Maimonides, the great medieval Jewish thinker and physician, is famous for his Guide for the Perplexed. But readers of a glossy new 1150-page encyclopedia in English and French will be equally perplexed by accounts of Maimonides’ life that can’t even agree on the correct year of his birth.
The joint editors are a Tunisian professor at the university of Nanterre (Paris), Abdelwahab Meddeb, and Benjamin Stora, a Jewish professor of North African history and author of a history of the Jews of Algeria. The two men have been touring France, North Africa, Israel and Belgium promoting the encyclopedia.
“The Encyclopaedia of Jewish-Muslim relations from their origins to the present day” was launched in November 2013. There is a more modest English version, published by Princeton.
Critics such as the authority on Sephardi Jews, Professor Shmuel Trigano, have charged that the encyclopedia is nothing but a work of propaganda. It is all the more insidious because so much money has been spent on its promotion. Unusually for a book, the encyclopedia has a website all to itself and was the subject of a TV series on the French channel Arte.
Among the sponsors are The Alliance of Civilisations (co-sponsored by Spain and Turkey, and adopted as a UN initiative which excludes Israel from its Council of Friends), whose task is to change the ‘narrative’ by promoting the Spain of the Three Religions, the Andalusian Golden Age, and so forth.
Professor Trigano wrote:
An incredible publicity and ideological campaign is underway in France. Its target is world public opinion by way of the Jews, and more specifically Sephardi Jews – sorry, ‘Arab Jews’.
Dr. Rudi Roth, a mathematician and computer scientist who lives in Belgium, has spent hours combing through the encyclopedia, finding errors of omission and commission. He has contacted dozens of scholars and academics for their comments.
“It’s astonishing,” he says, “that an Encyclopaedia purporting to be precise and accessible, overseen by a 12-member scientific committee and more than one hundred contributors from the world’s top universities, contains major errors of fact and is sloppily edited.”
The encyclopedia variously lists Maimonides’ date of birth as 1135 or 1138 (the latter date is correct). Nowhere is it mentioned that his father was a Talmudic scholar, a mathematician and astronomer. On the other hand his son Abraham, like his father a physician and philosopher, is described as a Jewish ‘sufi,’ influenced by ‘Islamic mysticism.’
Aged 10, Maimonides was forced to leave his native Cordoba to escape the Almohad invasion. These were a tribe of fanatical Muslims who massacred Jews in Seville in 1147 and sought to forcibly convert Jews and Christians in Spain. But Maimonides’ flight is described as ‘an emigration.’ The family’s 12 years of wandering through Spain as it escaped persecution are passed over in silence. Arriving in Fez, Morocco, Maimonides was compelled to convert to Islam to spare his life. “It was only for appearances’ sake,” claims Mercedes Garcia-Arenal on page 143. Yet when he later rose to become head of the Jewish community in Cairo, Maimonides came under suspicion both from Muslims and Jews for living as a ‘converso.’
In his famous Epistle to the harassed Jews of Yemen (c.1172), Maimonides proffers advice. But Yehoshua Frenkel’s entry in English makes no mention of the persecution which the Yemenite Jews suffered. Similarly, no mention is made that Maimonides himself fled to Akko to escape Muslim persecution.
Maimonides died in Fostat (Old Cairo) in 1204, but Suzan Youssef (pps 1005 – 13) insists that he was also buried there. Yet historians are unanimous that his tomb is located in Tiberias.
Apart from the minimising of Jewish links with the land of Israel, Dr. Roth has identified inaccuracies and omissions that exaggerate Arab Muslim influence in culture and science while downplaying the Jewish contribution.
For instance, the academic Gad Freudenthal writes in the entry about Algebra: “Some fields of mathematics remained totally unknown to the Jews, such as Algebra.”
Dr. Roth has found at least four Jewish mathematicians missing from the encyclopedia: Savasorda (Abrahim bar Hiija al Nasi (1070 – 1136)), author of the earliest Arabic Algebra written in Europe; Abraham Meir ibn Ezra (1092 – 1167); Levi Ben Gherson (1288 – 1344) and Ibn Yahya al Maghrebi Al Samawal (1130 – 1150). Oddly enough, Freudenthal himself wrote a book about Gherson.
Also missing are events such as the 1033 pogrom of Fez, the earliest known pogrom of the second millennium.
As far as Arab collaboration with the Nazis is concerned, Dr. Roth accuses Henry Laurens, the author of the two pages on the Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin Al-Husseini, of minimizing his role. There is no mention, says Roth, of the pro-Nazi Palestinian leader Fawzi al Qawuqj, or the Mufti’s broadcast calls for genocide on Radio Berlin, nothing on the Mufti’s creation of the SS Handschar division staffed by Bosnian Muslims, nothing about the part he personally played in condemning 20,000 European Jewish children to the death camps, and nothing about the Mufti having contact with the Nazis as early as 1936.
Regrettably, the Encyclopaedia is typical of the politicization of the study of Islam and its treatment of non-Muslims. Young minds are being brainwashed by a sanitized version of history with a huge promotional budget – replete with distortion, minimization and omission. Are we going to sit back and let it happen?