Andalus and Sefarad
On Philosophy and Its History in Islamic Spain
- ISBN: 9780691176437
- Published By: Princeton University Press
- Published: October 2019
In the opening pages of her book Andalus and Sefarad: On Philosophy and Its History in Islamic Spain, Sarah Stroumsa outlines her central argument: the histories of the Jews in Muslim Spain and the Muslims who occupied this same space should be told as one congruent story (xi). This book, as she states, does not offer a comprehensive history of the philosophy, mysticism, scientific thought, and legal ideas of the Jews and Muslims of Spain (xi). Instead, Stroumsa’s book is more episodic, covering different historical moments, ideas, and religious interactions that prove relevant for studying the development of philosophy in Islamic Spain. Andalus and Sefarad refer to the specific Muslim and Jewish communities and cultures of the medieval Iberian Peninsula, respectively (xi). However, Jews and Muslims alike often “referred to the Iberian territory dominated by Islam… as ‘al-Andalus’” (xi). From the eighth to the fifteenth centuries, this territory was ruled by Islam, creating a philosophic school of thought that was both Jewish and Muslim, as Stroumsa argues in her opening pages.
Stroumsa writes that the “flow of ideas” between the communities of Christians, Muslims, and Jews is not what is in question. The exchange of information between these different religious groups was interactive and vibrant. Unlike past histories that over-romanticize the exchange of ideas by using phrases like “the Golden Age” or over-emphasizing la Convivencia (The Coexistence), Stroumsa takes an interest in the “extent and depth of this exchange, and the fact that it involved all philosophers, regardless of their religious affiliation” (11). This exchange of ideas was never linear; instead, ideas were subject to what Stroumsa calls the “Whirlpool effect,” a concept she first proposed in “Whirlpool Effects and Religious Studies: A Response to Guy G. Stroumsa,” her contribution to Dynamics in the History of Religions Between Asia and Europe (Brill, 2011). Using the whirlpool analogy to describe the exchange of ideas, Stroumsa creatively conveys that ideas did not develop in a linear or lateral way, but rather constantly bounced off one another, forming turbulent streams that changed the broader philosophical culture of Islamicate philosophy. Stroumsa defines Islamicate using the definition from Marshall Hodgson: “Islamicate [refers] not directly to the religion, Islam, itself, but to the social and cultural complex historically associated with Islam and the Muslims” (4). This term, therefore, “allows us to distinguish Islam as the dominant religion of a cultural world from the civilization identified with it, a civilization that encompassed multiple religious communities and was shaped by all of them” (Stroumsa 4).
Additionally, the whirlwind analogy effectively conveys how the “development of philosophy among Muslims” must also include “its development among Jews and Christians (and of course, the same is also true for the other edges of the triangle” (4). The “Whirlpool Effect” can in fact be applied to Stroumsa’s book itself. The ideas move in a non-linear fashion throughout the book, and the chapters themselves tend to blend together. Stroumsa recognizes how her chapters’ content becomes blurred by the inability to separate religions and cultures.
The contributions of Jews, Christians, and Muslims to the development of philosophy in the Iberian peninsula are parts of a single work, a chef d’œuvre set in the frame of the political, social, and religious life of al-Andalus. It is by viewing these contributions as interwoven threads of a grand tapestry that we can begin to glimpse the glory of the intellectual history of al-Andalus (169).
Stroumsa’s book consists of five chapters—“interwoven threads” in her grand tapestry: 1) Beginnings, 2.) Theological and Legal Schools, 3.) Intellectual Elites, 4.) Neoplatonist Inroads, and 5.) Aristotelian Neo-Orthodoxy and Andalusian Revolts. Within these sections, Stroumsa takes on different topics, ranging from the early history of Islamic Spain (“Beginnings”) to specific philosophers (“Intellectual Elites”) to the ideas that flourished during these periods (“Neoplatonist Inroads”). As mentioned, each of these chapters covers discrete parts of the book while also being part of the larger story. In these chapters, respectively, Stroumsa discusses: changing attitudes towards philosophy and science in the 4th/10th century; the theological and legal world of al-Andalus, focusing primarily on two Muslim schools of thought; Andalusian philosophers’ social roles in Al-Andalus; the attraction to Neoplatonism in the fifth/eleventh and sixth/twelfth centuries; and finally, the Aristotelian shift (xxi). (The dates in Stroumsa’s book are given either according to the Gregorian calendar or [as above] with the Hijrī date first followed by the Gregorian date—e.g., “fourth/tenth.”)
Stroumsa’s work is essential to the overall conversation regarding interreligious relationships in Islamic Spain because of her willingness to adopt a third avenue of approach that is neither full historical criticism nor acceptance. Overall, the book does an excellent job of integrating previously or currently accepted historical ideologies and placing a new lens over this time period. This book is not for the faint of heart. Stroumsa writes in an academic style, and this book should be approached with an open mind and a notepad. Stroumsa’s writing is elegant but challenging at times. Stroumsa’s work effectively articulates the exchange of ideas present in al-Andalus and therefore challenges long held assumptions about the development of philosophy in Islamic Spain. Stroumsa does not over romanticize the intellectual contact that Judaism, Islam, and Christianity shared with one another, but instead offers a realistic analysis of the flow and dissemination of information between the three major religious groups, thereby offering a more robust historical narrative about the development of philosophy in Islamic and Muslim Spain.
Madison Tarleton is a PhD candidate at the University of Denver & Iliff School of Theology’s Joint Doctoral Program in the Study of Religion.Madison TarletonDate Of Review:February 23, 2022