Nirenberg, David. Neighboring Faiths: Christianity, Islam, and Judaism in the Middle Ages and Today

By Green, Alexander | The Review of Metaphysics, September 2015 | Go to article overview

Nirenberg, David. Neighboring Faiths: Christianity, Islam, and Judaism in the Middle Ages and Today


Green, Alexander, The Review of Metaphysics


NIRENBERG, David. Neighboring Faiths: Christianity, Islam, and Judaism in the Middle Ages and Today. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2014. 352 pp. Cloth, $45.00--Neighboring Faiths puts forth the thesis that Jews, Christians, and Muslims in medieval Spain each constructed their religious and national identities as a kind of polemical response to the others, the "neighboring faiths."

In arguing for this interpretation, Nirenberg rejects the view of medieval Spain as a "Golden Age" interfaith utopia as well as the portrayal of it as a dark and barbaric "Clash of Civilizations," challenging the agendas of both. Instead he proposes a more critical study of medieval history, employing the methodology of Walter Benjamin. He quotes Benjamin's statement that "the manifestation of past or distant spiritual worlds [is studied] in order to take possession of them and unfeelingly incorporate them into its own self-absorbed fantasizing," implying that our reading of the past is always shaped by our time, place, and interests in the present. Furthermore, he also adopts Benjamin's maxim that "there is never a document of civilization that is not at the same time a document of barbarism," warning against the dangerous and unjust usage of sacred texts.

In the first chapter, Nirenberg cogently argues that Christians developed a negative stereotype of Islam after the year 1000 as part of the imperialistic ambitions of the papacy to give Christians a common project and a shared sense of purpose. He thus shows that transforming Islam into a common enemy reinforced a pan-European Christian identity.

Nirenberg continues in the second chapter to describe the relations of Jews and Muslims as minority communities under Christian rule in medieval Spain. For example, Christian rulers apparently tolerated sexual relations between a Jewish man and a Muslim woman. However, this tolerance ended in the mid-fifteenth century when Spanish Christendom imagined itself engaged in a mortal struggle with converts from Judaism to Christianity whom they perceived as secretly remaining Jewish. As a result Muslims adopted the Christian anti-Jewish tropes which were already entrenched among the populace.

The third and fifth chapters continue the theme of sexual relations as a scale to gauge the relations between religious groups. Here Nirenberg draws out the implications of sexual relationships between Christian kings and Jewish and Muslim women. He perceptively discerns that sexual relations between these men and women were seen symbolically as a metaphor for political relations on an international scale. In some cases, like that of King Sancho IV of Castille (1284-1295), forbidden sexual relationships were used to explain the loss of Christian armies in battle; in the case of Alfonso VI's relationship with the Muslim princess Zaida which resulted in her conversion, this was made to signal Christians triumphalism over the domination of Islam.

But this interfaith sexual economy ended in 1391 with the mass conversion of Jews to Christianity and the "sexualized" attempt to stabilize Christian identity. …

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