The Jews Who Wrote in Arabic

Article excerpt

A suggestion that may bear fruit in twenty years

IT STRIKES ME HOW LITTLE AWARENESS THERE IS AMONG MANY MUSLIMS AND JEWS OF THE TREASURES that we share. This is especially true of issues concerning what Muslims term Tawhid, or pure monotheistic theology, and concerning the inner work of transformation, what they call the Greater Jihad, and we call Tikkun Hammidot. There has been some terrible propaganda by Islamists on the web: based on misunderstood words in the Qur'an, propagandists have been comparing Jews and Christians to apes and pigs. But the many Muslims who reject such slanders may also not be aware of how much we, Muslims and Jews, have learned from and given to each other in the past.

There exists an entire literature in Judeo-Arabic. Many people have no idea that some of the greatest Jewish writers wrote in Arabic and Judeo-Arabic, were greatly influenced by Muslim thinkers and influenced them in turn. Rabbi Bachya ben Joseph ibn Paquda authored the first Jewish system of ethics, in the year 1040-in Arabic. HisAlHidayahilaFaraidal-Kulubwas not translated into Hebrew until more than a century had passed, under the title Hovot Holevavot (Instruction in the Duties of the Heart). He shared significant ideas in that book with Muslim thinkers of the time such as the great Al-Ghazali, and there are different theories about whether Bachya influenced Al-Ghazali or the other way round. In the twelfth century Maimonides produced one of the great philosophic statements of Judaism, the Guide To The Perplexed. It is still influential today. Again, it was written in Judeo-Arabic.

"Judeo-Arabic" refers to several Arabic dialects spoken by Jews in Islamic countries and written in Hebrew script. It is still spoken in some places today. The medieval works in Judeo-Arabic were closer to standard J Arabic than were later works. Maimonides himself wrote some of his works in standard Arabic and some in Judeo-Arabic, depending on his desired audience.

I have copies of Duties Of The Heart and Guide For The Perplexed with the Hebrew text inonecolumnand the Judeo-Arabic in the other. Thinking of the way in which Jews have been characterized in Islamist broadcasts and literature as apes and pigs, I felt that it would be of great import if we could make these and other classic volumes available in Arabic script.

I envisage a project in which we would scan Judeo-Arabic works into a computer, and create a program to ' transliterate the scanned material from Hebrew fonts into Arabic. Then we would need to find scholars of medieval Arabic who would be able to offer in brackets current Arabic terms for the original old ones, so modern Muslims could easily understand them.

I would like to see the finished product made available on the web so that, for instance, Rabbi Bachya's Gate to One-ness (Sha'arHayichud in Hebrew, Bab al Tawhid in Arabic) would be available for people to read in Arabic. While the current atmosphere in parts of the Muslim world may not be conducive to publicizing the existence of such a website, in the long run it could serve as a possible lever to change the tenor of our relationship.

From my childhood on I had a certain romantic feeling about Islam. I was raised in Austria, where many youths avidly read the adventure books of Karl Mai. Some of the adventures described were in North America, some even in South America, but almost an equal number were in Islamic territories-Dar al-Islam. The hero, a stand-in for Karl Mai, was named Kara ben Nemsi and his sidekick was named Haji Halef Omar. When I came across a transliteration of the Fatiha, the opening Sura of the Qur'an, I was fascinated by the words ''Bism'illah ArRahmani ArRahimi, Al Hamdul'illa Rabb Al Alamin, Maliki Yaum Ad'din." I could clearly see Hebrew behind them. …