Golden age of Jewish culture in Spain

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The golden age of Jewish culture in the Iberian Peninsula, which coincided with the Middle Ages in Europe, was a period of Muslim rule during which, intermittently, Jews were generally accepted in society and Jewish religious, cultural, and economic life flourished.

The nature and length of this “Golden Age” has been debated, as there were at least three periods during which non-Muslims were oppressed. A few scholars give the start of the Golden Age as 711–718, the Muslim conquest of Iberia. Others date it from 912, during the rule of Abd al-Rahman III. The end of the age is variously given as 1031, when the Caliphate of Córdoba ended; 1066, the date of the Granada massacre; 1090, when the Almoravids invaded; or the mid-12th century, when the Almohads invaded.

The nature of the Golden Age[edit]

Image of a cantor reading the Passover story in Al-Andalus, from the 14th century Haggadah of Barcelona.

Having invaded southern Spain, and coming to rule in a matter of seven years, Islamic rulers were confronted with many questions relating to the implementation of Islamic rule of a non-Islamic society. The coexistence of Muslims, Jews, and Christians during this time is revered by many writers. Al-Andalus was a key center of Jewish life during the early Middle Ages. As Sefarad, al-Andalus was the “capital” of world Judaism.

María Rosa Menocal, a specialist in Iberian literature at Yale University, claims that “tolerance was an inherent aspect of Andalusian society”.[1] Menocal’s 2003 book, The Ornament of the World, argues that the Jewish dhimmis living under the Caliphate, while allowed fewer rights than Muslims, were still better off than in the Christian parts of Europe. Jews from other parts of Europe made their way to al-Andalus, where in parallel to Christian sects regarded as heretical by Catholic Europe, they were not just tolerated, but where opportunities to practise faith and trades were open without restriction save for the prohibitions on proselytisation and, sometimes, on synagogue construction.

Bernard Lewis takes issue with this view, calling it ahistorical and exaggerated. He argues that Islam traditionally did not offer equality nor even pretend that it did, arguing that it would have been both a “theological as well as a logical absurdity.”[2] However, he also states:

Generally, the Jewish people were allowed to practice their religion and live according to the laws and scriptures of their community. Furthermore, the restrictions to which they were subject were social and symbolic rather than tangible and practical in character. That is to say, these regulations served to define the relationship between the two communities, and not to oppress the Jewish population.[2]

Mark Cohen, Professor of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University, in his Under Crescent and Cross, calls the idealized interfaith utopia a “myth” that was first promulgated by Jewish historians such as Heinrich Graetz in the 19th century as a rebuke to Christian countries for their treatment of Jews.[3] This myth was met with the “counter-myth” of the “neo-lachrymose conception of Jewish-Arab history” by Bat Ye’or and others,[3] which also “cannot be maintained in the light of historical reality”.[4]

Birth of the Golden Age[edit]

Prior to 581, the Jews experienced a Golden Age under the Arian Visigoth occupiers of Spain.[citation needed] The Visigoths were mainly indifferent towards Jews and allowed them to grow and prosper. After the Visigoths joined the Catholic Church, they placed ever greater economic burdens on the Jewish population, and later persecuted them severely. It is possible that Jews welcomed the Muslim Arab and mainly Berber conquerors in the 8th century.

A period of tolerance dawned for the Jews of the Iberian Peninsula, whose number was considerably augmented by immigration from North Africa in the wake of the Muslim conquest.[citation needed] North African Jewish immigrants and immigrants from the Middle East bolstered the Jewish population, and made Muslim Spain probably the biggest center of contemporary Jews. Especially after 912, during the reign of Abd al-Rahman III and his son, Al-Hakam II, the Jews prospered culturally, and some notable figures held high posts in the Caliphate of Córdoba. Jewish philosophers, mathematicians, astronomers, poets, and rabbinical scholars composed highly rich cultural and scientific work. Many devoted themselves to the study of the sciences and philosophy, composing many of the most valuable texts of Jewish philosophy. Jews took part in the overall prosperity of Muslim Al-Andalus. Jewish economic expansion was unparalleled. In Toledo after the Christian reconquest in 1085, Jews were involved in translating Arabic texts to the romance languages in the so-called Toledo School of Translators, as they had been previously in translating Greek and Hebrew texts into Arabic. Jews also contributed to botany, geography, medicine, mathematics, poetry and philosophy.[5]

‘Abd al-Rahman’s court physician and minister was Hasdai ibn Shaprut, the patron of Menahem ben SaruqDunash ben Labrat, and other Jewish scholars and poets. In following centuries, Jewish thought flourished under famous figures such as Samuel Ha-NagidMoses ibn EzraSolomon ibn Gabirol and Judah Halevi.[5] During ‘Abd al-Rahman’s term of power, the scholar Moses ben Hanoch was appointed rabbi of Córdoba, and as a consequence al-Andalus became the center of Talmudic study, and Córdoba the meeting-place of Jewish savants.

This was a time of partial Jewish autonomy. As “dhimmis“, or “protected non-Muslims”, Jews in the Islamic world paid the jizya, which was administered separately from the zakat paid by Muslims. The jizya has been viewed variously as a head tax, as payment for non-conscription in the military (as non-Muslims were normally prohibited from bearing arms or receiving martial training), or as a tribute. Jews had their own legal system and social servicesMonotheist religions of the People of the Book were tolerated but conspicuous displays of faith, such as bells and processions, were discouraged.[6]

Comparing the treatment of Jews in the medieval Islamic world and medieval Christian Europe, the Jews were far more integrated in the political and economic life of Islamic society,[7] and usually faced far less violence from Muslims, though there were some instances of persecution in the Islamic world as well from the 11th century.[8] The Islamic world classified Jews (and Christians) as dhimmi and allowed them to practice their religion more freely than they could do in Christian Europe.[9]

Other authors criticize the modern notion of Al-Andalus being a tolerant society of equal opportunities for all religious groups as a “myth”.[10] Jews were living in an uneasy coexistence with Muslims and Catholics, and the relationship between these groups was more often than not marked by segregation and mutual hostility. In the 1066 Granada massacre of much of the Jewish population of the city, the Jewish death toll was higher than in the much publicized Christian pogromes in the Rhineland slightly later.[10] The notable Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides (1135–1204) was forced to flee from Al-Andalus to avoid conversion by the Almohads. In Letter to Yemen, Maimonides wrote:

Dear brothers, because of our many sins Hashem has cast us among this nation, the Arabs, who are treating us badly. They pass laws designed to cause us distress and make us despised. … Never has there been a nation that hated, humiliated and loathed us as much as this one.[11]

End of the Golden Age[edit]

With the death of Al-Hakam II in 976, the Caliphate began to dissolve, and the position of the Jews became more precarious under the various smaller kingdoms.[citation needed] The first major persecution was the 1066 Granada massacre, which occurred on 30 December, when a Muslim mob stormed the royal palace in Granadacrucified Jewish vizier Joseph ibn Naghrela and massacred many of the Jewish population of the city. According to one source, “more than 1,500 Jewish families, numbering 4,000 persons, fell in one day.”[12] This was the first persecution of Jews on the Peninsula under Islamic rule.

Manuscript page by Maimonides, one of the greatest Jewish scholars of Al Andalus, born in CórdobaArabic language in Hebrew letters

Beginning in 1090, the situation deteriorated further with the invasion of the Almoravids, a puritan Muslim sect from Morocco. Even under the Almoravids, some Jews prospered (although far more so under Ali III, than under his father Yusuf ibn Tashfin). Among those who held the title of “vizier” or “nasi” in Almoravid times were the poet and physician Abu Ayyub Solomon ibn al-Mu’allamAbraham ibn Meïr ibn KamnialAbu Isaac ibn Muhajar, and Solomon ibn Farusal. The Almoravids were ousted from the peninsula in 1148; however, the region was again invaded, this time by the even more puritanical Almohads.

During the reign of these Berber dynasties, many Jewish and even Muslim scholars left the Muslim-controlled portion of Iberia for the city of Toledo, which had been reconquered in 1085 by Christian forces.

The major Jewish presence in Iberia continued until the Jews were forced to leave or to convert to Christianity in the Alhambra Decree of 1492 and a similar decree by Portugal in 1496.

Jewish Street (Toledo, Spain)

Notable figures[edit]

See also[edit]


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