- Iberian Moorings: Al-Andalus, Sefarad, and the Tropes of Exceptionalism by Ross Brann
In this study Brann explores how Muslims and Jews who lived in the Iberian Peninsula between the sixth and thirteenth centuries defined themselves and the place they were from as culturally and religiously exceptional. When 'Abd al-Rahmān III declared himself caliph in tenth-century Córdoba, which Brann describes as "Al-Andalus's moment of self-discovery," we witness not only "the origins of the idea of al-Andalus as a legitimate and ambitious Islamic state" but also "the historical moment in which a distinctive Andalusiness was conceived, articulated, and promulgated in the service of country" (24). Brann details what elements tenth-century Andalusi politicians and authors considered essential in making al-Andalus unique as well as the intellectual origins of these elements. In the introduction he gives a list of four themes that elites in both the Muslim and Jewish communities used to represent al-Andalus and Sefarad as unique (7). These include the idea that the peninsula is an agricultural, Edenic land of bounty, that it is a site of religious orthodoxy, and that its people are noble and excel at intellectual and religious pursuits as well as possess refined manners (adab). These themes constitute what Brann calls the trope of exceptionalism, which, as this study shows, has been articulated in various contexts from the tenth century to the present. The author argues that both the construction of Sefarad and al-Andalus "followed a similar trajectory" and, "without al-Andalus, there would have been no Sefarad" (10). Exploring the deep connection between Andalusi and Sefardi cultural production has been the subject of several of Brann's previous studies, including The Compunctious Poet (Johns Hopkins, 1991) and Power in the Portrayal (Princeton, 2009). As in his previous scholarship, in Iberian Moorings he does an excellent job of contextualizing detailed close readings of medieval Arabic and Hebrew texts in their larger historical and social contexts.
In chapter 1, Brann focuses on the origins of the idea of al-Andalus and its peoples as exceptional and favored. Andalusi historians and geographers such as 'Abd al-Malik ibn Ḥabīb and Abū Bakr Aḥmad al-Rāzī developed narratives of al-Andalus, adopting to Islamic eschatology Isidore's seventh-century portrayal of Iberia as a land of [End Page 211] unique agricultural bounty, ideal clime, and favored by God. In al-Rāzī and ibn Ḥabībs accounts, the peninsula not only compared favorably to the Islamic East as a land of wonders ('ajā'ib) but also attracted religious scholars and leaders, who embodied "Islamic nobility, authenticity, and legitimacy" (33). Brann explores how the Mālikī 'ulamā' (religious authorities), in tandem with the Umayyad rulers, depicted themselves and their culture, including such material manifestation as the Great Mosque of Córdoba, as the rightful inheritors and embodiment of the Prophet Muhammad's thought and traditions. He contextualizes this self-fashioning of Andalusi orthopraxy in the Umayyads' struggles with the Fatimids in Egypt and the Abbasids in Baghdad.
In chapter 2, Brann turns to tenth-century Andalusi Jewish thinkers such as Abraham ibn Daud, Dunāsh ben Labrāt, and Ḥasdai ibn Shaprūṭ and outlines how they, like the Muslim Andalusi thinkers he studies in chapter 1, began to craft their own unique identity as the Jews of Sefarad. Brann shows how tensions between the growing spiritual authority of western Jewish communities (al Andalus and, importantly, North Africa) and the waning centers of the East, riven between Karaite and rabbinic authority, as well as the growing focus on Jerusalem as the focus of Jewish identity, worked to shape the particular forms Sephardi exceptionalism took and how it came to be expressed. He highlights how this identity both originates from and operates against the rabbinates of the East, which had long served as the intellectual and religious authority for Jewish communities in the diaspora. An important contribution of this chapter is Brann's foregrounding of the important role that intellectuals from the Maghrib, including...