Maimonides - - Jewish History
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Cordoba Synagogue
Cordoba synagogue, where Maimonides studied

When philosophers study the world, one big problem they have is how to deal with disagreements between what they know from science and what they believe about their gods. Many philosophers, like Plato, have worked on this problem. Maimonides was one of these philosophers.

Maimonides was born about 1135 AD, and he grew up in Cordoba, in Spain, which was ruled by Islamic caliphs at that time. His family was Jewish, and he was called Moses, after the Jewish Moses who brought the Ten Commandments to the Jews. His father's name was Maimon, so he was Moses Maimonides (my-MONN-eh-deez). At this time, Ibn Rushd was also living in Cordoba - he would have been about nine years old when Maimonides was born.

When Maimonides was about thirteen years old, the Almohads conquered Cordoba. The Almohads told the Jews they had to leave the city or convert to Islam, or they would kill them all. Maimonides' family, like most of the other Jews in Cordoba, chose to leave town (It is possible that they also converted to Islam at some point, but then they went back to Judaism).

Thanks to this forced traveling, Maimonides was able to go to college at the University of Fez (in modern Morocco), where he got a good education and read Aristotle (translated into Arabic). But when his teacher there was killed for being Jewish and refusing to convert to Islam, Maimonides and his family left town again and traveled first to Israel and then to Egypt.

Pharmacy jar
Jar for medicines (Iran, 1200s AD, now in the Louvre)

When Maimonides' brother David, who had been supporting the family selling diamonds and other precious stones, suddenly died in a shipwreck in the Indian Ocean, Maimonides (now about 34 years old) had to leave his scholar's life and find a job. His scientific training eventually got him a job as the sultan Saladin's doctor. As Saladin's doctor, Maimonides wrote a lot of books about medicine in Arabic, and as a scholar, he also wrote a lot of books about philosophy. One of these is the Guide for the Perplexed, which tries to show how Aristotle's philosophy can fit with what the Bible says.

Maimonides spent most of the rest of his long life in Egypt, until he died there in 1204 AD, when he was about seventy years old. After he died, people said about him, "From Moses to Moses, there was no one like Moses."

Bibliography and further reading about Maimonides:

Jews in the Islamic Empire
Jews in the Middle Ages
Islamic Literature page
Medieval Literature page
Main Judaism page
Main religion page home

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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter.
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