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Power in the Portrayal: Representations of Jews and Muslims in Eleventh- and Twelfth-Century Islamic Spain.

Power in the Portrayal: Representations of Jews and Muslims in Eleventh- and Twelfth-Century Islamic Spain, by Ross Brann. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2002. 194 pp. $39.50.

As tensions among Jews, Muslims, and Christians continue to manifest themselves in the Middle East and other parts of the world, academic interest in the co-existence (convivencia) of these groups in medieval Muslim Spain has surged. Popular treatments of convivencia, no doubt shaped by contemporary yearnings for peace, often romanticize this interaction. More careful studies, however, give due attention to the literary evidence of inter-communal tensions in al-Andalus. This book, by the Professor of Judeo-Islamic Studies and Chair of Near Eastern Studies at Cornell University, is clearly to be included in the latter category.

Brann divides his study into five essays, which are preceded by an introduction in which he sets forth his methodological assumptions. Recognizing the complexity of the tribal, ethnic, socio-economic, factional, and, of course, religious "cleavages" that beset al-Andalus, Brann from the outset sets his scope narrowly on the relations between the Jewish minority and the Muslim majority during the "Golden Age" of Jewish civilization in medieval Spain, i.e., the eleventh and twelfth centuries. Even after thus carefully limiting his purview, he notes that the few select literary sources to be examined will enable him only to uncover "the ambivalence with which Andalusi Jewish and Muslim literary and religious intellectuals thought of, or more precisely, imagined one another," not to "advance broad or unsupportable claims for the experience of the Jews under all of Mediterranean Islam" (p. 8). Yet Brann maintains that these texts are not merely individual in their significance but rather "represent structures of sociocultural and historical signification" beyond the experiences of the authors themselves (p. 8), often revealing "more about the cultural situation of the scriptor's textual community than that of the depicted subject" (p. 9).

In his exegetical observations Brann shines in various ways: in his selection of texts to be examined, in his elaboration of their content, in his description of their historical context, and in his interpretation of their rhetoric. His fresh translation of significant portions of these texts, some previously unavailable in English, in itself makes this book a valuable contribution. Each of the five chapters presents either a single text or several related texts that are somehow indicative of the ways in which Muslims and Jews perceived one another in al-Andalus. The first three chapters are related in that all focus on Ismail ibn Naghrila, perhaps the most noteworthy Jew of Islamic Spain, as portrayed by various Muslim authors.

Chapter 1 presents three eleventh-century texts: the Tabaqat al-umam of Ibn Said al-Andalusi, an account of Ibn Hayyan al-Qurtubi as transmitted in Ibn al-Khatib's Al-Ihata fi akhbar gharnata, and the Al-Tibyan of Abd Allah b. Buluggin. Although all of these texts depict Ibn Naghrila with a high degree of respect as a "model Jew" in the service of the Muslim state (the tendency is to transfer any negative assessments of Ismail to his son Yusuf), they manifest considerable variation, indicating the "unstable construction of the Jew in eleventh-century Andalus" (p. 53).

In Chapter 2, Brann turns to perhaps the most strident of medieval Spain's Muslim commentators on the Jews, Ali ibn Hazm, who depicts Ibn Naghrila as a "composite Jew," a typological figure, a "linguistic trope" of what Ibn Hazm considers to be all of the faults and sinister proclivities of the Jewish race, especially the Jews of al-Andalus. In this, the strongest chapter of his book, Brann guides the reader through Ibn Hazm's dense polemical universe, providing a good sense of its richness without allowing his reader to get lost amid its convolutions.

In Chapter 3, Brann provides a striking example of the conflicting attitudes of Andalusi Muslims toward their Jewish counterparts through an examination of Ibn Bassam's Treasury Concerning the Merits of the People of Iberia (Al-Dhakhira fi mahasin ahl al-jazira), in which the author takes indignant exception to, yet fully transmits, the startlingly deferential stance toward the Jews expressed in an epistle and poem by al-Munfatil, who, in praising Ibn Naghrila, goes so far as to identify with, and to suggest his own allegiance to, the faith of the Jews! For Brann this is a paradigmatic example of the "textualization of ambivalence" which typified Muslim literary depictions of Jews and Judaism.

Counter-balancing the first three chapters, in which Brann concentrates on the Muslim representation of the Jews, are the final two chapters, in which he turns to Jewish representation of Muslims. In both of these chapters he draws attention to the reticence of the Jews in pronouncing judgments on the Muslim majority. This, Brann notes in Chapter 4, is especially true in Jewish poetical compositions of the period, like those found in Moses ibn Ezra's Book of Conversation and Discussion (Kitab al-muhadara wal-mudhakara), Judah Halevi's Kuzari: The Book of Refutation and Proof on the Despised Faith (Kitab al-radd wal-dalil fi l-din al-dhalil), Abraham ibn Daud's Sefer ha-Qabbalah, and the poems of Samuel ha-Nagid. In these works, Muslims are sometimes negatively portrayed, but not in terms of their religious identity. Why this reticence? In suggesting an explanation, Brann reiterates a point made in the earlier chapters, viz., that Muslim representations of Jews are tropes of Muslim culture, elucidating "conflicts of Muslim religion, culture, and identity" (p. 119). Similarly, Jewish representations of Muslims--or the lack thereof--are tropes of Andalusi Jewish culture. The reticence of the Jewish poets is explained by their "situational marginality" in Muslim Spain, their experience of "socio-cultural rupture" with the dominant Islamic culture at various junctures in the history of al-Andalus (p. 125). As a particularly illustrative example of this "silence of the Jews," Brann in Chapter 5 considers Judah al-Harizi's corpus of maqamat (picaresque tales), especially the "maqama of the astrologer," in which Muslims are ambiguously depicted as both vilifying and defending the Jews.

After Chapter 5, Brann's work abruptly ends, leaving the reader without a concluding synthesis of the many observations emerging from his textual analyses. Herein lies the main fault of this work. To be sure, one can appreciate Brann's aforementioned reluctance to draw grandiose, overly broad conclusions from the texts he discusses; after all, they reveal only a small slice of Islamic Spain. Nevertheless, despite his methodological restraint, Brann does indeed distill a number of more general perceptions which deserve systematic presentation at the end of his study. Such a conclusion would draw the five foregoing essays into a more coherent whole while simultaneously underscoring the significance of each. It would bring into convergence the various insights by which Brann enables his readers to refine their understanding of the dynamics of medieval Spanish convivencia.

Theodore Pulcini

Department of Religion

Dickinson College
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Author:Pulcini, Theodore
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 2005
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