Lessons From the Three Wise Men

Jacob Bender

I write not as a scholar, but as a humble student of the three great traditions that spring from our common father Abraham, peace be upon him, and of the bonds that tie Jew to Christian, Christian to Muslim, Muslim to Jew.  Yet even though our prayers speak of peace, these are dark and difficult times, and we live in an age when war has replaced dialogue, when terrorism has replaced tolerance, when ignorance has replaced understanding.
Intolerance knows no bounds.
My own response to the events of 9/11 was to begin work on a documentary film that I entitled “Reason and Revelation: Averroes, Maimonides, Aquinas in Their Time and Ours.” Who were these three men, Averroes the Muslim, Moses Maimonides the Jew and Thomas Aquinas the Christian, these three geniuses from a long-ago age, and what, if anything, do they have to teach us today? Before we can answer that question, we must first explore, as will my film, the world into which they were born. In the case of Averroes and Maimonides, that world was Al-Andalus, the splendor of Spain, the centuries of Islam in Iberia.

I believe there are three reasons that learning about Al-Andalus is crucial to the world today:

First, the level of civilization that Al-Andalus achieved. At a time when the rest of Europe was shrouded in the Dark Ages, the Muslim city of Cordoba in Al-Andalus was the most advanced city on the entire European Continent. In philosophy, architecture, mathematics, astronomy, medicine, poetry, theology, and numerous other fields of human endeavor, medieval Islam was the world’s most advanced civilization.

Second, Al-Andalus in particular, and Islamic civilization in general, served as both the repository of ancient Greek knowledge and science, and the transmission point in its journey to the Christian-dominated West.

And third, the culture of Al-Andalus is now justly celebrated for the extent that religious pluralism and tolerance were hallmarks of this most glorious age, as manifested in Islam’s respect for ahl al-kitab, the “People of the Book.”

Now let us turn to our three wise men: Averroes, Moses Maimonides, and Thomas Aquinas.

Ab? al-Wal"d Muhammad Ibn Rushd, known in the West by as Averro?s, was born in Cordoba in southern Spain in the year 1126 and died in 1198. He is without question the greatest mind produced by Islamic civilization in Al-Andalus. As a young man, Ibn Rushd already excelled in theology, religious law, astronomy, literature, mathematics, music, zoology, medicine and philosophy.

It is in the field of philosophy, however, that Ibn Rushd left an indelible mark upon the intellectual history of Western civilization. In the year 1169, Ibn Rushd was asked by the Caliph to undertake new and up-to-date Arabic translations and commentaries of the works of Aristotle. Ibn Rushd’s commentaries on Aristotle have had an immense impact upon both Christian and Jewish philosophy for hundreds of years.

Rabbi Moses Maimonides was born 12 years after Ibn Rushd. His name in his mother tongue of Arabic was Musa ibn Maymun al-Qurtubi, and he is universally considered the most important Jewish thinker in the last 2,000 years. Please note the similarities between Ibn Rushd and Rabbi Musa: both were born in Cordoba in Al-Andalus; both became “philosopher/theologians” and the foremost interpreters of Aristotle within Islam and Judaism, with both attempting to harmonize the truths of reason with the revelations of the Holy Qur’an and the Torah; both became jurists and authorities in religious law (the sharia in Islam, the halakhah in Judaism) that is still central to Muslim and Jewish observance; both lived part of their lives in Fez in Morocco; and both became court physicians to their local rulers, Ibn Rushd to the Caliph of Cordoba, Rabbi Musa to the great Salah-ah-Din in Egypt.

Cometh the moment? Three of history's most distinguished religious scholars emerged in reaction to the religious intolerance of the crusades.

Cometh the moment?
Three of history’s most distinguished religious scholars emerged in reaction to the religious intolerance of the crusades.

Thomas Aquinas was born near Naples, Italy in the year 1225. He is the most important and influential Christian philosopher of the Middle Ages. His masterpiece, the Summa Theologiae, is widely considered the most comprehensive exploration of philosophy and theology in the entire history of Christianity. And like Ibn Rushd and Rabbi Musa before him, Thomas was primarily concerned with finding a way of incorporating Aristotle’s rationalism into Christian theology.

It is also abundantly clear in his writings how indebted Thomas is to Ibn Rushd and Rabbi Musa, both of whom he quotes on numerous occasions. Even the present Pope, John Paul II, has recognized this, when he specifically mentions that one of the influences on Thomas Aquinas, the greatest theologian in Catholic history, was, “the dialogue that Thomas carried on with the writings of the Arab and Jewish thinkers of his time.”

But it is not only the writings of these three great thinkers that speak to us today; it is their life stories and their courage in pursuing, in the words of Rabbi Musa, “the truth from whatever source it proceeds.” Herein lies part of the contemporary importance of our three wise men, for they dared to advance the notion that wisdom about the universe was not the exclusive property of one tradition, one people, one faith.

In the Middle Ages, this was a controversial and even heretical idea, for the malevolence of intolerance and fanaticism, all too prevalent even in our own time, was there in the Middle Ages as well. And so Ibn Rushd was exiled from his beloved Al-Andalus, and his books were burned by other Muslims. And so Rabbi Musa, now celebrated as the greatest Jewish philosopher who ever lived, had his books burnt at the order of other rabbis. And so Thomas Aquinas, was denounced by church leaders at the University of Paris for daring to incorporate the writings of a pagan into Christianity.

Just as our three wise men were not afraid to challenge prevailing opinion within their own religious community in the Middle Ages, so today I believe we must also be willing to openly criticize our co-religionists when they engage in extremism and intolerance. Thus Muslim religious leaders around the world condemned the Taliban’s destruction of the ancient Buddhist statues in Afghanistan and the 9/11 terror attacks by Al-Qaeda. Thus many Christian ministers in the USA denounced the bigoted attacks on Islam by Reverends Pat Robertson, Jerry Fallwell and Franklin Graham (all friends of the current Bush administration). And thus many Jews, like myself, have for decades supported the right of the Palestinian people to an independent state and condemned Israel’s brutal occupation with its assassinations, house demolitions, closures, and illegal settlement policy.

I believe that some eight hundred years after they lived, Ibn Rushd the Muslim, Rabbi Musa the Jew, and Thomas Aquinas the Christian can still all enter both our hearts and minds if we let them. Their words, and their life stories, can both inform and inspire us about some of the greatest issues confronting us at the beginning of this new century: the relationship between religion and the state, between faith and science, between reason and revelation; the dangers of political extremism; and the courage it often takes to oppose injustice and search for truth. By reading and interpreting their writings, we can discover that we, Muslims, Jews and Christians, are all Ibnu Ibrahim, the children of Abraham, peace be upon him. We can discover that in the struggle to create a more just and peaceful world, we may perhaps have more in common with those in other traditions who share our values of justice than with the more extreme followers within our own religious families.

Published Tuesday, December 30th, 2003 - 07:57pm GMT

Jacob Bender, an American Jew, is a documentary filmmaker in New York. He can be reached at reasonrevelation@aol.com This article first appeared in Islamic Horizons.

Article courtesy of The Wisdom Fund

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Jacob Bender

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