Academic journal article African Studies Review

Jews of a Saharan Oasis: The Elimination of the Tamantit Community

Academic journal article African Studies Review

Jews of a Saharan Oasis: The Elimination of the Tamantit Community

Article excerpt

John Hun wick. Jews of a Saharan Oasis: The Elimination of the Tamantit Community. Princeton, N.J.: Markus Wiener Publishers, 2006. xviii + 89 pp. Glossary. Map. Notes. Appendixes. Bibliography. Index. $88.95. Cloth. $28.95. Paper.

In the 1960s John Hunwick pioneered the use of Arabic sources for writing African history. Since then he has devoted his lifelong work to the study of Islamic Africa and to illuminating the importance of understanding the Muslim African heritage. In an earlier book, Shari'a in Songhay (Oxford, 1985), Hunwick provided a critical contribution to our understanding of the application of Islamic law in pre colonial West Africa through the fifteenthcentury legal responses of an itinerant Muslim scholar named al-Maghili to the emperor Askia Al-Hajj Mohammad. However, by examining the history of Songhay exclusively through the Islamic legal lens, Hunwick overlooked some relevant aspects of the story: the examination of the Jewish community in Tamantit as the main impetus for al-Maghili's travels to West Africa, linked to his violent anti-Jewish activities in the oasis of Touat. As if coming full circle, Jews of a Saharan Oasis attempts to address Hunwick's oversight by resurrecting Jewish voices silenced by al-Maghili's vitriolic agenda.

Jews of a Saharan Oasis begins with a powerful anecdote in which a French observer in the 1950s finds Jews living in a northern Saharan oasis proclaiming at Passover, "Next year in Tamantit" (1), amending the traditional exaltation more typically expressed for the Jewish holy city of Jerusalem. With this introduction, Hunwick describes a flourishing fifteenth-century community located in the oasis of Touat of present-day Algeria and situated on a well-traveled caravan route that connected Timbuktu and the city of Tlemcen. Its locale offered not only prosperity, but also independence for the Jewish people living under Muslim rule. However, their economic success in trade and their perceived "flouting of the laws" under Islam seem to have fueled the resentments of the Tlemcen-born al-Maghili, who creatively culled arguments from Islamic doctrine to justify the destruction of Tamantit's synagogue. The text showcases a wide range of perspectives from various Muslim scholars on the subject and on the social position of the Jews of Tamantit. But never does the reader hear directly from this community or discover why, five hundred years later, they would still be professing at Passover the desire to return to their sacred Tamantit. …

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