Moses Maimonides (1135-1204) was a great Spanish philosopher, an authority on Jewish oral laws, and a major intellectual figure of the Middle Ages. What Saint Augustine was to Christianity, Maimonides was to Judaism. So extensive was his influence that he has been called the Second Moses.
He was born in Cordoba, Spain, which is about 75 miles northeast and upstream of Seville. Although it had been under Islamic rule since 780, Cordoba was a cosmopolitan city of Muslims, Jews and Christians. For 250 years, it was one of the largest cities in Europe and was well known for its leather works, jewelry and silk brocades.
Although some of the splendor had waned by the time Maimonides was born, Cordoba was a major center in south-central Spain. Like much of the Islamic world, the city shaken from its comfortable existence by the revolt of a radical fundamentalist Muslim group, the Almohads. Over a period of 25 years, the Almohads (Affirming The Unity of God) captured Marrakech (1147), Cordoba (1148) and Seville (1172).
Combining tribal rule and centralized government, the Almohads consolidated their power. Interpreted religious purity as the exclusion of other faiths, they outlawed all other religions and made their practice punishable by death. Faced with converting to Islam or leaving Cordoba, the Maimonides family chose a third option: to act Muslim in public and practice Judaism in private. Consequently, from the ages 13-24, Moses and his brother David received a public Islamic education from their schools and a private Jewish education from their father.
Although successful for over a decade, the deception grew increasingly difficult to maintain. In 1159, the Maimonides family moved to Fez, Morocco, where they were unknown and continued their dual existence. But in 1165, after Moses’ teacher (Rabbi Judah ibn Shoshan) was executed for practicing Judaism, the family moved to Cairo, Egypt.
Although re-conversion from Islam was not allowed, Jews in Cairo could practice their religion openly. David (the younger brother) supported the family as a merchant of jewelry and precious gems. Moses gave his life to scholarly pursuits and was active in the Jewish community. Three years later, at the age of 33, Moses completed his 14-volume commentary on the Mishneh. This major work was an analysis of the oral traditions and legal literature of Judaism. It had taken him 10 years to write but the Mishneh Torah is one of most important works of Jewish scholarship ever produced.
Moses’ great success was tempered by the loss of both his father and brother. His father died en route to Cairo or shortly after their arrival. David drowned in the Indian Ocean on a buying trip, taking the family fortune with him. Moses was devastated and consumed with grief for nearly a year. But through no choice of his own, he became the head of the family and responsible for the support of the family, including David’s wife and two children.
Moses turned to the practice of medicine and achieved international acclaim when he was appointed as physician to the sultan of Egypt in 1185. But even with his new responsibilities, Maimonides continued to write. In 1191, he completed his Guide For The Perplexed, an integration of Jewish faith and Aristotelian philosophy. It took 15 years to complete and includes discussions on free will, rationalism, and how to reconcile the nature of God and the presence of evil in the world.
Maimonides was a prolific writer whose works covered medicine, philosophy, science and religion. His works influenced both Christians (including Thomas Aquinas) and Jews. He is best known for his Mishneh Torah and his Guide For The Perplexed, but his Thirteen Articles of Faith is a creed still used by many Orthodox Jews today. So famous was he that his formal name (Rabbi Moses ben Maimon) was simplified to Rambam (an acrostic formed from his initials).