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Chapter 1

This webpage reproduces a chapter of

David Yellin and Israel Abrahams

Jewish Publication Society of America
Philadelphia, 1903

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though, please let me know!


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Chapter 3

 p17  Chapter II
The Unitarian Persecution

The culture of the Almoravids was superficial, but the reaction which it provoked was deep-rooted. A profound suspicion roused to frenzy a new sect of Mohammedans who, like so many of other races and creeds then and since, saw in ethics the foe of aesthetics, and fancied that refinement of manners is synonymous with laxity of life. The Puritan movement in Islam had its origin and its headquarters in Northern Africa. When, in due course, the movement won its way to Spain, Andalusia was governed from Morocco. Hence the "Unitarians" (Almohades) — as the Puritans were called — obtained no real hold on Spain, and in 1212 the disastrous field of Las Navas decided their fate  p18 for ever. The intervening half-century, during which the Almohades were supreme, was fraught with momentous consequence for Maimonides. The early trials to which he was subjected, the enforced change of domicile, the critical situations, saved him from becoming a mere philosophical recluse. He became a statesman as well as an author, a statesman not in the sense that he ever held a diplomatic post or wielded political power, but in the sense that his thought was brought into close relation with the real affairs of life. He was not a "man of the world," but his enduring influence may be traced in part to his large-minded deference to the actuality of things. His mind moved in the world of men, not in a mystic world of its own. His rough contact with men made of the foremost Jewish metaphysician of the middle ages the most practical codifier of Jewish law and custom. The midday sun rather than the  p19 midnight lamp shines through all his work.

The founder of the Unitarian sect was Abdallah ibn Tumart, a man of great spiritual and personal magnetism, inspired at once by religious enthusiasm and political ambition. He conceived an Islam both pure and powerful; simple in the life it inculcated, world-wide in its dominion. The Koran and the sword, when both are forcibly wielded, make the most terrible combination that human history has ever witnessed. Ibn Tumart must not, however, be mistaken for an ignorant fanatic. Warring against luxury in living and dress, against poetry, music, and painting, his doctrine was a highly metaphysical expression of abstract Monotheism. The "Unitarian" Confession of Faith has been preserved, and it is necessary to cite it. The document illustrates the danger which ever threatens a spiritual Monotheism, the danger of becoming  p20 Pantheistic. It also helps to explain how Jews during the Unitarian persecution could easily accept Islam as the price of their life or security and, further, how it happened that Jewish public opinion could regard such apostasy as involving no disgrace. The Moslem belief in the Unity of God was an uncompromising as the Jewish, and in Ibn Tumart's expression of it was even freer from anthropomorphic suggestions. Had Judaism merely consisted of certain dogmas or formulae, it is hard to see what could have enabled the Jews "to withstand the temptations to become followers of the Apostle of God in the latter half of the twelfth century." The following is Ibn Tumart's "Confession,"3 which has some striking points of similarity with the medieval Synagogue Hymn of Adon Olam:—

In the name of God, the Most Merciful, the Most Gracious. May Allah lead us and you in the right path. Know ye, then, that it is absolutely  p21 necessary for every Moslem to know that God, be he magnified and extolled, is One in his kingdom; that he is the creator of the whole Universe, the heights and depths, the throne, the heavens and the earth and all that is in them, and all that is between them. All creation is subject to his power. Not a mote is moved unless with his permission. He has no counsellor in his kingdom, no associate in the work of his creation. He is living and ever-existing. To him appertaineth not slumber or sleep. He knoweth that which is hidden and that which is seen. Nought on earth or in heaven is concealed from him. He knoweth that which is on dry land and that which is in the sea. Not a leaf falls to the ground unless he knows it, not a single grain in the darkest parts of the earth, neither a green thing nor a dry thing, that is not written in his clear book. He comprehends all things with his knowledge. He counts all things according to their number. He doeth all that he desireth. He hath power over all that he wisheth to perform. To him is the kingdom, to him belongeth wealth. To him is power and might. To him appertaineth eternity. To him belongeth judgment. He maketh his decrees. To him belong praise and adoration. To him belong the best names.4 None can hinder that which he decrees. None can prevent that which he ordains. He doeth in his creation that which he desires. He hopes for no reward and fears no punishment. He is subject to no decree, to no judgment. All his favours to us are acts of grace. Every punishment he inflicts upon us is just. None can say to him: What doest  p22 thou? but we can be asked as to our deeds. He was before all creation. Of him we cannot attribute any direction in space. He is not above us nor below us, not at our right hand nor at our left, not before us nor at our back. The words whole and part are inapplicable to him. It cannot be said whence he came or whither he goeth, or how he existeth. He is the former of space, the ordainer of time. Time does not contain him. Space does not hold him. No intelligence can grasp him, no intellect can comprehend him. No imagination can characterise him. No soul can form an image of his likeness. Nothing is like unto him. But still he hears and he sees. He is the tenderest of rulers, the most loving of helpers. Those who know him know him through his works; but they deny all limit to his greatness. However our imagination may conceive God, he the Exalted is different from our conception from him.

The moral reformation, dignified by this pure Monotheism, spread rapidly in Northwest Africa. When Ibn Tumart died, his disciple Abdulmumen was recognised as the Emir al‑Mumenin, "Prince of the Faithful." Victory after victory was won, and the dynasty of the Almoravids was uprooted. The reformers were as intolerant of other religions as they were  p23 of sectarianism in Islam. No Church and no Synagogue was the battle-cry of the Almohades. When Morocco fell into Abdulmumen's hands after a prolonged siege (1146), Christians and Jews were fellows in misfortune. To both was offered the alternative of death or apostasy. Under considerable pressure Abdulmumen so far modified his edict as to permit heretics to emigrate. Many availed themselves of the opportunity; but while the Christians were able to find an asylum in Northern Spain, no such refuge was open to the mass of the Jews. Many suffered martyrdom, but the majority assumed the disguise of Islam, hoping for better times. Fanatic as the Almohades were, they were much less skilful than the Inquisition subsequently proved itself in the matter of assuring the complete surrender of converts. To accept Monotheism, to profess belief in the prophetic inspiration of Mohammed, to attend the  p24 Mosque on rare occasions, this constituted all that was expected of them. "In private, however, they practised the Jewish rites in all their details, as the Almohades employed no police spies to observe the action of the converts."

Two years later the Unitarians invaded Andalusia, and Cordova fell into their hands (May or June, 1148). The magnificent synagogues were destroyed. In Spain the Jews had developed an ecclesiastical art, inspired by Moorish models and originating in the same cause. In Islam art is invariably associated with architecture. The Jews in Spain were secure enough under Islamic rule to venture on ambitious architectural schemes. Now the choicest produces of this art fell before the ruthless Puritans. The schools, too, at Seville and Lucena were dismantled. It seemed as though the splendid edifice of Jewish scholarship erected by Samuel the Nagid and  p25 Isaac Alfassi was doomed to destruction. In Germany the Jews had already sunk to the position of body-slaves of the Emperor. In Northern France Rabbenu Tam had left no equal successor. The Provençal schools had not yet produced original masters, and the eminence of Toledo in Christian Spain was still to come. No one yet realised that, in the person of Maimonides, Spain in its hour of need had given birth to the man. Yet, unlike their brethren in Northern Africa, the great mass of Andalusian Jews refused to conform to the demands of the Almohades. A few offered lip-allegiance to Mohammed, but most preferred exile to apostasy even in outward show. Maimon belonged to the sterner group.5 He cast no stones at the weaker brethren, but himself refused to bow down in the House of Rimmon. With his family he wandered hither and thither for several years, at first perhaps settling in  p26 Port Almeria, but forced to retire thence when the Almohades captured the place in 1151. For eight or nine years we lose trace of Maimon, but we know that he remained in Spain without a permanent home or a settled position.

The young son of Maimon never, amid all these distractions, swerved from his ideals. In this formative period he laid the foundation of that mastery over the Rabbinical literature which he subsequently possessed to a unique extent. As he could not carry many books with him on his journeys, he was forced to make his memory his library, and to rely on his own stores. The Babylonian Talmud was not yet thoroughly interpreted; nor had the admirable commentaries of Rashi found their way from France to Spain. The scholars of the earlier middle ages, the "Geonim," had, as Maimonides himself writes, "made fitful attempts to explain the Talmud, but none of them  p27 wrote a complete commentary, some being prevented by death, others by lack of leisure." Maimonides himself was destined to a similar fate. He designed a commentary on the whole Talmud, but his plan was not fully realised. Still he made much progress during this unsettled period of his life. He prosecuted his researches into the extant works of the Geonim, and collected the notes of his father and of his father's teacher, his own chosen model, Joseph ibn Migash. He originated besides collating. His practical bent at once revealed itself, for he commenced with those sections of the Talmud in which predominates the halachah (practical law), applicable to his own and to all times. Before he was twenty-three years of age he had finished his notes on many tractates (massechtoth of the "Orders," sedarim), Moed (festivals), Nashim (laws of marriage, etc.), and Nezikin (civil and  p28 criminal law), and on the tractate Chullin (dietary laws). He explained the Talmud, not word by word, but in running paraphrase, often prefixing a statement of the general principle on which the Talmudic discussion was based. He made no display of painful ingenuity in meeting difficulties, but frankly confessed: "I do not see how to explain this matter." The Rabbi of old had counseled: "Teach thy tongue to say, I do not know," and both Rashi and Maimonides in their modest self-confidence were conspicuous in their obedience to this ancient advice. Besides this commentary on the Babylonian Talmud, Maimonides set himself to extract the practical halachah from the Talmud of Jerusalem, doing for the latter less-studied work what Alfassi had done for its better-known counterpart.

But the Talmud, though the first and chief object of Maimonides' devotion, was not his only love. Among his early works  p29 was a short treatise on the Jewish Calendar (Maamar ha-ibbur).6 This displayed no originality, but was a clear, scientific, systematic survey, written in Hebrew in 1158 in response to a request from a friend. Already his brethren were looking to him for solutions of their difficulties, and much of his more important work was similarly composed to satisfy the demands of correspondents. At about the same date he wrote a book on Logic (Milloth Higgayon, to which Moses Mendelssohn subsequently added a Commentary. The same year saw the initiation of the first of Maimonides' great trilogy. This was the Commentary on the Mishnah. In his Talmudic enterprise he had forerunners; in the new undertaking he was a pioneer.7 The completion of the Commentary belongs to a later period of his life, but the fact that it was planned and begun in his early manhood deserves special note. "Confusion," he writes in his  p30 introduction, "besets the student of the Mishnah. Until a man has closely read the Talmudical discussion, though he be the greatest of Geonim, he cannot understand the Mishnah. Now, in the Talmud, the discussion of a single halachah sometimes occupies four or five pages, for subject grows out of subject with arguments, objections, and replies; so that even when the Talmud has been mastered, the real significance of the Mishnah can only be grasped by a student skilled in clear thought. Moreover, for the explanation of one and the same halachah the reader must often refer to two or more tractates." The expositors of the Mishnah had previously treated Mishnah and Talmud, text and commentary, simultaneously; being more concerned to provide a clue to the intricacies of the latter than a light to the simplicity of the former. This was a grave critical mistake, and though Maimonides did not  p31 regard the Mishnah from any other than the Talmudic point of view, still he realised that it was essential to treat the Mishnah (with which we must include the Tannaite elements in other Rabbinical compilations) in and for itself, if the Jewish Tradition was to be based on a sound historical foundation. His aim was, however, practical rather than critical. He loved and venerated the Rabbinical dialectics, but he felt that most men could not be expected to devote the necessary time to them. Brevity in place of prolixity, a clue to ancient mazes; to beginners an encouragement, to experts a work of reference, to all a better understanding of the tradition, and with it a release of the student's time and thought for other occupations besides the dialectics of the schools. This point will recur subsequently, and it will be necessary to discuss the extent to which Maimonides succeeded, and the inwardness of the opposition  p32 which his motives aroused. The Siraj, or "Light" (Maor), for so the Commentary on the Mishnah was named, was not completed till 1168. But, as indicated above, it was begun in Spain. In the final words to the Siraj he refers to the conditions under which he started. "While my mind was ever troubled amid the God-decreed expatriations from one end of heaven to the other, I wrote notes on many an halachah on journeys by land, or while tossed on the stormy waves at sea." The latter phrase seems to refer to the voyages undertaken when he left Spain, and when subsequently he escaped from Fez. We must now follow him on his fortunes in various lands, until in 1165 he found a final home in the city about to become Saladin's Cairo.

The Authors' Notes:

3 The "Confession of Faith" of the Almohades, and some of the comments on it, are taken from the English translation contributed by L. M. Simmons to the Jewish Quarterly Review, vol. III p360. The Arabic text was published by I. Goldziher in ZDMG, vol. XLIV p168.

4 The best names "are the ninety-nine attributes of God which Moslems are in the habit of reciting. They are given and translated into English in Palmer's Qur'an, vol. I Introduction, lxvii" (J. Q. R. III.362).

5 Geiger in his Moses ben Maimon (Nachgelassene Schriften, III p42) holds that the family of Maimon assumed the outward garb of Islam in Spain. The assumption is unfounded. Graetz, who too readily assumes that this occurred later on in Fez, fully acquits Maimon of yielding in Spain. See on this while question notes 9 and 14 below.

6 On this astronomical work see Steinschneider, Hebräische Uebersetzungen, § 377.

7 Harkavy thinks that it cannot be maintained that Maimonides had no predecessors in commenting on the Mishnah, but as to the originality of Maimonides' method there can be no question (Hebrew ed. of Graetz, IV, Appendix, p52).

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