Maimonides’ Third answer to R. Ovadyah haGer: Translation of Iggeret el Rav Ovadyah haGer

This is a translation of the third part of Maimonides’ letter to R. Ovadyah haGer, the Arab convert who embraced Judaism.

While it isn’t rare to see converts become hostile to their earlier religions, R. Ovadyah seems to have been at least honest, when it comes to Islam. From the context of the whole letter, we understand that he had a disagreement with his teacher about the nature of Islam, if the Muslims are to be considered idolaters or not, which led to a rather harsh response from his teacher, which is dealt with in the other parts of the letter.

The subject here is the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca, and the rituals connected to it, which the teacher believed were connected to idol worship. But, as we shall see, Maimonides is of a different opinion, viewing the Muslims as sincere worshipers, with a clear and correct intention regarding the Oneness of God.

While the letter is longer than what I here have translated, I have kept to the third part, since it deals with Maionides’ view of Muslims and Islam, and that is part of my main concerns, when dealing with the study of religion and the historical relation between Jews and Muslims.

It is to my knowledge the only translation of this part of the letter online, but there are at least a couple of translations of the first part, e.g. here, recommended for those interested in the subject of the convert’s status in Judaism.

The translation is based on R. Yitzhaq Shelit’s collection of letters by Maimonides; “Migrot haRaMBa”M”, more precisely “Iggeret el R’ ‘Ovadyah haGer”.

Translation:

 

Third Question:

About these Ishmaelites,[1] of which you stated that they are not idol worshipers, and your teacher said that they are idol worshipers, that the stones they are throwing in their ritual,[2] that they are for Markulis.[3] And he answered you in an improper way until you were saddened in your heart and you became embarrassed, And declared about you “answer the fool according to his foolishness” (Proverbs 26:5).

Answer:

These Ishmaelites are not idol worshipers at all, and it is already cut away from their mouths and from their hearts, and they designate the proper unity to God, a unity which has no imperfection. And not even if they lie about us and tell tales, and say that we claim that God has a son – should we lie and say that they are idol worshipers. The Torah witnesses about them: “their mouths talk falsehood” (Psalms 144:8), And it witnesses about us: “the remnant of Israel shall not do injustice and not talk falsehood, and shall not let a deceitful tongue be in their mouth” (Zephaniah 3:13).

And if a person says that the house, which they glorify, that it is a house of idol worship, and that there is hidden idol worship within it, that their fathers did the same idol worship in the same house – so what (what is in it)? Those who today bow down there have their hearts directed to heaven, and our Sages already said in Sanhedrin, that if a person bows down to a house of idol worship, and he thinks that it is a synagogue – indeed his heart is devoted to heaven. And such are all these Ishmaelites today, children and women, idol worship is wiped out from their mouths, and their errors and foolishness is in other matters, which is impossible to tell of in writing because of the wicked of Israel, but in the unity of God they have no errors at all.

And in truth, the Ishmaelites did have three forms of idol worship on this place earlier: Pe’or,[4] and Markulis, and Chemosh.[5] They themselves recognize this today, and they have Arab names for them. The service of Pe’or to open oneself in front of him, or to place his head down and to show (lift) his genitals in front of him, such as these Ishmaelites do today when they are prostrating in prayer. The service of Markulis is the throwing of stones. The service of Chemosh is the removing of all hair from the head, and that one does not dress in tailored clothes. And these things are explicit, and they are known to us from before that the religion of the Ishmaelite was founded. But the Ishmaelites say today that [the reason] they shave their heads and do not wear tailored clothes in their rituals – it is in order to submit to God, and to remember how a man will rise from his grave. And that the stones that are thrown – that is against Satan that we throw them in order to confuse him. And others, from among their wardens, gives another opinion and say: there were idols there, and we are stoning the place of these idols, which means that we don’t believe in them, and we stone them in order to disgrace them. And [yet] others say that it is a tradition.

All in all, even though the essence of these things and their basis is from idol worship – there is no person in the world, who throws stones, and no one prostates to that place, and no one does these things, for the sake of idol worship, not with his mouth and not in his heart,

but rather directs his heart to heaven.

 

Comments:

R. Ovadyah’s teacher relates the rituals of the Hajj with the rituals of a number of different heathen religions, based on them having been observed before the advent of Islam and the likeness of the rituals.

Maimonides refuses to accept this, pointing to the intention of the Muslims, accepting and entertaining the perfect Oneness of God.

It is interesting to note that Maimonides on the one hand defends the true intentions of the Muslims, denying any part of idol worship in their religion, while criticizing their behavior and attitude to the Jews. This criticism is also found in other of his writings, e.g. Iggeret haShmad, the Letter of Martyrdom, or Iggeret Teyman, the Letter to Yemen. In the Maimonidian view Islam as a religion is consisting of true worship of God,[6] while the rule of the Muslim is taken overboard in their oppression of the Jews.

 

Please feel free to quote or share the translation, but please quote it as: Maimonides’ Third answer to R. Ovadyah haGer: Translation of Iggeret el Rav Ovadyah haGer – “אגרת אל ר’ עובדיה הגר”: “מיגרות הרמב”ם” מאת יצחק שילת, הוצאת שילת, מעלה אדומים, כרך א, 1995  – Translated by Peter Kaltoft:

 

[1] Ishmaelite is the traditional term used for Muslims, refering to the notion that the Arabs descended from Ishmael, the son of Abraham and Hagar.

[2] One of the rituals of the Hajj is to throw stones at a stone pillar, which is considered a symbolic act of stoning Satan.

[3] A Roman idol made of a heap of stones, sanctified to the Roman god, Mercury, which had stones added through additional stones being thrown at it, constituting the religious act of worship.

[4] The Biblical Ba’al Pe’or, the god of the mountain Pe’or, who was worshipped through excrementing in front of it and exposing one’s nudity.

[5] A Moabite god.

[6] In general Maimonides seems to hold a more favorable view of Islam than Christianity, though he forbids to teach Torah to Muslims, since they believe it has been abrogated, while allowing it for Christians, who accepts the divinity of the Torah, but interpret it wrongly.

Author: Peter Kaltoft

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