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For the period of Spanish cultural flourishing in the 17th century, see Spanish Golden Age.

The Golden age of Jewish culture in Spain, also known as the Golden Age of Arab (or Moorish) Rule in Iberia, refers to a period of history during the Muslim rulemarker of the Iberian Peninsulamarker (the former Roman and Visigothic Hispania) in which Jews were generally accepted in society and Jewish religious, cultural, and economic life blossomed.

The nature and length of this "Golden Age" has been a subject of debate. Some scholars give the start of the Golden Age as either 711–718 (after the Muslim conquest of Iberia) or 912 (the rule of Abd-ar-Rahman III) and the end of the Golden Age variously as 1031 (when the Caliphate of Cordoba ended), 1066 (the date of the Granada massacre), 1090 (when the Almoravides invaded), or the mid-1100s (when the Almohades invaded).

The Nature of the Golden Age

The treatment of non-Muslims in the Caliphate has been a subject of considerable debate among scholars and commentators, especially those interested in drawing parallels to the coexistence of Muslims and non-Muslims in the modern world. It has been argued that Jews (and other religious minorities) were treated significantly better in Muslim-controlled Iberia than in Christian western Europe, living in a unique "golden age" of tolerance, respect and harmony. Though Al-Andalusmarker was a key center of Jewish life during the early Middle Ages, producing important scholars and one of the most stable and wealthy Jewish communities, there is no clear scholarly consensus over whether the relationship between Jews and Muslims was truly a paragon of interfaith relations, or whether it was simply similar to the treatment Jews received elsewhere at the same time.

María Rosa Menocal, a specialist in Iberian literature at Yale Universitymarker, has argued that "Tolerance was an inherent aspect of Andalusian society". Menocal's 2003 book, The Ornament of the World, argues that the Jewish dhimmis living under the Caliphate, while allowed fewer rights than Muslims, were still better off than in other parts of Christian Europe. Jews from other parts of Europe made their way to al-Andalus, where they were tolerated - as were Christians of sects regarded as heretical by various European Christian states.

Bernard Lewis takes issue with this view, arguing its modern use is ahistorical and apologetic:
The claim to tolerance, now much heard from Muslim apologists and more especially from apologists for Islam, is also new and of alien origin.
It is only very recently that some defenders of Islam have begun to assert that their society in the past accorded equal status to non-Muslims.
No such claim is made by spokesmen for resurgent Islam, and historically there is no doubt that they are right.
Traditional Islamic societies neither accorded such equality nor pretended that they were so doing.
Indeed, in the old order, this would have been regarded not as a merit but as a dereliction of duty.
How could one accord the same treatment to those who follow the true faith and those who willfully reject it?
This would be a theological as well as a logical absurdity.

Mark Cohen, Professor of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton Universitymarker, in his landmark 1995 book on the subject, Under Crescent and Cross, argues that the "myth of an interfaith utopia" was first promulgated by Jewish historians such as Heinrich Graetz in the 19th century as a rebuke to Christian countries (particularly in Eastern Europe) for their treatment of Jews. This view went unchallenged until it was adopted by Arabs as a "propaganda weapon against Zionism", who wanted to show that the establishment of the modern State of Israelmarker shattered an alleged previously existing harmony between Jews and Arabs in Palestine under the Ottoman Empire; they pointed to the supposed utopia of the so-called "golden age" as an example of previous harmonious relationships. This "Arab polemical exploitation" was met with the "counter-myth" of the "neo-lachrymose conception of Jewish-Arab history" by historians such as Bat Yeor, which also "cannot be maintained in the light of historical reality".

Frederick Schweitzer and Marvin Perry agree that there are two general views of the status of Jews under Islam, the traditional "golden age" and the revisionist "persecution and pogrom" interpretations. They argue that the 19th century idealized view of Jewish historians was taken up by Arab Muslims after 1948 as "an Arab-Islamist weapon in what is primarily an ideological and political struggle against Israel", and ignores "a catalog of lesser-known hatred and massacres", including Muslim pogroms against Jews in Córdobamarker in 1011 and in Granadamarker in 1066.

Birth of the Golden Age

After 681, the Christian Visigoths of Hispania persecuted the Jews severely; therefore, the Jews welcomed the Muslim Arab and mainly Berber conquerors in the 8th century. The conquered cities of Córdobamarker, Málagamarker, Granadamarker, Sevillemarker, and Toledomarker were briefly placed under the control of the Jewish inhabitants, who had been armed by the Moorish invaders. The victors removed the Christian Visigoths' oppressive restrictions and granted the Jews full religious liberty, requiring them only to pay the tribute of one golden dinar per capita (Jizya).

A period of tolerance thus dawned for the Jews of the Iberian Peninsulamarker, whose number was considerably augmented by immigration from Africa in the wake of the Muslim conquest. Especially after 912, during the reign of Abd-ar-Rahman III and his son, Al-Hakam II, the Jews prospered, devoting themselves to the service of the Caliphate of Cordoba, to the study of the sciences, and to commerce and industry, especially to trading in silk and slaves, in this way promoting the prosperity of the country. Jewish economic expansion was unparalleled. In Toledo, Jews were involved in translating Arabic texts to the romance languages, as well as translating Greek and Hebrew texts into Arabic. Jews also contributed to botany, geography, medicine, mathematics, poetry and philosophy.

'Abd al-Rahman's court physician and minister was Hasdai ben Isaac ibn Shaprut, the patron of Menahem ben Saruq, Dunash ben Labrat, and other Jewish scholars and poets. Jewish thought during this period flourished under famous figures such as Samuel Ha-Nagid, Moses ibn Ezra, Solomon ibn Gabirol Judah Halevi and Moses Maimonides. During 'Abd al-Rahman's term of power, the scholar Moses ben Enoch was appointed rabbi of Córdobamarker, and as a consequence al-Andalusmarker became the center of Talmudic study, and Córdobamarker the meeting-place of Jewish savants.

This was a time of partial Jewish autonomy. As "dhimmis", or "protected non-Muslims", Jews in the Islamic world paid the jizya, which was administered separately from the zakat paid by Muslims. The jizya has been viewed variously as a poll tax, as payment for non-conscription in the military, or as a tribute. Jews had their own legal system and social services. Monotheist religions of the people of the book were tolerated but conspicuous displays of faith, such as bells and processions, were discouraged.

End of the Golden Age

With the death of Al-Hakam II Ibn Abd-ar-Rahman in 976, the Caliphate began to dissolve, and the position of the Jews became more precarious under the various smaller Kingdoms. The first major persecution was the 1066 Granada massacre, which occurred on December 30, when a Muslim mob stormed the royal palace in Granadamarker, crucified Jewish vizier Joseph ibn Naghrela and massacred most of the Jewish population of the city. "More than 1,500 Jewish families, numbering 4,000 persons, fell in one day." This was the first persecution of Jews on the Peninsula under Islamic rule.

Beginning in 1090 the situation deteriorated further with the invasion of the Almoravids, a puritan Muslim sect from Moroccomarker. Even under the Almoravids, some Jews prospered (although far more so under Ali III, than under his father Yusuf ibn Tashfin). Among those who held the title of "vizier" or "nasi" in Almoravid times were the poet and physician Abu Ayyub Solomon ibn al-Mu'allam, Abraham ibn Meïr ibn Kamnial, Abu Isaac ibn Muhajar, and Solomon ibn Farusal (although Solomon was murdered May 2, 1108). The Almoravids, were ousted from the peninsula in 1148; however, the peninsula was again invaded, by the even more puritanical Almohades. Under the reign of the Almohades, many Jews were forced to accept the Islamic faith; the conquerors confiscated their property and took their wives and children, many of whom were sold as slave. The most famous Jewish educational institutions were closed, and synagogues everywhere destroyed.

During the reign of these Berber dynasties, many Jewish and even Muslim scholars left the Muslim-controlled portion of Iberia for the city of Toledomarker, which had been reconquered in 1085 by Christian forces.

Several Jewish scholars were involved in what became known as the School of Toledo, which produced some of the first translations into Latin of works from the Arab world, notably the works of Averroes and of the Jewish poet and philosopher Solomon Ibn Gabirol, known in Iberia as Avicebrón. Jews joined the armies of Alfonso VI of Castile and as many as 40,000 joined in the fight against the Almoravids, who also had large numbers of Jewish troops in their armies.

Even after had ended, the Iberian Jewish community remained the most important in the world (especially with the decline of the Academies of Babylonia). Scholars such as Maimonides, born in 1135, were major figures in Judaism, although Maimonides himself complained about the treatment of the Jews under Muslim rule. The major Jewish presence in Iberia continued until the Jews were forcibly expelled en masse pursuant to the edict of expulsion by Christian Spainmarker in 1492 and a similar decree by Christian Portugalmarker in 1497.

Notable figures

See also


  1. The Ornament of the World by María Rosa Menocal, Accessed, 12 June, 2006.
  2. In Chapter 1 on page 4 of his book The Jews in Islam.
  3. Cohen, Under Crescent and Cross, 1995, p. 6.
  4. Cohen, Under Crescent and Cross, 1995, p. 9.
  5. * Daniel J. Lasker, Review of Under Crescent and Cross. The Jews in the Middle Ages by Mark R. Cohen, The Jewish Quarterly Review, New Ser., Vol. 88, No. 1/2 (Jul., 1997), pp. 76-78 * See also Cohen (1995) p.xvii:According to Cohen, both the views equally distort the past.
  6. Frederick M. Schweitzer, Marvin Perry., Anti-Semitism: myth and hate from antiquity to the present, Palgrave Macmillan, 2002, ISBN 0312165617, pp. 267-268.
  7. Sephardim by Rebecca Weiner.
  8. Fred J. Hill et al., A History of the Islamic World 2003 ISBN 0-7818-1015-9, p.73
  9. Granada by Richard Gottheil, Meyer Kayserling, Jewish Encyclopedia. 1906 ed.


  • Esperanza Alfonso, Islamic culture through Jewish eyes : al-Andalus from the tenth to twelfth century, 2007 ISBN 978-0-415-43732-5
  • Mark Cohen, Under Crescent and Cross: The Jews in the Middle Ages 1995 ISBN 0-691-01082-X
  • Joel Kraemer, "Comparing Crescent and Cross," The Journal of Religion, Vol. 77, No. 3. (Jul., 1997), pp. 449–454. (Book review)

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