago neglected by Jews and adopted by Muslims.  Given that they could discover no parallel practice in the classical Jewish sources, they saw no reason to adopt it wholesale from Islam.  But if dhikr as a form of meditative chant of the divine names was not incorporated by the pietists, dhikr as meditative recollection of the divine most certainly was, if not in collective fashion at least in solitude (known as khalwah).

6) How did he view Islam? And why did Hukkat Hagoyim not apply to Islam?

Like his father, Abraham vigorously affirmed Islam’s status as a monotheistic religion.  In a couple of ways, however, he went even beyond his father in his praise of Islamic monotheism.  It is true that, in his view, Islam derived its own monotheism directly from Judaism.

Yet he did not hesitate to declare to his fellow Jews that, in his day, it was Islam that exerted a positive influence on Jews, encouraging them to maintain the purity of its faith.  His proof was to compare Jewish faith in Islamic lands with that in Christendom.  While no Jew anywhere in the Islamic world, he chided, would dare question the fundamentals of the faith for fear of being the object of ridicule, a number of Jews in Europe did fall prey to spurious beliefs, under what he considered the less than salutary influence of Christianity in its anthropomorphic thinking.

Affirming Islam’s status as monotheistic had yet another consequence.  A well-known talmudic law prohibited Jews from imitating the ways of the gentiles (known as hukkat or hukkot ha-goyim).

Abraham understood the scope of this talmudic ban to be limited exclusively to idolaters.  Given that Islam was not idolatrous, any Islamic practices embraced by the pietists technically did not fall under the ban.

What is more, Abraham argued, there are good reasons to apply this ban with caution.  Muslims and Christians pray and give charity, and no Jew would ever dream of banning such activities simply because they are also gentile practices.  Why, he asked, should it be any different when considering practices like prostration and kneeling that were no less authentically Jewish than they were Islamic?

7) What is Abraham’s paradoxical concept of the Divine Blessing to Islam?

Jews from the second temple period and onward associated the Arabs with the descendants of the biblical Ishmael, a tradition eventually accepted among the Arabs themselves.  This would become all the more significant when, by the seventh century, the Arabs and Ishmael became associated with the world’s newest religion.  Genesis 16:10 records the divine blessing of the progeny of Hagar (mother of Ishmael) with the following words: “I shall greatly increase your descendants and they shall be too numerous to count.”  Applying the traditional Jewish association between Ishmael and the Arabs, Moses Maimonides, in his interpretation of this verse, confined the application of this blessing to the future size of the Arab nation.

Abraham, in a subtle twist, preferred to read the divine blessing as referring not to the number of Arabs but to the religion of Islam per se, which on this reading was both foretold and affirmed by divine providence.

Yet, stunningly, Abraham’s vision of Islam did not end there.  He imagined Israel and Ishmael to be locked in a spiritual combat of epic proportions, mirrored by their different fortunes on the world stage.  When Israel was meritorious, he argued, Ishmael’s role was kept in check.  When, however, Israel experienced a spiritual decline and was cast into exile, Ishmael’s fortunes would in turn begin to rise.  This was not unlike the talmudic tradition of an inverse relationship between the fortune of Israel and that of Edom, later repeated and expanded by some medieval writers in Christian Europe.

Abraham Maimonides is the only writer known to me to apply this same narrative to the relationship between the children of Isaac and Ishmael.

All of this puts Abraham’s contention that Islam adopted core Jewish beliefs and practices, many of which were neglected by the Jews in the course of their exile, into greater relief.  In Abraham’s rendering, the narrative of the inverse fortunes of Israel and Ishmael takes on messianic overtones.  Only when, in the midst of their exile, Jews return to their neglected traditions will they experience an end to their sufferings and the onset of redemption.  The paradox?  The Jews must now relearn those original elements of their religion from Islam.

Tom Block powerpoint

8) Why was Abraham striving for prophecy. What does it mean to be a prophet?

The Egyptian pietist movement referred to itself as the ‘path of the disciples of the prophets,’ which is to say that they envisioned prophecy as the object of their spiritual striving (the culmination of the path, to use the Sufi language of the spiritual journey).  In a creative blend of Maimonidean philosophy and Sufi mysticism, the pietists spoke of this culmination in terms of an intellectual-mystical enlightenment, achieved through a process of self-discipline and solitary meditation.  This enlightenment, in their view, was nothing short of prophetic attainment, reflecting their belief that a return of prophecy to the people of Israel was within their reach.

In the worldview advanced by Moses Maimonides and carried into practice by his son, there was an intimate connection between the renewal of prophecy and the onset of redemption.  Abraham and his fellow pietists saw their role as helping to bring an end to the exile and stimulating the ultimate redemption of Israel.  It is most likely for this reason that neither Abraham nor any of his colleagues harbored messianic fantasies of their own.  They imagined themselves to play a pivotal role in the religious revival required for messianic redemption, without making promises or predictions as to when the awaited end would come.

9) What is the experience of luminescence?

Prophetic attainment, as it was understood by the pietists, did not end with its connection to messianic times.  In line with another tradition of Maimonides, they conceived of prophecy as the ultimate intellectual-spiritual attainment possible for humanity.  It was not the ethical-religious mission of an inspired preacher conveying the words of God, as it typically functioned in biblical accounts of the ancient prophets of Israel.  Prophecy in its pietist context was a decidedly individual objective and (in so far as glimpses of it were attained by the pietists) played itself out primarily in individual experiences.  Abraham no doubt envisioned the pietists as bearers of a religious mission and harbingers of a spiritual revival, but their first and primary objective as ‘disciples of the prophets’ was the perfection of their own humanity as individuals pursuing their personal journey on the path.

The hasidim described the prophetic experience by means of concrete images – some borrowed from Sufism, others from rabbinic Judaism.  At times they used the language of luminescence (in the sense of enlightenment).  The devotee was said to receive an influx of radiance (known as ishrāq al-anwār), a perception or vision of reality beyond the world of the senses.  To someone familiar with the history of Sufism, the parallel to the concurrent Sufi school of illuminationism is quite striking, although the parallel does not extend far beyond the common imagery.

What is less evident is the fact that the language of illumination also appears in Moses Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed, a text of great importance for the pietists.  The linguistic connection to his father’s Guide was not accidental for Abraham.  For both men, the path to enlightenment was intellectual contemplation, during which the intellect was purified of its worldly sensation in order to catch a glimpse of the divine reality.

The goal of solitary meditation, for Abraham, was to rid the mind of all attachments and desires, allowing it to commune with God unimpeded – metaphorically speaking, to darken the outer senses so as to allow for an inner radiance, a taste (to use another of his images) of the world to come.  What made Abraham’s approach innovative was less the content than the implementation and institutionalization of the prophetic ideal.  The goal was to create a reproducible ‘path’ (i.e. the pietist regimen of asceticism, prayer, solitude, and contemplation) by which any devotee could make progress toward the ultimate ‘arrival’ of prophetic enlightenment.

10) Why did this approach seem to not leave a lasting impression?

Despite Abraham Maimonides’ public support of the movement in his capacity as head of Egyptian Jewry, pietism aroused considerable controversy in his lifetime – occasionally dividing family members and friends, as our Genizah sources testify – and continued to be a source of contention after his death in 1237.

Some of Abraham’s pietist colleagues: Abraham ibn Abi’l-Rabi’ (sometimes known as Abraham he-Hasid, which has caused confusion with Abraham Maimonides, who was also occasionally referred to by the same epithet!) and his brother, Joseph – the two brothers were referred to as leaders of the nascent movement before Abraham Maimonides’ rise to prominence.  Another one we know by name was Hananel b. Samuel, who was Abraham Maimonides’ father-in-law.  Some of the most interesting pietist tracts that survive in the Genizah do not preserve their authors’ names.  We also hear about pietist prayer circles both in Fustat and Alexandria, but unfortunately most of the practitioners remain anonymous.

Some Jews, including descendants of the Maimonidean house, remained committed to the ideals of pietism for several generations and parts of Abraham’s classic work (called the Compendium for the Servants of God, or Kifāyat al-‘abidīn in Judaeo-Arabic) were still cited into the eighteenth century among Jews of the Arab world.  Sadly, however, much of the work (which covered a wide range of Jewish law and ethics) was not cited and not preserved.  This, in itself, was a consequence of the great controversy it stirred already in its author’s lifetime.

Another reason for the limited reach of Egyptian pietism was because of the language barrier.  Unlike the Judaeo-Arabic works of Moses Maimonides and others before him, Abraham’s writings were not translated into Hebrew until modern times.

A final consideration for its limited duration even within the Islamic world was its timely competition.  Pietist spirituality was gradually eclipsed by the powerful pull of Kabbalah, which has continued to be the dominant form of mystical piety prevalent among Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews to this day.

11) What is innovative in your book?

The fascinating world of Egyptian Jewish pietism has been discussed off and on by a number of pioneering scholars over the years, from Naphtali Wieder to Shlomo Dov Goitein to Paul Fenton.  (Full disclosure: the latter was and remains an important mentor of mine in this field.)

As important as the contribution of these and other scholars continues to be, much work remained to be done in order to produce a comprehensive account of the movement – its historical foundations, its social and economic make-up, controversies and reactions within the community, its intellectual background (including its debt to Moses Maimonides), the nature of its spiritual agenda, its messianic aspirations, and its paradoxical relationship to Islam.  My work made extensive use of Cairo Genizah documents, allowing for greater historical detail and less recourse to speculation in my reconstruction of events.

While thoroughly imbued with Jewish text and tradition, pietist practitioners were unapologetic in their respect (at times, even admiration) for the good found in the Islamic religion.  Abraham acknowledged that Islam has had a salutary influence on Jewish belief and could yet play a meaningful role in the refinement of Jewish practice.  Here, as elsewhere, Abraham drew from the well of his father, who famously wrote in his Eight Chapters: “Be attentive to truth, no matter who utters it.”

Advertisements

Comments are closed.