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Samaw’el al-Maghrabi and the Muslim polemics against Judaism

BS”D

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Lately I have been spending some times diving into the Jewish-Muslim polemics, mostly focused on attitudes to the Bible, but also in general. I do want to keep it more actual, that it, focus on the polemics of our days, but interestingly (though not so surprising) enough most of the polemics going on between Jews and Muslims today is focused on the Israel-Palestine issue, more than the religions themselves. Or that is, the religions are within the scope, but the conflict takes the main focus in the polemics.

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Not so in the medieval times, where the religions, their faith, and especially the status of scripture and prophets were in focus. And, of course, there were no Israel-Palestine conflict back then. Most of the Muslim polemics were actually focused on Christianity and their religious claims, though they often also lead to reactions to Judaism and the Jews. See for example Ibn Hazm, who is one of the more known polemicists.

One who focused mainly on Judaism, and who – as far as is known – wrote the first polemic work directed against the Jews alone, is the Jewish convert, Samaw’el al-Maghrabi (also spelled Samau’al). He was born in Baghdad in 1126 (though some traditions puts his year of birth in 1130 – I have chosen to follow Moshe Perlmann here), the son of a Jewish rabbi who moved there from Northern Africa. He was taught in mathematics and is mostly known for his works on that subject, especially his al-Bahir fi’l-Jabr, but after his conversion in 1163 he began to write his polemic work against the Jews, Ifham al-Yahûd (Silencing the Jew). That book was rewritten in a new version four years after with some additions.

His conversion was done with the rabbi who taught him, and his fellow studen Yitzhaq ben Avraham ibn ‘Ezra, who is generally believed to be the son of the great commentator and poet, Avraham ibn ‘Ezra. But while the rabbi converted in an old age and died shortly after, and Yitzhaq apparently regretted his conversion, attempting the rest of his life to correct it, Samaw’el embraced Islam fully, seeing it as the only answer.

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What is interesting about Samaw’el is that he lived contemporary with the great Jewish philosopher, Maimonides, though they probably never met. And while Samaw’el wrote his Ifham al-Yahûd in 1163, rewritten in 1167, Maimonides wrote his Iggeret Teyman (Letter to Yemen) in 1172, where he deals with some of the points in Samaw’el’s Ifham. It is possible that Maimonides had read the Ifham, but his answer to the Yemenites was not based on this, but rather on another Jewish convert, who used Samaw’el’s arguments against the Yemenite Jewish community. It is not weird that later Muslims, especially Jewish converts, took use of the Ifham, but this happened relatively early after it was written, hinting at some early popularity (as far as it wasn’t just a coincidence, but many of the points being raised seems to similar for it to be a coincidence).

The Ifham is indeed a classical Islamic work of polemics, points from it even being raised by Muslims today, but while the Jews, who converted to Islam in the Medieval times, understood the context of their polemical arguments, and therefore brought a high level of discussions forth, Muslims today seem to lack this understanding, only repeating these arguments without really understanding them. This points to the fact that not many Muslims really are studying Judaism on its own terms, but rather – when they study it – in terms of disproving it. This is not wrong of them, many Christians who study Judaism or Islam, or indeed Jews who study the two other religions, have the same approach. I have to point out though that these are examples outside the academic world, where such approaches generally are put aside, and a more open attitude are taken. But even within the academic world we see that there are not many Muslim scholars in Judaism, while there certainly are quite a high number of Jewish scholars in both Islam and Christianity.

I wish it was different. I am sure that we, in the academic study of Judaism and Christianity, could benefit from serious Muslims scholars, who dedicated themselves to the study of the two other Abrahamic religions. Until we see more Muslim scholars in Judaism and Christianity, we have to settle with the polemics of the Medieval times.


2 Comments

  1. Elon says:

    It might be interesting to discuss some of his points.

    • qolyehudi says:

      Hi Elon, and Shavu’a tov:o)

      That will come. I’m working on my analysis of his work, which either will have added other Muslim polemicists, either their full arguments or only some of it, or RaMBaM’s, Z”L, answers to those of his points that he deals with, which mainly is being focused on Muhammad and the revelation of the Quran.

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