Sunlight and Shadow: The Jewish Experience of Islam (Lucien Gubbay)

Book Review
Lucien Gubbay, Sunlight and Shadow: The Jewish Experience of Islam (Other Books, 2001)

The largest dilemma currently facing Sephardim is the problem of self-knowledge.  Our children who attend American Jewish day schools are faced exclusively with Ashkenazi oriented curricula and administrators and teachers who, even if they are Sephardi in ethnic origin, have been trained in the methods of the ubiquitous Board of Jewish Education and the general detritus of the larger Orthodox Torah Umesorah system which has controlled the Jewish day school system since the 1950’s.  This control has created a pedagogical status quo that produces a student with very definable characteristics not traditionally Sephardi in orientation.

In the course of the past 50 years, Sephardim have seen their cultural and religious traditions fade into oblivion.  Self-representation in the public arena is now nearly non-existent.  With the recent political struggles in Israel over Palestinian rights, the Israeli government, with the help of academics and the benighted Sephardim themselves, has been able to manipulate the complex history of the Jews of the Middle East (even the nomenclature is not without its own internal lack of polemic: Are we Sephardim?  Mizrahim? Arab Jews?  Jews of Arab Lands?  Eastern Jews?) in order to create a quid pro quo between the Jewish refugees of Arab countries and the Palestinians. 

The issue of the quid pro quo unfortunately further exacerbates the tensions between Sephardim and their Muslim compatriots.  Having lived since 1948 as second class citizens in the Jewish state, Sephardim have continually sought to displace their rage at the Arabs and are presented, or rather have been manipulated into “Arab haters.”  As Lucien Gubbay masterfully presents the larger historical context in his Sunlight and Shadow: The Jewish Experience of Islam, the truth is far more complicated than merely seeing Muslims as the eternal enemy of the Jews.

The story told by Gubbay is refreshingly balanced in perspective.  We learn about the great historical evolution of Middle Eastern civilization after the Islamic revolts.  Rather than merely presenting the Islamic conquest of the Middle East as retrogressive, as is so often done in books of this type, Gubbay continually places the role of Islam within the larger context of Roman and Byzantine civilization.  Against the dominant Christian model, as Gubbay states, “It should not be forgotten that the Arabs exploded into a world exhausted by twenty-six years of constant warfare, a world whose inhabitants longed for peace and stability and had come to believe that great changes were inevitable.  Christian heretics and Jews in the Byzantine Empire, to whom almost any change must have seemed for the better, welcomed the Arabs with open arms.”

It is balance that enriches Gubbay’s argument.  Rather than enlist the lachrymose approach to Jewish history that has generally governed the limited works on the subject of Jews in the Islamic civilization, Gubbay attempts, without “cant and rancour” as noted by Dr. Zaki Badawi in his introduction to the book, to lay out the truths of the Jewish experience under Islamic stewardship.  Jews produced a unified and internally coherent version of Judaism that accepted the autonomy provided by Islam and thrived under it.  While not glossing over the complex internal relations between the triumphant and triumphalist Muslims and their minorities, Gubbay seems hell-bent on setting the record straight on the historical primacy of Sephardic Jews within the overall historical trajectory of Judaism as opposed to merely fitting Sephardic Judaism into contemporary Jewish history.

And it is this point that is made crystal clear in this splendid work: The organic development of Judaism, in its Talmudic/Rabbinical variant, has been historically anchored in the East.  The various post-Islamic outgrowths of Judaism are all manifestations of the source in Baghdad and its Talmudic academies.

Gubbay spends a good deal of time illuminating the historical context of the society in which the Talmud was created, the land of Iraq which was at the center of the burgeoning Islamic empire being created in the East.  While there is scant historical evidence for the original Persian context that led to the transition between Palestinian and Babylonian Jewries, we know a good deal more about the academies and the culture they produced in the so-called Geonic Age, a period of Jewish history overlapping with the rise of Islam that should theoretically help us to understand the development of Talmudic Judaism.

The unfortunate emphasis on ahistorical study of Jewish sources has obscured the achievement of the post-Talmudic Geonim.  At the head of this school was the Egyptian native Se’adya Ga’on who was perhaps the single most influential rabbi of the post-70 era.  While the rabbis of the Talmud preserved Pharisaic Judaism by synthesizing its manifold traditions, the Geonim sought to reframe the conceptual identity of Judaism by integrating their study into the new program of the humanities and sciences that was being developed in Islamic civilization.

It was this new curriculum that led to the study of philosophy, linguistics, rhetoric, theology, mathematics and the various sciences, including, most prominently, medicine, within Geonic rabbinical culture.  The most famous exemplar of this culture is the legendary Moses Maimonides, but, as Gubbay shows us, the framework of Maimonides was enabled by the Islamic revolution in letters and its first Jewish heirs.

This revolution was given great impetus by the energies of non-Arab minorities in the Islamic world, Jews, Persians and Christians, who did a good deal of translating and transmitting of ancient knowledge during the first Islamic centuries.  The minorities assiduously toiled to raise their lot and contribute to a society that gave them numerous opportunities to do so.  It was because of the massive efforts of Muslims, Jews and Christians working in complementary fashion that the Islamic civilization took on a particularly brilliant luster.

The issue of the legal status of the minorities under Islam, a vexatious issue that has led to all sorts of polemics within the current political climate, is presented in clear and straightforward fashion in the book.  Islam had a dual approach to its minorities: On the one hand it sought to place them in a clearly inferior position to the dominant Muslim class by means of repressive and discriminatory legislation, yet the overall ethos of Islam was to provide social acceptance and a general egalitarianism to the minorities.
This seeming paradox was borne out within the historical evolution of Islamic society: In times of economic prosperity and social cohesion, the lot of the Sephardim thrived, in times of instability and social breakdown, Jews, along with their Christian compatriots, suffered a bit more than the native Muslims.  But Jewish suffering is consistently seen within the context of the overall difficulties that were felt by all members of society.

Gubbay is careful to consistently present the case in a non-discriminatory manner; Jews lived in a society where they were able to prosper and thrive materially and spiritually under a set of limitations.  Those limitations were built into the Islamic system and could be enacted at any point.  But because of the inherent ambivalence attached to the Muslim approach to minorities, there was nothing of what we could call racism or personal antipathy to Jews as a people, as could quite easily be found in European Christendom.

Jewish creativity is given pride of place rather than the mere presentation of a mass litany of persecutions.  The rocky early years of the Andalusian experience are contrasted with the glory years of the Nagid, ibn Gabirol, Halevi and ibn Ezra.  There is a sympathetic and objective understanding that attempts to paint a picture of Sephardic Jewry as an immensely talented culture working within variable circumstances. 

By and large the circumstances permitted the Sephardim to moderate their relationship to the world and not develop an overwhelming insularity.  This cosmopolitanism is closely linked to the communal autonomy that the Jews were able to establish, an internal cohesion and well being that led to a sense of permanence and security in the Islamic universe.

It is this openness to the world that finally emerges from Gubbay’s historical analysis.  Through the ups and downs, the Sephardim were able to remain open and contribute to the development of a global civilization.  It was only after the fall of the Ottoman Empire that the integrity of the Sephardic communities was breached.  And while I wish that Gubbay had gone into more detail regarding the dissolution of the Arab Jewish communities and their fractious and embittered relationship to Zionism and the modern state of Israel (being played out by the Shas party and various Sephardi renewal organizations), the manner in which the Sephardic story is told retains its essential dignity and coherence.

At a time when our own children know close to nothing about who they are, such a book is an essential addition to our libraries.  The few books on the subject have not been very useful in comparison.  Historians such as Bernard Lewis and his school, as alluded to earlier, have preferred to tell a story that functions within the limitations inherent in the rabidly paranoid anti-Muslim perspective afforded by Zionism.  Lucien Gubbay’s brilliant achievement has been to present for the general reader a comprehensively researched and lucidly written history of the Sephardim which attempts to do justice to its subject without the prejudice that animates the current political climate. 

Such a book, elementary in many ways, is significant because it affords the general reader a fresh look at this history.  Because of the dearth of Sephardi self-articulation there are many Sephardim today who have despaired of their place in the Jewish world and the world in general.  We are caught between increasingly zealous and rigid Jewish factions that demand us to ignore vital parts of our historical identity.  Hence, the availability of a clearly articulated Sephardic history is just the thing that we need at the current time.

One small criticism: While Mr. Gubbay’s use of his scholarly sources is accessible and laudable, it might have been more useful if he provided the reader with a more up-to-date and comprehensive bibliography from the small library of Sephardica that has appeared in the past 10 years or so.  There have been a few Sephardic writers who have added to our self-knowledge, writers such as Ammiel Alcalay, Victor Perera, Ella Shohat and others whose precious books are a crucial aspect in the road to Sephardic self-recovery.  As a pedagogical tool, such a summation and a “further reading” list would have made what is already a wonderful book even more useful to the general reader.

But in its current form Sunlight and Shadow still affords a novel look at Sephardic history.  And while historical study cannot provide any immediate solutions to the difficult and seemingly intractable problems of today’s Middle East, it does afford its readers an alternative way of looking at the problem.  And if all concerned, Jews, Sephardim as well as Ashkenazim, Muslims and Westerners (particularly policy-makers and politicians), read this book they will find new directions in which to analyze and assess the political calculus of what seems to be an irreconcilable dispute.

This book thus serves a number of audiences, who are in vital need of its information.  This is a book that we can draw from and pass along to our family and friends in order to display the rich complexity of our Sephardic past, a complexity that, it seems to me, is so sorely needed at a time of great tension and acrimony.  The Sephardic tradition, as we have been saying all along, can provide Western culture with a pluralistic vision for a world that is increasingly fragmented and at odds with itself.  It is thus up to the Sephardim as a collective to articulate their historic experiences in the current dialogue.


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