The Andalusi Literary and Intellectual Tradition

The Role of Arabic in Judah ibn Tibbon's Ethical Will

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S. J. Pearce
Indiana Series in Sephardi and Mizrahi Studies
  • Bloomington, IN: 
    Indiana University Press
    , May
     278 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The Andalusi Literary and Intellectual Tradition: The Role of Arabic in Ibn Tibbon Ibn Tibbon’s Ethical Will by Sarah Jean Pearce is a project which has its beginnings in the author’s doctoral dissertation. The ethical will left by the famous Judeo-Arabic translator Judah Ibn Tibbon to his son Samuel is understood to function as Ibn Tibbon’s intellectual biography, and the research here aims to discuss the prestige of Arabic in Andalusi literary and intellectual society based on the will.

The introduction (1-19) outlines the materials and methodologies used in the research of the book, with the titles of the five core chapters based on quotes and ideas from Ibn Tibbon’s will. Pearce begins by setting up a short yet comprehensive picture of the social, political, and intellectual context of Ibn Tibbon’s life in exile in twelfth century Iberia. The prominence and the role of the Arabic language as expressed and advocated by Ibn Tibbon to his son Samuel is the author’s main theme.

In chapter 1, “Pen I Recount Your Favour!” (20-45), it is interesting to learn of the correspondence between none other than Moses Maimonides and Ibn Tibbon’s son Samuel, who is commissioned to provide a Hebrew translation of the Guide of the Perplexed on account of Maimonides’s old age. In his letter, Maimonides refers to Ibn Tibbon as “the honored prince, the sage” (27), giving an idea of the crucial place of the Ibn Tibbon family’s dynastic line of translators in the transmission of knowledge in that period. Pearce also outlines the prestige and linguistic adoption of Arabic in Judeo-Arabic communities in Iberia, as well as the reasons behind the prevalence of Arabic by going back to its place in Islam and the Quran. The discussion of the theological and cultural implications of Arabic as the language of the Quran, as well as the reaction of Jewish writers to the divine claim of the language, provides a very illuminating context that helps readers understand the origins and the later ramifications of the Arabic language in the literary and intellectual culture of Iberia.

Chapter 2, “Examine your Hebrew Books Monthly and Arabic Books Bimonthly” (46-77), examines another central aspect of Andalusi culture gleaned from Ibn Tibbon’s will: the phenomenon of books—especially autobiographical and bibliographical books—and libraries, and the role they played in their owners’ lives. Chapter 3, “On Every Sabbath, Read the Bible in Arabic” (78-100), focuses on Ibn Tibbon as a reader of the Hebrew Bible, and the cultural effect of how he mediated between Hebrew and Arabic in his translation process. Chapter 4, “The Words of the Ancient Poets” (101-148), looks at the rather paradoxical shared cultural context of the Quran and the Hebrew Bible in Andalusi Judeo-Arabic poetry. Debates between poets, intellectuals, grammarians, and theorists showcases poetry as another mode of transmission of the prestige of Arabic by Ibn Tibbon to a Hebrew audience. Chapter 5, “The Arab Sage Said” (149-170), discusses how Ibn Tibbon uses the figure of the Sage—revealed to be none other than the prominent Islamic intellectual Al-Ghazali—to give more weight and credibility to his advocacy of the Arabic language. Chapter 6, “From Vessel to Vessel” (171-97), starts with a discussion of the effect of Ibn Tibbon’s word-for-word translation style, and why he sometimes made concessions for an easier, sense-for-sense style translation for his audience. Pearce then narrows down the discussion to how Ibn Tibbon’s work fares against that of his son Samuel when later readers used the mode of fiction to gain an understanding of the Tibbonid corpus.            

In terms of structure, it would have been more effective to read the will and make connections to the aspects of it that the rest of the chapters focus on, rather than reading it at the end in the appendix. On method, Pearce aims to “balance text and theory, history and literature, medieval and modern, in an organic way” (12), and the author has definitely achieved this balance. Pearce seamlessly integrates copious poetry and prose from medieval writers in a way that allows the reader to not only learn, but immerse themselves in the rich literary and intellectual culture of al-Andalus. These medieval sources provide a wholesome picture of the intellectual transmission and networks between writers from Jewish and Muslim communities. The observations are supplemented with the research of modern scholars, providing interested readers with a rich source of references that can be consulted for further reading and research. Throughout the book, Pearce never fails to adequately situate the reader within the proper context, striking the correct balance that makes this book accessible and enjoyable to specialists and non-specialists alike.

About the Reviewer(s): 

F. Hana Ayoob Khan is a graduate student in the Department of Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations at the University of Toronto, Canada.

Date of Review: 
January 30, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

S. J. Pearce earned her PhD in Near Eastern Studies at Cornell University in 2011 and is now assistant professor in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at New York University, where her teaching and research focus on the intellectual history and literature of Jews, Christians, and Muslims in medieval Spain. She was awarded the John K. Walsh Prize from La Corónica/MLA Division of Medieval Hispanic Literature in 2016.


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