The Arab empire had its inception when Muhammad took control of Medina by expelling two of the Jewish tribes in the city and massacring the third. In the following years he took control of the territory north of Medina in battles with Judeo-Arab and pagan tribes. In 630 he conquered Mecca and in two years the conquest was completed by sending his armies across Arabia.
After Mohammed's death in 632, the borders of the Arab empire were extended to include Syria and Persia to the north, Central and Southeast Asia, and all of North Africa, plus Spain.
By the middle of the 8th century Arab expansion had slowed down and the governors of Baghdad, Damascus, and Cordoba were able to turn their attention to local affairs. In 762 the Caliph al-Ma'mun established an academy and library in Baghdad. They were modeled on that of Alexandria and dedicated to the transcription and translation of poetry, science, philosophy, and theology. The royal mosque of Cordoba was built in 788 with its school and library. In 813 the House of Wisdom was established in Baghdad with its academy and library.
In the 8th century the library of the Great Mosque of Cordoba was built and in 976 it employed 500 librarians, scribes, doctors, historians, geographers and copyists. It attracted the cream of European researchers. The history of this establishment is the history of what Western culture owes to the East, in particular to the Arab empires of Abbasid and Umayyad (711-1031). The Cordoba library was part of a complex cultural transmission chain in which Greek pagan thought from the 5th century BC. was translated in Arab cities centuries later and thousands of kilometers away, to be later retranslated by Christians.
The interest of the Arabs in accumulating and studying Greek writings seems to have two aspects: the motivation was religious and cultural (to know the 'enemy') and their conquests supplied the materials. A lucky historical event helped them maintain their empire and their commercial and cultural exchanges. Some Chinese were captured in Samarkand and they taught their captors to make paper. In the 790's paper mills were built on the rivers around Baghdad, and the material was shipped to all the imperial capitals. Civic literacy, spread by Koranic reading, along with the availability of paper, promoted the means of promoting Islamic libraries. Conversion to Islam and education in Arabic quickly followed. From the streets of Cordoba to the borders with China, the process of cultural transmission, exchange and translation followed the expansion of the new empire.
Moisés Maimonides (1138 - 1204) was a Judeo-Spanish philosopher born in Cordoba. He foreshadowed scholasticism and influenced Thomas Aquinas, Duns Scotus and others. His aim was to reconcile Neoplatonic philosophy and science with the Jewish Torah.
His major works include various texts on medicine, commentaries on a religious code of Rabbinical Judaism, and A Guide for the Perplexed which harmonized and differentiated Jewish theology and Aristotelian philosophy. He claimed that we should only believe what can be supported by rational evidence, evidence of the senses, or reliable authority. (In this we glimpse a mix of Western ideology in reasoning and sensory evidence and the Eastern tradition of trusting authority.)
Between the 8th and 13th centuries the Arab peoples were the bearers of culture and civilization in the world. The revival of Greek culture in Europe was possible because Muslim Spain shared knowledge with Christian Spain to maintain and transmit the traditions of Greek and Eastern civilizations. The texts of Aristotle, which scholars like Thomas Aquinas could take advantage of in the Middle Ages, would probably have been lost if the Arabs had not commented on them and brought them to Europe through Spain.
A Guide for the Perplexed (1185-1190) is divided into an Introduction and three books.
- The Introduction: Maimonides paints a description of his work its methodology. There follows a treatise on similes then advice of studying the Guide and finally a discussion of inconsistences in authors.
- Book 1 concerns itself on the nature of God and comes to the conclusion that God cannot be described in positive terms. Maimonides employs this line of thought as a deconstruction of the Kalam Islamic school of thought which presented God in human terms.
- Book 2 deals with Aristotelian natural philosophy with its circular spheres, creation theories, time of the universe and ideas on angels and prophecy.
- Book 3 explains a section of the book of Ezekiel and rationalises parts of the Pentateuch legal system.
The opening lines of the Guide are these :
"My knowledge goes forth to point out the way,
To pave straight its road
Lo, everyone who goes astray in the field of Torah,
Come and follow its path.
The unclean and the fool shall not pass over it;
It shall be called the Way of Holiness."
This introductory verse closely parallels Isaiah 35/8. It also reflects John the Baptist's quoting of Isaiah in the gospel (Jn 1/23). It is a daring statement by Maimonides that his Guide is based on the prophets and is also a prophetic work, too, destined to lead the reader. It is a statement about his main proposition : to philosophise on and interpret the biblical texts in order to guide ("pave straight") the reader.
According to Maimonides there are two types of knowledge, that of proposition, understood by the ear, and indication, only comprehensible through the heart. Logos, the spoken word, is understood through reason, the human faculty. Knowledge is heard through the ear but understood through the heart. The word can represent the object in a formal sense but indication and suggestion cannot be made concrete in the heart. However, knowledge through this means leaves us "in obscure night, as we were at first."
It is not through proposition that true knowledge can be expressed but through parables, images which capture the imagination. These stories narrate truths by suggestion and indication and liberate them from the formulae of the logos. It is through these tales that the heart can understand truths
The discussion revolves round how far language can transmit knowledge. He concludes that God cannot be described in words and so He is unknowable and can only be described in negative terminology.
The negative descriptions of God in Maimonides' theology spring from the limitations of knowledge through the ear. True knowledge of God in his view is through the heart. The truths which are known through the heart are also linked to the imagination. It is through the perfection of this faculty that these truths can be grasped.
The author conceives God as an impersonal source of creation and truth similar to the sun which is an impersonal source of light and energy. The Universe is thought of as flowing eternally from God as its source just as light comes from the sun. He argues that the anthropomorphic descriptions of God in the Torah are metaphors but that we cannot say anything really of the divinity, not even expressed in metaphor. Idols are visual representations of God and metaphors are the same except that they are in words not wood or stone. Suggesting that God can be revealed through words is an idolatry since the divinity remains beyond human comprehension. Silence is the most apt description.
Maimonides' rejection of the positive descriptions of God is actually a rejection of language as a means of knowledge of God, not a negation of theology in itself.
Maimonides incorporated the main Aristotelian teachings into his treatise :
- The soul is part of the physical body, not different from it. It also includes the intellect which is not destroyed with the body at death but continues in a separate form.
- People are social beings. Knowledge is sought for self-improvement and also for that of society.
- Virtue, acting properly, is acquired not only by deciding to be good but by practising good behaviour so as to develop correct habits.
- The Golden Mean is not the Platonic ideal but involves acting according to behaviour pitched between the extremes of deficiency and excess. Courage, for example, is the mean between cowardice and foolhardiness.
In the ideal temple which he describes in the Guide Maimonides place Aristotle and his teachings in the Holy of Holies together with Moses, whom he believed taught like Aristotle. The Jewish rabbis were put out of this holy area and those who thought that, for example, God had a body were classed as ignoramuses.
Maimonides' opponents reacted strongly against his ideas and leading French rabbis denounced his teaching to the Dominican order who led the Inquisition. The author lived in perilous times for those with unorthodox ideas. Some of the more obscure and contradictory passages in the Guide may owe their lack of clarity to Maimonides fear of reprisals if he spoke his truth clearly.