Transcript: 162 - Sarah Stroumsa on Maimonides

Sarah Stroumsa tells Peter about Maimonides' cultural surroundings and attitudes towards philosophy and the Islamic tradition.
Podcast series

Note: this transcription was produced by automatic voice recognition software. It has been corrected by hand, but may still contain errors. We are very grateful to Tim Wittenborg for his production of the automated transcripts and for the efforts of a team of volunteer listeners who corrected the texts.

Peter Adamson: We're going to be talking about Maimonides, who is a thinker you've published about. And in fact, in 2009, you published a book called „Maimonides in His World: Portrait of a Mediterranean Thinker“. Obviously, Maimonides lived in various places around the Mediterranean. So in that sense, he's a Mediterranean thinker. He lived in Andalusia, he lived in Palestine, lived in Cairo. But before we even get into talking about him, to what extent can we actually talk about a Mediterranean culture at this point in history?

Sarah Stroumsa: Well, rather than speaking about Mediterranean culture, which sounds like one single unit, and of course, this is not something that existed at this point, we can speak about common denominators. There were very strong common denominators for large parts of the Mediterranean and the adjacent cultures. For a large part of the Mediterranean, there was one lingua franca, which was Arabic. It was used by Jews, Muslims and Christians. It served as a basis for culture and cultural transmission. There was in various garbs, in various manifestations, one ruling religion, which was Islam, Shiite Islam or Sunni Islam. Islam was ruling most parts of large parts of the southern Mediterranean. And these two things created a basis for cultural exchange that is unprecedented and very different from the culture that we can see in the Latin West, or even with the English as a common language today.

PA: I suppose that what Maimonides did, namely traveling around, living at different places within the Islamic dominated sphere around the Mediterranean, was not an uncommon thing for people to do at this time. Is that right?

SS: Not at all, especially for merchants. And it's not just around the Mediterranean, the Mediterranean culture in that way reached as far as India and Ceylon. But it's not just the traveling, even when you assume a person like Maimonides or like his peers sitting in one place, they tapped into the culture that came from all sides of the Mediterranean and they tapped into the Mediterranean from previous cultures. So Maimonides could draw from things that were translated into Arabic from Syriac and from even things that arrived from India and naturally from Greek philosophy. So this became his Mediterranean culture. I think that perhaps the most important thing about Maimonides being a Mediterranean thinker is to say that he was not just a Jewish thinker, that he was not just following Arabic philosophy, but that he tapped into several subcultures and his own culture included all of them.

PA: And how common is that among other Jewish intellectuals at the time? So even before we get to Maimonides, would you say that he's just the latest in a long line of Jewish thinkers who are engaging with various strands of the Islamic tradition? For example I'm thinking of people like Saadia Gaon, who's much earlier, but he's obviously responding to Islamic Kalām, much as Maimonides does later.

SS: Yes, I think it would be correct to say there is Sadia, there is Mukkamas before Saadia, there is Judah Halevi and other people who engage with the culture around them. I think it's a question of extent. With Maimonides, the intellectual's curiosity is far above that of others, in the sense that he really goes out of his way not just to listen to what his Muslim neighbors say and engage with them, or Christian neighbors say and engage with them, but he goes out of his way literally to look for books of previous cultures, to look and learn what happened around him. So in that sense, he's a phenomenon sui generis.

PA: Right. But on the other hand, he's very much a man of his time and place. So what are the specific conditions that he's facing, let's say in Andalusia, where he starts out, that are confronting the Jewish community that we need to know about in order to understand his thought?

SS:  Maimonides grew up in Cordoba and in 1148, Cordoba was captured by the Almohads, which was a Berber dynasty that came from North Africa, which had some peculiar understandings of the version of Sunni Islam that they adopted and created in some ways. One of the things that was peculiar to them and was different from any other system in Islam, was that they did not give the religious minorities – Christianity and Judaism – a protected and legitimate place within the world of Islam. And they demanded that all Jews and Christians convert to Islam or leave the territory.

PA: Maybe it's worth emphasizing that that's really unusual.

SS: It's really unusual because all Muslim versions following the regular Muslim interpretation of the Quran, both Shiite and Sunni, accept that the monotheist minorities can live under Islam, in a somewhat humble situation, but protected. So this was really part of the revolution of the Almohads, which of course affected gravely both the Jewish and the Christian communities.

PA: And was the intellectual direction of the Almohads also important for Maimonides? One thing I was wondering is whether you think there's a link, say, between Maimonides' view on divine attributes and the very kind of rigorous monotheism of Ibn Tumart and the Almohads?

SS: That's a very important topic because if we assume – and I assume that – that Maimonides' family, like the rest of the Jewish community, lived as crypto-Jews and lived outwardly as Muslims until they could leave Almohad territories, then Maimonides was very heavily exposed to Almohad theology. The word „Almohad“ is a Latinized form of muwaḥḥidūn, which means those who believe in the unity of God. Now all Muslims believe in the unity of God, but the Almohads claimed that they were particularly monotheistic because they reject any anthropomorphic understanding of the deity and they claim that anyone who does not reject it outwardly will be an infidel. Now Maimonides seems to have swallowed and integrated this perception wholly. Again, Maimonides is not the first Jewish thinker, who does not believe that God has a body. Saadia also does not believe that God has a body. But Maimonides is the first to actually say, that anyone who does not say it, is an infidel. And Maimonides imposed it as an article of faith on small children, women, anyone, whether the elite or the common people. And this is just one manifestation of how deeply influenced by the Almohads Maimonides was.

PA: It's really puzzling, isn't it, because you have this political movement in Andalusia, which is very hostile to Judaism. And of course Maimonides is the greatest Jewish philosopher of all time, probably. And it's hard to understand how it could work psychologically even, that he would be taking some of his philosophical inspiration from this very hostile group. But I suppose the explanation would just be that it's the intellectual atmosphere that he grew up in?

SS: It's that and it's also that the Almohads didn't invent it from scratch. They were influenced by Islamic trends, Muslim trends in theology, the Ashʿarīya, and also were exposed themselves to Islamic philosophy. So the idea, that God does not have a body, didn't come to Maimonides as a shock. It was something that was natural for him to accept. I think that the kind of forcefulness with which you can or you should impose it, is something that he took from his Almohad regime. He also took from the Almohad regime some things that you can see as technical, like the way you compose a book or the kind or the genre of literature that you write, which are sort of technical things that everyone does take from the society around oneself.

PA:  Right. I actually wanted to ask you some more about what you just mentioned, which is the tradition of Islamic Kalām, or rational theology, as it's sometimes translated. We've already mentioned also Saadia, who is very influenced by Mu'tazilism. And Maimonides talks explicitly about the various strands of Islamic Kalām. So you've got the Mu'tazilites, you've got the Asharites, who you just mentioned. So what do you think he thinks about the use of ideas from Islamic Kalām within the context of doing whatever it is he's doing, maybe Jewish philosophy, the sort of thing he's doing in the Guide for the Perplexed?

SS: Maimonides sees himself as part of the school tradition. And this is a different school tradition. This is a school tradition of the so-called Aristotelian philosophers. And as part of the school tradition, he thinks in a very orthodox way in the sense that he follows his predecessors. These are also Muslims, but they are not the Mu'tazilites. And he really thinks that the influence of the Mu'tazilites on both Muslim and Jewish philosophy was enormous and wrong. So he argues a lot with the Mu'tazilites. This does not mean that he was not himself a little bit influenced by them. But this is not a theory or a system that he adopted. He regarded the Mu'tazilites as people who harnessed the truth to their theological ideas, whereas he regarded his own philosophy as something that follows the truth without any consideration of how well it will fit theology.

PA: Right. So is it really the methodological approach of these theologians that he rejects, or is it also the content? Because we've already mentioned the very rigorous stance he takes on divine unity, the impossibility of predicating words of God. And that actually does sound a lot like the Mu'tazilite position. I suppose on other fronts, like his natural philosophy, he would follow Aristotle
rather than adopting Kalām atomism and so on. But is it more of the methodological approach that he's upset about?

SS: Maimonides makes a point to stress the methodology because it's very convenient to say their methodology is completely wrong. And he stresses from the beginning of the guide that there is a way to do things. You begin with certain things and he tells his student, I want you to get to the truth by its own way and not by accident. So his argument is that the methodology is so wrong that even if they come to the truth, it's in the wrong way and it's by accident and therefore it doesn't sit very well.

PA: It doesn't count.

SS: Not only that it doesn't count, it doesn't sit very well. It will not get you to the point where you really know that this is the truth and nothing can shake it. But there are obviously also content issues between himself and the Kalām. You mentioned atomism, issues of physics. There is also again the school tradition. Who are your teachers? What books do you rely on? What tradition do you follow? I think this was very important for him.

PA: And you've already said that for him the tradition that he's following is the school tradition which he would trace ultimately back to Aristotle. How does he see the Muslim thinkers as fitting into that? So you've got, I guess as very important predecessors of Maimonides, you've got al-Farabi and Avicenna. Does he think that there's just kind of a straightforward way you can use Farabian and Avicennan philosophy, the way you would use Aristotle or does he have a more nuanced attitude towards them?

SS: What's remarkable about Maimonides is the amount of his independence. He obviously fits al-Farabi into the school tradition. There was someone who called Maimonides a disciple of Al-Farabi. He has no qualms about seeing himself as a disciple of this Muslim philosopher. He does have some qualms about Avicenna. He doesn't see Avicenna and al-Farabi on the same level. But the fact that Avicenna was part of the tradition was, I think, obvious to him. He's completely aware of the fact that he takes his tradition from the Muslim philosophers before him. This is the school. And the fact that he's a Jew in this context doesn't really matter to him I think.

PA: It seems to me actually that the way he criticizes Kalām as being merely dialectical – in other words it only induces unjustified beliefs rather than the certainty that you get from philosophy –  that contrast that he draws between Kalām and philosophy is itself a very Farabian idea. And it's presumably one of the main things he's taking from al-Farabi.

SS: Yes, and one can really show that he takes al-Farabi's argument because al-Farabi has argued that the Christian church fathers created some kind of Christian Kalām and this was taken by the Mu'tazilite Kalām. And Maimonides takes the same argument and adds to it the Jewish link. So he just continues al-Farabi's argument, whereas for him the right way would be to go back directly to the sources, not through the church fathers, not through the Mu'tazilites, but to go to the translations of Aristotle and his students.

PA: Does it make a difference for all this which text of Maimonides we're talking about though? Because I guess in this conversation, I don't know about you, but I've mostly been thinking about the Guide for the Perplexed, which is an explicitly philosophical work. But obviously that's not the only thing he wrote. He wrote on Jewish law, he wrote commentaries on scripture. Is that attitude that rejects the dialectical approach of Kalām, but accepts some kind of authoritative status for the Aristotelian philosophical tradition, constant across his whole corpus or is it something that's really special about the Guide?

SS: Maimonides was also a leader of the community and he was very conscious of the fact that people in the community were of different intellectual ability and with different levels of understanding. He really didn't want to shake the community, but he did want to inculcate into even very simple people some basic truth. The result of this is that there are differences between his various books, but there are differences of how much you can teach people in what language. I don't think you will find that in any of his books he supports dialectical theology, but he allows for simpler and less complicated argumentations. In his correspondence we sometimes find him actually telling people regarding points that are not essential, not like the incorporeality of God, but like the existence of bodily afterlife. He tells people explicitly, there is no harm in you believing in it, which at the same time suggests, if the person would understand that this is not the completely true stance, but there is no harm in you believing in it.

PA: Another issue that arises in this general area though, is how he himself saw the use of philosophy for understanding the Torah. Does he think that you can use philosophy in a more or less straightforward way to understand the meaning of scripture? So here we might think of another Muslim philosopher who is Averroes, who is a near contemporary of his, and in the so-called Decisive Treatise, Faṣl al-Maqqāl, Averroes argues that the philosopher is the one who is in a position to understand the Quran because the philosopher is in possession of certain truth and so he can check what the scripture says against the truths that he already knows. Does Maimonides have that kind of very aggressive philosophical approach to interpreting scripture?

SS: Maimonides' approach to the interpretation of scriptures by the philosopher is very close to Averroes and I think the Guide actually shows that Maimonides read these theological treatises of Averroes and was influenced by them. More than Faṣl al-Maqqāl, I think that one can argue that the Guide is like Manāhij al-Adilla, another book of Averroes, which it seems very clear that Maimonides also read it before writing the Guide. I wouldn't say exactly that Maimonides thinks that the philosopher is the right person to understand the Torah. I would put it slightly differently and would say that Maimonides stresses the interpretation of the book and whenever the simple text of the Torah seems to contradict philosophical truth, one has to interpret, one has to use exegesis in order to make the two agree. He thinks it's possible and he thinks that this exercise of translating, as it were, the scriptures into philosophical language is part of the education of a human being that brings him gradually – theoretically also brings her gradually, but there are very few cases that he notes of women who got to this position, the prophetess Miriam for example – but usually this is the way that a human being is moved from one stage of understanding to another.

PA: Maybe we could just close by talking about a specific example of this, which is a work of his called the Treatise on Resurrection, which is again a text you've worked on. This seems to be a case where philosophy and religion might be coming into some kind of conflicts because if you think that there's a religious fact that we just know because it was revealed to us perhaps, that our bodies will be resurrected, that seems to be in conflict with the standard – what  you've been calling the school tradition – philosophical understanding of the afterlife, which is at best an individual immortality based on having a disembodied soul. So how does Maimonides in this text negotiate between these two sort of imperatives?

SS: Let me first say that Maimonides did not believe in individual immortality. In this he's different from Avicenna for example. But he did believe in the immortality of the intellect, not of the soul, but of the intellectual part of the soul. He has a somewhat easier position than Muslim philosophers or Christian philosophers because the Hebrew Bible doesn't actually say that the bodies will be resurrected. But it's somewhat easier because by the 12th century when Maimonides lives, it is unquestionable for all Jews around him that the bodies will be resurrected.

PA: Why is that if it's not in the Hebrew Bible? Why did it become such a sort of assumption among Jews?

SS: Already in the first Christian centuries, this is something that is already part and parcel of most Jewish communities' belief. It's an idea that came from Persia and was accepted by Jews and then became an essential part of Christianity and an essential part of Islam. By the 12th century nobody argues with it except the philosophers who really don't believe in it and who despise the body and who can't really say it. So what Maimonides does is to avoid saying it. He never says, I don't believe in the resurrection of the body. And some people would say that perhaps he does believe in it. He says this is an article of faith. He never says this is a truth. He says it's an article of faith. It's no more and no less than an article of faith and I don't talk about it anymore. And the fact that he is forced to talk about it I think makes him really angry.

PA: So that strikes me as a kind of unsatisfactory position to be in. So in general in medieval philosophy this issue comes up over and over. What will happen if reason or philosophy tells us one thing and religion or scripture or the religious tradition tells us something else? And various views are taken to either eliminate this possibility like in Aquinas let's say, or to say that religion trumps philosophy or that philosophy trumps religion which seems to be what Averroes would say. But Maimonides' solution is just „be quiet if that happens“ – is that the idea? Because that doesn't really seem like a philosophical stance. It seems more like a tactical position.

SS: In that position, in that question he's very much like Averroes. He doesn't say „be quiet“. He says „this is what the religion says“. It's not something that we discuss logically. But then aside from it, in different contexts he does say what he does believe will happen and it does not include the body. It includes the separation of the intellect and in the afterlife, not in paradise but in the world to come which is the concept that he insists on. And the world to come is a blissful existence which does not include the body.

PA: Maybe then it has something to do with something you said before which is the fact that his different texts are aimed at different audiences. So if you're talking to people for example who might not be able to imagine an afterlife without a body, it could be a very bad idea to say „By the way there's no body in the afterlife“ because they might just conclude that they'll die and cease to exist.

SS: Exactly. And Maimonides actually brings a parable that he borrows from Avicenna about the difference between a child who would prefer playing with his ball rather than being a king and as he grows, he will not be interested in the ball anymore, he will be interested in the kingdom. There is a gradual development which the scriptures take you through gradually according to your ability and this gradual development will also gradually teach you that the body is less important than you think now.

PA: Well that seems like a good note to end on and maybe the Maimonides would have wanted us to end on.

SS: Perhaps. 


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