PRE-20TH CENTURY HISTORY History as Prelude: Muslims and Jews in the Medieval Mediterranean, ed. by Joseph V. Montville. 214 pages. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2011. $60.
Reviewed by Richard J. Jones
Joseph Montville, an experienced American diplomat disillusioned with two generations of failed peace negotiations between Israel and her Near East neighbor states, hopes these historical essays will help present-day Jews and Muslims to believe in the possibility of coexistence by first acknowledging they are heirs of an enriching, challenging, and sustained coexistence yesterday. Hence the therapeutic title, History as Prelude. The essays are persuasive. Readers who will imitate these historians' empathy and attentiveness to the European Middle Ages (800-1400 AD) may find their hope aroused for a future which, if not wholly peaceful, is at least richly productive.
These seven essays belong to the flourishing historical field of Mediterranean Studies. They build on the work of the French historian Fernand Braudel, the German-Israeli Arabist, Shelomo Dov Goetein, and the Tunisian Islamic scholar Mohamed Arkoun.
Mark R. Cohen of Princeton contributes an essay on the storeroom of discarded literary and everyday documents, mostly written in Arabic using the Hebrew alphabet (Judeo-Arabic), which came to light in the late 19th century inside a Cairo synagogue.
Of medieval Jewish use of Arabic, Cohen observes:
... the Jews not only spoke it, but also used it for nearly everything they wrote... even religious works that in the past had been composed in either Aramaic or Hebrew, including rabbinic law, came to be written in Arabic (p. 11).
Cohen ventures an overall assessment of this haystack of documentary evidence:
The galut [exile] of Ishmael (the Jewish epithet for Islam), unlike the galut of Edom (the name for Christendom), stopped short of exclusion and general expulsion, even in the later, harsher centuries. This rendered Jewish life under Islam more bearable (p. 9).
The other essayists are less concerned with the dynamics of perpetrator and victim and more content with savoring the occasions for contact. These historians explore in rich detail specific fields of meeting: government, medicine, science, commerce, and philosophy.
Ahmad Dallal of the American University of Beirut, apparently the sole Arab contributor, argues against the popular idea that Muslims showed little interest in other religions and peoples. His chief evidence is the important Yemeni Muslim scholar, Shawkani (d. 1834 AD), who cites the Torah and the Bible as reliable sources, argues that the philosophical Jewish polymath Maimonides wrongly construed the Torah as speaking of resurrection only allegorically and presses his own belief in resurrection on a both a Jewish and a Muslim readership. …