The book begins with Maimonides' thesis against anthropomorphism. In the Bible, one can find many expressions which describe God in human terms, for instance the "hand of God". Maimonides was strongly against what he believed to be a heresy present in unlearned Jews who then assume God to be corporeal (or even possessing positive characteristics).
To explain his belief that this is not the case, Maimonides devoted more than 20 chapters in the beginning (and middle) of the first book to analysing Hebrew terms. Each chapter was about a term used to describe God (such as "mighty") and in each case, Maimonides presented a case that the word is a homonym, whereby its usage when describing a physical entity is completely different from when describing God. This was done by close textual analysis of the word in the Tanach in order to present what Maimonides saw as the proof that according to the Tanach, God is completely incorporeal: "[The Rambam] set up the incorporeality of God as a dogma, and placed any person who denied this doctrine upon a level with an idolater; he devoted much of the first part of the "Moreh Nebukim" to the interpretation of the Biblical anthropomorphisms, endeavoring to define the meaning of each and to identify it with some transcendental metaphysical expression. Some of them are explained by him as perfect homonyms, denoting two or more absolutely distinct things; others, as imperfect homonyms, employed in some instances figuratively and in others homonymously.
This leads to Maimonides' notion that God cannot be described in any positive terms, but rather only in negative conceptions; see Negative theology: In the Jewish tradition. The Jewish Encyclopedia notes his view that "As to His essence, the only way to describe it is negatively. For instance, He is not physical, nor bound by time, nor subject to change, etc. These assertions do not involve any incorrect notions or assume any deficiency, while if positive essential attributes are admitted it may be assumed that other things coexisted with Him from eternity. Unrestrained anthropomorphism and perception of positive attributes is seen as a transgression as serious as idolatry, because both are fundamental errors in the metaphysics of God's role in the universe, and that is the most important aspect of the world.
The first book also contains an analysis of the reasons why philosophy and mysticism are taught late in the Jewish tradition, and only to a few. Maimonides cites many examples of what he sees as the incapability of the masses of understanding these concepts. Thus, approaching them with a mind that is not yet learned in Torah and other Jewish texts can lead to heresy and the transgressions considered the most serious by Maimonides.
The book ends (Chapters 73–76) with Maimonides' protracted exposition and criticism of a number of principles and methods identified with the schools of Jewish Kalam and Islamic Kalam, including the argument for creation ex nihilo and the unity and incorporeality of God. While he accepts the conclusions of the Kalam school (because of their consistency with Judaism), he disagrees with their methods and points out many perceived flaws in their arguments: "Maimonides exposes the weakness of these propositions, which he regards as founded not on a basis of positive facts, but on mere fiction...Maimonides criticizes especially the tenth proposition of the Mutakallimīn, according to which everything that is conceivable by imagination is admissible: e.g., that the terres-trial globe should become the all-encompassing sphere, or that this sphere should become the terres-trial globe.
The book begins with the exposition of the physical structure of the universe, as seen by Maimonides. The world-view asserted in the work is essentially Aristotelian, with a spherical earth in the centre, surrounded by concentric Heavenly Spheres. While Aristotle's view with respect to the eternity of the universe is rejected, Maimonides extensively borrows his proofs of the existence of God and his concepts such as the Prime Mover: "But as Maimonides recognizes the authority of Aristotle in all matters concerning the sublunary world, he proceeds to show that the Biblical account of the creation of the nether world is in perfect accord with Aristotelian views. Explaining its language as allegorical and the terms employed as homonyms, he summarizes the first chapter of Genesis thus: God created the universe by producing on the first day the "reshit," or Intelligences, from which the spheres derived their existence and motion and thus became the source of the existence of the entire universe.
A novel point is that Maimonides connects the Heavenly Sphere with the concept of an angel: these are seen as the same thing. The Spheres are essentially pure Intelligences who receive spiritual essence from the Prime Mover. This energy overflows from each one to the next and finally reaches earth and the physical domain. While novel in Judaism, this concept of intelligent spheres of existence also appears in Gnostic Christianity as Aeons, having been conceived at least eight hundred years before Maimonides.
This leads into a discussion about the merits of the debate whether the universe is eternal or created. As in the first book, Aristotle's theory of the eternity of the universe is seen as the best, philosophically. However, this is because Maimonides considered the proofs that the universe was created to be inferior. He still points out supposed problems with the Aristotelian view and states that, while Aristotle's argument is the best, the possession of Divine Revelation from the Torah is the extra piece of information necessary to decide the matter.
This is followed by a brief exposition of Creation as outlined in Genesis and theories about the possible end of the world. The second major part of the book is the discussion of the concept of prophecy. Maimonides departs from the orthodox view in that he emphasises the intellectual aspect of prophecy. According to this view, in Biblical times, when God still revealed himself through prophecy, it was possible to combine logic and intelligence with a knowledge of God through the tradition (ie. the Written and Oral Torah) in order to achieve a certain level of prophecy. Maimonides outlines 13 levels of prophecy, with that of Moses being the highest and most unimpeded. Subsequent lower levels remove the prophet as the source, allowing prophecies through increasingly external and indirect factors such as angels and dreams. Finally, the language and nature of the prophetic books of the Bible are described.
After justifying this "crossing of the line" from hints to direct instruction, Maimonides explains the basic mystical concepts via the Biblical terms referring to Spheres, elements and Intelligences. In these chapters, however, there is still very little in terms of direct explanation.
This is followed by an analysis of the moral aspects of the universe. Maimonides deals with the problem of evil (for which people are considered to be responsible because of free will), trials and tests (especially those of Job and the story of the Binding of Isaac) as well as other aspects traditionally attached to God in theology, such as providence and omniscience: "Maimonides endeavors to show that evil has no positive existence, but is a privation of a certain capacity and does not proceed from God; when, therefore, evils are mentioned in Scripture as sent by God, the Scriptural expressions must be explained allegorically. Indeed, says Maimonides, all existing evils, with the exception of some which have their origin in the laws of production and destruction and which are rather an expression of God's mercy, since by them the species are perpetuated, are created by men themselves.
Maimonides then explains his views on the reasons for the 613 mitzvot, the 613 laws contained within the five books of Moses. Maimonides divides these laws into 14 sections - the same as in his Mishneh Torah. However, he departs from traditional Rabbinic explanations in favour of a more physical/pragmatic approach.
Having culminated with the commandments, Maimonides concludes the work with the notion of the perfect and harmonious life, founded on the correct worship of God. The possession of a correct philosophy underlying Judaism (as outlined in the Guide) is seen as being an essential aspect in true wisdom.
Many of his ideas were rejected as heretical by many other Jews. His Guide was often banned.
The adversaries of Maimonides' Mishneh Torah declared war against the "Guide." His views concerning angels, prophecy, and miracles—and especially his assertion that he would have had no difficulty in reconciling the biblical account of the creation with the doctrine of the eternity of the universe, had the Aristotelian proofs for it been conclusive— provoked the indignation of the orthodox. Maimonides' theory of the unity of souls was declared by some to be an outright denial of the immortality of the soul.
Rabbi Abraham ben David, known as the RaBad, objected to Maimonides' raising the notion of the incorporeality of God as a dogma and therefore appended to Maimonides' formula this brief but emphatic criticism: "Why does he call such persons apostates? Men better and worthier than he have held this view, for which they believe they have found authority in the Scriptures and in a confusing view of the Haggadah.
A sensible man should not demand of me, or hope that when we mention a subject, we shall make a complete exposition of it.
My object in adopting this arrangement is that the truths should be at one time apparent and at another time concealed. Thus we shall not be in opposition to the Divine Will (from which it is wrong to deviate) which has withheld from the multitude the truths required for the knowledge of God, according to the words, 'The secret of the Lord is with them that fear Him (Psalm 25:14)'
Marvin Fox comments on this:
It is one of the mysteries of our intellectual history that these explicit statements of Maimonides, together with his other extensive instructions on how to read his book, have been so widely ignored. No author could have been more open in informing his readers that they were confronting no ordinary book.
There were a number of reasons for this caution. For one, there was a classical ban against explicitly teaching the secrets of creation. Secondly, many of his ideas were rejected as heretical by many other Jews.
Marvin Fox writes further:
In his introduction to the Guide Maimonides speaks repeatedly of the "secret" doctrine that must be set forth in a way appropriate to its secret character. Rabbinic law, to which Maimonides as a loyal Jew is committed, prohibits any direct, public teaching of the secrets of the Torah. One is permitted to teach these only in private to selected students of proven competence...
It would seem that there is no way to write such a book without violating rabbinic law....Yet at times it is urgent to teach a body of sound doctrine to those who require it....The problem is to find a method for writing such book in a way that does not violate Jewish law while conveying its message successfully to those who are properly qualified....
According to Fox, Maimonides carefully assembled the Guide "so as to protect people without a sound scientific and philosophical education from doctrines that they cannot understand and that would only harm them, while making the truths available to students with the proper personal and intellectual preparation."
Aviezer Ravitzky writes:
Those who upheld a radical interpretation of the secrets of the Guide, from Joseph Caspi and Moses Narboni in the 14th century to Leo Strauss and Shlomo Pines in the 20th, proposed and developed tools and methods for the decoding of the concealed intentions of the Guide. Can we already find the roots of this approach in the writings of Samuel ben Judah ibn Tibbon, a few years after the writing of the Guide?...Ibn Tibbon's comments reveal his general approach toward the nature of the contradictions in the Guide: The interpreter need not be troubled by contradiction when one assertion is consistent with the "philosophic view" where as the other is completely satisfactory to "men of religion". Such contradictions are to be expected, and the worthy reader will know the reason for them and the direction they tend to...The correct reading of the Guide's chapters should be carried out in two complementary directions: on the one hand, one should distinguish each chapter from the rest, and on the other one should combine different chapters and construct out of them a single topic. Again, on the one hand, one should get to the bottom of the specific subject matter of each chapter, it's specific "innovation", an innovation not necessarily limited to the explicit subject matter of the chapter. On the other hand, one should combine scattered chapters which allude to one single topic so as to reconstruct the full scope of the topic.
The first complete English translation was The Guide for the Perplexed, by M. Friedländer, with Mr. Joseph Abrahams and Reverend H. Gollancz, in 1881. It was originally published in a three volume edition with footnotes. In 1904 it was republished in a less expensive one volume edition, without footnotes, with revisions. The second edition is still in use today, sold through Dover Publications. Despite the age of this publication it still has a good reputation, as Friendländer had solid command of Arabic and remained particularly faithful to the literal text of Maimonides' work.
Another translation to English was made by Chaim Rabin in 1952, also published in an abridged edition.
Translations exist in Catalan, English, French, German, Hebrew, Spanish and Yiddish.