Maimonides in His World: Portrait of a Mediterranean Thinker

By Sarah Stroumsa | Go to book overview

Chapter Four
La Longue DuréE:
MAIMONIDES AS A PHENOMENOLOGIST OF RELIGION

Through his studies of what he considered to be ancient pagan texts Maimonides believed to have cracked the code of biblical commandments. He identified these ancient texts with the culture of the Sabians. This chapter will analyze Maimonides' insight, which he himself describes as his great scientific discovery. It will also study Maimonides' ensuing analysis of contemporary religions: Islam and Christianity, as well as contemporary Judaism.


SABIANS

The Sabians (al-saba, al-sabi'a, or al-sabi'un) appear in Arabic literature as an ancient nation that lived in the Near East from antiquity up to the Abbasid period. This nation is never mentioned in the writings of historians and thinkers in antiquity, and it makes its first appearance in Arabic, Islamic literature.1 Despite this surprising fact, most scholars accept at its face value the testimony of Arab writings, and invest considerable effort in the attempt to identify the Sabians. The sudden appearance of this nation is not the only difficulty involved in identifying it. Sabians are mentioned already in the Qur'ān,2 but most scholars believe that the Sabians of the Qur'an are not identical with the Sabians who appear in heresiographical Arabic literature.3 The descriptions of this latter group are beset with contradictions. They are usually referred to as the “Sabians of Harran,” but their alleged descendants are encountered primarily in Baghdad. In some writings, the Sabians are described as a people who

1See F. C. de Blois, “The 'Sabians' (Sabi'ūn) in Pre- Islamic Arabia,” Acta Orientalia (1995):
41n8; Stroumsa, “Sabéens de Harran et Sabéens de Maïmonide.” I wish to thank Jessica
Bonn for her help in translating this article.

2Qur'an 2 [al-Baqara]: 26; 5 [al-Māʾida]: 69; 22 [al-Hajj]:17. See also J. D. McAuliffe,
“Exegetical Identification of the Sābi'ūn, Muslim World 72 (1982): 95- 106.

3Regarding the Sabians of the Qur'an, see de Blois, “Sābī,” EI, 8: 672- 75, esp. 672; idem,
“Sabians”; G. Strohmaier, “Die Harranischen Sabier bei Ibn an- Nadīm und al- Bīrūnī,” in
Ibn al- Nadīm und die mittelalterliche arabische Literatur: Beiträge zum 1. Johann Wilhelm
Fück Kolloquium (Halle, 1987
) (Wiesbaden, 1996), 55- 56.

-84-

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