Notes from Limmud 2005
The Influence of Islam on Judaism
Rabbi Mark Solomon
The Influence of Judaism on Islam
Judaism had a big influence on Islam. Much of the inspiration and the basis for Islam came from Judaism, either in the form of knowledge of the Bible, or, especially, interaction with Jews that Muḥammad came into contact with. Numerous passages in the Qur'ân show parallels with Biblical stories, midrashim, Jewish legend and law.
For example, the story of the attempted seduction of Joseph by Potiphar's wife gets a detailed account in the Qur'ân. An old rabbinic tradition holds that Joseph saw a vision of his father's face, and this is what helped him resist. This also occurs in the Qur'ân:
She almost succumbed to him, and he almost succumbed to her, if it were not that he saw a proof from his Lord. We thus diverted evil and sin away from him, for he was one of our devoted servants.
There is a subsequent anecdote:
When [Potiphar's wife] heard of their gossip, she invited them, prepared for them a comfortable place, and gave each of them a knife. She then said to him, "Enter their room." When they saw him, they so admired him, that they cut their hands. They said, "Glory be to GOD, this is not a human being; this is an honorable angel."
We find this in later midrashic literature, having come there from the Qur'ân: it is not attested previously in Jewish literature.
There is another, post-Qur'ânic body of influence, called the Isrâ'îlîyyât: a body of traditions based on Jewish midrashic and exegetical sources, picked up when Islam moved north into Iraq, the then greatest Jewish centre. The Qur'ân contains lots of allusions to Biblical stories, but often in a brief manner that suggests Muḥammad expected readers of the Qur'ân to be already familiar with these stories. The Isrâ'îlîyyât fills these stories out for Muslims who were not.
There are also practices which show an influence of Judaism on Islam. For instance, in the earliest years of Islam, when Muḥammad was still in Mecca, he faced Jerusalem when praying. Later on, when he fled to Medina, and fell out with the Jews, he switched to facing towards Mecca.
Islamic influence on Judaism: Islamic culture in the Golden Age of Jewish and Islamic coexistence: the Abbasids in Baghdad, and the Umayyads in Cordova
Baghdad became the centre of the caliphate in the eighth century. (They took this from the Umayyads in Syria.) The great Talmudic yeshivas of Sura and Pumbeditha both moved there over the course of time; by the tenth century both academies were located in Baghdad.
The Abbasids, the most famous of whom is Haroun al-Rashid, were great patrons of culture, philosophy, science, grammar and poetry - and also religious dialogue: debates on the merits of different religions. These were not power struggles, as the Disputations in mediaeval Europe were, but debates on purely rational grounds. Jewish, Muslims, Christians and Zoroastrians all came together to debate for these.
A similar atmosphere prevailed later in Spain, where an offshoot of the overthrown Umayyad dynasty set up their own caliphate. (Cordoba was possibly the first city in western Europe to have street lighting!)
In this caliphate Jews occupied a special position. In the conquest in 732, Jews had played an important part in helping the Moors overthrow the Visigoths; they opened city gates to them. The Moors were a warrior caste; they had little experience of administration, and the Jews helped them with that as viziers, e.g. Ḥasdai ibn Shaprut.
In Babylonia the geonim of the two great academies sent responsa as far away as Spain.
The Muslim challenge to Judaism: Scripture, Karaism, rationalism and Opinions
This interaction had intellectual and religious dimensions. In some ways the advent of Islam brought a new challenge to Judaism. Christianity had been around for a while, and had settled on a hostile approach to Judaism, although Christianity had previously played an important part in the development of rabbinic Judaism.
Islam, however, presented a fresh challenge, in the form of a revealed scripture in a Semitic language held up as the most perfect book. According to Muslim tradition, because Muḥammad was more or less illiterate, the Qur'ân must have come from G-d. This was a challenge, for Jews, to the supremacy of the Torah and of Biblical Hebrew.
So, which was the most perfect language and scripture? The Muslims argued that the Torah had come from G-d but had then been spoiled over the course of time.
Within Judaism part of the response to this may have been the rise of Karaism in the eighth century: a Jewish sect which rejected the authority of the Talmud and the Oral Law. They constructed a form of Judaism which focused on Scripture without rabbinic exegesis. This may have been in response to the Muslims critiquing the Jews for overlaying their Scripture with layers of interpretations.
In this period, Karaism presented a threat to rabbinic Judaism and the rabbis were constantly having to defend it. The Karaites said all the midrash misrepresents the true meaning of Scripture. The Rabbanites, to rebut them, had to turn back to the literal meaning of the text; this was what stimulated the flowering of the science of Hebrew grammar (see below).
Another challenge was rationalism, which arose from the Muslims coming into contact with Greek philosophical thought in Syria. Syrians had translated the ancient Greek texts into Syriac, and now translated them again into Arabic. From the eighth century onwards there were Muslim Platonic and Aristotelian philosophers, who tried to work their philosophies into a coherent framework with their theology.
This was where the debates mentioned above came from; there was the conviction that human reason could come to the same conclusions as relevation.
As an extension of this rationalism, there was also the growth of a sceptical movement: a critique of Scripture (the Qur'ân), rejecting much of what it said in favour of rationalism alone. This attitude found its way into Judaism; Ḥiwi of Balkh wrote a book of two hundred objections to the Torah based on reason.
Saadia Gaon wrote a refutation of Ḥiwi's book. This too focused people's minds on the literal meaning of Scripture.
Until now the dominant mode of concentrating on the meaning of Scripture had been through midrash. This was fine, but had little to do with the pshat [the literal meaning of the text], and it was this that all of the above brought people back now to concentrate on.
Saadia Gaon (882-942) was the greatest figure of Judaism at that time. He started life from a humble backwater, Fayyum in western Egypt. He studied in his youth, and made his way to Israel, where he became a figure. In those days there was rivalry between the geonim of Babylonia and those of Israel. Part of that dispute focused on the calendar. The geonim in Israel asserted their authority by trying to resurrect the prerogative of the nasiim [princes, the rulers of the Jewish community in Israel] in p
Saadia entered the fray by defending the Babylonian view. When Saadia writes in a polemical vein, he is extremely strong in doing so. He also became known for rebutting the Karaite view.
He then moved to Babylonia, and some time later was invited to become Rosh Yeshiva [head of the Yeshiva] of Sura. This academy, which had been founded by Rav in the third century, had been in decline for some time, and they invited him to revive it, which is what he did.
In many ways, he was the founder of mediaeval Judaism. He is best known as a philosopher, he wrote the first Jewish book of philosophy: the Book of Beliefs and Opinions (written in Arabic).
This is a Jewish work adopting the dominant Muslim theology at the time: kalâm (from the Arabic term الكلم, meaning "the word" [huh? I thought it meant "argument", and Wikipedia says it means "discourse"]), a philosophical interpretation of the Qur'ân.
There were different schools of this; the Mu'tazilite school was rationalist; it held that there can be no difference between reason and revelation. But if this is the case, why do we need revelation? The answer is that not everyone is capable of reasoning everything out. And where rationalism can point in different directions, revelation helps to show which course is right.
Even the structure of the book follows that of Mu'tazilite writings, e.g. focusing on the unity of G-d. This became known, in translation, even in northern Europe later on.
Fiqh (فقه) in the Muslim world denotes systematic jurisprudence: defining the structures and reasoning of the law and how it works. Of course, Judaism didn't need help from anyone in defining law; however, the Talmud is in no way systematic: to the untrained eye it looks like a jumble. There is no table of contents or any easily-seen systematisation. Only recently (the last fifty years) have people begun to study the deeper structure of the Talmud.
Saadia and his successors tried to remedy this, following what the Muslims did: for each subject, to define the terms, set out the principles, and define everything.
Saadia was the first Jew to do this. He wrote monographs tackling various subjects; only the one on inheritance has survived intact.
The culmination of this fiqh tradition was of course the Rambam's Mishne Torah.
Tafsîr (تفسير, related to the Hebrew פשר pesher, an explanation) denotes an exegesis or commentary. Saadia followed this Muslim tradition in his translation of the Bible into Arabic. There were numerous Aramaic translations of the Bible by now, plus of course the Septuagint, but this was the first singlehanded translation into another language by a Jew. It is the Arabic version of the Bible still used by Arabic Jews until this day.
Along with the translation came a rationalistic commentary, the first rationalistic (non-midrashic) commentary on the Bible. This was intended for Jews, but some think Saadia also had Muslims in mind. (Most of this commentary has been lost; the translation survives.)
In the field of lexicography, Saadia wrote the first Hebrew dictionary, the Agron. It wasn't so great, but it was the first. The first edition was written in Hebrew, the second, much enlarged edition, in Arabic, from which the following introduction comes:
As the children of Ishmael recount that one of their notables saw that the people did not speak Arabic eloquently and this distressed him, and he composed for them a brief discourse... so I saw that many of the children of Israel do not know the basic eloquence (Arabic: faṣaha) of our language, let alone its (rarer) alternatives; and when they speak, much of what they utter is ungrammatical; and when they compose poetry, the primary elements which they elaborate are in the minotity, and those which they neglect are the majority... (and so) I was compelled to compose a book in which I would collect most of the words.
Part of the motive for the Agron was poetry; it's a rhyming dictionary: there are two sections, one listing words alphabetically by their first letter, the second listing words alphabetically by their ending.
Poetry was very important in Islamic culture of the time. The only Arabic literature from before the Qur'ân is poems. This was one of the most important cultural activities amongst cultured Arabs and Muslims.
This influenced the Jews, and the Golden Age of the Jews in Spain became a golden age of Jewish poetry.
Saadia wrote some poetry himself, but acknowledged that he was not very good.
His disciple, however, Dunash ibn Labrat (c.920-c.990), wrote the first poems incorporating metre and rhyme. There are piyyutim [liturgical poems] from beforehand, but had no metre and very little rhyme. Dunash began the pattern of writing Hebrew poetry adopting Muslim patterns of metre and rhyme; he showed them to Saadia who encouraged him to continue.
Saadia was a major grammarian; it was he who started the study of grammar in Hebrew (following, probably, in the footsteps of the Karaites). This followed the lead of the flourishing school of Arabic grammarians. Again, Saadia's ideas were a little primitive, but his was the start. For a few generations in Muslim Spain, Hebrew grammar was the most cutting edge and controversial science.
The first grammarian in Spain was Menachem ben Saruq. When Dunash came back to Spain, the two disagreed vehemently, and both they and their later disciples waged a war of polemics on each other.
One such dispute was that Menachem thought there were [verbal] roots with one or two letters; whereas now we recognise that such "weak roots" always have three-letter stems.
Another dispute whose views are broadly represented by these two schools was whether Hebrew was an independent holy language that must be looked at solely in its own terms, or a language like other languages, and comparable to similar languages like Aramaic, and Arabic. For instance, can you use an Arabic root to cast light on strange words in the Torah? Menachem and his school said no, Dunash's followers said yes.
This approach came to its climax with the work of David Ḥayyuj (c.940-c.1010), who used the tools and terminology of Arabic grammar to study Hebrew. This work was later translated into Hebrew by Abraham ibn Ezra, and became the basis of all later Hebrew grammar.
It was not just the form of poetry that followed Arabic models, but also its substance. Ibn Gabirol, Shmuel haNagid, Moses ibn Ezra, Judah haLevi and [others] wrote, in addition to religious poetry, secular poetry based entirely on Arabic models. Topics included praise of wine (even though Islam forbids its consumption, it is a subject of lots of Arabic poetry), praise of women, even praise of boys. (The question is: was this last homoerotic, or just imitating the Moorish literary model?) Also poetry about friendship - and poems attacking people the authors did not like.
These people were studying grammar not only to understand Torah but to allow them to write poetry!
[This section was probably cut short as the speaker was running out of time.]
Sufism (Islamic mysticism) also had an influence on Jewish thought. Sufism aimed at an individual experience of union with G-d. This used zikr (remembrance) and movement and breathing and things. Baḥya ibn Paquda (c.1050-c.1120) wrote The Book of Guidance to the Duties of the Heart, the first Jewish ethical treatise. His basic contention was that Judaism had become too wrapped up in the "duties of the limbs" - how to carry out the מצות [mitzvot, precepts/commandments of Judaism]. He said the duties of the heart, the inward religion, was just as important. This distinction came from Sufism. Baḥya said this was known to the Talmudic rabbis but had been lost since. Throughout his book he includes little parables and quotations from "the Sages", who, more often than not, as Muslim sages (though he doesn't say so, as he doesn't want to alienate his readers).
This was one of the first great classics translated from Arabic to Hebrew, by the Ibn Tibbon family, and became a great influence on the Chassidim in the eighteenth century.
Abraham Maimonides (1186-1237), the son of the Rambam, also was heavily influenced by Sufism. He wrote, in The High Ways to Perfection:
Do not regard as unseemly our comparison of [the true dress of the prophets] to the conduct of the Sufis, for the latter imitate the prophets [of Israel] and walk in their footsteps...
Thou art aware of the ways of the ancient saints [awliyâ'] of Israel, which are not or but little practised among our contemporaries, that have no become the practice of the Sufis of Islam...
He even tried to impose the Muslim form of worship on the Jews of Egypt (e.g. lining up in rows and bowing down) - but got resistance to it.
Topics uncovered due to lack of time
- Solomon Ibn Gabirol (1021-c.1058) and Neoplatonism
- Judah haLevi (c.1075-1141) and Al-Ghazali (1058-1111)
- Philosophy: Maimonides (c.1135-1204), Al-Farabi (c.870-950) and Avicenna
(Ibn Sina, 980-1037).
- - Moses or Muḥammad?
- - The motive for the Mishneh Torah