Mosheh ben Maimon was a scholar, judge and medical doctor, born into an influential Jewish family in Cordoba in 1135. He is known as “Musa Ibn Maymun” in Arabic and as “Moses Maimonides” in Latin. Ben Maimon was trained both in the Jewish and the Arabic intellectual traditions – indeed, the two were quite impossible to separate – and he wrote in Judeo-Arabic, a classical form of Arabic which used the Hebrew script. To subsequent generations of Jewish scholars Ben Maimon is most famous as the author of the fourteen volume Mishneh Torah, a sprawling collection containing all the laws and regulations that govern Jewish life – rules for how to say prayers, conduct weddings and funerals, the appropriate punishments for adulteresses and thieves, dietary prescriptions, and so on. The Mishneh Torah is still widely read and commented on to this day.
In 1148, when the Almohad rulers of al-Andalus imposed their religious reforms on their subjects, Christians and Jews were required to either convert or be killed. However, Ben Maimon and his family escaped to Egypt which at the time was run by the Fatimid caliphs, a far more tolerant regime. Note that escaping north — into Christian Europe — never was entertained as an option. In Cairo he established himself as an interpreter of the Torah and as a teacher in the Jewish community. However, after his brother drowned in the Indian Ocean, taking the family’s collected savings with him, Ben Maimon was forced to seek employment, and he ended up as a doctor at the court of the sultan. This is when he began reaching out to a broader intellectual community, writing his most famous philosophical work, Guide for the Perplexed. Much as Ibn Rushd, a fellow Cordoban and his contemporary, he defended reason against revelation and rejected literal readings of sacred texts. For example: when the Torah talks about “the finger of God,” we should not imagine that God actually has a finger, and it is not actually the case that God “gets angry” with his people when the Torah says he does. These are metaphors and allegories that ordinary people need in order to believe. And it is important that ordinary people believe, or there will be nothing that prevents them from sinning.
We are very knowledgeable about Ben Maimon’s life thanks to the Cairo Geniza, a collection of up to 300,000 fragments of manuscripts discovered in the synagogue in Cairo. Since Jews were afraid to throw away any piece of paper which had the name of God written on it – or even any paper on which God’s name may be written — they ended up with a very large collection of papers of varous kinds. The texts were preserved to this day in the Geniza and this includes Ben Maimon’s personal notes and correspondence.
Although Ben Maimon died in Cairo in 1204, and his family remained as leaders of the Jewish community there for many generations, he is buried in Tiberias, by the Sea of Galilee, in what today is Israel. On his death, the story goes, he wanted to be buried in the land of his forefathers. In 1955 road works were conducted in Tiberias and a tractor came across structures which soon were identified as Ben Maimon’s grave. Although the authorities concerned refused to halt the construction, Orthodox Jewish groups began protesting, staging sit-downs, and eventually they managed to stop the work. Subsequently a large monument was erected in Ben Maimon’s honor, next to monuments of other famous Jewish religious leaders. The tomb is today a site of pilgrimage for Israelis, a practice which would have outraged Ben Maimon himself since one of the rules of his Mishneh Torah is a prohibition against praying at tombs. Ben Maimon would no doubt also have objected to being made into an Israeli citizen after his death and used as a means to give historical legacy the new state. More than anyone else Ben Maimon symbolized the very tight connection between the Muslim and the Jewish heritage.
Meanwhile the Jewish community in Cairo which as recently as in the 1920s comprised some 80,000 people has dwindled to fewer than 200 today. There is a tradition among them that Ben Maimon’s body never was transferred to Tiberias and that he still is buried in Cairo.