This seminar explores the relations between Jew and Arab-Muslim in the middle ages and after, and their modern evaluations. For a century the realities of the Middle East conflict have encouraged claims and counter-claims about the Jewish experience under Islam – but such claims and counter-claims go back to the middle ages themselves, and are reflections as much of contemporary political and social circumstances as of realities.
The rise of Islam led to vast change for the Jews. Jews enjoyed new and better, if second-class, status. They had almost complete religious freedom. Their economic activity was unrestricted. They could move about freely between the Atlantic and India. They took on the new world-language, Arabic, and made it, together with a revived Hebrew, into the means for a major renaissance in Jewish cultural life.
From today’s viewpoint, perhaps, not everything was perfect, but by comparison with the past this was a major improvement. Nevertheless, some aspects were hard. Conversion to Islam was a constant attraction for Jews, and linguistic and social acculturation encouraged Islamization too. Small numbers, sometimes below the minimum required for critical mass, meant that communal survival was not always certain. Over time Arab-Islamic societies became less tolerant of the existence of non-Muslim minorities. And rulers and populace alike in many territories did not always offer non-Muslims the full range of protections.
Modern evaluations have displayed two main tendencies: first, they have tended to lump all areas and periods together and to stress the full half or the empty half of the cup of inter-communal relations. The result has been indictments alongside paeans – in both cases offering models to be either avoided or emulated.
A second, more differentiated, tendency focuses on individual areas or themes or periods. Here we find subtler judgment of the subjects - but here too implications for today often lie close to the surface. Thus historical study is occasionally seen to be not disinterested but partisan. Historians notoriously reflect the problems of their own time, of course, and the strictures of Edward Said emerge from an interest in just this Middle Eastern sphere. But today’s issues are so burning that the duty, like the difficulty, of detachment is all the greater.
Our concern here is not just with the historical faithfulness or the historiographical sophistication of such reactions to the middle ages, but also with how these very reactions may be seen as children of their times.
Professor David Wasserstein, Project Director
Program in Jewish Studies
140 Buttrick Hall
Nashville, TN 37240 USA
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