How Islamic Conceptions of Prophecy Influenced Jewish Mysticism

Patristic, Medieval and Renaissance Studies Conference, Villanova University, Philadelphia, PA, October 10-12, 2008

Medieval Judaism was deeply influenced by Sufism. Virtually all-Jewish thinkers between the 8th and 12th centuries assimilated some, or much of Islamic mystical thinking, allowing it to color their interpretation of their own Hebraic practice. With nearly 90% of the world’s Jews living under Islam at the height of the Muslim Caliphate, everyone from Saadia Gaon (d. 942) to Moses Maimonides (d. 1204) and Moses de Leon (d. 1305), author of the canonical Kabbalistic text, Zohar, infused aspects borrowed from Sufism into their interpretation of Jewish life and law. Some even stated that Sufism represented a mystical system that embodied the essence of the ancient Jewish prophets, which had become lost to medieval Jews due to their iniquities.

This Jewish/Muslim mystical entanglement lasted for nearly one thousand years, from the ninth century in al-Andalus, Babylonia, North Africa and other Mediterranean locales, to the 17th century Ottoman Empire, and the bizarre life of Shabbetai Zevi, the false Messiah who, it was said, prayed with the Koran in one hand and the Torah in the other. This virtually unknown relationship helped to recast Jewish mysticism and worship, leaving an indelible mark on Jewish practice to this day.

Although the full breadth of this story is beyond the scope of this paper – I have treated it in a book currently being readied for publication by Fons Vitae Publisher in Louisville, KY – one particular aspect of the Jewish/Sufi interrelationship is particularly germane to this year’s Patristic, Medieval and Renaissance Conference, centered as it is in questions of the “Angel and the Muse: Inspiration, Revelation, Prophecy.”

Sufi conceptions of prophetic realization, which can be traced back through the Sixth Imam of Islam, Jafar as-Sadiq (d. 765), to the Prophet Muhammad, directly influenced the greatest medieval Jewish thinkers, including Moses Maimonides, and from there, the Kabbalah and 18th century European Hasidism. In this manner, one of the most important Jewish religious conceptions became aligned with Islam, helping to link these two religions at their cores.

Jafar as-Sadiq, whom many considered an early father of Sufism, based his view of prophetic enlightenment on the life of the Prophet Muhammad. The founder of Islam expanded the ideal of the prophet from representing a man who had a personal relationship with God, to an individual who had a divinely ordained social role. According to this new model, the prophet was charged with translating visionary messages received from God, into a specific legislative language, which would help disseminate this power throughout normative society.

Building on Muhammad’s ideal, Jafar developed a hierarchical conception of prophecy, which led at the ultimate point, to the “prophetic legislator.” He elucidated the following categories of prophecy:

“1) The nabi (prophet) who receives signs and inspiration; 2) the nabi who hears an angel, but only in a dream and never awake; and 3) the nabi who hears an angel but is awake. The parallel socio-political scheme developed by Jafar as-Sadiq: 1) the nabi who does not have to transmit that which he receives; 2) the nabi mursal who has a mission which is to support and to teach a previous revelation; and 3) the nabi rasul whose mission is to legislate. His prophecy is called nubuwat al-tashri (legislative prophecy).”i

These novel ideals were infused into Islam, expanded on by later thinkers such as Abd Allah ibn Sina (d. 1037), Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (d. 1111), Muhyiddin ibn Arabi (d. 1240) and others who built onto Jafar’s model.

Moses Maimonides

Moses Maimonides was the most important thinker to align Jewish prophetic ideals with Islam. And it is imperative to note how vital prophecy was to medieval Judaism. Hardly something confined to the far-off Biblical past, or to people inhabiting the outermost edges of society, “prophecy” stood as the ultimate goal of the religious quest, a spiritual station that was theoretically attainable by all Jews, as they were heritors of the original prophetic moments, those of Abraham and Moses. Additionally, medieval Jews were convinced that the Messianic age was fast approaching, a time when prophetic understanding would be in especial need. Moses Maimonides himself even speculated on the exact time of the Messiah’s return, fixing the date sometime in the year 1240.ii As such, it was notable that this preeminent Jewish thinker would turn to Islam to help define the role of the prophet.

Professor David Blumenthal pointed out:

“Drawing on Islamic political theory in which the prophet is separated from other ideal types by virtue of his being a ‘messenger,’ that is by virtue of his having a divinely ordained socio-political function, Maimonides . . . set forth the role of the legislator/prophet . . . The mixture of piety and politics, of religious awareness and socio-political mission, may sound strange to modern ears, but it is basic to Islam and hence to medieval Jewish thought.”iii

For Maimonides, the prophet/lawgiver was not only possessed of the perfect intellect, but was also a gifted rhetorician, leader and socio-religious guide. According to the Jewish scion: “He was able to take the truths that he knew and, by imaginatively devising an effective system of concepts, images, rituals and stories, enable these Truths to work in the lives of ordinary people . . . These words were impressed on the imagination of the listeners as they were themselves crafted in the imagination of the lawgiver.”iv Maimonides noted that man was by nature a political animal, and that the prophet must influence this banal and often profane sphere.v

As Maimonides stated in the Guide for the Perplexed (2:37):

“Sometimes something comes from (the Divine) to a certain individual, the measure of that something being such that it renders him perfect, but has no other effect. Sometimes, on the other hand, the measure of what comes to the individual overflows from rendering him perfect towards rendering others perfect.”vi

Maimonides employed a trope utilized by so many medieval Jews, who were influenced by Islamic mystical ideas. He read the novel conceptions of prophetic action backwards into the ancient Jewish past, specifically to Moses. “The role of the legislator-prophet is clearly assigned to Moses, and Maimonides applied to him the Hebrew word mehogeg (legislator).”vii

Undoubtedly, Maimonides also felt that he himself, followed in Moses’ line as a prophetic legislator. As the time of the Messiah was fast approaching, and prophetic legislators would be vital in bringing this era about, the fact that Maimonides’ gently shifted beliefs about Jewish prophecy towards the Islamic model was of no mean importance.

Lightening Flash of Prophetic Realization

In addition to the general conception of the prophetic legislator, Maimonides assimilated other, specific aspects of the nabi. For instance, in Sufism, the preexistent “light” of God operated as the medium of prophecy – it represented the divine spirit that God breathed into Adam, and which became incarnate in the prophets. This idea had been developed by Ibn Sina (d. 1037) and Shahab al-Din Yahya as-Suhrawardi (d. 1191) into the Illuminist (Ishraqi) School, which posited that God was nothing but this pre-existent light.

This idea was based in part on the Koran, Surah 24:35, which stated:

"God is the Light of the heavens and the earth;
The similitude of His Light is as if there was a niche;
And within it a Lamp: the Lamp enclosed in Glass;
The glass, as it were, a glittering star;
Lit from a Blessed Tree;
An Olive, neither of the East nor of the West;
Whose oil is nigh luminous, though no fire has touched it;
Light upon Light; God guides to His Light whom He will.”

One of the most important images developed out of this passage was of the “lightning flash” of prophetic inspiration, where “God guides to His Light whom He will.” Here, spiritual realization was represented as a flash of illumination – and in the unconscious prophet (nabi) it flashed, and then was gone. However, as souls became more attuned to the frequency of God’s message, the illuminative flashes would appear more and more regularly, ultimately flashing so many times in succession that the legislative prophet (nabi rasul) would be permanently bathed in the light of God, even while awake.

The Sufi theoretician Abu Hamid al-Ghazali utilized this image that, nearly a century later, showed up in Moses Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed. While there is no direct record of influence of the one on the other, much of al-Ghazali’s work has been found in medieval Egyptian/Jewish libraries, both in its original Arabic and copied out into Hebrew. It, as well as Ibn Sina’s treatises which contained the same prophetic formulation, were almost certainly available to Moses Maimonides as he developed his ideas.

In the words of al-Ghazali:

“Then, if the will of the Sufi has been sincere, the rays of truth will shine in his heart. At the outset this will be like a sudden lightning flash that does not last, then returns but slowly. If it does return, sometimes it remains and sometimes it is only passing. If it remains, sometimes its presence is extended and sometimes not. And at times, illuminations like the first appear, one following the other, at other times they are reduced to a single experience.”viii

In the introduction to the Guide for the Perplexed, Maimonides stated:

“We are like someone in a very dark night over whom lightning flashes again and again. Among us there is one for whom the lightning flashes time and time again, so that he is always, as it were, in unceasing light . . . That is the degree of the great one among the prophets, to whom it was said: But as for thee, stand thou here by Me (Deuteronomy 5:28; referring to Moses) . . . Among them there is one to whom the lightning flashes only once in the whole of his night; that is the rank of those of whom it is said: they prophesied, but they did so no more. (Numbers 11:25) There are others between whose lightning flashes are of greater or shorter intervals . . . It is in accord with these states that the degrees of the perfect vary.”ix

As Professor Shlomo Pines noted, “the simile of the lightning flashes seems to be derived from Ibn Sina’s al-Isharat wa’l Tanbihat (Remarks and Admonitions). According to this work, experience of the arifun (a man of understanding) perceiving something of the light of truth may be likened to lightning that flashes momentarily and then is extinguished. These are called awqat (by Maimonides), a Sufi term.”x

Islamic Mysticism Leading to Jewish Prophecy

Moses Maimonides was hardly the only medieval Jewish thinker looking to Islam to understand Jewish practice. His only son Abraham (d. 1237), for instance, went much further than his father in aligning Jewish and Muslim mystical ideals. Abraham based many of his ideas concerning Jewish practice on the Sufi tariqah, or spiritual path, which he became convinced, represented the true art of Jewish spirituality, lost by Jews during the exile due to their iniquities, and taken over by Islamic mystics. He wrote a book, the Kifayat al-Abidin (The Sufficient Provisions of the Servants) which melded his father’s teachings with the Sufi Way. He employed the name “Sheikh” in referring to himself, donned the Kirqah, or Sufi cloak of attainment and utilized his position as head of the Egyptian Jews to insert numerous Sufi innovations into the Egyptian synagogue practice. And when he was finally denounced to the Muslim authorities for bi’da (innovation, or heresy), he built his successful defense of the novelties on the model provided by the Sufi theoretician, Abu Hamid al-Ghazali.

Far from being a peripheral figure to medieval Judaism, Abraham walked in his father’s footsteps, as head of the Egyptian Jewish community, as well as physician to the Muslim court in Cairo. By the end of his life, he was issuing definitive religious rulings that were being read as far away as Yemen, the Holy Land and southern France.

As such, it is not surprising that Abraham deepened the connection between Jewish and Islamic conceptions of prophecy. Not only was he certain that the Sufi Way defined a lost Jewish mysticism, but he was also convinced that the Jewish/Sufi practice was a necessary precursor to a new spiritual epoch, at the threshold of which he and his contemporaries stood. Abraham Maimonides believed that the Jewish/Sufis were reviving a dormant Jewish doctrine that had originally been imparted to Adam and revealed by the Patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Lost in successive generations, it resurfaced to Moses on Sinai, where he revealed the precepts of Sufism to Israel, in the Biblical story of Exodus.

As Professor Paul Fenton of the Sorbonne noted:

“Abraham Maimonides maintained that during the days preceding the Revelation, Moses imparted to Israel a doctrine whereby they (the Jewish people) could attain to the prophetic state . . . Through continual observance of this spiritual discipline, by which is obviously meant the Jewish/Sufi doctrine, this supernal state could be attained and maintained throughout successive generations. According to (Jewish/Sufi) doctrine, all Israel were in principle to become prophets . . .”xi

The conception of prophecy was the same for Abraham as it was for his father, Moses Maimonides. That “all Israel” was meant to become prophets, channeling the primordial light and becoming completely “aware” (of the Truth), would lead to the return of the Messiah and the culmination of the Jewish path.

According to Abraham, the Sufis dressed in rags, subsisted on alms and were organized as leaders and followers – all like the Hebrew prophets of yore. Just like those prophets, when a novice was initiated among them, the master threw a ragged cloak (kirqah) around their shoulders. The Sufis conquered sleep and fear through nightly vigils, and spent so much time in dark places praying that they actually injured their faculty of sight,xii as represented in the words of the Sufi saint al-Ghazali, who said: “Solitary devotion (khalwa) has the advantage of dispelling worldly cares and regulating one’s hearing and sight, which are the corridors of the heart.”xiii This Sufi prayer practice allowed the powerful inward light of prophecy to replace the sensorial experience of light on the retina.

Abraham traced all of these Islamic prophetic ideas back to the Biblical saints:

“Enoch, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, the generation in the wilderness, Elijah, Elisha, Balaam and other prophets practiced complete external solitude . . . and attained their perfection in that way. Seclusion in houses of worship was a habit first adopted by Jacob. Joshua, Samuel, Elijah and Elisha were also known to have followed it. Aaron, his sons and high priests were ordered by God to remain in the temple for certain periods of time

. . . David secluded himself in the Temple in order to attain internal solitude . . .”xiv

As Abraham viewed himself as a renovator of Judaism, much like his father, he accepted the divinely ordained socio-political role of the prophet. Through his Sufi-inspired innovations to Jewish worship, his writing, religious edicts and teaching, he transformed the ineffable light of God, which he had acquired as a constant companion through his own Jewish/Sufi practice, into the legislative necessities to help all of Israel have access to the prophetic experience.

Judah Halevi

Sufi prophetic ideals didn’t only influence the Maimonides clan, however. About 50 years or so before Moses Maimonides was working, the Sephardic poet and thinker Judah Halevi (d. 1141) was incorporating Sufi conceptions of prophecy into his seminal defense of the Jewish religion, Sefer ha-Kuzari. This book was a fictionalized account of the true story of how the Khazars (c. 740-1250) of the Black Sea region had converted to Judaism in the eighth century.

Halevi, working in 1130, about 150 years after the first historical contact between the Spanish Jew, Hasdai ibn Shaprut, and Joseph, the King of Khazaria, wrote a fictionalized account of the conversion, weaving spirituality in with his fantasy of the dialogue between the Khazar King and four spiritual leaders vying for his conversion, a Christian, Muslim, “philosopher” and the Jewish leader, the Haber. Halevi’s stated purpose was to provide an “apologia” for the primacy of the Jewish religion over that of Christianity and Islam. His claims of supremacy for the Jewish religion, however, included so much Islamic source material that the contemporary scholar, Diana Lobel, was recently able to publish a book entitled: Between Mysticism and Philosophy: Sufi Language of Religious Experience in Judah Halevi’s Kuzar!

Professor Israel Efros outlined how deeply Sufism influenced Halevi’s conceptions of prophecy:

“Halevi’s discussion of prophetic experiences follows so closely Arabian patterns that his Hebrew translator occasionally finds only vague equivalents for his terminology, and is sometimes inconsistent and even contradictory. One term (Halevi) calls ilham (illumination) . . . which is the state of the saint, who is constantly aware of the presence of God . . . Higher than ilham is the degree of wahy (inspiration) . . . which conveys in one flash the greatness, power and love of God . . . these distinctions between ilham and wahy . . . are standard Mohammedan doctrine except for the necessary change of the “Talmud” to the “Sunna”, the “Bible” to the “Bible and Koran” and “Israel” to the “prophets culminating in Muhammad.”xv

Halevi passed through Egypt on his way to the Holy Land, a few decades before the Maimonides clan settled in Cairo. Given Halevi’s fame, his writings were certainly well known in Egypt during Maimonides’ lifetime. Maimonides’ work showed much possible influence by the Spanish Jew, as Maimonides’ conceptions of prophecy had much in common with both al-Ghazali and Judah Halevi.

Isaac of Acre

From these earlier thinkers, Islamic prophetic ideals suffused later Jewish mysticism. The Kabbalah, which flowered into existence during this era, was strongly influenced by earlier Jewish/Sufi thinkers. Among the many specific Sufi ideas that were assimilated by Kabbalists were those concerning prophecy, both in its manner of arrival (in a lightning flash) and its import, designating a divinely ordained socio-political actor.

Rabbi Isaac ben Samuel of Acre (d. 1350) is little known today but had a deep influence on the development of the Kabbalah. He studied with the greatest Kabbalistic thinkers of his time, and traveled to Spain to meet Moses de Leon, author of the Sefer ha-Zohar, in person. His writings affected subsequent Kabbalistic thinkers, and many ideas in both 16th century Safed and 18th century Hasidism can be traced back to this little-known Jewish mystic.

Among other things, Isaac aligned Jewish ideals of meditative prayer with Islamic conceptions of prophetic legislation. Even in Judaism’s recent past, prayer had offered a one-way path to God, with the adept ascending on high to achieve proximity or, at the very best, communion with the Divine Essence. According to Rabbi Isaac, however, meditative prayer could cause the mystic to draw down this power (ruhaniyyut) into the human soul, which would then be disseminated in the everyday world through prophetic actions. Ruhaniyyut represented the specific energy that the prophetic mystic would utilize in his divinely ordained social role, which originated as the pre-existent light of God. With the Divine power being represented as an Essence that could be not only be accessed, but also brought into the world through the meditation of the mystic, the dissemination of this Power through prophetic action became clearer.

Rabbi Isaac’s inclusion of this idea facilitated its incorporation in the later Kabbalah and, several hundred years further along, Hasidism,xvi where it became central to that system’s ideal of the social role of the tzaddik, or religious leader.

Professor Moshe Idel of Hebrew University noted:

“It is important to point out the profound influence of the Islamic concept of ruhaniyyut on Jewish mysticism. The sources of this term are (Arabic) texts, which use ruhaniyyut in order to designate the supernal forces or lights. Union with the Divine was portrayed as a spiritual force that descends upon the mystic during (prayer). This way of understanding unitive experiences (became) widespread in Jewish mysticism, though predominant in Hasidism.”xvii

The social role of the prophet became vital to the Zohar (13th century), to 16th century Kabbalists such as Isaac Luria (d. 1572) and Moshe Cordovero (d. 1570) and then became institutionalized through the conception of the Hasidic tzaddik (18th century), the spiritual leader at the heart of that European Jewish system. For the tzaddik, prophecy was deeply intertwined with his social function, whereby healing the world through correct action became as important as contemplative prayer.

Even today, when secular Jews are drawn to work for non-profit groups, socially-empowering politicians or simply to practice tikkun olam (heal the world) in their everyday lives, they are influenced, at least in some small way, by the prophetic model provided by Muhammad, and expanded on by the Sixth Imam of Islam, Jafar as-Sadiq. Perhaps the final rapprochement between these two Abrahamic prophetic models would be for Jewish and Muslim practitioners to apply these ideals to their contemporary relationship, helping to heal the rift between the two Biblical cousins, through the acknowledgement of how much unites them at their mystical and prophetic cores.


i Approaches to Judaism in Medieval Times, (Blumenthal, ed.), Blumenthal, pg. 38

ii Guide for the Perplexed (intro), Maimonides, Moses (Friedlander, trans.), pg. xxi

iii Approaches to Judaism in Medieval Times, (Blumenthal, ed.), Blumenthal, pg. 37-38

iv Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (, “The Influence of Islamic Thought on Maimonides,” pg. 28

v Ibid. pg. 25

vi Ibid. pg. 26

vii Approaches to Judaism in Medieval Times, (Blumenthal, ed.), Blumenthal, pg. 37

viii Quoted in Judaism, Christianity and Islam, Peters (ed.), pg. 323-324

ix Quoted in Studies in Medieval Jewish History and Literature, (Twersky, ed.), Pines, pg. 89

x Ibid. pg. 89

xi Treatise of the Pool (intro), (Fenton, trans.), Maimonides, Obadyah, pg. 9

xii The High Ways to Perfection of Abraham Maimonides (intro), (Rosenblatt, trans.), Maimonides, Abraham, pg. 49

xiii Treatise of the Pool (intro), (Fenton, trans.), Maimonides, Obadyah, pg. 70-71

xiv The High Ways to Perfection of Abraham Maimonides (intro), (Rosenblatt, trans.), Maimonides, Abraham, pg. 29

xv Proceedings of the American Academy of Jewish Research, 1941, Efros, pg. 135-137

xvi Studies in Ecstatic Kabbalah, Idel, pg. 118-119

xvii Mystical Union in Judaism, Christianity and Islam, (Idel and McGinn, eds.), Idel, pg. 160



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