14.12.06, Safran, Defining Boundaries in Al-Andalus

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Alex J. Novikoff

The Medieval Review 14.12.06

Safran, Janina M.. Defining Boundaries in Al-Andalus: Muslims, Christians, and Jews in Islamic Iberia. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2013. Pp. ix, 247. ISBN: 9780801451836 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Alex J. Novikoff
Fordham University

The topic of this monograph is a familiar one to scholars of medieval Iberia: the interactions among Muslims, Christians, and Jews living under Islamic rule. Many good volumes and a cornucopia of specialized articles have in recent years addressed issues of "coexistence," "cultural overlap," "hybridity," or "border crossing" in multi-religious Spain--terms that bespeak a post-convivencia generation of medieval Hispanists who seek to expose and interrogate (rather than merely celebrate) the complicated dynamics of interfaith relations in a pluralistic society. Janina Safran's contribution to this lively body of scholarship is to make sophisticated use of a body of evidence that until recently had been relatively untapped by historians of the three religions; namely, the discussions and juridical opinions of Andalusi and Maghrebi lawyers during the Umayyad dynasty. Building on a rapidly increasing source-base in print, much of it made available through the work of scholars operating or publishing in Spain, Safran finds evidence of intimate contact between individuals of different religious communities and of legal-juridical accommodation under caliphal rule. She marshals this evidence in order to develop an argument about how legal and religious authorities interpreted the social contract between the Umayyad regime and the Christian and Jewish populations living under Muslim dominion. By combining these rulings with other sources, such as historical chronicles and martyrologies, she exposes the fascinating and shifting relations between abstract legal boundaries that were meant to restrict the intermingling of populations and the crossing of those boundaries that inevitably occurred through the more quotidian encounters of marriage, conversion, capture, enslavement, or migration.

Chapter 1 provides an overview of the structuring of Umayyad authority in al-Andalus in the ninth and tenth centuries. It builds naturally upon the author's first book, which examined the legitimating rhetoric of caliphal leadership in Umayyad Spain. [1] Here Safran illustrates how political identity was expressed in religious terms and how an understanding of who was an insider and who was an outsider to the community of Muslims resulted from the deliberate intersection between religious and political authorities. It is both an excellent explanation of the structural mechanisms of Umayyad rule as well as a useful introduction to the juridical sources and technical vocabulary of Islamic Spain. The outsiders in this chapter, it should be noted, are not Jews and Christians, but rather other Muslims whose ideas and activities were for one reason or another considered "out of bounds" (73). Their condemnation and persecution were occasions for the projection of the caliph's authority and the identification of his rule in tandem with the support of Maliki jurists. Chapter 2 describes more fully the social and cultural transformation of Al-Andalus during the same period. A discussion of the physical integration of communities and the urban patterns of settlement segues into a broader examination of the "changing dynamics of intercommunal relations" (82). This includes the arabization of Christian communities (Mozarabs), the increasing population of indigenous converts (muwalladun), the legal experts (qadis and fuqahas) who were then consulted in Spain and in Egypt to help determine what the boundaries of social interaction should be, and finally the conflict-ridden and sometimes violent clashes that erupted between different communities, such as the Cordoban Martyrs' Movement and the Hafsunid rebellion.

Chapter 3 pushes further the notion that boundary crossing posed new problems for Muslim jurists. The societal transformation of the ninth and tenth centuries forced these jurists to confront a range of rather specific legal questions arising from new Muslim-dhimmi encounters: Can a Muslim arrange the marriage of his Christian sister or daughter? If a Muslim's Christian father dies, can he perform the burial rites for him? How should a Muslim respond to friendly overtures of a Jewish neighbor? May Muslims share food sacrificed for the holidays with dhimmi neighbors or eat the food that they have prepared for their holidays? Many of the answers to these questions that Safran turns up are restrictive rather than accommodative, intended no doubt to establish communal solidarity through the exclusion of non-members--behavioral patterns that are well known to anthropologists and sociologists. But Safran notes nevertheless that the responses reflect an effort to define decorum between Muslims and dhimmis that is distinct from the code of civility among Muslims, and as such provides insight into "how jurists contributed to and conveyed the development of a Muslim habitus--a way of being Muslim--that was culturally comprehensible" (33). This latter claim, which is grounded in a reading of Pierre Bourdieu and applied to her analysis of these legal texts, would have been even more convincing had the attention to socio-linguistics been more integrated in the other chapters dealing with social encounters rather than inserted (151-55) in the chapter dealing with one particular set of "formulaic verbal responses."

Chapter 4, "Borders and Boundaries," brings the study full circle, returning to the subject of Umayyad political authority and boundary making, but now in the context of jihad and the borderlands. The concept of jihad has of course received sustained attention in many scholarly circles. Safran addresses the legal injunctions for waging military jihad in the more specific context of Andalusi jurists of the tenth and eleventh centuries and the Moroccan Almoravid invaders who occupied the peninsula in the twelfth century and turned to Maliki jurists for support and legitimation. This includes a particularly valuable discussion of jihad in the writings of the Maliki jurist Ibn Rushd al-Jadd (1058-1126), the grandfather of Ibn Rushd al-Hafid (better known to the Latin West as Averroes). Important to the overall theme of the chapter is the notion that "borders" refers both to an idea and a place. Conceptually and legally the border in question refers to the division between the Dar al-Islam (House of Islam) and the Dar al-Harb (House of War); physically and geographically the border was the thughur (or marches) that straddled the frontier between Christian and Muslim lands. Geography and jurisprudence are shown to operate in something of a symbiotic relationship. As the border region became more settled and cross-border interaction intensified, so then did legal questions multiply about crossing the border for trade and diplomacy, thus producing a body of legal discourse that dealt directly with Christians and Jews.

One of the true values of this well-conceived book is how productively it intersects with current scholarship. The very notion of "boundary crossing," here understood within the context of Andalusi Islamic law, invites comparison with ongoing research on the Spanish frontier as well as, it might be added, with current discussions of US-Mexican borderlands, which likewise turn on the questions of language, cultural overlap, and majority law. [2] Safran's definition of the ninth- and tenth-century borderland as "a place of pragmatic alliances and uncertain loyalties" (171) and the constructive role that Christians and Jews played in the development of Islamic law will resonate with a host of scholars studying interfaith encounters of the medieval Mediterranean, including recent books by Brian Catlos and David Nirenberg on just these topics. [3] The legal questions raised by migration and conversion offer an Islamic counterpart to Paola Tartakoff's recent study on the conversionary borderland between Judaism and Christianity in late medieval Iberia and Ryan Szpiech's examination of the narrative and polemical functions of conversionary accounts. [4] The dietary and ritual purity questions raised by the unwanted intermingling of Muslims, Christians, and Jews find a relevant parallel in a recent comparative study of religious law by David Freidenreich. [5] Many more connections might be highlighted; indeed, the book might itself be described as strategically and productively situated at the crossroads of a scholarly borderland.



1. Janina M. Safran, The Second Umayyad Caliphate: The Articulation of Caliphal Legitimacy in al-Andalus (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001).

2. Cf. Benita Sampedro Vizcaya and Simon Doubleday (eds.), Border Interrogations: Questioning Spanish Frontiers (New York: Berghahn Books, 2008); Eduardo Manzano Moreno, "The Creation of a Medieval Frontier: Islam and Christianity in the Iberian Peninsula, Eighth to Eleventh centuries," in Frontiers in Question: Eurasian Borderlands 700-1700, eds. David Power and Naomi Standen (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999); Jonathan Ray, The Sephardic Frontier: The Reconquista and the Jewish Community in Medieval Iberia (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2006).

3. Brian Catlos, Infidel Kings and Unholy Warriors: Faith, Power, and Violence in the Age of Crusade and Jihad (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2014); David Nirenberg, Neighboring Faiths: Christianity, Islam, and Judaism in the Middle Ages and Today (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014).

4. Paola Tartakoff, Between Christian and Jew: Conversion and Inquisition in the Crown of Aragon, 1250-1391 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012); Ryan Szpiech, Conversion and Narrative: Reading and Religious Authority in Medieval Polemic (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013), esp. Chap. 6.

5. David M. Freidenreich, Foreigners and their Food: Constructing Otherness in Jewish, Christian, and Islamic Law (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011). See as well, David M. Freidenreich and Miriam Goldstein (eds.), Beyond Religious Borders: Interaction and Intellectual Exchange in the Muslim Islamic World (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012).

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Alex J. Novikoff

Fordham University