The Three Wise Men
by Jacob Bender for The Daily Star
One assumption of the modern world is that humankind has made immeasurable advances since the Middle Ages. Certainly this is true in the sciences, medicine and technology. Yet when it comes to politics, such advances are harder to prove when taking into account the millions of lives brutally extinguished by modernity’s numerous wars and the ravages of colonialism. On the other hand, we might find when looking back at the medieval world that we could learn a lesson or two about tolerance from some of its greatest thinkers.
As a filmmaker in New York, I began working in the months following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 on "Reason and Revelation: Ibn Rushd, Maimonides and Aquinas in Their Time and Ours," a documentary that would tell the story of these three medieval geniuses (a Muslim, a Jew, and a Christian) and their continuing relevance to a modern audience. The film is planned as a three-part series for both American and foreign television. To date, the project has received generous support from Muslims, Jews and Christians around the world, as well as enlisted the participation of leading scholars of history, philosophy, and religion representing all three faiths.
Although the Middle Ages was certainly not free of war, and the Christian Crusades against Islam one of its lowest points, the age was marked by episodes of profound open-mindedness. This tolerance, and the brilliant intellectual achievements I would argue are its by-products, was due in no small part to the civilization of Islam. Stretching from the Abassid Caliphate in the east to Al-Andalus in the west, and from the 9th to the 12th centuries AD, this Islamic golden age bequeathed to history rich achievements in philosophy, science, medicine and architecture. In the 10th century, the Muslim city of Cordoba in southern Spain, birthplace of both Ibn Rushd and Maimonides, was the most advanced metropolis in Europe.
By keeping alive and expanding upon the knowledge of the ancient Greeks, Islamic and Arab civilization played a crucial role in the creation of “Western” civilization. One wonders how those now advocating a “clash of civilizations” between the West and Islam would react if they knew that their own civilization is built upon an Arab and Islamic foundation.
Yet the malevolence of intolerance and fanaticism, all too prevalent in our own time, was there in the Middle Ages as well. Ibn Rushd, Maimonides and Aquinas all suffered denunciations, excommunication, exile and the public burning of their books, not by representatives of other faiths, but ironically by followers of their own religions. Their crime was an attempt to harmonize the rationalism of ancient Greek science and philosophy, particularly the writings of Aristotle, with the sacred creeds of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. The life stories and writings of these wise men defend the notion that no one religion or nation has a monopoly on the truth, and Maimonides himself wrote that we must “pursue the truth from whatever source it emanates.”
And so Ibn Rushd became the foremost commentator on Aristotle, openly accepting wisdom from a pagan ancient. And so Moses Maimonides, perhaps the most influential Jew of the last 1,000 years, wrote almost all his books in the Arabic language and was openly indebted to the great Muslim thinkers, such as Ibn Sina and Al-Farabi, who came before him. And so the spiritual creativity of Thomas Aquinas, who single-handedly saved Christianity during its 13th century confrontation with the startling rationalism of the newly rediscovered Aristotle, is inconceivable without the writings of Maimonides and Ibn Rushd, upon which Aquinas built his intellectual edifice.
The lesson I learn from studying their lives and reading the writings of Ibn Rushd, Maimonides and Aquinas, is that by exploring the history and sacred texts of Islam and Christianity, I can vastly enrich my own spiritual understanding as a Jew. Furthermore, just as these three wise men were not afraid to challenge prevailing opinion within their own religious communities in the Middle Ages, so today 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 Taleban’s destruction of ancient Buddhist statues in Afghanistan and the Sept. 11, 2001 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 in Israel and America, like myself, have for decades supported the Palestinian people’s right to an independent state and condemned Israel’s brutal occupation with its accompanying assassinations, house demolitions, closures and illegal settlement policy.
These three wise men, Ibn Rushd the Muslim, Moses Maimonides the Jew, and Thomas Aquinas the Christian, interpreted anew in our time, can illustrate that religion need not be a source of conflict between people and nations. Rather, the quest for spiritual enlightenment can be seen as a shared experience, part of what it means to be human, connecting us with billions of other human beings around the world. It is my hope that viewers of "Reason and Revelation," especially those from the Abrahamic traditions, will come to recognize the sacredness in each of our traditions, and the divine spark within each human being that unites us all.
Jacob Bender, a New York City-based documentary filmmaker, wrote this commentary for The Daily Star. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Extracted 05/26/03 from The Daily Star