REVIEW: History as Prelude: Muslims and Jews in the Medieval Mediterranean

History as Prelude: Muslims and Jews in the Medieval Mediterranean

Joseph V. Montville

Lanham and Plymouth, UK: Lexington Books, 2011, hardcover, xv+192 pp.

Reviewed by Maya Soifer Irish, Rice University, maya.s.irish@rice.edu

The Middle Ages is a magnet for advocates of interreligious tolerance, which has proved to be surprisingly elusive in the age of rapid globalization and the Internet. With confessional divisions still arousing strong passions, and the expectations for a more religiously cohesive world largely disappointed, our attention is drawn to a few enclaves within a similarly divided geo-religious world where the ideal of coexistence was ostensibly realized. These examples of toleration are so incongruent with the popular perception of the Middle Ages as a period of violence and backwardness, that we tend to focus on them almost to an obsessive degree, fetishizing the positive aspects of interfaith relations, and filtering out its inconveniently negative aspects. We ask ourselves: if even in the Middle Ages coexistence was possible, why can’t we match and even surpass our medieval ancestors in toleration? In the new volume of collected works, History as Prelude: Muslims and Jews in the Medieval Mediterranean, the editor, Joseph Montville, argues that this sharpened focus on the past examples of peaceful coexistence is not only justified, but can help heal deep historical wounds. Montville, a professional diplomat with experience in the Middle Eastern and North African affairs, calls his approach “political psychology,” and construes it as an effort to resolve ethnic conflicts by engaging representatives of rival groups in something resembling collective therapy sessions – “dialogues of discovery of painful memory, wounds to collective self-esteem, justice denied, and justice demanded” (vii-viii). As the present volume is meant to be “a major contribution to the Israeli-Arab peace process,” all of the articles highlight some major aspect of medieval “Jewish-Arab respectful Convivencia” (ix), which Montville envisions as a precedent and a model for the future of the war-torn region. Potential critics of this attempt to marry a political manifesto to scholarship may be assuaged by Montville’s stellar selection of contributors. The volume contains articles by seven well-respected scholars: Mark Cohen, Thomas Glick, Raymond Scheindlin, Ahmad Dallal, Kathryn Miller, Olivia Remie Constable, and Diana Lobel.

The introduction reflects the editor’s earnest belief that the articles he has commissioned present nothing but unvarnished “historical facts” of peaceful relations between Jews and Arabs in the medieval Mediterranean that propagandists on both sides have done their best to deny (ix). But the volume has a clear polemical slant. Since the articles have been selected on the principle that they advance the peace process, all of them make a case for a Jewish-Muslim symbiosis in the Middle Ages. One could argue that an inclusion of studies analyzing instances of conflict and violence would have made the volume methodologically stronger and the idea of “history as prelude” more compelling. It would also dovetail with Montville’s psychopolitical strategy of achieving conciliation by having the antagonists work through painful historical memories. But the greatest limitation to the book’s intended impact is the lack of a clear audience. The articles seem to target different readerships, with some making use of scholarly jargon and requiring specialized knowledge of the subject, and others being more expository in style and content. If a lay reader may feel lost in the steady stream of unfamiliar names and terms, an academic reader will find little new scholarship in the volume, as the majority of the articles reiterate previously published material.

Cohen’s contribution, “Jewish and Islamic Life in the Middle Ages: Through the Window of the Cairo Geniza” serves as a prelude to the volume, introducing the argument that despite periodic persecutions, the Jews enjoyed a great deal of toleration in the medieval Islamic Mediterranean, fully participating in its economic life and sharing in its rich intellectual culture. This is an argument that will be familiar to many readers from Cohen’s Under Crescent and Cross–already practically a classic–on which the chapter is based. Cohen frames the chapter with an engaging and lively account of the discovery of the Cairo Geniza, and an overview of the Geniza historiography in the Arab world. Cohen’s introduction to the Geniza material is particularly helpful, since most of the articles in the volume draw on it in one way or another.

The first chapter is followed by Glick’s contribution, “Sharing Science: Jews, Muslims, and Practical Science in the Medieval Islamic World.” It is a succinct introduction to Judeo-Arabic scientific culture, whose “common Aristotelian framework created a space for intellectual discourse that was neutral with respect to religious ideology” (p. 29). The chapter is thematically organized, with subsections dedicated to individual topics, such as “Number Systems,” “Bookkeeping,” “Astronomy,” “Astrology,” and “Chess.” For specialists, it is a good refresher on the subject and help in lecture preparation, but the overabundance of transliterated Arabic, Latin, and Hebrew terms and titles may prove disorienting for a lay reader. Some names are mentioned casually, without a proper introduction. What will someone with little knowledge of medieval Iberian history know about Alfonso the Wise, to whose name and treatise (Libro de ajedrez) Glick alludes in the section on chess (p. 45)?

The next chapter, Scheindlin’s “The Battle of Alfuente’ by Samuel the Nagid,” includes a full translation and literary-historical analysis of the Nagid’s poem. Describing the poem as an artifact of Jewish-Arabic coexistence and evidence of the thoroughness of the Jews’ acculturation in Muslim Spain, Scheindlin also strikes a discordant note, arguing, not quite in keeping with the volume’s dominant theme, that the poem shows “the ambiguity of the Jews’ position and their continuing outsider status” (p. 61). Early in the chapter, Scheindlin briefly mentions the fourteenth-century synagogue in Córdoba, unintentionally counteracting the argument repeatedly made in the introduction to the volume, that the Jews experienced “more or less constant … terror” in Christian lands (p. xi). The famous synagogue was built in Christian Córdoba, in the so-called mudéjar–Muslim-Christian–style, and it is odd that Scheindlin would list it as an example of Judeo-Arabic symbiosis.

Dallal’s contribution, “On Muslim Curiosity and the Historiography of the Jews of Yemen,” argues against a particular school of historiography that in the author’s view has understated the degree of cultural integration between the Jews and Muslims of Yemen. The article seems out of place in the volume, and not only because it is a stretch to view Yemen as part of the Mediterranean. A shorter version of a previously published article, the chapter retains its scholarly orientation, with little attempt to make the argument more accessible to a non-specialist historian–let alone a non-academic audience. Dallal’s discussion focuses on the response of a nineteenth-century Muslim scholar, Muhammad Ali al-Shawkani, to the writings of Maimonides and other Jewish religious sources. Perhaps due to inattentive editing during the trimming of the article to its present length, Dallal plunges into a discussion of Shawkani’s work without ever introducing him to an uninitiated reader. Even the volume’s editor is under the impression that al-Shawkani lived during the Middle Ages, in the thirteenth century (p. xiii; Montville may have meant the thirteenth century of the Islamic calendar, but this seems unlikely from the context).

The next two articles–Miller’s “Doctors without Borders: Medicine in the Medieval Mediterranean World,” and Constable’s “Merchants and Cross-Cultural Commerce in the Medieval Mediterranean World”–are the most engaging chapters in the volume that best meet the goal of bringing the scholarship on Jewish-Muslim relations to a wider audience. Miller’s contribution discusses collaboration and partnership between Jewish, Christian, and Muslim medical scholars, both on the intellectual and personal levels. Religious distinctions mattered less to these scholars, Miller argues, than the shared aim of maintaining their profession’s standards and transmitting the achievements of Arabic medicine to the next generations. Constable arrives at a rather different conclusion. She argues that while the Mediterranean was the scene of a continuous commercial contact between Jewish, Muslim, and Christian merchants, it was still a sectarian world, with most partnerships established “within the boundaries of each individual religious community” (p. 143).

Diana Lobel’s contribution, “Sufism and Philosophy in Muslim Spain and the Medieval Mediterranean World,” uncovers the influence of Sufi spirituality on the work of Muslim and Jewish philosophers steeped in Neo-Platonism. This shared spiritual culture, characterized by an intense “longing for union with a personal God,” transcended individual religious traditions and attracted such scholars as Ibn Sina, al-Ghazali, Ibn Tufayl, Judah Halevi, and Bahya ibn Paquda (p. 157). Lobel argues that even the work of the medieval Jewish rationalist thinker par excellence, Moses Maimonides, bears the mark of Sufi themes and terminology, which become prominent in the writings of his son, Abraham Maimonides, and his descendants. Lobel’s piece is lucidly argued, but one may question the need for a large number of philosophical terms, in transliterated Arabic, in a volume intended for a broad audience.

While History as Prelude could benefit from a firmer editorial oversight and a clearer articulation of its intended audience and purpose, it remains a useful contribution to the growing literature on Jewish-Muslim relations, and to a bookshelf of anyone teaching or studying religious coexistence in the Middle Ages.

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