David b. Joshua Maimonides’s use of Suhrawardi’s Sufi idea of attentive Illumination—-courtesy of Prof. Paul Fenton

People seemed to like the Jewish- Derwish photo from 1922 but there is much more Jewish-Sufism out there, even beyond Bahye or Avraham b. Maimonides. The scholarship for the last half century on the family of Moses Maimonides has produced a new shelf of books in halakhah, letters, exegesis, and Sufism. And we have works by those who followed them or asked them questions. Those who published the material are publishing the texts for the first time from manuscript and are dedicated to editing other manuscripts. Currently, there is no synthetic work bringing all this data together in order to provide a narrative of the 250 years of Egyptian Jewish intellectual life after Maimonides.

Here is a text David ben Joshua Maimonides or ibn Maimoni, that would be 1) Maimonides 2) son- Abraham (Nagid) 3) 3rd generationDavid (Nagid), Obadia (The Treatise of the Pool) 4) 4th generation Abraham 5) fifth generation Moshe (Nagid),Joshua (Nagid), and finally 6) six generation David (Nagid) 14th-15th century).

David (b. ~1335), succeeded his father Joshua Nagid of the Egyptian community in 1355, being the last of the Maimonidean dynasty to have held this office. David left Egypt and took up residence in Syria for a number of years (ca. 1375-1386), in the cities of Aleppo and Damascus. During this period he continued, however, to be known and revered as “David ha-Nagid, head of the Yeshivah.”Nagid David’s wrote a commentary on his great great grandfather Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah in Judeo-Arabic. “The commentary is preceded by two laudatory poems in honor of Ibn Sina and another celebrating the virtues of Awhad al-Zaman (al-Baghdadi).”

Nagid David’s Al-Murshid ila al-Tafarrud wa-l-Murfid ila al-Tajarrud, was translated by Fenton into Hebrew as Maqalat fi derek ha’Chasidut, and also into French. The work guides the individual through the“spiritual stations to the exalted plane of Chasidut;” “it is the spiritual itinerary of the devotee which culminates in prophetical gnosis.” This work, Fenton explains, is “thoroughly imbued with Sufi ideology and terminology.” Finally, we see amongst the vast library of works attribute to Nagid David, that the work of Ibn al-`Arif (1088 – 1141) is cited as part of the collection of his copyings. In the Cairo Geniza shows from the numerous copies the famous Sufi Al-Hallaj (c. 858 – 922) and the writings of ibn al Arabi. A Genizah letter addressed and answered by Nagid David tells of Jews attending the meditation and zhikr (Heb: hazkarah) retreats of Sufi Shaykh Yusuf al-`Ajami al-Qurani (d. 1367), who supervised a zawiya hermitage on the Qarafa as-sugra Muslim cemetery east of Cairo. For more, see Fenton, Paul B.. “The Literary Legacy of David ben Joshua, Last of the Maimonidean Negadim.” The Jewish Quarterly Review 75, 1 (1984): 1-56.

Now here is a quote from Nagid David when he developed a Jewish-Sufi version of Suhrawardi’s concept of illumination through luminous intuitions, divine sparks, and mental flashes. This state is attained through constant contemplation, intense remembrance of God, and diminution of food and sleep. Thereupon, these lights shine upon his pure heart and an irradiance awakens an inner desire to receive this divine blaze and angelic flashes. For more on Persian mystic Suhrawardi (1151-1191)- see a website dedicated to him here, and Stanford E of P here and wiki here. And for those looking for Tishrei reading- here. We dont have a photograph of Nagid David in his Dervish clothes.

Of the first station [of the spiritual path] which is that of illumination (zehîrût).

The Hebrew term zehîrût (‘meticulousness’) can have two meanings. Firstly, it can signify ‘scrupulousness’, through striving to reach the goal by deploying painstaking efforts or by abandoning thoughtlessness and renouncing a life of leisure.
Secondly, it can signify ‘enlightenment’ as in the expressions of brightness (zôhar) in the verses ‘The Enlightened will shine as brightness of the firmament’ (Dan. 12:3), and ‘brightness as the colour of amber’ (Ezek. 8:2). Hence the term zehîrût designates illumination and the individual who reaches this station is called zâhîr or ‘illuminate’. The latter refers to the seeker of the soul’s enlightenment and the spirit’s illumination through luminous intuitions, divine sparks, and mental flashes.

This [state] comes about through constant contemplation of the angelic world, intense remembrance of God, subtle meditation of the world of sanctity, and diminution of food and sleep. Thereupon, these lights shine upon his pure heart in accordance with his progress through the successive stages and stations, each more noble and exalted than its predecessor.
For spiritual effort and illumination lead to further enlightenment and irradiance, awakening an inner desire to receive this holy effulgence, divine blaze and angelic flashes, and inciting the individual to prepare himself for their encounter. Each arousal is conducive to illumination and each illumination is conducive to further arousal. On this account our Sages stated: ‘illumination leads to zeal’ (TB ‘Abodâh Zârâh 20b), i.e. this station is conducive to the following one.

The present text is a translation from the Judaeo-Arabic work al-Murshid ila t-tajarrud or ‘Guide to Detachment’ by David b. Joshua Maimonides (Egypt circa 1335-1410), last known nagîd (community leader) belonging to the famous Maimonides’ dynasty. The Guide to Detachment is a practical manual for the spiritual life divided into progressive stages based on the Talmudic dictum by R. Phineas b. Ya’ir : “Study leads to meticulousness, meticulousness leads to zeal, zeal leads to cleanliness, cleanliness leads to restraint, restraint leads to purity, purity leads to holiness, holiness leads to meekness, meekness leads to fear of sin, fear of sin leads to saintliness, saintliness leads to the holy spirit, the holy spirit leads to life eternal. Saintliness is the greatest of all of these” (TB ‘Abôdâh Zârâh 20b). The author construes these principles as the stages of the spiritual path or ladder of ascension similar to those found in Sufi manuals.

In this opening chapter, he specifies the prerequisites necessary to embarking upon the spiritual path. Having already discussed the initial prerequisite of knowledge, for ‘the ignorant cannot be pious’ (Aboth 2, 6), David Maimonides presents a very original interpretation of the term zehîrût (‘meticulousness’). In addition to its classical meaning of the ‘attentiveness’ which stems from knowledge, he lends it the sense of ‘enlightenment’. Interestingly, he uses as a locus probans the verse used in the opening passage of the Zohar, of ‘Book of Brightness’! However, David’s inspiration here is not Kabbalistic but Sufic, ultimately deriving from the ishrâqî or ‘illuminative’ spirituality of Suhrawardi (executed in 1191), for whom progress in speculative knowledge and spiritual illumination are intimately bound. Thus the starting point of spiritual awareness is a spark, an illumination which serves as a catalyser for the quest. This spark results from a meditative attitude – ‘constant contemplation of the angelic world’, ‘intense remembrance of God’, ‘subtle meditation of the world of sanctity’, – coupled with a corporeal discipline involving the reducing of one’s physical needs such as food and sleep.

Taken from here at the Elijah School

5 responses to “David b. Joshua Maimonides’s use of Suhrawardi’s Sufi idea of attentive Illumination—-courtesy of Prof. Paul Fenton

  1. In the wikipedia article on Sufism, there is a section dedicated to the links between Judaism and Sufism. It says that Chovos HaLevavos is indebed to Sufisim.

  2. Thanks for these. I read “Treatise of the Pool” once, and have used an oriental pool as an image.
    I know Jews who went to Sufi dhikrs here and in Israel in recent generations. I like the creative derivations of zehirut and zerizut.
    “Darwish” as a last name for Mizrahi Jews is something I’d encountered before, and always figured there were Jewish members of such orders up through recent times. Of course, the fact that they became patriarchs of important families underscores the fact that they did have progeny and lived at least a good part of their lives as baale batim, as Judaism as well as Hinduism (and presumably many schools of Islam) demanded.

    Which brings me to my biggest question about this phenomenon: How involved were these types of Sufis in worldly affairs, or how much perishut did Jewish communities tolerate, especially perishut from their wives and communities? I once heard Dr. Stefan Reif, formerly the head of Cambridge U’s Cairo genizah collection, read a geniza fragment in which a Jewish wife complained, presumably to Beit Din, about how her husband abandoned his responsibilities to her to spend time with the Sufis.

    So my question is, how ascetic or how hermit-like were these Sufis? Were they wanderers, or did they settle down and meet in a kind of “kloyz” in town? The pictures have a weapon used to defend against highwaymen and dangers of the road, and a bowl, presumably deriving from a time when Sufis, like Hindu and Buddhist ascetics, especially once they had raised their families, wandered and begged for food. But it’s also likely that there were orders which settled down in towns for whom such implements became merely ceremonial. Did the orders attract young idealistic men, the middle-aged who were trusted after age 40, or the elderly empty-nesters who were freed of responsibilities? Was leaving a wife looked upon favorably after fulfilling the householder-stage duties and provided that the wife was provided for?

    Also thanks for the reference elsewhere on your site to Shlomo Pines’ translation of AlBiruni’s Arabic version of the Yoga Sutras. I must say that Patanjali filtered through the commentators they used then and through philosophic/mystic Arabic tradition sounds very Sufi-like and very different than the way the Yoga Sutras are translated and understood today.

    • The Responsa that Dr. Reif was quoting was addressed to David ben Joshua Maimonides.It was first published 60 years ago by Goitein in this link.

      Click to access HTF-86-version1-Judaism_a_sufismus.pdf

      There has been much more research on Nagid David since then. We know his library, his handwriting, his positions.
      For example, earlier this season an new article was published on the Arabic logic he used: “Two commentaries on Najm al-Dīn al-Kātibī’s al-Shamsiyya, copied in the hand of David b. Joshua Maimonides’ (fl. ca. 1335-1410 CE)”by Sabine Schmidtke

      Nagid David rebuked him for neglecting his wife and duties but not for the virtues of Sufism. It seems the Rabbinic approach was to moderate the Sufi lifestyle within Rabbinic boundaries. But on the ground, many went off and lived the ascetic life from a young age.

  3. Hello! Thanks to all for this thought provoking post!

    Can anyone please inform me if David ha-Nagid’s commentary on the Yad contains a full commentary on Hilkhot Teshuvah and if this commentary has been translated partially or entirely into Hebrew or any European languages? Many thanks.

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