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Pearce, The Andalusi Literary and Intellectual Tradition (Minnema)

  • 28 Feb 2018 4:54 PM
    Message # 5882835
    Janna Bianchini (Administrator)

    Pearce, S.J.  The Andalusi Literary and Intellectual Tradition: The Role of Arabic in Judah ibn Tibbon’s Ethical Will.  Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2017. Pp. 278. ISBN 978-0-253-02596-8. $60.00


    Reviewed by Anthony Minnema

    Samford University


    The twelfth-century Almohad invasion of Iberia compelled many Jewish families to migrate from al-Andalus to Christian kingdoms in the north, taking with them the memory of a place and language that had fostered their traditions for generations. One of the participants in this exodus, the translator Judah Ibn Tibbon, composed a letter or ethical will for his son Samuel, in which he encourages his recalcitrant successor to continue studying the Andalusi Arabic intellectual tradition, despite residing in Provence. However, S. J. Pearce indicates that this letter is hardly as simple as it appears, nor is Samuel the primary audience. Her study, The Andalusi Literary and Intellectual Tradition, examines the work as a “social heteroglossia” (9) that speaks in a variety of registers that reflect the multifaceted Andalusi tradition Judah hopes to preserve in exile. To indicate the complexity of this project, the thrust of Judah’s work resembles an Arabic mirror-for-princes to his son and borrows from wasiya literature, but it also emphasizes the Hebrew Bible as the foundation of the project, while promoting Arabized Hebrew poetry. Pearce argues that Judah transforms a particular textual regimen for his son into a program for Andalusi Jewish culture, and thus what his son should know as a translator is also what a culture should remember about itself in order to stem the loss of al-Andalus in the memory of an exiled community.


    In order to tease out the varied ways of reading Judah’s letter, Pearce divides her work into six chapters, five of which focus on a literary or cultural element within the project, and a sixth that looks at the project’s afterlife. Pearce also provides a personal reflection as a conclusion and a new translation of the ethical will with a translator’s note. The first chapter introduces Judah as a translator and scholar, and establishes his vision of Arabic as a prestige language even within the Jewish community. Ibn Tibbon greatly preferred rendering the original, literal sense in his work rather than paraphrasing for convenience and thus saw himself as a custodian of texts. The second chapter explores the ethical will as a curriculum for Andalusi exiles, but also as a type of literature that could accommodate a variety of genres—sacred and secular, Jewish and Islamic. In this way, Pearce sees the work as a kind of literary Genizah, which both possesses a library catalogue as well as a particularly Andalusi method for reading. The third and fourth chapters narrow their focus to the place and role of the Hebrew Bible in Judah’s letter and in his vision of the Andalusi cultural project. Judah’s preference for Arabic over Hebrew extends to the realm of exegesis and the translator endeavors to fashion an Arabic vocabulary for interpreting the scripture. Chapter 4 posits a reversal of this cultural exchange as Pearce examines how Judah’s reverence for the Hebrew Bible, though not its language, influenced his approach to Andalusi-Arabic poetry.


    The fifth chapter widens its focus to examine the quotations within the work and how they reveal the lexicographical range within Ibn Tibbon’s vision of the Andalusi intellectual culture. Pearce indicates that Judah drew from a number of authors outside of the Andalusi milieu, especially Abu Hamid al-Ghazali. While the inclusion of these authors further undermines the position of the Hebrew language and tradition, it demonstrates how Ibn Tibbon strove to link the Andalusi intellectual culture to wider and current philosophical and theological discussions within the Arabic world. The sixth and final chapter addresses the afterlife of Judah’s project in the ethical will. Rather than offer a complete reception history of the work, Pearce limits her attention to examining how later readers remembered Andalusi culture and continued to prefer the Arabic intellectual tradition, despite residing in Latin Christendom and increasingly using other languages. The conclusion is a meditation on Judah’s ethical will as a tarjamah, an attempt to translate the scholarly life of Ibn Tibbon and Andalusi intellectual culture into writing (198). Pearce connects Judah’s project to the wider theory of contact zones, in which traditions are preserved and dispersed through translation and thus speak to both their source culture and their new milieu, inviting reflection backward and forward on the nature of Andalusi literary memory.


    Pearce’s study serves as an innovative application of the methods of New Historicism and blends literature into the study of medieval Andalusi culture in an engaging way. Her treatment of Judah’s project will be of interest to scholars of Jewish and Arabic studies, and the new translation will facilitate the reflection that Pearce encourages in her conclusion. The work draws deliberately from Gabrielle Spiegel’s work on medieval France, but includes more cultural variables that span several languages, religions, and genres. However, the work is very much a literary study, despite Pearce’s discussion of the fluidity between the disciplines of literature and history in the introduction. Historians who wish to see how developments in Andalusi history during the twelfth century (i.e. successive Magrebi invasions and conquests, comparative changes within Andalusi Islamic intellectual culture, etc.) affected Ibn Tibbon’s project should look elsewhere. This criticism should not take away from Pearce’s work to identify and interpret the various ways to read Ibn Tibbon’s work and how it reflects the wider Andalusi intellectual tradition. The strength of this study is in its ability to examine Judah’s ethical will as the product of a translator’s vision of Andalusi culture and to explore the durability of the Arabic tradition within the memory of exiles. Pearce rescues the text from arguments of previous scholars who have tried to force a single, overarching meaning upon it; thus she gives the text a stunning complexity that we often do not afford to medieval authors.


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