|Maimonides, was a preeminent medieval Jewish philosopher and one of the most prolific and followed Torah scholars and physicians of the Middle Ages. He was born in Cordoba, Spain on Passover Eve, 1135, and died in Egypt (or
Tiberias) on 20th Tevet, December 12, 1204. He was a rabbi, physician and philosopher in Morocco and Egypt.
The political unity brought by the new Islamic world-empire did not last, but it created a vast Islamic world civilisation, similar to the older Christian civilisation that it replaced. Within this huge area, Jews lived and enjoyed broadly similar status and rights everywhere. They could move around, maintain contacts, and develop their identity as Jews. A great new expansion of trade from the ninth century onwards brought the Spanish Jews - like the Muslims - into touch with the Jews and the Muslims even of India.
All this was encouraged by a further, critical development. Huge numbers of people in the new world of Islam adopted the language of the Muslim Arabs. Arabic gradually became the principal language of this vast area, excluding almost all the rest: Greek and Syriac, Aramaic and Coptic and Latin all died out, replaced by Arabic. Persian, too, went into a long retreat, to reappear later heavily influenced by Arabic.
The Jews moved over to Arabic very rapidly. By the early 10th century, only 300 years after the conquests, Sa'adya Gaon was translating the Bible into Arabic. Bible translation is a massive task - it is not undertaken unless there is a need for it. By about the year 900, the Jews had largely abandoned other languages and taken on Arabic.
The change of language in its turn brought the Jews into direct contact with broader cultural developments. The result from the 10th century on was a striking pairing of two cultures. The Jews of the Islamic world developed an entirely new culture, which differed from their culture before Islam in terms of language, cultural forms, influences, and uses. Instead of being concerned primarily with religion, the new Jewish culture of the Islamic world, like that of its neighbours, mixed the religious and the secular to a high degree. The contrast, both with the past and with medieval Christian Europe, was enormous.
Like their neighbours, these Jews wrote in Arabic in part, and in a Jewish form of that language. The use of Arabic brought them close to the Arabs. But the use of a specific Jewish form of that language maintained the barriers between Jew and Muslim. The subjects that Jews wrote about, and the literary forms in which they wrote about them, were largely new ones, borrowed from the Muslims and developed in tandem with developments in Arabic Islam.
Also at this time, Hebrew was revived as a language of high literature, parallel to the use among the Muslims of a high form of Arabic for similar purposes. Along with its use for poetry and artistic prose, secular writing of all forms in Hebrew and in (Judeo-)Arabic came into being, some of it of high quality.
Much of the greatest poetry in Hebrew written since the Bible comes from this period. Sa'adya Gaon, Solomon Ibn Gabirol, Ibn Ezra (Moses and Abraham), Maimonides, Yehuda Halevi, Yehudah al-Harizi, Samuel ha-Nagid, and many more - all of these names, well known today, belong in the first rank of Jewish literary and cultural endeavour.
W here did these Jews produce all this? When did they and their neighbours achieve this symbiosis, this mode of living together? The Jews did it in a number of centres of excellence. The most outstanding of these was Islamic Spain, where there was a true Jewish Golden Age, alongside a wave of cultural achievement among the Muslim population. The Spanish case illustrates a more general pattern, too.
What happened in Islamic Spain - waves of Jewish cultural prosperity paralleling waves of cultural prosperity among the Muslims - exemplifies a larger pattern in Arab Islam. In Baghdad, between the ninth and the twelfth centuries; in Qayrawan (in north Africa), between the ninth and the 11th centuries; in Cairo, between the 10th and the 12th centuries, and elsewhere, the rise and fall of cultural centres of Islam tended to be reflected in the rise and fall of Jewish cultural activity in the same places.
This was not coincidence, and nor was it the product of particularly enlightened liberal patronage by Muslim rulers. It was the product of a number of deeper features of these societies, social and cultural, legal and economic, linguistic and political, which together enabled and indeed encouraged the Jews of the Islamic world to create a novel sub-culture within the high civilisation of the time.
This did not last for ever; the period of culturally successful symbiosis between Jew and Arab Muslim in the middle ages came to a close by about 1300. In reality, it had reached this point even earlier, with the overall relative decline in the importance and vitality of Arabic culture, both in relation to western European cultures and in relation to other cultural forms within Islam itself; Persian and Turkish.
Jewish cultural prosperity in the middle ages operated in large part as a function of Muslim, Arabic cultural (and to some degree political) prosperity: when Muslim Arabic culture thrived, so did that of the Jews; when Muslim Arabic culture declined, so did that of the Jews.
In the case of the Jews, however, the cultural capital thus created also served as the seed-bed of further growth elsewhere - in Christian Spain and in the Christian world more generally.
The Islamic world was not the only source of inspiration for the Jewish cultural revival that came later in Christian Europe, but it certainly was a major contributor to that development. Its significance cannot be overestimated.
David J Wasserstein is the Eugene Greener Jr Professor of Jewish Studies at Vanderbilt University. This article is adapted from last week's Jordan Lectures in Comparative Religion at the School of Oriental and African Studies.
Jewish Chronicle Online
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