sehepunkte 21 (2021), Nr. 7/8

Stephan Conermann (ed.): Muslim-Jewish Relations in the Middle Islamic Period: Jews in the Ayyubid and Mamluk Sultanates (1171-1517)

We can be grateful for this volume, and the conference that spawned it, which has helped to put Jewish history into the mainstream of the study of the Ayyubid and Mamluk states, the polities that ruled Egypt and Syria (and often beyond) from 1171 until 1517. Of course, historians of these two sultanates have not ignored the Jewish communities who lived in these countries, and scholars of Jewish history in this area and time have not forgotten the context in which these communities lived. However, it seems to me that all too often both these topics are researched and taught without enough engagement with the other. This present volume helps remedy the situation, presenting us with eight very interesting and innovative papers.

Before proceeding to discuss briefly each paper in the collection, I will make a few points about the importance of studying late medieval Judaism in an Islamic context, and the history of the central Islamic world with fuller regard for its Jewish communities. My first point is that Jewish history - or perhaps the history of the Jews, be they prominent individuals or larger or smaller communities - is certainly an integral part of the region's history. The historian of the Middle East ignores them at his or her peril. Certain Jews - and at times groups of Jews and even whole communities - play significant roles in wider economic, intellectual and public affairs. Their being Jews is often not incidental to this high-profile activity; if nothing else, the fact of someone being Jewish or of Jewish origins, was noted by contemporaries (not always positively) and recorded in the sources. From the very beginning of Muslim history, Jews are frequently somehow involved. Much of this goes beyond the brief of the present volume, but it bears remembering.

Secondly, the region's history is part of Jewish history as a whole. Once cannot study the history of the Jews in the late Medieval and early modern periods in Europe without considering developments among the Jews in the Middle East, as well as the more general history of the region, if for no other reason that there was so much back and forth between Christian Europe and the Muslim South and East. We need also to remember the crucial importance of the Jews of the Islamicate world in the long-term flow of Jewish history and culture. Even the most superficial knowledge of these fields leads to the clear conclusion that in so many ways it was the Arabic-speaking Jews of the Muslim countries who set the tone for intellectual and religious discourse for centuries. Avram Udovitch has said - and I am citing him here from memory from a talk - that for hundreds of years, what was important in Jewish life was mostly either written in Arabic, or in Hebrew by Jews who spoke Arabic. Perhaps that is a little exaggerated, but not too much. Of course, these Arabic speaking Jewish scholars and intellectuals were completely au courant with the intellectual and cultural currents around them, also usually written in Arabic: these were in the realms of philosophy, literature, religion and other fields. So, to understand much of what is going on among Jews in general in the late medieval and early modern periods, one has to look at the Arabic speaking Jews, and then the larger milieu in which the latter lived, and often even thrived.

A third point is that the history of the Jews of the Islamicate world needs to be seen together with the history of the eastern Christian communities in Egypt and Syria (and nearby areas), like the Jews long Arabized. There are obvious differences between the two groups, but also certain similarities; in any case, a comparative approach will help us understand better the history of both groups. Certainly, the attitudes to the Jews, official and otherwise, did not develop in a vacuum, but are part of a larger process of relations between with all the Dhimmi communities. The historian of the Jewish communities of the Ayyubid-Mamluk period should be aware of the history of the various eastern Christian communities, perhaps not only the local ones, along with travellers, merchants and pilgrims.

My fourth point is to suggest that we have to look at the longue durée of Jewish history in the region, even if one is specializing in the Ayyubid and Mamluk period. I certainly don't have to remind most of the readers here that Jewish life in Egypt didn't start with Saladin's gaining control of the Egyptian state in 1171. Fatimid Jewry sets the stage for later developments, and one could and should probably even go further back. The famous Jewish community of Ottoman Ṣafad (Tzfat) and others elsewhere in the region had its beginnings in the late Mamluk period. In short, the historian of the Jews in this period, like his counterpart for Muslim history, needs to see a wide chronological context. The same holds true for the geographical framework. One cannot forget the state of the Jews in neighboring countries during this period. For starts, what is going on with the Jews of Iraq, Upper Mesopotamia (the Jazīra), Azerbaijan, and other areas of the Mongol controlled Mashriq? If nothing else, there was coming and going between these two areas, including - it would seem - some Jews. Likewise, we should cast our eyes to the south and west. Obviously, Maimonides knew what was going on in the Yemen, while Jewish traders were active there and further east until at least the early thirteenth century. North Africa and Spain demand our attention too.

My fifth point is that we can leave no stone unturned in our search for material on the Jews of this period and region. Perhaps, I might rephrase this: you never know when you are going to stumble upon something of interest, maybe even very interesting, while one is reading the rich sources of the period. In other words, one is best not just relying on Jewish sources. I will give two examples: Much of Amir Mazor's various studies on Jewish physicians in the Mamluk period were based on evidence from al-Safadi's biographical dictionaries, which he discovered while working on his research about the Mamluk military-political elite. Wisely, Amir noted the importance of this evidence, put it aside, and after finishing his dissertation, found the way to treat it appropriately. And, if I can give something from my own work: I found embedded in Mamluk chronicles important information on Jewish wise-men working for the Mongols in Iran. This was not where anyone - certainly me - expected it, and therefore, that much more interesting.

Finally, I might suggest that the long-term fate of the Jewish communities in the Islamic countries - and by this, I mean where Muslims have political control - also says much about the Muslim society in which they were rooted. Social, cultural, economic and demographic trends affecting the Jewish communities can potentially throw light on parallel trends in other Dhimmi communities and the hegemonic (and eventually majority) Muslim society. S.D. Goitein certainly showed that this was the case in some of his Geniza studies, and clearly this is the case in later periods too.

To sum up these comments, I would say that we have to accept the simple dictum: there are no Jewish studies without Islamic Studies, and there are no Islamic Studies without Jewish Studies. "That is all the Torah! The rest is commentary - go and study it!"

With these thoughts in mind, I can now survey the eight articles in the collection, which are arranged by the alphabetical order of the authors' names, rather than thematically (not that I am complaining, but this arrangement is not mine): The first article by Dotan Arad (Bar-Ilan University) is titled "Being a Jew under the Mamluk: Some Coping Strategies". I can already note that this study can be read profitably in tandem with that of Nathan Hofer, discussed below. Unlike the latter article, here Arad does not really come to grips with the question of long-term questions: did the Jewish communities of Egypt and Syria have to deal with a more difficult situation than their predecessors or was there discernable decline among them in this or that aspect? However, he does write (23): "In addition to the laws of Dhimmihood, Jews also frequently had to cope with interreligious hostility, acts of fanaticism, and various forms of harassment". To examine how Jews as communities and individuals dealt with difficult situations, Arad looks at three realms: 1) the repair, preservation and even construction of synagogues; 2) the legal sartorial distinction; and 3) inheritance. Certainly, with regard to the last mentioned, under the Mamluks it became more difficult for the Jews (and other Dhimmis), since the default situation had now changed: if they could not prove legal heirs, the legacy of the deceased was appropriated by the state; in any case this was no longer a community matter to decide, but rather fell under government jurisdiction; this was particularly the case from the mid-fourteenth century onward. In all three case, we find Jews (and sometimes in some places "The Jews") using subterfuges to get around restrictions or difficulties. Clearly, the Jews knew what they were doing. Arad also shows that often, the Jews were not a monolithic whole, but different Jews in various places and conditions adopted different tacks, depending on the circumstances (this is especially true for the matter of clothes). I found particularly interesting the use by Jews of establishing endowments (awqāf) by Islamic law. This is certainly hybridity, certainly not voluntary, but effective enough. Arad concludes his chapter thus (39): "[W]e have discussed the various strategies the Jews in the Mamluk state adopted to deal with the laws of Dhimmihood. These ranged from quiet compliance, lobbying, and exploitation of the Shar'ī law in their favour all the way through to violation of the laws through subterfuge, disguise and dissimulation". Heady stuff, that sets the stage for subsequent papers in the volume.

The chapter by Paul B. Fenton (Université de Paris-Sorbonne), "Sufis and Jews in Mamluk Egypt", is a clear and comprehensive survey with interesting insights. The influence of Sufism on Jewish mysticism during the times is not unknown, but as far as I am aware this is the best presentation of the subject in English (and perhaps in other languages). The impact of Sufism on many Jews parallels the growth of institutionalized and individual mysticism under the Mamluks and also its impact on the military-political elite (One could add here, that the growth and development of Sufism seems to be a phenomenon in the entire Islamic world, certainly in the areas controlled by the Mongols and the various post-Mongol dynasties). Looking back at antecedents in the Ayyubid period, and particularly the roles of Abraham Maimonides (1186-1237), who succeeded his father as head (nagīd) of the community in Egypt, and then his sons and successors 'Obadyah Maimonides (1228-1265) and David Maimonides (1222-1300), and their progeny, Fenton shows how Jewish pietism was impacted by Sufi writings and practices, not without local opposition it should be noted. I found interesting the comment (on 59) that mystical Jewish pietism was actually the purview of the community's elite, and opposition to it came from wider circles; this was not what I would have expected. Two important insights from this article are 1) the role that Sufi shaykhs played in conversion to Islam of certain Jews who were impacted by this Sufi-inspired Jewish pietism. This is a significant piece of information in the ongoing discussion about the role of Sufis as agents of islamization. And 2) the means by which Sufism set the stage for later Jewish developments in Palestine. The cultivation and flourishing of Sufism in Safad (Tzfat) after its conquest by Baybars in 1266, prepared the way for the growth of Jewish mysticism in the city, even before the arrival of refugees from Spain towards the end of the Mamluk period. The development of Safad as a center of Kabbalah under the Ottomans should be seen in this context.

The next article, by Miriam Frenkel (Hebrew University) takes us to modern historiographical debates: "Eliyahu Ashtor - A Forgotten Pioneer Researcher of Jewish History under the Mamluks". No doubt that Ashtor (1914-1984) was a pioneering historian, not only in the realm of Jewish history under the Mamluks (and pre-modern Muslim rulers in general), but also of the general economic and social history of the pre-modern Islamic and Mediterranean regions. Ashtor's groundbreaking role is made clear in this article, and we learn a lot about him and his work. However, I think it is a little overstated to think of him as "forgotten"; he is still regularly cited, even if at times one disagrees (at times strongly) with him. The scope of his work, the breadth of his sources and the energy devoted to his research were remarkable, again even if one needs to argue with some of his findings and conclusions. In this article, Ashtor's work is not unsympathetically presented, but it is mixed with some criticism: not all his ideas have weathered well the test of time. I find here some expressions of distaste and unwarranted irony. Is it surprising that Ashtor was an enthusiastic supporter of Jewish nationalism in the 1940s, given that he escaped from Nazi Austria by the skin of his teeth, witnessed the extermination of European Jewry, and then saw the struggle for the birth of Israel? (Even the leader of the Palestine Communist Party signed Israel's declaration of independence). I am uncomfortable with the application to him of blanket generalizations about the Zionist and Orientalist discourse, as well as the so-called Jerusalem school of Jewish historiography: with regard to the latter to whom exactly are we referring, to the rightwing Revisionist Joseph Klausner, the Labor Party stalwart such as B.Z Dinur, or those of the Zionist Left who supported - at least until the 1940s - the idea of a binational state, and afterwards some accommodation with the Arabs? An Orientalist: indeed, making sweeping generations about the East and its Jews, but it is more complicated: one could conceivably consider Ashtor to be a proponent of incipient anti-colonialism, as he described in several studies with aversion the penetration of Venice and other western states into the economy of the Levant, and the beginning of an economic dependency of the Muslim countries in the Levant on the ever developing West. I hope that I am not misunderstood. Firstly, there is much in this article that I liked very much, and secondly, Ashtor needs to be read carefully and critically (his portrayal of economic decline under the Mamluks is far too stringent and unequivocal), and his idiosyncrasies - not only academic - need to be taken into account, but his works are still very useful. I think that Miriam Frenkel would concur with that judgement, but we part on ways to assess some of the character of his work.

In his article "Conversion Stories from the Mamluk Period," Yehoshua Frenkel (Haifa University) gives us an innovative study that all students of islamization will find of interest. He does not study conversion of Jews per se (although there is some of that too), but rather how these stories were presented in the Mamluk sources. Actually, this article deals with the perceptions of the Mamluk-era writers as well as some of the violence directed towards the Jews (and Christians too), and then arrives at the main theme. We learn of several stories, some of them related by famous figures (Ibn Taymiyya being the most prominent). The theme that time and again arises is how through judicious argumentation, certain Jews - many of them scholars cum physicians, succumbed to the charms and advantages of Islam, and this was also a swift process. I enjoyed how the author here applied in an interesting and original way the insights of Arthur Darby Nock from mid-twentieth century (with the use of the term conversion vs. adhesion) and the psychological approach of William James at the beginning of the century.

Nathan Hofer (University of Missouri, Columbia) has written a wide-ranging and challenging article: "The Ideology of Decline and the Jews of Ayyubid and Mamluk Syria," to which I cannot do justice in a paragraph (or even two). I will start by noting that in general I am in sympathy with his preliminary critical presentation of the supposed overall decline of the Mamluk Sultanate: this is clearly an unsatisfactory and insufficient way to approach the second half (or more) of Mamluk history, and there are plenty of indications to show that matters in the late Sultanate were not so awful as portrayed by an earlier generation of scholars (including Eliyahu Ashtor, mentioned above). That being said, one cannot deny that the Mamluk regime was losing some of its grip internally - in the rural areas and at least some of the provincial towns - in the later fifteenth century, and at the same time it was having increasing difficulty projecting power towards the outside. This was not just business as usual. I also agree that the Jewish communities of the time were not in a state of disarray, decisive economic decline or cultural and intellectual collapse. However, perhaps they had seen better (and easier) days. My understanding is that sometime during the early thirteenth century the Jews of Egypt (at least) had been pushed out of both the Mediterranean and Indian Ocean trades, and thus were not nearly as prosperous as under the Fatimids and early Ayyubids. Without necessarily seeing unmitigated persecution, it was clearly harder to be a Jew and to run the Jewish community under the later Mamluks, and the antecedents were already discernable under the earlier Sultans. One does not have to go too far to see this change for the worse: some of the other chapters paint this situation clearly, and also show how the Jews tried to deal with this. Indeed, there was a clear degree of Jewish agency at times of harassment and worse. This was effective at times at blunting the worse maltreatment, but we shouldn't rush to a conclusion that all was as it should be (or had been); remember that agency is important at times of difficulty. I should qualify myself, now noting an important point made by Hofer, which I had not previously considered before reading the article: Whatever the situation of the Jews in Mamluk Egypt - it should not necessarily color in negative way what we think about Syria (primarily Damascus and Aleppo, but also Jerusalem). The author presents clearly the situation in Syria was not as dire as in Egypt. It was Dhimmahood, of course, but of a somewhat milder brand and thus it remained throughout most of the Mamluk period.

"Healer, Scholar, Conspirator. The Jewish Physician in the Arabic-Islamic Discourse of the Mamluk Period" by Paulina B. Lewicka (University of Warsaw) continues the author's studies on medical practice under the Mamluks, and particularly the role (and trials and tribulations) of non-Muslims in the profession. Jewish (and Christian) physicians continue to practice under the Mamluks, treating many Christians, but there was clearly an increase of rhetoric against such practitioners. Here one can see a clear-cut distinction between what was said and written in the Ayyubid and early Mamluk period. To the author's eye, this indeed does reflect a hardening of the discourse against Dhimmis, but it was not unequivocal. Thus, she primarily sees an uncompromising attitude among those writers of a more theological bent (e.g. Ibn Khallikān, and several from the fifteenth century), while others who come out of the administrative milieu (e.g. al-'Umarī and al-Ṣafadī) are more accommodating to the non-Muslim physicians. The question remains how a strident anti-Dhimmi rhetoric actually affected the work (and thus prosperity, numbers, training, etc.) of the Jewish and Christian physicians. The provisional conclusion is somehow these managed to hang on throughout the period: there may have been fewer medical luminaries, but journeyman medical practitioners, as well as pharmacists, continue to find work and pass on the profession. As such, they didn't challenge the new exemplary Muslim religious scholar who studied medicine of this or that type. The days of the Jewish philosopher-physician were over.

The chapter by Elisha Russ-Fishbane (New York University), "Earthquake, Famine, and Plague in Early Thirteenth-Century Egypt: Muslim and Jewish Sources", ties in nicely with a larger trend in scholarly writing: the interaction between climate and human history, the role of natural disasters, and the way in which societies deal with them and then recuperate (or not). Here we follow two episodes combining natural disasters, hunger and disease (and political problems too) that struck Egypt in the mid-Ayyubid period: 1200-1202 and 1216-1228. An important contribution of this study is how much we can learn by looking at different groups of sources for the same events, something that for linguistic and disciplinary reasons is usually not the case. Secondly, it is interesting to see how a minority community dealt with and was affected by these crises. The Jews of Cairo (Fustat and Cairo proper) and Alexandria, in spite of a high degree of communal solidarity, suffered evidently more than the general population, due inter alia to the continued application of the jizya (poll tax) even at a time of crisis. The significant depopulation of Jewish Fustat is noted, as is the heroic role of the nagīd Abraham Maimonides (met earlier in this book, and review) ameliorating the dire situation of the community members. One can only wonder what would have been the situation to the Egyptian Jews without a well-functioning communal organization and a vigorous leader? Two additional comments: the crisis starting in 1216 was clearly exacerbated by the coming of the so-called Fifth Crusade in the summer of 1218. This is mentioned only in a footnote (albeit a long one, on page 171), but I would have put this firmly in the narrative: one can imagine a Jew of Alexandria or Cairo thinking: "We thought we had it bad before: now our troubles really begin." The other matter ties in the overall economic history of Egypt in the first half of the thirteenth century (until the Mamluk "revolution"). Here, the author paints a bleak picture, accelerated by these disasters. Clearly these were event of momentous significance for the social, economic and cultural history of the country in this half century, but I am not convinced that it was one of unmitigated economic disaster. Certainly, the Ayyubid dynasty was stable (in Egypt, less so in Syria), and we see discernable construction and cultural activities, not indicative of ongoing economic crisis. We also cannot forget the ongoing military involvement of the Sultan in Egypt in the affairs of his kinsmen in Syria (and beyond), as well as a growing trend in the purchase of young Mamluks, particularly after the accession of al-Ṣāliḥ Ayyūb to the throne for a second time in 1240; all of this demanded much resources and hints at some economic stability. I can suggest that in spite of the hard times mentioned in this chapter, sometimes for several years, the economic situation of Egypt at this time was relatively prosperous, a trend strengthen once the Mamluk regime settled in, certainly after 1260 under Sultan Baybars.

Finally, I am happy to note the extremely interesting article by Walid A. Saleh (University of Toronto), "The Status of the Bible in 9th / 15th Century Cairo: The Fatwas collected by al-Biqā'ī (d. 885/1480)". This for me was a real eye-opener. Al-Biqā'ī's use of biblical material was not unknown, and Saleh has certainly expounded on it, but putting this paper in this volume will bring the matter to a much wider audience. The Quranic commentary of al-Biqā'ī was unique in the large amount of Biblical material he used, based on Arabic translations of the Bible, and a "downgrading of the already extensive biblical lore, Isrā'īliyyāt, which was available in the Qur'an commentary tradition" (177). This, however, is not the emphasis of the article here, but rather, the way that al-Biqā'ī dealt with opposition to his approach by some leading scholars (including al-Sakhāwī): he first wrote an apologia, which included both "book reviews" (taqārīẓ) and fatwas, or judicial opinions. Some of these were detailed and clearly engaged with al-Biqā'ī's text, while others were more cursory and were just expressions of good will. In any case, it does show that a scholar with deep understanding of the "Hebrew" Bible enjoyed substantial support from his peers. This was not esoteric knowledge, but whether it was mainstream remains to be seen. In any case, I am grateful to Walid Saleh for bringing this material to our attention. It is a fitting conclusion to the volume.

In short, this is a collection of excellent and interesting papers, that historians of late medieval Jewry (not only of the Islamicate world) and the Middle East (not only the Ayyubid and Mamluk states) will find both stimulating and useful. Stephan Conermann and the team at the Annemarie Schimmel Kolleg (whose official activities have been concluded, but carries on in various ways) can be congratulated and thanked for bringing out this volume.

Rezension über:

Stephan Conermann (ed.): Muslim-Jewish Relations in the Middle Islamic Period: Jews in the Ayyubid and Mamluk Sultanates (1171-1517) (= Mamluk Studies; Vol. 16), Göttingen: V&R unipress 2017, 198 S., ISBN 978-3-8471-0792-7, EUR 35,00

Rezension von:
Reuven Amitai
Jerusalem
Empfohlene Zitierweise:
Reuven Amitai: Rezension von: Stephan Conermann (ed.): Muslim-Jewish Relations in the Middle Islamic Period: Jews in the Ayyubid and Mamluk Sultanates (1171-1517), Göttingen: V&R unipress 2017, in: sehepunkte 21 (2021), Nr. 7/8 [15.07.2021], URL: http://www.sehepunkte.de/2021/07/36119.html


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