Commentary Magazine


Out of Andalusia

Geographically, except for Spain, the world of Arabic-speaking Islam was the same in the Middle Ages as it is today. Although this vast expanse had no one central government, it was possible to travel from Morocco, which lies as far west as Ireland, to Oman on the Persian Gulf, and from Aden, on the latitude of Costa Rica, to Cordoba, on the latitude of Washington, D.C., while remaining within the bounds of a single language, culture, and religion.

It is no wonder, then, that the great travelers of the Middle Ages were the Arabs, since—unlike the rare European like Marco Polo—they could cross thousands of miles by ship, foot, or beast of burden without needing an interpreter or a guide to local custom. Not surprisingly, too, the literary genre of the picaresque, the adventures of the wanderer who lives by his wits, is a medieval Arab invention that dates to the late 10th century. And in an age in which most Jews lived in Arab lands and were heavily influenced by Arab culture, it was also natural that such books, known in Arabic as maqamat, had their imitations, called mahbarot, in Hebrew.

The classical book of maqama, to use the singular form, is defined by three main features. The first is a number of independent chapters or “gates”—50 was the norm—each of which tells a brief tale whose itinerant hero, turning up now here, now there, outwits (or is less frequently outwitted by) the local population. The second is that, in this shifting kaleidoscope of places and situations, there are two fixed characters, the roguish traveler and a narrator, also a wanderer, who serendipitously keep running into each other. And thirdly and most strangely for the Western reader, this narration takes place in a prose that the Arabs called saj and that has no counterpart in European literature.

Saj is a pre-Islamic Arabic form that rhymes internally but does not have line breaks, meter, a set number of words or syllables between rhymes, or a set number of times a rhyme may recur. Although it may sound like doggerel to the Western ear, it did not impress the Arabs as such, in part because Arabic, like Hebrew, has numerous inflectional suffixes that make it easy to maintain long chains of rhyme. Medieval Arabs and Jews considered saj elegant and resorted to it widely for correspondence and serious writing. Even a major philosopher like al-Ghazali began his great work The Incoherence of the Philosophers with a rhymed prose introduction.

It is impossible to try duplicating al-Ghazali’s rhymes in a language like English without sounding incongruously jingle-like. In the case of a basically comic genre like the maqama, however, a sufficiently creative and ingenious translator might conceivably pull the stunt off. No rhymed English version of a complete Arabic “50-gater” has been attempted as yet, but luckily we now do have David Segal’s wonderful new rendition of Judah Alharizi’s The Book of Tahkemoni,1 the most justly renowned of all Hebrew mahbarot. It offers the English reader, for the first time, the full experience of an important literary form, and it tempts one to speculate about such varied things as medieval Jewish attitudes toward Islam and the arrested development of Islamic thought in the Middle Ages—a phenomenon that is surely related to the Arab world’s failure to modernize intellectually in our own times.

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Judah (or Yehuda) Alharizi was born in Spain in 1165, most likely in mixed Christian-Muslim Toledo, and lived for a while as a young man in southern France. A translator by profession, he rendered most of Maimonides’ newly published Guide of the Perplexed from Arabic into Hebrew and produced a Hebrew version of the enormously popular book of maqamat of Abu-Muhammed al-Hariri (1054-1122), to this day an exemplar of its kind. His translation of al-Hariri was extremely free and adaptive, taking the Arab author’s Muslim characters and settings and changing them into Jewish ones, so that an innocent Hebrew reader might have thought it to be an original Hebrew composition. Then, apparently inspired by this, he set out to wander through the Arab world himself, reaching and residing in such places as Cairo, Jerusalem, Damascus, Mosul, and Baghdad.

It may have been the experiences gained from this long voyage that convinced Alharizi that he should do more than just copy al-Hariri in Hebrew, a vernacularly dead language that many Jews thought incapable of Arabic’s subtlety and sophistication. In any case, he now decided to write an original Hebrew work of maqama that would show Hebrew to be the equal, if not the superior, of its Semitic sister, whose Qur’an, from which Arabic writers drew much of their inspiration, was, as far as he was concerned, the real copy-cat when compared with the Bible. As he put it in his preface to the Tahkemoni, translated by Segal:

Now I will tell you what moved me to compose this book: a certain Arab sage, the pride of his age, master of incision, who turned rivals to a mockery and derision, whose mouth was an open vision, one known as al-Hariri, who left all rivals panting and weary, composed a stunning work in Arabic, rhymed prose in metric stich—even if he dealt in contraband: for, lo, his vessel is with Hebrew sailors manned! Demand of its every trope, How came you here to stand? And the latter will reply, I was stolen away out of the Hebrew land.

Now when I saw this book my tongue turned leather, the heavens of my joy rolled together, for all peoples, old or young, take heed to their ways that they sin not with their tongue. But our Holy Tongue, Beauty’s very mother, is turned Cain’s brother. Vulgarity supplants clarity; homeliness, comeliness; tarnish, varnish. We are unsound, unwound, a dry root in dry ground. Alas our language: our folk have slandered and defaced her, all but erased her, saying, Hebrew is lean and lacking, so much faded sacking; but they are too obtuse to realize that they are blind to her use, too dense to know that theirs is the offense.

Hebrew, Alharizi insisted, could do everything Arabic could do, from high to low:

Hence I wrote this book to raise Hebrew’s holy tower, to show our holy folk her suppleness and power. . . . Yes, I tell of teetotalers and drinkers, of warriors and thinkers, spin tales of journeys, of king’s and poet’s tourneys, prayers and supplication, praise and protestation, the rebuke of the wise and good fortune’s demise, the role of Love’s gazelles and the cool of desert wells, stint’s harsh breeze and beggar’s please, wind and water, sword and slaughter, harts’ hunt and heart’s want, travelers’ treks and slippery decks and vessels’ wrecks, slandering, pandering, and Youth’s meandering, Nazirites’ vows and drunken carouse, paramours, ills and cures, blockheads and boors, guile’s school and the gulled fool, gibe and jeer and snub and sneer, song enchanted, wine discanted, witty invention, brazen contention—all this that this book might be Song’s manse and garden, wherein every seeker might sate his quest, every petitioner gain his behest; herein shall the weary rest.

There is a jaunty bravado in these lines, reminiscent of the ritual boastings of rap lyrics, that asks not to be taken too seriously. And yet Alharizi is raising a serious point—more precisely, a sore point—that has, I think, been insufficiently taken into account in modern conceptions of the position of Jews and Jewish intellectuals in the medieval Muslim world.

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It is a cliché of our contemporary discourse about Jews and Arabs that the former were, in the Middle Ages, better off in Muslim lands than in Christian ones—and as is generally the case with clichés, there is a measure of truth in this one. Although there were times and places in which Jews suffered as badly under Islam as they did during their worse moments in Christendom, it is fair to say that they were on the whole treated more liberally by Muslims than by Christians. In some instances, like that of the so-called “golden age” of 10th-to-mid-12th-century Andalusia, they were involved in the economic, cultural, and even political life of Muslim society to the point that some historians have tended to view this period as an ecumenical utopia. One such scholar, María Rosa Menocal, has written in her recently published and highly acclaimed The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain2:

The Jews understood themselves to be Andalusians . . . much as the German Jews of the late 19th century . . . considered themselves Germans, or the American Jews in the second half of the 20th century, who helped define the intellectual and literary qualities of their time, never thought twice about calling themselves American. But unlike many later European and American Jews, the Andalusian Jews had not had to abandon their orthodoxy to be fully a part of the body politic and culture of their place and time. The Jews of el-Andalus were able to openly observe and eventually enrich their Judaic and Hebrew heritage and at the same time fully participate in the general cultural and intellectual scene.

But if Menocal is right that Andalusian Jews participated in “the body politic and culture” surrounding them, she is guilty of anachronistically wishful thinking about their sense of themselves. There is not a single Jewish source from golden-age Spain that speaks of Jews as Andalusians, or of a joint Jewish-Muslim identity. Nor could there be, given the fact that Jews and Muslims were religious rivals and that, just as the Hebrew Bible was a suspect document in Muslim eyes, so the Qur’an for Jews, as Alharizi says, was “stolen away out of the Hebrew land.”

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To appreciate what Alharizi meant by this we need to consider a second cliché—namely, that medieval Jews felt more comfortable with Islam than with Christianity because the former was, like Judaism, a pure monotheistic faith, whereas the latter, with its doctrine of the Trinity and its incarnate God, was tainted by polytheism and paganism. This assumption rests heavily on the Jewish legal tradition, most notably articulated by Maimonides, that a Jew may convert to Islam but not to Christianity in order to save his life, since becoming a Muslim does not make him guilty of idol worship.

A legal ruling, though, is not a comprehensive emotional and intellectual response—and when we look at the response to Islamic culture of a medieval Jewish writer like Alharizi, the “heavens of whose joy” caved in upon reading a popular Arabic work of literature, we find not identification but envy, scorn, and a sense of Jewish humiliation that no Christian book could have produced. In part, this is because Islam is closer to Judaism in its theology and religious sensibility; psychologically, after all, it is the rivals we most resemble whose success most wounds us when set alongside our own failure, since it suggests that our problem lies not in being different but in being inferior. It was easy for Jews to rationalize the triumph of Christianity in terms of Christianity’s falsehood, which appealed to a world too weak and sinful to renounce pagan ways; it was far more difficult to explain the ascendancy of Islam, which repudiated that world as resolutely as did Judaism.

Inaccurate, too, is the common view that medieval Jews were less offended by Islam because its truth claims did not clash with their own as violently as did Christianity’s. Whereas Christians, it is said, accused the Jews of having murdered the son of God and brought down on themselves an eternal curse, thus making them the arch-infidels, Muslims merely blamed them for rejecting the revelation of Muhammad, a sin they shared with others, Christians included. What this formulation ignores, however, is the fact that Christianity’s quarrel with Judaism, while more bitter, was also, from the Jewish point of view, more to the point and less demeaning, since Christianity understood every word of the Jewish Bible to be divinely given and true. Though the Jews, Christians believed, had misread the “Old Testament,” they had not fabricated it or misrepresented its provenance, and its account of their history and chosenness, up to the advent of Jesus, was correct. Because Christianity, in this sense, never denied the Jews their own reality, the Jewish-Christian argument was profound and focused.

But Islam and the Qur’an did deny Jewish reality, right from its very beginning—that is, from the time of Abraham, whose best-loved son, according to Islamic tradition, was not Isaac but Ishmael, and whose life story had been deliberately falsified by the Book of Genesis to conceal the fact that he was the first Muslim. Nor was it Abraham alone. Adam, Noah, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, David, Solomon: the story of every major figure in the Bible is told differently by the Qur’an, which openly charges the Bible with repeatedly lying. “Woe,” says Muhammad, “to those who write the Book [i.e., the Bible] with their hands and then say, ‘This is from Allah!’ ”

To thinking Jews, this made Islam not a less but a more preposterous faith than Christianity. If Christianity was an affront to rational monotheism, Islam was an insult to human intelligence itself, since who could take seriously a religion that, having come into existence 2,000 years after its parent faith, accused the parent of counterfeiting a past of which it now claimed to possess the true version? This was indeed a religion of stolen contraband.

Of course, Alharizi could never say such a thing openly in an Islamic land, since even a liberal Muslim society—and by his lifetime, Muslim Spain had fallen into the hands of the highly illiberal Almohads—might punish a Jew severely for such a thing. This was why his question of “How come you here to stand?” is put to al-Hariri, an author he admired, rather than to the Muslim religion for which it was intended; and it is why all Jewish writers in medieval Muslim lands were extremely careful in talking about Islam. When Yehuda Halevi, for instance, writing in Spain toward the end of the golden age, pens a Hebrew poem expressing his hope for Islam’s downfall, he speaks in code: The Arab is “Hagar’s son,” Islam is the “desert-ass,” its religious claims are an obscure Aramaic verse from the Book of Daniel that speaks of “the high-and-mighty mouth,” and so on.

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It is only when we realize that Jewish attitudes toward medieval Islam were consistently encoded in this way that we understand how far from ecumenical even the golden age was. Although Jews may have gotten along with their Muslim neighbors, liked and respected them, admired their achievements, and often, like Alharizi, wished to emulate them, their opinion of the religion of Islam was always tinged with contempt.

But so, of course, as Alharizi was well aware, was the Muslim view of Judaism. In the one chapter of The Tahkemoni that deals with Jewish-Muslim relations, he writes about a company of Jews who approach a Muslim street astrologer and—whether as a joke or not—request him to forecast when the Jewish messiah will come. The Muslim, though at first unaware whom he is dealing with, soon realizes they are Jews and curses them for asking “if a scattered folk, laughed to scorn, can be ingathered in a world reborn.” Then:

After the old man had roundly disowned us, the entire congregation would have stoned us. They spat on us, hooted us, booted us, dragged us hands and feet through street after street until, battered and blood-spattered we were flung at the gate of the city’s magistrate.

The magistrate, however, a

righteous Gentile, before whom we had been brought, could, at a glance, discern a man’s most secret thought. At once, he took us to a private place and bade us tell him what had taken place—the which we did. Thereat he said, Peace be with you, do not fear; no harm shall come you here.

As the scholar Raymond Scheindlin has observed in commenting on this same passage, here in a nutshell are several key elements of the medieval Jewish-Muslim “symbiosis”: Jews, “externally indistinguishable from the Muslim masses,” who “circulate confidently among them without being aware of any need for caution” yet are “conscious of being members of a group with a different history and a different destiny”; Muslims who, though generally tolerant of Jews, turn murderous when the latter suggest that Judaism will reign supreme in the end; and a public official who understands that these Jews, though “they come close enough to the line to enrage the astrologer and the crowd . . . do not actually cross it (by, for example, openly blaspheming Islam or its prophet)” and so “do not forfeit their protected status.” It was a complex world with subtle rules, and Jews lived in it, generally speaking, not badly, yet always asking themselves how it had happened that a fraudulent upstart of a religion, its sacred scriptures a parody of their own, was ruling over them and a vast tract of the earth.

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The encounter between the astrologer and the rash Jews, related to Alharizi’s narrator, Heman the Ezrahite, by his rogue, Hever the Kenite, is one of the few times in The Tahkemoni that Hever is bested by the locals. Usually, he manages to outthink, outtalk, and outfox them while gaining—if only until they realize, too late, that they have been hoodwinked—their sympathy, esteem, hospitality, and money.

Thus, in a typical episode, after bumping into Heman in the streets of “Rehovot” (some of Alharizi’s locales are real places and others, like this one, are simply biblical names), Hever relates how he has conned an Arab peasant into treating him to a meal by pretending to be the treater himself. After dining with the man at a butcher’s stall on succulent roast lamb and a dessert of dates that “leave a taste that lingers long after the silky jelly has slid down to the belly,” Hever offers to fetch a jug of ice-water to wash it all down with.

The rustic, all respect, did not object; so I hurried off and slipped behind the wall, waiting to see what would befall.

The moments dragged; the farmer, with furrowed brow and a cough, readied to make off. But in one stride, the butcher was at his side. Seizing him by the sleeve he cried, Ho, ho, very funny! And where is my money?

The rustic blustered, Please! Don’t squeeze! I didn’t order your meat: it was my friend’s treat!

At that the butcher struck the man’s back a hearty thwack. Whoreson! Who asked you to come? And where do I know you from? Three dinars, you, before I belt your butt till you empty your stuffed gut!

The poor peasant pays up and Hever, who has enjoyed the scene without a qualm, says to Heman in the formal verse that a maqama often breaks into at climactic moments:

All men are robbers, all men lie,
      so I betray each passerby.
I net me lions in my sleep
      and tigers rend like mewling
      sheep.
I make of the savant an earthen crock,
      the gray-haired sage a laughing-
      stock.

And, Heman informs the reader in the chapter’s concluding line, “At that he turned aside, leaving me wide-eyed at his cunning and his bold displays, his wit and twisted ways.”

Not all of Hever’s ruses are as simple as this one, nor are all staged for material gain. He is a trickster who relishes the trick for its own sake, as in a chapter in which, finding out that Heman is setting out on a journey, he cross-dresses as a woman, seductively intercepts his unsuspecting friend in a field, and seduces him with tender words into such a state of physical passion that Heman begs to make love on the spot, whereupon:

The maiden heard me to the last, then burst out laughing like a trumpet-blast, and seized me fast. Lo, she said, I rise to the task and do as you ask. Therewith she stepped back a pace, whisked the veil from off her face and—aagh! A gross mistake!—revealed a beard as thick and tangled as a writhing snake. A man!

In yet another chapter, Hever himself falls victim to the disguise of an old hag, dressed as a young beauty, who gets him to marry her and reveals herself on their wedding night as “A bitch, a witch, a dark misshape, an Afric ape!” Yet he quickly turns the tables:

Half-berserk, I seized three sticks and set to work. In the dark of that cursed house I gagged her with her blouse, and laid on with many a thwack and crack until her heart’s blood coursed down her neck and back. . . . Then taking all her clothes with me I loaded my mule and was gone well before dawn. Leaving behind a ravaged waste, I rode in haste: by day I slept and by night rode fast, crossing deserts and forest till all danger [of being forced to honor his marriage contract] had passed.

And Heman remarks:

Hearing Hever the Kenite’s misrepresentations, his mad concoctions, his ludicrous fabrications, I laughed my fill, then bade him goodbye, and off went I; and off went he—dreams, wit, and wondrous falsity.

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In one of the many illuminating commentaries appearing in an appendix to his translation, Segal dwells on the misogyny of this story’s ending. But there is, I think, something more interesting about it than that—namely, Heman’s concluding doubts about whether it is true. On the face of it, this chapter is anomalous, showing Hever, who can use words to master any situation, being so badly fooled that he must resort to physical force; yet Heman’s final lines cause the reader to suspect that here, too, the real point is Hever’s verbal wizardry, which tricks Heman into believing, until the last moment, that a tall tale is a factual account.

The magical power of words is what The Tahkemoni is all about. Many of its chapters are not tales of trickery in the narrow sense at all, but rather descriptions of contests and virtuoso displays of rhetoric in which Hever shines or comes out the winner. In one episode, he succeeds at the seemingly impossible task of making the case for stinginess sound as noble as the case for generosity; in a second, he brilliantly meets a challenge to improvise a long riff of rhymed prose in which the letter “O” (in Alharizi’s Hebrew, the consonant resh) appears in every word, after which he reverses himself and composes a second passage in which it is totally absent; still elsewhere, he ad-libs a lengthy and metrically impeccable poem that makes perfect sense when read from beginning to end and equal but opposite sense when read from end to beginning. There is nothing he cannot do with language; no one he cannot persuade of the truth of whatever he wishes.

Ultimately, in Alharizi as in al-Hariri and other Arabic maqamat, truth itself dissolves and vanishes beneath the surface dazzle of language. There is a scene in The Tahkemoni in which Heman, going to a tavern after despairing of being on the wagon, finds the tavern-goers conversing about the virtues of drink. After a while, an “old graybeard” sitting in a corner exclaims, “You call this praise of Wine, the unmatched scion of the vine? A pity on sickly phrases trotted out and driven about”; proceeds to offer a stirring encomium to alcohol; and then turns around and delivers an equally splendid tirade against it. The tavern-goers are so befuddled that, as Heman describes it, “Cups were emptied with assiduity as many swore off wine in perpetuity.”

The graybeard, needless to say, is revealed to be, once again, Hever the Kenite. Since his audiences believe everything he says, they can in the end believe nothing. Even when he utters conventional pieties, as in a chapter in which he sings the praises of Moses, there is no knowing whether he is sincere or not. At first glance a collection of light-hearted entertainments, The Tahkemoni thus turns out to be a ruthlessly cynical, almost nihilistic, work. Words, it suggests, are all there is—and words are never to be wholly trusted.

This—the underlying message, it would seem, of the entire genre of the maqama—spoke keenly to the reader of the age.

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It was an age, the histories of philosophy tell us, of great intellectual accomplishment. Al-Farabi (c. 872-950), Ibn Sina (980-1037), al-Ghazali (1058-1111), Ibn Rushd (1126-1198): these, the great figures of medieval Arabic thought, are—as Alfarabius, Avicenna, Algazeli, and Averroes—revered names in the annals of European philosophy as well. Together with Jewish thinkers like Ibn Gabirol (c. 1021-1058) and Maimonides (1135-1204), they were the men who took the philosophical traditions of the Greeks, Platonic, Neoplatonic, and Aristotelian; reworked and synthesized them with the belief systems of monotheism; and heavily influenced, via Latin translations, a Christian world that was stimulated by them to produce an Abelard (1079-1142), a Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), a Duns Scotus (1266-1308), and a William of Ockham (1285-1349).

Yet Muslim and Christian philosophy had different fates. In Christian Europe, philosophizing never stopped; the scholastic tradition evolved into the thought of the Renaissance and post-Renaissance, influencing figures like Descartes and Spinoza and, through them, their successors. In the Arab world, by contrast, rigorous philosophy ended in the 14th century. Its last representative, Ibn Taymiya, was an anti-philosophical philosopher who argued that philosophy could say nothing about ultimate realities, the only reliable guide to which was revealed religion.

Ibn Taymiya was not the first Muslim philosopher to take such a position. That honor goes to the 11th-century al-Ghazali, a far greater thinker whose The Incoherence of the Philosophers, an attack on al-Farabi and Ibn Sina, had an enormous impact on Islamic intellectuals of his day. It was not al-Ghazali’s contention in this book that, when a literal reading of the Qur’an clashed with philosophical ideas, the Qur’an could be logically proved right; it was sufficient to show, he maintained, that it could not be logically proved wrong. The fact that the philosophers could not agree among themselves—“their floundering about is lengthy, their disputes many, their views spread far apart, their ways divergent and convergent,” he wrote in his rhymed prose introduction to The Incoherence of the Philosophers—demonstrated that their methods could be used to argue anything and its opposite. “I have seen a group,” he says of them,

who, believing themselves in possession of a distinctiveness from companion and peer by virtue of a superior quick wit and intelligence, have rejected the Islamic duties. . . . There is no basis for their unbelief other than . . . speculative investigation, an outcome of their stumbling over the tails of sophistical doubts that divert from the direction of the truth, and their being deceived by embellished imaginings akin to the glitter of the mirage. . . . What rank in God’s world is there lower than the rank of one who adorns himself with the abandonment of the true by the hasty embracing of the false as true, accepting it without report and verification?

If we substitute rhetoric for logic, wandering rogues for philosophers, and gullible audiences for readers, are we not back in the world of the maqama?

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No historian would claim that the collapse of medieval Arabic philosophy was due simply to al-Ghazali’s and others’ attacks on it. There were many reasons why the Arab world, more intellectually advanced than the Christian world for centuries, eventually fell behind and succumbed to a numbing religious orthodoxy from which it has not freed itself to this day. And yet it is interesting that the 11th and 12th centuries, the period in which an anti-philosophical philosophy first joined hands with religious orthodoxy to deny the validity of philosophical thought, was also a period in which the literature of the maqama, from an entirely different angle, cast comic doubt on the trustworthiness of language and on the possibility of unraveling truth from untruth in its workings.

It has sometimes been said by Western observers trying to explain the intellectual underdevelopment of the Arab world that Arabic is a highly rhetorical language in which it is impossible to be intellectually precise. Linguistically, this is nonsense; Arabic, like any language, is a tool that can be used badly or well and that, when used well, as it certainly was by great philosophers like Ibn Sina or al-Ghazali, is as capable of precision as any language. Still, the observation has merit if rephrased to state that Arab culture has tended to use language, both orally and in writing, far more for purely rhetorical ends than has, say, Western culture.

This is hardly an original Western insight. As the literature of the maqama illustrates, even when reflected through a Hebrew work like Alharizi’s Tahkemoni, the prominence of rhetoric in Arab culture is something of which the Arabs themselves have long been aware, just as they have been aware that the rhetorical abuse of words has a paradoxical result: while on the surface it glorifies language and those with the most adroit command of it, beneath the surface it undermines all faith in language as a reliable vehicle for expression and thought.

Again: no historian would claim that there is any simple explanation for this phenomenon, either. Yet a factor contributing to it—one that, for perhaps obvious reasons, has not been stressed—is surely the Qur’an itself, a highly rhetorical text when compared with either the Hebrew Bible or the Greek New Testament. When such a text is adopted as the sacred scripture of a culture, over which it exerts enormous influence and serves as the ultimate standard of eloquence, this is bound to have an effect.

It cannot be maintained, of course, that the Hebrew Bible lacks lengthy rhetorical passages; its prophetic literature, while often extremely powerful, consists of little else. But the Bible also contains numerous books of narrative and religious poetry in which language is used with terse precision and with great impact, challenging our logical and imaginative faculties to unpack its density. The Qur’an, though much of its material is taken from the Bible, has nothing of the sort. To take one of many possible examples, one need only compare the Qur’an’s verbose and dramatically flat treatment in Sura 12 of the story of Joseph and his brothers with the concise aesthetic marvel of this narrative in Genesis in order to appreciate the difference.

It is the Qur’an, I have said, that is the real object of Alharizi’s remark that al-Hariri’s “vessel is with Hebrew sailors manned.” Alharizi certainly knew the Qur’an, and knew that, as a text for an entire culture to feed off over the ages, it lacked the Bible’s nutritional value. It was that which helped give him the confidence to take an Arabic genre and turn it into a Hebrew one in which the Bible is as present on every page as the Qur’an is in al-Hariri. And it was that, too, which helped give Jews in Islamic society the strength to maintain their religion and identity in a situation in which, although it could have been worse, they were a looked-down-upon minority dominated by a world-conquering and world-embracing faith. Unlike the rogue of the maqama, they believed the truth was on their side and would prevail.

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Footnotes

1 The subtitle is “Jewish Tales from Medieval Spain.” Translated and annotated by David Simha Segal, Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 722 pp., $77.00 (cloth), $24.95 (paper).

2 Little, Brown, 272 pp., $26.95 (cloth), $14.95 (paper).

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About the Author

Hillel Halkin is a columnist for the New York Sun and a veteran contributor to COMMENTARY. Portions of the present essay were delivered at Northwestern University in March as the Klutznick Lecture in Jewish Civilization.




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