- Specular Images:Jews and Muslims in Al-Andalus
Medieval Jews and Muslims look at each other in Ross Brann's new book—to see the other and to see the self through the other. More precisely, this intriguing and sophisticated book revolves around the question of how the social and literary imagination of Andalusi Muslim and Jewish literary religious intellectuals represented their counterparts and rivals, elite members of each other's communities, during the eleventh and twelfth centuries. In the variety of answers he presents to this question, Brann masterfully combines extensive knowledge of the pertinent medieval (Arabic, Judeo-Arabic, and Hebrew) sources with a keen use of poststructuralist practices of interpretation.
Brann is, of course, not the first to explore the well-plowed field of Muslim-Jewish relations. Given the ever-growing relevance and visibility of the Arab-Jewish conflict in the twentieth century, the topic has understandably attracted practitioners of medieval history as well as modern Middle East experts; literary scholars, intellectuals, ideologues, and politicians; Arabs and Jews; and Zionists and post-Zionists. Most of these modern authors have attempted to expose the "true" nature of the relations. Some also insist that lessons learned from al-Andalus should set examples—or warnings—for Israeli-Arab relations, present and future. [End Page 206]
Brann makes it clear that he does not aspire to contribute to positivist historiography, but rather to suggest new ways of looking at the already known sources. Nevertheless, in his most useful introduction, he unfurls a wide spectrum of diverse, if not altogether conflicting, scholarly opinions, relying, among others, on historians (such as S. D. Goitein, Bernard Lewis, Mark Cohen, Jacob Lassner, and David Wasserstein) of medieval Muslim-Jewish relations in general, and Muslim Spain in particular. The agreed fact is that Andalusi Jews (like Jews and Christians in other Muslim lands) were considered dhimmīs. However, the ambiguity built into this term yields different emphases by historians: some stress that the Jews were inferior subjects of the Muslim rulers; others stress that they were a tolerated group entitled to protection by law. The contrasting historical narratives of Muslim-Jewish relations oscillate thus between the positive pole describing a romanticized coexistence ("interfaith utopia," "creative symbiosis") and the negative pole testifying to bitter hostility, trenchant conflict, bloody riots, and straightforward antisemitism. Other historians limit their description to the middle of the spectrum. The Muslim attitude toward the Jewish minority—the attitude that enabled the economic and cultural prosperity of the Jewish-Andalusi "Golden Age" (roughly 950-1150)—is defined by historians as ranging from "enlightened tolerance" and "benign neglect" to "total indifference."
The ambiguity of the Andalusi case poses a dilemma to the positivist historian: What was the essential nature of the encounter between the two religio-ethnic communities? What is the "true" narrative? Should it be determined according to rancorous expressions (uttered by Muslim polemicists or by Jewish liturgists), or according to commonplace documents that inadvertently testify to forms of coexistence? According to short and rare outbursts of bloody riots, or according to longer periods of calm? The quest for a single paradigm misses, according to Brann, the diversity and the ambivalence of the Andalusi multilayered reality. Brann's undertaking in Power in the Portrayal is not the advancement of positivist history or the settling of the historians' controversies. His contribution lies rather in his theoretical assumptions and his methodology of text reading.
Hence, the latter part of Brann's introduction lays the methodological ground for the whole work. "The purpose of this study is to examine textual manifestations of the ambivalence with which Andalusi Jewish and Muslim literary and religious [End Page 207] intellectuals thought of, or more precisely, imagined one another" (8; italics mine). Brann is interested not in relations, but in reflections. Rather than being "about" history, his book is a speculation about the interface of literature and history. Collapsing "the historical" and "the literary," Brann historicizes literature while analyzing history...