The Jews in Islamic Spain: Al Andalus

by S. Alfassa Marks

One of the characteristic features of the early history of Spain is the successive waves of different people who spread across the Iberian Peninsula.  Phoenicians, Greeks, Vandals, Visigoths, Muslims, Jews, and Christians all occupied Spain at one point or another.  History records communities of Jews living on the Iberian Peninsula from as early as the destruction of the first temple in Jerusalem  (Diaz-Mas 1).  But it was during the realm of the Moors in Al-Andalus (land of the vandals) which the Jews thrived the greatest.  Though this was a time of artistic, educational, and cultural enlightenment, it was not completely serene or without persecution for the Jewish people.

As historians look back before the first millennium at the Jewish populations of Iberia, we see Jews living in convergence with both Muslims and Christians.  However, Muslims were undoubtedly the principal subjects of the kingdom, not Jews, nor Christians.  The Muslims had greater rights and responsibilities than non-Muslims, thus Moorish toleration was not exactly Moorish equality.  History demonstrates a long history of persecutions against the Jewish people.  And the Jews living in Muslim Spain were not excluded from such inequity. 

The first of many discriminatory laws against the Jews was passed even before the Moorish invasion in 305 C.E. in the Roman province of Hispania (Spain); soon after the Council of Toledo passed a canon forbidding Jews from blessing the crops of non-Jews, as well as prohibited Christians from sharing meals with Jews.  When the Visigoths (Aryan Christians) invaded Hispania in 409 C.E., more laws were instituted further restricting the Jews.  One hundred and eighty years later in 589 C.E., Visigoth King Recared relinquished the Aryan sect and accepted the orthodox Catholic faith, thereby paving the way for the religious unity in the country.   Subsequently the Church was to exert powerful influence on all aspects of social life.  Almost immediately a canon was passed forbidding the marriage between Christian and Jews; and in 612 C.E., the Council of Gundemar of Toledo ordered that all Jews submit to baptism within the year, or undergo "scourging, mutilation, banishment, and confiscation of goods" (Meyrick 170).  However, the years of late Aryan and early orthodox Christian rule were both coming to a close.  In 709 C.E., internal unrest destabilized the peninsula.  This strife originated between the Trinitarian Christians--who accepted the Trinity, and Aryan Christians, who saw jesus not as their god but as a prophet inspired by their god  (Charafi 2).

Two years later in 711 C.E., Moorish soldiers (a mixed Arab and Berber army) crossed over from Africa to the Iberian Peninsula. They were led by General Tariq ibn Ziyad, Governor of Tangiers (Sachar 3).   He advanced his army of near ten thousand men across the strait, and landed at a location, which from that day since has sustained his name--Jabal Tarik (Mount Tarik), or Gibraltar.  The Moors engaged in battle with Visigothic soldiers, eventually killing their monarch, King Roderick.  The Muslim invasion, and subsequent administration of Iberia, freed the major Spanish population of Jews from Visigothic oppression.  It was said that immediately after the invasion, the Jewish population of Toledo "opened the gates" of the city, welcoming the North African Muslims (Wexler 218).  Though ruthless fighters, the Moors were very just. They gave the Goth Spaniards an opportunity to surrender each of their provinces, to which most capitulated. 

"It is a common misapprehension that the holy war meant that the Muslims gave their opponents a choice 'between Islam and the sword'. This was sometimes the case, but only when the opponents were polytheist and idol-worshippers. For Jews, Christians, and other 'People of the Book'.there was a third possibility, they might become a 'protected group', paying a tax or tribute to the Muslims but enjoying internal autonomy" (Watt 144).

Even in those early days, the Moors knew and practiced the principles of chivalry.  They had already won the title to Knightliness which many centuries later compelled the victorious Spaniards to addressed them as "Knights of Granada, Gentleman, albeit Moors"  (Lane-Poole 26). 

Later, after advancing to Cordoba, the Muslims found that the Goth nobles of the kingdom had fled over the Pyrenees Mountains, all but abandoning their land to them (Lane-Poole 27).  The occupation of the Moors set the stage for beginning the work of building an Islamic empire similar to the one flourishing in Damascus.  Within a century of their activity, the Moors, with assistance of the Jews, had developed a civilization based in Cordoba that surpassed that of any in Europe; it was known as Al-Andalus.  At the end of the eighth century, Al-Andalus was the most populous, cultured, and industrious land of all Europe, remaining so for centuries.  During this prosperous period, trade with the outside world was unrivaled.  It was during this time of economic expansion, the Jews, who had been virtually eliminated from the peninsula in the seventh century by the Christians, grew once more in numbers and flourished.  Hume wrote in his book "Spanish People": "Side by side with the new rulers lived the Christians and Jews in peace. The latter rich with commerce and industry were content to let the memory of their oppression by the priest-ridden Goths sleep" (Hume 23).

The occupation of Iberia by the Moors was a welcome occurrence for a well pummeled and remaining Jewish population.  Of course the Muslims were not completely tolerant, but they were more tolerant than the rulers of the previous administration. Under the ruling Caliph (the descendant of Mohammed--the prophet of G-d on earth), the Jews were able to preserve their rites and traditions.  Peaceful coexistence led to their economic and social expansion.  Their status was that of Dhimmis, non-Muslims living in a land governed by Muslims.  The Jews had limited autonomy, but full rights to practice their religion, as well as full protection by their Muslim rulers; but this did not occur for free.  There was a specific tax called the jizya that Dhimmis had to pay to receive these benefits.  Having its origin in the Qur'an, it states Dhimmis who did not pay this tax, should either convert to Islam, or face the death penalty (Qur'an 9, 29).  This tax, higher than the tax Muslims had to pay, was in several occasions one of the most important sources of income for the kingdom.  The jizya was not only a tax, but also a symbolic expression of subordination (Lewis 14).

From the second half of the eighth century to the end of the eleventh century Jewish life flourished while contributing greatly to scholarship.  A translating program was established in Toledo, using Jews as interpreters.  There they translated the Arabic books into romance languages, as well as Greek and Hebrew texts into Arabic.  This included many major works of Greek science and philosophy.  Jews studied and contributed to mathematics, medicine, botany, geography, poetry, and philosophy.   It was at this time that the study of Medicine expanded to produce a large number of exceptional Jewish physicians.  Islam had its sway over Jewish cultural life too.  In literature, and the arts, the Muslim influence on the Jews is enormous.  Though written in non-Islamic language and script, medieval Hebrew poetry, and much of the prose literature, belong to the same cultural world as Arabic and other literatures of Islam (Lewis 81).  In the Caliphate of Cordoba [the geographical zenith of Islamic life in Al-Andalus], the Jewish element became increasingly important, reaching its peak in the tenth century  (Diaz-Mas 3).   Jews lived among themselves in a walled area known as the aljama (Jewish quarter). There they lived among their own administration, and managed their own communal affairs (Epstein 1).   There the Jewish community had their own legal court known as the Beit Din.  This court, with Rabbis as Judges, would render both religious and civil legal opinions pertaining to Jewish affairs inside the aljama.  In the Beit Din the Jews were allowed to settle their own disputes.  This of course was positive for the them;  but it was also positive for the Muslims to, as it decreased the work load of the Islamic courts.

The influence Islamic culture injected into Jewish life was significant.  Jews accepted many customs and traditions of the Moors and interweaved them into their daily life.  The Arabic language, instead of Spanish and Hebrew, was used for prayers.  Ceremoniously washing of the hands and feet, which is an Islamic custom, became adopted by Jews before entering Synagogues.  Moreover, Jewish music was sung to the tune of old Arabic melodies.  Jews adopted the clothing style of their Moorish neighbors; however, they were restricted from wearing fine clothing such as furs and silk.  Most wore the universal long robe and belt, however they were prohibited from wearing a green or white one, which were the traditional colors of Islam. 

For almost four hundred years the Jews lived in Al-Andalus amid the moderate Islamic rule based in Cordoba.   Later came the insurgence of the Muslim fundamentalist Almoravides in 1055, and not long after their enemies, the Almohades in 1147.  Both groups brought with them radically stricter controls over the infidels (non-Muslims).   During this time Jews continued to work as moneylenders, jewelers, cobblers, tailors, and tanners.  Soon however, they would be mandated to wear distinctive clothing, including of the wearing of a yellow turban to distinguish them from Muslims.  These changes were a foreshadowing of the stricter controls that would soon be put in place.

Thus Islamic rule continued, but quickly the peninsular realm was cleaved up into numerous small Muslim kingdoms, each with its own ruler.  In a way not different then that of a civil war, they started fighting among each other.  Once the Muslims divided, the armies of Christendom gained a foothold on the peninsula.  It was this subsequent warring of Islamic administrations that led to collapse of Moorish supremacy on the peninsula, allowing the Christians to rise to power during the subsequent reconquista.  When the Caliphate disintegrated in the eleventh century as the result of civil war, many influential Jews remained in the Moorish kingdoms (Diaz-Mas 3).  The Jews perpetuated their way of life under the subsequent Christian monarchs of Spain, until anti-Semitism caught up with them, and they were expelled three hundred years later.  The golden age of Spain was golden, but for the Jews, it was always a bit tarnished.

Sources Cited

Charafi, Abdellatif.  Once Upon a Time in Andalusia. University of Portsmouth: 18 Nov. 1998.          

Hume, Martin A. S. The Spanish People: Their Origin, Growth and Influence. New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1901.

Diaz-Mas, Paloma. Sephardim: The Jews from Spain. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1992.

Epstein, Isidore. Studies in the Communal Life of the Jews of Spain. New York,  NY: Hermon Press, 1968.

Holy Qur'an. Trans. M. H. Shakir. Elmhurst, NY: Tahrike Tarsile Qur'an, n.d. 1990

Lane-Poole, Stanley. The Story of the Moors in Spain. Baltimore, MD: Black Classic Press, 1990.

Lewis, Bernard. The Jews of Islam. PrincetMeyrick, Fredrick.  The Doctrine of the Church of England on the Holy Communion.on, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984.

London, 1891. Sachar, Howard M. Farewell Espana: The World of the Sephardim Remembered. New York, NY: Vintage Books, 1994.

Watt, Montgomery. A History of Islamic Spain. Edinburgh: University Press,  1967.


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