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Judeo-Arabic

Clothes Make People, Scripts Shape Communities

Jewish-Arabic culture is the result of a profound and sustained process of socio-cultural transformations that shaped the Islamicate world during the Abbasid period (late 8th century onwards). For all religious communities, this transformation brought about new ways of knowledge production, organization, dissemination and consumption. Its most salient feature was the gradual adoption of the Arabic language as primary means of written and spoken communication. The Arabicization of the Islamicate world facilitated and accelerated the exchange of ideas across communal and denominational borders as well as the transfer of knowledge over longer distances. It entailed the adoption of new terms, concepts, discourses, textual forms, literary genres and disciplines of knowledge.

From within this cultural complex, this blog post singles out a tiny snippet, to wit the exchange of texts and ideas between Arabicized Jewish and Samaritan communities which has long been neglected and occasionally even declared to be non-existent. While most major European manuscript collections combine the descriptions of Hebrew and Samaritan manuscripts in the same catalogue volumes, they are typically approached as cultural artifacts of two detached communities with few to no cross-connections between them. This separation stands in stark contrast to the fact that in some urban centres of the Arab world, and most notably in Cairo, the two communities were living adjacent to one another for many centuries within one and the same neighbourhoods.

A closer look at the Arabic literary heritage of both communities exposes the myopia of previous scholarship and lays bare a continuity of exchange and communication.

Depending on period, place, community, genre and context, Jews and Samaritans used various scripts to put their Arabic texts into writing. The following examples may serve as illustrations for varying graphic renditions of one and the same text passage:

MS St Petersburg, Russian National Library, Arab.-Yevr. 350, fol. 3v–4r, (© The National Library of Russia, St Petersburg)

MS St Petersburg, Russian National Library, Arab.-Yevr. 350, fol. 3v–4r, shows an extract from a Qaraite refutation of a Treatise on the Qiblah by the 11th-century Samaritan scholar Abū l-Ḥasan al-Ṣūrī. The Samaritan author advances scriptural prooftexts to buttress his view that Mount Gerizim is the location God chose for His sanctuary (left side, lines 7–8), while the Qaraite detractor aims at proving him wrong to demonstrate that “chosen place” is the exclusive prerogative of Jerusalem.

The oldest versions of both texts are entirely in Arabic script, while using distinct transliteration systems to render the Hebrew texts of Scripture in Arabic script.

A later, 14th-century copy of the Samaritan treatise gives the Hebrew text in Samaritan script,

MS Sassoon 726, fol. 10r, lines 17ff. (current owner and library unknown; image used with permission)

whereas a later specimen of the Qaraite refutation is all in Hebrew script.

Yevr.-Arab. I 1681, fol. 43v–44r (© The National Library of Russia, St Petersburg); see left side, lines 13–14

As shown with these examples, script and scribal habits often serve as a means to integrate the trans-denominational commonality of knowledge into the particularity of a communal setting and to adopt it as one’s own. This also applies to the following image from a hitherto unknown Samaritan copy of Maimonides’s Guide for the Perplexed.

SP, RNL, Firk. Sam. III 35, fols. 18v–19r (© The National Library of Russia, St Petersburg)
Professor Gregor Schwarb
Senior Research Fellow,
ERC Project MAJLIS,
“The Transformation of

Jewish Literature in Arabic in the Islamicate World”, LMU Munich

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