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Lost in Translation

A Ramallah man struggles to find a reading public for Maimonides

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(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine. Original photo by Éole Wind; some rights reserved. Fragment of Maimonides’ responsum from the Taylor-Schechter Genizah Collection of Cambridge University Library.)

When Mohammad Husein studied at Hebrew College in Boston, he was delighted to put to use his years learning Hebrew in Ramallah. As a Master’s student (class of 2007), he often went to Saturday morning services and helped his neighbors find their way in Hebrew prayer books. But once he returned to the West Bank, Husein, 54, found far less use for his professional interest in Judaism. A year after translating into Arabic an abridged version of the code of Jewish law known as the Mishneh Torah, written by the medieval philosopher Moses Maimonides, Husein said he can only find work as a truck driver. His story reflects the difficult position of Arab Muslim scholars who wish to learn about Jews.

Born in Jerusalem to Palestinian refugee parents from Abu Shusha (today’s Kibbutz Gezer, not far from the city of Ramla in central Israel), Husein remembers throwing stones at the Jews who passed through a gate in the barbed wire that split East Jerusalem, where he grew up, from the rest of the city. The wire came down when Israel conquered East Jerusalem in 1967, and Husein met his first Jewish friends. A decade later, he studied psychology and sociology at Bethlehem University. As Husein read Marx, Trotsky, and Rosa Luxemburg, he realized the writers were all Jews. He resolved to learn Hebrew to better understand the Jewish people. By day, he chatted with his Israeli coworkers in a cement factory. At night he read the Bible, first in Arabic—“We were fortunate the Christian Arabs translated it to Arabic,” he said—and then in Hebrew.

Husein sidelined his hobby to raise three children, Khalil, Dalila, and Majd. But about 15 years ago he remembered the Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides, about whom he had heard a few sentences in high school in Ramallah.

“Maimonides wrote his books in Hebrew letters but in Arabic words,” said Husein. “I discovered I could read Maimonides in his original language. How many Jews can do that?”

Husein, a non-practicing Muslim, said he studied the Jewish people to promote peace and explore his own history.

“The people of Palestine did not all come from Arabia,” he said. “There were people before them, Jews and Christians. Some left, the majority stayed. I don’t consider myself a Jew or Hebrew or Israelite. I’m Arab. But all those people before and after Islam, I consider my ancestors.”

The Rambam, as Maimonides is known, provided an inspiring example of living in multiple worlds. He was born in Córdoba, Spain, in 1135 at a time when Jewish poets modeled their work on Arabic verse. A decade later, Maimonides and his family fled Córdoba to escape death or conversion forced by the invading Islamic Almohades army. Rather than running to Western Europe, Maimonides moved to Morocco and then Egypt. In Fustat, near Cairo, Maimonides was court physician to Sultan Saladdin. As a philosopher, Maimonides worked with his Muslim contemporary Averroes on advancing the writings of Aristotle. But he was also the spiritual leader of Fustat’s Jewish community, and he penned the authoritative codification of the oral tradition, the 14-volume Mishneh Torah. Maimonides died in Egypt in 1204 and was buried in Tiberias, Israel.

“During the very critical period of history—the Crusades—it was a Jew who treated Saladdin himself,” Husein said. “It means the Muslims trusted the Jews a lot.”

In 2002, Husein contacted Nathan Ehrlich, then dean of online studies at Hebrew College in Boston. In a meeting at Jerusalem’s King David Hotel, the two realized they were both born in the capital on the same date in 1954. Husein studied by correspondence for two semesters and then got a scholarship to study on campus for his second year. Before he left Boston, Husein bought the abridged Hebrew Mishneh Torah in a discount bin. Unlike Maimonides’ other works, which were written in Judeo-Arabic, the Mishneh Torah was composed in Hebrew.

“I read some pages and said this must be translated because Arabs know nothing about it,” he said. “They know nothing about Jewish thought. We are fortunate to have a book like this that summarizes 14 books.”

Husein translated the book into Arabic on the white plastic table on his balcony, just steps from the official residence of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. To support himself, Husein taught Hebrew part-time at the Ramallah YMCA, and his wife worked in the library of the nearby town of El-Bireh.

Muhammad Husein, 54, in his Ramallah apartmentMuhammad Husein, 54, in his Ramallah apartment
Daniella Cheslow

The work done, in 2009 Husein called publishers in Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, and Jordan. He sent query letters to Palestinian universities and Israeli research institutes. No one was interested. He chalked it up to the content. Arab readers, he said, are hungry for military tales, the biography of Israeli nuclear whistle-blower Mordechai Vanunu, or the life stories of Zionist leaders like Theodor Herzl, Menachem Begin, and Golda Meir. Hebrew literature has also found Arab readers; this year, a translation of Amos Oz’s memoir A Tale of Love and Darkness was published in Lebanon.

Publishing Maimonides in Arabic would break that mold by bringing the spiritual foundations of Judaism to an Arab audience, but his book was nearly a thousand years old. Husein said he also translated Martin Buber’s 1956 Hasidism and Modern Man, to offer a more modern work, but no one has bitten on that one either.

In the West Bank, Birzeit University’s philosophy and cultural studies department teaches survey courses on European civilization and thought, but it gives short shrift to Semitic philosophy of any kind. “We have two Islamic philosophy professors here, and they don’t give courses themselves,” said Nadim Mseis, a lecturer in the department.

In the East Jerusalem village of Abu Dis, Al-Quds University has run an Israel Studies program for a decade, where Palestinian students learn the roots of modern Zionism. But the department has little use for a Jewish theological tract. Uri Davis, born in Kfar Shmaryahu in Mandatory Palestine in 1943, is the only Jewish member of Fatah’s Revolutionary Council.

“In the shadow of 60 years of occupation, it is rather complicated to establish Jewish studies,” Davis said in a Ramallah meeting. “It’s not a question of lack of interest. You have to defeat apartheid in Israel and remove the occupation before you can even begin to negotiate that kind of study.”

Rachella Mizrachi, of Tel Aviv, lectures at Al-Quds in Arabic about what she terms the “experience of Jews from the Islamic world in Occupied Palestine.” While she mentions the Rambam, Mizrachi said, she focuses on the devastation of those Jewish communities of the Islamic world in the 1950s.

“The destruction of the Arab Jewish communities is another result of the Zionist project,” she said. Asked how her students react, she said, “They understand that the same man who destroyed our culture is the same ethnic group that is destroying their culture.”

Husein’s difficulty doesn’t surprise Mohamed Hawary, a professor of Jewish thought and comparative religions in Cairo’s Ain Shams University. Hawary wrote in an e-mail that an Arabic translation of the six books of the Mishnah were published between 2006 and 2009 but that no one has tackled Maimonides yet.

“Here in Egypt, all of us scholars dealing with Hebrew and Jewish studies are suffering when we want to publish a book,” he wrote. “I think that Mr. Husein can find a Jewish publisher or Jewish center or institution in Israel who believes how it is important to spread Jewish culture.”

Yet Israel has proven to be equally unfertile ground. The Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature, based in the Tel Aviv suburb of Bnei Brak, only deals in modern fiction. Tel Aviv’s Moshe Dayan Center for Arab-Jewish Studies focuses on history and politics. At the Jerusalem Minerva Institute, which teaches Arabic to Israelis, director Assaf Golani suggested he could publish the translation, provided Husein does not expect to get paid. At press time he was still examining a sample of Husein’s work.

One option may lie with Intellectual Encounters, a virtual academic community of scholars who study the medieval world of Islam. On the steering committee are Hebrew University rector Sarah Stroumsa, Yale Islamic studies professor Frank Griffel, and Sari Nusseibeh, who is president of Al-Quds University but working on this project privately as an Islamic philosophy scholar. Funding is from the Rothschild Family’s Yad Hanadiv Foundation in Jerusalem.

Academic director Raquel Ukeles said the program will include a course on medieval Islam to be taught at Yale, Al-Quds, Bar Ilan University in Israel, and Tübingen University in Germany. Further, the program’s website will publish translations of important works, and scholars who speak Hebrew and Arabic would be useful. Ukeles, who has traveled to Egypt, Morocco, and Qatar, said, “Everywhere I go people ask me, ‘Can you recommend books about Jewish philosophy?’ ”

“Now that I know about Husein, and if he’s doing good work, I think I can work with him to raise money,” she said.

In 2007, Husein told Hebrew College Today that he wanted to work in Ramallah as a professor or for an organization that advanced the cause of peace. But three years later, the Mishneh Torah has turned into an albatross that has even strained his marriage, he said. He dreams of earning a doctorate in Holocaust or Jewish Studies but has not applied for a Fulbright scholarship that could cover the costs. He needs a job but can’t find one. For now, he has Hebrew teaching gigs from time to time and passes his days reading about the Holocaust on his balcony.

“I am working without any purpose,” he said. “A man lifting stones from place to place.”

Daniella Cheslow is a Jerusalem-based journalist.

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Talk about grassroots interfaith work!

I think it is a sad indictment that this man’s pursuits have been stymied. Hopefully this article will lead to something positive…

Dear “Arab readers [who] are hungry for the biography of Israeli nuclear whistle blower Mordechai Vanunu”

“BEYOND NUCLEAR: Mordechai Vanunu’s FREEDOM of SPEECH Trial and My Life
as a Muckraker” should fill them up.

Details @

Eileen Fleming, Producer “30 Minutes with Vanunu” and “13 Minutes with Vanunu”
Founder of
Staff Member of
A Feature Correspondent for and
Author of “Keep Hope Alive” and “Memoirs of a Nice Irish American ‘Girl’s’ Life in Occupied Territory” and BEYOND NUCLEAR: Mordechai Vanunu’s FREEDOM of SPEECH Trial and My Life as a Muckraker: 2005-2010

Only in Solidarity do “we have it in our power to begin the world again.”-Tom Paine

Steve from Raleigh says:

He is not working w/o purpose, he’s working in a place w/o purpose. In short order hatred, parochialism and sheer stupidity will ensure that literacy itself is outlawed among the Palestinians. And it couldn’t happen to a more deserving group.

You know what’s going to be funny, is that when Israel finally wakes up to the fact that the only solution to this situation is to relocate the Palestinian Arabs, you’re going to find a ton of them coming forward and saying that they’re actually Jewish.

And as disgusted as we may be by their opportunism, we’ll accept them.

I found the article extremely interesting and well written. I hope it gets picked up by th Jerusalem post or one of the Hebrew papers.

Well, Israelis and Palestinians are probably the closest enemies in the world.

michela says:

Mr. Husein represents hope for both Jews and Arabs. He should be encouraged in his scholarship and given every opportunity to pursue his research. I hope that he will apply for funding either from the Fulbright Commission or from Israel itself. What he is doing stands as a model of excellence and needs to recognized. Few individuals feel impelled to embark on his journey. I salute him.

Daniella, I thought this was a fascinating piece and I wish Muhammad all the best. We could use more people like him in the world, all over.

LazerBeam says:

So let’s create a Tablet-sponsored Endowed Chair for Inter-Faith and Inter-Cultural Middle East Studies at one of Israel’s major universities for seven years, which should be enough time for him to complete his monumental but most worthy task. Otherwise, what a waste of a mission, a mind, and a mensch.

It is heartbreaking that a person who is doing such meaningful work and bridging extremely small but paradoxically insurmountable gaps between Israelis and Palestinians is being stymied. If only more intrepid souls like this fellow were able to garner the forums they deserve, the world would surely be a better place.

andrew r says:

Lisa, between “relocating the Palestinian Arabs” and accepting a certain number of them as Jews, I’m reminded of a certain historical figure I won’t name outright who also wanted to relocate people while accepting a select few into his own nation. The only missing beat is “a glorious page of our history never to be written.”

andrew r says:

Steve from Raleigh, do you think Ibrahim abu Sayed deserved to have his body torn apart by a tank shell or was he a person without purpose?

Andrew R, thanks for the reminder that Godwin’s Law is alive and well. But your comparison is both odious and fallacious. Or did I miss the part where the Jews of Germany were firing rockets into German population centers? And maybe the part where German Jews dedicated them to the violent overthrow of Germany.

And even if your link isn’t one more hoax (which coming from ISM is pretty likely to be one), Israel has a right to retaliate against people firing rockets into Israel on a daily basis. Israel also has no moral obligation whatsoever to respect the human shield tactics of the Arabs. If they’re firing rockets from the middle of a civilian population, people are going to get hurt. Better them than us.

hmm… he sounds like a dead Arab walking once this story gets back to Israel. I can’t imagine that his neighbours or the PA will be thrilled at his choice of book to translate.

andrew r says:

It was a common belief – not limited to the Nazis – that Jewish Bolsheviks were dedicated to the violent overthrow of Europe. The communist revolutions in Russia, Hungary and Bavaria are what the Nazis acted on. They conflated Bolshevism with their race enemies.

That’s beside the point. The German mass murder against Jews began with deportation. What you call for could easily escalate into just that. Not to mention “better them than us” is yet another parallel with the Nazis as they told themselves their victims would do the same thing in the same place. The point is, you feel threatened by a virtually unarmed people because you want to take their land (or keep what’s already been taken) and they aren’t allowed to fight back or they deserve what they were getting in the first place.

Israel could stop the rockets – and did during the summer of 2008 – by observing a long term ceasefire. Your political forebears wanted to create a segregated state. They signed up for war on civilians and you want the unconditional right to target civilians without your own suffering.

andrew r says:

P.S. Godwin’s Law doesn’t account for Hitler comparing himself with others (He cited the United States as a model for German expansionism in Mein Kampf).

“The Rambam was born in Cordoba, Spain, in 1135 at a time when Jewish poets modeled their work on Arabic verse. A decade later, Maimonides and his family fled Cordoba to escape death or conversion forced by the invading Islamic Almohades army. Rather than running to Western Europe, Maimonides moved to Morocco and then Egypt. In Fustat, near Cairo, Maimonides was court physician to Sultan Saladdin. As a philosopher, Maimonides worked with his Muslim contemporary Averroes on advancing the writings of Aristotle.”

Daniella, the paragraph is full of errors. 1) Most scholars put his birth at 1138. 2)There is no evidence that Rambam fled Cordoba “to escape death or conversion.” though therehere is testimony that Rambam and his family converted (under duress) to Islam. 3) Maimonides was not court physician to the sultan Saladdin. He was one of a few court physicians to Saladin’s ministers. 4) Maimonides probably never met, much less worked with his Muslim contemporary Averroes; he was somewhat familiar with some of his works.

For background you can check either Herbert Davidson’s biography or that of Joel Kraemer

I should add that I think this is a wonderful project. Maimonides himself was asked whether he would translate the Mishneh Torah into Arabic by a Jewish proselyte who could not read Hebrew, and he demurred; he said that the Hebrew was not very difficult, and he regretted having written the commentary on the Mishnah in Arabic. (It was subsequently translated into Hebrew.)

The difficult is that the Mishneh Torah is a highly technical work, and requires a level of expertise in Jewish law to translate it well into any language. Of course, there is always room for the work of enthusiastic laypeople. But it would probably be a good idea for Mr. Husein an expert in Jewish law who is fluent in Arabic, if he has not done so already

But it would probably be a good idea for Mr. Husein to find an expert in Jewish law who is fluent in Arabic, if he has not done so already

How very sad that the true exponents of peace and understanding in the Palestinian and Muslim world are so isolated. But I do not believe that such greatness of mind or spirit is ever “wasted.” One day Mr. Husein will be recognized in his own community for the pioneer he is. In the meantime, we in the Jewish world who long for peace must do all in our power to help him and those like him.

andrew r says:

I bet the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon reading this now are just kicking themselves. Dang, if only we had a better understanding of Jewish philosophy, we could’ve talked our way out of those massacres and forced marches the Haganah, Irgun and Stern Gang imposed on us. Israel bombed Lebanon repeatedly because we just didn’t know enough about the Mishnah.

I mean, a dead Bedouin soldier couldn’t talk his way out of a posthumous house demolition. Why would the Israelis who indulge in land theft – and are loving every second of it – give a flying fig about their targets learning their religion?

None of this should be taken to belittle Muhammed Husein. But it is an eye roller to see yet another sterile, ideology-free reading of the conflict where Palestinians need to understand Jews better.

Can intellectual cooperation foster peace or is the problem much deeper than that? Arabs getting to know Maimonides is not likely to cause them to change their minds about their desire to destroy Israel.

“A lot of Hebrew literature was also translated into Judeo-Arabic in the Middle Ages for Arabic-speaking Jews.”

This is somewhat true, but far more common was the opposite: Arabic-speaking Jews generally studied Hebrew works in Hebrew and wrote original works in Judeo-Arabic; the latter were incomprehensible to the Jews of Christian Europe, who therefore commissioned translations from Judeo-Arabic to Hebrew.

(psssst . . . Uri Davis is Muslim . . . )

Mohammad Hussein says:

I just want to thank those good people who praised my efforts translated Rambam MT into Arabic for the first time after more or less than 1000 years. Time is passing quickly while the wide window which I opened towards the Jewish garden of thought for Arabs to look and know is still kept on my computer waiting for help.

Mohammad Hussein says:

Mohammad Husein cannot publish his important translation of MT into Arabic. He has left translation and any kind of work for peace just to earn his living as a simple truck driver. He is frustrated from many institutions who could help him but do nothing for this unique person. Any body is interested to know more about this man?

hello!,I like your writing so much! share we communicate more about your post on AOL? I require an expert on this area to solve my problem. May be that’s you! Looking forward to see you.

Hey very nice site!! Man .. Excellent .. Amazing .. I will bookmark your blog and take the feeds also…I am happy to find numerous useful info here in the post, we need work out more techniques in this regard, thanks for sharing. . . . . .

I’ve said that least 939196 times. The problem this like that is they are just too compilcated for the average bird, if you know what I mean


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Lost in Translation

A Ramallah man struggles to find a reading public for Maimonides

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