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Jews in Spain

Jews and Islamic cultural and religious traditions were the closest during the “Golden Age” – a period since early 8th century when Arabic conquest of the Iberian Peninsula took place. Until this time Jews of Spain have suffered persecutions from Roman Empire where they were considered to be not an independent ethnos, but a religious group firstly, because Jews were strange to heathenism, then to Christianity within the Roman Empire and later, under the Visigoth monarchy. 

Arabic conquest was met by Jews without resistance, and last until late 15th century. Islamic “tolerance” had made living under the Muslims’ power more attractive choice than to live under the Christian one in North Europe. “Tolerance” meant that though Jews of Spain were considered as “a second-class”, they had some rights and servitudes. “Jews were allowed to live securely in their autonomous communities and to develop: they were not fossils” (Cohen 31). That kind of order comes from Qur’an where it’s told, that Jews like Christians were “People of the Book”, and as they worshiped one God, Muslims must stay tolerant to them while they obey some Muslim rules. For example, it was forbidden to build new houses of worship, and for a Jewish man to marry a Muslim woman; it was required to wear different cloth from Muslims and some positions (as in government or other authoritative positions) were forbidden to be held by Jews; and Jews ought to pay taxis etc. (Cohen 32). Most of the Jews had accepted these rules and their inequality and subordination in exchange of living without constant persecutions Jews in North Europe suffered. 

Other social positions and jobs were open to Jews under the Muslim power, like in marketplace and trades, or medicine; Jews were craftsmen etc. “Jews mixed freely with their Muslim counterparts, even forming partnerships” (Cohen 32-33). Frequently Jews even “served the government in official capacities” (Stefon 61).

Mark R. Cohen says, the described type of relationships explains why Jews were so open to Arab-Islamic cultural influence (34). Another reason to communicate deeply with the Arabic culture was its connection to the great philosophical and science heritage of Greeks. Most of the texts were written in Arabian, so through the Arabic culture there was a way to a new knowledge in mathematics, astronomy, medicine, philosophy, political theory, aesthetics etc. (Stefon 62). So Arabic style was associated with a good taste and Jews along with the Muslims “enjoyed a cultural renaissance” (Stefon 59). 

Language played a key role in this process. Arabic language was more familiar to Jews then languages of Christian society. “Arabic functioned both as the language of high culture and the common tongue of both Jews and Arabs in everyday exchange” (Cohen 34). And yet language keeps a cultural memory, because Arabic is a language of Islamic tradition, so contamination was inevitable. Jews wrote their science works and texts in Arabic, imitating poetry style, adapting own canons to Arabic ones (Stefon 61). Jews tradition was developing through an Arabic one in connection with the general cultural base. Matt Stefon says, “The most enduring consequence […] was the redefinition of religious faith in the light of Greco-Arabic philosophical theories” (62). Such Jewish religious philosophers as Judah ha-Levi and Moses Maimodes had managed to consider rabbinic problems within the classical philosophical tradition, developing the general tradition at the same time. 

Jews had served as a connection between West and East cultural traditions, and particularly they were Jews of Spain who in mediaeval times received more opportunities for development, and they took them. 

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