Jews in Muslim Spain

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The culture of Sephardic Judaism was born during the early Middle Ages in the shadow of the Muslim courts of Spain. From 711 up to the mid-twelfth century, flourishing Jewish communities had developed throughout Muslim Spain (al-Andalus), creating a culture full of vitality in the Islamic centres of power such as Granada, Cordoba, Lucena, Merida, Saragossa and Seville.

The specificity of the Sephardic Jews stems in part from the unique diversity of the Iberian Peninsula in medieval times, home to Muslims, Christians and Jews, and the special place they occupied both politically and culturally.

The Muslim conquest of Spain in 711 was generally welcomed by the Jews. According to Moslem and Christian sources, Jews provided valuable aid to the Muslim invaders. Once captured, the defence of Cordoba was left in the hands of Jews, and Granada, Malaga, Seville, and Toledo were left to a mixed army of Jews and Moors.

The conquest triggered a wave of Jewish immigration to Spain after a century of persecution under the Christian Visigoths. Wealth and opportunities offered by Spain was a magnet for many peoples of the Mediterranean region. To Jews throughout the Christian and Moslem worlds, Iberia was seen as a land of relative tolerance and opportunity. Following initial Arab victories, and especially with the establishment of Umayyad rule by Abd-ar-Rahman I in 755, the native Jewish community was joined by Jews from the rest of Europe, as well as from Arab territories, from Morocco to Babylon. Thus the Sephardim found themselves enriched culturally, intellectually, and religiously by the commingling of diverse Jewish traditions.

With the establishment of the Umayyad Caliphate of Cordoba under Abd al-Rahman III and Al-Hakam II, an independent Muslim centre of power emerged, rivalling Baghdad in wealth and culture. The Jews of Spain abandoned their ties with Jewish communities in Iraq and developed independently their own culture and Talmudic authority. Under the influence of Muslim linguists and grammarians, they began to experiment with new cultural forms in Hebrew. Poetry, linguistics, science, philosophy and mathematics complemented their interest for the Bible and the study of the Talmud.

The adoption of the Arabic by Jews not only introduced a new vocabulary, but also a completely new way of thinking, which allowed the Jews in Muslim countries to participate in the dominant culture and to become part of it in a way that never existed in Christian Europe. In addition, Jews were conspicuously present in a variety of professions, including medicine, commerce, finance, and agriculture.

By the tenth century, the Umayyads of Cordoba had successfully transferred to Spain much of the imperial traditions and art of Baghdad. Jewish merchants bringing to Spain luxurious goods from the East also brought with them the fruits of the intellectual work of the Talmudic academies of Baghdad. Thus a Babylonian ritual prayer had arrived in Spain in the ninth century, allowing the Spanish Jewish community to participate in a common culture that stretched across the Mediterranean, with its roots in the East.

The active cultural life in Cordoba was a source of inspiration and imitation in the areas of synagogue architecture, poetry and medicine. Jewish scholars from abroad were invited to Cordoba to create an independent academy, and linguists and grammarians were employed as secretaries of princes while exploring new poetic forms.

The first period of exceptional prosperity took place under the reign of Abd ar-Rahman III (882-942), the first independent Caliph of Cordoba. His Jewish councillor, Hasdai ibn Shaprut (882-942), was put in charge of supervision of customs and foreign trade. It was in his capacity as dignitary that he corresponded with the kingdom of the Khazars, who had converted to Judaism in the 8th century.

Hasdai was not the first Jew in the Middle Ages to play an important role in public life. Many Jewish figures also emerged from obscurity at the same time in Iraq. But he was the first to play a key role in launching a cultural movement in Jewish history.

Abd al-Rahman III's support for Arabic scholasticism had made Iberia the centre of Arabic philological research. It was within this context of cultural patronage that interest in Hebrew studies developed and flourished. In addition to being a poet himself, Hasdai encouraged and supported the work of other Sephardic writers. Subjects covered the spectrum, encompassing religion, nature, music, and politics, as well as pleasure. Hasdai brought a number of men of letters to Cordoba, including Dunash ben Labrat (innovator of Hebrew metrical poetry) and Menahem ben Saruq (compiler of the first Hebrew dictionary, which came into wide use among the Jews of Germany and France). Celebrated poets of this era include Solomon ibn Gabirol, Yehuda Halevi, Samuel Ha-Nagid ibn Nagrela, and Abraham and Moses ibn Ezra.

Hasdai used his influence to intervene on behalf of foreign Jews, as is reflected in his letter to the Byzantine Princess Helena. In it he requested protection for the Jews under Byzantine rule, attesting to the fair treatment of the Christians of al-Andalus.

In addition to contributions of original work, the Sephardim were active as translators. Greek texts were rendered into Arabic, Arabic into Hebrew, Hebrew and Arabic into Latin, and all combinations of vice-versa. In translating the great works of Arabic, Hebrew, and Greek into Latin, Iberian Jews were instrumental in bringing the fields of science and philosophy, which formed much of the basis of Renaissance learning, into the rest of Europe.

Despite its reputation, Cordoba was never the sole centre of Andalusian culture and Jewish creativity in medieval Spain. After the dismemberment of the caliphate, other thriving centres of Islamic civilization, deliberately imitating the capital, came to prominence in Seville, Granada, Malaga and Lucena.

Like their contemporaries Muslims, Jews studied a variety of topics, including astronomy, astrology, geometry, optics, rhetoric, calligraphy, philology, metrics, medicine, philosophy and Arabic. It was also essential to complete rigorous studies of the Jewish tradition, including the Bible, the Talmud and Hebrew. The particular emphasis on the arts and foreign languages reflected the dominant cultural traditions of Arabs, under which a man was judged on the basis of literary skills as much as his social qualities.

In the Umayyad Cordoba, Jewish scientists built astrolabes to calculate latitude, improved astronomical tables and instruments for navigation at the time of the voyages of exploration setting off from Spain and Portugal. The poet Abraham Ibn Ezra wrote three books on arithmetic and number theory. Abraham Bar Hiya wrote a book on practical geometry in Hebrew that was the first scientific book in Hebrew to be translated into Latin. It was also the first time when the Arab knowledge of algebra appeared in Latin. Bar Hiya also compiled a large encyclopaedia of mathematics.

The period of great literary blossoming of Jewish history in Spain ended with the career of Moses Maimonides. When the Almohades from Africa conquered Córdoba in 1148 and threatened the Jewish community with the choice of conversion to Islam, death, or exile, Maimonides's family, along with most other Jews, chose exile. Thus came to an end an era of relative harmony and well-being. Maimonides eventually settled in Egypt and was widely recognized during his lifetime as a physician and a philosopher and his legal, medical and philosophical writings marked a great moment in the history of Jewish thought. His greatest legacy, the Guide for the Perplexed, prompted comments and controversy for generations.