Exile in the Maghreb: Jews under Islam, Sources and Documents, 997-1912. By PAUL B. FENTON and DAVID G. LITTMAN. Madison, NJ: FAIRLEIGH DICKINSON UNIVERSITY PRESS, 2016. Pp. xxxv + 627. $60, [pounds sterling]39.95 (cloth); $57, [pounds sterling]39.95 (ebook).
In thinking about Jewish historiography, we do well to remember the advice of the eminent historian Salo Wittmayer Baron (1895-1989), Professor of Jewish History at Columbia University, who warned against the "lachrymose" conception of the Jewish past. As immersed as he was in the vicissitudes of Jewish history, Baron nevertheless was deeply averse to looking backward through a veil of tears and turning it into a story of unending suffering, overly reliant on tragic events, sorrowful texts, and strict ideologies. His admonition has not lost its value over time, but rather has gained in importance as historians of the Jews enter into new fields of study. This is particularly true in writing the history of Jews in Islamic lands, which has become a growth industry led by a younger generation of scholars learned in both Hebrew and Arabic, who are producing fresh scholarly materials of the highest quality.
No doubt there was plenty for Jews to cry about in the world of Islam, given the legal restrictions on the People of the Book (dhimmis, or subaltern non-Muslims), the curbs on their rights under Islamic law, the social constraints, the restrictions on employment, the resistance to mobility as well as the occasional forced expulsions, the rules against constructing their houses of worship, and the periodic pogroms that came when the wider political order broke down, to name only a few of the miseries that could--and often did--befall the Jews of Islam from premodern times to the near present. Yet we also know that these bad moments were interspersed with good ones, when Jews prospered and engaged in significant scholarship and profitable commerce, in communal joys and personal successes, enjoying the benefits of stability, protection, and easy communication through the medium of Arabic. We have only to put a toe into the marvelous fountain of knowledge produced by S. D. Goitein in his magisterial Mediterranean Society (5 vols., 1967-1988) to appreciate the richness and variety of Jewish life under Islam--just one example among many of the positive aspects of the Muslim-Jewish "symbiosis."
Fenton and Littman's Exile in the Maghreb can be counted among the recent works that illuminate hidden...