Thursday, December 9, 2010

Rabbi Ya`qov Yosef, disciple of the Besht, quotes Rabbeinu Bahya on Muhammad the Chassid

The full eBook that this selection is from can be purchased here:

In an anecdote about a pious person, a chasid, one of the early masters of the Chasidic movement, in eighteenth-century Eastern Europe, Rabbi Ya`qov Yosef of Polonnoy writes in Hebrew of the chasid with the following saying:

It was told of a pious man (chasid) that he met some people returning from a great battle with an enemy. He said to them, ‘You are returning, praised be God, from a smaller battle, carrying your booty. Now prepare yourself for the greater battle.’ They asked, ‘What is that greater battle?’ and he answered, ‘The battle against the instinct and its armies.1

This “chasid” was none other than Muhammad himself, though it is highly unlikely that Rabbi Jacob of Polonnoy had any idea that he was in fact quoting a very famous hadith, popular amongst both Mutasawwuf and Islamic literates alike. There is no question, however, that Rabbeinu Bahya was aware of the identity of this chassid of whom he wrote.

In the same way, today readers of Hebrew and English-from-Hebrew translations of Bahya ibn Paqudah’s works might be just as surprised to know that this term for “battle” in this hadeeth was “jihad” and that this was the same Arabic term employed throughout Bahya’s works for both the external and great internal struggle (jihadu-l-akbar), the struggle against the self, or as Rabbi Ya`qov termed it, the “instinct” (“jahada-n-nafsa” in the original hadeeth). While there is absolutely no dispute that Bahya had much larger implications than mere “holy war” the Mutasawwufin would similarly claim that - as this source originates with Muhammad - that Muhammad neither meant by “jihad” physical struggle, but struggle against “the instinct and its armies.”

But if Muhammad was well acquainted with Jewish tradition, and if he saw himself as somehow implementing it, to an extent, amongst the Arabs, then the natural and problematic question is why would this not be clear amongst Islamic Orthodoxy today, or in the past. Todd Lawson, Professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Toronto offers a poignant observation:

Undoubtedly, one of the reasons such material has been ignored in the context of this problem has to do with what we now know are unsuitable categories - especially in the case of Islam - of 'orthodoxy' and 'heterodxy' as methodological guides in religious studies. In the past, in many scholarly circles, it was felt that 'real (cf. orthodox) Islam', which was naturally the most populous Islam, is what we should be studying. Whatever the 'real Islam' might be, we now know that the majoritarian version of Islam, that is to say Sunni Islam, represents a consolidation of doctrines and positions that were worked out over time and in discussion, sometimes heated, sometimes not, with alternative views of what 'real Islam' was.2


1. Diane Lobel, A Sufi-Jewish Dialogue, 2; ix
2. Todd Lawson, The Crucifxion and the Qur'an: A Study in the History of Muslim Thought, 6-7

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