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Ibn Maimoun, aka Maimonides: 'Great Eagle' of the Jews

Few historical personages stir as much debate in Egypt as Ibn Maimoun – also known as Maimonides – the Andalusian rabbi whose synagogue still sits in Cairo's ancient Jewish Quarter

Mohammed Elrazzaz, Tuesday 28 Aug 2012
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Statue of Ibn Maimoun
Statue of Ibn Maimoun (Photo by: Mohammed Elrazzaz)
Truth does not become more true by virtue of the fact that the entire world agrees with it, nor less so even if the whole world disagrees with it.”

– Ibn Maimoun (Maimonides), 'The Guide for the Perplexed'

Back to the streets of Islamic Cairo, it is not footsteps that we are tracing this time, but rather an eagle's flight, which began in Cordoba, stopped in Fes, and ended in Cairo. The eagle we are talking about is the most prominent Jewish thinker of the Middle Ages, celebrated by the Jews as the 'Great Eagle' of the Mishnah (oral tradition).

His real name was Moshe Ben Maimon, but today he is widely known as Maimonides. In Egypt, where his synagogue still stands in Islamic Cairo's Haret Al-Yehud (Jewish Quarter), he is remembered as Musa ibn Maimoun.

The degree of religious tolerance during the Islamic rule of Al-Andalus (the present-day Iberian Peninsula) was exemplary. Under the reign of the Umayyads, for example, incidents of sectarian violence or religious persecution were almost unheard of.

In his book, Dawlat Al-Islam fi Al-Andalus ('The Islamic State in the Andalus), Abdalla Anan tells us that things changed for the worse with the rise of Al-Mansur during the disintegration of the Umayyad Caliphate, and deteriorated further – especially for the Jews – under the Berber dynasties that took over later, including the Almoravids and the Almohads.

Ibn Maimoun and his family were forced to leave Al-Andalus. They crossed the Zuqaq – the Strait of Gibraltar – to Morocco in 1148, where they settled in Fes and where the young scholar spent much of his time studying at Al-Qarawiyyin University. Following a short stay in Palestine, he finally settled in Egypt in the last days of the Fatimid era. Salah Al-Din Al-Safadi, in his book 'Al-Wafi,' mentions a personal encounter with Ibn Maimoun in Egypt.

A Jew in Islamic Cairo

"He [Ibn Maimoun] was the most unique physician of his age."

– Ibn Abi Usaibia, 'Ikhbar Al-Ulamaa'

Darb Mahmoud could have been just another alley in Haret Al-Yehud had it not been for the fact that, over eight centuries ago, Ibn Maimoun had studied and healed the sick here, for he was a great physician in addition to being a prominent rabbi and philosopher. Tradition has it that, when he died in 1402, he was temporarily buried in the area.

In Cairo, he quickly rose through the ranks, becoming chief of the local Jewish community and the private physician of Al-Qadi Al-Fadi, vizier to Saladin. Eventually, he became the family physician of Saladin himself, something that provoked unease and envy on the part of several people, including Al-Qifti, who hailed Ibn Maimoun's medical knowledge but criticised his mediocre abilities as physician.

In his book, 'Al-Ifada wal Iatebar,' Abd Al-Latif Al-Baghdadi criticises Ibn Maimoun's religious views, claiming they spoiled the celestial messages and misled the simple-minded. The rabbi's skill and broad knowledge, however, were too great to be tarnished by subsequent criticisms.

Despite the hectic rhythm of his work, Ibn Maimoun still managed to write several books and treatises on a range of topics. The discovery of the Cairo Geniza at the Ben Ezra Synagogue has allowed us to better understand the details of Ibn Maimoun's life, since it contains several of his letters, including one in which he laments the death of his brother.

 

The restotation of the Synagogue of Ibn Maimoun
The restotation of the Synagogue of Ibn Maimoun (Photo by: AFP)
The Synagogue of Discord

Ibn Duqmaq, Al-Maqrizi and some other historians have all mentioned the many synagogues that once dotted Cairo. None of these synagogues have survived, however, except for the Synagogue of Ibn Maimoun, also known as the Rav Moshe Synagogue.

The Synagogue made the news in 2010 when it was restored, together with an adjacent yeshiva (Jewish religious school). Much of the building's current structure dates from the nineteenth century; it conserves very little of the twelfth century building.

Probably the most interesting element inside the Synagogue is the mikveh (fountain used for religious rituals), supposedly used by Ibn Maimoun himself. Above the entrance, a small plaque reads: "Synagogue and mausoleum of Ibn Maymoun – Thirteenth century AD, seventh Hijri century.”

In the Arab World, the debate among historians and scholars over Ibn Maimoun rages on. Some consider him a towering figure of Islam's Golden Age, noting that he wrote many of his works in the Arabic language, learned from Muslim scholars (including the celebrated Averroes) and cited Islamic philosophers and thinkers (such as Al-Farabi) in his works. Others, however, find it difficult to accept this classification.

But whether we lean towards one side of the argument or the other, one fact should not be forgotten: his synagogue – and the history behind it – is part of our collective cultural heritage, and always will be. To have a Jewish Quarter at the heart of Islamic Cairo is, in itself, a reminder of a splendid history of a city that was once a magnet and a haven for people from all over the world.

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