Golden age of Jewish culture in Spain

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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 Rule in Spain refers to a period of history during the Muslim occupation of Spain in which Jews were generally accepted in Spanish society and Jewish religious, cultural, and economic life blossomed. Over time, the nature and length of this "Golden Age" has become a subject of debate. Some scholars give starting periods of the Golden Age as either the mid-700s CE (the Muslim conquest of Spain) or 912 (the rule of Abd-ar-Rahman III) and end of the Golden Age as variously 976 (when the Caliphate began to break apart), 1066 (when the Jews of Granada were expelled) or the mid-1100s, with the invasion of the Almohades.


The Nature of the Golden Age

Image of a cantor reading the Passover story in Moorish Spain, from a 14th century Spanish Haggadah.
Image of a cantor reading the Passover story in Moorish Spain, from a 14th century Spanish Haggadah.

Though Moorish Spain was clearly 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 in Spain was truly a paragon of interfaith relations, or whether it was simply similar to the treatment Jews received elsewhere at the same time.

Mark Cohen, in his landmark 1995 book on the subject, Under Cross and Crescent, discusses how the idea of the Golden Age was bolstered in the twentieth century by two sources. On one side, Jewish scholars like Heinrich Graetz used the story of the Golden Age to draw contrasts to the increasing oppression of Jews in mainly Christian Eastern Europe, eventually leading to the Holocaust. On the other side, Arab scholars who wanted to show that modern State of Israel shattered a previously existing harmony between Jews and Arabs in Palestine under the Ottoman rule pointed to the supposed utopia of the Golden Age as an example of previous relationships. Cohen argues that the utopian Golden Age image is overstated, but that the "countermyth" of Jewish persecution is also an oversimplification.

Birth of the Golden Age

The Christian Visigoths of Spain persecuted the Jews severely, so naturally they welcomed the Muslim conquerors in the 8th century. The conquered cities of Córdoba, Málaga, Granada, Seville, and Toledo were briefly placed in charge of the Jewish inhabitants, who had been armed by the Arab invaders. The victors removed the restrictions which had oppressed the Jews so heavily, and granted them full religious liberty, requiring them only to pay the tribute of one golden dinar per capita.

El Albaicín, the ancient Jewish quarter of Granada
El Albaicín, the ancient Jewish quarter of Granada

A period of tolerance dawned for the Jews of the Iberian Peninsula, whose number had been considerably augmented by those who had followed the Arab and Berber conquerors, as well as by later immigrants from Africa. Starting especially after 912, with 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. Southern Spain became an asylum for the oppressed Jews of other parts. 'Abd al-Raḥman's court physician and minister was Ḥasdai ben Isaac ibn Shaprut, the patron of Menahem ben Saruḳ, Dunash ben Labraṭ, and other Jewish scholars and poets. During his term of power, the scholar Moses ben Enoch was appointed rabbi of Córdoba, and as a consequence al-Andalus became the center of Talmudic study, and Córdoba 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 were made to wear identifying clothing. Nevertheless, Jews had their own legal system and social services. Monotheist religions of the people of the book were tolerated but conspicuously public displays of faith, such as bells and processions, were discouraged. [1]

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 occurred on Dec. 30, 1066 when the Jews were expelled from Granada and fifteen hundred families were killed when they did not leave. This was the first persecution of Jews on the Peninsula while under Islamic rule.

Manuscript page by Maimonides, one of the greatest Jewish scholars of Spain. Arabic language in Hebrew letters
Manuscript page by Maimonides, one of the greatest Jewish scholars of Spain. Arabic language in Hebrew letters

A possible date of the end of the Golden Age might be in 1090 with the invasion of the Almoravides, a puritan Muslim sect from Morocco. Even under the Almoravides, 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 Almoravide 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). However, the Almoravides were ousted in 1148, to be replaced by the even more puritanical Almohades. Under the reign of the Almohades, the 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 slaves. The most famous Jewish educational institutions were closed, and synagogues everywhere destroyed.

During these successive waves of narrowly interpreted Islam, many Jewish and even Muslim scholars left the Muslim-controlled portion of Spain for the then still relatively tolerant city of Toledo, which had been reconquered in 1085 by Christian forces. Several of them 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 Spain as Avicebrón. Jews joined the armies of Alfonso VI of Castile and as many as 40,000 joined in the fight against the Almoravides, who also had large numbers of Jewish troops in their armies.

Even after the "Golden Age" had ended, the Spanish 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 Jewish presence in Spain ended with the edict of expulsion by Christian Spain in 1492.

Notable figures

See also


  • Mark Cohen, Under Crescent and Cross: The Jews in the Middle Ages 1995 ISBN 069101082X
  • Joel Kraemer, "Comparing Crescent and Cross," The Journal of Religion, Vol. 77, No. 3. (Jul., 1997), pp. 449-454. (Book review)
  • ^  Fred J. Hill et al, A History of the Islamic World 2003 ISBN 0781810159, p.73

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