Maimonides: Jewish philosopher and Saladin’s physician02/07/2021
When it comes to the Middle Ages, it is common to associate this period with darkness (“Dark Ages”): intellectual, religious repression and everything else negative that someone may come to think. This is mainly due to an Eurocentric analysis of the medieval period, which studies Christian Europe in particular.
However, the medieval period comprises about a thousand years, that is, it is impossible to make a “dark age” reductionism or something like that even for a specific geographical area – such as the case of Christian Europe. In this way, many historians came to call the “Dark Ages” only a short period of time in the medieval era, that is, the one after the fall of the Roman Empire. There are several reasons for this name, which will not be discussed here, including an economic, cultural, demographic decline, etc., just after the fall of Rome.
However, as stated above, the medieval period is about a thousand years old, and even for Christian Europe it was a very diverse period at various times. In the same way that there were periods of stagnation, there were also great progresses that came to shape (positively) the societies that today occupy the same geographical area as the former Christendom.
Nevertheless, the medieval era extends to other civilizations, such as Chinese, Islamic and so on. Although a civilization can be considered “Christian” or “Islamic”, not all of its inhabitants professed the same faith. This is the case with the legendary figure of medieval Judaism, Maimonides.
Life and Works
Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, or in its Arabic version, Abu ʿImran Musa bin Maimun bin ʿUbaidallah al-Qurtabi, or simply Maimonides as he is better known, was born in 1135-11381 during Almoravid rule in the Islamic Spain.
Unfortunately for the historian, medieval Jews did not write biographies or autobiographies, and documents containing details of his personal life (such as events) are scarce. But fortunately, Maimonides is the Jewish author we know the most about today, and this is mainly due to the sage’s own writings, for example his letters and books (DAVIDSON, 2005).
Among the information we can find about him, we have a very famous writing that traces his own lineage, saying:
Moses, the son of Maimon the rabbinic judge [dayyan], the son of Joseph the scholar [or: rabbi (hakam)], the son of Isaac the rabbinic judge, the son of Joseph the rabbinic judge, the son of Obadia the rabbinic judge, the son of Solomon the rabbi, the son of Obadia the rabbinic judge (DAVIDSON, 2005, p. 4)
His father, Maimon Ben Joseph, as attested above, was a dayyan, that is, a judge.2 It was with him that Maimonides began his Torah studies. However, about 10 years after Maimonides’ birth (depending on the date we attribute to when he was born), the Almoravids lost their dominion in Córdoba to the Almohads in 1148, who, like their predecessors, came from North Africa, more specifically Berbers.
Under the Almohad yoke, many Jews were forced to leave Cordoba, since the status of dhimmi (i.e., protected) was abolished by the new rulers in some parts of their domain. This means that the quality conferred on Jews by Islamic law was no longer observed. David J. Wassertein (2012), speaking of another context, but which may be well applied here:
This should not be misunderstood: to be a second-class citizen was a far better thing to be than not to be a citizen at all. For most of these Jews, second-class citizenship represented a major advance. In Visigothic Spain, for example, shortly before the Muslim conquest in 711, the Jews had seen their children removed from them and forcibly converted to Christianity and had themselves been enslaved.
Many Jews also underwent forced conversions to Islam3 in the Almohad period. Abraham ibn Daud, a Spanish Jewish chronicler writing almost two decades after the almohad conquest, notes that with the arrival of these new rulers “years of calamity, evil decrees, and religious persecutions [shemad] befell Israel” (DAVIDSON, 2005, p. 11).
However, instead of staying in Córdoba without the condition of people protected by the Shariah, Maimonides’ family opted for exile. Years later the Jewish sage himself would write about these persecutions of the Almohads in his Epistle to Yemen in 1170:
in the Land of Yemen… has decreed religious persecution [shernad] upon Israel and forced [the inhabitants of] all places where he exercised sovereignty to leave their religion, as the African did in the land of the West (Ibid, p. 12).
His family went to the North African coast, arriving in Egypt and settling there (BAUER, 2013). Before that, he would pass through southern Spain and live in Fez, Morocco. This took about 10 years, and during this period (1166-1168) he had the opportunity to write his famous commentary on the Mishnah, the written record of Jewish oral traditions.
Even before settling in Egypt, Maimonides would make a pilgrimage in Israel, and then he would go to the land of the pharaohs to live in Fustat, until then under the rule of the Fatimid Caliphate, and by the way the first Islamic capital in Egypt.
However, despite being a very well-documented figure, there are still many gaps regarding his life, such as the places he lived before arriving in Egypt, along with the respective dates of many events that happened in his lifetime; with whom he studied and what (works, authors, etc.), positions he held and so on. Some of the information we have today is the result of conjectures on the part of some 20th century scholars, as atested once again by Davidson (2005).
According to The Jewish Magazine (2012), Jews had been banned from entering Jerusalem since the Holy Land had become a Crusader bastion in 1096:
For centuries Jerusalem was a Muslim city, but it again assumed a Christian character during the Crusader occupation. Christian traditions were renewed and churches and monasteries were rebuilt. As was true in Byzantine times, Jews were again prohibited from entering the city, let alone live there. The Temple Mount, after it became the center of religious and civil life in Crusader Jerusalem, was declared off-limits for all non-Christians.
However, according to the same source, some Jews were occasionally allowed to go to the Mount by the crusader rulers. Among these Jews we can find Maimonides himself. First he landed in Acre, where he stayed for about 6 months with the local Jewish community; he made his pilgrimages in the Galilean region and then went to Jerusalem, leaving Acre on October 19, 1165.
However, according to the same source, some Jews were occasionally allowed to go to the Mount by the crossed rulers. Among these Jews we can find Maimonides himself. First he landed in Acre, where he stayed for about 6 months with the local Jewish community; he made his pilgrimages in the region of Galilee and then went to Jerusalem, leaving Acre on October 19, 1165.
Subsequently, Maimonides played a major role in rescuing some Jews who had been taken captive by Amalric I of Jerusalem after the siege of Bilbeis between 1166-1167. Faced with this chaotic situation, the sage of Córdoba sent some letters to the Jewish leaders of Egypt, advising them to collect a sum of money for their rescue. Southern Egyptian communities followed Maimonides’ call and the money was collected, so two judges were instructed to go to Palestine to negotiate with the Crusader chiefs, ending positively for the Jewish community, whose freedom was restored.
Despite these apparent successes in his life, just a few years after his pilgrimage to the Temple Mount, an unforgettable tragedy would occur: the death of his younger brother, David ben Maimon.
In a letter found in the storage (genizah) of the synagogue of Ben Ezra in Fustat (Egypt), we can see the pain that Maimonides suffered after the tragic loss of his brother when his ship sank when he left for India on business:
The greatest misfortune that has befallen me during my entire life—worse than anything else—was the demise of the saint, may his memory be blessed, who drowned in the Indian sea, carrying much money belonging to me, to him, and to others, and left with me a little daughter and a widow. On the day I received that terrible news I fell ill and remained in bed for about a year, suffering from a sore boil, fever, and depression, and was almost given up. About eight years have passed, but I am still mourning and unable to accept consolation. And how should I console myself? He grew up on my knees, he was my brother, [and] he was my student (GOITEIN, 1974, p. 203).
Despite this unprecedented loss in his life, Maimonides would come to play an important role in the egyptian Jewish community, specially in Fustat. There, he acted as the chief judge of the city’s Jewish court, but some scholars speculate that around 1171 Maimonides would be given the position of nagid of the egyptian Jewish community (DAVIDSON, 2005).
The term nagid means “prince” or “leader” in the Hebrew language, designating the leadership role in Sephardic communities during the medieval period. According to the 15th century Italian rabbi, Obadiah da Bertinoro, the position of nagid in the Egyptian context implied a leadership over all Jews under the rule of the King of Egypt, or in his own words:
The Jewish nagid who has his residence in Cairo is appointed over all the Jews who are under the dominion of the King of Egypt; he has all the power of a king and can punish and imprison those who act in opposition to his decrees; he appoints the Dayyanim (judges) in every community (BERTINORO, apud ADLER, 1930, p. 229)
The Nagids were sometimes called the “head of the Jews” (ra’is al-Yahud), a title granted by Muslim rulers; and sometimes enjoyed both titles. It turns out that Maimonides held this position for a short period, being replaced in 1173 by Sar Shalom ben Moses. However, Shar Shalom’s leadership was controversial, as he was accused of tax farming and was excommunicated by Maimonides.
Until the fall of the Fatimid dynasty in 1171, Sar Shalom held the position of nagid, but in 1173 already under the Ayyubid rule, he was replaced by Maimonides. Two years later, as stated above, Sar Shalom ben Moses would reassume his post, but would be marked by conflicts with the sage of Cordoba, until he lost his post once again in 1195.
Due to his period as a nagid, Maimonides achieved great prestige in Egypt. Like many Jews before and after him, Maimonides had a broad knowledge of medicine, receiving his training when still in Córdoba and perfecting his medical practice and knowledge further in Morocco.
Thanks to the good reputation he acquired while serving the Jewish community, he was appointed as a court physician to the Grand Vizier, al-Qadi al-Fadil. Later he would become the physician of Saladin, the legendary sultan. Maimonides was the personal physician of the famous Muslim hero of the Crusades.
Ibn Abi Usaybi’a, a Muslim physician, wrote decades after Maimonides’ death that the Jewish doctor had patients of great importance, such as Sultan Saladin and his eldest son “King [or: Prince] al-Afdal”. However, something intriguing is that Maimonides himself does not mention in his letters sent to his disciple Joseph ben Judah of Ceuta his “important patients”, such as the qadi and grand vizier (al-Fadil) or Saladin and his eldest son, al-Afdal Nur al-Din Ali. This may have an explanation for the fact that at the time of these letters the members of the Egyptian royalty were not yet under his care, or because they did not personally go to see the jewish doctor, but through messengers sent to him.
However, in a letter addressed to Samuel ibn Tibbon, Maimonides describes his routine in order to discourage his interlocutor from leaving France and going to Egypt to discuss philosophical issues with him.4 In these writings for Samuel, Maimonides states that every day in the morning he would travel from Fustat to Cairo to meet the king (malik). The question is, who was this king that Maimonides referred to in his letter? The letter is from 1199, and Saladin died in 1193, and the son who succeeded Saladin died a year before the letter was written (1198). Maimonides might well be referring here to al-Afdal, but some scholars argue that what was sent to ibn Tibbon as a single letter was, in fact, a kind of “compilation” of writings that were produced at different times. That is, in view of this, the king to whom Maimonides might have been referring to could well have been Sultan Saladin himself, to whom the Jewish physician may have traveled daily to attend to his health and his family’s.5 In one version of the letter written by Maimonides one can read:
My duties to the sultan are very heavy. I am obliged to visit him every day, early in the morning, and when he or any of his children or any of the inmates of his harem are indisposed, I dare not quit Cairo, but must stay during the greater part of the day in the palace. It also frequently happens that one of the two royal officers fall sick, and I must attend to their healing. Hence, as a rule, I leave for Cairo very early in the day, and even if nothing unusual happens, I do not return to Fostat until the afternoon. Then I am almost dying with hunger. . . I find the antechamber filled with people, both Jews and gentiles, nobles and common people, judges and bailiffs, friends and foes-a mixed multitude who await the time of my return.
I dismount from my animal, wash my hands, go forth to my patients, and entreat them to bear with me while I partake of some light refreshment, the only meal I eat in twenty-four hours. Then I go to attend to my patients and write prescriptions and directions for their ailments. Patients go in and out until nightfall, and sometimes, even as the Torah is my faith, until two hours and more into the night. I converse with them and prescribe for them even while lying down from sheer fatigue. When night falls, I am so exhausted that I can hardly speak (ROSNER, 2002).6
Regardless of who the king, prince or sultan might have been referred in the letter above, something is evident throughout Maimonides’ medical life: his caring and humane way of treating his patients. In his works on the subject, we can see a focus on preventive medicine, but also being an excellent doctor when it came to treating the diseases that already affected the body, when he could no longer avoid them. Thus, Maimonides prescribed a complete treatment, that is, something that encompassed both body and mind care.
Although we do not know exactly what Maimonides read at some points in his life, his medical works clearly demonstrate a reading of the ancient Greek and Persian physicians. Going further, he also had reading in the works of his medieval contemporaries, and this is not just a coincidence: Maimonides lived his whole life among Muslims, and the Muslims were the most prominent and prolific figures in medieval medicine.
Maimonides went on to describe various illnesses in his medical treaties, such as hepatitis, diabetes, asthma, pneumonia, etc. The most interesting and which demonstrates the genius of this great sage is that, although medicine has developed a lot in between these almost a thousand years since the time of Maimonides until ours, his works have a quality and level of precision that in many moments can be considered outstanding even when compared to modern treatises on the same subjects.
Despite having an extremely busy routine, Maimonides was a very prolific writer. Just about medicine he wrote 10 works. As just mentioned, the Jewish physician had studied the classic works on medicine, and as could not be different, Galen was one of those authors that Maimonides had studied at some point in his life. In his work “Extracts from Galen”, Maimonides made a compilation of what he considered most important in the works of the second century (AD) physician.
The term “compiled” does not do justice to this herculean task performed by Maimonides, since Galen had also been an author of dozens of works, writing about 100 books on medicine. Thus, it took two volumes just to catalog and index all of them, intended primarily for the use of his medical students (Rosner, 2002). The extract of Galen’s work by Maimonides was originally written in Arabic, the lingua franca of medieval medicine.
His second work on medicine was a commentary on the Aphorisms of Hippocrates, the famous father of medicine. Like his Muslim contemporaries, it was not enough for Maimonides to just study and comment on the works of the authors from antiquity and the classical period: he made critical analyzes of what he read, his observations being important for the development of medicine as a whole, the same with Ibn Sina (Avicenna), al-Kindi and many others.
In his Commentary on the Aphorisms, Maimonides criticizes both Hippocrates and Galen, of course, in what the Jewish physician diverged from them. In a remarkable passage cited by Rosner (2002), there is the statement of Hippocrates saying that “a boy is born from the right ovary, a girl from the left,” to which Maimonides remarks, “A man would have to be either prophet or genius to know this”.
His third work, which is his largest in extension and probably the most important, was his “Medical Aphorisms of Moses”, which contained 1500 aphorisms about the most varied subjects and areas of medicine and divided into 25 chapters (CERDA, 2009). Among the topics he addressed in his aphorisms we can find: anatomy, physiology, gynecology, hygiene, diet, medications, surgery and many other distinct subjects, ranging from medical curiosities to laxatives (ROSNER, 2002).
Maimonides went on to write many other works in the field of medicine, such as the also famous Regimen Sanitatis, written for Sultan al-Malik al-Afdal, son of Saladin. The sultan suffered from depression and had a poor diet, complaining to Maimonides about his situation. As the Jewish doctor was also the court physician, he promptly gave him prescriptions for medicines, diet, hygiene and so on. This work contains what was mentioned earlier: the attention given by Maimonides in having a healthy body and a healthy mind, being one of the first writings on psychosomatic medicine.
Going further, Maimonides wrote many books about his faith: Judaism. In these writings, Maimonides was concerned with both Jewish faith and laws, ranging from what became known as “13 principles of the [Jewish] faith” to the composition of a Jewish legal code.
In his Mishneh Torah, that is, his commentary on Jewish religious laws (halakha), Maimonides intended to provide a comprehensive compilation of the Oral Law, so that a person who first mastered the Written Torah and then the Mishneh Torah did not need any other books.
The Mishneh Torah was the first systematic Jewish law code based on the Mishnah (also called “Oral Torah”). In this writing, Maimonides articulated his own occasional disagreements with the interpretations of the Talmud, but he consistently asserted that Talmudic teaching, after all, was prescribed for Jews. In this way, Maimonides demonstrated freedom to interpret while, at the same time, accepting the well-established prescriptions of the Talmudic law (KARESH; HURVITZ, 2006).
The Mishneh Torah consists of 14 books, which are divided into sessions, chapters and paragraphs, each dealing with a specific subject, such as the order of prayers, circumcision, Sabbath observance, marriage (and divorce), theft, a person injuring another and so on.
Maimonides went further, also writing on philosophy and theology. In the first area, his most famous work is undoubtedly his Guide for the Perplexed, which was also originally written in Arabic under the title Dalalat al-ḥaʾirin:
But his lasting influence worldwide has been due to a book he wrote in Arabic late in life, the Guide of the Perplexed. This was designed to reconcile the apparent contradictions between philosophy and religion, which troubled educated believers. Biblical teaching and philosophical learning complement each other, he maintained; true knowledge of philosophy is necessary if one is to have full understanding of the Bible. Where the two appear to contradict each other, dificulties can be resolved by an allegorical interpretation of the sacred text (KENNY, 2005, p. 51).
As stated by Oliver Leaman (2006), according to Maimonides, we should not see miracles as events that are contrary to nature and designed to force us to recognize the power and the will of God. The problem with miracles like this is that they would force us to side with God for reasons of prudence, and that can hardly be what God wants us to do. Anyway, if the course of nature were totally disrupted by God whenever it could be effective, we would soon lose faith in natural need and regularity. So Maimonides thinks that miracles in the Torah cannot prove anything; what they do is confirm what we can reach (by reason) anyway. In fact, the first two of the so-called Ten Commandments need not at all be acquired through prophets, since we can reach them in an entirely rational way.
This more rationalist view of Maimonides would later influence great thinkers of medieval Christianity, such as Saint Thomas Aquinas, Albertus Magnus and Duns Scotus. However, his sources are mainly Arab thinkers, along with Aristotle’s writings.
Maimonides was undoubtedly a great reader and admirer of Aristotelian philosophy, of the Greeks in general and of Islamic philosophy. Thus, he equated the God of Abraham with the Necessary Being of philosophy. Going forward, he argued that it is not possible to have contradictions between the truths revealed by God and the discoveries made by the human being through the use of reason in scientific and philosophical areas.
Maimonides also admired Neoplatonic commentators, which led him to certain thoughts that were not reused by Christian scholastics.
He was also adept of the apophatic theology, a very popular thought for many Christian theologians. For Aquinas, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia itself:
God is not absolutely unknowable, and yet it is true that we cannot define Him adequately. But we can conceive and name Him in an “analogical way”. The perfections manifested by creatures are in God, not merely nominally (equivoce) but really and positively, since He is their source. Yet, they are not in Him as they are in the creature, with a mere difference of degree, nor even with a mere specific or generic difference (univoce), for there is no common concept including the finite and the Infinite. They are really in Him in a supereminent manner (eminenter) which is wholly incommensurable with their mode of being in creatures. We can conceive and express these perfections only by an analogy; not by an analogy of proportion, for this analogy rests on a participation in a common concept, and, as already said, there is no element common to the finite and the Infinite; but by an analogy of proportionality (SAUVAGE, 1907, [n.p]).
Maimonides would also address the problem of theodicy, that is, the problem of evil. He was adept to the thought that good outweighs evil on a general scale in the universe. The sage thought that if one were to observe existence only in human terms, one would conclude that evil rules over goodness; however, if the one observed to the universe in general, he would see that goodness outnumbers evil. He further believed that there were three different types of evil in the world: that caused by nature, that which human beings cause against others, and what human beings cause against themselves.
Maimonides argued that God did not create evil, and that evil is the absence of good, that is, evil exists where there is asbsence of good. Thus, all that is good is divine creation, while all that is bad is not divine creation.
The great Jewish sage would still write other works, and would have other memorable ideas, but which are impossible to comment on with the quality that Maimonides deserves in such a few lines.
Maimonides died on December 12, 1204 in Fustat, Egypt, where he spent a significant part of his life and wrote many of his works. Leaving behind a legacy that crossed religious, temporal and geographical barriers, Maimonides is remembered by Jews, Christians and Muslims as one of the greatest thinkers of all time, a true reference for all those who profess one of the three Abrahamic faiths, or simply to those who have a love for knowledge and admiration for the great intellectuals of history.
 There are disagreements among scholars, but the year 1135 seems to be accepted by the majority. Other dates like 1131 and 1132 have already been suggested as well.
 A dayyan is one who judges in a Beth din, a rabbinical court within Judaism.
 Another act going against the Islamic teachings practiced by the Almohads. This time, tearing up the precept contained in the Quran itself that “there is no compulsion in religion” (La ikrah fi al-din), expressed in Surah al Baqarah, ayat 256 [2: 256].
 Samuel was about to begin a translation of Maimonides’ Guide to the Perplexed (Moreh Nevuchim, in Hebrew), a book that will be briefly covered later in the text.
 This is one of several speculations surrounding Maimonides’ life. But like almost everything at a scholarly level, what has been said is open to criticism and disagreement, and indeed it is something that happen quite often. See the work of Davidson (2005, p. 70) to learn more about the debate about the letters addressed to Samuel ibn Tibbon.
 Another version, as stated in the note above, can be seen in the work of Davidson (2005) on page 70.
– DAVIDSON, Herbert A. Moses Maimonides: The Man and his Works. Oxford University Press, 2005.
– The Jewish Magazine. No Jew had been permitted to enter the holy city which has become a Christian bastion since the Crusaders conquered it in 1096. 2012.
– LEAMAN, Oliver. Judaism, an Introduction. I.B.Tauris & Co Ltd, 2011.
– LEAMAN, Oliver. Jewish Thought: An Introduction. Routledge, 2006.
– KENNY, Anthony. Medieval Philosphy. Oxford University Press, 2005.
– CERDA, Jaime. Moisés Maimónides, “médico de príncipes, príncipe de los médicos”. SciElo Chile, 2009.
– ADLER, Elkan Nathan. Jewish Travellers. Routledge, 1930.
– ROSNER, Fred. The Life of Moses Maimonides, a Prominent Medieval Physician. Einstein Med, 2002.
– SAUVAGE, George. “Analogy”. Em Herbermann, Charles (ed.). Catholic Encyclopedia. Robert Appleton Company, 1907.
– KARESH, Sara; HURVITZ, Mitchel. Encyclopedia of Judaism. Facts on File, Inc, 2006.
– SEESKIN, Kenneth. The Cambridge Companion to Maimonides. Cambridge University Press, 2005.
– BAUER, Susan Wise. The History of the Renaissance World. Norton & Company, 2013.
– STROUMSA, Sarah. Maimonides in his World. Princeton University Press, 2009.
– WASSERTAIN, David J. So, what did the Muslims do for the Jews?. The Jewish Chronicle, 2012/2020.
– GOITEIN, S.D. Letters of Medieval Jewish Traders. Princeton University Press, 1973.