What books influence the theism of 20th century United States? Obviously, William James on religious experience, Rudolph Otto on the tremendum, Martin Buber on I-Thou, and Paul Tillich on ultimate concern. These are the works that color the theological language of modern theism beyond and before any specific allegiance a person may have to their Judaism or Christianity. Alternately, the sociologist Christian Smith, describes the American God with the phrase moralistic therapeutic deism. Even if one has affirms a specific denominational position, the average person regardless of religion would reflect the general theological language.
What would have been those works in the 13th century Judeo-Islamic world? It would probably have included Ibn Sina, Al-Ghazali and some Sufism. A good window into 13th century theological language are the writings of the Jewish author Sa’d ibn Mansur Ibn Kammuna (d. 1284), who provides an exemplar of “Abrahamic Philosophic Piety, a theological pious theism that transcends the specific of Islam, Judaism, or Christianity.
Last year, Prof. Y. Tzvi Langermann, translated Ibn Kammuna’s book entitled Subtle Insights Concerning Knowledge and Practice (Yale University Press, 2019). Professor Langermann is a hidden gem of a scholar. He earned his doctorate in history of science at Harvard and teaches in the Department of Arabic, Bar Ilan University. He is expert in medieval Judeo-Arabic science able to explain the astronomy, astrology, physics, math, medicine, Sufism, and philosophic piety in the medieval classics. I sat in on one of his courses many decades ago when he focused on Andalusian astrological works. (He would not remember me). The class helped me though my teaching career in my ability to explain the cultural world of Ibn Ezra, Yehudah Halevi, and Bar Hiyya. The recently deceased Maimonides scholar Prof Joel L. Kraemer (d. 2018) wrote that he always learned something new by speaking to Tzvi Langermann.
In recent decades, Langermann has turned East, working in texts from Yemen, Ottoman Empire, and the Mongol empire. Besides Ibn Kammuna, he translated and edited Yemenite Midrash: Philosophical Commentaries on the Torah: An Anthology of Writings from the Golden Age of Judaism in the Yemen, a medieval philosophic midrash.
Below in the interview, Prof Langermann describes his study with the great Yemenite rabbinic scholar Rabbi Yosef Qafiḥ (also spelled as Kafach or Kapach, d. 2000). Rabbi Kafah taught how to study Talmud without the Ashkenazi influence of Rashi and with an understanding of Torah dependent on the philosophic religion of Saadiah and Maimonides. Through this interview, I also learned that recordings of some of Rabbi Kafach’s classes are available.
In other projects, recently Langermann published a new responsa ascribed to Maimonides on selling of Chametz on Passover (Shut says Rabbanu Hagadol but probably the Rif). Langermann is skeptical of the recent trend of finding Al-Ghazali’s influence on Maimonides. I recommend watching his 13 minute lecture on Islamicized Yoga in Yemen Jewish thought. And his free U of Penn course on medical manuscripts.
To return to our topic, Ibn Kammuna, a Baghdadi Jew, wrote an analysis of the three major monotheistic faiths based on excellent knowledge of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. This work, Ibn Kammuna’s Examination of the Three Faiths: A Thirteenth-Century Essay in the Comparative Study of Religion was translated by Moshe Perlmann (1971) offers a window in how comparative religion would have been approached in the 13th century Ibn Kammuna quotes copiously from Hadith and Islamic traditions. Naturally, Judaism wins as the best of the three. As noted by others, the book feels like a modern book in its candor and appeal to common sense logic & religious experience.
The new work, Ibn Kammuna’s Subtle Insights Concerning Knowledge and Practice (Yale University Press, 2019).is a gold mine of ethics, ritual, piety, and religious thought of the 13th century. It is the sort of work that someone like me finds valuable quotes about the medieval Jewish experience and its culture.
Written for the newly appointed Islamic governor of Isfahan, this compact treatise and philosophical guidebook includes a wide‑ranging and accessible set of essays on ethics, psychology, political philosophy, and the unity of God. Here too, Ibn Kammūna, accepts the commonality of all monotheisms, both prophetic and philosophical.
In medieval society as presented in the book, society had two elements the common person who followed religion based on the authority of prophecy and the philosopher intellectual who has a philosophic religion. This book presents what Langermann calls “Abrahamic Philosophic Piety”, a world where everyone accepts the two principles God and prophecy. God is the same for all and is referred to as first cause, creator, and deity. Allah, Theos, and Hashem are automatically assumed to be the same universal God. Ibn Kammuna’s universalism is sympathetic to the idea of a pre-existent soul and possibly even gilgul (reincarnation).
The medieval classics of Abrahamic Philosophy Piety are not just an abstract Platonic-Aristotelean philosophy, rather a pietistic path to God. As noted above, if the late 20th century spoke an Existential language of seeking God in dialogue and as meaning in life, the 12-14th century sought God through an inner focus of God. This volume presents repentance- applying equally to all Abrahamic religions- as turning to focus on God, to settle the mind on God. Prayer is the intentional act of placing God on the heart. Gratitude toward God and offering thanks to God are important parts of piety. Ritual law is kept as self-restraint, but the focus is on God. The piety of the book shows ordinary Sufism without belonging to a sufi order (tarikah) or chanting God’s name (dhikr).Ibn Kammuna’s discussion has parallels in Bahye Ibn Pakudah’s Duties of the Heart and Maimonides in the Guide. The universal goal is the happiness of loving God as in Maimonides (Yesodei Hatorah, chapter 10) in his Mishnah Torah. And as Maimonides presents it, prophecy is an outgrowth of philosophic perfection(Yesodai Hatorah chapter 7).
Ibn Kammuna advocates kindness towards all creation and kindness toward animals, offering several choice lines about kindness toward creatures. In the book, Langermann speculates of possible Buddhist or Indian influence on this position, but in this interview, he is more cautious, viewing the kindness as an outgrowth of the Abrahamic Philosophy Piety. Usually, authors that I interview are cautious in their published writing and more speculative in unofficial interviews. In this case, it is the reverse. Langermann is more cautious in this interview but proffers in several places potential influence on Ibn Kammuna of Patanjali’s Yoga sutras (19) and in several places the possibility of Buddhist influence. (62, 148).
Ibn Kammuna is also important because he helped spread the thought of the Islamic thinker Suhrawardi (1151-1191) by writing a commentary on his work and integrating his though into this work. Suhrawardi taught a concept of illumination through luminous intuitions, divine sparks, and mental flashes into the pure heart. This experiential element is one of the factors giving Ibn Kammuna a modern religious flavor, looking a personal experience and mental flashes. (As a side point, David b. Joshua Maimonides (Egypt circa 1335-1410), last known nagîd belonging to the famous Maimonides’ dynasty wrote a Judaeo-Arabic work Guide to Detachment influenced by Suhrawardi).
Another vector of this book is the court of Mongol Khan where Indian and East Asian works were read and sometimes integrated. For example, the Khan’s vizier was Jewish born Rashid al-Din who wrote a survey of the culture religions of Asia for the Khan, showing his knowledge of the various 13th century schools of Buddhism.
Finally, Professor Langermann’s scholarship has brought to light the scholarship of Yeminite Jews, including pietistic and Sufi commentaries on Maimonides as well as the influence of Yoga ideas on medieval Yemenite Jews. Yoga texts could be integrated into Jewish thought the way Islamic philosophic texts could.
All these points, make his book a major contribution to the study of medieval Jewish religious culture. As soon as I read it, the book’s groundbreaking content struck me. The content of any given paragraph or page may not be new; it may just be citations from other works. However, the glimpse into the richness of ideas available to a Jewish reader at the time and the way they formed a theology of theism, akin to Tillich or James in our day is the innovation. Most surveys of medieval Jewish thought still follow Harry Wolfson’s trajectory from Saadiah to Cresacas without a glance at lands further East or towards the science, ethics and piety. This book could be assigned to help remedy the situation. Alas, the unfortunate problem with this volume and with much of Professor Langermann’s scholarship is that it takes a scholar to read them, they are treasures of philology. But they need to be brought to the educated philosophic Jewish reader.
One final note on the concept of “Abrahamic Philosophic Piety” as a philosophy of religion. I taught in Muslim Java in Indonesia this past summer, where the country accepts a form of this “Philosophic Piety.” All recognized religions had to affirm a monotheistic God, prophecy and scripture. Not just the three Abrahamic religions as in Ibn Kammuna’s books, but also Hindus, Buddhists, and Confucians also sincerely affirm monotheism, prophecy, and scripture. They all fit into a global theistic philosophic piety. Langermann’s edition of ibn Kammuna and my Indonesia experience leaves me wondering about the potential of a 21st century Jewish version of this universalism.
Interview with Prof Langermann
1) How are you a disciple of Rav Kafah?
My late father purchased for me the set of Kafah’s translation of Maimonides’ commentary to the Mishnah; this was in the late seventies, when I was still in graduate school. I was very impressed and made it a point to try to make contact with the rabbi upon my aliyah in late 1979.
Eventually I found his synagogue and began to attend regularly his “shiurim”, or study sessions: Sunday evenings we read philosophy texts, mostly by Maimonides and Saadya, and Thursday evenings we studied Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah (halakha). I attended regularly for about twenty years, until the rabbi’s demise. I also learned a good deal of Talmud in his synagogue; for the first time I realized that one could make sense of the Talmud without Rashi! I also would ask from time to time to meet with him privately in his home study
2) What is unique to Rav Kafah’s translation style of the Guide?
Every translation of the Guide is unique in its own way. Rabbi Kafah stands out in that he came to the Guide as part of a still living tradition of studying it in the original, beginning with his grandfather’s classes when he was not yet bar mitzvah. He must have read the Guide from cover to cover dozens of times before he began to translate. There is a certain feeling for the language that cannot be learned; you have to grow up with the language as your mother tongue and the language of the place where you live. The only other translator who had such a native command for the language was Harizi, and that’s why Harizi’s translation is so important, despite its well-known issues. There are certain mistakes that a native speaker would never make.
Rabbi Kafah’s notes are also invaluable, especially the many references to Saadya. Though Saadya is never mentioned by name, he looms large behind the scene, but you have to be expert in Saadya to detect this. Most trained academics know how to find Saadya in discussions of divine attributes and such matters. However, the rabbi could detect where Maimonides is responding to Saadya’s translation of biblical verses, because he seemed to know Saadya’s translation by heart! Many times, as we studied texts, I heard Rabbi Kafah cite Saadya’s Arabic translation of a verse right off the cuff. By the way, a complete set of recordings of one of the cycles of his lessons on the Guide has been uploaded to archive.org.
3) According to Ibn Kammuna what are the fundamentals of religion that all agree upon?
From his book on the three faiths (Ibn Kammuna, Examination of the Three Faiths, trans. Moshe Perlmann, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1971) it is clear that the one thing all three so-called Abrahamic faiths agree upon is the truth of prophecy, which in fact has two components: that prophets receive divine revelations on all sorts of issues, and also that some select prophets reveal to us the code by which God commands us to abide. Therefore, he has a section on the general phenomena of prophecy which is separate from the individual chapters given to Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
Elsewhere, including the book whose translation I have just published, he displays a list of tenets that are agreed upon by “the masters of traditional religions” and those who are masters of “intellectual tenets” agree upon. These are the existence of the deity, the end of days, and doing good works.
Clearly the ideas are the same, it is their source that differs: “religious” people receive them from prophets, whereas “intellectuals” (that is, those whose tenets ultimately derive from reason alone) arrive at them by some type of discursive reasoning. Medieval philosophers, in one way or another, considered the acquisition of essential truths to be not just a laudable action, but the telos of human existence. There were debates or worries about the limits of human knowledge, but, even though there are things that we cannot possibly know, this does not detract in the least from our obligation to pursue knowledge.
It is not hard to see how the religions could agree on the existence of some supreme being or the requirement to do the good. As for the end of days, there is some traditional support for this in revealed scripture, though to varying degrees: not that much in the Jewish scriptures (though perhaps more in rabbinic tradition) but strongly emphasized in Christianity and most especially in Islam.
“Intellectuals” (as defined above) for their part would have held cosmological or astrological ideas that the universe as we know it will come to an end; it will exists for only a finite (if “astronomically” long) period, though it may regenerate in infinite cycles.
Religion is perforce traditional, since prophets come infrequently, and so the communities that form around the prophet must pass on the prophetic revelations from generation to generation.
In contrast, “intellectual” tenets can in theory be rediscovered and reconfirmed (or refuted) at any given time. To be honest, though, we should admit that tradition and authority play a decisive role in “intellectual” communities as well; contemporary academia being just one avatar of that phenomenon.
4) Why did Ibn Kammuna create an almost de-Judaised and de-Islamisied philosophy both here and in his other writings?
That is a very complex question. First of all, he did not do this in all of his writings. His famous “Examination of the Three Faiths” has a distinctly pro-Jewish bias, which was not lost on Christian and Muslim readers. It is not overtly polemical; he does not attack any other religion—and believe me, the polemical writings such as those by Ibn Hazm and Shmuel ha-Maghrebi are quite toxic. However, Judaism does come out looking the best of the three in that book. Similarly, his relatively unknown treatise comparing Rabbinites and Karaites (an internal Jewish schism) clearly favors the Rabbinites.
Suhrawardīs Talwīḥāt is a book of basically Aristotelian philosophy with no “religious” identity and so is Ibn Kammuna’s commentary on that book.
“Subtle Insights” is a much more delicate work. In my reading—and maybe some will disagree—Ibn Kammuna has very cleverly included enough Islamic references so as to make the book appealing to his Muslim patron, but not so much as to cause a Jew, Christian, or even an unaffiliated intellectual to feel that the book is not addressed to him.
5) Why are the different names he uses for the deity?
He will use Allāh occasionally, but that is very commonly used in Jewish writings, even in Sa‘adya Gaon’s translation of the Torah into Arabic. I am sure you know that today, it is Muslims—specifically, more recently, some intolerant people in Malaysia—who objected to the use by Christians of the name Allāh.
He also uses the very common wājib al-wujūd, or “necessary existent”, and other appellations that are found in philosophical texts; after all, “Subtle Insights” is a book of philosophy. He occasionally employs al-ilāh, which is etymologically the closest in Arabic to the Hebrew Elohim. On the other hand, he is generally (though perhaps not always) careful to avoid cognomens that imply a Creator God. He will use terms like mubdi’ which means something like “source”. I think that he wished to avoid taking any stand on the issue creatio ex nihilo, which not all philosophers were comfortable with.
Using more than one name for the deity is not unheard of. The Torah does it; “critical” scholars claim that different writers chose specific names, for whatever reason, but the traditional approach has always been that God has more than one name. After all, how can one name capture an infinite being? Even today, and in English, we say “Heaven” as in “Heaven forbid!” or “The One Above”, the “Creator”, and more.
6) What is his view of a pre-existing soul and of the stability of the individual soul?
Ibn Kammuna accepts the notion of the pre-existing soul; in doing so, he breaks with Avicenna, the foremost authority in his historical setting.
He also seems very much to accept the related doctrine of transmigration, since a soul that enters the body after having already lived a life in a different body is pre-existent. That doctrine—which many (unfortunately) now take to be a cardinal belief of Judaism—was frowned upon, let us say, and so Ibn Kammuna never quite commits to it openly.
He definitely held to the idea of a stable self, some “package” that identifies the individual and can even remain intact as it moves from one person (who has just passed away) to another (who has just been born). However, this cannot be simply the soul, since the soul is and must be susceptible to substantive change and improvement (or, heaven forbid, degeneration) as one lives one’s life. The soul and the self have different names in Arabic, but it is not clear to me—and may never have been fully worked out by Ibn Kammuna—just where and how they differ.
7) How does he explain repentance? How does he explain worship?
Repentance is the starting point of the voyage whose ultimate goal is the return to God. It’s a state of mind, a combination of the pain felt from past mistakes and the resolve to do better. To use a different analogy, it is the decision to leave the path that takes one away from God and to take the path that takes one to Him. This resolve is considered today, I think, to be the sine qua non for the possibility of teshuvah, whereas teshuvah itself consists in strict observance of the Law.
But for Ibn Kammuna, repentance consists in resetting the mind and consciousness, devaluing things of this world (i.e. material possessions and bodily pleasures) and giving value to what exists beyond the material world, i.e., the eternal abstract truths that allow a glimpse of the Truth. Hence even people who are punctilious about the Law need to repent if their minds are focused on this world. (Maimonides is very much of this opinion too.)
Worship consists in “devotion and presence of the heart”; the heart should always be primed to do what is good. He endorses prayer, even supererogatory prayer. Prayer is a combination of intention and recitation, with primacy given to the former. He also speaks favorable of certain bodily postures which, however, are useful in funneling “lights” directly to the heart. Good intentions can take precedence over worship; sleeping with the intention of restoring one’s strength to do the good is better, he says, than praying in a state of fatigue.
8) What is the role of the law and ritual duties for Ibn Kammuna
I think that he, like Maimonides, considered the chief purpose of the Law to be setting our personal and social lives in order. On the personal level, this means basically restraining our appetites by setting limitations on food, sex, and other matters. He seems to be in line with those (both Jews and Muslims) who felt that the details—for example, what specific foods you eliminate from your diet—are not essential; there is nothing intrinsically better for a Jew or Muslim to abstain from pork than it is for a Pythagorean to abstain from beans. I am not sure that he would have felt that any religious commandments are pure “ritual”, whatever that means.
I have no idea how observant Ibn Kammuna may have been with, say, sabbath observance or tefilin; I would suspect that he saw value in maintaining the tradition, but I have no idea how all this played out in real life. I would like to make one more point that I think is important: Ibn Kammuna, like Maimonides before and Rashid al-Din al-Hamadhani afterwards, were all Jews who served potentates in some capacity; and they all paid the high social and political price for being Jewish, even if (again I don’t know) in their outwards demeanor—how they dressed, what they ate or didn’t eat—they were no different from Muslims (or Christians, Zoroastrians and others) with whom they associated. Everyone knew that they were Jewish or, in the case of Rashid al-Din after his conversion, formerly Jews.
9) What is his unique approach of compassion to animal ethics? Does it show Buddhist influence?
He says that the divine command to be compassionate towards all things extends to animals insofar as we are enjoined to exploit them in the lightest manner possible and to slaughter them only for nutrition or our safety (presumably he is excluding the hunt for the pleasure of hunting which was so popular among the nobility of his day).
However, he takes a fairly extreme position—again, seen against the backdrop of the thought of his time—in hinting, though not quite declaring, that animals possess an immaterial soul, and not just the soul that was thought to be part of the body; I means the soul that basically manages and regulates the body.
Buddhist ideas of compassion towards animals certainly made inroads into the Ilkhanid realm, and one cannot rule out the possibility that Ibn Kammuna took something from them. However, I have found traces of discussions of the ideas about the souls of animals in Avicenna and his disciples, and that would certainly be more likely to be a source for Ibn Kammuna—if we need to identify a source. Ibn Kammuna invested the greater part of his intellectual energies in studying the soul, and some of his ideas about animals may come out of his original research and speculation.
10) What is the influence of Suharwardi, Sufis, and Ismaeli thought on Ibn Kammuna?
Ibn Kammuna commented on Suhrawardī’s Talwīḥāt. In fact, his was the first and one of the most penetrating commentaries on that book, and played a significant role in bringing Suhrawardī to the attention of the medieval scholarly public.
In a paper published about twenty years ago, I suggested that Ibn Kammuna discovered Suhrawardī’s writings during his stay in Aleppo, to which city, along with many others, he fled from the Mongols. The Talwīḥāt is rather tame compared to some of Suhrawardī’s other writings, but it still gives some indication of the direction that he was taking. Ibn Kammuna clearly read some of Suhrawardī’s Sufi writings, from which he quotes. For example, his definition of the thanks that we must offer God looks to come directly from Suhrwardi. The same holds for his paragraph on the love for God as the happiness or felicity that comes with envisioning the presence of the beloved deity.
Now to the Sufi’s. I have a lot to say. Though I have hardly published on Sufism, I’ve taught a number of courses. The first thing is this: the type of Sufism I encountered in “Subtle Insights” is by and large what one may call fairly standard piety, turning away from this world and devoting oneself to God. He does assign a great deal of value to knowledge of God, but this is no less a part of the philosophical tradition than it is of Sufism. The many similarities between Sufism and so-called philosophical mysticism are not given enough attention.
Not a few scholars rail against “binary” approaches, then forget their own preaching when they get down to the business of writing. It is not just a question of “terminology”. The type of experience that one may arrive at—that one hopes to arrive at—at the culmination of the philosophical quest is, viewed as a phenomenon, not different from the one that which mystics claimed as their own.
That ultimate experience is by definition indescribable, so how can you say that the “stupefaction” of the philosophers is different from that of “mystics”? In what way can you say that is, if neither is describable? (Maimonides would say that the trance of the mystics is a self-induced delusion, vertigo rather than a true religious experience, but let’s not get in that.)
In the book Ibn Kammuna compares the special powers attained by some Sufis with those possessed by the prophets. But don’t forget, many philosophers thought that prophecy would follow automatically when someone attained “perfection” in philosophy. Trying to untangle the threads of Sufism and philosophy in thinkers like Ibn Kammuna is unwise, in my opinion. Suhrwardi was equally at home in both, because they both aimed at the same goals; ditto for Ibn Sina, and even, to some extent, al-Ghazali, as we now know. And don’t forget Plotinus!
Getting back to Ibn Kammuna: he does speak of maqāmāt, the way-stations used by Sufis to check their progress. There is no denying that this is a word used by Sufis, who have a whole system of identifying and describing the different stages; some of this is in the book that I recently translated. Still, there is no denying that philosophers such as Maimonides warned initiates to take stock constantly of their progress, and not to try to reach beyond their capacity at any given moment.
My point is that whatever Ibn Kammuna takes from Sufism—and it is a lot—is well integrated into his Weltanschauung, which we may call Abrahamic philosophical piety—if we have to give it a name.
Though Ibn Kammuna clearly quotes from Suhrawardī, he could have gotten the same ideas from any number of sources (as Suhrawardī surely drew on earlier sources). None of the elaborate ideas of Ibn Arabi and his school are to be found in Ibn Kammuna, as far as I know. Moreover, I find nothing in Ibn Kammuna to indicate that he owes any special debt (or debt at all) to the “Jewish Sufis” who preceded him: Bahya, the descendants of Maimonides, or even Yehudah ha-Levi, whose Kuzari is a major source for the “Examination of the Three Faiths”. One last point: the type of piety urged by this sort of Sufism is very similar, in places indistinguishable, from the philosophical ethics of people like Miskawayh or Maimonides for that matter, with roots in Hellenistic thought. Ibn Kammuna has nothing to do with Sufi ceremonies such as the dhikr.
Finally, you asked about the Isma‘ili’s? That would be about as politically incorrect as you can get under the Mongols. The Mongols captured the Isma‘ili fortress at Alamut in 1256 and did not go about it gently. Moreover, Naṣīr al-Dīn al-Ṭūsī, who was an associate of Ibn Kammuna and a very powerful figure at the Mongol court, was at one time an Isma‘ili, one might even say a “verbrennter” Isma‘ili, but wisely de-Isma‘ilized his religious philosophy after the fall of Alamut.
11) Was there anything unique about philosophy and theology under Ilkhanid rule? Can you make any statements about the role of Hindu, Buddhist, and Asian ideas on Jewish thought in this context?
The only thing I would mention is the compilation of encyclopedic works—encyclopedic in the sense of covering many fields of knowledge though not necessarily in depth. Ibn Kammuna’s “New Wisdom” is one example. It could possibly be the case that people feared that the Mongols would destroy the written heritage of centuries; after all, they did destroy most of the great library at Alamut, and a lot more. I think that some intellectuals felt that they better summarize—but also develop—the knowledge that had been painstakingly amassed over centuries in the hope that some of it would survive. But this is pure speculation on my part.
As for Asian ideas and the Jews—well we should speak of Rashid al-Din al-Hamadani, born Jewish in 1247, though he converted to Islam by he age of thirty. He was vizier to the Khan, had very ample resources, and made a monumental effort to make Chinese medicine available in Persian; one book on this topic survives, Tansuqnamah. However, he seems to be pretty much unknown to Jewish thinkers. Ibn Kammuna did not have that much of an impact on Jewish thought, but there are manuscripts of some of his writings in Hebrew letters (though in the Arabic language); but Rashid al-Din is unknown to Jewish readers.
12) How did Yemenite Jews have an Islamic version of a Yoga text?
Yemen was the major entrepôt on the very busy trade route between Egypt and India, so there was constant contact. However, the yoga text that was read by Yemeni Jews has a very complicated history, not yet completely unraveled. It was called in the Yemen Mirʾāt al-Maʿānī, “The Mirror of Ideas”, or perhaps “The Mirror of Meanings”. The text has been studied by Carl Ernst, who also promises an edition; for now, see some of the chapters in his Refractions of Islam in India. The Arabic text is compiled from an otherwise lost Sanskrit text on yoga, a Gnostic text (“The Acts of Thomas”), and a text by the same Suhrwardī that we spoke about earlier. It was copied into Hebrew letters, and I have identified some fragments in various collections.
It was cited, for example, for its discussion of the twelve-chambered heart in one of the philosophical midrashim that came out of the Yemen. Some of the extant fragments describe yoga postures, including one for levitation or flying. One Yemeni writer thought to connect this with the midrashic phrase, “qaftsa ha-arets”, literally “the land jumped”, used to describe the case where a long journey takes a very short time, or what seems like a very short time.
13) Can you describe the Yemenite commentaries on the Guide? Are they published and available? Do they show Islamic Influence?
There are two major commentaries, one by Hoter ben Shelomo, perhaps the most prolific writer on philosophy produced by medieval Yemeni Jewry, and a long anonymous commentary, which I am in the process of editing and translating (simultaneously) into English and Hebrew.
(There is also a very rich, dense set of marginalia to the Guide written by a Muslim; that is a whole other story). All three commnetaries date to the fifteenth century, roughly, as does most of the extant science and philosophy produced by the Jews of Yemen.
I do not think that commentaries by Jewish writers are all “Islamic” in some sense, even if the source is a book written by a Muslim. For example, one of the commentaries has a very long gloss on Guide II, 40, which begins by quoting Aristotle (not named) that man is a social being. The political philosophy that the glossator endorses, which is also that of Maimonides, is based on the idea that without a strict law code, we would eat each other alive. This is the view attributed to the Shi‘a by Jāḥiẓ; but it is not proper to call it Islamic, since it has roots in antiquity and continues through Hobbes and beyond.
However, the same commentator describes the prophet as khalīfat Allāh fī arḍihi, “God’s deputy on His earth”. That is a Qur’anic phrase; the commentator does not note this, and he may have been unaware of its origin. Some Qur’anic phrases were thought to be philosophical or sapiential maxims. I published this gloss in a Hebrew article a few years ago; an English version will be included in a book that I am due to submit by the end of 2020, called In and Around Maimonides.
Influence is one of the most overused, and misused, terms in the publications on Jewish thought that I have seen. The philosophically inclined Jews of Yemen read books written by Muslims, books with a decidedly Islamic tinge if not substantial Islamic content; they found these works interesting and useful for articulating their own outlooks, which are avowedly and self-consciously Jewish. If the truth of this sentence suffices in your view to pronounce Islamic influence, then such influence cannot be denied. I am of the opinion that there is much, much more to the word “influence”, both as an historical-cultural process which must be characterized as precisely as one can, and as an expression of the political and social climate within which we—the scholars working now on these subjects—live and work. I am not much of a theorist, so I try to contribute I can by example, that is, by putting into practice my understanding of what influence is and what it is not, etc. etc., in my own work. I should stop here.