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Leading Scholar of Islam delivers Revel Guest Lecture on Saadia Gaon in His Muslim Milieu

On Monday, December 10th, Professor Meir M. Bar-Asher of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem spent the evening as a visiting scholar at the Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies. Bar-Asher, a leading expert on Shiite Islam and Qur’an interpretation, was invited by Associate Dean Mordechai Cohen to deliver the second in this year’s Revel Visiting Scholar Lecture series, entitled: “Parallel Illumination: Saadia Gaon on the Bible in Light of Muslim Interpretation of the Qur’an.” In 2010/11 Cohen and Bar-Asher had co-directed the international research project “Encountering Scripture in Overlapping Cultures: Early Jewish, Christian and Muslim Strategies of Reading and Their Contemporary Implications” that brought together fourteen leading scholars at the Institute for Advanced Studies of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Earlier this fall, Andrew Kraebel of Yale University (another member of the Jerusalem research group), delivered the first Revel Visiting Scholar Lecture of the year, entitled “How did Rashi’s Christian Neighbors Interpret the Bible?” Complementing Kraebel’s insights into Christian interpretation and its possible connections with Jewish Bible interpretation in the Rashi’s school in northern France, Bar-Asher in his address demonstrated how Saadia Gaon—who actually wrote in Arabic—adapted concepts from the Qur’an and its interpretation to develop his innovative system of Jewish Bible exegesis, which would serve for centuries as a model for Jewish interpreters in Muslim lands (including Abraham Ibn Ezra and Maimonides).

The evening began with a Revel dinner in the President’s Boardroom, at which Cohen introduced Bar-Asher and his broad range of scholarship—which encompasses various Muslim sectarian branches and the interaction between Jews and Muslims over the centuries. Speaking from personal experience, having worked closely with Bar-Asher in Jerusalem, Cohen noted how personally invested our visiting scholar is in all of the fields that he studies—including those beyond his specific professional focus, such as medieval Jewish liturgical poetry (piyyut), Jewish mysticism (kabbalah), and the ancient Syriac Bible. In Cohen’s words, “Meir Bar-Asher is a true scholarly persona—manifesting the utmost respect for the subjects of his scholarship, even while engaging in their critical analysis. It is for this reason that he is able to acquire a profound understanding of even the most recondite matters—and otherwise heavily cloaked religious conceptions. This is a wonderful model for our mode of academic Jewish studies at Revel.” Bar-Asher spoke about the impact of his biography on his scholarly life. Born to a Moroccan immigrant family inJerusalem in the 1950’s adjacent to the border with what was then the Jordanian occupied sector of the city, he became neighbors with Christian and Muslim Arab youngsters whenJerusalem was unified in 1967. Knowing Arabic from home, he sought to further understand the culture and heritage of these new neighbors among whom he made friends despite the underlying nationalistic tensions that separated them. In his academic work, Bar-Asher focused on branches of Shiite Islam that tended toward esotericism. While the practitioners of these esoteric forms of Islam generally view academics with suspicion—Israeli ones doubly so—Bar-Asher succeeded in gaining the confidence of certain Druze elders, who agreed to discuss matters of their faith with him. Bar-Asher’s presentation sparked much curiosity among the audience, which raised fascinating questions about possible parallels with Jewish kabbalists and their feelings about the academic study of Jewish mysticism. One questioner asked Bar-Asher if he thinks that today’s Israeli politicians have an adequately deep understanding of Islam, but theJerusalem scholar demurred, saying that he normally avoids making political statements. He did indicate, however, that in his view the political leadership on both sides would benefit from a more profound grasp of the other’s culture and heritage.

The dinner, which was attended by Revel students, faculty and alumni—as well as Bar-Asher and his wife, Ruth (an English teacher), and guests from other schools—provided ample opportunity for people to socialize with one another. Some followed up on specifics raised at the discussion with Prof. Bar-Asher, some raised other matters with him, and others conversed with his wife, who spent her childhood in Morocco (where the Bar-Asher’s returned to visit last year) and France before coming to Israel as a teenager. Hannah Pasternak, a Drisha Scholar, remarked: “Ruth was interested in my life story (I’m making aliyah in a month), and it was an absolute pleasure to converse with her in Hebrew before the lecture.” The dinner forum concluded with ma‘ariv, and a promise of fascinating scholarship in the public lecture to follow.

Attendees of the dinner where joined by students from Yeshiva College, Stern College, and other schools in Furst Hall for the focus of the evening, Bar-Asher’s lecture on Saadia Gaon in his Muslim intellectual milieu. Dean Cohen warmly introduced the speaker, recollecting the enriching time they had spent together inJerusalem. As for the topic of the lecture itself, Cohen noted in his introduction that Revel’s exclusive focus on Jewish Studies makes it essential to feature guest lectures that provide ample first-hand scholarly treatment of related subjects from other fields—such as Islam.

Professor Bar-Asher began his talk by noting the prestige Saadia Gaon held and continues to hold within the Jewish tradition. Saadia was the eminent Jewish leader in his time and his magnum opus, The Book of Beliefs and Opinions (Emunot ve-De‘ot), as well as his other works, are still widely studied today. In addition to being a master composer of poetry, Saadia wrote a treatise on music and various halakhic works. Being an expert linguist, he found his niche as a Bible exegete, asserting that the primary meaning of the Hebrew Bible is its plain sense—determined through a philological-grammatical reading—which would come to be referred to as peshuto shel miqra. Although the Talmud states that a biblical verse cannot be deprived of its peshat, in actuality rabbinic interpretation is usually midrashic—and pays little attention to the plain sense. To explain Saadia’s departure from this model, scholars have posited that he was embracing the Zeitgeist of his Mulsim cultural context—in which the plain sense of Sacred Scripture was privileged. Bar Asher focused his attention in particular on a passage of Saadia’s introduction to his Torah Commentary in which he states that where a verse is clear and sensible when read literally, then it must be taken in its plain sense. It is only where the literal reading of a verse poses a difficulty (if it contradicts sense perception, reason, another verse or the tradition transmitted by the Rabbis) that one may assume that the verse is “ambiguous,” i.e., subject to a non-literal interpretation, what Saadia calls ta’wīl in Arabic. For example, since we know that God does not have a body, the biblical word that normally connotes a hand (yad) must be taken to mean “strength” when said in connection with God. The Arabic terms that Saadia uses to describe the dichotomy between “clear” and “ambiguous” verses in the Hebrew Bible, Bar-Asher showed, are taken from Qur’an 3,7, a much celebrated verse that (according to the subsequent exegetical tradition) tells how the Qur’an itself is to be interpreted:

It is He [i.e., God] who has sent down to you, [O Muhammad], the Book (Qur’an); in it are verses [that are] muhkamāt [clear, univocal]—they are the substance of the Book (umm al-kitāb, lit. mother of the book)—and others (which are) mutashābihāt [unclear, ambiguous, requiring interpretation].

The majority of the Qur’an (described in the Arabic expression umm al-kitāb, which Bar-Asher noted is similar to the talmudic expression em la-miqra) is comprised of verses which are clear (muhkamāt), and only a minority are unclear or ambiguous (mutashābihāt). It is evident that Saadia applied this very notion to the Hebrew Bible.

The conclusion of this verse was subject to debate in medieval Islam, and its reading depends on the punctuation:

As for those in whose hearts is deviation [from truth], they will follow that of it which is mutashābih, seeking discord and seeking an interpretation (ta’wīl) [suitable to them]. And no one knows its [true] interpretation (ta’wīl) except Allah. But those firm in knowledge say, “We believe in it. All [of it] is from our Lord.”

On this reading, which was eventually adopted by the Sunni’s as authoritative, only God alone knows the meaning of the ambiguous verses. But others read the last sentences differently:

…no one knows its [true] interpretation (ta’wīl) except Allah and those firm in knowledge. They say, “We believe in it. All [of it] is from our Lord.”

On this reading, there are human beings (“those firm in knowledge”) who are capable of disambiguating the mutashābihāt. Bar-Asher noted that this is evidently Saadia’s view, because he regards it as the judicious interpreter’s obligation to engage in ta’wīl in order to interpret the Hebrew Bible properly where the literal sense leads to an unacceptable reading. Within Islam, this approach is favored by the Shiites, who maintain that the Imams alone (who are privileged to receive certain divine knowledge) are qualified to interpret the unclear verses of the Qur’an.

Bar-Asher showed how the debate over the interpretation of Qur’an 3,7 is at root a syntactic question: Is “those firm in knowledge” part of the earlier sentence, or is it exclusively the subject of the final sentence? (In Arabic, as in Hebrew, the pronoun “they” is not a separate word, but is simply part of the third person plural verb yaqulun [=they say], like Hebrew yo’meru.) Bar-Asher noted that this is similar to the ambiguity noted by the Rabbis of the Talmud, who relate that “five verses in the Torah are undecided [syntactically]” (BT Yoma 52a), i.e., in which the punctuation is unclear.

Saadia’s endeavor to harmonize the Hebrew Bible with reason is not unlike similar Muslim attempts—through interpretation—to reconcile rational difficulties posed by the Qur’an.  Indeed, this rationalist tendency is evident in some of the commentaries on Qur’an 3, 7 that Bar-Asher presented to the audience. The very early Qur’an exegete Muqatil ibn Sulayman (d. 767) explains that the muhkamāt are prescriptive verses dictating laws such as: “be good to your parents, and [do] not slay your children because of poverty…that you approach not any indecency outward or inward…and fill up the measure and balance with justice” (Qur’an 6:151-153).  Bar-Asher suggested that this definition of muhkamāt parallels Saadia’s category of “rational commandments” (mitzvot sikhliyyot). According to Muqatil ibn Sulayman the mutashābihāt are the mysterious letters alif, lam, mim, etc. appearing at the beginning of some sura’s of the Qur’an—the meaning of which is unknown. Also giving Qur’an 3, 7 a “halakhic” valence, abu Ubayd (d. 838), another early commentator, equates the muhkamāt with the so-called “abrogating” verses of the Qur’an, while the mutashābihāt are the “abrogated” verses, i.e., laws that were given at an early stage but superseded by (“abrogating”) verses given later.

Saadia’s usage of the muhkam-mutashābih dichotomy is closest to what is found in other Qur’an commentators. Tabarī (d. 923), a contemporary of Saadia’s and a most influential Qur’an commentator, explains that muhkamāt are verses to be taken according to “their obvious… unambiguous meaning.” Following a similar line of thought, Al-Zamakhsharī (d. 1144) explaining that muhkamāt “are verses whose expression is affirmed in the sense that they are free from… ambiguity, while the mutashābihāt are such verses which lend themselves to a variety of interpretations.”

A lively question and answer period followed the lecture—reflecting the profound interest that it sparked. One question was raised about Saadia’s epistemology as implied by his introduction to the Torah, where he refers to sense perception and reason, as well as Scripture and tradition. While the questioner thought that this may have Aristotelian roots, Bar-Asher argued that it bears a closer affinity to Mu‘tazilite thought—and it is known that Saadia adapted concepts from that influential branch of Muslim philosophy. Thanking his colleague for an engaging presentation, Cohen enumerated some of its further implications for Jewish Bible interpretation—especially among Jewish interpreters in Muslim lands such as Maimonides. As Cohen noted, Saadia’s system can be seen as the foundation upon which Maimonides built his halakhic argument (in the second principle of his Book of the Commandments) that only what is stated explicitly in the Torah (meforash ba-Torah) has biblical authority, whereas the laws extrapolated by the Rabbis using the midrashic middot (hermeneutical rules) are merely of rabbinic authority. By contrast, the great northern French pasthan Rashbam maintains that midrashic interpretation alone—but not peshuto shel miqra—is halakhically authoritative. Living  in a very different, non-Muslm, intellectual milieu, Rashbam constructed an entirely different hermeneutical system than the one that prevailed among Jewish interpreters in Muslim lands.

The lecture inspired a variety of thoughtful responses. Rachel Renz (SCW 2014) remarked: “By exposing the audience to the self-referential nature of the Quran, Professor Bar Asher introduced us to exegetical strategies of Islam relevant to Saadia Gaon. As a student double majoring in Judaic Studies as well as English Literature, exegetical techniques and literary considerations in biblical contexts are of prime importance to me… Bar-Asher highlighted the importance for Jews and non-Jews alike to take a vested interest in this kind of scholarship.” Dr. Aaron Koller (PhD, Revel, 2008), Assistant Professor of Bible at Revel and Yeshiva College offered the following reflections: “It was a privilege to hear an expert on the ‘parshanut’ of the Qur’an talking about such an important verse and the implications of its different interpretations. It was especially exciting because much of what Dr. Bar-Asher said emerged from conversations between experts in different fields—Qur’anic and Biblical interpretation. In a sense, this lecture and discussion continued what happened in the Middle Ages: as Saadia himself used Qur’anic categories to think about interpreting Tanakh, the interactions between Dr. Bar-Asher and our own Dr. Cohen enriched our present understanding.”


This article was written by Steven and Rivka Skaist (Revel 2014)

Read a full interview with Professor Bar-Asher in Acta Fakulty Filozoficke, published by the University of West Bohemia in Pilsen (the interview, on pages 157-166, is in English).

View the event photo essay.