11/05/2013 02:00 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

Guiding Jewish/Muslim Relations Through the Life of Maimonides, the 12th Century Jewish Scholar

Despite the current state of tension that exists between them, Muslims and Jews have a long history of tolerance and mutual admiration. Perhaps this is no more obvious than in the life of Moses Maimonides, the great Jewish philosopher who flourished intellectually and professional under Muslim rule.

Born in 1138, Maimonides was raised in the city of Córdoba, Spain, one of the greatest intellectual and spiritual havens of its time. Córdoba is the setting for one of history's most important examples of interfaith tolerance. Between 711 and 1085, Muslims, Jews and Christians lived in Andalucía -- the name given to Muslim Spain -- in a relative state of harmony, which was utterly unthinkable in other European cities such as London or Paris. This state of tolerance even has its own name -- convívencía -- which can literally be translated as "living with-ness," or "requiring tolerance."

In Andalucía, Jews were not only able to keep their ways, but they found a secure home after years of persecution under Christian rule. They called their Spanish home "Sefarad," the name which they gave to the Iberian peninsula. Some scholars describe this period as the "Jewish Golden Age."

From an early age Maimonides learned Arabic and the doctrines of Aristotle and Plato. In doing so he was able to merge different cultures into his understanding of the Hebrew humanities and Jewish theology, which were his main disciplinary interests. Through cross-cultural learning, Maimonides was able to translate Muslim and Greek knowledge into Jewish life, marking one of the greatest transmissions of ideas the world had ever seen.

His life, however, changed drastically in 1147 when the Almohads, a radical Muslim sect from North Africa, invaded Córdoba to conquer and convert all non-Muslims to Islam. Maimonides fled Córdoba for the city of Granada where he and his family lived until 1150. Eventually they settled in Fez, Morocco, where he studied at the University of Al-Qarawiyyin, reportedly the world's first university.

Maimonides' Mishneh Torah, a 14-volume text on halaqa, or Jewish law, which he composed in Fez, firmly established him as the leading rabbinical thinker of his day. Maimonides' key point in the Mishneh was that every part of Jewish law serves a rational purpose, which he could not have theorized without Greek philosophy or Muslims' translations and interpretations of Aristotle and Plato.

After leaving Fez, Maimonides journeyed to the Holy Land, and then to Fostat, Egypt around 1168. It was in Fostat where Maimonides became a physician to Al-Fadil, vizier and royal secretary to Saladin, the first sultan of Egypt and Syria and founder of the Ayyubid dynasty. Saladin appointed Maimonides to the prestigious position of Court Physician. Though Maimonides remained loyal to the Jewish faith of his ancestors, it is clear that he also embraced people of different cultures.

Maimonides owes a lot of his intellectual achievements to Neo-Platonic philosophy, which took root in Muslim Spain. His appreciation for Greek and Muslim philosophers is displayed in an 1199 letter he sent to rabbi Samuel ibn Tarron, his Jewish friend in France who was working on a Hebrew translation of Maimonides' work. The letter stated: "Take good care to study the works of Aristotle only with the help of his commentators... Aristotle's work is sufficient... As for logic, it is necessary to study only the works of Al-Farabi. All his writings are excellent... ." It is obvious that Maimonides borrowed the best ideas from two great civilizations -- ancient Greece and Muslim Spain -- to create a new understanding of Jewish Holy Scripture which would be compatible with the then "modern" concept of rationalism.

His most famous work is The Guide of the Perplexed, completed toward the end of his life in 1190. Written in Arabic, Maimonides' book strikes a balance between religious and secular knowledge by arguing that the soul improves only through knowledge. Indeed, he suggested that the highest human achievement is the perfection of the intellect, which is impossible without learning.

Maimonides The Guide argued that "[a]ll the great evils which men cause to each other because of certain intentions, desires, opinions, or religious principles... originate in ignorance, which is absence of wisdom. If men possessed wisdom... they would not cause injury to themselves or to others." He recommends that people need knowledge to possess wisdom. It is only through education that people of different cultures can overcome divisions and conflict.

To arrive at this state of enlightenment, Maimonides encouraged people to find knowledge outside of their own religious tradition because each religion offers wisdom. In The Guide (1.51), we find evidence to support this claim, as he wrote:

There is no oneness at all except in believing that there is one simple essence in which there is no complexity or multiplicity of notions, but one notion only; so that from whatever angle you regard it and from whatever point of view you consider it, you will find that it is one, not divided.

Maimonides was directing us to the idea that a "single truth" exists and that no matter which "angle" you look at it, you can always find that it "is one, not divided."

Sufism particularly influenced his philosophical writings. In The Guide, he turned to the ideas of Muslim mystics by clearly referring to "Sufi-thought" regarding "the light." He wrote:

We are like someone in a very dark night over whom lightening flashes again and again. Among us there is one for whom the lightening flashes time and time again, so that he is always, as it were, in increasing light. There are others between whose lightening flashes are of greater or shorter intervals. It is in accord with these states that the degree of the perfect vary.

Maimonides references Al-Ghazali, an influential Muslim theologian and philosopher who in the 11th and 12th century encouraged Muslims to move away from orthodox Islam to Sufism. Al-Ghazali claimed that the "light" and the "truth" had a relationship in that seeing the "light of truth" is like seeing an instant strike of lightening, which he argued would help illuminate and expand peoples' minds. Sufis call this illumination awqat.

Sufism taught Maimonides that literalism was not the only way to understanding God. His writing encouraged Jews to follow their intellect and abandon their literalist interpretations of Jewish Holy Scripture. Maimonides, however, was not suggesting that Jews should abandon their traditions. Instead he critiqued scripture by "decoding" its hidden meanings. In this sense he rediscovered esoteric meanings of Judaism, which he would gift to a new generation of Jews.

Maimonides also looked to Sufis to find balance for the soul. For the soul to grow spiritually, Sufis believe that people must be healthy in body, mind, and spirit. He borrowed this belief and broke down the soul into two different types: a soul that possesses anger and carries a heavy spirit versus a soul that has an even disposition and which is light at heart.

Maimonides did not think it was healthy for the soul to have "unbounded desires" which "is never stated with pursuing passions." Referencing Jewish Holy Scripture (Koheles 5:9) he argued in The Guide that a person who has a covetous soul "will not be sated with all the wealth of the world." Maimonides' thought mirrors Rumi, the Sufi poet who wrote later in the 13th century that those who know "the value of every article of merchandise... don't know the value of [their] own soul, it's all foolishness." Maimonides and Rumi encouraged people to move beyond materialism. Instead they wanted people to live generous and compassionate lives.

Maimonides' passion for knowledge and his willingness to join ideas from other cultures into his philosophy serves as an important reminder and useful tool in building bridges of intercultural understanding. Instead of focusing on cultural differences, he worked to find areas of common ground. In this light Maimonides' life is an example of how people living in diverse societies can work together to build stronger communities.

Maimonides' legacy reminds us of the great Jewish saying of tikkun olam, "to heal a fractured world." In searching outside the realm of his own cultural tradition for wisdom, Maimonides showed us how we can build on our commonalities through a process of mixing. His life is proof that people of various backgrounds can break down walls which divide us upon our differences.