The Karaites (qara'im, or benei miqra) take their name from the Hebrew word for Scripture. The sect's scripturalism originated in its rejection of the 'Oral Law' embodied in rabbinic literature. Like earlier scripturalist groups - notably the Sadducees - Karaites sought to derive their practices directly from the biblical text. While Karaism is usually traced to mid-eighth-century Iraq, the early history remains murky. The sect crystallized in the Islamic East during the late ninth and early tenth centuries, calling forth stern reactions from the leaders of mainstream rabbinic Judaism. Although harsh at times, the ensuing polemics stimulated both Karaite and Rabbanite scholarship in the fields of biblical exegesis, Hebrew grammar and lexicography, jurisprudence and religious philosophy. The two groups differed sharply over points of law and practice - the calendar, dietary laws, Sabbath regulations - but typically concurred on questions of theology.

  1. The Mu'tazilite phase
  2. The post-Maimonidean phase

1. The Mu'tazilite phase

Early medieval Jewish thinkers of both Rabbanite and Karaite persuasion found the kalam (speculative theology) of the Muslim rationalistic school known as the Mu'tazila congenial to their outlook and adopted many Mu'tazilite ideas (see Ash'ariyya and Mu'tazila). The Mu'tazilites' uncompromising definitions of God's unity and justice inform the writings of leading Rabbanites like Saadiah Gaon (d. 942) and Samuel ben Hofni Gaon (d. 1013). During the mid-tenth to mid-twelfth centuries, their Karaite contemporaries also produced works closely modelled upon Mu'tazilite patterns.

Widespread knowledge of Arabic facilitated the appropriation of Islamic theology by Eastern Jewish thinkers. Paralleling the doxographic interests of his Muslim contemporary, the mutakallim al-Ash'ari (d. 935), Ya'qub al-Qirqisani (d. after 938) betrays a lively interest in the history of Jewish sects. His Kitab al-anwar wa'l-marakib (Book of Lights and Watchtowers), a comprehensive Karaite code, incorporates discussions of epistemology, philosophy of law, and theology. In this, it resembles the codes of later thinkers active in the Islamic world such as Al-Ghazali (d. 1111) and Maimonides (d. 1204).

While al-Qirqisani lived in Iraq, the main centre of Karaite spiritual and intellectual activity during the tenth and eleventh centuries was Jerusalem. Ascetic and apocalyptic in outlook, the Karaite Mourners for Zion preached a strict regime of repentance, prayer and Bible study. Their writings evince a certain hostility to 'alien wisdom' but do endorse some Mu'tazilite teachings. The commentaries of Japheth ben Eli - originally covering the entire Bible and largely extant in manuscript - include long speculative excursuses and strikingly apply kalam doctrines to the explication of such passages as Genesis 1-2, Genesis 22 and Job.

Karaism became truly scholastic with the assimilation of works emanating from the Mu'tazilite school of Basra. The writings of the Mu'tazilite theologian 'Abd al-Jabbar (d. 1025) powerfully influenced such leading Karaites as Yusuf al-Basir (Joseph ben Abraham, d. 1040) and Abu'l-Furqan ben al-Asad (Yeshu'ah ben Judah, d. after 1065). Structured around the doctrines of divine unity and justice, Yusuf's al-Kitab al-muhtawi (Comprehensive Treatise) is a compendium of Karaite kalam. Its forty chapters grapple with most of the salient issues confronting Jewish (and Muslim) mutakallimun. Under the rubric of divine unity we find discussions of epistemology and the obligation to engage in speculative theology (chapters 1-2), physical theories (3), existence of the Creator (4), the divine attributes - omnipotence, omniscience, existence and eternity - and their essential nature (5-11), divine incorporeality and unity (12-14) and the createdness of God's speech (15). Under the second major heading of Mu'tazilite theology, divine justice, we find discussions of God's will and self-sufficiency (chapters 16-17), theodicy (18-26), human free will (27-31), revelation and divine obligation (32-36) and reward, punishment, merits and repentance (37-40).

Like 'Abd al-Jabbar, Yusuf was a jurist. Theology naturally impinged on his juridical writings. In discussing circumcision, for example, he considers such questions as intention, compensation for suffering and the nature of obligation. His disciple Yeshu'ah ben Judah prefaces a treatise on marriage law with an elaborate epistemology. His Bible commentaries show a much greater interest in kalam problems than is evident in those of his predecessor Japheth ben Eli.

Like the Mu'tazilites - but unlike the Rabbanites - both Yusuf and Yeshu'ah believed that all bodies are composed of atoms, in which accidents reside (see Atomism, ancient; Occasionalism). Among Muslims, atomism was typically linked with occasionalism, continuous creation and the rejection of natural causality. The Karaites, however, seem to have affirmed a form of natural causality as a corollary of their theory of creation.

Karaite teachings found a receptive audience among eleventh-century Byzantine Jews, some of whom studied in Jerusalem. They produced the earliest Hebrew translations of Arabic speculative writings over a century before the famous translations of the Ibn Tibbon family in Provence. Despite their odd renderings of technical terms and slavish adherence to Arabic syntax, these Hebrew versions, epitomes and anthologies linked later Byzantine Karaites to the earlier tradition. The transmission process culminated in 1148-9 with the completion of Judah Hadassi's Eshkol ha-Kofer (Cluster of Henna), an encyclopedic code in rhymed Hebrew acrostics. Although more original in form than in content, the work notably includes a creed - a mark of Islamic influence - anticipating Maimonides' Thirteen Principles by a decade. Hadassi's ten articles address: (1) God's existence, unity and wisdom; (2) divine eternity and uniqueness; (3) the world's createdness; (4) the revelations to Moses and other Hebrew prophets; (5) the truth of the Torah; (6) the distinctiveness of the Hebrew language; (7) the unique and eternal sanctity of the Temple site; (8) the resurrection of the dead; (9) divine judgment; and (10) reward and punishment. Most of these articles align with positions developed in Kalam treatises like the al-Kitab al-muhtawi (Comprehensive Treatise).

Numerous harsh, anti-sectarian remarks in the writings of twelfth-century Andalusian Rabbanites indicate the spread of Karaism to Islamic Spain. In an autograph letter, Judah Halevi (d. 1141) reveals that he began his Kuzari in response to questions from a Karaite. The third part contains an informed attack on Karaite practice and a staunch defence of rabbinic tradition. In Sefer ha-Kabbalah (The Book of Tradition), Abraham Ibn Daud (d. circa 1180) chronicles the history of Rabbanite scholarship in order to prove the validity of the Oral Law. In documenting the heresy of Spanish Karaites, he even mentions how Rabbanite Jews were given license to persecute them. The great exegete Abraham Ibn Ezra polemicizes against numerous Karaite legal positions and records his disputations with the sectarians (for example, in commenting on Leviticus 7: 20). While a vigorous Karaite community clearly existed in twelfth-century Spain, neither the names nor works of Spanish Karaites have survived. And although the Andalusian Rabbanites seem to be implacable foes of the sectarians, Ibn Ezra, at least, regularly cites the commentaries of Japheth ben Eli and Yeshu'ah ben Judah in non-polemical contexts; their philological, rationalistic approach clearly appealed to him.

2. The post-Maimonidean phase

Later Byzantine Karaites similarly admired the clarity, erudition and rationalism of Ibn Ezra and Maimonides. Writing in fluent Rabbinic Hebrew, Aaron ben Joseph (d. circa 1320) and Aaron ben Elijah of Nicomedia (d. 1369) engage, criticize and frequently borrow from them and other Rabbanite authors. The latter Aaron is remarkable for his trilogy: 'Ets Hayyim (The Tree of Life), a theological summa; Gan Eden (The Garden of Eden), a code; and Keter Torah (The Crown of the Law), a commentary on the Pentateuch. Modelled on the Guide to the Perplexed, 'Ets Hayyim is the first substantial Karaite work of religious philosophy composed in Hebrew. Its technical vocabulary is largely Tibbonid, although the older Karaite terminology also persists. Like Maimonides, Aaron clearly deems religious philosophy an authentic and original component of Judaism. But while Maimonides hails Aristotelianism as the soundest speculative system, Aaron clings to the kalam of his ancestors. Where Maimonides subjects kalam theories to rigorous criticism (Guide to the Perplexed 1: 73-6), Aaron defends Mu'tazilite teachings or seeks to harmonize them with Aristotelianism - sometimes through terminological sleights of hand. Consequently, 'Ets Hayyim is more a kalam response to Aristotelianism than a Karaite critique of Rabbanism.

During the fifteenth century, Byzantine Karaites and Rabbanites reached an intellectual rapprochement. Increasingly, Karaite disciples incorporated the scholarship of their Rabbanite teachers into their own compositions. However, while Rabbinic writing began to take new turns, Karaite literary activity became increasingly derivative, and though small sectarian communities still flourished (notably in Poland, Lithuania, the Crimea and Egypt), the great age of Karaite intellectual achievement and innovation had effectively come to an end. Today, Karaites in Israel, Europe and the USA face the challenge of establishing their own communal identities as minorities within minorities. The old philosophical problems that exercised their ancestors are all but forgotten.

See also: Ash'ariyya and Mu'tazila; Islamic theology; Theology, Rabbinic

Copyright © 1998, Routledge.

References and further reading

Ankori, Z. (1959) Karaites in Byzantium, New York: Columbia University Press, 1959. (Focuses on the activities of eleventh- and twelfth-century sectarians; comprehensive bibliography on pages 461-84.)

* al-Basir, Y. (before 1040) al-Kitab al-muhtawi (Comprehensive Treatise), ed. and trans. G. Vajda, Al-Kitab al-Muhtawi de Yusuf al-Basir, Leiden: Brill, 1985. (Reprints articles containing a virtually complete French translation of the text and extensive analyses adducing Jewish and Islamic parallels.)

Ben-Shammai, H. (1985) 'Studies in Karaite Atomism', Jerusalem Studies in Arabic and Islam 6: 243-97. (Full presentation of this central Kalam problem.)

Frank, D. (1991) 'The Religious Philosophy of the Karaite Aaron ben Elijah: The Problem of Divine Justice', Ph.D. dissertation, Harvard University, Ann Arbor, MI: University Microfilms International. (Contains an annotated translation of 'Ets Hayyim, chapters 79-90.)

Husik, I. (1940) A History of Mediaeval Jewish Philosophy, Philadelphia, PA: Jewish Publication Society of America. (See especially Chapter 4 on Joseph al-Basir and Jeshua ben Judah, and Chapter 16 on Aaron ben Elijah of Nicomedia.)

Lasker, D.J. (1992) 'Karaism in Twelfth-Century Spain', Journal of Jewish Thought and Philosophy 1: 179-95. (Overview with reference to virtually all known sources.)

Nemoy, L. (1952) Karaite Anthology, New Haven, CN: Yale University Press. (Well-chosen collection illustrating seven hundred years of Karaite thought.)

Sirat, C. (1985) A History of Jewish Philosophy in the Middle Ages, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 37-56; repr. 1990. (A useful survey with bibliography: see pages 418-21, 459-60.)

Sklare, D.E. (1995) 'Yusuf al-Basir: Theological Aspects of His Halakhic Works', in D. Frank (ed.) The Jews of Medieval Islam: Community, Society, and Identity, New York and Cologne: Brill, 249-70. (Comprehensive survey of his works and discussion of the interplay between law and kalam.)

Wieder, N. (1962) The Judean Scrolls and Karaism, London: East and West Library. (Excellent monograph on apocalyptic aspects of sectarian exegesis.)

Wolfson, H.A. (1979) Repercussions of the Kalam in Jewish Philosophy, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. (Includes concise analyses of such topics as divine attributes, divine speech and causality as treated by Karaite scholars.)

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