David Nirenberg on the Jewish-Muslim relations in Christian Spain

David Nirenberg, of the University of Chicago, does micro studies of Jewish life in Spain based on legal documents. He offers a nuanced approach to the topic of interfaith relations in Spain. He points out that there is no simple calculus to say if a society was tolerant. His big insight is that Jewish –Muslim relations were mediated by Christians and both minorities modeled themselves on patterns of the host. He shows that many of the incidents were local events of urban fear of the other.  Think of the movie “Do the Right Thing” or the Crown Heights incident between Jews and the Black community.  A bit of Zygmunt Bauman on Judeophobia and urban tensions could probably really sharpen an already fine article.

Here is the fine article of his online that gives many of his conclusions from his book.

David Nirenberg, What Can Medieval Spain Teach Us about Muslim-Jewish Relations? CCJR Journal Spring / Summer 2002. 17 -36

I give some of his general principles and there cases: Tax Collection, Butchers, and Holy Week

First, no history as long and complex as that of Muslim and Jewish interaction can be explained by exegesis of a single text, even when that text is as foundational as the Bible or the Qur’an. Such prooftexts can sustain any number of interpretations over time, some of them quite contradictory, as anyone familiar with the Talmud (for example) knows.

Second, societies cannot be classified as tolerant or intolerant merely through the accumulation of “negative” or “positive” examples. Our understanding of the history of Muslim (or Christian) relations with Jews has to be rich enough to explain both the periods of relatively stable coexistence and the periodic persecution that marked Jewish life in both civilizations. Any account of Muslim-Jewish relations that does not simultaneously make sense of, for example, the brilliant career of Samuel Ibn Naghrela and the terrible massacre that ended his son’s life is obviously inadequate, for both are very real products of the same society. And finally, historians are not accountants, toting up the assets and liabilities of this and that society in order to declare a particular tradition more solvent (or in this case, more tolerant) than another.

The positions Jews and Muslims took vis-à-vis each other in Christian Spain cannot be understood in any simple sense as the products of “Jewish” or“Islamic” cultural attitudes toward one another. They were that, of course, but they were also very much influenced by what Jews and Muslims understood to be Christian interests and ideologies.Sometimes the arguments were purely economic or pragmatic.

Jews also were the tax collectors, officials, scribes of the chancery, and those employed in land and sea services. A Jew acted as magistrate, and as such sentenced [Muslims] to punishment of whipping or lashes.

The competition sometimes made for strange bedfellows. When the Jewish butchers of Daroca succeeded in acquiring a royal monopoly on selling halal meat to Muslims, the Muslims joined with the Christians in lobbying to have the Jewish meat market shut down. Moreover, the winner was not predetermined. The episode is revealing in that it confirms an important point: Christians were the ultimate arbiters in this competition between Judaism and Islam. Hence any arguments in the contest needed to be made with an eye on the Christian audience.

Each year during Holy Week, in Spain and elsewhere in the Mediterranean, crowds of Christian clerics and children participated in ritualized stone throwing attacks on Jewish quarters called “killing the Jews.” In 1319, a group of Muslims tried to make the practice their own.

4 responses to “David Nirenberg on the Jewish-Muslim relations in Christian Spain

  1. Pingback: Two Months « The Book of Doctrines and Opinions: notes on Jewish theology and spirituality

  2. “Second, societies cannot be classified as tolerant or intolerant merely through the accumulation of “negative” or “positive” examples. Our understanding of the history of Muslim (or Christian) relations with Jews has to be rich enough to explain both the periods of relatively stable coexistence and the periodic persecution that marked Jewish life in both civilizations. ”

    A well educated and fair comment that in today’s polarized world is forgotten. I must search this author and see if there are also studies during the times of Al Andalous, which interests me greatly as having lived and studied the Andalousi migration to the Maghreb and the building of a rather different Jewish/Muslim community relationship there (still evident to this day) it may be the best example of what is possible for this world of today.

  3. Pingback: Silva Speculationis » Blog Archive » 「イスラム対ユダヤ」という構図

  4. I just heard David Nirenberg speak a few days ago here in Berkeley, he referenced this topic but was talking mainly about his upcoming work on the category of “Jew” as a political construct in Europe.
    His dialogic approach to history in general is much needed and well done. He takes 30 years of theory seriously, and tries to avoid the pitfalls that critics of historiography point out with respect to the limits of the historian and the genre itself
    And now i just realized this post was from 2009 – I have no idea how I ended up here.

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