12.11.15, Freidenreich/Goldstein, eds., Beyond Religious Borders

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Sharon L. Albert

The Medieval Review 12.11.15

Freidenreich, David M. and Miriam Goldstein. Beyond Religious Borders, Interaction and Intellectual Exchange in the Medieval Islamic World. Jewish Culture and Contexts. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012. Pp. xii, 221. ISBN: 978-0-8122-4374-1.

Reviewed by:
Sharon L. Albert
Muhlenberg College

Beyond Religious Borders: Interaction and Intellectual Exchange in the Medieval Islamic World, edited by David M. Freidenreich and Miriam Goldstein, brings together the work of the 2006-2007 research group "Jews, Christian, and Muslims Under Caliphs and Sultans" convened at the University of Pennsylvania's Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies. The authors of the eleven essays in the volume all participated in the research group, and the book demonstrates the value of such research collaborations. Drawing on a range of disciplines including philosophy, literature, language and translation studies, and history, the essays elucidate an innovative approach to the study of the "Arabo-Islamic world" (1). Considering cultural exchange between Muslims, Christians, and Jews during the Middle Ages in the Islamic Middle East, the authors show a fluidity of exchange that moves beyond traditional one-directional paradigms such as "influence" and "reception" or "appropriation" and "accommodation" to broader, more multi-dimensional intersections.

After a brief but thorough introduction by Miriam Goldstein which clearly lays out the innovative perspectives that tie the essays together, the book is divided into three sections: "Contexts of Interreligious Interaction," "Adopting and Accommodating the Foreign," and "Crossing Borders: Agents of Interaction and Exchange."

Part I, "Contexts of Religious Interaction," illuminates the interrelated settings of the essays, with an essay on Judeo-Arabic civilization by Haggai Ben-Shammai; an essay on philosophical methodologies--both of the medieval philosophers and of the author--by Sarah Stroumsa; and an essay arguing for a reconsideration of the place of the dhimmi in the Islamic world by Milka Levy-Rubin. Two of the three authors in this section find strong evidence for a significant foundation for fluidity even at an early date. Ben- Shammai, in his essay "Judeo-Arabic Civilization," makes a strong case for pushing back the date for a beginning of Judeo-Arabic civilization to an earlier time than usually indicated. He presents a particularly fluid view of a largely parallel development of Hadith and Midrash, and even the Qur'an itself. While he is concerned primarily with religious texts, he also takes note of the importance of "low sections in Jewish society, such as farmers or craftsmen" (27), who would have created the first demand for Judeo-Arabic versions of the Bible. Stroumsa, in "Thinkers of 'This Peninsula': Toward an Integrative Approach to the Study of Philosophy in al-Andalus," the third essay in this section, draws on the metaphor of a whirlpool to make a particularly compelling case for distinctively Andalusian culture, thought, and ideas shared by both Muslims and Jews. She employs Miquel Forcada's conception of philosophers and scientists as their own minority to suggest that this Andalusian thirst for a certain type of scholarship would have trumped religious boundaries, at least some of the time (52). Her discussion of the importation of books is a fascinating example. Stroumsa presents her essay as a methodological introduction to work she plans to pursue, and what she writes here indicates that her future work will be another important contribution to this field.

The second section of the volume, "Adopting and Accommodating the Foreign," includes four essays: Sagit Butbul writes about biblical translations, linking Syriac, Karaite, and early Judeo-Arabic translations; Talya Fishman argues persuasively for strong evidence of Islamic theology in the positioning of the Mishna by Sherira Gaon, head of the rabbinic academy of Pumbeditha in the tenth century; Charles H. Manekin demonstrates how Maimonides' writings reveal key Islamic and Arabic traces in his sources even as he constructs his own incomparably important philosophical approach; and Jonathan P. Decter uses literary sources to show the hybridity of the era, and the extent to which religious boundaries could be manipulated. Fishman's essay, "Claims About the Mishna in the Epistle of Sherira Gaon: Islamic Theology and Jewish History," shows how Sherira's articulation of the Mishna as a "divinely guided project" was informed not only by the Muslim doctrine of I'jaz [inimitability of] al- Qur'an, but also by the Ash'arite and Mu'tazilite debates about it (66). She, too, provides evidence for strong Karaite involvement. Decter, in his essay, "Ibrahim Ibn al-Fakhkhar al-Yahudi: An Arabic Poet and Diplomat in Castile and the Maghrib," employs Homi Bhabha's concept of hybridity to emphasize that as the era of Muslim rule in Spain came to an end, Jews, even as poets and diplomats, were certainly a "religious Other," (109), and sometimes an anxiety- producing other at that; but that Jewish literary production in Arabic could still be a source for "the nostalgic evocation of the multifaith culture of al-Andalus" (110).

Three essays make up the final section of the volume, "Crossing Borders: Agents of Interaction and Exchange." Two of these essays emphasize the importance of interreligious polemic. Daniel J. Lasker, arguing that it is an often overlooked source, demonstrates the significant impact of interreligious polemic on medieval Jewish, Muslim, and Christian philosophy. Gad Freudenthal argues that interreligious debate, in combination with other factors, was a crucial cause of the Arabic-to-Hebrew translation movement in twelfth- century Christian Provence. David M. Freidenreich wraps up the collection by using actual legal documents concerning food, food preparation, and eating to develop the more broadly applicable metaphor of "fusion cooking." Freudenthal, in "Arabic into Hebrew: The Emergence of the Translation Movement in Twelfth-Century Provence and Jewish-Christian Polemic," argues that the translation movement was at least in part a response to Christian rationalist challenges to Judaism in an environment where acculturation with the majority Christian culture was problematic, but where Jews had access to a viable alternative in Islamic culture. The volume ends with a delightful jaunt into the often turgid realm of religious legal codes, with Freidenreich's "Fusion Cooking in an Islamic Milieu: Jewish and Christian Jurists on Food Associated with Foreigners." Using Christian, Muslim, and Jewish legal texts, particularly Freidenreich expands laws about food and eating, particularly in relationship to the religious other, into a metaphor applicable to the many areas of cultural interaction covered in the book as a whole.

In her introduction, Goldstein asserts that, although "The borders of group identity, at least between religions, are significantly clearer [than in earlier centuries] and for the most part not subject to debate," there is considerably less clarity for the "religious identity of ideas and customs" (2). The essays in this volume demonstrate this complexity well, sometimes as their central focus, sometimes more implicitly. A key question for Goldstein and for many of the authors is whether the participants were conscious of the complexity of their cultural milieu, and the answer seems to be a tentative, preliminary "yes".

The essays in Beyond Religious Borders draw on recently uncovered texts such as the Judeo-Arabic fragments accumulated by Blau and Hopkins ["Judaeo-Arabic Papyri--Collected, Edited, Translated and Analysed." Jerusalem Studies in Arabic and Islam 9 (1987): 87- 160.]; play with diverse current theoretical models such as hybridity and intersectionality; and introduce thought-provoking new metaphors for cultural interaction, such as Stroumsa's "whirlpool" (Ch. 3), and Freidenreich's "fusion cooking" (Ch. 10). The essays intersect at many points both in central themes of cultural, intellectual, and religious exchange and interaction, and also in more incidental topics such as the place of the Karaite communities in the larger religious and theological milieu. Despite relatively disparate times, geographic settings, and disciplinary approaches, the volume forms a cohesive whole, with essays alluding to each other such that the reader can hear the conversations, arguments, and moments of consensual illumination that this research group must have enjoyed.

Some of the work in the volume is more speculative than conclusive, but this seems clearly to be an intentional choice. This volume is not a culmination but a regrouping, bringing together the work of prominent scholars of Jewish culture in the Islamic world, in preparation for exploration of new and exciting questions raised by these authors' refreshing new perspectives.

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Author Biography

Sharon L. Albert

Muhlenberg College