Respected by Muslims, Jews and Christians Alike

Maimonides was born in about 1135 in Cordoba, at the height of the "Golden Age" of the Jews and Muslims in Spain. His main theological philosophical work, the "Guide for the Perplexed", he wrote in Arabic. By Stefana Sabin

Maimonides was born in about 1135 in Cordoba, at the height of the "Golden Age" of the Jews and Muslims in Spain. His main theological philosophical work, the Guide for the Perplexed, he wrote in Arabic. By Stefana Sabin

photo: Jewish Museum, Frankfurt, Germany
Maimonides statue in Córdoba, Spain

​​Maimonides was born in Cordoba (Cordova) in about 1135 and died in Cairo in 1204. He wrote works on religious law in Hebrew and philosophical theological works in Arabic.

He was a political refugee, and later a doctor at the court of Saladin. He was also a Jewish scholar who explained platonic and Aristotelian philosophy in Arabic terminology.

Influenced by Medieval Islamic philosophy, his interpretation of Jewish laws became law itself.

His Hebrew name was Moshe ben Maimon; in the Jewish world, he was known as Rambam (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon); his Arabic name was Abu Imran Musa ibn Maimun; scholars simply called him Rabbi Moyses, and in the West he is best known by his Latinized name: Moses Maimonides.

Head of the Jews

The story of his life is symptomatic of both the constant risks to which Jews have been exposed down through the centuries and the pluralist culture of the Middle Ages: while this devout Jew was forced to flee several times, he became a symbol of integration and a man who was just as respected in Islamic and Christian intellectual circles as in the Jewish community.

In 1176, Maimonides became the ra'is al-yahud ("Head of the Jews"). In this role, he was a subtle interpreter of Jewish law and a popular judge; his legal decisions and rabbinical exegeses were just as influential as his countless letters on Halachic, political, and cultural matters.

But even when he was clearly playing the role of a religious leader, Maimonides considered himself a philosopher.

His main theological philosophical work, the Guide for the Perplexed, which he wrote in Arabic around 1190, was translated into Hebrew and Latin.

photo: University Library of Tübingen
Introduction of "Guide to the Perplexed", 1343, now at the University Library of Tübingen, Germany

​​It shaped theological discourse and philosophical argumentation by raising the letter to a literary form, linking platonic thought to Jewish Messianism, and raising an Aristotelian naturalism into a major exegetic principle.

Stations of his life

The life and works of Maimonides are now the subject of a small yet informative exhibition organised by the Jewish Museum in Frankfurt to mark the 800th anniversary of the death of the philosopher and as a contribution to this year's Frankfurt Book Fair, at which the Arab world presented itself to the public.

Photos and images illustrate the geographic stations of his life: Cordoba in Andalusia, where he grew up and from where he fled when the Almohad's captured the city and imposed their Islamic fundamentalist rule; Fez in Morocco, where he studied medicine and philosophy; Akko, from where he was forced to flee the Christian fanaticism of the crusaders; Fustat and Cairo in Egypt, where he was a doctor at the court of the Sultan, and became the spiritual and religious leader of the Jewish community.

Some of his works are also on display at the exhibition including a 1761 Hebrew edition of Maimonides' Arabic Treatise on Logical Terminology annotated by Moses Mendelssohn; a 1368 edition of his commentary on the Mishna featuring the pages on which Maimonides discusses the building of Salomon's temple; or a 1629 Basle edition of a "modern" Latin translation of the Guide for the Perplexed by Johannes Buxtorf.

Models of astronomical and medical equipment dating from his lifetime give an indication of Maimonides' scientific education and his work as a doctor. The highlight of the exhibition is, however, undoubtedly a fragment of a Maimonides manuscript for the commentary on the Mishna, which was found in the Cairo Genisa synagogue in the late 19th Century.

This fragment, which is written in Judeo-Arabic, is of particular philological interest because it differs from the version that has been handed down over the years.

Stefana Sabin

© 2004

Translation from German: Aingeal Flanagan

This article was previously published by the Swiss daily Neue Zürcher Zeitung.

Click here, to get to the web-site of the Jewish Museum in Frankfurt, Germany. (German/English)