Monday, December 12, 2016

Encyclopedia will restore Jews to Islamic history

This new encyclopedia is a welcome corrective to the limited literature that exists about Jews in the Islamic world and those projects that downplay the importance of Jews and seek to idealise Jewish-Muslim relations. Daniel Pipes reviews it in Middle East Quarterly (Winter 2017). With thanks: Michelle, Flor)

Encyclopedia of Jews in the Islamic World by Norman A Stillman

(Leiden: Brill, 2010. 5 vols. Vol. 1, A-C: 698 pp.; Vol. 2, D-I: 655 pp.; Vol. 3, J-O: 637 pp.; Vol. 4, P-Z: 695 pp.; Vol. 5, Index and Resources: 499 pp. $1,099.)


If Jews in Muslim-majority countries have now shrunk to a miniscule 50, 000 *souls, nearly all of them in Morocco, Turkey, and Iran, things were once different.

Indeed, until the seventeenth century, Mizrahi and Sephardi Jews outnumbered the Jews of Europe. More than that, as Stillman writes in his introduction, it was in the medieval Muslim world that "many aspects of Judaism as a religious civilization were formulated, codified, and disseminated, and this includes the domains of liturgy, law, and theology."

Indeed, until the seventeenth century Mizrahi and Sephardi Jews outnumbered the Jews of Europe. More than that, as Stillman writes in his introduction, it was in the medieval Muslim world that "many aspects of Judaism as a religious civilization were formulated, codified, and disseminated, and this includes the domains of liturgy, law, and theology."

But if the Mizrahi/Sephardi population has great importance for Judaism and for the Middle East, scholars have slighted it. Again, quoting Stillman: Until the 1970s, there was very little academic work on the Jews of the Islamic world, and most of that was dedicated to the medieval period, and within that period to intellectual history and literature. The 1.5 million-word Encyclopedia of Jews in the Islamic World came into existence in part to rectify this weakness, in part to make a wealth of obscure knowledge available. It succeeds with great distinction.

In contrast to some other recent encyclopedias concerning the Middle East and Islam (notably John L. Esposito's dismal Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World),[1] EJIW's 350 contributors avoid post-modernism and other hazards to provide a well-written, reliable guide to 2200 topics from the seventh century to the present.

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*50,000 would seem to be an exaggeration. There may be no more than 30, 000 in these countries.

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