Love Between Muslim and Jew in Medieval Spain: A Triangular Affair

Love Between Muslim and Jew in Medieval Spain: A Triangular Affair

By David Nirenberg

Jews, Muslims, and Christians in and around the Crown of Aragon: Essays in honour of Professor Elena Lourie, ed. Harvey J. Hames (Brill, 2004).

Since the rise of Islam and until modern times, the great majority of interaction between Jew and Muslim has taken place in lands ruled by Muslims, and under Islamic rules of engagement. The most significant exception to this is the Iberian Peninsula. As large populations of Muslims were absorbed into Christian polities in the course of the so-called reconquest, there emerged in the Peninsula what might be termed an Islamic diaspora of Muslim communities under Christian rule. This status, called Mudejar by modern scholars, had many interesting consequences. One, of little importance to the history of Islam but quite relevant to the history of Jewish-Muslim relations, is that for the first time since the Jews’ encounter with Muhammad in Medina we have Jewish and Muslim populations living side-by-side, engaged in relations that are openly competitive because mediated by Christian and not Muslim power.

Here I propose to study only one small aspect of these relations, namely love (or more accurately, not love but its bureaucratic traces, found in disputes over interfaith adultery, conversion, and marriage). The choice needs some justification, since the number of examples of such relations is vanishingly small when compared with, for example, economic exchange. My first justification is intellectual. In the cultures I am studying here as in so many others, love and marriage were foundational metaphors, ruling allegories capable of expressing “deep truths” about other relationships and forms of exchange. My second is personal: cross-cultural love seems an appropriate subject through which to pay homage to Elena Lourie, whose pioneering observations about Muslim-Jewish relations in the medieval Crown of Aragon helped inspire these researches.

We will soon find that, in affairs of love as in so many others, Muslims and Jews in Christian Spain were not in an exclusive dialogue. Theirs was a triangular relationship, in which the Christian suitor, though sometimes silent, was never absent. Nevertheless, it is worth pausing to review the long traditions of Jewish and Muslim legal thought on the topic of sex and marriage with members of other religions.

Click here to read this article on David Nirenberg’s website.

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