Jews and the Andalusian dream – an Islamic utopia?

The Tafçira del Mancebo de Arévalo, which describes an underground network of intellectual Muslims, Jews and Christians in Spain in the 1520s - a generation after the expulsion - at the CCHS CSIC Tomás Navarro Tomás Library.

“A man sleeps here, and sees a dream in Aspamya.”  (Talmud Bavli, Niddah 30b)

 אדם ישן כאן, ורואה חלום באספמיא

For several centuries, Islamic Spain – Al-Andalus – presented a unique ecosystem in the history of the Jewish Diaspora, and in world history as a whole (see chronology, below). Unfortunately, it ultimately proved to be an all too fragile ecosystem – perhaps a mere alom be-Aspamya, an impossible “dream in Spain”. As the glory days of Al-Andalus drew to a close, various commentators reflected on its achievements and documented their realization that the Jewish culture that flourished there was unrivalled in its day, in some ways unprecedented, and in any event one of a kind.

A millennium later, as Jewish culture and general human civilization still benefit from the works of the Jewish and Arab thinkers, poets, philosophers, mathematicians and astronomers of Al-Andalus, it is worth considering for a moment what made it all possible. What were the factors that allowed for the cultural apogee of medieval Islamic Spain? Why there and not elsewhere? What factors – whether fact or fantasy – did commentators in the Middle Ages themselves identify?

And lastly: To what extent was Islamic Spain’s glory and the flourishing of its Jewish community a dream – in a positive sense: the product of daring vision?

How was Spanish Jewry different from other communities?

We can begin with some modest observations that give an idea of some aspects in which medieval Spanish Jewry set itself apart from other communities, both within the Muslim Arab realm and in regions outside of Muslim Arab rule. It was indeed clearly a unique moment in Jewish history, whose echoes reverberate to this day. “Sefarad, the Hebrew name for al-Andalus, is the ultimate symbol of a certain exalted level of social well-being and cultural achievement.” (Menocal 2000: 7) This nostalgia for Islamic Al-Andalus as a lost paradise and cultural pinnacle is characteristically Jewish.[1]

In the year 1140, both Yehudah ha-Levi and Abraham ibn Ezra left Spain for North Africa, and then parted ways, Ibn Ezra ultimately arriving in England and Yehudah ha-Levi aiming for the Land of Israel. One can imagine that they did so with mixed feelings. Even though he wrote that “It would be as easy for me to leave all the goodness of Spain, as it would be dear to me to see the debris of the ruined Temple,”[2] Yehudah ha-Levi did thereby admit that there was indeed much goodness in Spain to leave. In other writings, Yehudah ha-Levi made it clear that he blamed the attraction of Andalusian multiculturalism, and life in Al-Andalus as a whole, for distracting him from deeper Torah study, arguing that Spanish Jewry was being blinded by the deceptive glimmer of socio-economic success and cultural achievements. The Jews of Al-Andalus were being distracted and prejudiced against the truth of the Torah by “Greek wisdom that bears no fruits but only flowers,” he lamented. (Simon 2009: 145-147) Yehudah ha-Levi thus bears witness to the socio-economic and cultural achievements of the Jewish community of Spain in his day, and of the attraction of life there in general, if only to say how much he rejects and distrusts it and its influence on the Jewish community.

Abraham Ibn Ezra, on the other hand, was, in the words of Uriel Simon, “immensely proud” of the achievements of Spanish Jewish culture, adding the title “ha-Sefaradi” – The Spaniard – to his own name and that of other Spanish scholars. “Ibn Ezra called upon Jewish scholars everywhere to adopt the Spanish intellectual ideal, and to study all of the sciences.” (Simon 2009: 149-150) Spanish Jewry as such was for him a model for world Jewry as a whole, the essence of which was the promotion of scientific learning.

Ibn Ezra was seen by others, and saw himself, as a representative of precisely that “distinct and innovative” model Jewish culture that had developed in Islamic Spain, which was a culmination of centuries of exposure to Arab-Muslim culture and the earlier achievements of Babylonian Jewry. The Jewish culture of Al-Andalus, as summarized by Simon, had three primary characteristics: “it was philological, scientific and aesthetic”. (2009: 167)

The key expression of the philological focus of Spanish Jewish culture, as exemplified by Ibn Ezra, was its focus on the peshat, the straightforward reading of the Torah, as opposed to midrashic readings favored by the Rabbinic tradition promoted outside of Al-Andalus (Ibn Ezra noted explicitly that in both Byzantine and Latin realms of Christian Europe, Jewish exegesis was completely dominated by midrash, neglecting peshat). Spanish Jewry’s studious focus on the peshat in turn fostered a noteworthy focus on and love for the Hebrew language and in-depth study of the Hebrew Scriptures, most often at the expense of Talmudic study. Study of the Arabic language, comparative linguistics (shedding light on Hebrew grammar vocabulary based on grammatical models and etymological work developed for Arabic) and use of Arabic to access grammatical writings on Hebrew were also considered to be of essential and obvious importance. Writing in England, at the end of his wanderings through Italy and France, Ibn Ezra lambasted the biblical ignorance of Talmud-focused Jewish scholars outside of Spain. “There are many scholars who have not studied the massorah (the Rabbinic apparatus guarding the exactness of the biblical text), and the study of grammar too is vanity in their eyes, nor have they read the Prophets and the Writings, let alone their meaning, but from their youth have studied only the Talmud.” Elsewhere, Ibn Ezra had no compunction in admitting “I am not one of the great sages in this matter,” referring to the Talmud. Nonetheless, he included Talmud study alongside massorah, Hebrew grammar and peshat-based exegesis among the four essential branches of Torah study comprising a true Jewish education. (Simon 2009: 166-170, 178, 181)

Jewish intellectuals of Al-Andalus promoted belief in the importance of studying all the known sciences, both in order to better understand the Hebrew scriptures and Jewish law and for the sake of scientific knowledge in itself. Not only did Spanish Jewry’s cultural leadership largely see no conflict between science and Torah, but believed that studying the Creation is a necessary prerequisite for any attempt at knowing the Creator, making a scientific education nothing less than a religious imperative (see also Gómez-Aranda 2012). This stood in stark contrast to the situation of Jewish communities in Christian Europe, who had nearly no access to scientific literature in Hebrew and were often opposed to studying “external” knowledge (though certain community leaders and local rabbis did appreciate Ibn Ezra’s knowledge enough to hire him as a teacher and he ultimately built a strong following of admirers). Ibn Ezra reserved particular opprobrium for the ignorance of astronomy, which he saw as crucially important for a learned Jew wishing to understand the Hebrew calendar, but also as a science bringing together various forms of mathematics and science. In one such tirade on what a learned man ought to know, Ibn Ezra linked astronomy to geometry, theology, psychology and logic as a solid educational basis. He himself wrote primarily on biblical exegesis, linguistics and poetry, in addition to the sciences. (Simon 2009: 168, 170-171, 177)

“The Iberian Peninsula in the Middle Ages was the setting for an intense Jewish involvement in the sciences. No other Jewish community ever took so much sustained and active interest in science as did the Jews of medieval Iberia. Science was held in high esteem in the Jewish communities. Scientific ideas penetrated into almost every branch of Jewish learning and provided themes for poetry and liturgy.” (Gómez-Aranda 2012:61)

Al-Andalus Jewry’s aesthetic character is best seen in its most famous and enduring cultural product: Hebrew poetry written in the language’s highest and purest biblical register, but reflecting the meter, rhyme, motifs and other conventions of classical Arabic poetry. Ibn Ezra dedicated specific attention to defending mandatory use of Arabic meter in Hebrew poetry, spreading what had become the norm among Jews in Islamic Spain. The Jewish communities he encountered outside of Spain had no secular poetry, and their religious poetry (piyyutim) consisted primarily of the material written in Northern Israel several centuries before and later compositions written in a similar style, which failed to meet the standards set by Andalusian compositions. (Simon 2009: 149, 168)

It is in the context of the Hebrew poetry produced in Al-Andalus that Yehuda al-Ḥarizi proposed witty, rhyming explanations for the country’s excellence in this and related fields, in his lengthy maqama, the Sefer Takemoni (completed between 1216 and his death in 1225), translated artfully by David Simha Segal. In the work’s Third Gate, Al-Ḥarizi declares, “Know that the best song, dearer than pearls and the gold of Ophir, poured forth in Spain and thence fell to the world like mountain waters to the plain. For the poets of Spain wield puissant pens, springing like lions from their dens.” (Segal 2003: 43-44)

In the 18th Gate of the Takemoni, dedicated specifically to praising the glory of Spain’s Hebrew poets, Al-Ḥarizi compared them at length with the Hebrew poets of other countries, of both Muslim and Christian realms: Greek Jews “blur Song’s prism, muddying their poems with many a foreignism, making verse a shambles weaving garnet with granite and jewels with brambles.” This can perhaps be forgiven, as the learned rabbinic cultures of the Jews of Greece and France at least excelled in Torah learning. “When the sages of France and of Greece set their hearts on the Torah and claimed its domain, all knowledge and wisdom they won for themselves – but abandoned Song’s kingdom to Spain.” (Segal 2003: 181, 189)

Other sources corroborate that the poets of Ashkenaz (then still confined to the Rhineland communities of eastern France and western Germany) made linguistic gaffs in their piyyutim that would have likely set Al-Ḥarizi’s or Ibn Ezra’s hair on edge. They notably fudged their poems’ meter, “treating long vowels as short and short vowels as long, shortening or lengthening feet, because they found it difficult, and had far less knowledge of grammar than their Spanish counterparts.” (Simon 2009: 182)

As for the cities of Syria, Al-Ḥarizi alleges that Damascene Hebrew poetry is “overbearing and mucid”, reserving particular scorn for an unnamed Egyptian Hebrew poet living in Damascus, the “prince of obsceneness”, whom he derides as “bovine”, “unrivalled for dullness and leanness”, as well as “uncleanness” and “meanness”. Despite their known virtues, the Jews of “(Aram) Zova” (Aleppo) produce poetry which, “no paradigm, sinks like a snared bird in a pit of slime. […] Some be young, some old, some cantors, some judges – but all their poems are dolts and drudges.” Al-Ḥarizi similarly derides individual celebrity poets based in Al-Raqqa, Arbel (Irbil) and Babylon. (Segal 2003: 184-188). In comparison with others then, Spanish Hebrew poetry is marked by its linguistic purity (use of high-register Biblical Hebrew) as well as its overall aesthetic superiority.

Al-Ḥarizi attributes Spanish Jewry’s poetic excellence primarily to three factors: Arab heritage, the efforts of Ḥasdai ibn Shaprut (c. 915-975), and Spain’s fortuitous geographical location. “[…] golden Poesy was the Arab’s legacy […] And though every land and clime rears singers swift to climb the golden rungs of rhythm and rhyme – all they compose, compared with Arab song, is prose. For the clearest chime Time’s bells have rung, the boldest songs that ever lips have sung, have spilled from the Arabs’ tongue. The Arabs are dawn’s blinding, puissant sun: before them are the nations all undone.” Al-Ḥarizi specifically notes that before they came in contact with Arabic poetry, Hebrew poets “lacked true verse, writ in rhyme and metre.” (Segal 2003: 176) Al-Ḥarizi is therefore aware that, as mentioned above, Arabic poetry’s reputation long precedes the glory days of Hebrew poetry in Islamic Spain, and has deep roots in the older centers of Arab culture.

Relatedly, Al-Ḥarizi heaps praise on the Jewish leader and philanthropist Ḥasdai ibn Shaprut, a “Heaven-sent prince”, whom he somewhat cryptically calls Rabbi Isaac ben Ḥasdai the Spaniard[3], precisely for bringing Jewish scholars to Spain from other parts of the Arab world and beyond. “Wisdom’s pearled waters rushed through his halls, […] For that prince saved Folly’s victims with his sweet noblesse, hauled in exiled Jewry with nets of his largesse, […]. Then swift did each resplendent scholar come, from East and West, from Araby and Christendom. […] There the age’s winged spirits soared to set fair Wisdom’s board. Inspired by their prince, they plumbed Wisdom’s inner parts and fired Hebrew hearts, raised Learning’s awesome see, whence Wisdom filled the earth as the waters cover the sea – oh, gloried breakers: first singers came, then music-makers.” (Segal 2003: 178)

The poet and scholar Moshe ibn Ezra (1055-1138) had earlier related that Ibn Shaprut’s entourage included the famous poet Dunash ibn Labrat, originally from Baghdad and arriving in Spain by way of Fez, and who is considered to be the first to introduce Arabic meter into Hebrew poetry; Dunash’s pupil Ibn Sheshet, and his rival poet Menaḥem ibn Saruq (who was born in Al-Andalus); and the ground-breaking Fez-born Hebrew grammarian Yehudah ibn Dawid Al-Fasi Ḥayyuj (who was continuing the work of Sa’adya Ga’on and Jerusalemite Hebrew grammarian Harun ibn al-Faraj). Moshe ibn Ezra wrote that Ibn Shaprut “knew how to utilise the waters of Oriental knowledge [for his land] and to import the treasures of wisdom from far towns. He firmly established the pillars of science by surrounding himself with wise men from Syria and Iraq.” (Schippers 1988: 54-57) Ibn Shaprut, whom Al-Ḥarizi calls “our lordly sun”[4], ushered in a new era in Spanish and world Jewry, and is perhaps the individual most responsible for the subsequent Jewish cultural flourishing, the man who inaugurated Jewry’s Golden Age in Islamic Spain.

In explanation of Spain’s and Spanish Jewry’s intellectual excellence, Al-Ḥarizi invokes a geographical reasoning of a kind that was current in his day: Spain’s optimal distance from the equator, on par with Mesopotamia (Iraq), explains the intellectual leadership of both lands. Though he somewhat alters Al-Ḥarizi’s description, which literally reads “against the middle of the Heavens” (כנגד אמצע השמים), Segal’s evocative translation expresses well the gist of this argument. “[…] and inasmuch as Spain’s boundary marks Wisdom feast, being situated, in the West, parallel with Babylon in the East (such the plan of the Creator, who set them on earth’s equator) – Wisdom spilled forth to these two equidistant points from Heaven’s generous hand: they be the pillars of the overarching sphere, awesome and grand; thereon does the house stand. Yes, these two lands shine in Heaven’s love; […] Babylon unfurled Wisdom’s banners over all the world; while in Spain arose masters of all learning, specially poetry and rhymed prose.” (Segal 2003: 176-177)

In poetry, Spain has indeed outgrown the more venerable center in Babylon, Al-Ḥarizi argues, as he conveys in a short verse segment indicating that, “When the Sons of the East in Song find no vision, the Sons of the West speak prophesy.” (יהלום וקצומטה תש”ע :212 , my translation[5]) Al-Ḥarizi illustrates Babylon’s irreparable fall from glory and eventual inferiority to Spain with an anecdote of how a Spanish rabbi tried unsuccessfully to intervene. “All current poets of Adinah [Babylon] chew Folly’s cud; they bob, asleep, on Folly’s flood; some few pluck our sages’ gardens for a random bud then tramp it in their mud. […] Now Rabbi Moses son of Sheshet came from Spain to teach the Adinites the ways of Song, but could not right their wrong, could not penetrate their minds’ thick shield: we have healed Babylon but she is not healed.”[6] (Segal 2003: 188)

Al-Ḥarizi begins his geographical argument by referring to the biblical verse mentioning “the exile of Jerusalem that is in Sefarad” (Obadiah 1:20[7]) (Segal 2003: 176), which is clearly a wink to the tradition – and conceit – that Spanish Jewry’s excellence was due to their direct descent from Jerusalem’s Judean elite, as noted by Yahalom and Katsumata. They quote from Moses ibn Ezra’s Sefer ha-‘iyunim ve-ha-diyunim (the Hebrew version being based on his Arabic composition Kitāb al-muḥāḍarah wa-l-muðākarah), in which he cites the same verse from Obadiah and emphasizes that “there is no doubt that the people of Jerusalem – whose offspring we are, we, the sons of our exile [in Spain] – were more learned in the purity of the [Hebrew] language.” (יהלום וקצומטה תש”ע :211, see also Schippers 1988: 46-47, 54). This reading indicates a self-awareness and tradition among Spanish Jewry that they were destined to be an elite community assuming a position of intellectual leadership among the Jewish diaspora.

A similar geographical argument is found in the writings of Moses ibn Ezra, Abraham ibn Ezra and Maimonides, indicating that consciousness of what can be called an “ideal latitude factor” was widespread at the time among Spanish Jewry, or at least its intellectuals, and a familiar element of their identity.

Applying the ideal latitude factor to the Mediterranean realm as a whole, Maimonides went to far as to side with the Greek physician Galen’s chauvinistic statements against pretty much all languages besides Greek as being equivalent to the grunts of various animals, against the Persian physician Al-Razi’s counterargument that any language can be ugly to those who do not know it and have not been educated in it. Maimonides explained that Galen’s remarks in praise of the Greek language in fact apply to other languages found in the same latitudes, such as Arabic, Hebrew, Syrian (Aramaic) and Persian (which he mentions in that order), “for these are the languages of those climates, which are average and natural to them.” The languages reflect better physical proportions and mental characteristics, which are the product of the temperate Mediterranean-Persian climate found in the moderate latitudes, Maimonides argues. (קאפח תשנ”ד: קמח-קנ)[8]

Moses ibn Ezra used the same argument, known as the Greco-Arab climate theory, to answer his rhetorical question: “How is it that poetry comes naturally to the Arab nation and artificially to all other nations?” (Simon 2009: 168)

Abraham ibn Ezra’s use of the argument helps explain and flesh out both Maimonides’ contention and Al-Ḥarizi’s formulation noted above (“against the middle of the Heavens”, כנגד אמצע השמים), and also confirms that Al-Ḥarizi’s seeming inclusion of Spanish Jewry’s tradition of Jerusalemite descent within his poetic rendering of the “ideal latitude factor” was not by chance. “And he [Qohelet] said ‘in Jerusalem’ – as its location was suited to receive wisdom. It is well-known that the inhabited world is divided in seven parts, and only in the three middle parts is it possible to be sufficiently upright in heart to receive wisdom, for in the first and the last parts, excessive heat or cold precludes the balanced development of man. And it is known that the latitude of Jerusalem is thirty-three degrees, which is the middle of the inhabited world.” (Simon 2009: 150) Abraham ibn Ezra’s extension of the ideal latitude factor from Jerusalem to “the three middle parts” (of the seven counting north from the Equator) allows for the inclusion of Spain and the whole of the Arab world within the temperate realm ideal for human physical and intellectual development (to the exclusion of the remaining two parts closest to the Equator and the two parts closer to the Arctic Circle).

The Muslim Arab scholar Ibn Khaldun, in his landmark introduction to the study of history, the Muqaddimah, acknowledged the influence of the ideal latitude factor, though limiting the negative effects of extreme climates to the most extreme first and seventh zones (“The tempers there are intemperate, and the souls are correspondingly intemperate”). Ibn Khaldun however proposed a more straightforward factor as being the decisive factor behind the flourishing of civilization – and its deterioration – in Spain and North Africa, two regions with which he was intimately familiar: the existence of long-established cities (and the collapse thereof). “The tradition of scientific instruction at this time has practically ceased (to be cultivated) among the inhabitants of the Maghrib, because the civilization of the Maghrib has disintegrated and its dynasties have lost their importance, and this has resulted in the deterioration and disappearance of the crafts […]. Al-Qayrawan and Cordoba were centers of sedentary culture in the Maghrib and in Spain, respectively. Their civilization was highly developed, and the sciences and crafts were greatly cultivated and very much in demand in them. Since these two cities lasted a long time and possessed a sedentary culture, scientific instruction became firmly rooted in them. But when they fell into ruins, scientific instruction ceased (to be cultivated) in the West, Only a little of it, derived from (al-Qayrawan and Cordoba), continued to exist during the Almohad dynasty in Marrakech. Sedentary culture, however, was not firmly rooted in Marrakech because of the original Bedouin attitude of the Almohad dynasty and because of the shortness of time between its beginning and its destruction. Sedentary culture enjoyed only a very minor continuity there. […] Fez and the other cities of the Maghrib have been without good instruction since the destruction of scientific instruction in Cordoba and al-Qayrawan. […] The institution of scientific instruction has disappeared among the inhabitants of Spain. Their (former) concern with the sciences is gone, because Muslim civilization in Spain has been decreasing for hundreds of years. The only scholarly discipline remaining there is Arabic (philology) and literature, to which the (Spanish Muslims) restrict themselves. […] Of the intellectual disciplines, not even a shadow remains. The only reason for that is that the tradition of scientific instruction has ceased (to be cultivated) in Spain, because civilization there has deteriorated and the enemy has gained control over most of it, except for a few people along the coast who are more concerned with making a living than with the things that come after it.” (Ibn Khaldun, Muqaddimah, chapter 6 section 7[9]) In his depiction of the Christian “enemy” (alongside the “Bedouin” Almohads) as undoing (Muslim Arab) urban culture, Ibn Khaldun is perhaps referring to the connection seen by others as well between the flourishing of urban culture in the Iberian Peninsula and its active cultivation under Muslim Arab rulers, in contrast to the agricultural focus in the Christian regions of Iberia.[10]

Turning to commentators in our own day, we can add several other geographical factors that potentially help explain the flourishing of Jewish culture and culture in general in Islamic Spain.

Arie Schippers interestingly relays a claim that Jews were uniquely connected to the land in the Iberian Peninsula and involved in agriculture there since ancient times, at least the period of Visigoth rule[11], and argues that this “deep-rooted attachment to the soil”, together with the resulting representation of Jews among all levels of the country’s social hierarchy, was a key factor in their success in medieval Spain within the Arabic cultural milieu as well and adoption of its norms. “The largest percentage of the Jewish population at this time was engaged in agriculture, manufacture, and handicraft. The upper class Jews generally distinguished themselves by their noble descent […], being thoroughly instructed (in Hebrew, Aramaic, Arabic; rabbinical studies; ‘Greek wisdom’), influential at the court of the ruling monarch, patronizing the arts, poetry and sciences (their companions consisted of poets and scientists, but in most cases they were also poets or scientists themselves.” (Schippers 1988: 46-52)

Agriculture was far from neglected in Ibn Khaldun’s highly civilized, city-centered Islamic Spain even at its peak. The flourishing cities naturally depended on their agricultural hinterlands, and the country’s agricultural sector was in fact improved by the introduction of Arab technical innovations, the introduction of North African livestock into the local gene pool, and – above all – more equitable division of the fruits of labor between fieldworkers and landowners, which particularly stood out in contrast to the enduring feudal servitude practiced in the Christian regions to the north. (García de Cortázar & González Vesga 2017: 155-156) Everyone involved in agriculture therefore had more of a stake in the sector’s success, and in the welfare of society as a whole.

Schippers discusses various claims about the influence of Islamic Spain’s population’s ethnic makeup on its cultural achievements. Specifically, he highlights the ambivalence revolving around the native, originally Christian element in the population of Al-Andalus and the interplay between the Christian and Islamic periods in the history of the country, leading to tension between the notion that “part of our European roots and cultural heritage seems to be Arabic” and the desire to find an underlying “Western sensibilité” or even “Roman substratum” explaining the unique qualities and characteristics of Islamic Spain’s culture, such as its love for nature. (Schippers 1988: 11-14, 21)

What is undeniable is the multicultural nature of the population and society of Al-Andalus, which can in itself be shown to be a key element explaining the country’s cultural wealth. Just as Andalusian architecture innovatively blended the Visigoth-origin horseshoe arches (Stierlin 1996: 113), Corinthian columns, Early Arab gypsum plaster work and Arabic calligraphy to create a distinctive and new whole.

“Sometimes the presence of many different cultural groups is seen as a factor leading to a climate of cultural consciousness, leading also to a rivalry between the different rulers of the petty states, who were originally from different ethnic groups,” notes Schippers (1988: 11). Multiculturalism and intercultural rivalry are also of particular relevance to the flourishing of Jewish-Hebrew culture in medieval Spain, as conscious rivalry clearly played an important role in inspiring the country’s Hebrew poets and writers, and certainly others. Al-Ḥarizi, for instance, explicitly evoked the importance of proving the merits of the Hebrew language in a society awestruck by the beauty of Arabic language and culture, repeatedly citing this as an important motive behind the composition of the Takemoni in the introduction and First Gate. (Segal 2003: 15, 17, 23-25)[12]

What were some key factors within the Arab heritage and culture of those times?

Several characteristics of the Arab heritage and culture that flourished in Al-Andalus stand out as having had a strong influence on the flourishing of Hebrew culture in the country. Primarily, sciences and learning had a place of prestige in Arab Andalusian society – the study of the Arabic language and Qur’an in particular had a special place of their own – and these values were reflected in educational practices, at least among the leading families (as noted above). The high prestige given to culture and scholarship among the Umayyad rulers of Spain (García de Cortázar & González Vesga 2017: 151, 157) continued in the politically fragmented period of the “petty kings”, which was also considered the summit of Spain’s Hebrew poetry’s Golden Age. (Schippers 1988: 57-58) The cultural momentum of Al-Andalus during more stable times could not be held back by political disorganization, to the contrary – it flourished. “The many petty courts were centres of scholarship, philosophy, science and literature, while the fall of the [independent Andalusian] Caliphate permitted the resumption of active relations, both economic and cultural, with the East.” (Lewis 1003: 137)

The Spanish Jews’ adoption of Arabic at so many levels of daily life opened them up to the vast wealth of knowledge that had accumulated in the Arab world, making the community an important resource in the wider European context. “In Islamic lands, Jews spoke colloquial Arabic, read and studied poetry and the sciences in classical Arabic, and wrote in Judeo-Arabic (with the exception of poetry). In Christian lands, on the other hand, no such affinity between spoken, cultural and written language existed. The Jews of these lands spoke the local vernaculars […], read, studied and wrote Rabbinic Hebrew (seasoned with Aramaic), and eschewed Latin, the language of Church culture.” (Simon 2009: 168-169)

“The achievements of Jewish science are but one aspect of the flowering of Jewish culture as a result of its contact with Muslim-Arab culture. The Muslims appropriated the classical heritage through a process of translation of Greek writings into Arabic and of adaptation to Islamic conceptions and contemporary needs. A similar process of acquisition of Hellenistic, Arabic, and other foreign sciences, and of adaptation to Jewish conceptions and ideas, took place in the Jewish communities of medieval Iberia. Arabic, then, became the language of science […].” Later Hebrew was used by the Jews for transmitting scientific knowledge. (Gómez-Aranda 2012: 61-62)

The philological and grammatical focus on the Hebrew language among Spanish Jews in order to understand the literal text (peshat) of the Torah and Prophets, discussed above, came about under the influence of Islamic society’s focus on similar examinations of the Arabic language as a means of analysing the Qur’an. In Al-Andalus, as a result, “The Talmud lost its centrality, and the standing of Talmudic scholars was weakened.” (Simon 2009: 167) The classical Jewish education in Al-Andalus thus focused primarily on a very different curriculum than that which was advanced in other countries, as reflected in the ideal Jewish education sketched out by Abraham ibn Ezra (noted above).

Schippers takes the view that the Jews’ high level of education in Spain was restricted to only a very small elite. “Hebrew poets were in almost the same position economically as their Arab colleagues. Their audience was however restricted to their own circles of Hebrew Andalusian poets. The bulk of their own co-religionists probably could not understand the Biblical Hebrew of their poems.” (Schippers 1988: 53) While the opposite cannot easily be proven, it would seem that if the country’s Hebrew poets had economic success that would mean that they had an audience, and that the Hebrew writings that have survived presuppose a certain non-negligible critical mass of Jews possessing a high-level of knowledge in the language both as producers and consumers. To cite just one example: Why would Al-Ḥarizi bother writing such a tome as the Takemoni for only a handful of peers, why would he so insist on its importance for the Jewish community as a whole (as a counterweight to the influence and adoration of Arabic), and why would he boast of Spanish Jewry’s excellence in Hebrew poetry as a community, on the basis of only a small circle of fellow writers who could even understand what was produced?

And indeed, we read in Maimonides’ lifetime that both Jewish and Muslim societies in Al-Andalus discouraged frivolity among children, and subjected them to a demanding educational curriculum beginning as young as possible with reading and memorizing Torah and Qur’an. Among Jews, children – especially the sons – learned Torah verses as soon as they could speak, and by the age of 5 or 7 were brought to schools where they sat in class day and night and had no holidays besides Shabbat and the holidays. The many lettering stencils and model correspondence templates found in the Cairo Geniza give an idea of some of the exercises and skills taught in Jewish schools across the Islamic world at that time. Lettering was taught using biblical verses designed to inculcate values and virtues, not just the forms of the alef-bet. According to the curricula reflecting Spanish custom developed by Judah ibn ‘Abbas and Joseph ben Judah ibn ‘Aqnin, students would finish the basic program in Tanakh and Talmud by age thirteen. Biblical texts were studied with Arabic translations to improve students’ vocabularies in both languages. From the age of thirteen they began delving deeper into Hebrew grammar and poetry, as well as the Talmud with commentaries and Halachic law codes such as Isaac Alfasi’s. Shabbat was spent reviewing the week’s learning, usually with the father, who also brought his sons to synagogue that day for guidance in prayer and communal life. Gifted learners (such as Maimonides’ father) would go on to academies such as that of Lucena to study with the leading rabbis. Girls were expected to be literate enough to be able to follow prayers in the synagogue, and gifted girls were encouraged to learn more. A father mourning his daughter’s death informs us that he spent many hours teaching her Torah. (Kraemer 2008: 55-59)

It is hard to imagine how such a rigorous education, if nearly as characteristic of the community as purported, would only produce a small circle of Hebrew poets writing merely for their handful of elite colleagues, surrounded by masses of illiterate coreligionists, as Schippers proposes.

The impression of a culture of widespread, high-quality learning among the Jews and Muslims of Al-Andalus is supported by Maimonides himself, who discusses the importance of teaching the “Chapters of Abuqrat” (Hippocrates) when training physicians in medicine and logic, and mentions in passing that even non-physicians study and memorize many of them. “I saw them teaching them by heart to children in the school, so that even many non-physicians know them by heart having learned them as children in school.” (קאפח תשנ”ד: קמו)

Writing a couple centuries later, as the impressive edifice of Andalusian culture and learning was still discernable despite its advanced stage of decay, Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406) described three basic educational models visible in his day, of which the Andalusian still offered the most rounded curriculum. In Morocco, children studied only Qur’an, and did so until they either became professional Qur’an scholars or dropped out. In the East, children learned some additional subjects, such as the art of writing, in addition to Qur’an. In Andalusia, children learned Qur’an, Arabic poetry, grammar and writing. Only Tunisia’s schools resembled those of Andalusia, as some teachers from Al-Andalus had settled in Tunisia. (Dajani 2015: 311)

Though he advocated beginning children’s education with calculation, “because it is concerned with lucid knowledge and systematic proofs” and “as a rule produces an enlightened intellect that is trained along correct lines”, Ibn Khaldun recognized the importance of grammar and writing as well, alongside rhetoric, as fundaments for logical expression and communication. “The easiest method of acquiring the scientific habit is through acquiring the ability to express oneself clearly in discussing and disputing scientific problems. This is what clarifies their import and makes them understandable.” (Muqaddimah, Chapter 6, Section 7)

In a Jewish context, the importance of grammatical studies is underlined by the considerable time and effort figures such as Abraham ibn Ezra dedicated to the field, translating the works of Hayyuj into Hebrew for the benefit of Jewish communities outside of the Arab world. Ibn Ezra also wrote a book supporting Sa’adiah Ga’on’s readings against the attacks of Dunash ben Labrat, settling their differences of opinions based on Andalusian methods of Hebrew grammatical analysis. (Simon 2009: 178)

The persistence of the rigorous Andalusian education can be seen even as it was forced underground in the various stages of the Reconquista completed in 1492. As such, the CCHS-CSIC’s Tomás Navarro Tomás Library holds the Tafçira del Mancebo de Arévalo, a handwritten miscellany of Qur’an and other texts penned by an anonymous crypto-Muslim Morisco in the 1520s. The author clearly travelled extensively around Spain, collecting information on Islamic rites, doctrines and practices, as well as the memories of those who witnessed the fall of Granada in 1492. “Perhaps this text’s greatest interest resides in its minute descriptions of his encounters with Moors, Christians and Jews who lend him their books, share lessons with him or polemize with him in religious maters, which reveals to us an entire complex network of clandestine contacts […].” (Narváez Córdova 2010: 166-168, my translation)

The Tafçira del Mancebo de Arévalo, at the CCHS CSIC Tomás Navarro Tomás Library

The Mancebo of Arévalo’s account lends all the more credence to Miguel de Cervantes’ supposedly fictitious depiction of multicultural encounters to be had in the Alcaná market of Toledo around the year 1600, in which his narrator successfully finds what he calls a “morisco aljamiado” to translate an Arabic text for him (supposedly the original manuscript of the story of Don Quixote). Cervantes’ narrator affirms that even if he were to look for someone knowing “a better and more ancient language” than Arabic, he would find one. An edition annotated by Martín de Riquer of the Real Academia Española affirms that the “better and more ancient language” in question is Hebrew, and Cervantes is hereby hinting that “it would also be easy for him to find a Jew in the Alcaná”[13] (Riquer 2004: 102).

Though various theories abound as to what precisely Cervantes meant by morisco aljamiado[14], it would translate most literally as a “mosqued Moor”, based on the word jāmi‘ (جامِع), meaning mosque. Given the context of searching for someone who can read Arabic, and alongside the veiled reference to “a better and more ancient language”, the clearer meaning of the phrase would seem to be “a Moor learned in the language of the jāmi’”, just as a linguistically related search for a “synagogued Jew” would most likely mean “a Jew learned in the language of the synagogue”.

The testimony of the Tafçira del Mancebo de Arévalo, together with Cervantes’ supposedly fictitious account from the streets of Toledo more than a century after the Expulsion, can serve as an indication that the cultural achievements of Al-Andalus – based largely on a strong scholastic tradition and love of learning – lived on in the shadows generations after their bearers were thought to have been definitively crushed and expelled.

What visions guided the Andalusian Dream?

It is tempting to see the history of Al-Andalus and its Jews as a mirage. The further away we get from it, the harder it is to distinguish true forms from illusion. If we were to penetrate the mirage and emerge at the other side of it, when the castle on the cloud had yet to crumble, and was even just then in construction, we can imagine it as something else: a visionary dream.

As Abd al-Raḥman fled the scene of the massacre of his family in Syria, the sole survivor of the Umayyad dynasty, heading west to his mother’s native lands, perhaps he already had an idea of the society he wanted to build.

In any event, we know that five years after surviving the physical elimination of his family by the Abbasids in 750, Abd al-Raḥman arrived on the southern coast of Al-Andalus, immediately built up a following that quickly won the favor of the bulk of the population, bringing together the Muslim ethnic groups that at that moment were at each other’s throats. It likely helped that he himself was the son of an Arab prince and a Berber concubine. He successfully took power in Cordoba in 756, where he proclaimed himself emir and forbade the mosques to continue praying for the Caliph in Baghdad. In so doing, he established the first independent political entity of the Muslim world. (García de Cortázar & González Vesga 2017: 148-149) An Islamic New World full of promise at the edge of the known world, securely bordered by water and mountains (if the conquest of the north would ever be completed). We can assume that this elan and its enthusiastic reception by those who met him indicate that Abd al-Raḥman was gifted with charisma and animated by a vision.[15]

Despite the setbacks and bad harvests that had soured relations between its Muslim ethnic groups, Al-Andalus was still a land where relations between the dominant Muslims and its Christians and Jews were generally positive. Jews and other discontents of Visigoth rule had joined forces with the conquering Muslim army in 711. (Lewis 1993: 131-132) The Jews had endured nearly a century of persecution in the name of the Visigoth’s Christian faith, culminating in legislation only a few years before aimed at limiting Jewish mobility and economic activity, prohibiting growth of urban Jewish quarters and Jewish rites, and in essence seeking to eliminate the Jewish presence in the country. By 711, Spain’s Jews were quite ready to welcome the Muslim army as their liberators. (García de Cortázar & González Vesga 2017: 141-144) The Jewish community assisted the invading army both logistically and by providing soldiers to its ranks, some of whom quickly rose to leadership positions. At the decisive battle at Guadelete, a Jewish commander of the Muslim forces, called simply Kawlah al-Yahudi, stood out in recollections of the Islamic victory. (Schippers 1988: 48) All this is indication that the Jews had, from the outset, secured for themselves a place as loyal blood brothers of the Islamic majority in the emerging narrative of Arab Al-Andalus.[16]

The Islamic conquerors did not seek to force the non-Muslims of the country to adopt Islam, and did not dispossess those who stayed of their lands. Though non-Muslims were required to pay more tax than Muslims, the conquest nonetheless brought relief even to the Christian lower classes who preferred to keep their faith when compared to the socio-economic oppression of Visigoth rule. (García de Cortázar & González Vesga 2017: 145-146) The narrative of Convivencia was off to a good start. But what made it possible, and what allowed it to develop and thrive for as long as it did?

One of the central initial aims of Abd al-Raḥman I’s rein (756-788) was “the use of Islam as social cement, while allowing free exercise of other beliefs”[17] (García de Cortázar & González Vesga 2017: 149) At first glance this is not so different from the dhimma protection system in place throughout the Islamic world. Yet from the outset, it appears that the Andalusian model was unique, and its results were quickly evident. “The non-Muslim protected communities were more numerous and better organized in Spain than anywhere else in Islam.” (Lewis 1993: 133-134) The inclusion of non-Muslims within the social fabric of Al-Andalus seems to have become a central part of the country’s Islamic identity.

Cultural excellence of the country as a whole, as an expression of the joint prosperity of its three primary communities, seems to have been a guiding principle of the Andalusian Umayyad dynasty, to judge by the monumental prestige, efforts and investment allocated to culture by successive Andalusian rulers, particularly Abd al-Raḥman II, Abd al-Raḥman III and Al-Ḥakam II. (García de Cortázar & González Vesga 2017: 151-157; Lewis 1993: 134-136, 139) Abd al-Raḥman and his heirs to the Andalusian throne seem to have been aware that a burden rested on their shoulders, as sole heirs of the original Umayyad dynasty, to keep the “genius of the high Islamic culture of Damascus” alive (Stierlin: 1996: 82). Ḥasdai ibn Shaprut, advisor and confidant of Abd al-Raḥman III, can be seen as further realizing the Umayyad dream for the country, applying it to the Jewish community and recruiting Jewish intellectuals from the diaspora beyond. As noted above, the fall of the dynasty could not stop Andalusian society’s momentum of cultural achievement.

Abd al-Raḥman I is known to have loved the Umayyad countryside palaces of his youth in Syria, many of which are monuments that can still be visited today (see Stierlin 1996: 63-83). He built one of his own near Cordoba, and named it Al-Ruṣāfa after the grand palaces built by his grandfather, the Caliph Hisham ibn ‘Abd al-Malik, in the countryside near Palmyra. He wrote poems full of longing for the palaces and landscape around them, and sadness for the loss of his family[18]. (Barrucand and Bednorz 1992: 31)

At one of Abd al-Raḥman’s grandfather’s greatest palaces, Khirbat al-Mafjar, also known as “Hisham’s Palace”, built near Jericho’s desert oasis, “perhaps the most original accomplishment and the most interesting handed down to us by the Umayyad civil architects”[19] (Stierlin 1996: 73), academics debate how to interpret its most iconic mosaic. The mosaic (which can be seen here) depicts a tree bearing abundant fruit; on one side of the tree is a lion devouring a gazelle, while on the other side of the tree two gazelles graze peacefully. One is perhaps eating a low-lying fruit off the tree. The mosaic was located in an elevated apse that was part of the diwan or reception hall of the ruler, attached to the bath complex. (Hamilton 1993: 924) Some see in it a graphic representation of the Islamic conception then emerging, dividing the world into Dar al-Islām (or Dar al-Salām) and Dar al-arb: the peaceful House of Islam and the restless House of War[20]. Others insist that it is merely a hint at sexual prowess, located in a private bathhouse chamber of the ruler. (Behrens-Abouseif 1997: 12-13) Perhaps it was both.

It is tempting to see the mosaic of the Lion and Gazelles at his grandfather’s palace nonetheless as a kind of blueprint for Abd al-Raḥman’s project in Al-Andalus, an icon of the “cause” guiding him that elicited admiration even among his rivals (see footnote 15). The message of the mosaic would then be: Fight as necessary to survive and establish Islamic dominion, but, once established, peace and prosperity must reign, with all enjoying the fruits of the land together. Not just conquering yet another province with communities protected under the dhimma system, but seeking to truly establish Dar al-Islām, a peaceful Islamic New World full of promise and with the coexistence of docile fellow believers at heart. Perhaps the Constitution of Medina, signed by the Prophet himself, served Abd al-Raḥman as a model for a purer Islamic vision of coexistence, before being in most places superseded by the more domination-focused ethos of the Treaty of ‘Umar.[21]

In the end, the dream of Al-Andalus could not withstand the destructive pressures from both north and south, crushed in an irresistible vise of recurrent violence and creeping intolerance.

Whether Islamic utopian pipe dream or not, whenever we read the learned, rational Torah commentary of Abraham Ibn Ezra, whenever we consciously conjugate or explain a Hebrew verb on the basis of its triradical shoresh, whenever we intone precisely metered Andalusian Hebrew piyutim, whenever we use the Hebrew words created by the Ibn Tibbons to express the innovative thoughts of Maimonides, Ibn Gabirol or Ibn Ezra, like higayon (logic), malakhuti (artificial) or mahut (essence)[22], the daring visions of Abd al-Raḥman and Ibn Shaprut live on.


This paper was inspired by lectures and talks with professors and fellow participants at the Jewish Studies spring school held May 27 – June 3, 2022 in Madrid, Toledo and El Escorial, organized by the University of Amsterdam, Universidad Complutense Madrid, the Open University of Israel, CSIC and other partners.  

A cursory chronology:

  • 711: Tariq ibn Ziyad leads Islamic army across the Strait of Gibraltar (giving his name to the rock and strait in the process: Jabal Tariq, “Tariq’s Mountain”), conquering much of Spain in the name of the Umayyad Caliphate. Jews and others who had suffered under the defeated Visigoth rulers welcome the new rulers.
  • 756: ‘Abd al-Rahman I escapes the purge of the Umayyad dynasty in Syria and arrives in Cordoba, named as emir in the city’s Grand Mosque.
  • 822-852: reign of ‘Abd al-Rahman II – cultural renaissance marked by art, poetry and the construction of mosques and architectural monuments
  • 915-975: the life of Ḥasdai ibn Shaprut, court physician and advisor to ‘Abd al-Rahman III and Al-Hakam II; under his sponsorship more Jewish intellectuals come to Spain. In 948, an embassy of the Byzantine emperor Constantine VII to Cordoba presents Abd al Rahman III with a copy of Dioscorides’ Materia Medica, translated into Arabic by Ibn Shaprut.
  • 961-971: Al-Hakam II builds a library containing some 400,000 volumes (purged by his successor Al-Mansur in 979)
  • 993-1056: life of Shemuel ha-Nagid (Samuel ibn Nagrila)
  • 1021-1055: life of Shelomo ibn Gabirol
  • 1031: Rebellion against Hisham III. End of the Caliphate and beginning of the period of the petty kings or kings of the taifas, a fragmented network of small independent Muslim kingdoms.
  • 1055-1138: life of Moshe ibn Ezra
  • 1074-1141: life of Yehuda ha-Levi
  • 1085: Toledo falls to Alfonso VI of Castille
  • 1090-c. 1165: life of Abraham ibn Ezra
  • 1091: Cordoba falls to Almoravid forces, disrupting Jewish life there. The population revolted against the Almoravids in 1121.
  • 1118: Zaragoza falls to Alfonso I of Aragon
  • 1138: birth of Maimonides in Cordoba (died in 1204)
  • 1148: Cordoba falls to the Almohad forces, who abolish protective dhimmi status for Jews and Christians, thereby forcing them to choose to convert to Islam, leave the area of their rule, or be killed. Maimonides, then still a child, flees with his family to other parts of the Iberian Peninsula, settling eventually in Morocco.
  • 1160: Averroes (Ibn Rushd) publishes his General Medical Enyclopedia
  • 1216-1225: Yehuda al-Harizi (1167-1225) completes the Sefer Tahkemoni
  • 1236: Cordoba falls to the Castilian army
  • 1248: Seville incorporated into the Castilian dominion
  • 1377: Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406) completes the Muqaddimah his analytical “Introduction” to world history, in North Africa, after living several years in (Muslim) Granada and (Christian) Seville.
  • 1391: Jewish communities of Christian Castille and Aragon come under attack
  • 1492: Granada falls to Ferdinand and Isabella, completing the Reconquista. Order given to expel the Jews.




[1] Though the Arab narrative clearly mourns the fall of Al-Andalus, the culture fostered there is not seen as being nearly as central or canonical. Al-Andalus was not the theater of the Golden Age of Arabic Poetry, but to the contrary has been seen as quite marginal in the grand scheme of classical Arab culture. “Within that traditionally defined framework of Arabic studies al-Andalus has, until recently, been a very poor cousin, despite the special nostalgic place it enjoys. In the curriculum of Middle Eastern Studies it has never been a fundamental requirement, to say the least, and one could read through any number of literary histories and easily get the sense that it is as if it were written from the Abbasid perspective after 750 – as if those renegade Umayyads had simply gone off and done their rebellious thing way out in the Wild West and only when what they wrote looks pretty much just like what was written in Baghdad is it part of the real Arabic universe. […] The relatively scant notice paid to al-Andalus in Albert Hourani’s outstanding History of the Arab Peoples (Cambridge, 1991) is telling and reflects the inherent difficulties of assimilating the Andalusian chapter into the larger narrative of the Arab peoples, as per Hourani’s almost Churchillian title. Salma Khadra Jayyusi, the editor of the vast Legacy of Muslim Spain (Leiden, 1992), devotes her several lengthy essays on Andalusi poetry in the volume to substantiating the clearly circular premise that the real canonical poetry was utterly unaffected by any aspect of its multicultural environment – and that the poetry that shows innovations and variations vis-a-vis the Eastern forms is not “formal” enough to be considered canonical. More problematic yet is her quick review, in these same pages, of the body of scholarship by Andalusianists on the subject, a discussion prefaced by her unfortunate and yet telling dubbing of this group as “non-Arab literary historians.” Menocal 2000: 13-14, 24, note 8)

[2] My translation of the line from “My heart is in the East”: יקל בעיני עזב כל טוב ספרד, כמו · יקר בעיני ראות עפרות דביר נחרב (see Carmi 1981:347)

[3] In the original work the name is rendered as ר’ יצחק הספרדי בן חסדאי, “R’ Yitsḥaq ha-Sefaradi ben Ḥasdai”. In their notes on the academic edition of the Taḥkemoni, Joseph Yahalom and Naoya Katsumata affirm that Al-Ḥarizi indeed meant to refer to Ḥasdai ben Isaac (ibn Shaprut), and that he intentionally reversed the order of the names to end with Ḥasdai in order to fit his rhyme scheme. (יהלום וקצומטה תש”ע: 212) See note 3.

[4] The Hebrew lines approximated by Segal to include that phrase read as follows (יהלום וקצומטה תש”ע: 212):

בימים ההם זרח בספרד שמש התהִלּה / בִּרְקיע הגדוּלה
הוא הנשיא הגדול ר’ יצחק הספרדי בן חסדאי /
ינוח בצל שַׁדַּי / כי הֵרִיק לכל שואליו ברכה עד בלי די

[5] וּבְעֵת בְּנֵי מִזְרָח בְּשִיר לֹא מָצְאוּ חָזוֹן בְּנֵי הַמַּעֲרָב הִתְנַבְּאוּ

[6] Al-Ḥarizi’s original text (יהלום וקצומטה תש”ע: 232-233) reads:

ויותר משוררי עדינה [הוזים נדהמים / בחיק הסכלות נרדמים /
ומהם נערים ועלמים / פרצו בשירם דברי חכמים] /
שועלים קטנים מחבלים כרמים / […]
והמשכיל ר’ משה בר ששת אשר הלך לעדינה מספרד
הדריך תעלוליהם בדרך השיר / [אולי יְרַפֵּא מהם כל מכאוב וכל ציר]
ומַכַּת סכלותם נִפְלְאַתָה /
ולהם ארוכה לא עָלָתָה / וְרִפֵּאנוּ את בבל ולא נִרְפָתָה

[7] The biblical verse is apparently in fact a reference to Sardis in Western Asia Minor, the original meaning of the name Sefarad before it became applied to Spain. See note on Sepharad here:

[8] As translated from Arabic by Rabbi Joseph Kafih (קאפח תשנ”ד: קמח-קנ):

“וכשם שאנשי האקלימים הללו הממוצעים יותר שלמים בשכלם ויותר נאים בצורתם בדרך כלל, כלומר במערכת תבניתם ותארם, ויותר נאים ביחסיות אבריהם, ומזגם מאוזן, יותר מאנשי אותם אקלימים הרחוקים בפאתי הצפון והדרום, ולפיכך מוצא אותיות אנשי האקלימים הללו הממוצעים ותנועות כלי הדיבור בהם בעת הדיבור יותר מאוזנים וקרובים לדיבור האדם ממוצא אותיות ההם ותנועת כל הדיבור בהם, כלומר אנשי האקלימים המרוחקים בקצוות ולשונותם, כמו שאמר גאלינוס.”

[9], accessed 15/6/2022.

[10] “La incorporación de la Peninsula al Imperio musulmán le permite recobrar la vocación mediterránea que los godos habían distraído […]: las ciudades y los negocios despiertan con el ímpetu del Islam. […] El zoco, junto a la mezquita, llena de algarabía el corazón de las ciudades árabes, por más que, hacia el norte del país, éstas se revistan de un aire militar, rural or burocrático. [… Las ciudades árabes] han sido elegidas por los artesanos, tenderos y labradores potentados como lugar de residencia, dado el gusto andalusí por los aires urbanos, en contraste con sus homólogos cristianos, amigos del terruño y la aldea. ” (García de Cortázar & González Vesga 2017 : 154-155)

[11] Schippers believes that “the Israelite presence in Spain probably goes back to Biblical times, when the so-called ‘navy of Tarshish’, which belonged to a partly Phoenician partly Israelite expedition, sought copper-ore (or gold? Cf. I Kings 10:22).” (1988:46) He based this belief on the identification of the identification of Tarshish with Tartessos, the Iron Age trade destination presumed to be roughly the region of Cádiz and Seville, alongside the banks of the Guadalquivir (see for instance If this identification is true, then of course Jonah was seeking to escape to this destination on Spain’s Atlantic coast, in the westernmost extremity of the known world, instead of heading east to his commanded destination of Nineveh, in northern Iraq (Jonah 1: 1-3).

[12] For Christian Spaniards, the passions of this rivalry led to sometimes schizophrenic expressions of an intensity that seems to have far exceeded the rivalry felt among the Jews during such periods. As described by Jerrilynn D. Dodds: “If there were ever a moment in the history of al-Andalus during which one would expect a cultural identity to polarize along the lines of religion, ninthcentury Córdoba of the Mozarabic martyrs would be that time, that place. This particular group of Mozarabs had resisted acculturation, had chosen nothing less than voluntary martyrdom as a kind of theater of resistance to Umayyad culture. This violent act and the Mozarabs’ nostalgia for Christian hegemony of the past, in fact, were the centerpiece for a kind of Christian cultural revival. The Mozarabic Christians feared the decimation of their traditional and historical identities in the face of the juggernaut of opulent, complex cosmopolitan literary and visual culture. ‘The Christians love to read the poems and romances of the Arabs,’ mourned Alvarus of Córdoba. ‘For every one who can write a letter in Latin to a friend, there are a thousand who can express themselves in Arabic with elegance’ (Indiculus luminosus 35, Patroligia latina vol. 121). And yet, Eulogius did not see this extravagant embrace of the glories of Umayyad Córdoba as contradictory: he was Cordoban; he participated in its glories and was complicit in the caliph’s competitive zeal.” (Dodds 2000: 83-84; see also Lewis 1993: 134)

[13] “Es decir: también le hubiera sido fácil encontrar a algún judío en el Alcaná.”

[14] Riquer’s note to the text interprets morisco aljamiado to simply mean a Moor “who knows Castillian” (que sabe castellano), which seems untenable. Presumably nearly every Moor then living in Spain would speak Spanish. Others, similarly confused by the use of the word aljamiado for texts written in Spanish in Arabic letters, insist that a morisco aljamiado means a Moor who can read a Spanish text written in Arabic letters. This also seems to be something of a stretch. For one: How would the narrator have been able to distinguish Arabic from Spanish written in Arabic letters?

[15] Even his rival, the Abbasid Caliph in Baghdad, was moved to gush with praise for Abd al-Raḥman’s character and achievements, saying of him, “He travelled over the sea, crossed the desert, and came to a country which was not of the Arabs. Left entirely to his own resources, he founded cities, gathered troops, and organized the government. Having lost his throne here, he acquired a realm there, and all by virtue of his clever mind and his brave heart. Abd al-Raḥman all alone – his only helper was his cause, his only friend was his will – founded the emirate of al-Andalus.” (Barrucand and Bednorz 1992: 31)

[16] This of course most famously culminated in the case of the Jewish leader Shmuel ha-Nagid (Samuel ibn Nagrila), Hebrew poet, vizier, builder of the palace at Granada and military commander of the city-state’s Islamic forces. (Schippers 1988: 52-53; Menocal 2000: 12-13)

[17] “la utilización del Islam como amalgama social, aun liberando el ejercicio de otras creencias”

[18] “In Ruṣāfa I came upon a palm; here in these Western lands a sight so rare, I said: You stand alone, like me so far from home, you miss the children and our loved ones there; You have not grown tall in native soil. Like you I too must breathe the alien air.” (Barrucand and Bednorz 1992: 31)

[19] Graffiti in Greek, Arabic and Hebrew indicate that the builders were a multicultural cohort of Christians, Muslims and Jews. In one inscription found, a Jewish worker seems to have been teaching an Arab colleague the Hebrew alphabet. (Hamilton 1993: 924)

[20] See Hashmi 2013: 11-12.

[21] See Arjomand 2013: 252-253 and Levy-Rubin 2013: 562-563.

[22] See Shmu’el ibn Tibbon’s explanation of neologisms and other “foreign words” at the back of his translation of Maimonides’ Guide of the Perplexed (רמב”ם תש”ך).

Selected sources

Arjomand, Saïd Amir, “Constitution of Medina”, in The Princeton Encyclopedia of Islamic Political Thought, ed. Mahan Mirza, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2013, pp. 252-253

Barrucand, Marianne and Achim Bednorz, Moorish Architecture in Andalusia, Taschen, Köln, 1992.

Behrens-Abouseif, Doris, “The Lion-Gazelle Mosaic at Khirbat al-Mafjar”, Muqarnas, Vol. 14, 1997, pp. 11-18

Carmi, T., ed. The Penguin Book of Hebrew Verse, Penguin Books, London, 1981.

Dajani, Basma Ahmad Sedki, “The Ideal Education in Ibn Khaldun’s Muqaddimah” (presented at the 2nd Global Conference on Linguistics and Foreign Language Teaching, LINELT-2014, Dubai – United Arab Emirates, December 11 – 13, 2014), Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences, 192, 2015, pp. 308 – 312.

Dodds, Jerrilynn D., “Chapter 4: Spaces”, in: The Literature of Al-Andalus, ed. María Rosa Menocal, Raymond P. Schiendlin and Michael Sells, Cambridge University Press, 2000, pp. 83-95.

García de Cortázar, Fernando & José Manuel González Vesga, Breve historia de España, Edición actualizada a marzo de 2017, Alianza Editorial, Madrid, 2017.

Gómez-Aranda, Mariano, “The Jew as Scientist and Philosopher in Medieval Iberia”, in: The Jew in Medieval Iberia: 1100-1500, ed. Jonathan Ray, Jews in Space and Time, Academic Studies Press, Boston, 2012, pp. 60-101.

Hamilton, Robert W., “Khirbet al-Mafjar”, In: The New Encyclopedia of Archaeological Excavations in the Holy Land, ed. Ephraim Stern, The Israel Exploration Society & Carta, Jerusalem, 1993, Vol. 3, pp. 922-929.

Sohail H. Hashmi, “Abodes of Islam, war, and truce”, in: The Princeton Encyclopedia of Islamic Political Thought, ed. Mahan Mirza, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2013, pp. 11-12.

Ibn Khaldun, Abd Ar Rahman bin Muhammed, The Muqaddimah, trans. Franz Rosenthal, 1958, , accessed 15/6/2022.

Kraemer, Joel L., Maimonides: The Life and World of One of Civilization’s Greatest Minds, Doubleday, New York, 2008.

Lewis, Bernard, The Arabs in History, New Edition, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1993.

Menocal, María Rosa, “Chapter 1: Visions of Al-Andalus”, in: The Literature of Al-Andalus, ed. María Rosa Menocal, Raymond P. Schiendlin and Michael Sells, Cambridge University Press, 2000, pp. 1-24.

Levy-Rubin, Milka “Treaty of ‘Umar”, in: The Princeton Encyclopedia of Islamic Political Thought, ed. Mahan Mirza, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2013, pp. 562-563.

Narváez Córdova, María Teresa, “La Tafçira del Mancebo de Arévalo”, IN : Memoria de los Moriscos: Escritos y relatos de una diáspora cultural, Catálogo de la exposición en la Biblioteca Nacional, Madrid, ed. Alfredo Mateos Paramio, Sociedad Estatal de Conmemoraciones Culturales (SECC), Madrid, 2010, pp. 166-168.

Riquer, Martín de → Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quijote de la Mancha, Edición revisada y actualizada, introducción y notas de Martín de Riquer de la Real Academia Española, Editorial Planeta, Barcelona, 2004.

Schippers, Arie, Arabic Tradition & Hebrew Innovation : Arabic themes in Hebrew Andalusian Poetry, Second revised edition, Academisch proefschrift, Promotor: prof. Dr. M.A. Woidich, Institute for Modern Near Eastern Studies, Department of Arabic and Islamic Studies, Faculteit der Letteren, University of Amsterdam, Amsterdam, 1988.

Segal, David Simha → Alḥarizi, Judah, The Book of Taḥkemoni: Jewish Tales from Medieval Spain, translated David Simha Segal, The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, Oxford and Portland, 2003.

Simon, Uriel, “Transplanting the Wisdom of Spain to Christian Lands: The Failed Efforts of R. Abraham Ibn Ezra”, in: Jahrbuch des Simon-Dubnow-Instituts, Simon Dubnow Institute Yearbook, VIII, ed. Dan Diner, Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, Göttingen, 2009, pp. 139-189.

Stierlin, Henri, Islam: Volume 1 – Early Architeture from Baghdad to Cordoba, Taschen’s World Architecture, Taschen, Köln, 1996.

יהלום, יוסף ונאויה קצומטה ← יהודה אלחריזי, תחכמוני: או מחברות הימן האזרחי, ההדירו והקדימו מבוא, פירשו וצירפו מפתחות יוסף יהלום ונאויה קצומטה, מכון בן-צבי לחקר קהילות ישראל במזרח, יד יצחק בן-צבי והאוניברסיטה העברית בירושלים, ירושלים, תש”ע.

קאפח, יוסף בכה”ר דוד ←רבינו משה בן מימון, אגרות הרמב”ם, תרגם לעברית, ביאר והכין על-פי כתבי יד ודפוסים יוסף בכה”ר דוד קאפח, מוסד הרב קוק, ירושלים, תשנ”ד.

רמב”ם (הרב האלהי רבינו משה בן מימון הספרדי ז”ל), מורה נבוכים לרמב”ם, בהעתקת הרב ר’ שמואל אבן תיבון, צולם ונדפס מחדש, ספרי ברזני, ירושלים, תש”ך.

About the Author
Daniel Kennemer is the founder of the Mount Carmel Arabic Immersion and teacher of Hebrew, English and more through Mount Carmel Languages. He studied Archaeology and Geography at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
Related Topics
Related Posts