By Dr Muhammad Maroof Shah
19 Oct 2017
Why we need to read Moses Maimonides, the Great Jewish Philosopher
Is it possible to remain a committed believer and completely rational scientist or philosopher at the same time? Yes, argued Moses Maimonides. This is the answer Muslims seek and if denied it leads to either fanaticism or chilling disbelief. Maimonides’ many writings including The Guide to the Perplexed are indispensable readings for those interested in larger questions of reconciling faith and science, religion and mysticism, religion and philosophy and such issues as defense of Sharia/Divine Law and Ijtihad understood as an endeavour to keep Law relevant for all times.
It has been pointed out that Maimonides symbolizes “a confluence of four cultures: Graeco-Roman, Arab, Jewish, and Western” that he is “first and foremost as an Arab thinker.” And “if you didn't know he was Jewish, you might easily make the mistake of saying that a Muslim was writing.” A popular Jewish expression of the Middle Ages declares: “From Moses [of the Torah] to Moses [Maimonides] there was none like Moses.”Publicly mourned on his death alike by Muslims and Jews, this wonder of the age reminds us of someone combining Zamakhshari’s linguistic skills for resolving difficulties and interpreting equivocal words in the scripture, daring faith in reason for which Ibn Rushd was known, comprehensive reconciling/synthetic genius of Shah Wailullah and Mulla Sadra, and Iqbal’s respectful but critical attitude towards received religious/alien thought in himself. He agreed with Whitehead and Iqbal that the ages of faith are the ages of reason as well. Reading him one sees how shallow is the fashionable modern view that religion and sciences/philosophy are irreconcilable and we can dispense with the Sacred and live.
Moses Maimonides made great use of Muslim thinkers and built an imposing structure for Jewish people that has resisted countless challenges till date. It is instructive to compare his ideas with great Muslim sages and appreciate how great minds generally think alike. We can transpose many of his arguments for those Muslims who fail to understand why the Prophet’s authority is central, why Sharia is inviolable, how to argue for God’s Word without sacrificing reason and respect divergent schools and resist fundamentalism and other forms of parochialism. Muslims are ideally required to take far better note of Semitic tradition as a whole than is the case usually (as pointed out by Farahi school) to honour the Quranic call for coming to common terms and it is easy to see how much we share with the People of the Book and how much could be learnt from the sages of respective traditions in various domains including solving difficult problems in Quran and Hadith interpretation (most of the charges raised by certain modernists and literalists and critics of religion are brilliantly taken care of by the likes of Maimonodes and Augustine).
Maimonides’ exegesis is intended to resolve perplexity of philosophically minded by showing that scriptural truth is identical with the truths of philosophy. After him Judaism became “more rigorous in defending its central beliefs, philosophy became more willing to face its limitations.” In much of the Muslim world there is still unresolved tension between philosophy/mysticism/theology and religion and this is proving quite costly. For Muslim sages as for Maimonodes philosophy is not “a way of transmitting authoritative doctrine from teacher to pupil, it is a process of thinking best communicated through dialogue. The result is a philosophy that is not merely intellectual but transformative. Such a philosophy maintains the rigor of its own methods but recognizes the limits of human knowledge and the ability of prophets to shed light on issues that philosophy alone cannot resolve. It culminates in the intellectual love of God.”
For Maimonides (rational) metaphysics is “both a necessary part of the pathway to God and something that must eventually be overcome.” Putting more emphasis on the process of acquiring knowledge than on a body of established results, showing how “behind each and every commandment is the realization that an incorporeal God is the only legitimate object of worship” and how Sha’ria prepares oneself for contemplation of a God, philosophy emerges “not just an academic subject but a sacred obligation.” When a person studies philosophy and realizes the vastness of the universe “his soul will thirst, his very flesh will yearn to love God. He will be filled with fear and trembling, as he becomes conscious of his lowly condition, poverty, and insignificance.” At the end of the Guide, Maimonides tries to show that far from taking the place of worship or ethical behavior, contemplation/philosophy enhances them.
Maimonides thought that much of the Bible would be harmful if interpreted in a literal sense, and philosophy is necessary to determine its true meaning. We can say the same regarding other scriptures if interpreted only literally. He derives corollaries from the text “Your ways are not my ways” (Isaiah 55: 8) and states that the meaning of ‘knowledge’ the meaning of ‘purpose’ and the meaning of ‘providence’, when ascribed to God is different from the meanings of these terms when ascribed to us. In interpreting Genesis 1:27,“male and female created He them.” he suggests that the verse does not recount a historical event – the creation of the first man and woman – but “expounds philosophic anthropology by explaining the composition of the substance ‘man.’ Man is composed of matter (female, ishah, Eve) and form (male, ish, Adam), which always exist together and are physically inseparable.”
The narrative of creation of the first woman from Adam’s rib, for him, is about the “relationship between matter and form, namely matter opposes form, As the form of man, Adam is the actual intellect. Eve is man’s matter.” An important plank of feminist critique of scripture is bypassed if we note with Maimonides that Eve is” man’s body (and the bodily powers, the inferior parts of the soul: the vegetative and the animal).” He seeks to resolve the controversy between mystics and legalists/Ulama on the question of conformity to Sharia by noting that the latter can’t be wished away and the alleged antinomian position appropriate for the elite alludes really to the necessity for the elite to go beyond the demands of the Law in their quest for perfection. What he means is that after “Sharia,” the demands of Tariqa are to be met. Law is not negated but transcended. Incharges of pulpit should not consider Hallaj’s cross a rival, as Iqbal put it.
What makes Maimonides especially significant for believers engaging with modernity is his critique of anthropocentrism (“Logic as well as tradition proves clearly that the Universe doesn’t exist for man’s sake, but that all things in it exist each for its own sake.”), his admission that problems of faith vs. science/philosophy are quite complex and we don’t know the whole truth and even if someone knows/realizes certain things, it may be hard to communicate to others. He clearly states that every interpretation offered by the Sages need not be accepted. He, like Ibn Taymiyyah, denies that sacred inheres in sites/objects, denounces astrology and many tenets of Mutakallimoon, (especially those defended by Ash’arite school). He recalls great Mu’tazilite theologians in his denial of the multiple attributes in God and denial of the possibility of seeing God.
In his analysis of the nature of prophecy, he reminds us of Ibn Arabi, Al-Farabi, Shah Waliullah and Iqbal on the nature of prophecy that largely bridges – in practice/consequences – the division between saints/sages and prophets. He defends, like Shah Wailiullah in case of Islamic Sharia, rationale of every detail of the Sharia of Moses, its universality and its essentially unchanging foundations and deeper structure without sounding rather unduly apologetic about certain issues where changing spirit of times and other rational considerations call for reconsideration and offers various grounds for his more open attitude to embracing change or doing ijtihad ( Maimonides concedes, what Muslim modernists have been crying for, that the historical circumstances in which the Law was revealed played a significant role in determining its content.)
On the issue “where will Mother Teresa go?”, or who goes to heaven, Maimonides presents what appears almost a paraphrase of the Quranic thesis linking salvation to faith in God and hereafter and righteous action (2:62): “Holiness is not restricted to Jews. Any person who renounces the possibility of a corporeal God, behaves in an appropriate fashion, and devotes himself to the perfection of the intellect is worthy of salvation.” Although every inch a Jew for whom religion, community and Sacred law come first he states contours of curriculum for life or perfection thus: “He who wants to attain to human perfection must first study Logic, next the various branches of Mathematics in their proper order, then Physics, and lastly Metaphysics.”
Some understandable anxiety to guard one’s own tradition and polemics against perceived problem areas in other traditions are to be seen in almost all great thinkers of the past and Maimonides is not an exception. Elsewhere, we find Sankara against Nagarjuna and Abhinavgupta against both and Ghazzali, Ibn Taymiyyah and Ibn Arabi against their counterparts in other traditions.
In Kashmir it is hard to come across scholars interested in major literary and philosophical figures of different traditions. If you want to meet one, meet versatile Dr G. Q. Lone from North Kashmir who has written an essay on Nietzsche that is quite enjoyable in most parts and an unpublished essay on Moses Maimonides.