Qasida: Abu Ishaq of Elvira's Poetic Polemic Against the Jews of Granada

1066

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Introduction

It is commonly believed that anti-Semtism was unknown in the Muslim world until introduced by Christianity. The "golden age" of Jewish culture under Muslim rule has been glorified and fictionalized for political reasons. The pinnacle of this great idyll was supposedly reached in Muslim Spain (al Andalus). There, Muslims and Jews ruled together and Muslim conquerors gave the towns over to Jewish garrisons. Jewish viziers were at the right hand of Muslim rulers. They idyll did not last long. In 1066, the downfall of the Jewish vizier Joseph ibn Naghrela (Rabbi Joseph Halevi the Nagid) was the occasion for a horrific pogrom in Granada. The vizier was killed and the Jewish quarter of Granada was raised to the ground on December 30-31 of 1066. About 4000 Jews were killed in this incident, which puts a blemish on the fable of Jewish-Muslim coexistence in Spain. One must specify without sarcasm, however, that this was the Golden Age of Spanish Jewry, and it was shortly at an end. In 1090, the Almoravid dynasty took over Granada and Jews faired far less better under their rule, though still surviving. However by 1172, most of Islamic Spain had been conquered by the fanatic Berber Almohads, who practiced mass forced conversions of both Christians and Jews.

A poetic polemic by one Abu Ishaq of Elvira, written some time before the pogrom, probably helped to incite it. The poem shows clearly that the violence against the Jews and the downfall of Joseph ibn Naghrela was not a purely political affair and that anti-Semitism was there in the Muslim culture to be used either as a motivation or as a political device against opponents. The poem cannot be dismissed as the opinion of one man only, since it was followed by a horrendous pogrom. It contains many of the elements of modern anti-Semitism, especially Muslim anti-Semitism: the proper place of Jews is subservience to Muslims, they should not be allowed to become arrogant, the Jews control the government, they sell unfit food to Muslims (a theme repeated and amplified in modern Palestinian propaganda). It is also apparent that even in Muslim Spain, the accustomed place of the Jews was relatively low on the social scale, and their prosperity in Granada was considered an impudent imposition:

Put them back where they belong
  and reduce them to the lowest of the low,

Roaming among us, with their little bags,
  with contempt, degradation and scorn as their lot,

Scrabbling in the dunghills for colored rags
  to shroud their dead for burial.

These vivid and concrete images of poor and miserable Jews were evidently familiar to abu Ishaq's readers, very likely not only from Christian Europe, which would not have been used to set an example for Muslims. This poem, written at the supposed apex of Jewish prosperity in Spain, should lay to rest the notion that anti-Semitism was unknown in Muslim culture and that Jewish life among Muslims was a paradise of coexistence. The Jews sometimes achieved high office - especially in Spain, Morocco and Iraq. But this was not due to their popularity. It was rather due to their vulnerability, and therefore, their dependability as allies of the rulers. A Jewish vizier could not, as often happened with Muslim viziers, develop an independent power base and overthrow the ruler, since he was totally dependent on the protection of the ruler. However, the use of Jews to fill high positions made the rulers vulnerable to attack by their enemies through the Jews, and when the protection of the ruler was lost, the most honored Jewish official was frequently torn to pieces, and with him, the entire local Jewish population.

 If this poem had appeared in isolation, we could say it was a lone voice. If the pogrom of Granada had been the last manifestation of Muslim anti-Semitism we might say it was an exceptional tragedy due to political circumstances. But the pogrom was eventually followed by forced conversion and persecution. It is difficult to see how all these different manifestations can all be ignored in order to buttress the myth of the Jewish "Golden Age" in Spain. 

The Muslims were usually no worse than the Christians, but they were not very much better. Jews generally existed in two modes among Muslims and Christians: either they were poor and despised or if prosperous, enjoyed a precarious existence vulnerable to the envy and greed of their non-Jewish neighbors.

The "Sanhaja" addressed at the outset of the poem is the ruling Berber confederation.  

Ami Isseroff

January 6, 2010


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Qasida

Go, tell all the Sanhaja,1
   the full moons of our time, the lions in their lair

The words of one who bears them love, and is concerned
  and counts it a religious duty to give advice.

Your chief has made a mistake
  which delights malicious gloaters

He has chosen an infidel as his secretary
   when he could, had he wished, have chosen a Believer.

Through him, the Jews have become great and proud
  and arrogant --- they, who were among the most abject

And have gained their desired and attained the utmost
  and this happened so suddenly, before they even realized it,

And how many a worthy Muslim humbly obeys
  the vilest ape2 among these miscreants.

And this did not happen through their own efforts
  but through one of our own people who rose as their accomplice.

O, why did he not deal with them, following
   the example set by worthy and pious leaders?

Put them back where they belong
  and reduce them to the lowest of the low,

Roaming among us, with their little bags,
  with contempt, degradation and scorn as their lot,

Scrabbling in the dunghills for colored rags
  to shroud their dead for burial.

They did not make light of our great ones
  or presume against the righteous,

These low-born people would not be seated in society
   or paraded 3 along with the intimates of the ruler

Badis!4 You are a clever man
  and your judgment is sure and accurate

How can their misdeeds be hidden from you
  when they are trumpeted all over the land?

How can you love this bastard brood
  when they have made you hateful to all the world?

How can you complete your ascent to greatness
  when they destroy what you build?

How have you been lulled to trust a villain
  and made him your companion - though he is evil company?

God has vouchsafed in His revelations
  a warning against the society of the wicked

Do not choose a servant from among hem
  but leave them to the curse of the accurst!

For the earth cries out against their wickedness
  and is about to heave and swallow all.

Turn your eyes to other countries
  and you will find the Jews are outcast dogs.

Why should you be different and bring them near
  when in al the land they are kept afar?

--You, who are a well-beloved king,
  scion of glorious kings,

An are the first among men
  as your forebears were first in their time.

I came to live in Granada
  and I saw them frolicking there.

They divided up the city and the provinces
  with one of their accursed men everywhere.

They collect all the revenues,
  they munch and they crunch. 

They dress in the finest clothes
  while you wear the meanest.

They are the trustees of your secrets
 --yet how can traitors be trusted?

Others eat a dirham's worth, afar,
  while they are near, and dine well.

They challenge you to your God
   and they are neither stopped nor reproved.

They envelop you with their prayers
  and you neither see nor hear.

They slaughter beasts in our markets
  and you eat their trefa.

Their chief ape has marbled his house
  and led the finest spring water to it.

Our affairs are now in his hands
  and we stand at his door.

He laughs at us and at our religion
  and we return to our God.

If I said that his wealth is as great
  as yours, I would speak the truth.

Hasten to slaughter him as an offering,
  sacrifice him, for he is a fat ram

And do not spare his people
  for they have amassed every precious thing.

Break loose their grip and take their money
  for you have a better right to what they collect.

Do not consider it a breach of faith to kill them
  --- the breach of faith would be to let them carry on.

They have violated our covenant with them
   so how can you be held guilty against violators?

How can they have any pact
   when we are obscure and they are prominent?

Now we are the humble, beside them,
  as if we had done wrong, and they right!

Do not tolerate their misdeeds against us
  for you are surety for what they do.

God watches His own people
  and the people of God will prevail.

----

Notes:

1 The Berber confederation that ruled that part of Spain.

2 An allusion to the Muslim slogan that Jews are sons of dogs and apes (Kuran Sura 2:61; 5:60 and 7:166).

3 Infidels were not allowed to participate in public parades, according to the regulations governing al dhimma (Jews and Christians). 

4 The king



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