Jews of a Saharan Oasis: Elimination of the Tamantit Community

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Jews of a Saharan Oasis: Elimination of the Tamantit Community. By John Hunwick. Princeton, N.J.: Markus Wiener, 2006. Pp. viii, 91; 1 illustration. $68.95 cloth, $28.95 paper.

An oft-invoked myth, current in academic circles as elsewhere, is that of the preZionist "Golden Era" between Muslims and Jews. According to this revisionist paradigm, until the emergence of the colonial and settler proto-Israeli state in Palestine, Jews and Muslims lived in harmony, if not fraternal solidarity, throughout the Islamic world. Jews were a protected and respected minority, a "people of the Book" as the Koran describes them, under beneficent Muslim tutelage. And they prospered. It was only the imposition of a Jewish state in the heart of the ummah, goes this baleful narrative, that politicized and antagonized relations between Muslim and Jewish communities in the Middle East and throughout the world. (By implication, the resolution of conflict between Muslims and Jews lies in the dissolution of the Jewish State of Israel.)

John Hunwick's concise but poignant study of a single Jewish community in the northwestern Sahara provides an African-based refutation to this myth. Thoroughly exploiting the extant (if scant) Arabic writings on the subject, Hunwick examines the rise and purge of a Jewish communal outpost of Tlemcen (now Algeria), which lay in the Touat oasis more than a third of the way to Timbuktu (where Jews also participated in the trans-Saharan trade). This outpost (or "fortified settlement") was called Tamantit and, at its peak in the fifteenth century, 4 percent of its overall population (no aggregate figure is given) was Jewish. That the Jews of Tamantit were not just a minority but also a community with means is attested to by the existence of a synagogue. Then arose a man whose name should be as notorious as Pharaoh of the Passover Exodus, or Haman from Purim: al-Maghili.

Muhammad al-Maghili was a Tlemcen-born cleric who, sometime in the mid1400s, took violent exception not only to the prosperity of the Jews, but also to their very presence in the midst of Touat. Hunwick implies that al-Maghili's enmity stemmed from economic envy or rage. His public rationale for preaching the expulsion and "degradation" (Hunwick's word) of the Jews was, however, purely theological. It is the kind of invective theology that today we would expect from the likes of a bin Laden or Zarqawi:

Rise up, kill and enslave the infidels

Pigs, who care not for the name of Muhammad.

Rise up and kill the Jews; they are indeed

The bitterest enemies who reject Muhammad ...

Rise up and kill the Jews and all of those

Who fight for them; thus will you please Muhammad. …

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