Profile: Mohammad Husein
When Mohammad Husein discovered medieval Jewish literature and its similarities to classical Arabic literature, he could not wait to share his excitement with his fellow Muslims. As he sat at a white plastic table in the kitchen of his Ramallah home toiling over the translation from Hebrew into Arabic of an abridged version of Maimonides’s 12th-century code of Jewish law known as the Mishneh Torah, he envisioned its readers’ minds and hearts opening. They would became aware of the common cultural, religious and stylistic roots shared by the two faiths. He imagined Arab readers discovering how much Muslims and Jews had in common, realizing that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was not everything and moving that much closer to peace and reconciliation. He never imagined a scenario in which he could not even find a publisher.
Husein’s expectations may have been inflated by his lack of experience: He drives a truck for a living and made only a brief foray into the academic world late in life before returning to his old job. After failing to interest publishers in Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt, Syria, the Palestinian territories and Israel, Husein’s translation will be published online by the Israeli website Intellectual Encounters (www.intellectualencounters.org).
Husein is now convinced the Arab reader is simply not ready for books of Jewish philosophy and religion that might shed a positive light on the Jews.
“I talked to Arabs, Jews, Christians, I wrote to them and said: ‘This book is 1,000 years old. It is a book of Jewish law coming out in Arabic. What do Muslims know about the Jews? If you read Mishneh Torah and knew what the rabbis had to say about purity, permitted and forbidden foods, marriage and divorce, you would be surprised how similar it is to Islam. You would discover the Jews are not what you think,’” Husein said, at a meeting in a café in Jerusalem’s Old City.
Husein feels like a lone voice in the wilderness, a prophet with a message no one wants to hear. He blames religious and political prejudice for the reluctance to expose Arab readers to the Jewish treasures. “Even the Muslim people who do read are under the influence of the negative perspective of the Islamists,” he said. “If they were to come upon a religious book by a rabbi who lived in the Arab world, such as Maimonides, if they saw the Islamic terminology in that book, that would cause them a shock and that shock would have a very positive impact.”
Contrary to Husein’s theory, Ayala Eliyahu of Intellectual Encounters points out that there is in fact interest in classical Jewish texts in the Arab world. In 2012, an Arabic translation of the Talmud was published in Jordan, worked on by a team of 90 translators for six years, and sales were stiff. Having worked with Husein on his translations, Eliyahu noted that although he had only studied to the level of an M.A., he was quite knowledgeable.
“Mohammad is a special and brave man who has many talents,” she said. “There aren’t that many people who know Hebrew, Arabic and English as well as knowing the sources. He is largely a self-taught man who studied independently and clearly there are things he does not know, but he also knows a lot of things that other people don’t.”
A sturdy man of medium build, with sparkling blue eyes under a balding head, Husein is soft-spoken and thoughtful. He always suspected he was destined to do something special since he was born in 1954 on the Temple Mount—a site holy to both Muslims and Jews. His parents were Palestinian refugees from the village of Abu Shusha, which is today Kibbutz Gezer near Ramle. They had fled their home during the 1948 war and found temporary shelter near the al-Aqsa Mosque, then under Jordanian control. Although conditions were rough, he calls his birth at the holy site “a blessing.” By the time he was 2 years old, the family moved to the neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah and lived in a house his father built out of scrap materials. Husein went to school in Jerusalem and Ramallah.
As a student at Bethlehem University in the 1970s he started learning Hebrew and discovered his love for the language. He also developed his own political philosophy. Although his family had suffered bitterly from the conflict, he chose to reach out rather than fight. “I realized that the Israelis would never leave Palestine, nor would the Palestinian Arabs,” he said. “So the first thing was to know each other. I realized most people were people, human beings. The best thing is to know each other, to build bridges. I worked with Jewish workers and realized if you put politics aside people are alike.”
Even with a bachelor’s degree, Husein found at that time that all institutional jobs were politicized, being identified either with the Israeli occupation, Jordan or the Palestine Liberation Organization. Not finding his place in either, he started driving a truck. Once he married his wife, Taysir, and had three children—Khalil, Dalia and Majd—he set aside his education. “I had no choice but to work hard day and night to feed those children,” he said. “I told myself: ‘That’s it. You had children and you have to devote yourself to those children. Whatever economic problems you had, your children must not have.’ I worked like a mule day and night and, thank God, they all went to universities. My daughter has an M.A. and the two boys have B.A.s.” However, all three have left the country: Dalia to Dubai and his two sons to the United States.
While his children were growing up, Husein shared with them his interest in other traditions by reading the Bible to them in Arabic—an unusual worldliness in his conservative Muslim environment. “The Bible is a Jewish and Christian book, after all, but there was nothing uncomfortable about it,” he noted. “The Bible stories are the Koran stories. Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, all appear in the Koran.” Meanwhile, although the children were tempted to participate in clashes with the Israeli Army during the intifada, Husein managed to keep them out of it.
In 2003, he got access to the Internet and started to search for graduate programs in Jewish studies. Alighting upon Hebrew College in Newton, Massachusetts, he saw a list of names. “I looked at their site and didn’t know who to write to,” he recalled, “and I asked God: ‘Help me choose.’” He chose Nathan Erlich, dean of long-distance learning. Soon they were to forge a deep connection. “I don’t have any brothers,” Husein said. “Nathan is my brother.”
“I interviewed him when he applied for an M.A. in Jewish studies,” said Erlich. “We quickly realized we were both born in Jerusalem on the same day: I on the Israeli side, he on the Jordanian side. We share a long connection and similar world views. We had a very good rapport from the beginning.” In 2004, Husein traveled to the college for a two-month term but stayed for eight. He came back to spend a full year there in 2006 and earned his degree. During that year he experienced Jewish life from the inside, attending Shabbat dinners and synagogue services.
When Husein looked for colleagues in the Arab world who shared his passion, he discovered that although Hebrew language and Israel studies were offered by several universities, Jewish history and philosophy were not. He decided to bridge that gap by translating into Arabic the ancient literature he had come to revere. “I considered translating the Shulkhan Arukh[16th-century code of Jewish law] or Bialik’s Sefer ha-Aggada [collection of legends from the Talmud and Midrash],” he said. “In the end, I was drawn to Maimonides. I liked his rationality, his logic.” Husein translated an abridged version of Maimonides’s code.
It is no wonder that Husein feels an affinity with Moses Maimonides—known in Hebrew as Moshe Ben Maimon, or by his acronym, Rambam, and in Arabic as Musa Ibn Maymun—a man who bridged different worlds. Born in Cordoba, Spain, in 1135 under Muslim rule, Maimonides moved to Morocco and then Egypt, where he served as court physician to Saladin. He wrote the 14-volume code while he was the religious leader of the Jewish community of Fustat.
“The Jews enjoyed a golden age with the Muslims,” said Husein. “In Iraq, in the Jewish academies of Sura and Pumbedita, in Egypt, in Spain. In the worst days of the Crusades, the head of the Muslims, Saladin, gave his head and neck to a Jewish physician. This doctor knew all the poisons. The Crusaders were willing to pay Rambam, or people like him, a mountain of gold to kill a person like that who got in the way of their crusades and defeated them, yet Saladin trusted him. What does that tell you about Muslim-Jewish relations?”
While his translation of the code is being edited before publication, Intellectual Encounters has already published another work from Husein, a transcription into Arabic letters of a 15th-century Yemenite commentary on Maimonides’s Thirteen Principles of Jewish Faith written in Arabic in Hebrew letters. He has also translated Martin Buber’s Hasidism and Modern Man and Louis Jacobs’s Jewish Law from English into Arabic.
Husein hoped to find a university teaching post but did not have the academic credentials. Meanwhile, he sleeps on a cot in the cement factory in Israel all week and returns to Ramallah on weekends. His coworkers tease him about his scholarly pursuits. “One day I showed another driver, an Ethiopian Jew, my picture and biography on Intellectual Encounters,” Husein recalled. “He said: ‘Abu Khalil, you are a big shot. What are you doing here among us?’ I told him: ‘Even among the Jewish sages there were many who did physical work.’ There was also a Koranic interpreter, al-Sabouni [the soap maker], who, just like the rabbis, refused to make Koran his work, and he and his wife made soap and sold it in the market.
“Today, I am exhausted thinking of all of this,” he continued. “I hope one day to have the opportunity to earn a Ph.D. I think of Rabbi Shmuel Ibn Tibon, not that I compare to him, I am a little guy. That great rabbi translated Guide to the Perplexedfrom Arabic into Hebrew under the guidance of Maimonides. Mohammad Husein translated Maimonides from Hebrew into Arabic.”