The Maimonides of Cairo: Five Generations of Jewish/Sufis
Not far from where we gather today, on the other side of the Sinai Peninsula, in the Holy Land, we witness one of the most challenging eras ever in the history of Jewish/Muslim relations. But even closer to this spot, in and around Cairo, one of the most beautiful periods between these two people unfolded, three centuries during medieval times when Jewish thinkers turned to their Islamic cousins for spiritual inspiration. And far from simply disappearing into the sands of time, these Muslim influences helped remake Jewish practice, echoing within the heart of Judaism to this day.
This story not only helps us understand contemporary Jewish practice, but also reveals how deeply intertwined are these two Abrahamic faiths. It is a true account that must be acknowledged and told, so that Jewish and Muslim practitioners can appreciate their connection in its fullest, and often-positive sense. This account of a Jewish/Muslim spiritual fraternity offers a narrative that is at odds with the prevailing view of this relationship, a glimmer of hope that, if acknowledged by ever-larger groups from both faiths, will offer a positive understanding of Jewish/Muslim possibility.
The pre-eminent Jewish thinker Moses Maimonides (d. 1204), considered by many to be the most important Jewish theologian since Biblical times, lived in Old Cairo in the 12th century. Maimonides was deeply affected by his Islamic environment, so much so that his contemporary Muslims had a better understanding of his pre-eminent work, The Guide for the Perplexed, than fellow Jews. Muslim teachers originally taught this work to Jewish students.
Even more astounding, however, was that the next five generations of Moses Maimonides' descendents – all of whom lived right here in Cairo – were so taken with Islamic mysticism that they turned Egyptian Jewish worship in the direction of Muslim spirituality. Far from operating on the outer edges of the Jewish community, these Maimonides’ were nationally and even internationally respected leaders, sprinkling their religious rulings with quotes and ideas from Sufi thinkers, as well as instituting Sufi-like reforms to synagogue worship.
Moses Maimonides arrived in Egypt in 1165, settling in Fustat, or Old Cairo. He earned his living as a doctor, becoming the physician to the Arab court. In addition, he became Rayyis al-Yahud, or appointed leader of the Egyptian Jewish community, and de-facto spiritual guide for the 90% of medieval Jews that lived under Muslim rule.
In Fustat, Maimonides found himself in an open-minded community that allowed him to appreciate Islam in a warm and friendly environment. His well-known works on Jewish life and law – many of which are still studied in Jewish religious schools and synagogues today – were deeply infused with these ideas. Being that he spoke fluent Arabic, studied with famous Muslim scholars and cited Arab authorities frequently in his works, it seems only natural how deep this influence would run.
Sufism led Maimonides to reinterpret Hebrew terms and metaphors against the background of the Islamic beliefs that surrounded him.i His work was not simply a mark on the continuum of Jewish history, but represented a turning point in the direction of Jewish belief. As Shlomo Goitein of Hebrew University noted: “The Guide for the Perplexed is a great monument of Arab/Jewish symbiosis, not merely because it is written in Arabic by an original Jewish thinker and was studied by Arabs, but because it developed and conveyed to large sections of the Jewish people, ideas which had so long occupied the Arab mind.”ii
Even the title of the Guide for the Perplexed was based on Islamic precursors. Language that stemmed from Sufi masters was appropriated to express the Islamic mystical ideal of “learned ignorance,” the notion that the ultimate level of knowledge is to realize that one does not know.iii The more one “knew” God, according to Muslim thinkers, the more one would grow perplexed –the title of this seminal Jewish work was drawn from a Sufi aphorism to this effect!iv
Specific conceptions developed in Maimonides’ work could be traced directly back to Muslim and Sufi precursors. Abd Allah ibn Sina (d. 1037), Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (d. 1111), Shihab al-Din Suhrawardi (d. 1191) and the Koran itself provided Maimonides with ideas and language for his development of the perfect Jewish spiritual path.
For instance, Maimonides’ notion of the ideal Jewish prophet can be traced back to Jafar as-Sadiq (d. 765), the Sixth Imam of Islam. As Professor David Blumenthal notes:
“Drawing on Islamic political theory (which can be traced back to Jafar as-Sadiq), in which the prophet is separated from other ideal types by virtue of his being a ‘messenger,’ that is by virtue of his having a divinely ordained socio-political function, Maimonides . . . set forth the role of the legislator/prophet . . . The mixture of piety and politics, of religious awareness and socio-political mission, may sound strange to modern ears, but it is basic to Islam and hence to medieval Jewish thought.”v
The ideal of the prophetic legislator became, for Maimonides, enmeshed with another central Islamic conception: al-Insan al-Kamil, or the Perfect Man. For Sufis, this represented the highest station on the spiritual path, whereby the aspirant achieved complete realization of the unmediated, primordial God, which lay latent within all humans. The realized Sufi becomes a vice regent of God (khalifa) on Earth, a prophetic actor channeling the energy of the Divine for the good of all humankind. The model for the Muslim al-Insan al-Kamil was the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him). Maimonides developed a strikingly similar conception to this Islamic Perfect Man, even utilizing the exact term al-Insan al-Kamil to describe the person who had attained human’s ultimate goal.
Maimonides employed other Sufi conceptions and specific vocabulary.
“Maimonides uses Sufi and Islamic philosophic mystical terms such as ghibta (bliss), 'ittihad (union), ´ishq (passionate love), al-'inqita 'ilayhi (total devotion) and al-qurb minhu (closeness to Him). He also uses (entire) phrases taken from Sufi literature.”vi
All of these instances of Sufi usage allowed later Jewish thinkers, drawn to aspects of Islamic worship and practice, to point to Maimonides’ vocabulary and ideas, and thereby situate the Islamic inspirations within the Jewish theological stream.
Maimonides also gently turned ideas of prayer away from traditional Jewish practice, and toward Sufi ideals. He raised silence in importance to Jewish worship, an idea that ran counter to Jewish teaching, though it was in line with his contemporary Muslims. The Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) was quoted in a hadith, as stating: “The first stage of worship is silence,”vii and for Islam, this method was a precursor for the achievement of faqr (spiritual poverty), which was the first step along the Sufi path.
Maimonides quoted directly from the Sufis when he explained the importance of silence, though like later Jewish/Sufis, he simply attributed this Islamic influence to “all philosophers,” and attached the novel idea to a Biblical passage:
“All philosophers say . . . ‘Silence is praise to You,’ which interpreted signifies: silence with regard to You is praise. Accordingly, silence is preferable – just as the perfect ones have enjoined and said, ‘Commune with your own heart upon your bed and be still.’ (Psalm 4:4)”viii
The idea of “silence” as a preferable meditation method went hand-in-hand with solitude as a form of prayer. The Sufi spiritual retreat (khalwa), based in silence, was taken over by Jewish practitioners at this time, and represented an especially noteworthy Jewish innovation. It opposed not only the practice of 12th century Egyptian Jews, but also the Jewish tradition of community prayer rituals: the idea that a minyan, or minimum of ten men was necessary to perform the synagogue rites, which underpinned Jewish worship.
Communal prayer had been central to Jewish practice since the fall of the Second Temple (c. 70). Since that time, Israel had known no central physical structure to unite the Nation, as did the Muslims, for instance, with the Ka’ba. In place of the Temple, Jews substituted the idea of community as the binding force of their people, and the minyan represented this. To move prayer towards a solitary experience was viewed as heretical by more traditional Jewish leaders.
Perhaps as important as the Sufi influence on Moses Maimonides’ thought, was the inspiration of Islamic mysticism on his descendants. The next five generations of the Maimonides’ family were not only drawn to the Sufi Way, but also served as appointed leaders of the Egyptian Jewish community, allowing them to thread their Islamic ideas into the practice of the Egyptian synagogue, and throughout the Jewish Diaspora.
Moses’ only son, Abraham (d. 1237, Cairo), went much further than his father, unabashedly turning Jewish worship toward that of the Sufis. He enjoyed a tremendous amount of political and spiritual power in Egypt – and with Jewish communities throughout the Muslim world. His religious rulings were read from Yemen to Southern France, throughout North Africa, the Holy Land, Babylonia, Persia and in Arabia. And virtually all of these letters contained passages representing Sufi and Islamic interpretations of Jewish life and law.
Abraham’s attraction to the Islamic mystics grew out of his conviction that the Jewish/Sufis were reclaiming an authentically Jewish doctrine from Islam. According to Abraham, the Sufis dressed in rags, subsisted on alms and were organized as leaders and followers – all like the Hebrew prophets of the Bible. Just like those prophets, when a novice was initiated among them, the master threw a ragged cloak (kirqah) around their shoulders. The Sufis conquered sleep and fear through nightly vigils, and spent so much time in dark places praying that they actually injured their faculty of sight,ix which allowed a powerful inward light to replace the sensorial experience of light on the retina. Abraham traced all of these ideas back to Jewish forefathers.x As Abraham Maimonides stated: “Do not regard as unseemly our comparison to the behavior of the Sufis, for the latter imitate the prophets (of Israel) and walk in their footsteps, not the prophets in theirs.”xi
What made Abraham such an important figure in the dissemination of Islamic thought throughout the Jewish world was that, like his father, he did not break with traditional Judaism in order to practice his Jewish brand of Sufism. One cannot imagine a spiritual heir more dedicated to his predecessor than was Abraham to Moses Maimonides. In all of his writings, he quoted often from his father’s works.xii
At the same time that he proposed a scrupulous observance of Jewish law, Abraham assimilated the beliefs and practices of the Sufis. He justified this paradoxical situation – believing that the Jewish law must be strictly adhered to, while advocating Sufi-like reforms – by reading his own innovative ideas and Sufi attitudes backwards into Jewish history.
Specific Sufi influence on Abraham’s spiritual path is not hard to uncover. As Professor Paul Fenton of the Sorbonne noted:
“It is possible that Abraham saw himself as a sheikh, in his position as spiritual leader of Egyptian Jewry . . . There are indications that he considered his own comportment exemplary as when, for example, after having discussed Sufi attire, he mentions that he himself wore these garments.”xiii
Abraham not only circulated his ideas within his local Jewish community and through religious rulings; he also composed a written masterpiece of Jewish thought. His mystical treatise, the Kifayat al-Abidin (High Ways to Perfection), a 2500-page tome, spent its first three chapters re-hashing his father’s views and Jewish halakha (law) – and then a fourth section spelling out in minute detail the Sufi tariqah, or mystical path towards enlightenment. In this fourth chapter, Abraham enumerated all aspects of Islamic mysticism.xiv
“The whole (fourth) portion is imbued with Sufi ideology and terminology. The ‘special path’ is none other than the Sufi tariqah and the stages are identical with some of the Sufi maqamat, or ‘stations,’ as can be ascertained by comparing them with the stages as described in classical Sufi manuals. The goal of the path (wusul) is identical in both cases.”xv
Not only was Abraham certain that the Sufi Way represented a lost Jewish mysticism, but he was also convinced that Jewish/Sufi practice was a necessary precursor to a new spiritual epoch, at the threshold of which he and his contemporaries stood. Abraham Maimonides believed that the Jewish/Sufis were reviving a dormant Jewish doctrine that had originally been imparted to Adam and revealed by the Patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Lost in successive generations, it resurfaced to Moses on Sinai, where he revealed the precepts of Sufism to Israel, in the Biblical story of Exodus. By tying Sufi reforms so deeply into the heart of Jewish history, it made it much easier for him to claim his Islamic inspirations represented traditional Jewish practice.
Perhaps if Abraham Maimonides had been just another Jewish heretic, his Sufi beliefs would have been relegated to the dustbin of Jewish history – and Jewish mysticism would have remained just that: A purely Jewish response to this perplexing world. Abraham Maimonides, however, was one of the most-respected Jewish authorities of his era. The 13th century, when Abraham was active, was a time of tremendous fertility in Jewish thought – Rabbi Mark Verman argues that it was the most creative epoch in the entire history of Jewish mysticism.xvi It was into this fertile period that Abraham injected the seeds of Islamic thought. The Sufi leanings of Abraham helped lay the bases of an entirely new direction in Jewish mysticism, for the Kabbalah, the Baal Shem Tov’s 18th century European Hasidism and even aspects of today’s Jewish worship and liturgy.
The tendency to fuse Sufi mysticism with elements of Moses Maimonides’ theology can be found in the writings of virtually all-subsequent Maimonidean descendants.xvii And not only were Moses Maimonides’ offspring Jewish/Sufi’s, but they also continued to act as the leaders of Egyptian Jewry. The family list of leaders – Moses Maimonides (d. 1204) to Abraham (d. 1237), then to his son David (d. 1300), to Abraham II (d. 1313), Joshua (d. 1355) and finally, the last Maimonides of whom we have record, David ben Joshua (d. 1415),xviii all blended their temporal and religious duties with an overt attraction to Sufi mystical principles.
David ben Joshua was a particularly important force for bringing Islamic ideas to later Jewish worship. After two-decades of operating as head of the Jewish community in Cairo, he left Egypt for Aleppo and then Damascus in Syria, where he lived from 1375-1386, continuing to act as the head of the Egyptian Jewish community during those years.xix In Aleppo, he collected one of the largest libraries in the western Mediterranean that, in addition to Jewish books, included works by virtually all of the well-known Sufi writers up to his time. Although the most prominent influence on David Maimonides was the Ishraqi (Illuminist) school of Suhrawardi (d. 1191), other folios included in his collection, highlighted al-Ghazali, al-Hallaj, Ibn Sina, Dhu’l Nun al-Misri, al-Qushayri and many others.xx
The importance of this library alone should not be underestimated, as it brought together Jewish and Sufi tracts in the very locale where, within one hundred years, the Safed Kabbalists would once again re-energize Jewish practice, with the aid of Islamic ideas. Even after David’s death, Jewish scholars and mystics continued to visit Aleppo in order to study from his library.xxi He also commissioned many manuscripts, including a Muslim commentary on Moses Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah!xxii
Perhaps even more than his ancestors, David based his ideas in Sufi thought and practice. And like those that went before him, he attached the ideas to the far off Jewish past. For example, David wrote a book entitled Al-Mursid ila al-Tafarrud (The Guide to Detachment). Overtly, he based the book’s theme on a saying by the first century Rabbi, Pinhas ben Yair. However, as the translator of this work, Professor Paul Fenton, noted: “David Maimonides equates each stage (of Jewish spiritual attainment) with a station (maqam) on the Sufi Path (tariqah). Moreover, numerous extracts of Suhrawardi’s Kalimat at-Tasawwuf are found in his treatise.”xxiii
Like earlier Sufi-inspired Jews, David substituted the word “Hasid” (pious) for “Sufi” throughout his works, thereby attempting to make his Sufi reforms more palatable for Jewish readers of his work. Additionally, in a passage explaining Divine love, David replaced Koranic verses with Biblical passages that had the same philosophical import, a Jewish/Sufi technique that could be traced back more than three centuries.xxiv
He also borrowed the Islamic device of discussing the roots of the word “Sufi,” substituting “Hasid,” and then providing an etymological review of the meaning of the Hebrew word for “pious.” Whereas “Sufi” derived from “as-suf,” which could be translated as “wool,” the fabric sometimes worn as the kirqah of the Islamic mystics, or its homonym safi (pure), David claimed that “Hasid” actually related to the word “hasida,” or stork, and represented how the mystic (like the stork) remained aloof from society so that he could commune directly with the Creator. Additionally, the word hasid appeared often in the text of the psalms, a fact which David constantly emphasized.xxv
Judging from the high number of David’s manuscripts that have been preserved, he seems to have enjoyed widespread celebrity in the 15th and 16th centuries,xxvi in the exact place (the Holy Land) and at the exact time (the renewal of the Kabbalah) that his Jewish/Sufi ideas would have maximum impact on the further development of Jewish mysticism. Undoubtedly, he, his writings and his Jewish/Sufi library played a central role in not only continuing the strong Islamic mystical influence on Jewish worship.
In understanding why these Maimonidean leaders over a period of more than 200 years were able to sustain their attraction to Islamic mysticism, it is important to remember that all of them remained completely loyal to Jewish law and tradition while weaving Sufism into their thought and practice. Moses, Abraham, David and the other Maimonides Jewish/Sufis all based their Sufi-inspired works in a strict adherence to halakha (Jewish law), while at the same time basing so much of their interpretations on Muslim thinkers. It was certainly a difficult tight-rope to walk, but the family was blessed with powerful minds – as well as important religious positions – and succeeded in the delicate dance for more than two centuries.
As the 15th century drew to a close, Egyptian Jewry lost its place of importance in the Jewish world and the Maimonides family slipped into obscurity. By this time, however, nearly 300 years after Moses Maimonides’ move to Egypt uncovered Sufi spirituality for him, his descendants had done as much to align Jewish and Islamic spirituality as any other group of people, Jews or Muslims, in these spiritual cousins’ history.
The story hardly ends here, however. The seeds that these great medieval thinkers had sown continued to grow, weaving Sufi and Islamic influence into the development of the Kabbalah and later Jewish mysticism. Even today, in the synagogue liturgy, as well as Jewish meditation and prayer practice, there remains the indelible mark of Sufi influence. A full paper outlining the specific instances of hidden Jewish/Sufi worship within contemporary Judaism will have to wait for another occasion. However, it is my hope that today’s paper, and the book I have written on this subject for Fons Vitae, an Islamic publisher in the United States, will begin to introduce this astounding and respectful story not only into the religious narrative between Jews and Muslims, but also the troubled political and social worlds.
The goal of this work is to demonstrate how deeply intertwined are these two Abrahamic religions. The mutual admiration shared by the most important medieval practitioners of both faiths must be recognized, and become central (once again) to their relationship. In acknowledging the profound connection between earlier Jewish and Muslim spiritual leaders, we can begin to appreciate the contemporary relationship as more than just an extension of the current political struggles in and around the Holy Land.
The beautiful, and sometimes painful connection between Muslims and Jews must be appreciated in its entirety, so that those on both sides of today’s divide can move beyond narrow sectarian views, and towards a nuanced understanding of their deep and often wonderful family bond.
i Blumenthal, David. Maimonides: Prayer, Worship and Mysticism, pg. 9
ii Goitein, S. D. Jews and Arabs, pg. 146
iii Lobel, Diana. A Jewish-Sufi Dialogue: Philosophy and Mysticism in Bahya ibn Pakuda’s “Duties of the Heart,” pg. 11
iv Ibid. pg. xiii-xiv
v Blumenthal, David. Approaches to Judaism in Medieval Times, (David Blumenthal, ed.), pg. 37-38
vi Blumenthal, David. Philosophic Mysticism: The Ultimate Goal of Medieval Judaism, pg. 3
vii Quoted in Fadiman, James and Frager, Robert (editors). Essential Sufism, pg. 89
viii Blumenthal, David. Maimonides: Prayer, Worship and Mysticism, pg. 6
ix Maimonides, Abraham. The High Ways to Perfection of Abraham Maimonides (Samuel Rosenblatt, trans.), pg. 49
x Ibid. pg. 29
xi Quoted in Maimonides, Obadyah. Treatise of the Pool (Paul Fenton, trans.), pg. 8
xii Goitein, S. D. Jewish Medieval and Renaissance Studies (Alexander Altmann, ed.), pg. 145
xiii Fenton, Paul. Jewish Mystical Leaders of the 13th Century, (Moshe Idel & M. Ostow, eds.), pg. 143
xiv Maimonides, Abraham. The High Ways to Perfection of Abraham Maimonides (Samuel Rosenblatt, trans.), pg. 51
xv Fenton, Paul. Jewish Mystical Leaders of the 13th Century, (Moshe Idel & M. Ostow, eds.), pg. 144
xvi Verman, Mark. The Books of Contemplation, pg. 8
xvii Fenton, Paul. Jewish Mystical Leaders of the 13th Century, (Moshe Idel & M. Ostow, eds.), pg. 151
xviii Goitein, S. D. Jewish Quarterly Review 44, pg. 41
xix Fenton, Paul. Judeo-Arabic Studies: Proceedings of the Founding Conference of the Study of Judeo Arabic (Norman Golb ed.), pg. 95
xx Information in this paragraph from Fenton, Paul. Jewish Quarterly Review 75,
xxi Ibid. pg. 41
xxii Ibid. pg. 43
xxiii Fenton, Paul. Judeo-Arabic Studies: Proceedings of the Founding Conference of the Study of Judeo Arabic (Norman Golb ed.), pg. 95
xxiv Ibid. pg. 96
xxv Ibid. pg. 96
xxvi Fenton, Paul. Jewish Quarterly Review 75, pg. 2
Blumenthal, David. “Maimonides Intellectualist Mysticism and the Superiority of the Prophecy of Moses,” in Approaches to Judaism in Medieval Times (David Blumenthal, ed.). Chico, California: Scholars Press, 1984.
-- “Maimonides: Prayer, Worship and Mysticism.” www.js.emory.edu/blumenthal.
-- “Philosophic Mysticism: The Ultimate Goal of Medieval Judaism.” www.js.emory.edu/blumenthal.
Fadiman, James and Frager, Robert (editors). Essential Sufism. New York: HarperCollins, 1997.
Fenton, Paul. “Abraham Maimonides (1186-1237): Founding a Mystical Dynasty.” Jewish Mystical Leaders and Leadership in the 13th Century (Moshe Idel and M. Ostow, editors). New Jersey and Jerusalem: Northvale Press (1998): 127-154.
-- “Judeo-Arabic Mystical Writings of the XIIIth-XIVth Centuries.” Judeo-Arabic Studies: Proceedings of the Founding Conference of the Study of Judeo Arabic (Norman Golb, editor). New York and Milton Park, England: Routledge (1997): 87-101.
-- “The Literary Legacy of David Ben Joshua, last of the Maimonidean Negidim.” Jewish Quarterly Review 75 (1984): 1-56.
Goitein, S. D. “Abraham Maimonides and his Pietist Circle,” Jewish Medieval and Renaissance Studies (Alexander Altmann, editor). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, (1967): 145-164.
-- “A Jewish Addict to Sufism.” Jewish Quarterly Review 44 (1953): 37-49.
-- Jews and Arabs. New York: Schocken Books, 1964.
Lobel, Diana. A Sufi-Jewish Dialogue: Philosophy and Mysticism in Bahya ibn Pakuda’s “Duties of the Heart.” Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006.
Maimonides, Abraham (Samuel Rosenblatt, translator). The High Ways to Perfection of Abraham Maimonides. New York AMS Press, 1966.
Maimonides, Obadyah (translation and introduction by Paul Fenton). Treatise of the Pool. London: Octagon Press, 1981.