Sacrifice and Patriotism: Jewish and Islamic Perspectives

A composite photo of Al-Farabi and Maimonides, with Al-Farabi (left) and Maimonides (right)
Al-Farabi (left) and Maimonides (right)

On Wednesday, March 10, 2021, the Zahava and Moshael Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought hosted Dr. Alexander Orwin, assistant professor of political theory at Louisiana State University, for a lecture titled “Al-Farabi and Maimonides on Self-Sacrifice and Patriotism.” The lecture was hosted by Dr. Neil Rogachevsky, associate director of the Straus Center, and was part of the Jack Miller Center lecture series.

Dr. Orwin began his lecture by providing background information on Al-Farabi, one of the founders of Islamic philosophy and a thinker who had a big influence on Jewish philosophy in the middle ages. While Islam heavily emphasizes the importance of religious wars and the afterlife, Al-Farabi argues that wars should be fought for the good of the polis/city—“just wars”—and not necessarily for the reasons in Islamic Kalam or for personal reasons—“unjust wars.”

Dr. Orwin continued by describing the warriors who fight these wars: the Mujahideen. Al Farabi worried that they will fight to please sensual delights or to serve false cosmological beings. He also attacked the idea that the afterlife is full of sensuous pleasures. He wondered if warriors cannot fight for riches, gods or the afterlife, what is in it for them? Why would they die for the city? Al Farabi said their reward comes from honorable recognition from their fellow citizens whose way of life they have protected.

Dr. Orwin then moved on to compare Al-Farabi’s teachings on war with those of Maimonides. He noted that since the Jews had limited political power in medieval times, Maimonides’ approach was necessarily different. In the question-and-answer period, an important contrast was drawn between the approach to the afterlife in Judaism with that in Islam, which necessarily changes how questions of warfare, patriotism and justice are handled in both religions.

This was a fascinating exploration of a neglected medieval Arabic thinker whose thought was absolutely vital for medieval thinkers—and remains relevant today as we deal with questions regarding just and unjust wars in America and around the world.

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