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Maimonides: The Life and World of One of Civilization's Greatest Minds

The Life and World of One of Civilization's Greatest Minds

Joel L. Kraemer

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This authoritative biography of Moses Maimonides, one of the most influential minds in all of human history, illuminates his life as a philosopher, physician, and lawgiver. A biography on a grand scale, it brilliantly explicates one man's life against the background of the social, religious, and political issues of his time. Maimonides was born in Cordoba, in Muslim-ruled Spain, in 1138 and died in Cairo in 1204. He lived in an Arab-Islamic environment from his early years in Spain and North Africa to his later years in Egypt, where he was immersed in its culture and society. His life, career, and writings are the highest expression of the intertwined worlds of Judaism and Islam. Maimonides lived in tumultuous times, at the peak of the Reconquista in Spain and the Crusades in Palestine. His monumental compendium of Jewish law, the "Mishneh Torah," became a basis of all subsequent Jewish legal codes and brought him recognition as one of the foremost lawgivers of humankind. In Egypt, his training as a physician earned him a place in the entourage of the great Sultan Saladin, and he wrote medical works in Arabic that were translated into Hebrew and Latin and studied for centuries in Europe. As a philosopher and scientist, he contributed to mathematics and astronomy, logic and ethics, politics and theology. His "Guide of the Perplexed," a masterful interweaving of religious tradition and scientific and philosophic thought, influenced generations of Christian, Muslim, and Jewish thinkers. Now, in a dazzling work of scholarship, Joel Kraemer tells the complete story of Maimonides' rich life. MAIMONIDES is at once a portrait of a great historical figure and an excursion into the Mediterranean world of the twelfth century. Joel Kraemer draws on a wealth of original sources to re-create a remarkable period in history when Jewish, Christian, and Muslim traditions clashed and mingled in a setting alive with intense intellectual exchange and religious conflict.

JOEL L. KRAEMER, John Henry Barrows Professor Emeritus in the Divinity School and the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago, is the author of
Humanism in the Renaissance of Islam and
Philosophy in the Renaissance of Islam, and is the editor of
Perspectives on Maimonides. He lives in Chicago, Illinois.


Einband Taschenbuch
Seitenzahl 640
Erscheinungsdatum 01.02.2010
Sprache Englisch
ISBN 978-0-385-51200-8
Verlag Doubleday USA
Maße (L/B/H) 23,4/15,5/3,3 cm
Gewicht 885 g


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  • Cordoba    

    Kennst du das Land, wo die Zitronen bluhen, Im dunkeln Lau die Gold-Orangen gluhn . . .  

    Knowst thou the land of flowering lemon trees? In leafage dark the golden orange glows . . .


    If birthplace influences destiny, Moses ben Maimon could not have chosen to be born in a city more conducive to greatness than Cordoba.  

    We have knowledge of Moses ben Maimon's birth from his own hand in the colophon to his Commentary on the Mishnah, completed in Egypt in 1168. Midway in his life's journey, after years of exile and then a newcomer to Egypt, he invoked a distinguished lineage--sevengenerations of eminent scholars and magistrates. He said that he began to compose the Commentary when he was twenty-three and completed it in Egypt in 1167 or 1168, when he was thirty years old. To be more accurate, then, he was born sometime in the last third of 1137 or the first two-thirds of 1138. The conventionaldate for his birth, 1135, which we still find in library catalogues, biographies, and encyclopedias, is based on what Maimonides' grandson, David ben Abraham (1222-1300), wrote.  

    According to his grandson, Maimonides' birth fell on the eve of Passover, 14 Nisan, the holiday of Redemption, a date of symbolic significance. Yellin and Abrahams, in their eulogistic biography of Maimonides, added the exact hour of his birth and createdan aristocratic lineage back to Rabbi Judah ha-Nasi and King David.  

    We do not hear about Maimonides' ancestors prior to his father, Rabbi Maimon ben Joseph. Even if they wrote legal responsa, commentaries, and treatises, nothing has survived to our knowledge. Maimon (or Maymun) is an Arabic name that is common among Muslimsand Maghribi Jews. Aside from his father, all of Moses' ancestors and descendants had biblical names, the recurrent ones being Abraham, David, Joseph, and Obadiah.  

    We never meet Moses' mother. Biographies of Maimonides, trying to fill in gaps, usually say that she died in childbirth, yet we have no evidence for this. If she did, then Moses' brother, David, would have been a half brother, but again there is no mentionof it.  

    The explanation for this silence is much simpler. We hear very little, if anything, about the mothers, wives, and sisters of people we meet in this period. The historical record ignores women's lives because they were not scholarly links in a traditionof learning. Women were expected to be modest, pious, and withdrawn from public view. Unless they entered the public sphere by gaining economic power or owned important property, there was no reason for mentioning them.    

    The Bride of Andalus  

    Situated in a fertile plain at the foot of the Sierra Morena, overlooking the Guadalquivir River, Cordoba had been the administrative, political, military, religious, and cultural capital of Andalusia during the period of the Umayyad caliphate (976-1031).The population of greater Cordoba, comprising the walled city and its outlying suburbs, was about 250,000-300,000, even greater than that of Paris.  

    Arab chroniclers called Cordoba "the bride of al-Andalus" and "the most beautiful jewel of al-Andalus." The Spanish historian Shihab al-Din al-Maqqari (b. ca. 1577 Tlemcen, d. 1632 Cairo) wrote that in four things Cordoba surpassed the other capitals ofthe world: the bridge over the Guadalquivir, its Great Mosque, the city of al-Zahra', and the sciences cultivated therein.  

    Cordoba was made up of five connected towns, with separation ramparts, and open suburbs beyond the inner walled city, taking up a total area of about 144 square miles. The ramparts, resting on Roman foundations, had 132 towers and thirteen gates. Al-Maqqari'sstatistics for the city are often cited: 1,600 mosques; 900 public baths; 213,077 homes for ordinary people; 60,300 mansions for notables, officials, and military commanders; and 80,455 shops. These numbers, even if exaggerated, indicate a city of tremendousproportions.    

    The City's Splendor   We would have to transport ourselves to Cordoba to appreciate fully the splendor of the city during Maimonides' lifetime. Cordoba basked in light, clear skies, a shimmering river, and rippling water flowing from its aqueducts. Its climate was moderate,with abundant sun and water, and its fruits were harvested all year round. The Arabs had introduced exotic fruits and flowers from overseas.  

    The Guadalquivir, Andalusia's longest river, just south of the Sierra Morena, rises in the mountains of Jaen province and takes a westward serpentine course for 408 miles, slowly meandering through Cordoba and Seville to the Gulf of Cadiz on the AtlanticOcean. The Guadalquivir valley is the most fertile region in all Andalusia. The mountains to its north had olive groves and pine and oak trees, and were a frontier between the tropical Mediterranean and alpine Europe.  

    Al-Maqqari gave a poetic description of the river:    

    [Cordoba's] river is one of the finest in the world, now gliding slowly through level lawns, or winding softly across emerald fields sprinkled with flowers, and serving it instead of robes; now flowing through thickly planted groves, where the song ofbirds resounds perpetually in the air; and now widening into a majestic stream to impart its waters to the numerous wheels constructed on its banks, or communicating to the plants and flowers of the vicinity freshness and vigor.    

    The Guadalquivir was navigable in Maimonides' day from the Atlantic to Cordoba, though now only from the ocean to Seville. In his time, foreign vessels unloaded their wares at Seville and then smaller boats carried them upstream to Cordoba. He called theGuadalquivir the "Seville River," and mentioned the travel route between Seville and Alexandria.  

    The river watered Cordoba's vineyards and olive groves. Dark-leafed orange trees, almond trees, flowering lemon trees, and wild thyme flourished along the Guadalquivir's banks. Cordoba was also a cornucopia of cherries, peaches, pomegranates, figs, apples,melons, pears, dates, bananas, quinces, and chestnuts. It was a medley of flowers and aromas—jasmine, narcissus, violets, and roses. New methods of agriculture and a sophisticated irrigation system of water mills and waterwheels, technologies imported fromSyria, made food plentiful enough to sustain the city's vast population.  

    The city streets were paved and well lit at night, with lamps suspended on outer doors and corners of houses. Whitewashed villas, with terra-cotta tiled roofs, surrounded cool patios resplendent with flowers, pools, and fountains. The walls, verandas,latticed windows, and inner courtyards seemed to conceal deep secrets.    

    The Jewish Quarter   Jews had been living in Cordoba from Roman times, many having emigrated to the city after the Roman conquest of Judea and destruction of the Second Temple in 70 c.e. When the Muslims conquered Cordoba in the eighth century, they garrisoned Jews there asa reward for their support against the Visigoths, expecting them to work in administration. The Mozarabs (Arabized Christians) were not allowed to reside inside the city and lived to the east of the city walls.  

    Moses ben Maimon and his family resided in the Jewish Quarter (juderia), which was in the southwest part of the city near the river and the bridge. The Great Mosque and the royal palace (al-qasr) were in the same vicinity. The mosque and the palace, representingIslamic sovereignty and caliphal authority, were built close to the Guadalquivir instead of in the city's center, as was more common in Islamic urban settings. Situating the Jewish Quarter near the royal palace was for the Jews' protection against possiblemob violence. This arrangement created a bond of mutual dependency between the Jews and the ruling establishment that contributed to popular resentment.   The Jewish Quarter was small and crowded, with narrow, labyrinthine streets and alleys, the upper stories of houses almost touching, obscuring the sky. One could easily hear voices of neighbors from across the way. This gave a feeling of intimacy, andthe shade gave relief from the summer heat.  

    Today, the old Jewish Quarter is a charming neighborhood, with lovely white villas, gates opening onto garden patios, and geraniums cascading from flower boxes. The synagogue that we see nowadays in the Jewish Quarter, at Calle de los Judios 20, just northof Plaza Maimonides, was not the one where Maimonides prayed, although it may have been built on the site of an older synagogue that existed then.  

    As Cordoba thrived, people poured into the city to exploit economic and cultural opportunities. The small Jewish Quarter was soon bursting at its seams, so another area for Jewish settlement was built on the northern side of the city.  

    As other native sons of Cordoba had crossed the ancient arched bridge—Seneca the Elder and Younger, the theologian Ibn Hazm, the poet Ibn Zaydun, and the philosopher Ibn Rushd—so too we imagine young Moses sauntering alongside the river, promenadingin the evening as the sun was sinking low.  

    In the open spaces between the mosque and the palace, one saw noblemen on their prancing mounts with proud necks and long tails, government officials, imams, preachers, scholars, and students rushing about. This was another world for young Moses. How unlikethe dark warren of narrow paths, tortuous alleyways, and cul-de-sacs forming the Jewish Quarter, where pack animals and humans squeezed into sinuous lanes and could barely pass one another.    

    The Great Mosque  

    Moses ben Maimon lived a few minutes away from one of the grandest mosques in the entire Islamic world. We can picture him standing before the edifice, overwhelmed by its vastness, peering at the arcades and multiple rows of high double horseshoe arches,sensing its allure and mystery.  

    The Qur'anic inscriptions over the mosque's entrance affirmed Islam's superiority over Judaism and Christianity, promising rewards to those who surrendered themselves to Allah and punishment to those who did not take heed. Verses assured faithful Muslimsof a heavenly paradise: You, my servants, who have believed in our revelations and surrendered yourselves, shall on that day have nothing to fear or regret. Enter paradise, you and your spouses, all in delight. You shall be served with gold dishes and goldencups. Abiding there forever, you shall find all that your souls desire and all that your eyes rejoice in (Qur'an 43:68-71).  

    This mosque invited entry. The visitor walks past the courtyard with its rows of orange trees and fountains, apples of gold in settings of silver, into the cavernous interior. Eight hundred fifty jasper, marble, and porphyry columns support double arcadesof horseshoe arches beneath round ones, with red and white voussoirs (the wedge-shaped stones used to build arches). The double-arched columns create a mystifying space, an extension of the orchard outside, seemingly going on forever as though reflected inmirrors. The central octagonal dome is overlaid with polychrome mosaics. In Moses ben Maimon's time, the pungent fragrance of incense and oil emanated from thousands of lamps.  

    At the end of a walk along the columns, one comes to the magnificent domed mihrab, the niche where the imam led prayers. An octagonal chamber bounded by two smaller rooms, it is adorned with Arabic inscriptions and Byzantine mosaics, which Emperor NicephorusII Phocas sent to Caliph al-Hakam II. Abstract patterns predominate, reflecting Islamic aniconism (absence of representational art) and a sense of the geometric order that governs the universe and should preside over earth, regulating art, science, ritual,law, and society.    

    Cordoba's Shops  

    Near the mosque were the law court and a prison. To the southeast were suqs (markets) and a large qaysariyya. A suq was a single gallery, while a qaysariyya comprised shops, workplaces, warehouses, and residences in covered galleries around an open court.Close by the mosque were stalls for copyists, who also sold paper, books, reed pens, ink, and rulers. In the same area were shops of 'attarin, druggists, who offered herbal remedies, perfume, rosewater, and spices. Names for herbs and spices were in Hispano-Romance,Arabic, Berber, and Hebrew. Nearby, locally manufactured merchandise was on sale--enameled ceramics, silk, brocade, fabrics, clothing, jewelry, and leather items. Farther out and closer to the city gates were carpenters and makers of copper and brass implements.  

    A variety of sounds, aromas, and bright colors stimulated the senses. A muezzin called the faithful to prayer, artisans clattered, men shouted and laughed. Close to the palace were weapons dealers and saddlers. Outside the gates, dyers worked on theirfibers in a blaze of colors. Traders displayed for sale camels, donkeys, horses, mules, and sheep. By the riverside, where tanners worked on animal skins, preparing them to become shoes and bookbindings, an overwhelming odor surged from the skins and from thepigeon dung and fermented chaff used to treat goat and camel hides.  

    Along the narrow alleys, fragrant scents arose from the bread ovens in the suq. Butchers hung out oxen, sheep, and birds next to the fishmongers' heaps of seafood. Pack animals and porters trudged along, the men with backs perpetually bent, and the beastspatiently accepting their fate.    

    Economic Prosperity  

    The Guadalquivir, as we have seen, brought merchandise from downstream Seville, which had one of the finest harbors in Andalusia. Seville had commercial ties with the eastern Mediterranean, with vessels sailing regularly to and from Alexandria. Cordobaexported leather products, jewelry, and textiles--woven silks and silk brocades--to the entire Mediterranean area and throughout Europe.  

    Maimonides' incredibly detailed description of the uses of leather is a valuable source for our knowledge of the many types of leather products. His powers of observation were exceptional. Cordoba was famous then, as it is now, for its fine leather goods.   During the early Umayyad period (825-925), the horizontal loom came into use along with silk thread, stimulating a thriving weaving industry. Cordoba's colorful garments were fashion favorites in Andalusia. Local industry also produced cork shoes fromthe cork oak trees that grew in the area along with the evergreen oak.  

    Artisans worked in glazed and polychrome pottery. The ornamentation was rich and variegated, with bird, animal, and vegetable motifs. More than thirty forms of pottery existed--oil lamps, pots, Chinese- and Iraqian-designed bottles and bowls, imitationPersian inkwells, and Syrian-style cups.    

    The Spanish Umayyads  

    The Muslims reached the peak of their conquests in the Iberian Peninsula under the Umayyad caliphs (756-1031). This was a period of cultural splendor, when the arts and sciences flourished in Cordoba as nowhere else in Europe. 'Abd al-Rahman III al-Nasir(the Victorious) (912-961) loved learning and adorned his court with scholars, poets, and scientists. Splendid libraries, mosques, madrasas, and hospitals attracted visitors from the Islamic East, who brought cultural treasures that enriched Andalusia for centuries.  

    The Spanish Umayyads were originally from Syria. When the 'Abbasids defeated the Syrian Umayyads in 750, 'Abd al-Rahman I (731-788), an Umayyad prince, escaped to the Maghrib, where Berber relatives of his mother protected him. He then crossed to Spainand joined the Syrian Arabs in southern Andalusia. On March 15, 756, he entered Cordoba, became amir of Andalusia, and made the city his capital.  

    The Umayyad caliph 'Abd al-Rahman III integrated the diverse religious communities and ethnic groups into a unified state. The Muslim majority encompassed three classes: the dominant Arab elite, the more numerous Berbers, and the muwalladun, indigenousChristians who converted to Islam. The caliph sought to consolidate the state's power by limiting the influence of the Arab aristocracy and producing a new elite from among the other Muslims.  

    Andalusia had a large population of Christians. The Hispanic Christians, called Mozarabs, were successors to the Christians of Roman-Visigoth times. There were also Near Eastern Christians, who were artisans and professionals in medicine, architecture,and translation. Attracted by economic opportunities, Christians emigrated to Andalusia from northern Spain, Europe beyond the Pyrenees, and the Maghrib.