Saadia Gaon


Saadia Gaon
(882–942)
   One of the first great medieval Jewish philosophers, the thought of Saadia Gaon (Sa‘adya Ben Yosef al-Fayyumi) was deeply informed by the Islamic context within which he worked. He produced the first and most widely used translation-interpretation of the Hebrew Bible (the Torah) into Arabic, the language in which his other many books were written as well. As a Rabbanite Jew, he was concerned with providing a reasoned defense of his tradition against the growing challenge of the Karaites, who recognized only the legitimacy of the Torah, rejecting the authority of the Talmud and subsequent rabbinic texts. Towards this end he found the methods – and in many cases, the doctrines – of the rationalist Mu‘tazilite theologians to be a useful resource. Saadia’s chief philosophical work, The Book of Critically Chosen Beliefs and Opinions (Kitab al-mukhtar fi alamanat wa al-i‘tiqadat), shows a pronounced Mu‘tazilite influence, even with regard to its topical focus and organization. The book ranges from arguments for the createdness of the world, to a defense of God’s unity (along with the obligatory critique of anthropomorphism), an influential discussion of the religious law (which analyzes the distinction between rational and revealed commands), human free will and responsibility, good and bad actions, the nature of the soul and its relation to the body, resurrection, the redemption of Israel, divine reward and punishment, and ultimately a Eudaimonistic consideration of the good life, which embraces a plurality of complementary goods taken in proper measure. Despite Saadia’s affinity for Islamic theology and Greek philosophy, he was a bold and independent thinker and his conclusions are never simply derivative. He departs from his Muslim brethren on a number of key points, for example eschewing atomism (which traditionally served as the basis of the kalam theologians’ arguments for the contingency and createdness of the world) and rejecting the alleged abrogation of the Mosaic revelation. He is also highly critical of the Neoplatonists’ emanation model, which had a great influence within his own tradition as well as the Islamic philosophical tradition (in his youth he initiated a correspondence with the Jewish Neoplatonist Isaac Israeli, which was not well received). Although the Egyptianborn Saadia encountered some resistance and political setbacks throughout the course of his life, he was recognized as an authoritative thinker and indeed was nominated as ga’on (lit. ‘eminence’ or ‘chief scholar’) of the prestigious Talmudic academy of Sura’ in Baghdad. His considerable impact on the Jewish intellectual tradition was not eclipsed until the advent of Ibn Maymun, better known in the West as Maimonides.
   Further reading: Frank and Leaman 1997; Katz 1980; Saadia Gaon 1948, 1988

Islamic Philosophy. . 2007.

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