Power in the Portrayal: Representations of Jews and Muslims in Eleventh- and Twelfth-Century Islamic Spain

Power in the Portrayal: Representations of Jews and Muslims in Eleventh- and Twelfth-Century Islamic Spain

Power in the Portrayal: Representations of Jews and Muslims in Eleventh- and Twelfth-Century Islamic Spain

Power in the Portrayal: Representations of Jews and Muslims in Eleventh- and Twelfth-Century Islamic Spain

Synopsis

Power in the Portrayalunveils a fresh and vital perspective on power relations in eleventh- and twelfth-century Muslim Spain as reflected in historical and literary texts of the period. Employing the methods of the new historical literary study in looking at a range of texts, Ross Brann reveals the paradoxical relations between the Andalusi Muslim and Jewish elites in an era when long periods of tolerance and respect were punctuated by outbreaks of tension and hostility. The examined Arabic texts reveal a fragmented perception of the Jew in eleventh-century al-Andalus. They depict seemingly contradictory figures at whose poles are an intelligent, skilled, and noble Jew deserving of homage and a vile, stupid, and fiendish enemy of God and Islam. For their part, the Hebrew and Judeo-Arabic texts display a deep-seated reluctance to portray Muslims in any light at all. Brann cogently demonstrates that these representations of Jews and Muslims--each of which is concerned with issues of sovereignty and the exercise of power--reflect the shifting, fluctuating, and ambivalent relations between elite members of two of the ethno-religious communities of al-Andalus. Brann's accessible prose is enriched by his splendid translations; the original texts are also included. This book is the first to study the construction of social meaning in Andalusi Arabic, Judeo-Arabic, and Hebrew literary texts and historical chronicles. The novel approach illuminates nuances of respect, disinterest, contempt, and hatred reflected in the relationship between Muslims and Jews in medieval Spain.

Excerpt

Despite its reputation as a singularly tolerant premodern society and its romanticized popular image as an interfaith utopia shared by the three monotheistic religious communities, al-Andalus, or Muslim Spain of the (European) High Middle Ages as it is more commonly known, was torn repeatedly by tribal and ethnic social cleavages, and socioeconomic struggles and factional rivalries among Andalusi Arabs, Berbers, the ṣaqāliba (the so-called Slavs), and Mozarabic Christians. For their part, the Jews of al-Andalus prospered materially under Muslim rule and apparently ranked among the most acculturated and politically complacent groups in the society. They readily accepted Muslim political and cultural hegemony over al-Andalus. And, until the rivalries between “the party kings” (Ar. mulūk al-ṭawā’if; Sp. los reyes de taifas) of the eleventh century, the Jews seem to have had little or no stake in the various internecine religious and sociopolitical disputes among Andalusi Muslims. Nevertheless, on occasion, encounters between Muslims and Jews in al-Andalus seem to have been highly charged and, it appears, marked by contradiction. On the one hand there were extended periods of sociopolitical calm and mutual economic and cultural productivity; on the other there were sporadic outbreaks of tension, reaction, and deteriorating relations between members of the Muslim and Jewish communities of al-Andalus.

Paradoxically, the supposed contradiction in the nature of relations between Andalusi Muslims and Jews is most evident during the politically turbulent but culturally productive “Golden Age” of Jewish civilization in al-Andalus (c. tenth to twelfth centuries). The very period during which the Jews attained greatest material prosperity, visibility, and influence in Andalusi Muslim society and achieved uncommon cultural productivity in the religious, literary, philosophical, and scientific spheres was also punctuated by three significant intervals of violence increasingly devastating to their religious community. A full-scale and murderous public riot was unleashed against the Jews of Granada and an especially powerful Jewish official in the Zirid administration of that

Only the first of these episodes was directed exclusively against the Jews. Lewis, 1984a, p. 52, observes the irony of the Iberian exception to the rule of tolerance in classical Islam west of Iran.

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