MAIMONIDES, ABRAHAM ben Moses (1186–1237) was a theologian, jurist, mystical pietist, communal leader, and physician. He was born in Fustat, Egypt, the only son of the great Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides (1135/8–1204). Exceptionally gifted at a precocious age, Abraham Maimonides studied rabbinics, philosophy, and medicine with his father. Upon the latter's demise, though still a mere youth of eighteen, Abraham was elected to the esteemed position of nagid, leader of Egyptian Jewry. He was the first to occupy this office in his family, where, largely on account of Maimonides' aura, it became hereditary for almost two centuries. Despite the temporal and spiritual turmoil of the period, he proved to be an able administrator, a charismatic teacher, and an influential scholar. As court physician to the Ayyūbid ruler al-Malik al-Kamil (r. 1218–1238), he enjoyed personal relations with the Muslim authorities and men of letters, including the historian Ibn Abi Usaybi.
Though hampered by his pastoral responsibilities, Maimonides' literary activity produced notable works in four main areas: polemics, halakhic jurisprudence, ethics, and exegesis. Of the first category, a fair part responded to the halakhic and philosophical detractors of his father's works. His masterful Milhamot ha-shem (Wars of the Lord), written after 1235, was singularly directed against the criticism of the rabbis of Provence and contributed towards the consolidation of his own prestige. As head of the Rabbinical Court in Cairo, he was consulted on legal matters from as far afield as Yemen and Provence and has left a sizeable collection of responsa. As a thinker and moralist, Abraham upheld his father's elitist philosophical system, of which he considered himself the interpreter and continuator. Nonetheless, his mature views diverged widely from those of Moses Maimonides. The latter had considered knowledge of God to be the ultimate human aim, but his son stressed ethical perfection. Indeed, his markedly ascetic mysticism earned him the epithet by which he is often referred to in later literature, Abraham he-hasid ("the Pious").
His magnum opus, the Kifāyat al-ʿabidin (Complete guide for devotees), written circa 1230, sets out his own religious theosophy. Written in a lively and attractive Arabic, this monumental compendium of jurisprudence and ethics is not extant in toto, but substantial manuscripts survive in Genizah collections. It circulated widely, reaching Provence, and was read at least into the seventeenth century. Its initial sections rehearse Maimonides' legal rulings, albeit with a distinctively spiritualized tone, whereas the fourth and final section, on the "special way," highlights the virtues of the ṭarīq (the path) advocated by Abraham. These turn out to be the stations (maqāmat ), well known from classical Ṣūfī manuals: sincerity, mercy, generosity, gentleness, humility, faith, contentedness, abstinence, mortification, and solitude, whose mystical goal, wusul ("arrival"), was the encounter with God and the certitude of his light. Abraham Maimonides openly admires the Muslim Ṣūfīs, whose practices, he claims, ultimately derive from the prophets of Israel. Thus he finds biblical counterparts for Ṣūfī self-mortifications, such as combating sleep, solitary retreats in dark places, weeping, nightly vigils, and daily fasts. Notable is the obligation of the novice to take as his guide an experienced teacher who has traversed all the stages of the path in order to initiate him into the intricacies of mystical discipline before bestowing on him his mantle, as Elijah did on Elisha.
Departing from the juridical mode of his father's legal code, Mishneh Torah, Abraham stresses the spiritual significance of the traditional Jewish precepts (mitsvot, "divine commandments") and the "mysteries" they conceal, in much the same manner as al-Ghazālī did in his classical Islamic summa, Iḥyāʾ ʿulūm ad-dīn (Revival of the religious sciences).
Abraham championed a pietistic circle whose adepts were dissatisfied with formal religion. Their number included his father-in-law, Hananel ben Samuel, and his own son Obadyah (1228–1265), author of the mystical al-Maqāla al-hawdiyya (Treatise of the pool). Partly inspired by Abraham ar-Rabia (d. 1223), also known as he-hasid, whom he calls "our Master in the Way," Abraham Maimonides infused traditional Judaism with Ṣūfī ideals and practices.
Using to the utmost his prerogative as nagid, he endeavored to enforce on the larger community these far-reaching measures, which included such Islamic-influenced practices as ablution of the feet before prayer, standing in rows during prayer, kneeling and bowing, and raising the hands in supplication.
Abraham justified the adoption of Muslim customs and symbols with the idea that he had rediscovered lost mysteries of Jewish origin in traditions preserved by the Ṣūfīs but long forgotten by the Jews in the tribulations of their exile. Calling themselves "the disciples of the prophets," the Jewish pietists confidently awaited the imminent renewal of prophecy in Israel. The ancient Jewish traditions recovered from the Ṣūfīs were integral to the "prophetical tradition." Restoration of that discipline was a prerequisite to the return of prophecy itself, whose occurrence Moses Maimonides had predicted for an unspecifiable date.
Abraham also composed a biblical commentary. Although he intended to comment on the whole Bible, only the sections on Genesis and Exodus seem to have been completed. Here, as in the Kifāya al-ʿabidin, he projects his own mystical leanings into the patriarchal past, depicting ancient biblical figures as pietists, similar to the manner in which Ṣūfī literature perceives of Muḥammad and his companions as early Ṣūfīs. He often alludes to an esoteric interpretation of the "subtle mysteries" of the Pentateuch. Although he continually refers to his father's interpretations, these are not the latter's philosophical doctrines but rather point to his own pietistic concepts.
Perhaps due to his influence, later Judeo-Arabic exegetes, such as Tanhum Yerushalmi, and Syrian and Yemenite authors include certain Ṣūfī elements in their works. As for his ritual reforms, although intended to improve the spiritual decorum of the synagogue, they were not to go unchallenged. Despite his office and familial prestige, which considerably furthered the pietists' aims, Abraham confronted fierce opponents, who went as far as to denounce him to the Muslim authorities, accusing the Jewish pietists of introducing into the synagogue "false ideas," "unlawful changes," and "gentile customs."
This opposition, as well as the movement's own elitist character, seriously impeded its spread. With the general decline of oriental Jewry, Abraham Maimonides' construction of a Ṣūfī-influenced Jewish pietism gradually sank into oblivion, though some of its mystical elements were probably absorbed into the nascent Qabbalah.
Jewish Thought and Philosophy, article on Premodern Philosophy; Maimonides, Moses; Sufism.
Cohen, Gerson. "The Soteriology of R. Abraham Maimuni." In Studies in the Variety of Rabbinic Cultures, pp. 209–242. Philadelphia, 1991.
Fenton, Paul. "Abraham Maimonides (1187–1237): Founding a Mystical Dynasty." In Jewish Mystical Leaders and Leadership in the 13th Century, edited by Moshe Idel and Mortimer Ostow, pp. 127–154. Northvale, N.J., 2000.
Rosenblatt, Samuel. The High Ways to Perfection of Abraham Maimonides. 2 vols. Baltimore and New York, 1927–1938.
Paul B. Fenton (2005)