Sarah Stroumsa introduces the Library of Judeo-Arabic Literature

10.27.2016 | The Maxwell Institute

This month, the Maxwell Institute’s Middle Eastern Texts Initiative inaugurates a new series called the Library of Judeo-Arabic Literature. We’re very pleased to announce the first title in the series is now available: Twenty Chapters, by Dawud al-Muqammas, translated by Sarah Stroumsa. Stroumsa is the Alice and Jack Ormut Professor of Arabic Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. We’ve invited her to answer a few questions to introduce you to the new book and series. 
Dr. Stroumsa, your translation of Twenty Chapters is the first publication in the Library of Judeo-Arabic Literature. What is Judeo-Arabic?

Sarah Stroumsa

Judeo-Arabic is the language of Jews living in, or originating from, Arab Muslim countries, up to our own days. Medieval Judeo-Arabic was used by Jews across the Muslim empire, from Iraq to the Iberian Peninsula, and by all levels of the society. Like other forms of “Middle Arabic” medieval Judeo-Arabic deviates from the classical Arabic both lexically and grammatically, and includes elements which are often similar to what we find in modern dialects.

The ubiquitous use of Arabic in the medieval Islamicate world allowed the religious minorities, including the Jews, a very high degree of cultural integration. Jewish Judeo-Arabic compositions are therefore not only important milestones in the Jewish intellectual legacy; they are also part and parcel of the Arabic culture in the medieval Islamicate world, and familiarity with them is necessary for our correct understanding of this culture. More often than not, however, Jews wrote Arabic in Hebrew characters and their texts are peppered with Hebrew words and quotations. By transliterating these Judeo-Arabic texts to Arabic characters, and translating them to English, the series intends to overcome the barrier of a different script, and to make this literature accessible to all students of the medieval Arabic culture.

Who was Dāwūd al-Muqammaṣ? Who influenced his thinking, and who, in turn, was influenced by him?

Dāwūd al-Muqammaṣ (9th century, northern Iraq or Syria) is the first Jewish medieval philosopher known to us. Born a Jew, he converted at some point in his life to Christianity and returned later to Judaism. Upon returning to Judaism he set out to transmit the intellectual bag he had acquired in the Syriac Christian milieu to his Jewish coreligionists, in Judeo-Arabic. Apart from the philosophico-theological work published here, he also wrote the first medieval Jewish systematic Bible commentaries and the first polemical works, most of which are unfortunately not extant.

The text is called Twenty Chapters—not the most inventive title! What does it actually contain? Twenty Chapters cover smallAs the title page of the unique manuscript is missing, we do not really know if this was its “official” name, but Twenty Chapters is the name by which this text came to be known since the Middle Ages. In this comprehensive theological work (summa theologica) al-Muqammas attempts to prove the veracity of the Jewish religion in a systematic, rational way. Starting with a basic introduction to Aristotelian logic, he moves on to discuss the creation of the world and the existence and uniqueness of its Creator, revelation, human free-will, eschatology, and finally focuses on an attempt to prove the veracity of Judaism while polemicizing with other religions (mainly Christianity). This is the first Jewish medieval philosophical work known to us, starting a rich tradition of Jewish philosophy and theology and highly significant for its development. It is also the first extant Arabic kalām (dialectical theology) Summa, earlier than extant Muslim texts of this genre. Because of al-Muqammaṣ’s personal history (a Jew who had lived as a Christian, between the Syriac and the Arabic speaking cultural milieus) his work represents a rare example of the transmission of knowledge in this formative period of Islamic philosophy and theology.
See here for more information about the Library of Judeo-Arabic Literature and here for more about Twenty Chapters.