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Judaism: Judaism in the Middle East and North Africa to 1492


Judaism is indigenous to the Middle East. There in antiquity the Israelite people formed its unique identity. There the Bible came into being, and there by late antiquity Israelite religion was transformed into normative rabbinic Judaism. The basic texts of rabbinic Judaismthe halakhic midrashim, the Mishnah (compiled c. 200 ce), the two Talmuds, that of Palestine and that of Babylonia (compiled in the fifth and sixth centuries), and the first compilations of rabbinic lore (aggadah )were all written in the Middle East. In the formative period of rabbinic Judaism, sectarian groups such as the religious communities of Qumran (the Dead Sea sects) manifested other varieties of Judaism. An esoteric mystical trend within rabbinic Judaism itself also grew in the Middle East of late antiquity. In Egypt in the first century ce, the Greek writings of Philo Judaeus of Alexandria gave voice to a Hellenized philosophical trend within Judaism.

Jews carried their religion to North Africa in late antiquity, where some form of Judaism penetrated the native Berber population, and to Arabia, where, in the seventh century, Judaism had some influence on the formation of the new religion of Islam. After the Middle East and North Africa were brought under the dominion of Islam, following the Arab conquests, and the centuries-old separation of Jewry into two branches, one living under Ssasanid-Zoroastrian rule, and the other living under a Roman-Christian regime, was brought to an end, Judaism underwent further change. Under Islam, rabbinic Judaism, faced with the unification of North African and Middle Eastern Jewry under one empire, became consolidated. In addition, as Jews adopted Arabic in place of Aramaic as both their written and spoken language, the intellectual culture of their host society became accessible to all layers of Jewish society for the first time in history. Responding to the challenge of dynamic Islamic civilization, perceived with unmediated intensity by Arabic-speaking Jewry, Judaism also experienced new developments in sectarianism, philosophy, and mysticism. These characteristic developments in Judaism between the Muslim conquests and the end of the fifteenth century will form the focus of this article.

The Babylonian Center

In the middle of the eighth century the capital of the Muslim caliphate was moved from Syria (where it had been located since 661 ce) to Baghdad. Under the Abbasid dynasty, Iraq became the center from which power and scholarly creativity radiated to the rest of the Islamic world. In this setting, the institutions of Babylonian Judaism were able to consolidate their own authority and religious leadership over the Jews living within the orbit of Islam. Successive waves of Jewish (as well as Muslim) migration from the eastern Islamic lands, long subject to the religious guidance of the Babylonian Talmud, to the Mediterranean and other western provinces of the caliphate, contributed substantially to this process.

The main instrument of this consolidation was the yeshivah. Though usually translated "academy," the yeshivah then was actually more than a center of learning. It was, as well, a seat of supreme judicial authority and a source of religious legislation. In pre-Islamic times there were already three yeshivot, one in Palestine, headed by the patriarch (the nasiʾ ), and two in Babylonia, named Sura and Pumbedita. The Palestinian (or Jerusalem) and Babylonian Talmuds were redacted, respectively, in the Palestinian and Babylonian yeshivot.

After the middle of the eighth century the Babylonian yeshivot began to outshine their counterparts in Palestine. The heads of the yeshivot (first of Sura, later of Pumbedita, too) acquired a lofty title, "gaon" (short for roʾsh yeshivat geʾon Yaʿaqov, "head of the yeshivah of the pride of Jacob," see Psalms 47:5). In an effort to assert the authority of Babylonian Judaism throughout the caliphate, the Geonim developed many types of halakhic (legal) literature. They were undoubtedly influenced by the intense efforts to consolidate Muslim legal traditions that were going on at the same time in Iraq. However, owing to the centrality of halakhah in Jewish life the consolidation of legal authority in the hands of the Babylonian Geonim also served the political purpose of endowing the Babylonian Gaonate with administrative hegemony over Islamic Jewry.

One of the most important literary vehicles used to this end was the system of questions and answers (responsa ). Like its analogue in Roman and in Islamic law, a responsum (Heb., teshuvah ) is an answer to a legal question. It can be issued only by a scholar of recognized authority. Something like the responsa seems to have existed in pre-Islamic Palestine, but the Babylonian geonim developed the legal custom into a major enterprise for the extension of their spiritual and political domination over the communities of the Islamic empire. Queries dispatched to Babylonia were accompanied by donations, which constituted one of the chief means of support for the yeshivot there.

A large number of responsa are extant from the mid-eighth century onward. They were sent to places as far away as North Africa and Spain and were transmitted mainly by Jewish merchants. In communities along the trade routes through which they passed, copies of the Geonic rulings were often made. In Old Cairo, for instance, a major commercial crossroads of the Islamic Middle Ages, many such responsa were discovered in the famous Cairo Genizah, where they had lain undisturbed for centuries owing to the Jewish custom of burying, rather than physically destroying, pages of sacred writings. Once a responsum reached the community that had sent the question, it was read aloud in the synagogue, a procedure that strengthened local reverence for the spiritual as well as the political authority of the Geonim.

The two Geonim from whom we have the largest number of responsa are Sheriraʾ and his son Hʾai, whose consecutive reigns as gaon of the yeshivah of Pumbedita spanned the years 9681038. The fact that very few responsa emanating from their rivals, the Palestinian Geonim, are known is a further measure of the success of the Babylonian responsa enterprise in creating a strong Babylonian orientation among the Jews of the Islamic world.

Another device employed by the Babylonian Geonim to universalize Babylonian Judaism was the taqqanah (legislative ordinance). These taqqanot were new laws, or modifications of existing laws, designed to adapt Talmudic law to realities not foreseen by the rabbis of the Mishnah and the gemaraʾ. For instance, with the large-scale abandonment of agriculture by Jews and their increasing involvement in commerce, the issue of collection of debts by proxy became problematic. The Talmud permitted this only in conjunction with transfer of land. The Babylonian Geonim, conscious of the deagrarianization of Jewish life, promulgated a taqqanah stipulating that debt transfer could be effected even by the nonlanded by employing the legal fiction that every Jew owns four cubits of real property in the Land of Israel.

To further their ecumenical authority the Geonim also wrote commentaries on the Mishnah and Talmud. These originated as answers to questions about unclear passages in the Talmud that were posed by Jews living far from the center of living Talmud study in Babylonia. In their commentaries, the Geonim gave pride of place to halakhic sections, owing to the juridical priorities of the yeshivot and to the practical needs of the Jews. The Geonim also sought to make the Babylonian Talmud more accessible to those lacking training at the yeshivah itself. To this end they wrote introductions to that literature, explaining the methods, rules, and terminology of rabbinic jurisprudence. One type of introduction consisted of a chronological survey of Mishnaic and Talmudic teachers. This established their historical relationship and linked the rabbinic authority of the Geonim with the divine source of Jewish law at Mount Sinai. The most famous work of this type, which in form was actually a responsum sent to a North African questioner, is the "Epistle" (Iggeret ) of Sheriraʾ Gaon, which forms our best single source for the history of Geonic rule.

The Geonim also compiled the first post-Mishnaic codes of Jewish law. The Halakhot pesuqot of Yehud'ai Gaon (in office 757761 ce) is an abridged paraphrase of the Babylonian Talmud in Aramaic. A practical book, it omits nearly all of the aggadah (nonlegal literature) and the agricultural and sacrificial laws and concentrates on such practical subjects as precepts regarding festivals, commercial law, family law, and synagogue and other ritual observances. A more comprehensive work of this type was the Halakhot gedolot of Shimʿon of Basra (c. 825), a student at the yeshivah of Sura.

Like the Muslim legists, the Geonim composed specialized codes, extracting for handy reference Talmudic laws of inheritance, of deposit, of buying and selling, and of juridical procedure.

The first written prayer books in Jewish history were actually Geonic codes of liturgical procedure. The one by the ninth-century gaon Amram was sent in response to a request from a community in Spain for guidance in these matters. Saʿadyah Gaon (882942) also wrote a prayer book, one which, for the first time, used Arabic for the explanatory sections.

It was, however, not only by way of these various literary endeavors that the Babylonian Geonim imposed their authority on most of the Arabic-speaking Jewish world and universalized their form of Judaism; they further consolidated their spiritual and political sovereignty by training and licensing judges and by teaching Talmud to Jews who came from afar to hear lectures at the yeshivah 's semiannual conclaves (kallot ). By the beginning of the eleventh century the process had been successfully completed. The Palestinian gaon Shelomoh ben Yehudah (in office 10261051) had to send his own son to the Baghdad yeshivah to complete his Talmudic education. Shelomoh's successor as gaon in Jerusalem, Daniyyeʾl ben ʿAzaryah, was a Babylonian scholar and a member of the family of the Babylonian exilarch, the descendants of the Davidic royal house who were living in Babylonian exile and were recognized by the caliph, as they had been by the pre-Islamic rulers of Persia, as "heads of the Diaspora." Ben ʿAzaryah, who died in 1062, brought Babylonian learning for a brief time to the yeshivah of Jerusalem.

New Centers in North Africa and Egypt

In the course of time, the very universalization of Babylonian Judaism and the dispersal of Babylonian-trained judges and scholars throughout the Diaspora in Islamic lands created a foundation upon which new independent centers of religious learning and authority could be built. This happened in North Africa in the tenth and eleventh centuries and in Egypt somewhat later.


In the ninth and tenth centuries, the Jews of Kairouan, the capital of Muslim Ifriqiya (modern Tunisia), were firmly within the camp of the Babylonian Geonim. Indeed, most of the Jewish settlers in Kairouan had originated in Iraq and Iran, the heartland of Geonic authority. But in these two centuries, Muslim Kairouan achieved considerable prosperity and became a major center of Islamic legal studies. Against this background, the local Jewish community began to create its own center of Talmudic scholarship. The first mention of a formal house of study in Kairouanthe term used was midrash rather than yeshivah occurs at the end of the century. Led by Yaʿaqov bar Nissim ibn Shahin, who belonged to a family whose origins lay in the East (probably Iran) and who was a loyal adherent of Babylonian Judaism, this midrash was not yet a rival institution to the Babylonian yeshivot. Detachment from Babylonian religious sovereignty became pronounced a generation later, following the arrival in Kairouan of a scholar, believed to have hailed from Italy, named ushiʾel. Italian Jewry had been influenced more by Palestinian than by Babylonian traditions, so when ushiʾel opened a second midrash in Kairouan, some Palestinian traditions were taught alongside Babylonian Talmudic scholarship.

In the first half of the eleventh century two of ushiʾel's students placed native North African religious scholarship on a firm literary footing: his son, ananʾel ben ushiʾel, and Nissim, the son of Yaʿaqov bar Nissim (who had died in 1006/7). ananʾel wrote responsa, commentaries on the Torah, on Ezekiel, on the dietary laws, and, most importantly, a comprehensive commentary on the Babylonian Talmud. In innovative fashion, this last-mentioned work employed material from the Palestinian Talmud to explain passages in the text, though, like the commentaries of the Babylonian Geonim, its primary focus was juridical.

Nissim (d. 1062) maintained his father's loyalty to the Babylonian Geonim. However, like his contemporary ananʾel, he too wrote a fresh commentary on the Talmud utilizing material from the Palestinian text. Duplicating Babylonian Geonic efforts to disseminate knowledge of the Talmud, Nissim composed in Arabic his own "Introduction" entitled The Book of the Key to the Locks of the Talmud. Other religious writing of his include a chain of transmission of rabbinic tradition reminiscent of Sheriraʾ Gaon's "Epistle," responsa (of which many are extant), and a "Secret Scroll" (Megillat setarim ), written in Arabic, that consisted of a potpourri of miscellaneous ritual laws. None of Nissim's rabbinic works has been preserved in its entirety and its original form; they are known of only from fragments or through quotations in the works of others.

ushiʾel's disciples completed the process of fashioning an independent center of religious creativity in North Africa. Their period of activity coincided with the decline of the Babylonian Gaonate following the death of Hʾai Gaon in 1038. However, the budding new center of rabbinic Judaism in North Africa was cut off abruptly in 1057 when Kairouan was destroyed by bedouin tribes sent by the Fāimid ruler of Egypt to punish his disloyal vassals, the Zirids, in that city.


Another creative center of Judaism in North Africa developed in Fez (present-day Morocco). Responsa addressed to Fez by the Geonim of Sura and Pumbedita testify to the presence of learned scholars in that distant North African city. The most famous rabbinic master from Fez, Yitsaq ben Yaʿaqov Alfasi (c. 10131103), wrote an abridged version of the Talmud that later became part of the apparatus of the standard printed Talmud text. He also wrote many responsa.


In Egypt a local school of advanced religious study (a midrash ) was established at the end of the tenth century by Shemaryah ben Elanan, a scholar educated at one of the Babylonian yeshivot. Egyptian Jewry at that time was subject to the political authority of the gaon of the Palestinian yeshivah, who was recognized by the Fāimid caliph in Cairo as head of the Jews in his empire (Egypt and Palestine). When Shemaryah's son and successor Elanan began to expand the activities of the Egyptian midrash by soliciting donations even from Palestine and by assuming some of the religious and political prerogatives of the Palestinian gaon, he was excommunicated by the Jerusalem yeshivah. This put a temporary halt to the growth of native Egyptian religious scholarship until, in the latter part of the eleventh century, several distinguished scholars settled in Egypt.

As in the case of Nissim ben Yaʿaqov of Kairouan, the writings of these scholars are known from fragments, from quotations in later works, and medieval book lists. One notable author was Yehudah ha-Kohen ben Yosef, who wrote commentaries on the Bible and on portions of the Talmud, a code of regulations concerning ritual slaughtering, liturgical poems, and a commentary on the mystical Sefer yetsirah (Book of creation). Another was a scholar from Spain named Yitsaq ben Shemuʾel, who wrote an Arabic commentary on some if not all of the Former Prophets, a commentary on at least one Talmudic tractate, responsa, and liturgical poems. Though neither of these scholars opened an academy of learning, they gave Egyptian Jewry a renewed sense of independence from the traditional sources of religious leadership in Babylonia and from the political dominion of the yeshivah in Palestine.

Related to the activity of these respected rabbinic scholars in Egypt toward the end of the eleventh century was the emergence there of a new Jewish institution of central leadership. This was the office of "head of the Jews" (Arab., raʾīs al-yahūd ), more commonly known in Hebrew as the office of the nagid. The scholarly family of court physicians headed by the brothers Yehudah and Mevorakh ben Saʿadyah was the first to hold this position of dignity. The office of head of the Jews, inheriting the sovereignty formerly reserved for the Palestinian gaon, was invested with supreme religious as well as political authority over the Jews in the Fāimid empire.

In the third decade of the twelfth century the Palestinian yeshivah, which had been located outside the borders of Palestine since the Seljuk conquest of Jerusalem around 1071, transferred its own headquarters to the capital of Egypt. With this move the office of head of the Jews temporarily passed into the hands of the newly arrived Palestinian gaon, Matslia ha-Kohen ben Shelomoh. How much teaching went on in the relocated Palestinian yeshivah we do not know. However, the arrival of Moses Maimonides (Mosheh ben Maimon) in Egypt around 1165 established Egypt as a respectable center of Jewish religious scholarship. Maimonides attracted a circle of students and substituted the study of his own code of Jewish law, the Mishneh Torah, for the study of the Babylonian Talmud in the curriculum of Jewish higher education. The Babylonian Gaonate voiced opposition to Maimonides, who was seen as a threat to its efforts to reassert its former supremacy over world Jewry. Nevertheless, the Maimonidean tradition of learning in Egypt, modified by a distinctive mystical bent, was continued by his son Avraham and by a succession of Maimonidean descendants until the beginning of the fifteenth century.


A center of Jewish learning much influenced by Moses Maimonides was to be found in Yemen. Already in late antiquity there was a small Jewish presence in South Arabia, as we know from the evidence of Hebrew inscriptions and from stories about the conversion to Judaism of rulers of the South Arabian kingdom of imyar (the last of these Jewish kings of imyar, who was also the last imyarī ruler, died in 525 ce). In the Islamic period the Jewish settlement was considerably strengthened by the migration of Jews from Babylonia and Persia. Naturally, from the outset the Yemenite community maintained loyalty to the Babylonian geonim and the Babylonian exilarch, supported the Babylonian yeshivah financially, and adhered to the Babylonian interpretation of rabbinic Judaism.

In the eleventh and twelfth centuries, however, Yemen and Yemenite Jews became closely connected with Egypt as a result of general political and economic developments. Thus, they identified in the twelfth century with the yeshivah of Matslia ha-Kohen in Cairo and especially with Maimonides after his arrival in Egypt. In the later Middle Ages a considerable indigenous religious literature developed among the Yemenite Jews, much of it consisting in commentaries on various works of Maimonides. In Yemen, moreover, Maimonides' Mishneh Torah became the principal code of Jewish practice. Among Yemenite works from the later Middle Ages that cite passages from Maimonides' œuvre is the voluminous anthology of homiletic and legal midrashim on the five books of the Torah compiled in the thirteenth century by David ben ʿAmram of the Yemenite port city of Aden, entitled Midrash ha-gadol.


Not long after the Muslim conquest, the most important religious schism in medieval Judaism, known as Karaism, occurred in the Middle East. The Karaites rejected the jurisdiction of the Talmud and of rabbinic Judaism in general, claiming exclusive reliance on the Bible. Some scholars believe that Karaism actualized a latent anti-Talmudism that had existed beneath the surface since the time of the Sadducees, who centuries earlier had denied the validity of the oral Law. Others identify in Karaism affinities with the religion of the Dead Sea sects, notably the asceticism shared by these two religious movements.

It is difficult to prove the influence of one sect on another separated from it in time by so many centuries. What is certain, however, in terms of immediate causes is that Karaism arose in opposition to the extension of the authority of rabbinic Judaism by the Babylonian Geonim in the early Islamic period and out of resentment towards the power wielded by the Jewish aristocracy of Iraq through the Davidic exilarchate.

The Iranian Plateau, fertile ground for sectarian rebellion in early Islam, spawned several antirabbinic Jewish revolts prior to the crystallization of a cohesive Karaite movement. One example was the sect of Abū ʿĪsā al-Isfahānī, whose period of activity is variously given as 685705, during the reign of the Umayyad caliph ʿAbd al-Malik ibn Manūr, or at the time of the transition from Umayyad to Abbasid rule, between 744 and 775. His ascetic, anti-Talmudic program included the prohibition of divorce and a change in the daily liturgical cycle from three to seven prayers. Abū ʿĪsā was also driven by his belief in the imminent coming of the Messiah to take up arms against the Muslim government.

Abū ʿĪsā's sect was but one of many groups whose antirabbinic halakhic practices were collected together in the eighth century by ʿAnan ben David, an important link in the chain leading to the consolidation of Karaism in the ninth and tenth centuries. ʿAnan may have hailed from the Iranian Plateau, but he operated in the center of Geonic-exilarchal territory in Babylonia. He was, in fact, said to have been a member of the exilarchal family. A biased Rabbinite account of his sectarian rebellion ascribes his motives to personal disappointment after being passed over for appointment to the office of exilarch.

ʿAnan's principal achievement was to assemble scattered bits of sectarian halakhah into a code called Sefer ha-mitsvot (Book of commandments). In this book, he employed Talmudic methodology for his own end: his biblical exegesis served to lend credibility and respectability to the deviant practices that he codified. This use of rabbinic methods and language to establish the legitimacy of nonrabbinic Judaism constituted a serious challenge to the authority of the Geonim.

ʿAnan seems to have envisaged the creation of separatist communities of nonrabbinic Jews living in various locales within the Diaspora. One scholar has even proposed that he wished to gain government recognition for a second legitimate school of law within Judaism, coexisting with the school of the Babylonian Geonim much like the different madhhab s (schools of jurisprudence) in Islam.

Later Karaites attributed to ʿAnan the formulation of a principle, expressed as an apothegm: "Search thoroughly in the Torah and do not rely upon my opinion." This legitimated, in theory at least, the exclusive reliance on the Bible that distinguished Karaism from rabbinism and sounded the call for individualistic exegesis in place of slavish adherence to rabbinic tradition. It also justified a proliferation of non-ʿAnanite sects in the ninth and tenth centuries, such as the sect of Ismāʿīl al-ʿUkbarī (from ʿUkbara, near Baghdad), the sect of Mishawayh al-ʿUkbarī, the sect of Abū ʿImrān al-Tiflisī (from present-day Tbilisi, Republic of Georgia), and the sect of Malik al-Ramlī (from Ramleh, Palestine). Much of our information about these groups comes from the law code, Kitāb al-anwār wa-al-marāqib (Book of lights and watchtowers), by the tenth-century Karaite thinker Yaʿqūb al-Qirqisānī, which contains an introduction on the history of sects in Judaism. Not surprisingly, for Qirqisānī it is the Rabbinites, beginning with the Pharisees, rather than the Karaites, who were the real religious deviants. ʿAnan ben David's role as reformer was to rediscover the long-suppressed true path.

The first to employ the term Karaites (Benei Miqraʾ, "children of scripture") was the ninth-century Binyamin al-Nahāwandī (of Nihāvand, Iran). He was known for his tolerance of observance of rabbinic laws, especially where biblical legislation failed to answer practical questions of everyday life. This liberalism with respect to Talmudic law was matched by an insistence on the right of every individual to interpret scripture as he saw fit. Troubled by the rationalist critique of biblical anthropomorphisms, Binyamin taught that the world was called into being by an angel created by God, and that all anthropomorphic expressions in the Bible were to be ascribed to that angel. A judge by profession, Binyamin wrote a Sefer mitsvot (Book of commandments) and a Sefer Dīnim (Book of laws). He also wrote biblical commentaries.

Daniyyeʾl al-Qūmisī, another Karaite thinker of the end of the ninth century, was a messianist who settled in Jerusalem in order to mourn for Zion (the group he headed was called Avelei-Tsiyyon, "Mourners for Zion") and to pray for redemption. In his approach to the Bible he rejected the liberal individualism of Binyamin al-Nahāwandī and the latter's theology of the creator angel. However, in his own exegesis, he was, according to some sources, a rationalist.

By the tenth century Karaism was sufficiently consolidated to pose an active threat to the Babylonian geonim. Saʿadyah Gaon took up the cudgels of defense on their behalf, writing a refutation of ʿAnan (Kitāb al-radd ʿalā ʿAnan ) and opposing Karaite views in others of his writings. Saʿadyah's hostility inspired a Karaite counterattack. Indeed, he was the polemical object of much of the rich Karaite literature of the "golden age" of the tenth and eleventh centuries.

Several important figures of this Karaite golden age bear mention here. Yaʿqūb al-Qiriqisānī (tenth century) composed, in addition to the code of law, the Book of Lights and Watchtowers, commentaries on several books of the Bible, a refutation of Muammad's claim to prophecy, and a treatise on God's unity. Salmon ben Yeroam (tenth century) wrote a poetical tract against the Rabbinites, The Book of the Wars of the Lord, that bristles with polemic against Saʿadyah, and among other works, biblical commentaries on Psalms and the Song of Songs. Yefet ben ʿEli wrote commentaries in Arabic on the entire Hebrew Bible, accompanied by translations of Hebrew text into Arabic. Sahl ben Malia composed a Book of Commandments, only partly extant, and a letter to a Rabbinite disputant in Egypt extolling Karaism at the expense of rabbinism. Yūsuf al-Baīr (Yosef ha-Roʾeh, from Basra) wrote a Book of Commandments and important responsa, and initiated a liberalization of Karaite marriage laws which, on the basis of literal interpretation of the Bible, had multiplied the number of incestuous (and therefore forbidden) marriage combinations, thus threatening the biological continuity of the sect. Like al-Baīr, Yeshuʿah ben Yehudah composed a treatise refuting the Karaite laws of incestuous marriage. He also penned commentaries on books of the Bible.

Revival of Jewish Religious Philosophy

Several factors converged to bring about a revival of Jewish religious philosophy, dormant since Philo, among the Jews of the Muslim world, Rabbinites and Karaites alike. Most important were the new availability of Hellenistic philosophy in Arabic translation; Jewish awareness of the application of rationalist inquiry to theological questions in Islam; the critique of biblical anthropomorphism; the attack on the Bible by Jewish skeptics like iwi al-Balkhī; and the desire to prove that Judaism embraced the same universalistic truths as Islam. The lion's share of Jewish religious philosophy was written in Spain. However, the founder of Judeo-Arabic philosophy, Saʿadyah Gaon, and the most important philosopher of them all, Maimonides, wrote in the Middle East.

The earliest venture by Arabic-speaking Jews into rationalism followed the lead of the Muslim science of kalām. Kalām means "speech" and refers specifically to discussion of theological problems. The most rationalistic trend in the kalām was that of the Muʿtazilah, which originated in Iraq in the cities of Basra and Baghdad, and it was from this doctrine that Saʿadyah, who lived in Baghdad, drew the inspiration for his pioneering work of Jewish religious philosophy, Kitāb al-amanat wa-al-Iʿtiqādāt (The book of beliefs and convictions). Like the Muʿtazilah, he began his treatise with an epistemological discourse establishing the indispensability of reason as a source of religious knowledge. To this he added the category of reliable transmitted knowledgedoubtless in response to skeptics and Karaites who discredited the reliability of biblical stories and laws. The idea that reason and revelation lead to the same religious truths remained a cornerstone of all medieval Jewish religious philosophy after Saʿadyah. Like the Muʿtazilah, Saʿadyah placed the discussion of the creation of the world out of nothing (creatio ex nihilo ) at the head of his treatise, since from the premise of creation flowed the belief in the existence of God and hence all other religious convictions.

The Muʿtazilah struggled with two major challenges to rationalism: scriptural anthropomorphisms that seemingly denied God's unity, and the question of the existence of evil in this world that appeared to contradict God's justice. Like the Muslim Muʿtazilah, Saʿadyah devoted separate chapters to these two subjects in his philosophical treatise. Divine unity was defended by invoking the principle that the Torah uses metaphor to describe God in terms understandable to human minds. The problem of divine justice was resolved with the Mu'tazilī solution of claiming freedom of the human will. Saʿadyah took other leads from the Muʿtazilah, for instance, in drawing a distinction between laws knowable through reason and laws knowable only through revelation, as well as in his treatment of retribution. In addition, he addressed Jewish eschatology in his chapters on resurrection and redemption.

The Muslim kalām influenced other Jewish writers in the Middle East. Before the time of Saʿadyah, David ben Marwān al-Muqammi (ninth century) combined Muʿtazilī views with Greek philosophical notions. So did the Babylonian gaon Shemuʾel ben ofni (d. 1013) in his commentary on the Bible. Nissim ben Yaʿaqov of Kairouan showed familiarity with Muʿtazilī teaching in his commentary on the Talmud. Finally, the Karaites, liberated from the commitment to tradition as a valid source of religious knowledge, adopted Muʿtazilī rationalism with even less reserve than its Rabbinite exponents. Prominent among the Karaite rationalists were the above-mentioned Yaʿqūb al-Qirqisānī, Yūsuf al-Baīr (eleventh century), and Yeshuʿah ben Yehudah (mid-eleventh century).

These Karaites went beyond the principle of the equivalence of reason and revelation and gave primacy to the former. It was, in fact, among the Karaites of Byzantium alone that Muʿtazilī kalām continued to have influence on Judaism after the eleventh century. In contrast, among the Rabbinites, Neoplatonism and especially Aristotelianism took over the role that Muʿtazilī thought had played during the pioneering phase of Jewish religious philosophy in the Islamic world.

Neoplatonism and Aristotelianism flourished mainly among the Jews of Spain. However, the first Jewish Neoplatonist, Yitsaq Yisraʾeli (c. 850950), was born in Egypt and composed philosophical works in Arabic while serving as court physician to the Muslim governor in Kairouan. Of his works the Book of Definition and the Book on the Elements (extant only in Hebrew and Latin translations) and a commentary on Sefer yetsirah (Book of creation), revised by his students, show how he tried to incorporate the Neoplatonic doctrine of emanation into Judaism. Though he did not abandon the biblical premise of divinely willed creation out of nothing for a pure Neoplatonic cosmogony, he adopted the Neoplatonic conception of progressive emanation of spiritual substances in the supraterrestrial world. As with the Islamic Neoplatonists, some aspects of Yisraʾeli's philosophy of religion show the influence of Aristotelian ideas. For instance, his concept of reward for ethical conduct is based on the ascent of the human soul toward its final reunification with the upper soul. The phenomenon of prophecy, a problem for Muslim religious philosophers, similarly occupied Yitsaq Yisraʾeli; his theory employs the naturalistic explanation offered by the Islamic Aristotelians but leaves a place for divine will in connection with the form of the vision accorded prophets.

The most important full-fledged Jewish Aristotelian was Maimonides. Born in Spain, where in the twelfth century Aristotelianism replaced Neoplatonism as the preferred philosophy, Maimonides did most of his writing, including his philosophic magnum opus, the Guide of the Perplexed, in Egypt, where he lived out most of his life as a refugee from Almohade persecution in Spain and North Africa. Maimonides sought to achieve a workable synthesis between Judaism and Aristotelianism without glossing over the uncontestably incompatible elements in each of those systems. Writing for the initiated few in the Guide, he took up troublesome theological questions. He argued for the existence of God, which he demonstrated, not in the by-then-unsatisfactory manner of the old kalām, but by exploiting scientifically and logically more credible Aristotelian philosophical concepts. He upheld the unity of God, not by accepting the identity of God's attributes with his essence, as kalām would have it, but by combining the metaphoric interpretation of scriptural anthropomorphisms with the doctrine of negative attributes, which leaves the fact of God's existence as the sole bit of positive knowledge of divinity available to believers. He even addressed the problem of the creation of the world, which forced him to suspend Aristotle's doctrine of the eternity of the world in favor of the biblical account of the miraculous creation by the will of God.

Maimonides also attempted to bring an Aristotelian conception of Judaism within the reach of the philosophically uninitiated. This he did with a philosophical introduction to, and other occasional rationalistic comments in, his Mishneh Torah (Code of Jewish law); with an Aristotelian ethical introduction to the Mishnah tractate Avot ; and by formulating a philosophic creed for Jews in his commentary on the Mishnah.

Pietism and Jewish Sufism

A new religious development in Judaism began in the Middle East in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Individual Jews began to be attracted to the pious asceticism of the Muslim ūfīs. In his introduction to the Mishnah tractate Avot, called "The Eight Chapters," Maimonides chastises such people for engaging in extreme self-abnegation, thereby straying from the more moderate path advocated by Judaism.

In the thirteenth century in Egypt, some representatives of the Jewish upper classes (physicians, government secretaries, judges, and scholars) joined together in pietistic brotherhoods akin to the ūfī orders that were then flourishing in Egypt under the patronage of the Ayyubid dynasty of Muslim rulers founded by Sala al-Dīn (Saladin). These Jews called themselves asidim, using the regular Talmudic word for the pious. They fasted frequently, practiced nightly prayer vigils, and recited additional prayers accompanied by bowings and prostrations more typical of Islam than of Judaism. Rather than exhibiting their pietism in public they maintained a private place of worship where they followed their special path. Rather than wearing wool outer clothing like the Muslim ūfīs, they designated as the symbol of their asceticism the turban that they all wore (Arab., baqyār or buqyār ).

The most illustrious member of this circle of asidim was the nagid (head of the Jewish community) Avraham, the son of Moses Maimonides. He wrote a long code of Jewish law entitled Kifāyat al-ʿābidīn (The complete guide for the servants of God), which, in its fourth and final book, contains a program of mystical piety for the Jewish elite based on the ethical tenets of Sufism.

The asidim in Avraham Maimonides' brotherhood made attempts to influence the general Jewish public to adopt some aspects of their pietism. Earlier, Moses Maimonides himself had introduced reforms in the Egyptian synagogue service aimed at imitating the more decorous environment of the mosque. Driven by pietistic zeal, his son went further. He tried to introduce the kneeling posture of Islamic prayer into the synagogue; he insisted that worshipers face the direction of prayer even while seated; and he required people to stand in straight rows during the Eighteen Benedictions, in imitation of the orderly, symmetrical pattern of the mosque. These and other pietistic reforms aroused much opposition, and some Jews actually denounced Avraham to the Muslim authorities for attempting to introduce unlawful innovations into Judaism. In response, Avraham wrote a vigorous defense of pietism, which has been found in the Cairo Genizah.

Avraham Maimonides' son ʿOvadyah wrote his own ūfī-like book. Called Al-maqālah al-awīyah (The treatise of the pool), it attempted to impart intellectual respectability to Jewish Sufism. In the later Middle Ages, some Jews in Egypt imitated the style of life of the ūfī convents in the hills surrounding Cairo. In Egypt, too, Jewish thinkers, outstanding among them the descendants of Maimonides, continued to compose treatises in the ūfī vein. This turn towards mystical piety in the Jewish world, at just about the time when Jewish religious philosophy reached its climactic stage in the Middle East in the writings of Maimonides, recalls the replacement of philosophy by Sufism as the dominant religious mode in Islam in the later medieval period. Possibly Jewish interest in Sufism similarly reflects a dissatisfaction with the answers given in the past by Jewish rationalism to religious questions. Only when the study of Jewish Sufism, still in its infancy, has progressed further will it be possible to gain a clear sense of its place in the history of Judaism in the Islamic world and of the influence it might have had on the Lurianic Qabbalah that sprouted in Muslim Palestine after the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492.

See Also

Islam, overview article and article on Islam in North Africa; Jewish Thought and Philosophy, article on Premodern Philosophy; Karaites; Muʿtazilah; Polemics, article on Muslim-Jewish Polemics; Rabbinic Judaism in Late Antiquity; Sufism; Yeshivah.


The most thorough general work on Jewish history and religion is Salo W. Baron's A Social and Religious History of the Jews, 2d ed., rev. & enl., 18 vols. (New York, 19521980). A good introduction to Jewish life under Islam is to be found in The Jews of Arab Lands: A History and Source Book, compiled and introduced by Norman A. Stillman. An older but still valuable book on Jewish history and literature under early Islam is Sima Assaf's Tequfat ha-geʾonim ve-sifrutah (Jerusalem, 1955).

Regional studies include Jacob Mann's The Jews in Egypt and in Palestine under the Fāimid Caliphs, 2 vols. in 1 (19201922; reprint, New York, 1970); my Jewish Self-Government in Medieval Egypt: The Origins of the Office of the Head of the Jews, ca. 10651126 (Princeton, 1980); Eliyahu Ashtor's Toledot ha-Yehudim be-Mitsrayim ve-Suryah taat shilon ha-Mamlukim, 3 vols. (Jerusalem, 19441970), which concerns the Jews of Egypt and Syria; his The Jews of Moslem Spain, translated by Aaron Klein and Jenny Machlowitz Klein, 3 vols. (Philadelphia, 19731984); and H. Z. Hirschberg's A History of the Jews in North Africa, 2d rev. ed., 2 vols. (Leiden, 19741981). On the Yemenite Jews see S. D. Goitein's Ha-Teimanim (Jerusalem, 1983) and David R. Blumenthal's edition and annotated translation of The Commentary of R. ōer ben Shelōmō to the Thirteen Principles of Maimonides (Leiden, 1974). Goitein's magisterial work, A Mediterranean Society, 5 vols. (Berkeley, 19671983), presents a detailed portrait of Jewish life, in both its worldly and religious aspects, in the Mediterranean Arab world of the High Middle Ages. On Karaism, see Karaite Anthology, edited and translated by Leon Nemoy (New Haven, 1952), and the introduction to Zvi Ankori's Karaites in Byzantium (New York, 1959). Julius Guttmann's Philosophies of Judaism, translated by David W. Silverman (New York, 1964), and Georges Vajda's Introduction à la pensée juive au Moyen Age (Paris, 1947) offer excellent introductions to the subject of the revival of religious philosophy in medieval Judaism in the Islamic world. The major Jewish philosophical works mentioned in this article exist in partial or complete English translation, such as the selection of Yitsaq Yisraʾeli's philosophical writings translated into English in Isaac Israeli: A Neoplatonic Philosopher of the Early Tenth Century by Alexander Altmann and Samuel M. Stern (Oxford, 1958); Saadia Gaon: The Book of Beliefs and Opinions, translated by Samuel Rosenblatt (New Haven, 1948); and Maimonides' Guide of the Perplexed, translated by Shlomo Pines and introduced by Leo Strauss (Chicago, 1963). On pietism and Jewish Sufism, see the introduction to Paul Fenton's translation of Obadiah Maimonides' Treatise of the Pool (London, 1981) and Gerson D. Cohen's "The Soteriology of R. Abraham Maimuni," ProceeDīngs of the American Academy for Jewish Research, 35 (1967): 7598 and 36 (1968): 3356.

For additional bibliography on the general subject of Jewish life and culture in the medieval Islamic world, consult the Bibliographical Essays in Medieval Jewish Studies, edited by Yosef H. Yerushalmi (New York, 1976), especially my chapter, "The Jews under Medieval Islam: From Rise of Islam to Sabbatai Zevi," reprinted with a supplement for the years 19731980 as "Princeton Near East Paper," no. 32 (Princeton, 1981); and that by Lawrence Berman, "Medieval Jewish Religious Philosophy."

New Sources

Barclay, John M. G. Jews in the Mediterranean Diaspora: From Alexander to Trajan (323 BCE117 CE). Edinburgh, 1996.

Gil, Moshe. Tans. David Strassler. Jews in Islamic Countries in the Middle Ages. Boston, 2004.

Goldberg, Harvey E., ed. Sephardi and Middle Eastern Jewries: History and Culture. Bloomington, Ind., 1996.

Stillman, Yedida K., and Norman A. Stillman, eds. From Iberia to Diaspora: Studies in Sephardic History and Culture. Boston, 1998.

Wexler, Paul. The Non-Jewish Origins of the Sephardic Jews. Albany, 1996.

Mark R. Cohen (1987)

Revised Bibliography

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