Maria Rosa Menocal (2002) argues that Al-Andalus (711–1492) was a “utopian-like” society in which Jews and Muslims lived side by side in peace and cooperation in what is now Spain. This view has been criticized by others, who claim that the Jewish population was in fact subject to persecution and religiously inspired violence. They argue that while the Islamic administration was relatively tolerant of its Jewish population, persecution of the Jewish population did occur at times, particularly after the Almoravids came to power.
The rule of Muslims represents a particular period in Spanish history. It was at this time that a substantial part of Spain, known back then as Al-Andalus, came under the control of various Islamic groups. The entire period of Islamic rule lasted from the first conquest in 711 to 1492 when the Christian King Ferdinand reconquered Granada (La Reconquista), thereby extinguishing the rule of Muslims (Crow 1985, p.78).
The Umayyad prince, Abd-ar-Rahman I, established himself as Emir of Cordoba in 756, after the Abbasids supplanted Umayyad rule in Syria (Fletcher 2000, p.64). The Umayyad dynasty first ruled as emirs (756–929), then as caliphs (929–1031), but eventually fell to the invading Berber tribes of North Africa, the Almoravids (1090–1147) and then the Almohads (1147–1248) (Fletcher 2000, p.64). The Muslims of Spain ushered in a period of great creativity and scholarship, in which significant advances in poetry, art, music, calligraphy, botany, historiography, medicine, mathematics, and astronomy were made (Fletcher 2000, p. 65).
Maria Rosa Menocal argues that Al-Andalus was a peaceful society in which Jewish people were free to practice their religion without being subject to the threat of forced conversion or persecution. She further claims that the rulers of Al-Andalus not only gave the Jews the right to maintain their religious identity, they also offered them the opportunity to fully involve themselves in what was then a predominantly Muslim society. Al-Andalus is, therefore, a truly unique example of religious toleration and cultural interaction, one which stands above all others in Medieval Europe.
Menocal claims that the Jews of Spain, that is the Sephardic Jews, enjoyed a certain degree of autonomy as they were considered to be people of a particular status. They were members of the Dhimmi, or “pact,” whereby the Muslim rulers agree to protect and care for non-Muslims insofar as they accede to the laws and regulations of the state (Menocal 2002, p.29). Jews, like Christians, are particularly important to this contract as they are “People of the Book” (Ahl al-Kitâb), the book being the Torah or the Bible, both of which are considered to have been revealed by God in Islam (Lassner 1999, p.106). As monotheistic religions of the Abrahamic tradition, Islam, Judaism and Christianity share common ground.That Spanish Jews were treated with respect by their Islamic rulers is evidenced by the way in which they were permitted to be directly involved in the political process. Menocal refers to several Jewish people who rose to claim positions in the Umayyad dynasty, one such person being Hasdai Ibn Shaprut.
Shaprut served as vizier to Caliph Abd-ar-Rahman III (911–961), while also acting as the “prince” or nasi of his own religious community (Menocal 2002, p.79). Shaprut, through his skill and intellect, was able to secure a position of considerable influence and prestige, while retaining his role as a representative of the Jewish community. He served the Umayyad rulers in a variety of ways, including several stints as a foreign ambassador and general secretary (Glick 1979, p.172). Menocal claims that this was not an unusual occurrence or isolated event as Al-Andalus was in fact a “world brightly lit for Jews,” in which they were free to participate in the politics of the state (Menocal 2002, p. 84).
Samuel Ibn Naghrela (Samuel the Nagid, or “prince”) also showed how a Jewish person was able to enjoy a position of power under Islamic rule. Born in 993, he pursued success in a number of fields including as a high-ranking official, poet, statesman and warrior. At thirty-four he was chosen as the first Nagid, or head of the Jewish community, and was later appointed as a vizier and prime minister of Granada (Menocal 2002, p. 104). Jewish people also served as viziers in Zaragoza, Seville, and Almeria during the Muslim rule (Perez 1993, p.10). They were also very active in the economy of Al-Andalus as they had “virtually unlimited opportunities in the booming commercial environment” (Menocal 2002, p. 85). Jewish people were allowed to pursue their vocational interests, and, in time, they came to dominate the financial and mercantile activity of the region (Glick 1979, p. 176).
Menocal attributes the success of the Jewish people in Islamic Spain to their willingness to assimilate, or be “Arabized.” Arabization is the process whereby the Jewish people of Spain sought to understand and to engage with Arabic culture-its language, art, tradition, and values- while still retaining their own sense of identity as a separate community. It is said that the potential for this style of acculturation was great because much of Islamic Spain was highly secular (Glick 1979, p.175). Therefore, the religious affiliation of the individual in Islamic Spain had far less importance, and thus far fewer consequences, than it did elsewhere.
The Jews of Spain excelled in many areas of their society, owing to the tolerance which they had been accorded by their Islamic rulers. They ensured a climate in which Muslims and Jews could live in a state of peaceful cooperation. This happened not by the imposition of one culture on that of another, but a cultural exchange wherein Jews were “able to openly observe and eventually enrich their Judaic and Hebrew heritage and at the same time fully participate in the general cultural and intellectual scene” (Menocal 2002, p. 87). Therefore it can be said that Spain, under the rule of Muslims, was quite tolerant of its Jewish population. The Jews, according to Menocal, did not have “to abandon their orthodoxy to be fully a part of the body politic and culture” (Menocal 2002, p. 86).
Maria Rosa Menocal offers a particular interpretation of this period, one that is certainly not shared by all. Bernard Lewis agrees that the Islamic rulers in Spain treated their Jewish counterparts with some degree of respect (Lewis 1984, p. 9). Lewis refers to the Qur’anic verse (11:62), “Those who believe [the Muslims], and those who profess Judaism, and the Christians and the Sabian, those who believe in God and the Last Day and act righteously, shall have their reward with their Lord,” as the injunction by which Muslims must treat Jews with tolerance (Lewis 1984, p. 13). But Lewis also sees the seeds of hostility and intolerance in the way Muslims treated Jews.
In reality, however, Jews, like Christians, were still defined by their supposed inferiority to that of the Muslim. They were possessors of a religion that was based on authentic revelation, but that incomplete or distorted. They had failed to realize God’s truth in its most perfect form, as it is in Islam.
Bernard Lewis does not limit his perspective to “religious inferiority.” He argues that Muslims restricted Jews’ movement into the wider community. According to him the poll tax, or jizya, a fixed tax that was to be paid by all non-Muslims to the Muslim rulers in return for certain immunities like not going to war, was a “symbolic expression of their (Jews) subordination” to the Muslims (Lewis 1984, p. 14). Restrictions, Lewis argues, were certainly not limited to fiscal servitude, but also applied to the way in which Jewish people conducted themselves in public and private life. A Jewish man could not enter into a marriage with a Muslim woman as that would make a Muslim subordinate to the will of a Dhimmi, though a Muslim man could marry a Jewish woman (Lewis 1984, p. 27).
Generally, the Jewish people were allowed to practice their religion and live according to the laws and scriptures of their community. Furthermore, the restrictions to which they were subject “were social and symbolic rather than tangible and practical in character” (Lewis 1984, p. 26). That is to say, these regulations served to define the relationship between the two communities, and not to oppress the Jewish population.
Norman Roth claims, much like Menocal, that the Jewish population was quite prominent in Spain during the Muslim rule. According to Roth, rarely did “Jews reach such prominent positions of power as they did in Al-Andalus” (Roth 1994, p. 79). This was due, in part, to the fact that they were perceived by the Muslims and Christians of Spain as being “neutral,” that is, without allegiance to either side (Roth 1994, p.79).
While Al-Andalus was a society in which Jews enjoyed a certain degree of freedom, particularly after the advent of the Almohads, Roth claims, some restrictions in clothing were strictly enforced (Roth 1994, p. 167). For instance, the Almohad ruler Abu Yusuf Yaqub (1184–99) made it compulsory for Jews to dress in certain colors (Roth 1994, p. 167), perhaps to distinguish non-Muslim citizens from the Muslims. According to Joseph Perez, the Almohads also instituted religious persecution and forced Jews to convert (Perez 1993, p. 12). In this way, Perez draws a parallel with this period and the one that was to follow, in which Jews were expelled from the newly reclaimed Christian Kingdom of Spain.
The rule of the Moors is a unique period of Spanish history, one that has received much attention from scholars and theologians alike. It was, according to Maria Rosa Menocal, a time in which Jews and Muslims lived a relatively peaceful existence. While the evidence suggests that Jews and Muslims did integrate to an extent, there are also some scholars who suggest that Jews were subject to persecution. Therefore, this period of history offers a lot to be learned for our modern times.
Crow J, 1985, Spain: The Root and the Flower: an interpretation of Spain and the Spanish people, University of California Press, Berkley.
Fletcher R, 2000, “Islamic Spain,” in Carr R, Spain: A History, Oxford University Press, New York.
Glick T, 1979, Islamic and Christian Spain in the Early Middle Ages, Princeton University Press, New Jersey.
Lassner J, 1999, “Abraham Geiger: A Nineteenth-Century Jewish Reformer on the Origins of Islam,” in Martin Kramer, The Jewish Discovery of Islam, Tel Aviv University, Tel Aviv.
Lewis B, 1984, The Jews of Islam, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London.
Menocal MR, 2002, Ornament of the World, Little, Brown and Company, Boston.
Perez, J, 1993, History of a Tragedy, University of Illinois Press, Chicago.
Ray, J, 2006, The Sephardic Frontier: the Reconquista and the Jewish community in Medieval Iberia, Cornell University Press, New York.
Roth N, 1994, Jews, Visigoths, and Muslims In Medieval Spain: Cooperation and Conflict, Leiden, New York.
- By Murat Yukseldi
- Category: Issue 72 (November - December 2009)
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