T O P I C
ISLAM AND THE ‘JEWISH GOLDEN AGE’ IN SPAIN _______________________________________________________
(1) THE ISLAMIC EMPIRES
In the centuries after the life of Muhammad, Muslim armies poured out into all surrounding areas, bringing the lands from India to Spain under their control. With this huge amount of land under their control, the Umayyad (and later, the Abbasid) Caliphates allowed merchants and scholars to travel easily through western Eurasia, bringing goods and knowledge which the Muslims greatly expanded upon through the Caliphate and outward to less advanced regions, such as Western Europe. In 751, papermaking from China made its way to the West through Muslims. Trade introduced Islam to the Africans. In the Middle East, the success of Islam meant that culture would be changed forever. Even after the decline of the Abassid Caliphate, Islam would remain as one of the base institutions of the region. Future states of the region, such as the Safavid, Seljuk, and Ottoman and Mughal Empires, were all "Islamic Empires".)
(2) THE JEWS IN ISLAMIC SPAIN: (AL ANDALUS)
One of the characteristic features of the early history of Spain is the successive waves of different people who spread across the Iberian Peninsula. Phoenicians, Greeks, Vandals, Visigoths, Muslims, Jews, and Christians all occupied Spain at one point or another. History records communities of Jews living on the Iberian Peninsula from as early as the destruction of the first temple in Jerusalem (Diaz-Mas 1). But it was during the realm of the Moors in Al-Andalus (land of the vandals) which the Jews thrived the greatest. Though this was a time of artistic, educational, and cultural enlightenment, it was not completely serene or without persecution for the Jewish people.
As historians look back before the first millennium at the Jewish populations of Iberia, we see Jews living in convergence with both Muslims and Christians. However, Muslims were undoubtedly the principal subjects of the kingdom, not Jews, nor Christians. The Muslims had greater rights and responsibilities than non-Muslims, thus Moorish toleration was not exactly Moorish equality. History demonstrates a long history of persecutions against the Jewish people. And the Jews living in Muslim Spain were not excluded from such inequity.
The first of many discriminatory laws against the Jews was passed even before the Moorish invasion in 305 C.E. in the Roman province of Hispania (Spain); soon after the Council of Toledo passed a canon forbidding Jews from blessing the crops of non-Jews, as well as prohibited Christians from sharing meals with Jews. When the Visigoths (Aryan Christians) invaded Hispania in 409 C.E., more laws were instituted further restricting the Jews. One hundred and eighty years later in 589 C.E., Visigoth King Recared relinquished the Aryan sect and accepted the orthodox Catholic faith, thereby paving the way for the religious unity in the country.
Subsequently the Church was to exert powerful influence on all aspects of social life. Almost immediately a canon was passed forbidding the marriage between Christian and Jews; and in 612 C.E., the Council of Gundemar of Toledo ordered that all Jews submit to baptism within the year, or undergo "scourging, mutilation, banishment, and confiscation of goods" (Meyrick 170). However, the years of late Aryan and early orthodox Christian rule were both coming to a close. In 709 C.E., internal unrest destabilized the peninsula. This strife originated between the Trinitarian Christians--who accepted the Trinity, and Aryan Christians, who saw jesus not as their god but as a prophet inspired by their god (Charafi 2).
Two years later in 711 C.E., Moorish soldiers (a mixed Arab and Berber army) crossed over from Africa to the Iberian Peninsula. They were led by General Tariq ibn Ziyad, Governor of Tangiers (Sachar 3). He advanced his army of near ten thousand men across the strait, and landed at a location, which from that day since has sustained his name--Jabal Tarik (Mount Tarik), or Gibraltar. The Moors engaged in battle with Visigothic soldiers, eventually killing their monarch, King Roderick. The Muslim invasion, and subsequent administration of Iberia, freed the major Spanish population of Jews from Visigothic oppression. It was said that immediately after the invasion, the Jewish population of Toledo "opened the gates" of the city, welcoming the North African Muslims (Wexler 218). Though ruthless fighters, the Moors were very just. They gave the Goth Spaniards an opportunity to surrender each of their provinces, to which most capitulated.
It is a common misapprehension that the holy war meant that the Muslims gave their opponents a choice between Islam and the sword'. This was sometimes the case, but only when the opponents were polytheist and idol-worshippers. For Jews, Christians, and other 'People of the Book'. there was a third possibility, they might become a ‘protected group', paying a tax or tribute to the Muslims but enjoying internal autonomy" (Watt 144).
Even in those early days, the Moors knew and practiced the principles of chivalry. They had already won the title to Knightliness which many centuries later compelled the victorious Spaniards to addressed them as "Knights of Granada, Gentleman, albeit Moors" (Lane-Poole 26).
Later, after advancing to Cordoba, the Muslims found that the Goth nobles of the kingdom had fled over the Pyrenees Mountains, all but abandoning their land to them (Lane-Poole 27). The occupation of the Moors set the stage for beginning the work of building an Islamic empire similar to the one flourishing in Damascus. Within a century of their activity, the Moors, with assistance of the Jews, had developed a civilization based in Cordoba that surpassed that of any in Europe; it was known as Al-Andalus. At the end of the eighth century, Al-Andalus was the most populous, cultured, and industrious land of all Europe, remaining so for centuries. During this prosperous period, trade with the outside world was unrivaled. It was during this time of economic expansion, the Jews, who had been virtually eliminated from the peninsula in the seventh century by the Christians, grew once more in numbers and flourished. Hume wrote in his book "Spanish People": "Side by side with the new rulers lived the Christians and Jews in peace. The latter rich with commerce and industry were content to let the memory of their oppression by the priest-ridden Goths sleep" (Hume 23).
The occupation of Iberia by the Moors was a welcome occurrence for a well pummeled and remaining Jewish population. Of course the Muslims were not completely tolerant, but they were more tolerant than the rulers of the previous administration. Under the ruling Caliph (the descendant of Mohammed--the prophet of G-d on earth), the Jews were able to preserve their rites and traditions. Peaceful coexistence led to their economic and social expansion. Their status was that of Dhimmis, non-Muslims living in a land governed by Muslims. The Jews had limited autonomy, but full rights to practice their religion, as well as full protection by their Muslim rulers; but this did not occur for free. There was a specific tax called the jizya that Dhimmis had to pay to receive these benefits. Having its origin in the Qur'an, it states Dhimmis who did not pay this tax, should either convert to Islam, or face the death penalty (Qur'an 9, 29). This tax, higher than the tax Muslims had to pay, was in several occasions one of the most important sources of income for the kingdom. The jizya was not only a tax, but also a symbolic expression of subordination (Lewis 14).
From the second half of the eighth century to the end of the eleventh century Jewish life flourished while contributing greatly to scholarship. A translating program was established in Toledo, using Jews as interpreters. There they translated the Arabic books into romance languages, as well as Greek and Hebrew texts into Arabic. This included many major works of Greek science and philosophy. Jews studied and contributed to mathematics, medicine, botany, geography, poetry, and philosophy. It was at this time that the study of Medicine expanded to produce a large number of exceptional Jewish physicians. Islam had its sway over Jewish cultural life too. In literature, and the arts, the Muslim influence on the Jews is enormous. Though written in non-Islamic language and script, medieval Hebrew poetry, and much of the prose literature, belong to the same cultural world as Arabic and other literatures of Islam (Lewis 81). In the Caliphate of Cordoba [the geographical zenith of Islamic life in Al-Andalus], the Jewish element became increasingly important, reaching its peak in the tenth century (Diaz-Mas 3). Jews lived among themselves in a walled area known as the aljama (Jewish quarter). There they lived among their own administration, and managed their own communal affairs (Epstein 1). There the Jewish community had their own legal court known as the Beit Din. This court, with Rabbis as Judges, would render both religious and civil legal opinions pertaining to Jewish affairs inside the aljama. In the Beit Din the Jews were allowed to settle their own disputes. This of course was positive for the them; but it was also positive for the Muslims to, as it decreased the work load of the Islamic courts.
The influence Islamic culture injected into Jewish life was significant. Jews accepted many customs and traditions of the Moors and interweaved them into their daily life. The Arabic language, instead of Spanish and Hebrew, was used for prayers. Ceremoniously washing of the hands and feet, which is an Islamic custom, became adopted by Jews before entering Synagogues. Moreover, Jewish music was sung to the tune of old Arabic melodies. Jews adopted the clothing style of their Moorish neighbors; however, they were restricted from wearing fine clothing such as furs and silk. Most wore the universal long robe and belt, however they were prohibited from wearing a green or white one, which were the traditional colors of Islam.
For almost four hundred years the Jews lived in Al-Andalus amid the moderate Islamic rule based in Cordoba. Later came the insurgence of the Muslim fundamentalist Almoravides in 1055, and not long after their enemies, the Almohades in 1147. Both groups brought with them radically stricter controls over the infidels (non-Muslims). During this time Jews continued to work as moneylenders, jewellers, cobblers, tailors, and tanners. Soon however, they would be mandated to wear distinctive clothing, including of the wearing of a yellow turban to distinguish them from Muslims. These changes were a foreshadowing of the stricter controls that would soon be put in place.
Thus Islamic rule continued, but quickly the peninsular realm was cleaved up into numerous small Muslim kingdoms, each with its own ruler. In a way not different then that of a civil war, they started fighting among each other. Once the Muslims divided, the armies of Christendom gained a foothold on the peninsula. It was this subsequent warring of Islamic administrations that led to collapse of Moorish supremacy on the peninsula, allowing the Christians to rise to power during the subsequent reconquista. When the Caliphate disintegrated in the eleventh century as the result of civil war, many influential Jews remained in the Moorish kingdoms (Diaz-Mas 3). The Jews perpetuated their way of life under the subsequent Christian monarchs of Spain, until anti-Semitism caught up with them, and they were expelled three hundred years later. The golden age of Spain was golden, but for the Jews, it was always a bit tarnished.
(3) GOLDEN AGE OF JEWISH CULTURE IN SPAIN
This coincided with the Middle Ages in Europe, a period of Muslim rule throughout much of the Iberian Peninsula. During intermittent periods of time, Jews were generally accepted in society and Jewish religious, cultural, and economic life blossomed.
The nature and length of this "Golden Age" has been a subject of much debate, as there were at least three Golden Ages interrupted by periods of oppression of Jews and non-Jews. A few scholars give the start of the Golden Age as 711–718, the Muslim conquest of Iberia. Others date it from 912, under the rule of Abd-ar-Rahman III. The end of the age is variously given as 1031, when the Caliphate of Cordoba ended, 1066, the date of the Granada massacre, 1090, when the Almoravides invaded, or the mid-12th century, when the Almohades invaded.
THE NATURE OF THE GOLDEN AGE
Having invaded the areas throughout Southern Spain, and coming to rule in a matter of seven years, Islamic rulers were confronted with many questions relating to the implementation of Islamic Rule on a non-Islamic society. The coexistence of Muslims, Jews, and Christians during this time is revered by many writers. Al-Andalus was a key center of Jewish life during the early Middle Ages, producing important scholars and one of the most stable and wealthy Jewish communities and a relatively educated society for the Muslim occupiers and their Jewish collaborators, as well as some Christians who openly collaborated with the Muslims and Jews.
María Rosa Menocal, a specialist in Iberian literature at Yale University claims that "Tolerance was an inherent aspect of Andalusian society". Menocal's 2003 book, ‘The Ornament of the World’, argues that the Jewish dhimmis living under the Caliphate, while allowed fewer rights than Muslims, were still better off than in the Christian parts of Europe. Jews from other parts of Europe made their way to al-Andalus, where in parallel to Christian sects regarded as heretical by Catholic Europe, they were not just tolerated, but where opportunities to practise faith and trade were open without restriction save for the prohibitions on proselytisation.
Bernard Lewis takes issue with this view, calling it ahistorical and exaggerated. He argues that Islam traditionally did not offer equality nor even pretend that it did, arguing that it would have been both a "theological as well as a logical absurdity." However, also Lewis states:
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. That is to say, these regulations served to define the relationship between the two communities, and not to oppress the Jewish population.
Jews were allowed certain freedoms but, like their Christian counterparts, were prohibited from having administrative authority over Muslims except in a few cases.
Mark Cohen, Professor of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University, in his ‘Under Crescent and Cross’, calls the idealized interfaith utopia a "myth" that was first promulgated by Jewish historians such as Heinrich Graetz in the 19th century as a rebuke to Christian countries for their treatment of Jews. This myth was met with the "counter-myth" of the "neo-lachrymose conception of Jewish-Arab history" by Bat Yeor and others, which also "cannot be maintained in the light of historical reality".
BIRTH OF THE GOLDEN AGE
Prior to 581, the Jews experienced a Golden Age under the Arian Visigoth occupiers of Spain. The Visigoths were mainly indifferent towards Jews and allowed them to grow and prosper. After the Visigoths joined the Catholic Church, they placed ever greater economic burdens on the Jewish population, and later persecuted them severely. It is possible that Jews welcomed the Muslim Arab and mainly Berber conquerors in the 8th century.
A period of tolerance dawned for the Jews of the Iberian Peninsula, whose number was considerably augmented by immigration from North Africa in the wake of the Muslim conquest. North African Jewish immigrants and immigrants from the Middle East bolstered the Jewish population, and made Muslim Spain probably the biggest center of contemporary Jews. Especially after 912, during the reign of Abd-ar-Rahman III and his son, Al-Hakam II, the Jews prospered culturally, and some notable figures held high posts in the Caliphate of Cordoba. Jewish philosophers, mathematicians, astronomers, poets, and rabbinical scholars, composed highly rich cultural and scientific work. Many devoted themselves to the study of the sciences and philosophy, composing many of the most valuable texts of Jewish Philosophy. Jews took part in the overall prosperity of Muslim Al-Andalus. Jewish economic expansion was unparalleled. In Toledo after the Christian reconquest in 1085, Jews were involved in translating Arabic texts to the romance languages in the so-called Toledo School of Translators, as they had been previously in translating Greek and Hebrew texts into Arabic. Jews also contributed to botany, geography, medicine, mathematics, poetry and philosophy.
'Abd al-Rahman's court physician and minister was Hasdai ibn Shaprut, the patron of Menahem ben Saruq, Dunash ben Labrat, and other Jewish scholars and poets. In following centuries, Jewish thought flourished under famous figures such as Samuel Ha-Nagid, Moses ibn Ezra, Solomon ibn Gabirol, Judah Halevi and Moses Maimonides. During 'Abd al-Rahman's term of power, the scholar Moses ben Enoch was appointed rabbi of Córdoba, and as a consequence al-Andalus became the center of Talmudic study, and Córdoba the meeting-place of Jewish savants.
This was a time of partial Jewish autonomy. As "dhimmis", or "protected non-Muslims", Jews in the Islamic world paid the jizya, which was administered separately from the zakat paid by Muslims. The jizya has been viewed variously as a head tax, as payment for non-conscription in the military (as non-Muslims were normally prohibited from bearing arms or receiving martial training), or as a tribute. Jews had their own legal system and social services. Monotheist religions of the people of the book were tolerated but conspicuous displays of faith, such as bells and processions, were discouraged.
Comparing the treatment of Jews in the medieval Islamic world and medieval Christian Europe, the Jews were far more integrated in the political and economic life of Islamic society, and usually faced far less violence from Muslims, though there were some instances of persecution in the Islamic world as well from the 11th century. The Islamic world classified Jews (and Christians) as dhimmi and allowed them to practice their religion more freely than they could do in Christian Europe.
Other authors criticize the modern notion of Al-Andalus being a tolerant society of equal opportunities for all religious groups as a "myth". Jews were living in an uneasy coexistence with Muslims and Catholics, and the relationship between these groups was more often than not marked by segregation and mutual hostility. In the 1066 Granada massacre of the entire Jewish population of the city, the Jewish death toll was higher than in the much publicized Christian pogromes in the Rhineland slightly later.The notable Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides (1135–1204) was forced to flee from Al-Andalus to avoid conversion by the Almohads. In Letter to Yemen, Maimonides wrote:
Dear brothers, because of our many sins Hashem has cast us among this nation, the Arabs, who are treating us badly. They pass laws designed to cause us distress and make us despised. ... Never has there been a nation that hated, humiliated and loathed us as much as this one.
END OF THE GOLDEN AGE
With the death of Al-Hakam II Ibn Abd-ar-Rahman in 976, the Caliphate began to dissolve, and the position of the Jews became more precarious under the various smaller Kingdoms. The first major persecution was the 1066 Granada massacre, which occurred on 30 December, when a Muslim mob stormed the royal palace in Granada, crucified Jewish vizier Joseph ibn Naghrela and massacred most of the Jewish population of the city. "More than 1,500 Jewish families, numbering 4,000 persons, fell in one day." This was the first persecution of Jews on the Peninsula under Islamic rule.
Beginning in 1090 the situation deteriorated further with the invasion of the Almoravids, a puritan Muslim sect from Morocco. Even under the Almoravids, some Jews prospered (although far more so under Ali III, than under his father Yusuf ibn Tashfin). Among those who held the title of "vizier" or "nasi" in Almoravid times were the poet and physician Abu Ayyub Solomon ibn al-Mu'allam, Abraham ibn Meïr ibn Kamnial, Abu Isaac ibn Muhajar, and Solomon ibn Farusal. The Almoravids, were ousted from the peninsula in 1148; however, the peninsula was again invaded, by the even more puritanical Almohades.
During the reign of these Berber dynasties, many Jewish and even Muslim scholars left the Muslim-controlled portion of Iberia for the city of Toledo, which had been reconquered in 1085 by Christian forces.
The major Jewish presence in Iberia continued until the Jews were forcibly expelled en masse due to the edict of expulsion by Christian Spain in 1492 and a similar decree by Christian Portugal in 1496.
(2) Foundation for the Advancement of Sephardic Studies and Culture by S. Alfassa Marks
STORY OF THE JEWISH PEOPLE