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Golden age of Jewish culture in Spain


Golden age of Jewish culture in Spain

The golden age of Jewish culture in Spain coincided with the Middle Ages in Europe, a period of Muslim rule throughout much of the Iberian Peninsula. During intermittent periods time, Jews were generally accepted in society and Jewish religious, cultural, and economic life blossomed.

The nature and length of this "Golden Age" has been a subject of much debate, as there were at least three Golden Ages interrupted by periods of oppression of Jews and non-Jews. A few scholars give the start of the Golden Age as 711–718, the Muslim conquest of Iberia. Others date it from 912, under the rule of Abd-ar-Rahman III. The end of the age is variously given as 1031, when the Caliphate of Cordoba ended, 1066, the date of the Granada massacre, 1090, when the Almoravides invaded, or the mid-12th century, when the Almohades invaded.


  • The Nature of the Golden Age 1
  • Birth of the Golden Age 2
  • End of the Golden Age 3
  • Notable figures 4
  • See also 5
  • Notes 6
  • References 7
  • External links 8

The Nature of the Golden Age

Image of a cantor reading the Passover story in Al Andalus, from the 14th century Haggadah of Barcelona.

Having invaded the areas throughout Southern and Northern Spain, and coming to rule in a matter of seven years, Islamic rulers were confronted with many questions relating to the implementation of Islamic Rule on a non-Islamic society. The coexistence of Muslims, Jews, and Christians during this time is revered by many writers. Al-Andalus was a key center of Jewish life during the early Middle Ages, producing important scholars and one of the most stable and wealthy Jewish communities and a relatively educated society for the Muslim occupiers and their Jewish collaborators, as well as some Christians who openly collaborated with the Muslims and Jews.

María Rosa Menocal, a specialist in Iberian literature at Yale University claims that "Tolerance was an inherent aspect of Andalusian society".[1] Menocal's 2003 book, The Ornament of the World, argues that the Jewish dhimmis living under the Caliphate, while allowed fewer rights than Muslims, were still better off than in the Christian parts of Europe. Jews from other parts of Europe made their way to al-Andalus, where in parallel to Christian sects regarded as heretical by Catholic Europe, they were not just tolerated, but where opportunities to practise faith and trade were open without restriction save for the prohibitions on proselytisation.

Present-day Morocco has a rich history of religious tolerance, probably dating back to the Golden Age of Al-Andalus . That tolerance was most recently illustrated with the renovations of the Casablanca Museum of Moroccan Judaism and the 17th century Slat al Fassayine Synagogue in Fez in early 2013 in order to preserve Jewish history in Morocco. Morocco’s commitment to its Jewish heritage and its culture of tolerance has been widely recognised in October 2009 by the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation for its role in saving the lives of Jews during the Second World War and for the blessed role that it has traditionally played in favour of the dialogue and mutual respect between all creeds, religions and nations.

Bernard Lewis takes issue with this view, calling it ahistorical and exaggerated. He argues that Islam traditionally did not offer equality nor even pretend that it did, arguing that it would have been both a "theological as well as a logical absurdity."[2] However, also Lewis states:

Jews were allowed certain freedoms but, like their Christian counterparts were prohibited from having administrative authority over Muslims except in a few cases.

Mark Cohen, Professor of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University, in his Under Crescent and Cross, calls the idealized interfaith utopia a "myth" that was first promulgated by Jewish historians such as Heinrich Graetz in the 19th century as a rebuke to Christian countries for their treatment of Jews.[3] This myth was met with the "counter-myth" of the "neo-lachrymose conception of Jewish-Arab history" by Bat Yeor and others,[3] which also "cannot be maintained in the light of historical reality".[4]

Birth of the Golden Age

Prior to 581, the Jews experienced a Golden Age under the Arian Visigoth occupiers of Spain. The Visigoths were mainly indifferent towards Jews and allowed them to grow and prosper. After the Visigoths joined the Catholic Church, they placed ever greater economic burdens on the Jewish population, and later persecuted them severely. It is possible that Jews welcomed the Muslim Arab and mainly Berber conquerors in the 8th century.

A period of tolerance dawned for the Jews of the Iberian Peninsula, whose number was considerably augmented by immigration from North Africa in the wake of the Muslim conquest. North African Jewish immigrants and immigrants from the Middle East bolstered the Jewish population, and made Muslim Spain probably the biggest center of contemporary Jews. Especially after 912, during the reign of Abd-ar-Rahman III and his son, Al-Hakam II, the Jews prospered culturally, and some notable figures held high posts in the Caliphate of Cordoba. Jewish philosophers, mathematicians, astronomers, poets, and rabbinical scholars, composed highly rich cultural and scientific work. Many devoted themselves to the study of the sciences and philosophy, composing the most valuable texts of Jewish Philosophy. Jews took part in the overall prosperity of Muslim Al-Andalus. Jewish economic expansion was unparalleled. In Toledo, Jews were involved in translating Arabic texts to the romance languages, as well as translating Greek and Hebrew texts into Arabic. Jews also contributed to botany, geography, medicine, mathematics, poetry and philosophy.[5]

'Abd al-Rahman's court physician and minister was Hasdai ibn Shaprut, the patron of Menahem ben Saruq, Dunash ben Labrat, and other Jewish scholars and poets. Jewish thought during this period flourished under famous figures such as Samuel Ha-Nagid, Moses ibn Ezra, Solomon ibn Gabirol, Judah Halevi and Moses Maimonides.[5] During 'Abd al-Rahman's term of power, the scholar Moses ben Enoch was appointed rabbi of Córdoba, and as a consequence al-Andalus became the center of Talmudic study, and Córdoba the meeting-place of Jewish savants.

This was a time of partial Jewish autonomy. As "dhimmis", or "protected non-Muslims", Jews in the Islamic world paid the jizya, which was administered separately from the zakat paid by Muslims. The jizya has been viewed variously as a head tax, as payment for non-conscription in the military (as non-Muslims were normally prohibited from bearing arms or receiving martial training), or as a tribute. Jews had their own legal system and social services. Monotheist religions of the people of the book were tolerated but conspicuous displays of faith, such as bells and processions, were discouraged.[6]

Comparing the treatment of Jews in the medieval Islamic world and medieval Christian Europe, the Jews were far more integrated in the political and economic life of Islamic society,[7] and usually faced far less violence from Muslims, though there were some instances of persecution in the Islamic world as well from the 11th century.[8] The Islamic world classified Jews (and Christians) as dhimmi and allowed them to practice their religion more freely than they could do in Christian Europe.[9]

Other authors criticize the modern notion of Al-Andalus being a tolerant society of equal opportunities for all religious groups as a "myth".[10] Jews were living in an uneasy coexistence with Muslims and Catholics, and the relationship between these groups was more often than not marked by segregation and mutual hostility. In the 1066 Granada massacre of the entire Jewish population of the city, the Jewish death toll was higher than in the much publicized Christian pogromes in the Rhineland slightly later.[10] The notable Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides (1135–1204) was forced to flee from Al-Andalus to avoid conversion by the Almohads, which may have prompted his bitter statement that Islam had inflicted more pain on the Jewish people than any other 'nation'.[11]

End of the Golden Age

With the death of Al-Hakam II Ibn Abd-ar-Rahman in 976, the Caliphate began to dissolve, and the position of the Jews became more precarious under the various smaller Kingdoms. The first major persecution was the 1066 Granada massacre, which occurred on December 30, when a Muslim mob stormed the royal palace in Granada, crucified Jewish vizier Joseph ibn Naghrela and massacred most of the Jewish population of the city. "More than 1,500 Jewish families, numbering 4,000 persons, fell in one day."[12] This was the first persecution of Jews on the Peninsula under Islamic rule.

Manuscript page by Maimonides, one of the greatest Jewish scholars of Al Andalus, born in Córdoba. Arabic language in Hebrew letters

Beginning in 1090 the situation deteriorated further with the invasion of the Almoravids, a puritan Muslim sect from Morocco. Even under the Almoravids, some Jews prospered (although far more so under Ali III, than under his father Yusuf ibn Tashfin). Among those who held the title of "vizier" or "nasi" in Almoravid times were the poet and physician Abu Ayyub Solomon ibn al-Mu'allam, Abraham ibn Meïr ibn Kamnial, Abu Isaac ibn Muhajar, and Solomon ibn Farusal. The Almoravids, were ousted from the peninsula in 1148; however, the peninsula was again invaded, by the even more puritanical Almohades.

During the reign of these Berber dynasties, many Jewish and even Muslim scholars left the Muslim-controlled portion of Iberia for the city of Toledo, which had been reconquered in 1085 by Christian forces.

The major Jewish presence in Iberia continued until the Jews were forcibly expelled en masse due to the edict of expulsion by Christian Spain in 1492 and a similar decree by Christian Portugal in 1496.

Jewish Street Sign in Toledo, Spain

Notable figures

See also


  1. ^ The Ornament of the World by María Rosa Menocal
  2. ^ a b Lewis, Bernard W (1984). The Jews of Islam
  3. ^ a b Cohen, Mark R. (October 1995). Under Crescent and Cross.  
  4. ^ Daniel J. Lasker (1997). "Review of Under Crescent and Cross. The Jews in the Middle Ages by Mark R. Cohen". The Jewish Quarterly Review 88 (1/2): 76–78.  
  5. ^ a b Sephardim by Rebecca Weiner.
  6. ^ Fred J. Hill et al., A History of the Islamic World 2003 ISBN 0-7818-1015-9, p.73
  7. ^  
  8. ^  
  9. ^  
  10. ^ a b Darío Fernández-Morera: "The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise", The Intercollegiate Review, Fall 2006, pp. 23–31
  11. ^ Darío Fernández-Morera, 2006, p. 30
  12. ^ Granada by Richard Gottheil, Meyer Kayserling, Jewish Encyclopedia. 1906 ed.


  • Esperanza Alfonso, Islamic culture through Jewish eyes : al-Andalus from the tenth to twelfth century, 2007 ISBN 978-0-415-43732-5
  • Mark Cohen, Under Crescent and Cross: The Jews in the Middle Ages 1995 ISBN 0-691-01082-X
  • Joel Kraemer, "Comparing Crescent and Cross," The Journal of Religion, Vol. 77, No. 3. (Jul., 1997), pp. 449–454. (Book review)
  • "The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise" by Darío Fernández-Morera – critique of view of Al-Andalus as tolerant society

External links

  • article on SpainJewish Encyclopedia
  • Excerpt from Farewell Espana: The World of the Sephardim Remembered by Howard M. Sachar, at MyJewishLearning
  • The Musical Legacy of Al-Andalus an interview between Banning Eyre (Afropop Worldwide) and Dwight Reynolds, Associate Professor in the Department of Religious Studies, Director of the Center for Middle East Studies, and Chair of Islamic and Near Eastern Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara
  • Medieval Hebrew Poetry
  • The Sephardim
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