Jewish Avicennists in the Andalus
Avicennism was not confined to Muslims. It did not depend on any particular interpretation of the Qur’ān, or on the role of Muhammad; it was, indeed, supposed to be the philosophy underpinning all religion. Since it made a non-dogmatic attempt to fuse monotheist doctrine, emanationist cosmogony and immanentist (i.e. illuminist or pantheist) mystical experience, it could have had an appeal for philosophical Jews and Christians, as well as for Muslims. It may still come as a surprise, however, to find that the classic non-religious statement of this outlook, written in Arabic in the Andalus, a book which cites no texts and refers to no scriptures, is the work of a Hebrew poet, Solomon ibn Gabirol.
Solomon ibn Gabirol
It may not be strictly true to suggest that Ibn Gabirol was influenced by Ibn Sīnā; it may be more accurate to consider both writers as inheritors of the work of the Brethren of Purity, among others. Nevertheless, it is Ibn Gabirol’s book of philosophy which will become one of the most accessible Avicennist works in late 12th-century Europe. This book is The Fountain of Life, written in Arabic in the mid-11th century and translated into Latin in the 12th century as the Fons Vitae. It taught that all beings emanate from God as water flows from a source. Jewish readers would have realised that the title is a reference to Psalm 36, verse 9: “For with thee is the fountain of life; in thy light shall we see light.”
Solomon ben Judah ibn Gabirol had quite a short and difficult life. He was born in Málaga in the 1020s and, having been orphaned at an early age, he moved to Zaragoza. He was a precocious scholar; but he suffered from some unpleasant skin disease, which was said to account for his irascibility, his bachelor status and thus for the ‘sublimated eroticism’ that modern readers detect in his poetry.
This was the time during which the western caliphate disappeared in bloodshed, and al-Andalus was divided into a number of small courts, ruled by taifa kings (the rulers of factions – who are sometimes known to (the amusement of) English historians as the ‘party kings’). After Ibn Gabirol’s patron at the taifa of Zaragoza had been killed in a coup d’état, and he was accused of sorcery, he fled south to one of the most successful of the princely courts, that of the Zirids, the family of a Berber general turned ‘party king’, at Granada. Here he found a new Jewish patron in Samuel ibn Nagrella, called ha-Nagid (the prince) by the Jews of the time, because he wielded so much power for so long, as the vizier and the commander of the army for the Zirid prince. Ibn Gabirol died, in his thirties, in 1058 C.E.
In the Andalus, Jewish scholars were trying to make their scriptural language, Hebrew, into a fitting vehicle for contemporary poetry and for secular use, in emulation of what Muslim scholars were achieving in Arabic. One of the finest exponents of this contemporary Hebrew was Solomon ibn Gabirol. His Hebrew poetry is still appreciated and includes poems of love and of yearning for God, poems in praise of God’s unfathomable and transcendent greatness, emotional nature poetry and hymns for use in the liturgy. This study will give a ‘taste’ of some of his lines on the immanence of God, that is, of his experience of God within the self. There are, of course, far more references to God’s transcendence, which is equally important, but that is uncontroversial. (In all religions, orthodox majorities find a transcendent god more comforting, because he remains so much more distant from their sordid lives.)
A little poem called Ecstasy starts:
“My thoughts astounded ask me why
Towards the whirling wheels on high
In ecstasy I rush and fly.
The living God is my desire
It carries me on wings of fire
Body and soul to Him aspire.”
His poem The Love of God shows that God’s Wisdom – which is described as feminine, like the Greek Sophia – is to be found in the depths of the self:
“Then let my craving to my own soul turn
To find the wealth divine for which I yearn.
For Wisdom’s house is as of sapphires builded,
Her pavements as with gold of Ophir gilded.
Within the body is her hidden lair,
Like a young lion she is couchant there.”
Among his emotionally charged nature poetry, the poem entitled Moonlit Night (or Night-Storm) seems to need a religious interpretation, with the moon standing for the illumination of the soul. He begins by talking about choosing the way of renunciation and purgation (being tested in the furnace) in order to gain wisdom:
“Whose soul despises its fleshly home,
Who chose, as a child, the path of wisdom,
Even if Time’s furnace were to try him sevenfold.”
This mortification is seen as necessary for gaining secret knowledge:
“Not until the flesh of man begins to wither
Can he reveal the hidden secrets of his mind.
Time comes swiftly to exact his price
For the mite of wisdom I have made him yield.”
The illumination that he receives is both intellectual and moral:
“And the innocent moon seemed purified
Leading me along the ways of knowledge,
Teaching me with its light as a guide.”
He deals, in the latter part of the poem, with the despair that this experience can bring, when it seems no longer to be available, when the light is hidden, when no answers are forthcoming, when the moon is obscured by the storm-clouds:
“God has shut up my thoughts, and imprisoned
The desire of my heart from every side.
He has bound my heart with cords of darkness,
But it will rouse itself like a hero in ambush.”
An emanation from the One: God’s Wisdom or the World Soul
His best-known works are philosophical: The Royal Crown, written in Hebrew verse, and The Fountain of Life, written in Arabic prose. His Neoplatonist position does not require much rehearsing, because it is already familiar. The Brethren of Purity would, I guess, be proud to see their teachings being put to such good use in another religious context. The quotations will be selected, where possible, from The Royal Crown, primarily because there is an accessible English translation of it, but also because it is more succinct, more readable and more religious than the Fountain of Life, which is more philosophical, more dull and more prolix.
God is the One, the base of all number, the cause of all things:
“Thy name is One – of all the primes the Prime,
Base of all algebraic argument,
A Unity beyond account, sublime…”
The actual creative force is given the name of God’s Wisdom:
“A fount of life, that wisdom which is thine,
The mind of brutish man can never know,
A wisdom, demiurge of thy design […]
And emanating from her, came to be
Matter so predisposed as Thou inspired.”
In The Fountain of Life, this divine force giving being to everything is God’s Will:
“The cause is the first being; what is created are matter and form; the medium of that creative process is the will.”
This Will (or Wisdom) of God is represented in the world by the World Soul, which is received by all created things in different ways, according to their differing capacities. It is suffused throughout the universe, “like the soul in the body”.
The Spirit of God
In The Royal Crown, there is a description of a ‘stone’ of brilliant clarity and spiritual wisdom, which seems to fulfil a similar function to that of the philosopher’s stone of alchemy, which is capable of illuminating human souls:
“…Thou of thine own
Glory’s refulgence hast a fragment mined
Bright as its parent Rock, so pure a stone,
Picked from a shaft sheer clarity did drill,
In which Thou didst instil
Wisdom of spirit, and didst call it soul.”
This ‘stone’ of clarity comes from the breath (i.e. spirit) of God. Talking of God’s gifts to man, he says:
“Thou breathed the breath of God
In him as soul, a spirit to impart
Wisdom, and make him midst all creatures odd
Set by this reason from the beasts apart.”
It is the duty of the human soul to try to raise itself up through the ten spheres of the universe, to reach the topmost sphere of intelligence and spiritual understanding, just below the Throne of God.
Moses ibn Ezra and Bahya ben Joseph ibn Paqūda
Ibn Gabirol was not alone in accepting into Jewish thought many elements of the immanentist tradition in Islam, of such as the Sufis, the Ikhwān al-Safā (Brethren of Purity) and Ibn Sīnā. Moses ibn Ezra, who lived at the turn of the 11th and 12th centuries, a time of decreasing opportunity for Jews in al-Andalus, used clearly illuminist language in his lament on having been obliged to flee to Christian Spain. The poem is called The Sources of my Being and contains the lines:
“A vision of the Almighty took hold of my mind,
And I knew that within me there was God.
His magnificent splendour was hidden,
But he was revealed in deed before the eyes of thought.
In my body he has kindled a lamp from his glory;
It tells me of the paths of the wise. […]
With it I search out the chamber of wisdom,
And I climb with no ladder to the garden of delights.”
Bahya ben Joseph ibn Paqūda, writing in the last quarter of the 11th century, showed Neoplatonic, Sufi and Hermetic influences in his book on the devotional life, The Duties of the Heart. For saints and sages, he told his readers (in Arabic),
“Wisdom is the life of their soul, the light of their mind, their way to the favour of God (glory and praise be unto Him).”
Sufi teachings on asceticism were particularly important for Ibn Paqūda:
“Asceticism is tranquillity of the soul and the severance of all ties of attachment to the things which give it only pleasure and rest.”
“Asceticism is the abstention from anything which may distract a man from God”.
A poem, which concludes the book and summarises its teaching, ends:
“Then shall you see the face of God in your heart,
And your soul will be united with your Rock.”
When Moses ibn Ezra, Ibn Paqūda and their contemporaries spoke of “the philosophers”, they were referring to the Brethren of Purity, and when they quoted from “saints” or “sages”, they were often quoting the words of Sufis. Ibn Paqūda never gave a name to any source, unless it was Jewish. He was always very cautious and very unwilling to cause any anxiety to his community. The following is probably the closest he comes to a description of mystical felicity:
“When a person perseveres in this, God soothes him and assuages his fear, revealing to him the secret of His wisdom, opening for him the gate to His knowledge, undertaking to manage and direct him. […] Thus this man reaches the rank of the highest of the sages, and of the loftiest position among God’s favourites. He sees without his eyes and hears without his ears; he talks without his tongue, senses things without his senses and perceives with no need of logic. He does not prefer one thing to another; he does not wish for a situation other than the one in which he finds himself. For God has chosen all for him, and he has tied his own satisfaction to that of God, and connected his love to God’s love.”
The works of the Brethren of Purity seem to have appealed to several Sephardim (i.e. Jews from the Iberian peninsula). There is an 11th or 12th century book, called Reflections on the Soul (or Concepts of the Soul or On the Essence of the Soul) ascribed incorrectly to Bahya ibn Paqūda, which repeats the hierarchy of emanations of the Rasā’il, and the doctrines, found there, of the descent and return of the soul, and the soul’s need for purification through knowledge and virtue. Another book, which is dependent upon the same encyclopaedia, as well as upon Ibn Gabirol, is the Microcosm of Joseph ben Jacob ibn Saddīq, who died in 1149.
Abraham ibn Ezra
This piece will finish with a 12th-century Jew, who typifies the Avicennist religious outlook, which appealed to so many deep-thinking individuals of that century. Abraham ben Meir ibn Ezra was born in about 1092 at Tudela on the river Ebro. He seems to have been constantly on the move, at first in Spain and later in France, Italy and England. He lived in a number of Italian cities in the 1140s, including Roma, Pisa, Lucca, Mantova and Verona. In the 1150s he was in France and England: stays at Béziers, Narbonne, Dreux and London are recorded. On his travels, he certainly came into contact with many Jewish scholars. He probably knew some Christian ones as well because, in Pisa, he produced some astronomical tables in Latin, which he enlarged, in Dreux, and called the Fundamenta Tabularum.
Wherever he went, he produced translations from Arabic, works of astrology, scientific observations, poems and algebraic calculations. He was the ‘wandering Jew’ of the twelfth century, taking new knowledge from Spain to Jewish communities in the Latin West. Most importantly, in the last 24 years of his life, he wrote Bible commentaries which, according to the historian, Nahum Sarna, outshone those of any other medieval Jewish commentator for their erudition, sophistication, linguistic sensitivity and intellectual daring. In his interpretation of the Bible, Abraham ibn Ezra tried to follow the literal sense, but he accepted that it could hold hidden meanings. He always tried to be rational and critical. He suggested, for instance, that certain Psalms could not have been written by David. He realised that chapters 40-66 of the Book of Isaiah had to have been composed during the Babylonian exile by a different author, and so on.
He was aware that he had to be careful about expressing opinions on certain subjects that might get him into trouble. Here are two examples:
“These things concern the Divine Glory – and therefore they must be kept hidden from those that cannot understand them.”
“The theraphim are human figures intended to receive power from the higher beings, but I cannot be explicit.”
God’s immanence in all creation
His most interesting thoughts would probably only have been transmitted orally; but the general tenor of his philosophy can be inferred from some of his written commentaries. God is the One, the Cause of all, the root of all number; equally, He is the One, the whole, the entity that includes everything:
“And this name of God signifies the One that is self-existing, requiring no other cause for His existence; and if it be considered that, in an arithmetical point of view, ‘one’ is the beginning of all numbers, and that all of them are composed of units, it will be found that this is the one which at the same time is the whole.”
He knew that God as Being was in everything. Everything in this created world ultimately proceeded from God and was comprehended in Him:
“God, the One, is the Creator of everything, and He is everything.”
“He is all and from Him cometh all.”
“He is the One; there is no being, but by cleaving to him.”
The immanence of God, the presence of God in the universe, was symbolised by angels, which were manifestations of the spirit that sustained the world. Abraham ibn Ezra compared this angelic power, ha-shem (God’s name and power operating in the world) to light, because of its great powers of illumination. His hierarchy of the universe was certainly Avicennist; and his description of the position and activity of ha-shem seems to have been close to that of Ibn Sīnā’s Active Intelligence.
Indeed, Ibn Ezra actually wrote a piece called Living Son of Watchful (Hai ben Mēkiz) which was a clear reference to the story by Ibn Sīnā. As in the original, Hai represented the Active Intelligence, who was at home in every part of the universe. The piece described a journey through the three parts of the universe, the material things of the sub-lunar world, the higher substances of the nine heavenly spheres, and the pure spirit of the highest and most divine realm of the angels.
The purification and ascent of the soul
Ibn Ezra believed that the human soul emerged from the universal soul and received its individuality on entering the body. At death, it was immersed again into the universal soul, unless it had managed, during its earthly life, to attain a higher state of perfection. The purpose of life was to purify the soul so that it could delight in the nearness of God. By living uprightly and seeking wisdom, the human could raise his immortal soul to angelic status, so that it would be rewarded after death with eternal nearness to God:
“There are many kinds of wisdom, and each kind is useful; they are all like the steps of a ladder, leading upward to true wisdom. Happy they whose mental eyes are open, that they may in future approach the Lord and His goodness.”
Could this closeness to God be experienced in this life? It seems so. In his commentary on the Book of Exodus, he explained the text
“I shall cover thee with my hand” (Exod.33:22)
as a cloud intercepting the light of the sun:
“The meaning of this simile is that, if the spirit of man is united with the spirit of the Supreme Being, he perceives nothing with his bodily senses, because in that moment of vision, the power of the soul is separated from the body.”
Prophets and inspired poets had all experienced divine illumination, which was brought about by a temporary union between the prophet’s soul and the universal angelic spirit, when the individual soul seemed to leave the body in a moment of ecstasy. No prophet was infallible, however, because no human could receive a complete revelation, and because no human could entirely purge himself of earthly imperfections. Moses was the highest of all the prophets, because he could call on God, whereas others had to wait to be called, and because he perceived the truth as it was, without any images or symbols.
As an important Jewish theologian and rabbi, well read in Arabic science and thought, interested in direct religious experience, constantly travelling, translating and expounding his ideas, Abraham ibn Ezra must be one of the best examples of someone who could have spread Avicennist religious understanding to the Jews of the Latin West.