The Religious and Spiritual Life of the Jews of Medina. By HAGGAI MAZUZ. Brill Reference Library of Judaism, vol. 38. Leiden: BRILL, 2014. Pp. xvi + 132. $122, [euro]103.
Jews and Judaism matter for Islam, especially for our knowledge of the birth hour of the new faith. If for no other reason, the prominence and the amount of space both receive in the Quran and in our sources for the life and career of Muhammad would confirm this. Yet we know surprisingly little of Arabian Jewry at all times, in particular of their religious and spiritual life around 600 CE. Anything that promises to add to our knowledge is therefore welcome. In the book under review (and also in a series of recent articles), Haggai Mazuz undertakes to extend our knowledge in this area. In part he does this by close examination of episodes and information that have been looked at in the past, and in part by means of what he describes as a new methodology. Both present difficulties.
The book is divided into four chapters. The first, devoted to "Religious and Social Leadership," does little more than collect together what we know of the leaders of the Jews of Medina in Muhammad's day. It identifies a large number of Jews and tells us stories attached to them, mainly of the failure of their struggles with Muhammad. Disappointingly, it says nothing about the character of their names, which would seem to demand discussion, or about their language. The evidence, such as it is, suggests fairly full onomastic assimilation into Arab society; and perhaps even fuller assimilation linguistically. But that leaves us with a question: did they (all? some of them? just their rabbis? any of them?) know Hebrew, to say nothing of Aramaic, without which the Talmud might have been a closed book? We have no evidence from these Jews in either of these languages. Given the subject of the book, and the concern throughout with Medinan Jews' knowledge of Jewish law and practice as revealed in the Bible and Talmud, their linguistic competences and behavior are a matter of more than minor significance.
One example for why this should be so is that Mazuz suggests that the accusation of tahrif namely, that Jews (and Christians) had received the correct texts of their scriptures from God but had altered them, is substantiated by the Talmudic practice of derash, which he tells us takes the form occasionally of making slight changes to a word or more in the Bible in order to offer a basis for a different--occasionally very different--interpretation from the obvious one. Attractive (at first sight even perhaps plausible) though this suggestion might be, a few moments' thought suggests a problem: we have to envisage a real-life scenario. It is hard to imagine Jews walking around, or sitting, enjoying a discussion of small, often minute, changes to the biblical text without some knowledge of the relevant language. Would they have been doing this in front of visitors or witnesses ignorant of the language? In the presence of Muhammad? Would he...