The debate rages on: did Jews experience a Golden Age in al-Andalus, in medieval Islamic Spain? Professor Mark R. Cohen of Princeton wrote an interesting prologue to the Encyclopedia of Jewish- Muslim relations published in 2014, admitting that it was to a certain extent a myth.
It is true, he writes, that Jews were immersed in Arabic-Islamic culture – language, poetry, science, medicine, philosophy. True, Jews became powerful advisers to Muslim rulers. True, Jews were not generally confined to certain occupations as they were in Europe, and the idea of usury did not have the same stigma.
The Jewish intellectuals in 19th century Germany, alienated by the rise of antisemitism and unfulfilled promises of emancipation, idealised the situation of medieval Jews. They tended to ignore the Jews’ legal inferiority, or dhimmi status. Yet the ‘lachrymose’ version of this history exaggerates the negative. The myth of the Golden Age, Cohen argues, contains a very large kernel of truth.
Yet, for over 100 years, Muslim fundamentalists, in the shape of the Amohads and Almoravid Berbers, compelled Jews to choose between conversion to Islam or death. Cohen argues that Jews could always ‘pretend’ to convert, as Maimonides did – so this was a mitigating factor. But he could not deny that Christianity was wiped out altogether in North Africa and the Jewish population dwindled dramatically.
It has also been argued that pogroms against Jews were unnecessary when Jews were already cowed and submissive. On the other hand, Cohen argues that the dhimmi rules were often breached in Muslim Spain. What he does not say is that while rulers were ready to breach those rules in order to promote useful and talented Jews to positions of power and influence, the masses did not take kindly to Jews behaving above their station – hence, for example, the massacre of 3,000 Jews in 1066 when the mob was outraged at the actions of the ‘haughty’ Vizir Joseph Ibn Naghrela.
Cohen argues that persecution of Jews could not have been as bad as in Christendom. The proof was that they did not chronicle their persecution as Jews did in Europe. But the essence of being a ‘dhimmi’ was surely NOT to harp on these episodes of persecution in order not to antagonise their rulers.
A new book by Professor Efraim Lev focuses on 600 Jewish doctors who lived in Islamic Spain in the Middle Ages. Review in the Jerusalem Post by Kenneth Collins: (with thanks: Jeremy)
A fragment from the Cairo Geniza
Using Geniza records and fragments along with extant medieval Muslim Arabic sources Lev has been able to present information on the lives of more than 600 Jewish physicians and pharmacists in the Islamic world of the Middle Ages.
He employs the technique of “prosopography,” a study that identifies and relates a group of persons or characters within a particular historical context, to create “a collective biography.”
This shows how these practitioners functioned as they cared for Jewish, Christian and Muslim patients in the Islamic world, which stretched from Morocco and Andalusia to Iraq and Iran.
Jewish physicians and pharmacists had mainly good relations with Christian and Muslim colleagues, and medical students of the three faiths learned together in the eastern Muslim lands, often in hospitals and at other times within family networks.
Jews were attracted to the medical profession.
Medicine carried prestige and offered opportunity where other scholarly options were closed to them.
These physicians were literate in Arabic and Hebrew and had access to medical libraries. Even during times of restrictions on Jewish doctors, Muslim rulers and the public still consulted them.
This work brought Jewish physicians close to the center of power and some Jewish court physicians were killed in court intrigues.
We should not idealise Jewish life under the Muslims, which in some cases, was just as bad as life in Christian lands, writes Eli Kavon in the Jerusalem Post (with thanks: Michelle) :
Maimonides: Jews bear burden of humiliation
Judaism and the Islamic world, “God has entangled us with this people, the nation of Ishmael, who treat us so prejudicially and who legislate our harm and hatred…. No nation has ever arisen more harmful than they, nor has anyone done more to humiliate us, degrade us, and consolidate hatred against us.”
The myth that historians have propagated is that Jewish life under the Muslims was safer and more successful than the life of Jews in Christendom. Perhaps there is a kernel of truth in this proposition; “Golden Ages” in Baghdad, Andalusia, and the Ottoman Empire highlight periods of tolerance and the powerful status of court Jews.
Did the medieval Andalusian Golden Age of Jews, Muslims and Christians, much vaunted by interfaith projects and Arab sources, really exist, or is it a myth? Recent research by Fernando Dario Morera and others has put the Golden Age in question.
A recent Dialogia conference held in Israel examined the myth and the reality. Sociologist emeritus professor Shmuel Trigano argued that the myth was created by German Wissenshaft scholars in the age of emancipation. More recently it has been exploited to foster multiculturalism in contemporary Europe. The French education system aims to imbue its large number of Muslim students with pride in their heritage. The myth of a multi-culti paradise is generally instrumentalised to facilitate the absorption of large numbers of Muslim immigrants into Europe.
The three religions, Trigano asserted, did not live with each other, they lived alongside each other. The Jews were isolated in their ghettoes or mellahs in the shadow of the royal palace. Potentates granted them protection in return for their loyalty. Medieval kings could rely on the Jews and trusted them not to betray them. Some rose to high office, such as the vizirs Shmuel ibn Nagrela Hanagid and his son Yosef. Like Yosef, who was crucified and 4,000 of his coreligionists massacred in 1066, they could come to a violent end.
Yet a sort of ‘intellectual myopia’ has taken hold and the mantra ‘Islam saved Jews’ has been propagated by Bernard Wasserstein and others. The jizya tax on the dhimmi Jew and Christian was a ransom, said Trigano. Maimonides even converted to Islam to survive at a time of Islamic fundamentalism. We know he did this because he taught at the university of Kairouan. – only Muslims could.
Shmuel Hanagid, visit of Cordoba
Emeritus professor Raphael Israeli said that history was a matter of interpretation. The lachrymose version, as promoted by Bat Ye’or, David Littman and Paul Fenton, saw black stains on the carpet of history, while others emphasised the carpet itself.
There were times when Jews took refuge in Christian lands : at the battle of Tortosa in 1212, the Christian King Alfonso V1 defeated the fundamentalist Almohads.
Jews collaborated with the Muslim conquest because they were better treated under Islam than under the Visigoths. They helped the Muslims control the non-Jewish majority. But the Muslims ended up hating Jews as much as Christians, Israeli said. Good relations between the Muslim and Jewish elites masked persecution of the Jewish masses.
Israeli emphasised that the Taifas, the Arab principalities in Seville and Granada, for instance, were outside the Caliphate and depended heavily on Jews. This explains why Shmuel ibn Nagrela (Hnagid) was appointed vizir of Granada. But jealousy caused the tragic murder of his successor Yosef and the massacre of most of the Jews.
Writer and researcher Bat Ye’or saw the immutable dhimmi laws as part of the jurisprudence of holy war, or jihad. The propaganda of the golden age myth resurfaced from time to time throughout history in various incarnations, for pragmatic reasons. For instance, Arab nationalism tried to unite Christians and Muslims in the 19th century in order to frustrate the emergence of a Jewish homeland. The UK promoted the myth of Turkish tolerance of minorities as a counterweight to the interests of Russia and Austria. Christians took up the myth to reinforce their support of Arab nationalism. Today, a Palestinian version of the myth – the multicultural one-state solution – is employed as a weapon against Israel.
Ephraim Herrera focused on the pogrom of Granada in 1066. Pogroms were not frequent in the Muslim world – why would they be needed when Jews were already subhuman? In 912 Abdul Rahman III had ignored the dhimmi rules to appoint a Jewish vizier in Cordoba – Hasdai Ibn Shaprut. Another Jew, Shmuel ibn Nagrela Hanagid, was appointed in 1013 to serve his Berber ruler. In 1030 he was named vizir responsible for tax collecting. Although he had the support of the ruler’s son Badis, there was growing mass opposition to a non-Muslim in a position of power. As Ibn Hazm wrote at the time, Hanagid was resented for employing only other Jews. His son Joseph succeeded him 1033. He soon attracted enemies who disliked the fact his palace was built outside the Jewish quarter. In the face of increasing jealousy and rumour that he was plotting to kill Badis, a frenzied mob captured Joseph, crucified him and killed 4000 out of 5,000 Jews. The Golden Age happened despite Islam and in opposition to it, not thanks to it.
Eliezer Cherqui spoke about the great Aristotelian philosopher and scholar Averroes (Ibn Rusht), a contemporary of Maimonides. Ibn Rusht (1126 – 1198) became a cadi (judge) and was a paid functionary of the fundamentalist Almohad regime. Although he came to a bitter end and his works were burnt (only Hebrew translations survived) his work testified to the fact that cultural symbiosis bore no relationship to politics. The Almohads decimated the non-Jewish communities of North Africa yet little historiography is devoted to them. Cherqui concluded that Islam symbolised divine unity, and can brook no diversity. No other religion can claim legitimacy. The only hope of Israel ever being accepted by the Muslim world is to find in the Koran verses that say Israel is being re-established according to the divine will.
Emeritus professor Paul Fenton argued that the Spanish Inquisition was inspired by 140 years of Almohad persecution, massacre and forced conversions. Witnesses describe the existence of crypto-Jews, outwardly Muslim. The Christians disappeared completely in North Africa. The New Muslims were still treated as dhimmis and were forced to wear special clothing or distinguishing signs until 19th century. As a result of bildiyeen conversions in the 15th century there are still residents of Fez who sport Jewish names like Cohen and Shabbat.
Our token Mizrahi Corbynistahas been gracing the columns of the Guardian as a pundit commentating on local politics. But on the question of the antisemitism rampant in the far-left of the UK Labour party, a note of anguish has been creeping into our Shabi’s writings.
She finds the view common among leftwing ideologues that Jews are ‘white’ allies of the Christian West to be wrong. “We are a racialised minority’ she protests. She herself is a Mizrahi Jew of Iraqi origin.
Her answer is to start a Jewish-black-Asian-Muslim alliancethat would relaunch Jews as ‘people of colour’. This alliance is not based on shared Judeo-Christian values. ‘If there is a historic sharing of values it is a Jewish-Muslim one,’ she writes.
” Commonly but by no means exclusively used by the far right as a way of
excluding Islam, this Judeo-Christian tradition is a surprise to those
who recall that the deadly depictions of Jewish people as responsible
for killing Christ or drinking the blood of babies came out of Christian
Europe. Or that Jews and Muslims enjoyed the centuries-long creative
coexistence of a Golden Age in Spain – until Christian armies rolled up
and expelled both communities
in 1492. Or that Jews living in Arab and Muslim lands did not suffer
the regular pogroms and persecutions inflicted upon their
co-religionists in Christian Europe during the same period. If there is a
historic sharing of values, it is a Muslim-Jewish one.”
Here Shabi indulges in ‘dhimmi denial’ while trotting out the hoary and simplistic myth of Muslim-Jewish coexistence in medieval Golden Age Spain. The status of Jews in Spain was precarious, and expulsions of Jews by the Muslim fundamentalist Almoravids and Almohades did occur. (Christian armies did not simply ‘roll up’ in 1492, but the Reconquista had begun centuries earlier. )
Shabi’s new alliance ‘of colour’ will go nowhere unless it admits that Arabs/Muslims could be antisemites, oppressors, colonialists and slave-traders. But that would mean taking a stance against the ‘politically-correct’, anti-western orthodoxy of our times.
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