Janina M. Safran. Defining Boundaries in al-Andalus: Muslims, Christians, and Jews in Islamic Iberia. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2013. ix + 247 pp. $65.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8014-5183-6; $27.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-5017-0074-3.
Reviewed by Kenneth Wolf (Pomona College)
Published on H-Catholic (October, 2015)
Commissioned by Carolina Armenteros
The point of this book is to mine Andalusi legal texts of the ninth and tenth centuries for data on how jurists negotiated the demands of the religiously pluralistic environment that was Umayyad Spain. Though medieval Iberian history as a whole offers a veritable laboratory for how conquering regimes managed their religiously pluralistic realms, the sources for the Christian version of this phenomenon are far more generous and diverse than the Muslim ones. To get at intercommunal relations in Muslim Spain, the author has turned to Maliki legal texts, which are well represented in al-Andalus and the Maghrib. For all their limitations—in particular, the challenge of locating “specific legal opinions in specific political and social contexts” (p. 210)—these texts actually allow for a nuanced consideration of the use of law as a “boundary-making mechanism” employed by Muslim jurists long after the original imposition of the dhimma (contract) that regulated intercommunal relations. As Janina M. Safran sees it, there is nothing static about this boundary-making and boundary-enforcing process, sensitive as it had to be to immediate historical contexts. “The challenge for the historian working with legal-juridical texts that claim universal authority is to read the universal in relation to the local,” writes Safran (p. 24). Exclusively focused on the texts and context of Umayyad Spain, Safran’s book is offered up as a model for how to approach legal materials produced in other parts of the Islamic world with an eye to appreciating what they have to say about the “intersection between juridical opinion and everyday life” (p. 27).
The book is divided into four chapters, each of which aims to provide as much historical grounding as possible for legal opinions that otherwise might give the impression of operating solely in the realm of ideas. The first chapter provides a foundation for the others by considering the nature of Umayyad authority—simultaneously political and religious—from the arrival of Abd ar-Rahman I in Spain in 756 to the consolidation of caliphal authority in the tenth century. This is appropriate not only because it offers an overall political context for the legal boundary making that is the focus of this study, but also because it sheds light on the evolving and context-bound collaboration of the rulers and the jurists in defining legitimacy: a form of boundary making in and of itself that required considerable legal dexterity, particularly in the face of challenges by powerful, religiously fickle rebels like Ibn Hafsun. The second chapter explores the social and cultural challenges that grew out of the increasingly close contact between Muslims and dhimmis (Christians and Jews living as members of protected communities under Muslim rule) in the ninth century. Here Safran coordinates what can be learned from the Andalusi legal texts with data contained in the more fulsome Latin sources inspired by the so-called martyrs of Córdoba. Though the juridical texts make no mention of the martyrs themselves, they evidence many of the same concerns mutatis mutandis about blasphemy, intermarriage, and conversion in relation to boundary making. The third chapter looks closely at those legal decisions that stem from relationships between Muslims and dhimmis who are members of the same household, specifically in cases of intermarriage (where a Muslim takes a Christian wife) and of conversion (where a convert to Islam is forced to deal with Christian parents). These cases show that, despite the consistent rhetorical lamentation over the “contamination” of their faith, the jurists’ rulings effectively legitimized a significant degree of intercommunal interaction. Finally, the fourth chapter considers another negotiated boundary by comparing the legal status of dhimmi Christians living under Muslim rule with that of the harbi Christians who lived under Christian rule on the other side of the frontier that separated al-Andalus and the Latin Christian kingdoms of Spain.
This book, which the author describes as “an experiment in interpretation of Islamic legal texts as sources for understanding intercommunal relations,” is a very successful experiment (p. 5). Its special genius is its deliberate juxtaposition of the idea of predetermined boundaries between Muslims, Christians, and Jews in al-Andalus with the reality of their perpetual negotiation and renegotiation by jurists in light of changes in the historical context. Anyone familiar with Safran’s Speculum article, “Identity and Differentiation in Ninth-Century al-Andalus,” will be surprised neither by the approach nor the erudition of the present volume. For an older generation of Iberianists like me, who originally operated under the assumption that the Arabic sources of early medieval Spain—in marked contrast to the Latin ones—had little to offer on the subject of dhimmis and their relationship to the dominant community, the work of Safran has proved especially eye-opening.
. Janina M. Safran, “Identity and Differentiation in Ninth-Century al-Andalus,” Speculum 76, no. 3 (2001): 573-598.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-catholic.
Kenneth Wolf. Review of Safran, Janina M., Defining Boundaries in al-Andalus: Muslims, Christians, and Jews in Islamic Iberia.
H-Catholic, H-Net Reviews.
|This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.|