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This Noble House

Jewish Descendants of King David in the Medieval Islamic East

By Arnold E. Franklin

Publication Year: 2012

This Noble House explores the preoccupation with biblical genealogy that emerged among Jews in the Islamic Near East between the eleventh and fourteenth centuries. Arnold Franklin looks to Jewish society's fascination with Davidic ancestry, examining the profusion of claims to the lineage that had already begun to appear by the year 1000, the attempts to chart the validity of such claims through elaborate genealogical lists, and the range of meanings that came to be ascribed to the House of David in this period. Jews and Muslims shared the perception that the Davidic line and the noble family of the Prophet Muhammad were counterparts to one another, but captivation with Davidic lineage was just one facet of a much broader Jewish concern with biblical ancestry.

Based on documentary material from the Cairo Geniza, the book argues that this "genealogical turn" should be understood as a consequence of Jewish society's dynamic encounter with its Arab-Islamic milieu and constituted a selective adaptation to the importance of ancestry in the dominant cultural environment. While Jewish society surely had genealogical materials and preoccupations of its own upon which to draw, the Arab-Islamic regard for tracing the lineage of Muhammad provided the impetus for deploying those traditions in new and unprecedented ways.

On the one hand, the increased focus on ancestry is an instance of medieval Jews reflexively and unselfconsciously making use of the cultural forms of their Muslim neighbors; on the other, it is an expression of cultural competitiveness or even resistance, an implicit response to the claim of Arab genealogical superiority that uses the very methods of the Arab "science of genealogy." To be sure, Franklin notes, Jews were only one of several non-Arab minority groups to take up genealogy in this way. At the broadest level, then, This Noble House illuminates a strategy that various minority populations utilized as they sought legitimacy within the medieval Arab-Islamic world.

Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press

This Noble House

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pp. vii-viii

A Note on Transliteration, Names, and Dates

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pp. ix-x

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pp. xi-xvi

In reviewing the period of the ancient Israelite monarchy, the tenth-century Judeo-Arabic chronicle Kitāb al-taʾrīkh (Book of Chronology) briefly narrates the story of Elijah’s triumph at Mount Carmel over the prophets of Baal: ...

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pp. 1-33

In the second half of the twelfth century, almost a hundred years before Marco Polo’s celebrated exploration of the Silk Route, two Jewish travelers made their ways, separately, to the city of Baghdad. Benjamin of Tudela, the first and more famous of the two, arrived in about the year 1168 after setting out from northern Spain ...

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Chapter 1. “Sharīf of the Jewish Nation”: Reconceptualizing the House of David in the Islamic East

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pp. 34-67

Sometime in the late twelfth century, an otherwise unknown individual by the name of Abraham ha-Levi bar Tamim al-Raḥbī copied down, in a careful and clear hand, the lineage of a contemporary member of the Davidic line, tracing his ancestry back, son to father, through King David all the way to Adam (Figure 1).1 ...

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Chapter 2. “The Truth of the Pedigree”: Documenting Origins and the Public Performance of Lineage

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pp. 68-106

In an entry on the sharīf Idrīs ibn al-Ḥasan al-Idrīsī, in his biographical dictionary of important people associated with the town of Aleppo, the chronicler Ibn al-ʿAdīm (d. 1262) recounts an incident that demonstrates the significant social implications of distinguished ancestry in medieval Islamic society.1 ...

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Chapter 3. Ancestry as Authority: Lineage and Power in Near Eastern Jewish Society

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pp. 107-130

In November 1011 a manifesto issued by a council of scholars at the court of the Abbasid caliph al-Qādir (d. 1031) was read aloud in mosques throughout the Near East and North Africa. The council, which included both Sunnīs and Shīʿīs and even several leaders of the ashrāf, had come to the conclusion, ..

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Chapter 4. “Designated in the Past and for the Future”: Davidic Dynasts and Medieval Messianic Anticipation

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pp. 131-162

In September 1038, in the midst of the Jewish high holiday season, Nathan ben Abraham, the scion of a prominent Palestinian family, was proclaimed gaʾon of the Palestinian yeshiva. Nathan’s appointment to that post was a direct challenge to Solomon ben Judah, who had occupied the gaonate for over a decade. ...

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Chapter 5. “The Sharīf of Every People Is Well-Born”: Genealogy and the Legitimization of Minority Culture

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pp. 163-178

Adding his own voice to the frequently venomous literary debate over the respective place of Arab and non-Arab peoples in medieval Islamic society—the so-called shuʿūbiyya controversy—Ibn Qutayba (d. 889), the great ninth-century Arabic belletrist and polymath, himself of non-Arab, Persian extraction, writes in his Kitāb al-ʿarab (The Book of the Arabs): ...

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pp. 179-184

Maimonides’ formulation is based upon a passage in the Babylonian Talmud (Qiddushin 70b–71a) that describes a miraculous future discrimination between individuals of legitimate and illegitimate birth. In envisioning a scenario in which all Jews will one day be explicitly traced to biblical tribes, Maimonides thus seems to take some liberty with his rabbinic source. ...

Appendix A. Halper 462: Transcription and Translation

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pp. 185-188

Appendix B. A Tentative List of Davidic Dynasts Datable between ca. 950 and ca. 1450

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pp. 189-206


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pp. 207-208


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pp. 209-252


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pp. 253-276

Index of Manuscript Sources

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pp. 277-284


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pp. 285-294

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pp. 295-297

Whatever self-aggrandizing uses they may ultimately be put to, genealogies are, on a certain level, reminders that no individual exists in isolation and that behind each one of us and our achievements stands a long line of other people. It is therefore a most fitting privilege at the conclusion of a book in which genealogies play so central a role to ...

E-ISBN-13: 9780812206401
E-ISBN-10: 0812206401
Print-ISBN-13: 9780812244090
Print-ISBN-10: 0812244095

Page Count: 320
Publication Year: 2012

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • David, King of Israel -- Family.
  • Jews -- Nobility.
  • Jews -- Genealogy -- History.
  • Judaism -- Relations -- Islam.
  • Islam -- Relations -- Judaism.
  • Islamic Empire -- Ethnic relations.
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