by 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, PBUH, and of
the bonds that tie Jew to Christian, Christian to Muslim, Muslim to
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
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
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
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-kit_b, 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.
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
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 US 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
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, PBUH. 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.
[Jacob Bender, an American Jew, is a documentary filmmaker in New
York. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. This article
first appeared in Islamic Horizons.]
SPRING IS CHRIST
by Jelaluddin Rumi
Everyone has eaten and fallen asleep. The house is empty.
[Jelaluddin Rumi, the 13th Century Persian Sufi philosopher-poet, is the
most widely read poet in America]
We walk out to the garden to let the apple meet the peach,
to carry messages between rose and jasmine.
Spring is Christ,
raising martyred plants from their shrouds.
Their mouths open in gratitude, wanted to be kissed.
The glow of the rose and tulip means a lamp is inside.
A leaf trembles. I tremble
in the wind - beauty like silk from Turkestan.
The censer fans into flame.
This wind is the Holy Spirit.
The trees are Mary.
Watch how husband and wife play subtle games with their hands.
Cloudy pearls from Aden are thrown across the lovers,
as is the marriage custom.
The scent of Joseph's shirt comes to Jacob.
A red carnelian of Yemeni laughter is heard
by Muhammad in Mecca.
We talk about this and that. There's no rest
except on these branching moments.
William Dalrymple, "A Christmas
Palm Tree," The Wisdom Fund, December 19, 2001
Shaheed Isma'il Raji al Faruqi, "Islam
and Other Religions," The Wisdom Fund
David Usborne, "Canadians
Muslims will get sharia courts to settle disputes," The Independent, April 29, 2004
S. Amjad Hussain, "Share the spirit of the season," Toledo Blade, December 28,
DOCUMENTARY: "Out of Cordoba:
Averroes and Maimonides in Their Time and Ours," outofcordoba.com,