Asian and African studies blog

2 posts categorized "Law"

17 July 2020

Autograph responsum of Moses Maimonides, pre-eminent Jewish polymath and spiritual leader

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While awaiting the postponed opening of our exhibition Hebrew Manuscripts: Journeys of the Written Word, I am delighted to offer our readers and followers snapshots of its magnificent contents. Among the 39 Hebrew manuscripts included in the exhibition, there are three pertaining to Maimonides. In this blog, I will be highlighting an all-time favourite - Maimonides’ signed responsum (Or 5519 B), which was discovered in the 19th century in the Cairo Genizah.

Maimonides’ responsum.  Fustat, Old Cairo, Egypt, 12th century CE (British Library Or 5519B)
Maimonides’ responsum.  Fustat, Old Cairo, Egypt, 12th century CE (Or 5519B)

Who was Maimonides?

One of the greatest Jewish sages of all times, Mosheh ben Maimon (b.1135, Cordoba, Spain, d.1204, Fustat, Old Cairo, Egypt), was not only an outstanding legal authority, erudite philosopher and celebrated physician, but, also the most influential Jewish spiritual leader of his era. The Arabs amongst whom he spent most of his life knew him as Abu Imram Musa ibn Maimun al-Qurtubi. To Western Christian scholars he was known as Moses Maimonides or simply Maimonides, while his own people called him Rambam, an acronym of Rabbi Mosheh Ben Maimon.

Monument of Maimonides in Córdoba, Spain
Monument of Maimonides in Córdoba, Spain. Photo: Ajay Suresh from New York, NY, USA

A polymath with a stupendous intellect and an astonishing memory (legend has it that he retained every word and thought after reading a book), Maimonides displays an unmatched originality, incisive analytical power and profound erudition in most of his works. There is hardly a discipline of medieval scholarship, or field of Jewish knowledge that he did not master and cover in his writings. He was a polyglot fluent in Arabic and Hebrew, and seemingly well acquainted with Aramaic, Greek, Latin, Persian and Spanish.

Although Maimonides’ literary legacy encompasses a vast corpus of writings in a broad range of disciplines, he is famous for composing three of Judaism’s major works: the commentary to the Mishnah - oral tradition of Jewish Law (1168 CE), the Mishneh Torah (The Second Law or the Mighty Hand) a monumental code of Jewish law (1178 CE), and the Moreh Nevukhin (The Guide for the Perplexed), probably the most authoritative Jewish philosophical treatise of the medieval era (1190 CE).

lavishly illuminated page from the Lisbon Mishneh Torah embellished opening to Sefer Nezikin (Book of Damages)
Left: lavishly illuminated page from the Lisbon Mishneh Torah. Lisbon, Portugal, 1472 (Harley MS 5698, f. 11v);
right: embellished opening to Sefer Nezikin (Book of Damages), Lisbon Mishneh Torah. Lisbon, Portugal, 1472 (Harley MS 5699, f. 277v)

What are responsa?

A rich source of historical and sociological material, responsa (singular responsum) are written answers to questions asked of various rabbinic authorities on religious, legal or general matters. This rabbinic-talmudic literary genre (Hebrew she’elot u-teshuvot) spans more than fourteen centuries and covers the vast geographical expanse of the Jewish Diaspora.

The beginnings of the genre can be traced back to the late talmudic period (c. 6th century CE) when the geonim–teachers and scholars of the Babylonian academies–began receiving legal questions from diasporic countries. The preservation of this material in Cairo, which between the 6th and 11th centuries CE served as the principal distribution centre for answers sent onwards to western North African Jewish communities, contributed further to its survival. Not surprisingly, a hoard of ‘gaonic responsa’ was found among the treasures accumulated in the Cairo Genizah when it was uncovered more than a century ago.

Autograph responsum of Moses Maimonides

Difficult cases were referred by local rabbinic courts to the world-renowned authority Moses Maimonides in Fustat, Old Cairo, and the latter drafted his reply, or responsum as in this example. This case concerns a teacher who regretted an oath he had taken not to teach the daughters of a certain person. The oath, which had been prompted by slanderous remarks, resulted in loss of earnings for the teacher and disruption to the girls’ education. Maimonides’ succinct answer rules that the teacher should rescind the oath in front of ‘three Israelites’, then resume his work as before. The last word in the document is Maimonides’ signature Mosheh (Moses).

Maimonides’ own handwriting
Maimonides’ own handwriting with his signature (last word in line 3). Fustat, Old Cairo, Egypt, 12th century CE (Or 5519B, detail)

The enquiry was written, presumably by a professional notary, in a semi-square Spanish-Maghrebi hand, in a mixture of rabbinic Hebrew and Judeo-Arabic. It begins with a sequence of honorific attributes addressed to Maimonides such as for instance: Mosheh ha-rav ha-gadol (Moses the Great Rabbi) and ha-Patish he-hazak (the powerful hammer). The succinct reply, in the same mixed languages, is in Maimonides’ own hand and occupies the last three lines of text.

The question addressed to Maimonides with honorific attributes
The question addressed to Maimonides with honorific attributes (line 2 from the top). Fustat, Old Cairo, Egypt, 12th century CE (Or 5519B, detail)

Apart from illustrating Maimonides’ unsurpassed authority and the veneration he commanded from the Jewish world, this significant autograph manuscript shows Maimonides’ sympathetic approach and high degree of pragmatism when dealing with his fellow co-religionists’ predicaments. It also provides a glimpse of Jewish life in twelfth-century Egypt and demonstrates that, contrary to popular belief, education in medieval times was not restricted to Jewish males.

Over five hundred responsa written by Moses Maimonides are known to have survived. They are priceless testimonies to his thinking on applying the law to actual cases, and illuminate the social conditions prevailing during his lifetime. Maimonides’ legal answers embrace a broad spectrum of life situations including business partnerships, conversion to Judaism, inheritance, marriage and divorce, oaths, and others. Although many lack the date of composition, it is generally accepted that they were written between 1167, shortly after his arrival in Egypt and 1204, the year of his death. The first collection of Maimonides’ responsa appeared in print only in the 18th century. Noteworthy scholarly collections that have been published since include Alfred Freimann’s 1934 edition, and Joshua Blau’s 1957-61 four-volume compilation, both in Hebrew.

Further readings

Blau, Joshua, Teshuvot ha-Rambam. 4 vols, Jerusalem: Mekize Nirdamim, 1957-1961.
Freimann, Alfred, Teshuvot ha-Rambam, Jerusalem, Mekize Nirdamim, first edition, 1934.
Halbertal, Moshe, Maimonides: Life and Thought, Princeton University Press, 2014.
Kraemer Joel L., Maimonides: the Life and World of one of Civilizations’ greatest minds, Doubleday Religion, 2010.
Zuroff Abraham N., The Responsa of Maimonides,Yeshiva University, 1966.

Ilana Tahan, Lead Curator Hebrew & Christian Orient Studies

20 April 2020

Sir William Jones’ manuscript copy of al-Fatawa al-'Alamgiriyyah

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Upon disembarking in India in 1783 as a new puisne Judge at the Supreme Court of Judicature in Fort William, now Kolkata, which covered the districts of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa, William Jones encountered a problem: how do British judges, relying, as they did, on pandits and maulavis to translate Arabic, Persian and Sanskrit legal texts into English and provide interpretations of the law for the Muslim and Hindu communities, ensure that they are applying the law as it ought to be applied, rather than as desired by the translators and scholars? Jones himself was very conscious of the possibility of corruption; indeed, this distrust of the pandits’ interpretations of the texts were his main motivations to learn Sanskrit (Jones, Letters, 2:666).

Beginning of volume 2 of the Fatawa al-alamgiri
 The opening of volume two of William Jones' copy of al-Fatāwā al-ʻĀlamgīriyyah, with Jones’ signature included in the heading (British Library RSPA 88). Public domain

The problem was not so much one of corruption or misinterpretation of the law, of course. Jones, hailing from one culture of law, was confronted by not one but two new legal systems in India, that of Islamic Law (fiqh) and the legal theory and jurisprudence of the Hindu community, which developed into the term Hindu Law during the British colony. In 1772, Warren Hastings, then governor, enforced that all Indians would be subject to Indian (Islamic and Hindu) law and that the approach to this law would be text-based rather than based on local custom. Medieval Islamic Law varied in theory and practice widely between the four Sunni and two (major) Shia schools and was fundamentally constructed on different principles with different goals from English law. The same is true of what became Hindu law; the administration of this by the Supreme Court was “fraught with difficulty” (Evison, 1998, 126) because of both the difficulty the pandits had working in a system where they were not able to access details of the case at hand, but rather relied on notes from the judge, and also the fact that the methods of interpreting traditional shastric literature were not conceived to provide simple universal answers to the questions posed by the British court system (see Evison, 1998, 126-8).

In this text-based legal culture, Jones aimed to acquire his own manuscript copies of important texts in Arabic, Persian and Sanskrit, in order to ensure he had access to the original material upon which customary law, he assumed, had been based. One of the most important of the texts he acquired was his five-volume copy of al-Fatāwā al-ʻĀlamgīriyyah (MSS RSPA 87, 88, 89, 90 and 91); it was the end result of a long period of legal scholarship undertaken by a wide range of legal scholars and commissioned by the Mughal Emperor ʻĀlamgīr, better known as Aurangzeb (r.1658-1707). The text, recommended to Jones by an acquaintance of his, Mīr Ḥusayn ʻAlī (Jones, Notebook, 7, 13), proved to be one of the cornerstones of the British imperial legal system and one of the most prominent texts through which the colonial authorities administered Muslim law.

MS RSPA 87, is, however, very different from the other manuscripts in the collection. This manuscript volume was rebound in the standard India Office half-leather brown-maroon binding with wine-coloured marbled endpapers (like most of the Jones collection). The other volumes are still in their 18th-century brown leather-and-board binding, which has mostly become detached, except for MS RSPA 91, which is also bound in the India Office Library style.

Seal impressions of former owners (RSPA 87  f. 1r)
The initial leaf of volume one of al-Fatāwā al-ʻĀlamgīriyyah with previous owners' seals and inscriptions (British Library RSPA 87, f. 1r). Public domain

The script and paper of the manuscript are also very different from the others, which are all copied in one continuous neat naskh hand on a light-cream, thick, woven paper. The paper of this volume is, however, a worm-eaten and discoloured woven paper, whilst the hand is a thick, rough nastaʿlīq. The volume, then, is clearly from a different text production and would presumably have formed part of a different set of manuscripts, which are not part of the Jones collection. Equally, the same applies to the other set: whatever happened to the first volume?

It might be seem axiomatic that Jones should buy from different manuscript sets of al-Fatāwā al-ʻĀlamgīriyyah. Why should it matter that one manuscript comes from a different place than the others? Perhaps he just bought the volumes which were available at the time and supplemented elsewhere with MS RSPA 87 (or vice-versa) when he could. Looking at any seals might be instructive. Where did they come from? When did they become grouped together into the same collection of manuscripts?

Seal B Seal C Seal D and inscription
Seals B, C and D indicating former owners of RSPA 87. Public domain

MS RSPA 87 has the greatest number of seals and, naturally, being the odd one out of the series, the most distinct lineage. On the first folio, there are four seals. At the top (seals A and B) are two copies of the same seal with the legend, ʻAbd al-Ḥaqq murīd-i pādshāh-i ʻĀlamgīr sanah 36 (1692-93) which translates to “ʻAbd al-Ḥaqq, disciple of the Emperor ʻĀlamgīr in the regnal year 36,” meaning that this ʻAbd al-Ḥaqq owned this manuscript not earlier than 1692. In the accompanying ownership statement, ʻAbd al-Ḥaqq is noted to be the son of ʻAbd al-Wahhāb, a deceased judge. Seal C is a Qur’anic seal quoting verse 45 of surah 19 (Sūrat Maryam) which does not tell us much about the owner. The final seal (D) on this page is that of Ḥāfiẓ Masʻūd Khān dated 1153AH (1740-41AD). Alongside this seal, there is a note that states he bought the manuscript in 1162AH (1748-49AD).

Seal of Akram al-Din RSPA90 Seal pf Hafiz Masud RSPA91
Left: seal of Akram al-Dīn (RSPA 90) and right: acquisition note dated 1162 (1748-49) and seal of Ḥāfiẓ Masʻūd Khān (RSPA 91). Public domain

The other four volumes in the series have a different origin. The oldest seal on all of these manuscripts is that of Muḥammad Abū al-Fatḥ Akram al-Dīn dated regnal year 39, 1107AH (1695-96AD), again making this set of manuscripts a copy of the text dating from the reign of Emperor ʻĀlamgīr, albeit a younger copy than MS RSPA 87. These manuscripts then all bear the same origin; what becomes interesting is that these manuscripts also all bear the seal of Ḥāfiẓ Masʻūd Khān dated 1153AH (1740-1AD). It is possible that Ḥāfiẓ Masʻūd Khān bought them from someone else who previously grouped the manuscripts together, especially given that he acquired them all in the same year (1162/1748-49).

Inscription of Muhammad Anwar RSPA87
Note dated Jumāda al-Awwal 1196AH (April-May 1782AD) by Sayyid Muḥammad Anwar (British Library RSPA 87, f. 1r). Public domain

So, we have identified Ḥāfiẓ Masʻūd Khān in the year 1162AH as the point at which we can positively assert that the manuscripts were definitely grouped together, with it being possible that they had been previously grouped and sold together to him. What, then, can we say about what happened next? On MS RSPA 87, there is a final acquisition note from a man named Sayyid Muḥammad Anwar ibn Sayyid Muḥammad Ghawth, who apparently acquired the manuscript in Jumāda al-Awwal in the year 1196AH (April-May 1782AD), only a year and a half before Jones acquired them, making Muḥammad Anwar the likely source of these manuscripts for Jones.

Through the seal record, then, we have been able to reconstruct the past history of Jones’s copies of al-Fatāwā al-ʻĀlamgīriyyah and provide the point at which we can definitively say this heterogenous manuscript collection had become grouped together as one text, predating Jones by some thirty years. In his notebooks, Jones lists this text first, before both al-Farāʼiḍ al-Sirājiyyah (MS RSPA 92), which Jones commissioned, and Mukhtaṣar al-Qudūrī, of which he owned two copies (MS RSPA 83 and MS RSPA 84) (see Jones, Notebook, 41); this manuscript text, covered in annotations and notes, which remain in need of extensive study, was therefore an integral cornerstone of his legal practice in India.

Further Reading

Evison, Gillian, “The Sanskrit Manuscripts of Sir William Jones in the Bodleian Library” in Alexander Murray (ed.) Sir William Jones 1746-1794: A Commemoration (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998).
Ibetson, David, “Sir William Jones as Comparative Lawyer” in Alexander Murray (ed.) Sir William Jones 1746-1794: A Commemoration (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998).
Jones, William, Letters of Sir William Jones (ed. Garland Cannon) (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1970; in two volumes).
——— Autograph Notebook, ca. 1785. Yale University, Beinecke Library MS. Osborn c400; this notebook is from the first few years of Jones’s life in India and details people, places and the books he acquired.
Stephens, Julia, Governing Islam: law, empire and secularism in South Asia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018).

Jonathan Lawrence, DPhil candidate at the University of Oxford, doctoral placement at British Library