A Jewish Classic for Muslims

Tuesday, September 18, 2012 - 11:57 am

A Jewish Classic for Muslims

In the past few months several news agencies have reported on a new publication of Judah Halevi’s Kuzari, a classic of Jewish thought written in Judaeo-Arabic (Arabic written in Hebrew characters).
Completed in 1140, the Kuzari is an apologetic defense of “the despised faith” framed as a dialogue about the conversion of the Kazar kingdom to Judaism. The king of the Kazars, tormented by a recurring dream which tells him his thoughts are pleasing but his actions are not, interviews in succession a philosopher, a Christian, a Muslim, and a Jew, the latter converting him — along with his entire kingdom — to Judaism. Much of the book is focused on the dialogue between the King and the Jew, including an argument for the superiority of the Hebrew language written in fine classical Arabic! The dialogue ends with the Jew’s departure from the Jewish kingdom for the Holy Land — reflecting Halevi’s own migration East from Islamic Spain.
Not often does the publication of a medieval work of Judaeo-Arabic thought receive attention in the press, even if it is a classic. This publication, however, is different. It is an Arabic-script version of the work published in Beirut by an Arab-Israeli doctoral student, Nabih Bashir, for a Muslim readership. What’s more: the author’s copies of his new book, sent from Beirut, were prevented entry into Israel, since imports from an enemy country of Israel are illegal. The irony was certainly not lost on the reporters: a classic of Jewish thought and foundational work of Zionism was prevented entry into Israel; a work on dialogue between philosophy and the three Abrahamic religions was not allowed free distribution.
Nabih BashirNabih Bashir in his Jerusalem apartment. (Photo by Yasmin Bashir)
Nabih Bashir’s work (which has since made it to Israel; I just bought a copy in Jerusalem), however, is more than sensation. What he accomplished is quite remarkable. Although the Kuzari has been published several times — in the original Judaeo-Arabic, in Hebrew translation, and in European languages — this is the first Arabic-script version.
And he did much more than transcription: He translated biblical and rabbinic citations into Arabic, provided a lengthy Arabic introduction setting the work in its intellectual context, and added copious annotation. The result is an impressive 727-page tome which immediately makes a foundational work of medieval Judaism, still studied avidly by Jews today, easily accessible to millions of Arabic-speaking Muslims (and Christians) who do not know Hebrew.
To be sure, this is not the first Judaeo-Arabic work published in Arabic characters. Maimonides’ Guide of the Perplexed circulated in Arabic characters during the Middle Ages, and an Arabic version was published in 1972 by the Turkish scholar Huseyin Atay; his version — now available online — is (I’ve been told by students) intensely studied by Muslims at al-Azhar in Cairo.
Saadia Gaon’s theological Book of Beliefs and Opinions, Bahya ibn Paquda’s sufistic Duties of the Heart, Solomon ibn Gabirol’s ethical treatise Improvement of the Moral Qualities, and Moses ibn Ezra’s work of poetics Book of Conversation and Discussion have also appeared in Arabic characters. Moreover, the Karaites, a non-rabbinic, often anti-rabbinic sect of Judaism, wrote many of their Arabic works in Arabic characters during the tenth and eleventh centuries — they even transcribed the Hebrew Bible into Arabic script! — and, more and more frequently, in recent years their works have been appearing in the original script.
With the exception of Huseyin Atay’s Guide, however, the others were produced by scholars for scholars. In contrast, Nabih Bashir’s Kuzari is self-consciously directed at a popular non-Jewish audience in the Middle East.
In a region where the Jews, Christians, and Muslims have a shared religious and intellectual history, yet remain so divided politically and socially, the significance of Bashir’s work should not be underestimated. One might even hope it is the beginning of a trend.
As mentioned, Maimonides’ (Ibn Maymun’s) Guide is studied intensely in the Muslim world, as are works by Abu al-Barakat al-Baghdadi and Ibn Kammuna, two important Jewish influences on the development of Ishraqi philosophy (Illuminationism). The Talmud has recently been translated into Arabic by a team of scholars in Amman. And, in the other direction, Arabic texts are being put into Hebrew. A new rendition of the Qur’an has recently appeared, along with Hebrew translations of Sufi and philosophical texts, including writings by al-Farabi, Ibn Sina (Avicenna) and Ibn Tufayl.
One can only hope that the work of dedicated scholars and translators like Nabih Bashir in the literary and cultural sphere will gradually break down the artificial borders that separate the communities of the Middle East, which have so much in common and so many ideas to share.

This essay is reprinted with permission of Sightings from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

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is Associate Professor of the History of Judaism at the University of Chicago Divinity School. His latest book is Asceticism, Eschatology, Opposition to Philosophy, and he is currently constructing a website devoted to the Jews of the Medieval Muslim world.

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