03.03.16, Brann, Power in the Portrayal

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Cynthia Robinson

The Medieval Review baj9928.0303.016


Brann, Ross. Power in the Portrayal: Representations of Jews and Muslims in Eleventh- and Twelth-Century Islamic Spain. Series: Jews, Christians, and Muslims from the Ancient to the Modern World. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002. Pp. xi, 194. ISBN: 0-691-00187-1.

Reviewed by:
Cynthia Robinson
The University of New Mexico

Advance praise for Power in the Portrayal highlights its originality, both in terms of approaches and interpretations (with "interesting and convincing" results) and Brann's "large-scale and sustained re-reading of controversies surrounding Samuel ha-Nagid," in "grounded and contextualized" terms. The praises are entirely justified: Brann's study forms part of a small but growing group of recent studies in Andalusi texts, material artifacts and society which offer similarly close readings against meticulously reconstructed cultural, social and/or political backdrops. It also represents a substantial and methodologically innovative contribution to our knowledge of inter-faith and inter-cultural relations, both in al-Andalus and in the medieval world at large.

Power in the Portrayal is divided into an introduction and five chapters, each of which is focused on a text or a selected group of texts. The first four chapters are concerned with the ways in which Muslim authors conspire to construe, construct and portray the Jewish "other" within the context of their own Muslim-dominated society and its historically specific concerns and tensions; the fifth reverses the gaze, so to speak, by examining a text in which Jewish writers now construct their Muslim "other." In his Introduction, entitled, "Power in the Portrayal" (1-23), Brann begins with the interrogation of a still-pervasive myth in the portrayal and perception, both scholarly and lay, of al-Andalus, or Muslim Spain, during the ["European"] High Middle Ages (1) as a "singularly tolerant premodern society," an "interfaith utopia shared by the three monotheistic religious communities." He juxtaposes this inaccurate but pervasive commonplace with the textually substantiated frequency of "tribal and ethnic social cleavages, and socioeconomic struggles and factional rivalries among Andalusi Arabs, Berbers, the saqaliba ("Slavs"), and Mozarabic Christians" which plagued even the first centuries of Islamic presence in the Iberian peninsula. This lack of social cohesion, as is well known, continued to manifest itself in a myriad of forms throughout the medieval period, with often increasingly negative results for Jewish sectors of society (eg., under Almoravid and Almohad hegemonies; in Christian-ruled kingdoms disrupted by intermittent manifestations of violence toward them and an increasingly hard-line policy regarding the converso population during the latter half of the fifteenth century), despite their lack of overt participation in strife between factions belonging to the same faith or, alternately, between Muslims and Christians.

Already in contrast to previous studies of the "Jewish experience in al-Andalus," or "the Jewish experience under medieval Islam," Brann limits and sharply focuses the scope of his study to include only the eleventh and twelfth centuries, with the exception of the early thirteenth-century Takhemoni and the maqamah literature of Judah al-Harizi, who died in 1235 and thus carries us into the first third of the thirteenth century. This tight focus, in turn, permits the author to foreground and to thoroughly explore what he refers to as the "messiness" (i.e., the complex, multiple, and difficult-to-pin-down nature) of Muslim authors' construction of the "Jewish other" during the period in question. This exploration brings him to ultimately accept as normative, rather than attempt to "solve" (by discarding some texts and retaining others), the "contradictory" "facts" which have fostered marked discrepancies between the two camps of interpretation which have dominated the field to date: one which sees the Jewish sector of Andalusi society as a thoroughly integrated and functioning entity within the (Muslim) Andalusi "whole," staunchly opposed by a second group who have (often on the basis of different passages from the same or similar texts) reconstructed the "Jewish experience in al-Andalus" as one plagued by pogroms, widespread anti-Semitism and assiduous exclusion and persecution.

These two seemingly contradictory readings, posits Brann, result from two decisions taken, consciously or unconsciously, by those who have studied the Jewish-Andalusi phenomenon in the past: on the one hand, the "hand-picking" of evidence which supports one or another interpretation and, on the other, the uncritical acceptance of an artificial separation between historical "fact" and literary "interpretation." While this is true for all fields of inquiry, it might be argued to be "even more true" as regards the material in question here, given the often overt political motivations of scholars interested in the "Jewish experience under medieval Islam." Departing from Brian Stock's revision of the previously accepted separation of "two orders of [historical and literary] textual experience," (10) Brann highlights these texts' "historically contingent relationship to other forms of cultural discourse." The longevity of the perceived separation between these two "categories" of texts, as Brann thoroughly demonstrates, has in fact prevented scholarship from coming to grips with the constructed nature of all textual representations, and with the larger social and political motivations for Muslim authors' having undertaken these constructions in the first place, many of which might be said, in truth, to be only secondarily "about" the urgency of constructing and portraying a Jew(ish other), and more principally concerned with debates interior to the (often conflicted) dominant Muslim sector of society.

It might be objected here that all scholars choose their primary sources and, consciously or not, their approach (indeed, as we would all readily acknowledge, no study can ever claim to be truly objective), and thus Brann's study is no more unbiased than any of those he has criticized. It is, however, different, and therein lies its merit: the premise is indeed and unavoidably a selective one with regard to the texts studied, with the guiding principle -- for the first three chapters, at any rate -- being the figure of Samuel the Nagid. The approach taken to the texts selected, though, comes extremely close to being "objective," in that Brann considers, very closely, (all of) what the text actually says, always departing from and returning to the source in question. He has also, in his selection, sought to broaden the normal scope of such inquiries beyond the polemical writings most often considered, but without excluding these altogether. Brann reminds us that polemical writing is a genre, just like any other, and encourages a re-reading of these texts, not as transparent reflections of historical truth, but alongside others and as historically-conditioned products of conscious choices (concerning, e.g., what to "put in" and what to "leave out"), subject to "conditions of...production" and "conditions of textual meaning." Indeed, Brann highlights the formulaic nature and high "cliche" content of these texts (including, in the case of Jewish writings, late rabbinic midrashim, or homiletic literature; piyyutim, or liturgical poetry; biblical commentaries, responsa, occasional writings and works of theology; in the case of Arabic writings, we might name such genres as Qur'anic discourse, tafsir, hadith, fatwa literature, and works of heresiography). The relationship of these works, then, to the larger social -- and, indeed, literary -- context to which they belong is often nothing short of contradictory.

Chapter One is entitled, "Force of Character" (24-53), and is the first of three chapters dedicated to an examination of the character, and characterizing, of the [in]famous Jewish minister to the Zirid taifa kings of Granada, Ismail ibn Naghrila (Samuel the Nagid). Central to this chapter are three texts, the Tabaqat al-Umam; Ibn Hayyan al-Qurtubi's comments concerning the vizier preserved apud Ibn al-Khatib in Al-Ihata fi Akhbar Gharnata; and Abd Allah ibn Bullugin's Tibyan, this latter author being the last taifa ruler of the kingdom of Granada. Samuel the Nagid's exceptionality is noted, not only in modern scholarship, but by the medieval authors upon which the former works are based: in a word, and in addition to his other abilities as a grammarian, linguist, and exegete of the rationalist bent, this (according to Judah al-Harizi, author of the Tahkemoni) "great prince, chief of all the princes the Jews had," single-handedly redirected the course of Hebrew poetry in al-Andalus, not only in terms of his own compositions and innovations, but as a noted and generous patron of other literati. Moreover, he led something of a double life: in addition to the (quasi-official) position of "Nagid," or "leader of the Jews," both of Granada and arguably of all of al-Andalus, which appears to have been conferred upon him sometime around 1027, Ismail ibn Naghrila also enjoyed the benefits from the unparalleled position he occupied in the Muslim civic sphere. Although his claims to the position of dhu al-wizaratayn, or "holder of the two forms of authority, the sword and the pen," vis-a-vis the Zirid authorities may have been either embellished or fabricated outright, his importance to those sovereigns from 1038 until his death in 1055 or 1056, was key.

Brann identifies two discordant groups of voices -- similar to those interrogated in his introduction -- among the scholars who comment upon Muslim writers' attitudes to the figure of Samuel the Nagid: some find the attitudes of these texts overwhelmingly positive (noting their portrayal of Ismail as an intelligent, skilled and noble Jew), while others focus on the instances in which the vizier is relentlessly denigrated as "vile" and "foolish," as "a fiendish enemy of God, Islam and the Muslims"; as in the Qur'anic sura discussed in the introduction, moreover, these diametrically opposed characterizations are, at times, found within a single source. Brann ascribes many of these discrepancies to the genre of specific works, but also poses a provocative question (27): "Is it...possible to move beyond the simple characterizations of 'favorable' or 'unfavorable' when speaking of the Andalusi-Arabic textual representations of Ibn Naghrila?"

Brann believes that it is possible, and identifies the key to the seemingly contradictory nature of the texts and the interpretations they have generated: Muslim textual constructions of the infamous vizier are "concerned directly or indirectly with issues of sovereignty and the exercise of power, and [to this reviewer's mind, the following observation is key] all are reflective of matters and issues internal to Islam for which the Jew serves as a mirror" (27). The first three chapters of Power in the Portrayal, accordingly, are comprised of a series of case studies in which Brann skillfully proves his point. First up for examination, as suggested by the title of the chapter, is the Tabaqat al-Umam, or "The Categories of Nations," compiled by the Toledan noble and Qadi Said ibn Ahmad al-Andalusi (b. 1029). As indicated earlier, I will attempt to provide a thorough reconstruction for this case of Brann's close reading of the texts he has chosen, which is in most respects typical of the approach taken with the rest. Brann notes, as others have done, the overwhelmingly positive light in which the Jews (both those of antiquity and those of old) are portrayed in the Tabaqat, finding a key example in Said al-Andalusi's "simple exchange" of the term "Banu Israil" for "Jews," or "al-Yahud," something which an Andalusi Jew would probably have taken for granted, but which would not necessarily be an automatic substitution for Said's Muslim readership. The substitution, however, as Brann demonstrates, is not a simple and transparent compliment paid by Said to his Jewish compatriots: by acknowledging the Andalusi Jews' direct lineage to the Jews of antiquity (including those most directly involved -- some even as converts -- in the foundational years of Islam), their culture and their knowledge (which is also lauded) become "licit" and appropriate "food" for Andalusi Muslim "thought" as well. Moreover, Andalusi Jews become potentially appropriate for conversion to Islam.

In terms of Ibn Naghrila himself in the Tabaqat, he is accorded the (highly irregular and perhaps even illegal) honor of being referred to both by his name (ism), and by his kunya (Abu Ibrahim, "father of Abraham"), a gesture through which the Tabaqat's author accords him utmost respect. His prominent political position in Granada is noted and "pass[ed] over...without a hint of protest." Ibn Naghrila is foregrounded, moreover, not only as one who "possesses expert knowledge of religious law," but also "as one who strives successfully to implement its observance" (32). Thus "a singularly important value of Muslim behavior" is projected onto a "Jewish communal leader and scholar of religious law operating within the context of his own religious community." Indeed, Ibn Naghrila is made to correspond to the "image of a just Muslim ruler whose obligation to uphold Islamic law (sharia) ultimately defines his legitimacy before God and consequently in the eyes of Muslim society" (33).

It is at this point that many scholars would leave the matter -- during the period in question, it is well known that Jews regularly attained high positions at court and in the service of especially taifa rulers, and Ibn Said's text simply reflects the general nature of a relatively and for the most part positive Andalusi "Jewish experience" during most of the eleventh century. Brann, however, takes the opportunity to pose another pointed question, to which an enlightening answer is forthcoming: "Is it a coincidence that such an image turns up in an eleventh-century Andalusi-Arabic text, even though the subject in question is a non-Muslim?" He then goes on to situate both Ibn Naghrila and his portrayal in the Tabaqat against the backdrop of the lack of resonance -- as perceived by the Andalusi ulama, at any rate -- between the majority of the muluk al-tawa'if, or taifa kings, and the ideal portrait of the just Muslim ruler sketched above. In a word, Samuel the Nagid has become a tool in ulama rhetoric against the taifa rulers' excesses and perceived "breaking [of] faith with Islam," and this (as Brann discusses, 33-4) in a discourse in which one might reasonably have expected to find his elevation as a dhimmi to such a position of power criticized as part and parcel of this same "breaking of faith."

The second piece of the textual portrayal and construction reconstituted in Chapter One is a discussion of Ibn Naghrila by Ibn Hayyan, preserved apud Ibn al-Khatib, alongside observations gleaned from another of the fourteenth-century Granadan's sources, Ibn Idhari's thirteenth-century compilation entitled al-Bayan al-Mughrib. Ibn Hayyan's account of Samuel ha-Nagid as practically "passing" for Muslim (which might at first seem unambiguously positive) is characterized as ambiguous by Brann, on the strength of its possibility to achieve multiple significations once internalized by Ibn Idhari's readership: although "passing" as majority on the part of the minority can lead to safe and reassuring feelings of sameness for all concerned, it can also bring things a bit too close for comfort: "If the reader does not take Ibn Naghrila for a gifted and assimilated ersatz-Muslim courtier he can just as easily regard him as a Jewish infiltrator operating covertly within Islam or with equal justification as a Jew entrenched in a position of authority over Muslims and the Muslim state. In either case, Ibn Naghrila trespasses inviolate political and social boundaries Islam imposed on its Jewish subjects" (40). Brann signals, as well, "a notable difference in tone and a subtle difference in approach" between Ibn Hayyan's subtly enigmatic rendering of the vizier and Ibn Idhari's brief thirteenth-century discussion of Ibn Naghrila's grave and his son, to which Ibn al-Khatib turns in order to round out his account of the vizier and his family. The Bayan, moreover, elsewhere contains emphatic condemnation of the taifa kings' Jewish viziers for their pride, their tax-collecting, their arrogance toward Muslims, and their wrongful extraction of money from them. Clearly, then, as Brann has shown by this particular instance in close reading, Muslim representation of their Jewish subjects also followed a historical trajectory.

Finally, Chapter One considers Abd Allah ibn Buluggin's Tibyan; Ibn Naghrila, as will be remembered, was minister to the author, who was the last taifa sovereign of Granada, his turbulent reign lasting from 1073 until 1090. It is hardly surprising that Abd Allah particularly appreciated his minister's diplomatic capacities and acumen, given his troubled relations with the other taifa kingdoms and their rulers, and the minister's loyalty appears to have earned him the same consideration from the sovereigns he served, despite hot criticism from court poets of royal "neighbors" such as al-Mutamid of Seville. Abd Allah was, however, as a sign of the times and perhaps in demonstration of his sensitivity to the issue of "dhimmi's in high places," careful to note that "Abu Ibrahim was...not accorded any power over Muslims in any issue whether right or wrong" (45). Moreover, the praises of the father are compensated by the excoriation of the son: in the Tibyan, Yusuf is "a completely Machiavellian and rapacious figure without scruples or loyalties" (49), who paid only "lip service" to the strictures and boundaries imposed on dhimmis by Islamic law. Indeed, such a despicable Jew is perhaps necessary as a prelude for Abd Allah's version of the tragic pogrom of 1066; if he had, the text implies, only been more like his father...In the closing to this chapter, Brann notes again the varied nature of eleventh-century representations by Muslims of the Andalusi Jew of whom, indeed, there is no uniform image. Rather, the texts conspire to produce an "inconsistent, mutable and fluctuating construction of his otherness," always at the service of the Muslim writer's take on the (Islamic) issue of the moment.

Chapter Two, entitled, "An Andalusi-Muslim Literary Typology of Jewish Heresy and Sedition" (54-90), to which are central two texts by the "idiosyncratic" and noted religious polemicist, Abu Muhammad Ali ibn Hazm (994-1064), Al-Fisal fi l-milal wal-ahwa' wal-nihal, and Al-Radd ala ibn al-naghrila al-yahudi, represents a continuation in the process of the author's examination of Samuel the Nagid as a mirror-construction of Muslim writers whose real agenda hinges, not around the Jew (or the Jews) him- (or them-)selve[s], but around issues central to Islam for whose understanding and mediation the Jew serves a myriad of interested purposes. In this case, the Jew is given the role of the seditious heretic. One of the key moments in question for this chapter is the "period of profound social and political unrest shortly after the disintigration of the unified Islamic state in al-Andalus" (1013), a moment which was also characterized by intense internecine strife among Muslim factions. To wit, the Jews are called into service in the larger agenda of Ibn Hazm's polemic against (Muslim) heretics in general (a problem which, as several recent studies, e.g., by Maribel Fierro, have brought to light, plagued the very heart of the caliphate even during the reign of Abd al-Rahman III, al-Andalus' first "caliph"). Ibn Hazm's Jews are in fact constructions which have very little to do with anti-Jewish polemic per se, and everything to do with Andalusi fuqaha's preoccupations with materialist and other "threatening" schools of Muslim thought and exegesis (mutazila; mutahaddirun, or materialists; mutakallimun or ahl al-kalam, essentially "rationalists"; all often lumped together under the category ahl al-dahr, or "free thinkers"...and this of course without mentioning the anti-predestination strands of Ibn Masarra's thought which still survived in the eleventh century, or the proximity of the increasingly threatening shia caliphate in Cairo...In short, it is extremely fair to state that al-Andalus, already in the tenth century, and certainly in the eleventh, was a society certain sectors of which were intensely preoccupied by the climate of increasingly open religious pluralism which reigned, even -- or perhaps especially -- within Islam itself). In support of his well-crafted argument concerning the Jews' [constructed] place in all this, Brann highlights the following quotation concerning the religion of the Jews, which belongs to the context of a discussion of "materialist" statements made in the Psalms, from Ibn Hazm's Fisal: "Indeed, the religion of the Jews tends strongly toward ["materialist-atheist" opinions], for there is not in their Torah any mention of the next world, or of reward after death...They combine materialism, plurality in deity, anthropormorphism, and every stupidity in the world" (Fisal, 1: 309; trans., Perlmann, 1948-49, 279). Thus, the Jews are not simply non-Muslims (a status which in and of itself does not necessarily have to be problematic, given the well-established legal category of dhimmi to which they belong); rather, they are constructed as much more religiously threatening than they actually are, through their likening to all the worst sorts of (Muslim) heretics Ibn Hazm knew.

Chapter Three, entitled, "Textualizing Ambivalence" ( 91-118), at the center of which is the "literary miscellany" by Ibn Bassam al-Shantarini, "The Treasury Concerning the Merits of the People of Iberia" (al-Dhakhira fi Mahasin al-Jazira), in many ways returns to some of the questions raised in Chapter One. Ibn Bassam devotes two entire chapters to the Jewish vizier, and in those two chapters presents two diametrically opposed characterizations of the object of his examination: "This text initially presents Ismail ibn Naghrila as a Jew worthy of admiration, respect and tribute," then "conversely...demonizes [him] as a scoundrel who utilized his office to undermine Islam and attempt to establish a Jewish polity in its place while denying Muslims their rights and depriving them of their wealth" (91). In contrast to the situation examined in chapter one, however, these diametrically opposed portrayals of the Nagid are present in one and the same text, offering eloquent testimony to the complexity of social negotiations surrounding the Andalusi Jew, and particularly Andalusi Jews in High Places, as well as to the "slipperiness" of Muslim constructions of these Jews. The first of the two chapters is dedicated to Ibn Naghrila's having been well ensconced as a patron of Andalusi literati, and in fact opens with a flowery letter of praise, composed in rhymed prose and dedicated to him by Zirid court poet Abu Abd al-Aziz ibn Khayra al-Qurtubi. Brann points out that it is hardly surprising that Ibn Naghrila would receive such praises from a Muslim poet -- indeed, his wealth and high status within the ranks of the Zirid court practically assures that he would have. Ibn Bassam, however, has some harsh criticisms of the contents of the risala (letter) to offer after its quotation; the risala, and particularly the poem of praise it contains, does indeed contain some rather over-the-top praises derived from religious topoi, one of which appears to "[liken] Ibn Naghrila's power to bestow favor to the Stone within the sacred shrine of Mecca" (96). Indeed, the poet (also known, and generally identified by Brann, as "al-Munfatil," the one who has "turned away" [from his religion?]) would appear so sympathetic to the Nagid's Jewish faith that previous scholars have speculated concerning his own religious allegiance, a view which Ibn Bassam might even be argued to have shared. At any rate, the anthologist certainly makes no bones about his condemnation of al-Munfatil's having accepted such lavish recompense for his unctuous praises of a Jew: "May God's curse be upon him because of the compensation he received and may He remove him from belief in that religion which he embraced on account of money" (Ibn Bassam, Dhakhira, 2: 765; Brann's translation). It is interesting to note similarities in the ambivalence of other Muslim anthologists in the representation of Muslim "heretics": one thinks here of al-Fath ibn Khaqan's ambiguous treatment of Ibn Bajjah, often "explained away" as being personally motivated (the vituperative mode, that is -- Ibn Bajjah is at one point excoriated by al-Fath as the puss-leaking canker on the eye of [Muslim] religion), and then cleaned up and made laudatory once al-Fath's "impressions" of Ibn Bajjah had changed. Brann's methodologies might be of use to Arabists here.

The second of the chapters Ibn Bassam devotes to the figure of the Jewish vizier details what is in essence presented as the Nagid making, and then having to lie in, his own bed. The infamous political downfall, culminating in the tragic events of 1066, was, in Ibn Bassam's opinion, brought on as divine retribution for the minister's numerous transgressions of stipulations concerning Jews' proper place in Muslim society -- Ibn Naghrila simply blended in a bit too well, and in many sectors and contexts, almost "passed." Worse still, he had amassed a substantial library concerning the intricacies of Muslim thought and exegesis. His downfall, then, was inevitable. More importantly, however, Ibn Bassam's version of this downfall is contextualized pointedly by Brann: "It should be recalled that Ibn Bassam al-Shantarini himself was forced to abandon his native town (Santarem) when the Christians conquered it in 1092." The fall of the vizier is but one stage in the larger process of the downfall of al-Andalus itself, constructed in the very-twelfth-century mind of Ibn Bassam -- boundaries transgressed lead to cities lost to the infidel; the Jews are related in a causal, if implicit, fashion to the loss of Muslim territories to the Christians (just as, one might add, they had been "blamed" by some for the initial Muslim takeover in the first place!).

Chapter Four, entitled, "Muslim Counterparts, Rivals, Mentors, and Foes -- A Trope of Andalusi-Jewish Identity?" (119-139), essentially constitutes an exploration of the theme, "The Problem of Andalusi-Jewish Representations of Muslims." In it, Brann turns from the extended analysis of Ibn Naghrila and his place within an ongoing discourse concerning "Muslim apprehensions and misgivings...internal to Islam" (118), and toward the intriguing issue of Andalusi Jews having "largely refrain[ed] from casting Muslim personalities and figures in the variety of Hebrew and Judeo-Arabic texts they authored" (119). Although he notes the relatively limited audience of those texts (essentially limited to the Jews themselves and highly-educated recent converts), Brann believes that the answer is much more complex (and interesting). Brann first signals observations made a few years back by Moshe Perlmann concerning Arabs' general disinterest in Judaism (not, as we have seen, an entirely accurate statement), which he contrasted with what he saw as Jews' overt preoccupations with things Islamic. Perlmann characterized these latter as "numerous, scattered remarks, references, and allusions intended, on the one hand to weaken known Islamic arguments...against Jewish texts, and on the other...to expose to opprobrium matters felt to be weak points of Islam" (120, quoting Perlmann, 1987, 126) Brann then informs us that he is interested -- although this is "not exactly" in the same manner that "Foucault had in mind" -- in such critical questions as "who speaks?" and "what difference does it make who speaks?" and then cautions against assumptions concerning a direct correlation between "the Jews' apparent disinterest in giving Muslim figures a voice or a presence in Jewish texts" and "a minority's clear-cut strategy of denial, caution and avoidance" of polemical discourse because of a heightened consciousness of minority and thus vulnerable status. Rather, "there are many forms of silence and different meanings to be assigned to any such gaps in the text or in the discourse" (120). Moreover, the "liberties" sometimes taken in liturgical poetry, biblical exegesis and theological writings lie in direct contrast to the fact that "Islam and Islamdom figure hardly at all in the poets' representations of Muslims." This is the first silence which Brann explores in this chapter, departing from an analysis of a Hebrew elegy on the themes of exile and banishment written by the Andalusi poet and "polymath" Abraham ibn Ezra (d. 1165). One of the most important insights Brann offers concerning this composition (others of whose themes he has explored thoroughly elsewhere) is the fact that the particular exile mourned by Ibn Ezra is that brought on by the coming to power of the Almohads, an event which he himself, having left al-Andalus in 1140 and "embarked on an odyssey around Mediterranean and European lands" (120), did not physically witness, and the related fact that Ibn Ezra's version of it is completely de-historicized. The perpetrators, for instance, are only referred to twice in the entire composition, and in neither instance are they portrayed specifically as Muslims (123). Brann offers a provocative explanation for this silence: citing Leo Spitzer's characterization of the Andalusi Jewish marginality as a "situational" one, and one which was very much nuanced by their intense Arabization, Brann suggests that Jews such as Ibn Ezra might well have mourned, not only the destruction of important centers of the "venerable rabbinical academy" of Lucena (123), but also what was in fact the final death blow to the culture which they had so productively shared (pace, e.g., Ibn Hazm) with the Muslims of al-Andalus throughout the caliphal, fitna and taifa-proper periods. Other varied and specific instances of poetic and textual reticence or silence are examined in this chapter, and these include Moses ibn Ezra's Kitab al-Muhadara wa-l-mudhakara (The Book of Conversation and Discussion), Judah Halevi's Kuzari, or Kitab al radd wa-l-dalil fi l-dinn al-dhalil (The Book of Refutation and Proof on the Despised Faith), Abraham ibn Daud's Sefer ha-Qabbalah (The Book of Tradition), and Samuel the Nagid's own writings.

Chapter Five, also offered in part by way of a conclusion, examines further "The Silence of the Jews" (140-160), and takes as its point of departure Judah al-Harizi's "Picaresque Tale of the Muslim Astrologer" from al-Tahkemoni. The tales which comprise this work are maqamat, or short[ish] narrations, often rendered in rhymed prose of staggering complexity and frequently with poetic interpolations. The Takhemoni was written in the early thirteenth century and, as Brann notes, it is "probably the best-known work of [medieval] Hebrew rhymed prose," and is "regarded as the most influential Hebrew adaptation of the medieval Arabic prose form and genre" (141), being explicitly modeled on the Arabic maqamat of "Eastern belletrists Badi l-Zaman al-Hamadhani and al-Hariri of Basra (d. 1122)" (142). The Takhemoni, moreover, is hardly lacking in representations of Muslims, but it differs both from the open and sometimes polemical discussions of Islam in liturgical poetry, midrash, biblical commentaries and mystical literature, often centered around the common ancestor of Jews and Arabs, and from the "lack of clear conventions for representing Muslims" which Brann has already discussed as being characteristic of secular Hebrew poetry, and which, not coincidentally, served the Jewish intelligentsia as a way to link themselves to the dominant Arabic literary culture, and thus as a temporary escape from their marginalization.

Brann begins the discussion by highlighting the Takhemoni's "protonational sensibility and ethnocentric focus," which strongly differentiate it from "medieval Hebrew translations of international lore such as Kalila wa-Dimna, Mishlei Sendebar (The Tales of Sendebar), and the story of Barlaam and Josephat, Ben ha-melekh we-ha-nazir (The Prince and the Dervish)". Indeed, the Takhemoni's author extols the "noble value of promoting Jewish cultural nationalism as the goal of the work" (143), which he has ostensibly undertaken at the behest of some Jewish Toledan literati, and in direct competition with (in addition to being a translation of) al-Hariri's. The elevated register of the rhymed prose introduction, through its links to Solomon ibn Gabirol's Keter Malkhut, even "flirts with the notion that the book was prophetically inspired." (143)

Brann also highlights the multiplicity of functions that may be justly attributed to the Takhemoni's narratives. Noting that previous scholars have often isolated the comic and satirical elements of the narratives, and the high-flown, "dazzling" prose, at the expense of the work's "underlying thoughtfulness" (144). Others, for their part, have isolated the work's didactic intent, thus sacrificing an awareness of its comic appeal. Brann's more comprehensive approach attempts to take into account all aspects of the work's message[s], which, as its author appears to have been more than conscious, would differ according to individual reader responses and capabilities -- some readers will be edified, some will be amused, and this appears to be just fine with al-Harizi, just as it was taken in stride by his relative contemporaries, such as Ibn Tufayl, Yacob ben Elazar, Don Juan Manuel, Juan Ruiz and Vidal Benveniste (in this one sentence, then, Brann establishes productive venues for further study, through which the Takhemoni might be productively situated within the larger panorama of literary production in late twelfth-through-late fourteenth-century Iberia). The aspect of the Takhemoni which has been passed over by previous scholarship, however, and which Brann highlights throughout the remainder of the chapter, is its "distinctive vision of Jewish life and keen evocation of the Jewish condition in Mediterranean and Middle Eastern lands during the thirteenth century" -- to wit, its "construction of social meaning" (145-146). Brann then considers at length the maqama of the Astrologer, noting first that, in the Takhemoni's particular case, the "confessional affiliation of the various characters serves little [apparent] narrative purpose in the majority of anecdotes." After an in-depth analysis of the tale against the backdrop of other similar tales, both within the Takhemoni and in other related compilations, however, the underlying cause of many of the particularities to be observed in the maqama of the Astrologer (among them, the overt nature of Jewish Messianic aspirations) are made clear through Brann's placing of it against the historicized backdrop of a moment "rife with intense messianic longing, expectations and activity in al-Andalus and Christian Spain as well as in the Muslim East, that is, about thirty years after the Muslim retaking of Jerusalem from the Crusaders (1187)" (155). Brann first reads within the story's concern with this issue the presumption of a "popular" Muslim point of view from which Jewish messianism is "seditious and an implicit threat to Islam" (157). By turning the story over and reading it another way, however, Brann makes clear the possibility that the story "might be seen to reinforce Jewish hopes for a speedy redemption" (158). Ambiguity, indeed, would appear (appropriately) to be the operative term for the entire study, and in the instance of the Takhemoni, it has served the Jews just as well as it has served their "other," from whom they, indeed, had learned valuable lessons, resulting in the creation of a text which "could" be (read to be, explicitly) "about" Jewish messianic aspirations-- or not, as the case dictated.

The study is supplied with a useful, well-organized index (185-194) and an extensive and up-to-date bibliography (161-184), divided into the categories of primary (particularly helpful to the non-Arabist and/or Hebraist is the listing of extant English- or European-language translations) and secondary sources, which will provide a rich point of departure from which any scholar, whether specialist or not, might undertake research into the numerous questions of import raised by the author, or simply gain an overview of the relevant literature. The text is cleanly presented with convenient, reader-friendly "breaks" and subtitles, in a reasonably-sized and attractive font whose perfection is only very occasionally and only extremely slightly marred by isolated instances of inconsistency in transliteration which are certainly of a mechanical nature rather than generated by the author, and which in no instance impede comprehension.

Perhaps the most important of the lessons offered to Andalusianists by Power in the Portrayal is found in Brann's observation concerning the "messiness" apparent in the varied register of written record[s] with which we are left in the Andalusi case, and this "messiness" having been directly provoked by Muslims' shaping of The Jew. Particularly, as Brann notes, at times of "religious turmoil and political crisis " (such as the eleventh-century fitna and the "Reconqista" of the twelfth) during which Islam was perceived by pious Muslims as "failing rather than triumphant" (21), the "chimerical, slippery" Jew (which Brann likens to Kristeva's "uncanny other") was called into a service for which his eel-like otherness, "inconsistent, mutable, and fluctuating," was particularly appropriate. Of import for the field of medieval studies at large, however, Brann has underlined the crucial importance of bringing relativity and contingency squarely into the forefront of issues to be considered by scholars concerned with the extraordinarily complex issue[s] of inter-faith and inter-cultural relationships (with "inter-faith" and "inter-cultural" now, thankfully, being increasingly clearly distinguished as categories in recent scholarship). We all should, together with Brann, embrace the "interesting messiness" of the picture[s] -- both the larger and the more local -- and not seek to "make sense of it" by excluding voices or discrete (and "contradictory") bits of evidence in order to neaten up the lines. The success of the approach[es] taken by Brann to this particular place and moment of "cultural interaction" (particularly as regards material already several times visited and "revisited") should also serve to encourage other/further [re-]visitings -- speaking as an Andalusianist, I can state that our field is certainly replete with possibilities (one thinks here, for instance, of some of the paradigms now in place for characterizing Jewish-Christian, or Muslim-Christian, relationships, both in al-Andalus and in the medieval world at large, and hopes for their re-consideration, perhaps even revision). We thus might eventually, after lessons learned, arrive at a moment in which we can [re-]visit the issue of "intercultural relations" from a global medieval perspective -- indeed, Brann has offered us (particularly in the introduction, through brief but provocative discussions of parallels in other parts of the Islamic and Mediterranean world) several possible avenues through which we might begin to chip away at the aura of exceptionality which always seems to hover thick about the Andalusi situation.

One of the few statements made in Power in the Portrayal with which I would, to a certain extent, disagree is the general characterization of al-Andalus as "...a society where identity is determined and identity is conferred according to one's affiliation with a particular religious community" (98). While this is indisputably often -- indeed, most often -- the case, one could also compile quite an ample list of instances in which considerations of class, specific abilities, or economic interest[s] easily (if temporarily, contradictorily, perhaps even while simultaneously affirming it) override the "determination" and "conferral" of identity according to religion. Indeed, Power in the Portrayal contains a number of cases, and Brann himself, in his final chapter, explores in some depth two instances of the mockery and duping of peasants, Muslim/Arab in one case, Jewish in another, as portrayed in the Takhemoni, in which the religious identity of the unfortunate subjects in question appears to have been overridden by their identity as simpleminded village dwellers. Studies are to be desired in which these cases might be thoroughly analyzed and foregrounded as well, in order to further round out the "messiness." This, however, is hardly a quibble with Brann's study -- indeed, few authors could achieve what he has achieved and broaden the scope of a field of inquiry to the extent that he has done in such an economical 194 pages. Rather, the inclusion of suppressed or minimized religious identity within the scope of suitable subjects for inquiry by students of a multicultural Middle Ages will doubtless come about naturally, as this field grows, a process which has been helped along more-than-considerably by Power in the Portrayal.

Article Details

Author Biography

Cynthia Robinson

The University of New Mexico