Maimonides as Innovator or Imitator
Shaul Magid has a review of Joel Kraemer’s Maimonides: The Life and World of One of Civilization’s Greatest Minds
in the Washington Post. He concludes his review by writing that
Two ironies emerge from Kraemer’s book. First, that the great architect of medieval and modern Judaism seems to have lived for a time, at least outwardly, as a Muslim; whether this was a feigned or true conversion, he was an insider in Muslim culture. And second, that what is often considered original in Maimonides is not very original at all. Throughout the book, Kraemer shows how many of Maimonides’ contributions are derivative, not just of Aristotle and Plato, but also of Muslim thinkers. He notes that Maimonides’s discussion of the five types of speech in Jewish law employs the same five categories contained in Islamic jurisprudence. He shows that Maimonides’s prohibition of using sacred poems for mundane purposes (such as setting them to music at communal gatherings) is taken directly from a commentary on Plato’s Republic by the Muslim philosopher Averroes.
Kraemer’s subtitle, One of Civilization’s Greatest Minds, is unfortunate, because the book undermines this claim throughout. Kraemer shows that for Jews and Judaism, Maimonides was certainly an innovator, and the depth of his knowledge and compassion was truly astounding. But as a contributor to the ideas of Western (including medieval Islamic) civilization, he did not have much new to offer.
Update: I see that Magid’s review is also discussed at Failed Messiah, although I think that the title of the post is misleading. I have yet to read Kraemer’s book, but my impression from what has been written about it is that he discusses the possible Islamic influences on Maimonides’s philosophy, yet the title of the post at Failed Messiah is “Maimonides The Muslim? Could What We Call Jewish Law Have A Muslim Source?” The possible influence of Islamic law on Maimonides’s legal writings is a very interesting question, although separate, at least in the micro- sense, than influences on his philosophy. On the possible influences of Islamic law on the halakhah during the Geonic period and the time of the Rambam see the writings of Gideon Libson.