Power in the Portrayal: Representations of Jews and Muslims in 11th & 12 Century Spain (Ross Brann)


Through The Looking Glass: Jews and Arabs Representing One Another in Muslim Spain

Ross Brann, Power in the Portrayal: Representations of Jews and Muslims in Eleventh- and Twelfth Century Islamic Spain, Princeton University Press, 2002

Jewish existence in the Diaspora has been constructed by a complex web of different strands in the primal drama of life: Jews saw themselves as a weakened minority, at the mercy of their hosts, but were also able to develop a heightened civilization that began to establish an emotional bond with their place of abode. 

Yosef Hayyim Yerushalmi, in his classic essay on the subject, Exile and Expulsion in Jewish History,Ӕ discusses the concept of Exile within the context of domicile, a sense of home that would partially negate the brutal sense of a thwarted national identity:

Without losing sight of any of its manifestly negative aspects, the fact is that on the whole Jews not only adapted to the conditions of exile but often flourished within it materially and spiritually, while managing to preserve a vivid sense of their distinctive national and religious identity.  Except for times of active persecution it was quite possible to believe wholeheartedly in an ultimate messianic redemption, to pray for its speedy advent, but at the same time to wait comfortably for the arrival of the Messiah in Gods own time without taking any deliberate initiative to hasten it.  It is here, on the psychological plane, that what I have termed the dialectics of exile and domicile really begin to reveal themselves.  What I propose is that it is simultaneously possible to be ideologically in exile and existentially at home.

Yerushalmi highlights the concept of domicile as the transfer of a sacred nationalist geography, the geography of the Holy Land, to the lands of Europe and the Middle East.  Toledo, Provence and Vilna become identified with Jerusalem.  This identification served to recontextualize the inner topography of Jews in the Diaspora by recreating their sacred history and affirm that their present circumstances were not only livable, but were set in a continuous line from the older history of Jewish autonomy in their own homeland.

As I have continually remarked in my writings, the history of Sephardic Jews remains a contested battleground of historical interpretations.  Aside from the voluminous and extensive literary, philosophical and scientific writings of Sephardic Jewry, a Jewry that in the early Middle Ages encompassed the communities of the Islamic world both East and West, there is a commonplace, everyday history of the community under Muslim rule that has been debated, in a sometimes heated manner, between its positive and negative polarities; there are scholars who have sought to link Sephardic Jewish history to the tortuous history of Gentile anti-Semitism, while others seek to isolate Sephardic Jewish history as a rare bright spot within a much larger context of (mostly) Christian Jew-hatred.

The literature of the Sephardim has been expertly researched and examined by few Westerners in the present generation.  Unlike the Jewish scholars of Germany who saw in the literature of the Spanish and Arabian Jews a model for their own enlightened understanding of civilization, the movement of modern Jewish scholarship has been to exclusively reaffirm many of the tenets of modern nationalist Jewish thought.  With the exception of the late Dan Pagis, who has unfortunately not exerted the same type of influence as a figure such as Gershom Scholem, the vast majority of scholars working in the field of Judeo-Arabic literature have adopted what Salo Baron called the ғLachrymose conception of Jewish history; which sees Jewish history as an endless series of tragedies rather than the adoption of Diaspora Jewish history as a positive and creative epoch that served to enrich and expand Jewish culture beyond its merely Talmudic element.

Dan Pagis was a singularly unique and brilliant expositor of Sephardic Jewish culture and wrote a series of books on Sephardic and European Hebrew poetry and poetic theory that continue to be landmarks in the field, training those who seek to marry their study of history and philology to a sophisticated understanding of modern poetry and literary theory.  Against the retrograde understandings of the seminal scholars in the field of Sephardica, Hayyim Schirmann, Nehemiah Allony, Yitzhak Baer and a select number of others, Pagis blazed a path in the study of Medieval Hebrew literature that remains the benchmark of our most articulate and thoughtful interpretations of this most complex and deeply mesmerizing of Diaspora Hebrew literatures.

Contrary to this integrative mode of understanding, Yitzhak Baer, in his A History of Jews in Christian Spain and long essay on Diaspora Judaism, Galut, has provided the detailed knowledge of Sephardic history that was foundational to the emergence of a Zionist historiography, an attempt to isolate and reclaim the totality of Jewish history from its non-Jewish context.  This school of historical thought reached its apex in the state-approved version of Jewish history by Ben Zion Dinur whose contribution to the study of Jewish history cannot be underestimated: Dinur was responsible for the drafting of IsraelԒs State Education Law of 1956 which provided the template for the national understanding of its past.  Dinurs view took into great account the Islamic-Jewish relationship and ultimately understood the Jewish Exile to begin contemporary with the Islamic occupation of Palestine (rather than with the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70).

This fixation on Islamic and Arab history has been carried on in the works of Bernard Lewis and Norman Stillman, both considered to be experts in the field of Orientalist studies.  Lewis and Stillman, mining the rich veins in Middle Eastern history mapped out by the great S.D. Goitein in his magisterial work A Mediterranean Society, a five volume reconstruction of Jewish life in the Mediterranean based on a thorough and exhaustive reading of the documents found in the famous Cairo Genizah, began to move away from the symbiotic model that Goitein had put forward, a model reclaimed by native Sephardim such as Ammiel Alcalay and Victor Perera in works that attempted to trace a straight line from the Middle Ages to the present.

The model of Bernard Lewis, reiterated in his many works, works which have become standard in the field of Jewish history, particularly his work The Jews of Islam, is one that has been rightly seen as demonizing the Arabs at the service of a political agenda that emphasizes Western civilization at the expense of Arab civilization and culture.  Lewis has characterized Arabs in less than disparaging terms and has continued to be embroiled in a bitter and very personal feud with Edward Said, who in his works has continued to deprecate Lewis and the school that he has founded.

The contestation of Sephardic history has found fertile ground in the varying uses to which the fabled poetry of the so-called ғGolden Age (another terminological red herring that serves to conceal almost as much as it illuminates) has been put.  In the 19th century, Jews, looking for ways to come to terms with a newly liberalized world that had permitted Jewish thinkers and writers to participate on relatively equal terms, found the model of Sephardic poetry a particularly attractive one for their cause.  Rather than analyze the mountain of liturgically-inspired poetry of the German Rhineland, verse that spoke of the horrors and misfortunes of Jewish life under the unsparing yoke of the Christians, the German-Jewish intellectuals sought to resurrect the memory of Judah Halevi, Solomon ibn Gabirol and Samuel the Nagid, men who adopted the poetics and metrics of the Arabic poetical system and adapted their Biblically-inspired verse to a dramatically new literary context.

With the emergence of a new nationalism in the wake of the failure of the German-Jewish symbiosis, the trend in early Zionist letters was to examine the Islamic epoch in ways that would mirror the current wars being waged for the independence of the Jewish state.  Against the trend current in modern Arab criticism and letters which sought out the value of the Andalusian experience, modern Israeli poetry, more fatalistic in orientation, looked to mine the Christian-Jewish past of medieval Europe, a past culminating in the tragedy of the Holocaust.

The lines that we can then draw between a Western-oriented Jewish culture and one that looks to reintegrate into the East are stark and have provided a good deal of the background for modern-day works on Sephardic literature.

Following the lead of Dan Pagis has been the brilliant work of Ross Brann, a professor of Hebrew Literature and the head of the Near Eastern Studies department at Cornell University.  In his first book, The Compunctious Poet: Cultural Ambiguity and Hebrew Poetry in Muslim Spain, he took the first sustained critical look at this literature in English in many decades.  The Compunctious Poet, as hard as it might be to believe, is the only monograph on Sephardic ԓGolden Age poetry currently in print in the English language Ԗ with the exception of Pagis short book of lectures Hebrew Poetry of the Middle Ages and Renaissance. 

In The Compunctious Poet, published back in 1991, Brann laid out not only the history of the Sephardic school of poetry, but also delved deeply into the poetics and cultural context of the school.  Utilizing not merely the poems themselves, which he parsed with finesse and a great command of the various idioms needed to understand these most complicated of works, but the works on poetics developed by Arabs and Jews, Brann was able to get to the very core issues that lay in any appreciation of the poetry and the period in which it was written.

Brann had concluded that the literature, an Arabized version of Hebrew begun back in the era of SeҒadya Gaon who sought to translate and rework Jewish canonical texts within the new frame of reference afforded by the Abbasid culture of Baghdad, was a dramatic progression in the history of Hebrew letters.  Poetry, which had once been limited to the Synagogal compositions of the paytanim, poems that were extensions of the Midrashic canon and used mainly in the liturgy, was now seen in aesthetic terms to encompass a system of metrics adopted from the Arabic along with many of the new themes developing in Arabic poetry; themes such as the panagyric, the erotic poem, the boast poem, the lengthy ode and many other new genres that were adapted to the Hebrew language.

In The Compunctious Poet Brann sought to examine and explicate the profound issues that were raised for these poets, most of them devout rabbis and legal scholars.  Abbasid culture presented new challenges for Jewish minds, challenges involving the adoption of scientific, philosophical and aesthetic models that had previously been rejected in rabbinical Judaic culture, outside of the rare exception such as Philo Judaeus. 

Coming from the elite rabbis of the Babylonian academies such as SeҒadya, the new modes of literary knowledge were instantly adopted, but not without a certain sense of confusion and internal ambiguity.  It is this concept of ambiguity that anchors Branns modified conceptuality of Sephardic letters.

Ambiguity was something both overwhelming and exhilarating to the rabbi-poets of Spain and the Muslim East.  The new challenge faced by the Sephardic intelligentsia was to comprehend a wholly new set of conceptions, primarily the world of science and rationalism, and be able to translate that science into a Hebraism that had previously found its penultimate expression in the Talmudic canon.  This meant that the Sephardic rabbis had to scour the Talmud and its associated literature and figure new ways to set out Halakhic practice and the manner in which Jewish self-definition was to be formed in light of the new culture.

This led, amazingly, to the integration of the new ideas into Jewish life in a relatively smooth and fluid manner.  While the rabbis continued to expound on legal and Biblical matters as had been done for generations, they began to write poems and lyrics dealing with seemingly taboo subjects such as sexual longing and the nature of beauty in the material world.  Rather than leading to a crisis Җ as it would in 19th century Germany the poets developed rhetorical mechanisms to deal with these innovations.

In his seminal new book, Power in the Portrayal, Brann goes even deeper into Sephardic literary culture and examines the ways in which literary representation figures in the inter-ethnic relations between Jews and Muslims.  Again, looking at the subject from the tense and contested battlefield of the modern Jewish historians, this subject is fraught with very significant implications for the politics and nationalisms of Jews and Arabs.  If proof can be provided that Arabs held anti-Semitic views of Jews at the assumed apogee of their inter-cultural relations in Spain, then the claim that modern relations could be salvaged would be negated.  But if the evidence shows that Jews and Muslims represented each other in an egalitarian light, the struggles being waged on the scholarly battlefield, in the realm of polemic, would be defused to a large extent.

In a judicious and carefully modulated style that has characterized all his writings, Brann looks at representations of the historical figure of Samuel the Nagid, perhaps the most prominent and romanticized of all the Jews in Spain; a Jew who grew from his position as Court secretary under the Berber King Habbus, to vizier under his son Badis.

A bit of background is therefore in order: At the end of the reign of Abd-Al-Rahman at the end of the 10th century, the Umayyad caliphate in Spain (the Umayyads in Syria had been defeated centuries earlier by the Abbasids, leaving Spain as the last refuge of Umayyad culture) was on the wane.  At the beginning of the 11th century, the Christians were on the move to reconquer portions of what the Umayyads had taken from them some 300 years earlier.  The weakened state of the Umayyads led to Berber reinforcements being able to take over parts of Granada and Central Spain, creating little city-states that began to chop up Muslim Spain into cantons.  These Berbers, known as Almoravids, brought with them a more pietistic version of Islam and began to make life for the Jewish minority more difficult.  With the rise of another radical Islamic party, the Almohads, the fate of the Jewish population of Muslim Spain was more or less sealed; after the Christian reconquest of Toledo in 1085, Jewish life in the south was basically eliminated. 

This complex history thus throws into relief the life of the Nagid (d. 1056) who lived in Granada, after being exiled from Cordoba during this period of political and social upheaval.  Samuel the Nagid became the vizier of Granada where he was one of the most powerful men in the kingdom at the time.  The rise of a Jewish figure at this time was an indication of the great stature of Jews after their cultural assimilation to the Arabic civilization that had been passed along from Abbasid Baghdad to the Western Umayyads. 

The life of the Nagid was a study, as we shall see in great detail below, in the contrasts that fueled the period: He was a powerful political figure who continued to be a member of a protected minority; a secular poet who was just at home writing a legal responsum and conducting polemics on Hebrew grammar; a military man who was able, by dint of his political stature, to protect and enrich his own community of Jewish compatriots, providing them with privileges and perquisites over their Muslim neighbors.

The figure of the Nagid was thus one of great strength and great paradox.  In his examination of how Muslim authors sought to sketch their portrait of the Nagid, Brann reaches deep into his own mastery of Arabic sources and the culture of the Islamic East:

Andalusi-Arabic discourse on Isma֒il ibn Naghrila [Samuels Arabic name] does indeed present us with seemingly contradictory figures at whose poles are an intelligent, skilled and noble Jew deserving of homage and a vile, foolish, and fiendish enemy of God, Islam, and the Muslims.

Power in the Portrayal is divided into five chapters, the first three examine Muslim sources on the Nagid and the final two chapters show how Jews represented Muslims.  In the initial chapters we get a varied view of the Nagid.  The chapters on Muslim representation of the Nagid indeed give us the portrait of a man that rationally appear to contradict one another Җ typifying in many ways the manner in which Jews were seen within Islamic society generally.  Rather than tilt the balance either way, Brann continues to examine the representations as exemplifying inner-Muslim concerns rather than as a purely objective portrayal of the Jewish minority.

The first text analyzed is the Tabaqat al-Umam, a book on the elements that created the scientific culture of the Arab world.  The author of the book Said b. Ahmad al-Andalusi sought to organize both personalities who helped to create the civilization and also to provide a portrait of the culture itself.  At the close of the work, SaҒid examines a number of Jewish figures with great admiration, including Samuel the Nagid.

After relating the cultural advances of Jews from antiquity to the Islamic present, Said states the following:

Among them [those learned in the law of the Jews] in al-Andalus was Abu Ibrahim IsmaҒil ibn Yusuf the Scribe, known as Ibn al-Naghrila, who served Badis ibn Hubbus al-Sinhaji, king of Granada and its territory, as administrator of the state.  No one in al-Andalus before him had such learning in the law of the Jews and knowledge of how to use it and defend it.  He died in the year 448 [1056].

Said brings together the expertise of the Nagid in the Jewish law as the basis of his stature in the Muslim state.  This positive view of the Nagid is itself a sign of the larger estimation of Jews in Andalus, in contrast to the orthodox Islamic view of the Jews as a ғdegraded people:

Is it a coincidence that such an image turns up in an eleventh-century Andalusi-Arabic text, even though the subject in question is a non-Muslim?  During the eleventh century, the record of the various muluk al-tawaԒif (party kings) in observing and maintaining Islamic law was called into question continually by Muslim jurists, scholars and intellectuals.  Many go so far as to accuse the party kingsӔ of breaking faith with Islam, particularly for their excessive materialism, their extensive association with dhimmis, and their habit of elevating non-Muslims to positions of authority in the Islamic state.

Here we see the opposition that will anchor the arguments in this book: the dual-sided relation of Muslims to their protected minorities (dhimmi).  Islam saw itself as supreme and elevated above all other faiths.  This did not translate into a hatred of the Other as it did in Christian society, but allowed Islam to develop an ambiguous and multi-faceted view of the non-Muslim Other that is reflected in these texts.  The bedrock Quranic texts, written in the context of Jewish desertion of the Islamic cause, display a sometime dismaying image of the Jews that has often been integrated into the mainstream of Islamic culture.  But in the crucible of the political culture of Granada and Bahgdad, in quite practical terms, Muslim leaders continued to reach out to the minority communities and establish a pragmatic entente that stabilized the civilization as it progressed.

In light of this analysis of SaҒids text, Brann goes on to present a more nuanced portrayal of the Nagid in a 14th century text by the scholar Ibn al-Khatib which contained a much earlier, contemporary tradition from Ibn Hayyan al-Qurtubi.  The schism between the portrayals contains within it the seeds of the great ambiguity that existed regarding Muslim feelings about Jews in the period.  The early tradition reads thus:

This cursed man was a superior man, although God did not inform him of the right religion.  He possessed extensive knowledge and tolerated insolent behavior with patience.  He combined a solid and wise character with a lucid spirit and polite and friendly manners.  Endowed with refined courtesy, he was able to utilize any circumstances to flatter his enemies or disarm their hatred with his kind conduct.  He was an extraordinary man.  He wrote in both languages: Arabic and Hebrew.  He knew the literatures of both peoples.  He went deeply into the principles of the Arabic language and was familiar with the works of the most subtle grammarians҅

Here we have a sculpted portrait of the master which highlights elements that would make his character shine in a Muslim context.  He is not presented as an interloper and the full extent of his power over Muslims is left absent.  The portrayal is rich in the ArabӔ elements of the Nagids being and shows him to be a good man who knows his place in the world.

In contrast, the author of the text, Ibn al-Khatib, a vizier in Islamic Granada in the 14th century quotes yet another text, this one from the North African scholar Abu lҒAbbas Ahmad ibn Idhari:

Badis through his support behind his fathers secretary and wazir Ibn Naghrila, the Jew, and the subordinate tax-collectors from his religious community.  They gained stature during his tenure and behaved arrogantly toward the Muslims.

This citation places the Nagid in a very different context: The place of the Jew in Muslim society was to be proscribed in an exacting manner and any overstepping of the boundaries was to be frowned upon and criticized. 

Brann thus brings the two elements together in his analysis:

Because the boundaries he seems to cross are inherently ambiguous, what one reader might construe as Ibn NaghrilaҒs cultural assimilation to Muslim society another might understand as his infiltration of Islam.  That is to say, like all boundaries and borders, they both separate and unite.

The status of a Jew such as the Nagid was inherently multivalent; on the one hand his rise could be accepted as a necessary good within a multicultural Islamic universalism, but on the other hand the elevation of the Jew might be seen in a more negative, paranoiac light. 

The last contemporary text mentioning the Nagid is authored by the last vizier of Granada, Abd Allah b. Buluggin in his book the Tibyan.  Here we see yet another portrait of Samuel that mounts an even more complex and variegated representation of him:

The Jew possessed the kind of astuteness and diplomacy that were consonant with the times in which they lived and the people intriguing against them.  Badis therefore employed Abu Ibrahim [The Nagids kunya, or Arabic nickname] because of his utter lack of confidence in anyone else and the hostility of his kinsmen.  Moreover, Abu Ibrahim was a Jewish dhimmi who would not lust after power.  Nor was he an Andalusian against whom he needed to on his guard lest he scheme with non-Berber princes҅

In this text we see a more cautious and limited approach in praising the Nagid.  It is here pointed out that the Nagid was a necessary evil rather than a freely willed choice on the part of the government.  His status as a dhimmi is invoked as is the utilitarian nature of his status as a minority. 

Thus we see reflected varying aspects of the Nagids status in the Tibyan.  The NagidҒs status is taken as a given, yet its meaning is open to varying interpretations.  It is through these varying portrayals in which we begin to sense the fact that the representations themselves extend beyond the historical facts at hand and speak to us of the varied psychologies of their authors. 

This fact will be entertained in great detail in Branns examination of the texts of the famous polemicist and Islamic apologist Ibn Hazm; a man whose own biography intersects with Samuel the Nagid, as the two engaged one another during one of the many polemics in which Ibn Hazm was known for. 

Ibn Hazm is known primarily for his treatise on Love and Beauty, The Ring of the Dove (Arabic, Tawq al-Hamama) that is a primer on adab manners as practiced in the culture of Andalusia.  But less well known are the many polemical works authored by Ibn Hazm who saw himself as a gallant defender of a purist Islam Җ ironic in light of his many explicit portrayals of the erotic in his Ring of the Dove.  It was just this sort of dichotomy that Brann has analyzed, in a strictly Jewish frame, in The Compunctious Poet.  The balancing and integration of seemingly conflicted models of behavior and thought were perfectly natural in Muslim Spain and the very ability of writers to juggle these conflicts points to the robust nature of civilization in such a society.

Ibn Hazm conducted his defense of Islam from both chauvinist as well as rational perspectives: He believed that Islam was the true revelation from God and that Judaism and Christianity were counterfeit and fraudulent attempts to transmit Gods Word.  He conducted his analysis of Jewish and Christian texts with an adept thoroughness even while neglecting any contrary evidence that would weaken his case.  Judaism had corrupted the original Divine Revelation and could not be trusted as a pure source of truth. 

Ibn Hazm attacks the transmission and historical context of the Hebrew Bible and its rabbinical expositors.  He then moves on to see Jews as involved in Islamic schismatic movements known as the dahriyya.  By thus linking Jewish sages to Islamic heretics, Ibn Hazm looks to identify Judaism, contrary to Islamic law, as a fifth column, a cancer in the Islamic body. 

The context of Ibn HazmҒs portrayal of the Nagid is therefore that of the polemic attack on Jews and Judaism that has been traced throughout his writings.  But this attack, rhetorical in orientation, belied Ibn Hazms own convivial relations with the actual Jews themselves:

I was seated one day in Almeria at the shop of IsmaҒil ibn Yunus, the Jewish physician who was also a shrewd and clever physiognomist.  We were engaged in a social gathering when Mujahid ibn al-Hasin al-Qaisi said to him, pointing to a certain man named Hatim he was familiarly known as Abu l-Baqa ֖ who was withdrawn from the rest of us, What do you say about this man?Ӕ  He [Ismail] looked at him for a brief moment, and then said, ғhe is passionately in love.  Mujahid exclaimed, ԓYou are right; what made you say this?  IsmaԒil answered, Because of an extreme confusion apparent in his face.  Simply that; otherwise all the rest of his movements are unremarkable.  I knew from this that he is in love, and not suffering from any mental disorder.Ӕ

This text illuminates the attacks on Jews and Judaism that infect Ibn Hazms writings.  Rather than limiting the reader to a single perspective, the text shows the manner in which Jews and Muslims coexisted in Al-Andalus/Sepharad; the everyday conviviality and competitiveness that were expressed at a human level.

The case of Ibn Hazm, as Brann presents it, is thus emblematic of the multi-valence and ambi-valence in the culture: Ibn HazmҒs own biography was that of an exile from Cordoba, just like Samuel the Nagid, but in Ibn Hazms case he did not rise to become a leader and dignitary in his own homeland, as did the Nagid. 

By Ibn al-KhatibҒs reckoning, Ibn Hazm was appointed wazir on three separate occasions and was imprisoned at least three times.  When attempts at reviving his political career a final time failed at provincial centers, Ibn Hazm eschewed his previous ambitions and turned his boundless intellectual energy to research and to a stricter piety.  Accordingly, some students of Ibn Hazm have imagined an embittered and disillusioned Ali reflecting upon the ascent, position and authority within a Muslim state of Ibn Naghrila, the Jewish interlocutor of his youth.

Brann balances the two opposing perspectives by attributing to Ibn Hazm psychological motivations for demonizing the Nagid rather than merely attributing his caustic diatribe to singularly objective or rational concerns.

It is this consistent balance that Brann establishes in Power in the Portrayal.  By deftly fusing together the various elements into a single analytic paradigm, Brann avoids the perennial problem in assessing whether Muslim Spain was an unremitting hell for Jews or whether it was a utopia.  This balance shows the reader that there were all sorts of conflicting attitudes that continued to allow the ethnic cultures to co-exist in a reasonable fashion. 

The final Muslim portrayal of Ibn Naghrila Brann presents is that of Abu lHasan Ali Ibn Bassam al-Shantarini, best known as Ibn Bassam.  As we saw earlier in the text of Ibn al-Khatib and its use of the citation of Ibn Hayyan, Ibn Bassam will present a split version of the Nagid, a version that continues to highlight the duality of Jewish life under Islamic rule. 

Ibn Bassam cites a lengthy quotation from a poem contained in an epistle by al-Munfatil portraying Ibn Naghrila:

He combines distinction and virtues,
Exceeds his contemporaries and predecessors.
They sink in stature in relation to his distinction
As the sun behind the mountains.
This is the son of Joseph,
Who inherited distinction from gracious ancestors.
Time itself is honored by his distinction
As spearheads are distinguished by their tips.
Whosoever does not take refuge in his protection
Will not be safe from fateҒs deceptions.
He girds himself with the sword of excellence
And nobility of character his belt.
I am remiss in describing him justly
Although I am like Sabhan Wail!
How weak is the yearning for perfection
In one whose ancestors were not perfect.
The dew of generosity rests in his palms
As joints next to the fingertips.
Modesty follows his presence
As an exquisite sword follows the blade.

What is most fascinating about this rhetorical encoding of, as Brann would term it, inter-ethnic ambivalence, is that the authors, in cobbling together bits of biography and history to encapsulate figures and characters, do not fall on either side of the polemical divide: Muslim writers like Ibn Bassam and Ibn al-Khatib, whatever the sense of primitive animus they might have at some level, feel it necessary to provide both a positive as well as a negative portrayal of the figures they sketch for us.  This literary multivalence is both a translation of a social ambiguity in the inter-ethnic divide between the groups as well as a projection of an internal dynamic inherent in the Muslim condition during a period of political crisis and defeat.

Brann puts it in this manner:

Rhetorical convention and poetic accomplishment aside, Ibn Bassam and other Andalusi literary intellectuals of the twelfth century surely found it an embarrassing affront to the dignity of all Muslims for al-Munfatil to demean himself by addressing a Jew in such a seemingly deferential manner.  What some Muslims might have tolerated or been helpless to prevent during the exceptional circumstances of the eleventh-century muluk al-tawaҒif al-Andalus could have no place in the twelfth, a period ostensibly dominated by Islamic religious reform and the strict orthodoxy of Almoravid and Almohad piety and policy.

To take this idea to yet another step, we might say that while Arab civilization continued to maintain a positive and robust image of its own sense of self-confidence, images and realities of Jews and other minorities could remain relatively anxiety-free.  But when Islam felt itself weakening, the inner sense of security was broken and the external representation of the Other became more problematic.

Therefore a Jew such as Samuel ibn Naghrila might be seen under many different lights depending upon the inner tensions of the host culture and the varying perspectives of individual authors.  These differing characterizations are not an innate part of an essentialist Islam, but are shifting markers of political and religious ambivalence that led to a specific type of pluralist co-existence in Sepharad.

The final two chapters of Power in the Portrayal examine Jewish representations of Muslims, a far smaller subject, as Jews, being in the minority, continued to protect their communal autonomy and its fragile parameters by remaining invisible. 

Branns initial Jewish citation is the lengthy elegiac poem by Abraham ibn Ezra relating to his exile from Sepharad in 1140, an exile that, paradoxically, served to disseminate Andalusian culture in Christian Europe, a Europe that was then living in its Dark Ages.  Ibn EzraҒs account brings us back to Yosef Hayyim Yerushalmis sense of Jewish domicile within exile (Yerushalmi, in fact, quotes this Ibn Ezra poem in his essay). 

If we recall the citation from his essay presented earlier, we see that Jews like Ibn Ezra thought of Spain as a new Israel, and the Spanish Jews as the elite of Jewry:

I shave my head and weep bitterly for the exile of Seville Җ
For its nobles are corpses and their sons captives,
Their elegant daughters handed over to a foreign religion.
How was Cordoba plundered and become like the desolate sea?
There sages and great men died in famine and
Not a Jew besides me is left in Jaen or Almeria.
Majorca and Malaga are without sustenance
And the Jews who remained received a festering blow.
That is why I mourn, learn to wail bitterly, and utter so grievous a lament!
My howls in my anguish let them met away like water. (ll. 13-22)

Ibn Ezra continues the modes of ambivalence which permeate Andalusian literature: He loves his native land, but there is an objective tension lurking throughout the citation which leaves the Muslim persecutor unnamed yet still present.  Jews are a part of a larger society, a society which is led by Muslims, a society that both tolerates Jews and finds them to be a lesser people.  This duality, the love of Spain and its culture split off by the pain of being a minority, is both a rhetorical as well as an existential fact of life for Sephardic Jewry. 

The deep ties that Ibn Ezra had toward Spain are in deep focus in this poem.  He speaks of the topoi of Spain with an almost Biblical awe and familiarity.  Spain is the sacred land, a land where God has sent His exiles and shown His concern for them.  Ibn Ezra, a relentless promoter of Arabo-Andalusian culture in his European ֓exile, betrayed what was one of the most characteristic attitudes towards Muslim Spain in this period among his Jewish compatriots; that Sepharad was a mecca of culture, learning and the ԓgood life.  This good life went hand-in-hand with being dominated by the Muslim majority. 

Jews such as Abraham Ibn Ezra and Moses Maimonides, Spanish exiles both, continued to conceive of themselves as Andalusians by continually appending to their names the terms ԓha-Sepharadi.  They were intimately aware of the great cultural shift in the world and, whatever they might have thought about Islam or Muslims in particular, their own Sephardi ԓnationalism was a crucial part of their lives.

In two different texts, Moses ibn Ezra, the great Andalusian poet and theoretician, and Judah Halevi, his disciple, recreate a nascent Hebrew culture, nay a Hebrew superiority, in the midst of the cross-cultural fertilization in the period.

Moses ibn Ezra, in his Kitab al-Mahadara w-al-Mudhakara, a book which laid the foundation for medieval Sephardic poetics, recounts what has by now become quite a famous anecdote.  In a meeting with a Muslim who wishes to extol the virtues of the Arabic language and denigrate Hebrew scripture, we hear the Muslim asking Moses ibn Ezra to translate the Decalogue into Arabic.  The Muslim, who happened to be familiar with Latin, was then asked by Ibn Ezra to translate the fatiha of the QurԒan into Latin.  In this case we see the uselessness of this sort of cultural and linguistic one-upsmanship.  It is as silly to try and render Hebrew into Arabic, as it would be to render Arabic into Latin.  In this sense, Ibn Ezra preserves the status of the Hebrew language and upholds its integrity in light of the supremacy of Arabic.

Judah Halevi wishes to go one step further.  In his book of religious disputation Kuzari, he sets up a Muslim to extol the virtues of the Jewish faith and its history, which is, as we know, the foundations of the Muslim narrative.  In this sense, Halevi, a poet who attempted to renounce the Andalusian culture for a more narrow Jewish nationalism, seeks to conduct a messianic fantasy,Ӕ in Branns felicitous phrase, that would simply eclipse the Islamic triumph and replace it with the ascendance of Judaism as the most accepted faith.

We then read a short excerpt from Abraham ibn DaҒuds Sefer ha-Qabbalah, a book which purports to consolidate the Talmudic chain of tradition in its Sephardic/Andalusian context.  Ibn DaҒud, like Abraham ibn Ezra before him, was an exile from Muslim Spain and saw it as his obligation to promote Arabo-Andalusian culture in Christian society. 

In the excerpt from Ibn Daud we read the story of the Nagid as presented by the court secretary Ibn al-Arif:

This R. Samuel, however, fled to Malaga, where he occupied a shop as a spice-merchant.  Since his shop happened to adjoin the courtyard of Ibn al-Arif Җ who was the Katib of King Habbus b. Maksan, the Berber king of Granada the Katib֒s maidservant would ask him to write letters for her to her master, the Vizier Abul Qasim Ibn al-Arif.  Consequently, when after a while, this vizier, Ibn al-Arif, was given leave by his King Habbus to return to his home in Malaga, he inquired among the people of his household: ғWho wrote the letters that I received from you?  They replied: ԓA certain Jew of the community from Cordoba, who lives next door to your courtyard, used to do the writing for us.  The Katib thereupon ordered that R. Samuel ha-Levi be brought to him at once, and he said to him: ԓIt does not become you to spend your time in a shop.  Henceforth you are to stay at my side.  He thus became the scribe and counselor to the Kingԅ

Ibn Daud uses the testimony of a Muslim to proclaim the virtuousness of the great Ibn Naghrila.  The Jew, paradoxically, is exalted by his Arab-Muslim master.

Finally, Brann presents a text by the Nagid himself, the famous martial poem Eloah Oz.  In this poem, a recounting of the battle between Granada and Almeria, the Nagid resets the battle as a Biblical war between Israel and its Amelekite enemy.  In BrannҒs words:

The reader will note that the Hebrew text actually refers to Zuhayr as Agag, and Almerias troops as Amaleq.  Agag, of course, is the infamous Amalekite king of Israelite lore and, according to later biblical and rabbinic typology, the incarnation of IsraelҒs most inveterate foe.  Identifying Zuhayr with Agag, the ancestor of the biblical Haman, the poet establishes one of many ideologically ambitious and explicit links with his namesake, the prophet Samuel, with his Levite ancestor King David, and with the career and exploits of the late biblical character Mordechai, a Persian-Jewish courtier.  The first and last of these figures confronted and defeated an Amelekite representative seeking to annihilate the Israelites/Jews of their time.  Samuel the Nagids classification of his enemies after this fashion exemplifies the poetҒs patented appeal to typologies of historical recurrence, a maneuver that served the peculiar needs of his ambitious persona as well as the political and historical ethos of the wider audience of Andalusi Jews.

According to this analysis we see that the Nagid permitted himself the rhetorical hubris to superimpose, as Ibn Ezra had done topographically in his poem, a biblical and sacred configuration onto his secular role as a vizier in Granada.  And while such hubris was short lived (the Nagids son Joseph was murdered in a court intrigue which led to a sack of Jewish Granada in 1066), the rhetorical and conceptual significance of such epic feelings became a crucial part of the essentialized concept of identity that took hold of the Sephardim through the ages.

Brann ends the book with a strange tale from the collection of maqamat by Judah al-Harizi called Tahkemoni.  Al-Harizi is himself a very crucial figure in the development of Sephardic literature, as he inaugurates the new period that has Jews moving into Christian Spain after the Almohad expulsion of the Jews from Granada in the 11th century.  Al-Harizi adopts a form of literature, the maqama (rhymed prose interspersed with poems) that has yet to be used by Hebrew writers in Spain.  Al-Harizi is a belated figure who goes back into an earlier period of Arabic literature and asserts his own skill at mastering it and by transmitting it in pure, biblical Hebrew. 

The great irony in al-HariziҒs biography is that he leaves Christian Spain to go back to the Muslim East, where he ends his literary career by writing Arabic poetry.  Judah al-Harizi is yet further proof, if proof were needed, of the intense bond that Jews felt for their adopted homeland.

The tale that Brann chooses from the Tahkemoni is one that has the main protagonists Heman and Hever recount to one another an event which happened to Hever the previous day.  While standing in a crowd that has gathered around an astrologer, Hever, who, like al-Harizi, is a staunch Maimonidean who believed that arstology was bunk, wishes to debunk the man in front of the crowd.  What better way to do so than to ask the astrologer to solve the greatest mystery that Hever can think of - the date of the coming of the Jewish messiah.

Hever and his friends become worried as the astrologer begins to tongue-whip them.  The astrologer identifies the men as Jews and states the following:

You inquire about a profound secret and ask a most difficult question for it is a secret as deep as the netherworld.  Your question concerns the fallen tower [of David], whether it will be rebuilt with turrets; about the scattered sheep [of Israel] and whether they will escape the teeth of lions and go about among the beasts Your question concerns the ingathering of exiles, the destruction of kingdoms, and the resurrection of the dead.  As the Lord lives, you deserve to die because your question concerns the destruction of the world; and you have spoken subversively and conspired against the government.

The astrologer thus hoists Hever by his own petard, his œhidden Jewish identity.

Judah al-Harizi conceived of his book as a product of Jewish nationalism, a nationalism that was born in the context of the emergence of adab culture, a product of Arabo-Islamic learning.  This paradox of the superiority of a Hebraism which has been molded by Arabic poetics and aesthetics surfaces in this tale of the astrologer.  The Jews here get cocky and think that they are going to triumph over this lowly astrologer.  In fact, the very elitism of the Maimonidean culture would create just this type of arrogance in Hever; because he has adopted the ԓenlightened position, Hever assumes that he will be able to best the astrologer.

But in the denouement of the tale, the Jew is forced to remember that he is in Exile and that the Muslims rule over him.  The great irony of all this is that al-Harizi is writing in a Christian environment and not a Muslim one.  The very memory of Jewish life in Islamic Spain, warts and all, is to be preferred over the tenuousness of life in Christian Toledo. 

It is this memory that has continued to lay buried in the heart of the Sephardic Jews; the ambivalence wedded to the glory is consistently sedimented into the cultural patrimony of this people.

The work of Ross Brann is perhaps the only current scholarship that has presented before the educated reader as well as the specialist the vast panoply of Sephardic literature, situated in a studious yet sympathetic context.  His scholarship, as can be gleaned from each page of his books and articles, is impeccable; his mastery of the Hebrew and Arabic source material, with a clear cultural understanding of the various implications of both, is second to none.  His use of a wide range of secondary sources with the utmost humility and respect (admittedly, perhaps the most amazing of BrannԒs scholarly feats is to isolate Bernard Lewis scholarly acumen away from his more politically-charged polemics) is coupled to a great concern for the import of the arguments being made, in the most subtle manner, throughout the book.

The literature of the Sephardim has become a kind-of political football that is manipulated, as I have continued to assert, by a host of interests that continually ignore or misapply its very trenchancy for our own culturally troubled times.  By grounding his research and criticism firmly within the sources, Ross Brann has delineated a scholarship that, like its Andalusian forbears, has tried to remain as inclusive as possible.  This sense of inclusion makes works like Power in the Portrayal vital reading for all those who are interested in the Arab-Jewish past and its ramifications for the present.

By tackling issues like modes of inter-ethnic representation and the existential links between Jewish culture and the adoption of non-Jewish modes of thinking and feeling, Ross Brann has begun to chip away at the chasm that is at the heart of modern Jewish culture.  Rather than avoid the unpleasant realities of the past, or try to elide them Җ a tack that could really never work anyway, what with the polemics of Lewis and Stillman ubiquitous in Jewish history courses Brann goes straight to the heart of the matter and, calmly and dispassionately, and with a tremendous dignity, seeks to lay out the case as precisely as he can.  Within this terrain he never forgets that there is always another way of seeing things; he has himself internalized the very Andalusian poetics that he speaks about as an academic and made those poetics part of a larger intellectual continuum.

It is within this continuum that the Sephardi paradigm, what I have termed ֓The Levantine Option, has such a decisive role to play.  The lost world of Sepharad/Al-Andalus has been used and abused, to the point where it has almost become an empty sign upon which to inscribe oneԒs own prejudices.  The objective and deeply contextual manner in which Power in the Portrayal and Branns other writings functions has served to redraw the map of Sephardic and Jewish studies in this country.  His work has opened new scholarly vistas and modes of interaction between scholars and those whose lives are so deeply intertwined with the cultural model of Sepharad/Al-Andalus.

Rather than ignore the detritus that has crept into the study of Sephardic Jewry and Arab High Culture in Spain and the East, Ross Brann has taken the most damning evidence and sought to re-read that evidence in light of what we have learned about the region and its civilization.  The key element in his reconstruction of this civilization is the creative potential inherent in ambiguity.  So much of modern thought revolves around our predilection for certainty and absolutes.  In the world of Muslim Spain there was room for creative tensions, tensions that produced some of the most lasting and explosive literary works that Western civilization has seen.  In fact, as we have seen in the work of Philip Hitti and Maria Rosa Menocal, it was those very Arabo-Islamic works that served to create and define Western modernity.

Now that Western civilization has reached yet another impasse with the Arab East, an Arab civilization that has largely forgotten its own highest cultural and ethical values, the scholarly reconstructions of Ross Brann and his deep and penetrating insights should be shared by scholars and laypeople of all stripes to begin to comprehend the riches of what Andalusia has bequeathed to us.  It is clear that everyone should know what has been stored in the Sephardi heart lo these many centuries.


David Shasha

 


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