Shmuel looked carefully both ways as he left the Yeshiva. He didn’t want anyone to see where he was going. And it was not his teacher that concerned him. He could not risk being followed by one of his fellow students at the Yeshiva, who might inform his father, or worse still his mother, who had taken their conversion to Christianity to heart. And so he took a complex detour, crossing first from the Mesquita, where the yeshiva was located, to the Guzzetta, where he stopped to buy a loaf of bread and some dried fruit to share with his fellow students, before continuing on to the old Muslim quarter, al-Khalesa, which was home to the city’s principal masjids and madrasas.
Hakim, his teacher, a practitioner of Arabic falasafa and one of the few remaining followers of Ibn Rusd who could still be found in either Christendom or Dar-al-Islam, or anywhere else for that matter, had been trying to convince a student with Asharite tendencies that there was nothing sinful in aspiring to grow in knowledge and power and even transcend our humanity. The Asharites taught the absolute transcendence and sovereignty of God, and claimed that he created each instant of the universe separately, with no causal connections between them. They valued submission to the will of God above all else.
—If Allah had wanted us to be equal to this al-‘aql al-fa’âl or Agent Intellect of yours, then he would have made us that way. And indeed, it is acknowledged that he bestowed this gift on the great prophets, such as Moshe and Isa and Mohammed, Peace Be Upon Him. No, what Allah demands is that we submit, that we obey, and that the legitimate authorities command right and forbid wrong.
—And yet according to your doctrine God is making me teach that we should seek equality with the Agent Intellect which in reality means nothing more than fulfilling our latent human potential.
—And this he does for his own greater glory, so that you may be silenced and humbled.
The class laughed.
At this point, Shmuel, failing to read the room, broke in
–Why, he asked, should we stop at unity with the Agent Intellect? he said, passing around loaves of semolina bread covered with sesame seeds, two bolts of woolen cloth, a bag of herbs and a Torah scroll still tucked under his arms.
—You are doing the Asharite’s work for him, answered Hakim, not wanting to be distracted from an important discussion by the young Jew —or more likely converso— who had bargained his way into the circle only a few weeks before.
But Shmuel persisted.
—No, he said. It is you who concede the premise from which the Asharite’s conclusions flow.
Hakim looked genuinely perplexed.
—It is this idea of a fixed nature of things, as though God set boundaries to what matter could become. And yet we know that the forms of things change and develop. That is the whole purpose of alchemy: to perfect what God has begun.
—Your point is well taken, Hakim conceded. I agree that our assumption that our natures are fixed when those of minerals and other forms of matter appear not to be is largely unfounded. But equality with God is different. God is the power of Being as such. Even if we were to attain that power –and I challenge you to show us how— we would have acquired it from interaction with others and would still, therefore, ultimately be contingent rather than necessary beings. It is a logical impossibility, not a divine ordinance to which we must submit. There is a difference.
—Either way, said Shmuel, we are trapped in a hell from which we cannot escape.
Hakim looked at him, puzzled. The boy seemed so confident and joyful …. But underneath there as a deep rage. But then the Asharite interrupted:
—You will be trapped in hell, Jew or Avveroist or converso or whatever you are. I will spend eternity in paradise.
Shmuel wanted to point out that eternity, being outside space and time, was not something one could spend, but the other students were already dispersing, so he withdrew.
—Would that you had been born in old Qurtuba, said Hakim to Shmuel after the others had left. You might have given ibn Rusd himself, or your countryman Moshe ben Maimon, a run for their money. But how go things with Miriam?
Hakim, who was still only about 30, liked to engage his students more as a friend or older brother than as a figure of authority.
Shmuel just smiled, not wanting to say more than he should. He still did not know if Hakim was aware that Miriam’f family were Nizaris.
—In any case, said Hakim, don’t mind these jokers. Most of them are here only because their families still believe that a smattering of falasafa will be helpful in their careers. You may be mad, but you are my only real student. And know that you can come to me if the road you are traveling leaves you … trapped in dark alley.
—Thanks, said Schmuel. Then he left.