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Islam: Jewish and Muslim Sources, Discourses,

and Interactions


Jews have lived in every part of the classical Islamic world in which they have been permitted to reside, and everywhere they have shared their cultures and world-views while at the same time absorbing from the cultures and world-views of the dominant cultures. While it is not yet possible to treat the interactions and discourses of Jewish and Muslim women in any comprehensive manner, a cursory introductory overview may be obtained by examining aspects of their “sacred histories” in conjunction with some documented historical interactions.

Sâra and Hâjar

The religious narrative of Islam actually begins long before the birth and mission of the Prophet Mu™ammad. Abraham, depicted in the Qur±àn as living many generations prior to the birth of Mu™ammad, is portrayed in Islamic scripture as the first Muslim (3:67), destroyer of idols (37:83–99), and builder of the Ka≠ba (2:125–32).

By the period of the institutional emergence of Islam in seventh-century C.E. Arabia, Abraham had long been claimed by Jewish and Christian sources as the father of each religious system. Abraham was the father of the religious peoplehood of Judaism (Genesis 12:2, 15:5–6, 17:9–14, 22:17–19, Isaiah, 51:1–2, Babylonian Talmud Berakhot 6b, Shabbat 137b, Yoma 28b, etc.), and the father of the faith community of Christianity (Romans 4:13–24, 9:6–8, Galatians 4:21–5:1, John 8:56–8, Irenaeus Adversus Haereses; Melito of Sardis, Homily on Genesis, ch. 8). In like manner, Abraham is for Muslims, from the earliest period of their emergence, the father of the pristine and unspoiled monotheism that epitomizes Islam.

All three “religions of Abraham” recognize the symbolism of Abraham in their religious systems, but the Abraham narrative is not merely the story of an individual. It is the story, perhaps the paradigmatic story, of family. Abraham’s wives, Sarah and Hagar, are included in the earliest references to Abraham in the Hebrew Bible, and their roles are of critical importance to the narrative as a whole. Sarah and Hagar also serve in both Jewish

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and Islamic literatures as matriarchs of the Israelite and Arab peoples (more specifically in Islamic literature, of the “Arabized” or northern Arabs). The Qur±àn itself has little to say about Sarah and almost nothing to say about Hagar, but these lacunae are filled in by the vast literature of Qur±ànic exegesis (tafsìr). As in Jewish (but not necessarily Christian – see Galatians 4–5) religious literature, Islamic literature understands Sarah as representative of Judaism, while Hagar tends to represent the Arab peoples and, therefore, Islam. Neither are named in the Qur±àn, but both may be found repeatedly in the indirect narrative exegesis of the Qur±àn known as Qißaß al-anbiyà± (Stories of the prophets).

Muslim narrative exegetes and collectors of narrative exegesis such as ¢abarì, Tha≠labì, Kisà±ì, Ibn Qutayba, and Ibn Kathìr record Islamic traditions that follow the biblical narrative by depicting Sarah as coming to the conclusion that she will never bear children. She therefore gives her personal servant, Hagar, to Abraham in order to provide children for the family. Hagar (Hàjar in Arabic as found in the literary sources) becomes Abraham’s second wife or concubine, bearing a son for Abraham, named Ishmael (Ismà≠ìl).

But jealousy of Hagar overcomes Sarah after the birth of Ishmael. Some sources depict Abraham favoring Ishmael over Isaac, as a result of which Sarah swears to physically deface Hagar by cutting off a piece of her flesh. Abraham intervenes by suggesting that Sarah pierce Hagar’s ears, thereby lowering her status (Ex. 11:2–6). Sarah carries this out, and by virtue of this very first case of human ear-piercing in human history, it became a customary practice. In some renderings, Sarah circumcises Hagar in her rage, thereby serving as the first case of female circumcision (Firestone 1990, 67, 206

n. 32–4).

Sarah’s continuing jealousy eventuates in the expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael. The sources depict Abraham bringing them to the location of what would become Mecca and establishing them there, thus shifting the locus of primary sanctity from Palestine to Arabia in accordance with Qur±àn

14:37. Abraham leaves them in a barren and inhospitable valley with only a water skin and entrusts

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them to God, unknowingly establishing them in the exact location of the future city of Mecca. The water is soon exhausted. While Ishmael is thirsting for water, and in many renderings of the story at the point of death from thirst, Hagar desperately climbs a low mountain to look for help. After hearing a sound across from the hill, she runs toward it but discovers nothing, and then runs back again to the hill, repeating the action in her search for water for her dying son. This, according to religious sources, is the origin of the running ritual (al-say) between Íafà and Marwa that is part of the ™àjj Pilgrimage to this day. On the last (in some versions, the seventh) of her runnings in search of help, she observes water miraculously bubbling up out of the ground under Ishmael’s legs. In some versions, she dams it up (zammat), and for this reason the well of sacred water in Mecca is known to this day as the Zam-zam well.

Hagar, therefore, serves as the originator of required Islamic rituals and is associated with the earliest memories of the sacred city of Mecca. She is thus included among other great and pious religious leaders such as Abraham in authorizing and legitimizing some of the most basic and important Islamic rituals and customs. Her bones, along with Ishmael’s, are said to have been buried at al-ijr, a space opposite the northwestern wall of the Ka≠ba.

Like the Bible, Islamic sources never identify Hagar as an Israelite or a proto-Jew. Islamic legends usually identify her, as in the Bible, as an Egyptian, but she serves as a matriarchal figure for the “Arabized” Arabs, the mutaarraba or mustariba Arabs. As competing matriarchs, Sarah and Hagar serve as “types” and their personal relationship serves as a signal of the tense nature of the much larger relationship that will ensue between Jews and Muslims in later days. Like other motifs in this narrative, Sarah’s jealousy of Hagar appears as an omen of a future reality; in this instance that future is when the Jews will become jealous of Islam and of God’s love for His last Prophet, Mu™ammad. But these stories are also understood in Islamic literature as depicting God’s will in dividing the legacy of Abraham and establishing his line in Arabia as well as Palestine. Hagar and Ishmael, typical of God’s chosen messengers and agents, had to endure distress and danger in their journey to carry out the divine will.

Introducing the Prophet: Khâlida

bt. al-£â rith, the aunt of

≠Abdallâh b. Salâ m

The Qißaß al-anbiyà± literature comments through its own unique style of narrative exegesis on many biblical stories that occur chronologically after those of Abraham, and these include the stories of a number of Israelite women. But although this collection is fascinating and is indeed a part of the large corpus of Islamic literature, a long excursus here would detract from other important issues that need discussion in a limited space (see Bibliography for suggested readings).

According to Islamic sources, the first ongoing historical contact between Muslims and Jews occurs after Mu™ammad’s hijra or emigration from Mecca to Medina. The historicity of the stories of Jewish–Muslim relations during this period is open to criticism and a certain scepticism, but the meaning of these stories within the larger narrative of Islam is not. The portrayal of Jews in this literature, most of which is found in the sìra and adìth, became regarded as something akin to “idealtypical” in the Weberian sense. They epitomize early Muslim views and opinions about the historical relations between Muslims and Jews and serve to characterize the nature of Jewish–Muslim relations in later periods as well.

One of the first references is found in the sìra or prophetic biographies of Mu™ammad, and the earliest version that has come down to us is that authored by Mu™ammad b. Is™àq in the eighth century. According to the story found in Ibn Is™àq’s biography, the news of Mu™ammad had reached Medina before his arrival there. A learned Jew named al-£ußayn was working in a date orchard when he heard that Muhammad had arrived in the outskirts of Medina. When he heard this news he cried out “Allàhu akbar!” (God is most great!) because of his excitement at the arrival of the Prophet. When his aunt, Khàlida bt. al-£àrith, who was also Jewish, heard his exclamation she said: “By God take care! If Moses had come you would not have become more excited.” To this, al£ußayn replied: “O aunt! By God, he is the brother of Moses and of the same religion, having been sent on the same mission.” She responded, “O nephew! Is he the prophet whom we have been told will be sent at this hour?” Al-£ußayn answered in the affirmative, to which Khàlida responded: “Then this is it!” Khàlida then became Muslim along with her nephew, who changed his name to ≠Abdallàh b. Salàm.

The story continues with al-£ußayn, now named ≠Abdallàh, informing Mu™ammad that the Jews cannot be trusted and proves not only this “fact” to Mu™ammad but also their stubborn refusal to abandon their religious tradition. ≠Abdallàh conceals his conversion from his fellow Jews and hides one day in a side-room while instructing Mu™ammad to 218

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inquire of the former Jew’s reputation among his people. When asked about ≠Abdallàh, they immediately identify him as their master and learned religious scholar. He then reveals himself to them and calls them to accept Mu™ammad as a prophet. He “witnesses” to them that Mu™ammad is the true Apostle of God, to which they respond that ≠Abdallàh is a liar. ≠Abdallàh then turns to Mu™ammad and said: “Did I not tell you that they are a people of lies, deceit and perfidy?” ≠Abdallàh then officially revealed his conversion and the conversion of Khàlida and his family.

While by the form and style of this story most historians of Islam read it as a literary rather than historical narrative, it nevertheless innocently conveys some likely information about the relations between the Jews and Muslims of Medina. First of all, it takes for granted that women and men who are family members work together in agriculture. Some of the Medinan Jews may have been hoping or expecting a messianic or prophetic leader, or perhaps an apocalyptic event. The story depicts both women and men expecting it to be imminent. The Jewish majority, however, reject the possibility that Mu™ammad could be a prophet, and this difference of opinion may reflect different sects or groups within the Jewish community of Medina. In at least one such group, men and women worked together in tending the date trees and seemed to be expecting some kind of extraordinary or revelatory experience. This group, which may have been entirely defined by kinship, very quickly became part of the growing Muslim following of Mu™ammad.

Death of the Prophet

A Jewish woman is depicted in the sìra as having attempted to poison Mu™ammad. Her name was Zaynab bt. al-£àrith and she was married to Sallàm b. Mishkam, a leader of the Jewish tribe of Medina known as the Banù Na∂ìr. Zaynab’s husband, Sallàm, is recorded as having once aided an enemy of Mu™ammad. When the Banù Na∂ìr were banished from Medina as punishment for their active antagonism to Mu™ammad’s prophethood, they resettled in the largely Jewish town of Khaybar. Mu™ammad conquered Khaybar a few years later, and some of the captured Jewish women, including Zaynab, entered his entourage and some became his wives (¢abarì 1773). One could imagine that some of these women, whose husbands and families were killed in the conquest of Khaybar, would have desired revenge. Accordingly, Zaynab poisoned Mu™ammad’s favorite portion of lamb served immediately after the Muslims’ victory. Ibn Is™àq tells the story as follows:

Zaynab bt. al-£àrith, the wife of Sallàm b. Mishkam prepared for him a roast lamb, having first inquired what joint he preferred. When she learned that it was the shoulder she put a lot of poison in it and poisoned the whole lamb. Then she brought it in and placed it before him. He took hold of the shoulder and chewed a morsel of it, but he did not swallow it. Bishr b. al-Barà± b. Ma≠rùr who was with him took some of it as the apostle had done, but he swallowed it, while the apostle spat it out, saying “This bone tells me that it is poisoned” (Guillaume 1955, 516).

Zaynab confessed by saying, “You know what you have done to my people. I said to myself, If he is a king I shall ease myself of him and if he is a prophet he will be informed (of what I have done).” Bishr died from the poison; Mu™ammad seems not to have been affected. And Mu™ammad did not punish Zaynab for the attempted murder.

This story is important for a number of reasons. First, it serves to prove and authenticate the prophethood of Mu™ammad. The poison would have surely killed him had he swallowed, but the Jewish woman was correct: Mu™ammad was protected from such treachery by his status as God’s prophet. It is important that the perpetrator was a Jew, for she represents an ancient monotheistic people and, despite her anger and wish for revenge, she had to admit the truth of Mu™ammad’s status and therefore his message.

But the story continues in a very interesting way. When Mu™ammad was dying of his final illness and the sister of Bishr b. al-Barà± came to visit him, Ibn Is™àq narrates that he said to her: “O Umm Bishr [her son took her brother’s name], this is the time in which I feel a deadly pain from what I ate with your brother at Khaybar.” Here we note a fascinating parallel with Christianity and its relationship to Judaism. Both Christianity and Islam place Jews in the position of destroying their messiah or prophet. In the Christian system, it becomes a theological justification for Jewish degradation. One rarely hears of the death of Jesus without mention of the supposed Jewish crime of “killing God.” In Islam, on the other hand, one rarely hears of the purported Jewish role in the death of the Prophet.

Torment of the grave

A adìth found in two or three versions in most of the canonical collections of adìth depicts a Jewish woman, in some versions older Jewish women, teaching Mu™ammad’s wife, ≠â±isha, necessary but unpleasant wisdom about the afterlife:

The Apostle of God came to me [once] when a Jewish woman was with me and she said: “Did you know that you will be tested in the grave?” (Hal shaart annakum tuftanùna fì al-qubùr?) She said: “The Apostle of God was frightened [in response] and said: ‘It is the Jews who will be tested!’” ≠â±isha said: “We stayed together

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some nights, and then the Apostle of God said: ‘Did you know that I was given a revelation that you will be tested in the grave?’ ≠â±isha said: “Thereafter I heard the Apostle of God [always] seeking refuge from the torment of the grave” (Fasamitu rasùl Allàh badu yasta±ìdh min adhàb al-qabùr).

A second version:

Zuhayr b. £arb and Is™àq b. Ibràhìm . . . ≠â±isha: Two old Jewish women from Medina came to me and said: “The dead are tormented in their graves.” I disagreed with them but I did not consider it fitting to believe them. They left and the Apostle of God came by and I told him: “O Apostle of God, two old women from the Jews of Medina came to me and claimed that the dead are tormented in their graves.” He said: “They are correct. They will be tormented [such a great] torment that the animals will hear them.” [≠â±isha] said: “After that I never saw him in prayer without seeking refuge from the torment of the grave.”

And finally, a third version in which ≠â±isha said:

A Jewish woman came over one day and asked for something which I gave her. She then said to me, “May God protect you from the torments of the grave.” That made quite an impression on me until the Apostle of God came by one day and I mentioned that to him. He answered: “People will be tormented in the their graves such a torment that the beasts will hear them.”

These three variants treat a number of interesting issues relating to Jewish women and their relationship with Muslim women in the earliest period of Islam. The first and perhaps most important lesson we may draw from these texts is that Jewish and Muslim women mixed with one another, sometimes quite intimately, in Medina. One of Mu™ammad’s wives could even be approached by a Jewish woman and asked if she would lend her some household utensil, and she was willing to do so, suggesting a level of trust that existed between Jewish and Muslim women very early on.

Another lesson drawn from these three narratives is that Jewish women could share Jewish religious teaching (found in the Talmud), even about something as intimate and particular as the afterlife, with their Muslim friends. It is interesting to note that ≠â±isha, and in some versions of the story even Mu™ammad himself, was not initially aware of the idea of the suffering of the dead. That such a concept was fully accepted in Islam is confirmed by Mu™ammad’s revelation authenticating the truth of the concept. The existence of this story in the most respected collections of adìth validates and endorses the concept. Indeed, prayers for protection from the suffering of the grave have become a part of Islamic personal prayer, not required within the five canonical daily prayers but nevertheless common.

The literatures in which these stories appear all began to emerge only a century or more after the death of Mu™ammad. Irrespective of the historicity of the events portrayed, the narratives very clearly convey the actual ambivalence of Muslims toward their Jewish (and Christian) neighbors during the first Islamic centuries. The attitude specifically toward Jewish women is no less complicated. A Jewish woman is depicted as being ultimately responsible for the death of the Prophet, yet the justification for her act is not questioned; and Jewish women are also portrayed as possessing critically important esoteric wisdom. Some Jewish women appear as converts to Islam, while others appear as loyal to their still hallowed ancient religion and tribe. And the origin and cause of the divide between the Jewish and Arab peoples and the religions of Judaism and Islam is portrayed as the natural familial jealousy and tension that occurs in every close human group, a recognition of the ambivalent feelings of affinity and disparity, the push and pull of these two peoples and religions still in close relation to one another.

All of these portrayals are found in Islamic religious sources, presumably written by educated male elites. Parallel Jewish sources tend to reference women less than the Muslim sources, and contemporary Jewish sources hardly relate to Jewish– Muslim interaction. Perhaps this reflects the caution exhibited by subject peoples in their desire both to protect their women as much as possible from the eye of the dominant peoples and to refrain from inviting reprisals for referencing the women of the victors. However, with the discovery of the Cairo Geniza, a cache of thousands of documents mainly from the eleventh through thirteenth centuries found in a storage room of a synagogue in Old Cairo, a treasure-trove of non-literary documentary information about medieval Jewish and Muslim men and women has emerged. This material has advanced all disciplines of study of the Islamic Middle Ages from history and anthropology to economics, ritual, and philosophy. Much of the information in the following sections originates from the vast repository of the Cairo Geniza.

Women’s dress and decorum

Non-Muslim religious peoples such as Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians are referred to in Islamic sources as ahl al-kitàb (people of the book, referring to scriptuaries, adherents of prior scripture religions), dhimmìs or “protected” peoples, and sometimes kàfirùn (unbelievers or infidels, to be differentiated usually from mushrikùn or outright idolaters). These groups were regulated by the Sharì≠a or Islamic legal system through the “rules of the dhimma,” which defined the terms of the 220

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dhimma protection accorded to non-Muslim yet non-idolatrous peoples: economic independence and freedom to practice their religion in return for paying an annual poll tax called jizya and accepting a secondary status in Islamic society.

There remains a great divide among historians of medieval Islam over the extent of humility or humiliation (dhull) demanded of dhimmì peoples, and this is because of the lack of uniform application through the centuries of the rules of the dhimma in the disparate Islamic lands. In some times and places, it would be almost impossible to distinguish Jews from Muslims by dress or occupation, while in others the Jews were an obvious and degraded minority. Enforcement ranged from “looking the other way” to bloody massacres. However the rules were enforced, Jews were careful to appear humble in public, and this public humility extended particularly to the screening and protection of the women.

The system required differentiating dress (ghiyàr) for non-Muslims but it was not until the ninth century that the system crystallized with regard to such dress, perhaps because it had become increasingly difficult by this time to differentiate between Muslims and non-Muslims. On the one hand, many people of non-Arab background had converted to Islam by this time, thereby broadening the cultural and ethnic characteristics of Muslims. On the other hand, many non-Muslims had “Arabized” and had become culturally and linguistically Arab while remaining religiously distinct. Jews living in these areas largely “Arabized” by evolving culturally into Arabs, taking on Arabic as the daily language and even writing many compositions of philosophy and the sciences, though less so of religion, in Arabic.

Like Islam, Judaism does not forbid polygyny, and while such marriage arrangements were fairly widespread, it was not uncommon for brides to insist on including a monogamy clause in the ketubah or Jewish marriage contract. Jewish polygyny was far more common in the Islamic word that condoned it, than in the Christian world that did not. But it was not always a happy arrangement. An Ottoman Sharì≠a court document of 1582 records the case of a Jewish man who brought a suit in the Islamic court against his Jewish wife for refusing to live with him or cohabitate with him because he took a second wife.

Distinctive headdresses were a part of Jewish women’s dress centuries before the emergence of Islam. Some of these headdresses certainly veiled women and seem to have been considered a mark of modesty and protection from the eyes of foreigners (Genesis 24:65, MishnahShabbat6:6,Kelim24:16). Moreover, veiling, meaning covering the body from head to toe and often covering the face as well, was a widespread custom in the eastern Mediterranean in antiquity. In the Islamic world, Jewish women veiled just as their Muslim neighbors. In fact, more than half of the clothing terms found in the Cairo Geniza refer to veils, wraps, and head coverings. Despite this commonality, Jewish (and Christian) women were required by Sharì≠a law to wear clothing that distinguished them from Muslims by their color, length, cut of sleeves, and so forth. This was often obeyed in the breach. European travelers to the Levant in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries repeatedly note that all the women, Jewish, Christian, and Muslim, covered themselves entirely and wore a transparent veil. All these covered women may have looked alike to foreign travelers, but alien eyes could not distinguish between what may have been clear signs of differentiation to the locals.

During the Ottoman period, men’s and women’s outer garments among the Jews were virtually identical, probably reflecting the style of the larger culture. Because Jewish law forbids cross-gender dressing, even unintentionally, the following request for a responsum (Hebrew teshuvà, Arabic fatwà) was asked of a Jerusalem rabbi: “Is a man permitted to wear his wife’s cloak or a woman her husband’s cloak, since men’s and women’s cloaks are identical?” (Lamdan 2000, 103).

Jewish (and Christian) women tended to be less restricted than Muslim women from public view and their style of veiling tended not to be total. Jewish houses described in the Geniza documents, with few exceptions, had no women’ s quarters. Nevertheless, Jewish women, like their Muslim counterparts, tended not to show themselves in public, and this custom was an expression of social status as well as modesty. Widowed, divorced, or deserted women had “to uncover their faces,” as the phrase went, by appearing in public in order to secure their rights or obtain a minimum of sustenance. The Jewish custom of caring for the indigent required that women as well as men congregate at the synagogue compound where the distribution of wheat, clothing, and cash took place. The Geniza confirms that men and women mixed freely during these occasions.

Jews usually lived alongside Muslims. The establishment of ghettos, known in Morocco as mallà™, are generally unknown except after the mid-fifteenth century in Morocco. Nevertheless, there were some special restrictions, and these include occasional banning of dhimmì women entirely from baths frequented by Muslim women.

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Close proximity of domiciles clearly promotes social contact, and such interaction invites sexual temptation across religious boundaries as well. Sexual relations across boundaries sometimes occurred through concubinage. While concubinage with slaves was legal under Islamic law as it was in the Hebrew Bible, post-biblical Judaism forbade it. Nevertheless, we know from Geniza manuscripts that some Jewish men had sexual relations with slave girls. Whenever the Jewish authorities were strong enough, however, they forced the owner of a concubine to sell her with the proceeds of the sale distributed among the poor. This ended the relationship, but sometimes also imposed a difficult hardship on the bonded woman in the process.

It was, of course, forbidden for Jews to own Muslim slaves and even more, to have sexual relations with such slaves. It is difficult to know to what extent such behavior actually occurred, or whether Jews and Muslims in general had sexual relations that crossed the expected boundaries of separation. For that matter, it is difficult to know the extent to which Jews and Muslims crossed sexual boundaries within their own communities, let alone between them. Nevertheless, the Cairo Geniza does contain a series of documents about a suspected affair between a man of the highly respected Jewish Ibn Sighmàr family and a Muslim woman. The Jewish community itself demanded a fine of 120 gold pieces, an enormous sum, and the sources show that the Jewish man was imprisoned for at least one month and a half. Twelve court records were found in the Geniza relating to this matter.

Despite the natural desire of a minority community such as the Jews to keep their women apart from the dominant Muslim community, most of the hundreds of female names found in the Geniza are Arabic, religiously neutral, and were used also among Muslims. These range from Layla, the heroine of the stories of the love-mad poet Majnùn, to Sitt al-≠Amà±im (Ruler of the Turbans, meaning men), Sitt al-Kull (Ruler of All), Sitt al-Fakhr (Possesser of Glory), Fà±iza (Successful), Baraka (Blessing), and Hiba (Gift). Among Egyptian Jewish women, biblical names were uncommon during the centuries reflected in the Geniza, though such names were occasionally given to females in the Islamic west such as Spain and North Africa, and in Palestine.

Women’s business

Despite the Jewish religious law regarding women’s inheritance being more restrictive than Muslim law, the Geniza documents depict women inheriting as well as buying, selling, renting, leasing, and bequeathing various kinds of real estate, including houses or parts of houses, stores, workshops, and even flour mills and other types of urban properties. Women often possessed commercial experience in urban areas, and they are found in the documents to have been appointed as legal guardians of their children and executors of estates.

Jewish women were not, however, part of the economic mainstream, that being the large-scale production and exchange and transfer of goods. They invested mainly in real estate, lent small amounts of money, and bought and sold textiles, jewelry, and other items generally included in a trousseau or dowry.

In Ottoman times, indigent Jewish women who had no property and little money of their own to invest tended to engage in petty commerce in the local markets, mostly in textiles and foodstuffs. In some cases they served as brokers for Muslim women who were not allowed to appear in public. A French traveler wrote in the mid-sixteenth century, “The Jewish women, who are free to go around unveiled, can usually be found in the markets of Turkey selling needlework. And since Islamic law forbids Turkish women from trading in public, Jewish women act as their broker” (Lamdan 2000, 119).

Jewish women, like their Muslim counterparts in Islamic courts, appeared in Jewish courts to plead their own cases. In these situations, their husbands would only confirm the transaction after its conclusion. In some cases, particularly those in which Muslims were involved, Jews appeared in Muslim courts, and in these cases women tended to be represented by proxies. Some Jewish women, if dissatisfied with the results of the Jewish court or who rebelled against the will of the community, would in rare instances take their pleas to a Muslim court. A Geniza document, for example, relates that a woman “divorced her husband” before a Muslim judge, an act that suggests a very serious break with the wishes or expectations of her own religious community.

The Geniza documents show that women traveled for a variety of reasons. Many had to travel unaccompanied by their husbands to visit female relatives in other towns expecting a baby or recuperating after delivery, suffering illness or living in an unfamiliar or unfriendly environment. Sea travel was also not unusual, and both married and single women did so. Married women sometimes accompanied their husbands overseas, and single women sometimes traveled overseas as well because overseas marriages were often desired by the mercantile class or were arranged by fathers seeking to cement 222

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commercial alliances. Girls did not travel alone, of course, but in the company of family or friends.

It was common for women to travel to a local holy shrine or even to Jerusalem. Sometimes a woman who had been to Jerusalem was called, like her Muslim counterpart who had traveled to Mecca, “the pilgrim,” though such an epithet is far less common among Jews than among Muslims. Some assume that the title is applied when a woman has made the journey to Jerusalem alone, perhaps as a widow but in any event unaccompanied by a husband.

While the Jewish man’s highest duty is to study Jewish religious literatures in order to learn the divine requirements through one’s own efforts, thereby becoming enabled to carry out God’s will, women were not so obligated by Jewish law. On the other hand, the education of girls was considered important by many, perhaps more among the exiles from Spain after the 1492 expulsion who moved back into the Islamic world alongside their more Arabized Jewish brethren. Some of the Sefardic (Spanish) women even served as teachers. Personal letters in the Geniza confirm that some women knew how to read and write in earlier periods as well. The language of these women’s correspondence, like the men’s, was usually a Jewish dialect of Arabic, but the orthography was the Jewish square script. In one letter recovered in the Geniza and presumably written in the hand of the correspondent, a mortally ill woman implores her sister to ensure that her daughter receive formal instruction (talìm), even though she is well aware of the significant financial resources required for such an endeavor.

Jews lived throughout the Islamic world and were absent only from the few areas where non-Muslims were forbidden. Although as a community they did not become Muslims, much of Jewish religious and social culture was profoundly affected by Islamic as well as Arabian norms. Jewish women were not sheltered from this reality. While the boundaries between religions remained relatively stable, the linguistic, social, and cultural boundaries did not.


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Reuven Firestone


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