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Reviewed by:
  • History as Prelude: Muslims and Jews in the Medieval Mediterranean
  • Richard J. Jones (bio)
History as Prelude: Muslims and Jews in the Medieval Mediterranean, ed. by Joseph V. Montville. 214 pages. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2011. $60.

Joseph Montville, an experienced American diplomat disillusioned with two generations of failed peace negotiations between Israel and her Near East neighbor states, hopes these historical essays will help present-day Jews and Muslims to believe in the possibility of coexistence by first acknowledging they are heirs of an enriching, challenging, and sustained coexistence yesterday. Hence the therapeutic title, History as Prelude. The essays are persuasive. Readers who will imitate these historians’ empathy and attentiveness to the European Middle Ages (800–1400 AD) may find their hope aroused for a future which, if not wholly peaceful, is at least richly productive.

These seven essays belong to the flourishing historical field of Mediterranean Studies. They build on the work of the French historian Fernand Braudel, the German-Israeli Arabist, Shelomo Dov Goetein, and the Tunisian Islamic scholar Mohamed Arkoun.

Mark R. Cohen of Princeton contributes an essay on the storeroom of discarded literary and everyday documents, mostly written in Arabic using the Hebrew alphabet (Judeo-Arabic), which came to light in the late 19th century inside a Cairo synagogue.

Of medieval Jewish use of Arabic, Cohen observes:

… the Jews not only spoke it, but also used it for nearly everything they wrote… even religious works that in the past had been composed in either Aramaic or Hebrew, including rabbinic law, came to be written in Arabic

(p. 11).

Cohen ventures an overall assessment of this haystack of documentary evidence:

The galut [exile] of Ishmael (the Jewish epithet for Islam), unlike the galut of Edom (the name for Christendom), stopped short of exclusion and general expulsion, even in the later, harsher centuries. This rendered Jewish life under Islam more bearable

(p. 9). [End Page 757]

The other essayists are less concerned with the dynamics of perpetrator and victim and more content with savoring the occasions for contact. These historians explore in rich detail specific fields of meeting: government, medicine, science, commerce, and philosophy.

Ahmad Dallal of the American University of Beirut, apparently the sole Arab contributor, argues against the popular idea that Muslims showed little interest in other religions and peoples. His chief evidence is the important Yemeni Muslim scholar, Shawkani (d. 1834 AD), who cites the Torah and the Bible as reliable sources, argues that the philosophical Jewish polymath Maimonides wrongly construed the Torah as speaking of resurrection only allegorically and presses his own belief in resurrection on a both a Jewish and a Muslim readership.

Raymond Scheindlin, of the Jewish Theological Seminary (New York), contributes his English translation of a narrative poem, “The Battle of Alfuente,” written in 1038 AD in Hebrew by the Jewish courtier in the city-state of Granada whose authority was second only to the Muslim ruler. Scheindlin finds the Hebrew to be “in the biblical register,” a Hebrew equivalent to classical Arabic. The courtier explicitly places himself in the tradition of Moses, David, and Mordechai as protector against his people’s enemies. The form of the poem, however, imitates pre-Islamic Arab war poetry:

Fallen princes’ bloated corpses lay Like full wine-skins or women come to term.

This poem of triumph over a rival Andalusian city-state intends, as Scheindlin understands it, to strengthen the always-precarious power of a man who is both the ruler’s right hand and the tax-collector over the Jewish population of Granada.

Particularly vivid is the essay by Olivia Remie Constable of Notre Dame University on the medieval commercial activity of the Mediterranean, which became integrated into a much larger Asian network by the 10th century. Muslim merchants generally avoided travel to Europe, but from the 12th century onward Christian merchants from Italy and southern France flocked to Muslim markets, until by the 14th century Christians dominated traffic in the Mediterranean, while Jewish and Muslim merchants dominated the Near East and Indian Ocean. Constable sees an “evolving culture of consumerism” as “the luxury of yesterday tended to become the treat of today and the necessity...


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