March 30 marks the birthday of Moses Maimonides. As such, it seemed to be a good time to discuss two of his quotes that have been used in discussions of Islam and Islamophobia in part due to the range of views that seem to be expressed in them by the same author.
Original Guest Post
Recently, Robert Spencer tried to make a distinction between Allah and God, arguing that âeven though they may share a name, any examination of the particulars of Christian and Islamic theology reveals that the deities in question are quite different in character.â
Note that Spencer does not say that Christians and Muslims have âdifferent views of the same deityâ but discusses âthe deities in question.â In doing this, he invites the reader to reach the conclusion that the âMuslim Allahâ is not the same as the âChristian God.â Danios has already provided a thorough explanation on the use of the term Allah by Jews and Christians in pre-Islamic times.Â As Danios points out, a common Islamophobic response is to claim that Muslims appropriated the term Allah while referring to a different entity, perhaps a moon god, but not to the god that Jews and Christians worship.
To further create a distinction between Allah and the Christian God, Spencer has asked whether the hajj is an act of apostasy based on his claims that the rites involved in the hajj are of Hindu origin. Of course, it is widely accepted that polytheists made pilgrimages to Mecca and that the Kaâbah was a pagan shrine that contained idols before the advent of Islam, including a belief that pre-Islamic pilgrims to Mecca, â[w]ith all their polytheism and idolatry, they too used to circle the Kaâbah and kiss the Black Stone.â So, even if Spencer were right, that would not seem to be a particularly Earth-shattering revelation.
Since many who propound this âdeitiesâ theory wonât listen to Danios perhaps they will listenÂ to some other views. We can start by moving a little away from the Christian-Muslim deity distinction that Spencer wants to draw and referring to a statement by perhaps the mostÂ renowned post-Biblical Jewish scholar, Rabbi Moses Maimonides (Rambam). In Responsa #448, Maimonides writes as follows (ellipses in Wikipedia, bolding added; alternate translation also available):
The Ishmaelites are not at all idolaters; [idolatry] has long been severed from their mouths and hearts; and they attribute to God a proper unity, a unity concerning which there is no doubt. And because they lie about us, and falsely attribute to us the statement that God has a son, is no reason for us to lie about them and say that they are idolaters … And should anyone say that the house that they honor [the Kaaba] is a house of idolatry and an idol is hidden within it, which their ancestors used to worship,then what of it? The hearts of those who bow down toward it today are [directed] onlyÂ toward Heaven … [Regarding] the Ishmaelites today â idolatry has been severed from the mouths of all of them [including] women and children. Their error and foolishness is in other things which cannot be put into writing because of the renegades and wicked among Israel [i.e., apostates]. But as regards the unity of God they have no error at all.
Maimonidesâ life covered various phases of Muslim-Jewish relations. Maimonides was born inÂ CĂłrdoba in 1135, at the tail end of the longest potential extent of the âGolden Ageâ of SpanishÂ Jewry, which saw the blossoming of Jewish culture and the attainment by individual JewsÂ of high positions in commercial and public life. As a result of the Arab political dominance,Â Maimonides knew Arabic, read many texts in Arabic, and composed many of his most famousÂ works in Arabic and referred to God as Allah in his Arabic writing.
In 1148, CĂłrdoba was conquered by the Almohads, an Berber-Muslim dynasty that revokedÂ the dhimmi status of Jews. There is, no doubt, much debate about the quality of the life ofÂ a dhimmi, but scholars have noted that âin any historical case, these relatively abstract andÂ general provisions of the dhimma could and did materialize as either a tolerant and evenÂ liberating arrangement, or at the other extreme, a culturally repressive policy within whichÂ religious freedom is a hollow formality.â (MarĂa Rosa Monocal, The Ornament of the World:Â How Muslims, Jews and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain,â p. 73.Â Garibaldi reviews the book here.) Life for Jews under the Almohads went from the previousÂ tolerant and liberating arrangement to the other extreme, with the result that â[m]any JewsÂ were forced to convert, but due to suspicion by the authorities of fake conversions, the newÂ converts had to wear identifying clothing that set them apart and made them available toÂ public scrutiny with many forced to convert or go into exile.â The point of this is not to dwellÂ on history, but to put Maimonidesâ responsa into context. It was written not by someoneÂ who had experienced only positive relations between Muslims and Jews, but who had alsoÂ witnessed among the harshest of relations. And one should note that after fleeing CĂłrdoba,Â Maimonides eventually again found himself in a place where he could establish good relationsÂ with Muslim authorities, becoming court physician to Saladin.
So, what does Maimonides have to say about how Muslims view God? Returning to theÂ quote, we see that Maimonides says that â[idolatry] has long been severed from their mouthsÂ and hearts.â This, is in fact the same story told in Islamâs view of its own history: beforeÂ Muhammad, the Ishmaelites (as Maimonides refers to them) in and around Mecca wereÂ idolaters. But, since the advent of Islam, âthey attribute to God a proper unity.â The IslamicÂ term for a âproper unityâ is tawhid, which, in essence, is not just a superficial form of âunityâÂ but a âproper unityâ that has an influence on Islamic philosophy and jurisprudence. It is alsoÂ possible that Maimonides was even distinguishing between the âproperâ Jewish and MuslimÂ view of Godâs unity and what he would consider the âimproperâ Christian view of a trinitarianÂ unity. Nowhere does Maimonides even suggest that Muslims are worshiping some differentÂ deity or that they do not share the Jewish view of Godâs character.
Maimonides further argues that âshould anyone say âŚ [the Kabaâa] is a house of idolatry andÂ an idol is hidden within it, which their ancestors used to worship, then what of it? The heartsÂ of those who bow down toward it today are [directed] only toward Heaven.â This can be readÂ as a pre-rebuttal to arguments made by Robert Spencer about the Kabaâa and the hajj based onÂ views, true or not, about their pre-Islamic origins. As Maimonides points out, if Muslims viewÂ Allah as the same god Jews view in Heaven and direct their prayers accordingly, pre-IslamicÂ history does not affect their monotheism. Say what you want about any possible idol remnantÂ in the Kaâbah or the etymology of the term Allah, it is clear that the âhearts of [Muslims] todayÂ are only toward Heaven.â
Now, why is Maimonides such an interesting person to quote from when countering SpencerâsÂ Islamophobic rhetoric? For one thing, Spencerâs polemical partner Pamela Geller has alsoÂ quoted from Maimonides, believing that it helps the position that she and Spencer take inÂ general and in her fights about her ads about a choice âbetween the civilized man and theÂ savageâ in particular. Here is a quote she uses, from Maimonidesâ Epistle to Yemen:
Let Ye understand, my brothers, the Holy One Blessed HE through the trap createdÂ by our iniquities cast us amongst this nation, the people of Ishmael [Muslims] whoseÂ oppressiveness is firmly upon us and they connive to do us wrong and despicablyÂ downgrade us as the Almighty decreed against us (Deuteronomy 32:31, âYour enemiesÂ shall judge youâ).
There never came against Israel a more antagonistic nation. They oppress us with theÂ most oppressive measures to lessen our number, reduce us, and make us as despicableÂ as they themselves are [Psalms 120:5].
Geller, misleadingly introduces this quote by saying that Maimonides âsaid this of Islam.â SheÂ further introduces the purely religious term Muslims in brackets where Maimonides referred toÂ the âpeople of Ishmael,â a term that could have ethnic, political, and/or religious connotations.
On the religious aspect, while Maimonides did not accept Islam, it is clear from the earlierÂ quote that he fully accepted that Muslims, or Ishmaelites, were monotheists whose hearts areÂ directed only toward heaven in prayer. Instead, the conflict he describes is a political one, inÂ particular with the Yemeni Shiâa of the time. Ultimately, âMaimonides interceded with SaladinÂ in Egypt, and shortly thereafter the persecution came to an end.â
There are a few additional points worth noting in this quote from Maimonides. First, theÂ reference to âthe people of Ishmaelâ may sound like a form of generalization today, but noÂ more so than the positive references to Ishmaelites in the first Maimonides quote or hisÂ reference to Jews as Israel in the second.
Second, unlike Geller, Maimonides does not attempt to create a picture in which one side isÂ civilized and the other savage. Indeed, Maimonides describes Israelâs exile as a âtrap createdÂ by our iniquities.â Traditionally, this referred to the âbaseless hatred,â or the religious andÂ political disputes, mistakes, violence, and venom that existed at the time of the destructionÂ of the Second Temple and the onset of the Exile. Thus, Maimonidesâ approach was not toÂ turn a political dispute or suffering persecution into a basis for misrepresenting the religiousÂ views of others. Nor did he argue that those of his religion were pure and those of another religion were not; rather, he pointed out sinful behavior in both. In MaimonidesâÂ view, monotheism was a good quality, and, from the first quote, we see that he was able toÂ acknowledge what he saw as the good in his political opponents rather than feeling the need toÂ suppress any of those qualities or actions as if his entire position would fall apart if his politicalÂ adversaries had any good side. In addition, when Maimonides corresponded with a communityÂ of Jews who were being persecuted by a Muslim majority, he made a point of noting that evenÂ the Jews who then felt persecuted should not ignore their groupâs own history of hatred andÂ violence, including political mistakes that were part of the reason for their exile.
While there are aspects to the two quotes from Maimonides that one can agree or disagreeÂ with, they do reflect an overall attitude that contrasts sharply with those of Spencer and Geller.
While Maimonides had political differences with various Muslim groups, he did not seek toÂ mischaracterize their religion or their religious beliefs. For there can be no true peace with theÂ Other without recognition of the truth of their beliefs and behavior and honest dialogue basedÂ on those truths, a sharp contrast to the insidious Spencer/Geller policy of no peace, no truthfulÂ recognition, and no honest dialogue. Compare Maimonidesâ recognition of Islamâs positiveÂ monotheistic quality, even when he disagreed politically with Muslims, with Spencer, who hasÂ argued that âthe only good Muslim is a bad Muslim,â meaning that in his view, the only morallyÂ good Muslim is one who is not an Islamically good Muslim.
In terms of lessons for today, it may be helpful to see how Maimonides separated the politicalÂ battles he faced from the opportunities to engage in religious prejudice against the beliefs ofÂ the Other. This did not mean that he refrained from political activity, as seen by his appealÂ to Saladin. But, neither did he refrain from standing up for the truth about another groupâsÂ religious beliefs. In viewing how Maimonides conducted these two fights, perhaps it can beÂ said that the lesson is that we should fight our political battles as if there were no religiousÂ prejudice, and we should fight religious prejudice as if there were no political battles.