Mark Cohen’s article “The Convivencia of Jews and Muslims in the High Middle Ages” describes the relationship that existed between Jews, Christians, and Muslims in the medieval Christian Spain. Mark Cohen identifies that the relationship of the three groups was that of harmony and peace despite their religious differences. In his article, Cohen attempts to prove the thesis that Jews and Muslims peacefully coexisted at that time. He tries to come up with reasons why the two groups could get along despite their differences. Cohen’s thesis states that the two theories that people use to explain the relationship between the two religious groups are just a historical myth. One of the theories is developed by supporters of the Convivencia, who state that the peaceful coexistence of Muslims and Jews was possible due to tolerance, which led to symbiosis in different cultures and faiths (Cohen 54). The other argument is developed by those who oppose the Convivencia and state that it was impossible for the two religious groups to coexist, as there was widespread hatred among them, as well as the Islamic suppression of Jews. He attempts to show that the two theories are not realistic and that the truth lies in-between.
The Convivencia has been an area of focus for political scientists, sociologists, theology researchers, and historians. Therefore, many primary and secondary sources explore this subject. Cohen selects articles, books, memoirs, as well as reports – a total of 17 sources. The article is based on his book “Under Crescent and Cross: Jews in the middle Ages”, published in 1994 and translated into several languages, including Spanish, Hebrew, and Arabic. He gives an analysis of these sources to support his article with direct quotes. He uses these documents comparatively to show the situation of the Jews who lived under the Christendom and Muslims. Cohen uses relatively similar sources to those by other scholars in developing his arguments. For example, Cohen uses the article by Dario Fernandez to show the difference between the Christian Spain and the Muslim treatment of Jews. In his article, Cohen praises multiculturalism and criticizes Christianity. This should not be the case since Christianity is the mother of Western civilization. Other scholars such as Rosa Menacol cite the same article to show that the situation in Catholic Spain through al-Andalus was the reason for peaceful coexistence between Christians and Muslims due to religious symbiosis (Menocal 30-35). The use of other articles and primary sources by different scholars give different points of view on the same topic. According to my opinion, the use of similar sources by different authors is a proof that there is no consensus in research. Therefore, they should undertake their research in harmony in order to come up with similar conclusions about the Convivencia.
There are some questions that Cohen’s article does not ask. It tends to insist on the role of Convivencia in the understanding of the Ibero-Islamic studies. The article only focuses on the role of the unique status that Spain holds in medieval Europe. It does not ask questions about the similarities between the treatment of religious minorities by Christians, especially in south and north of Pyrenees. The question of why the Convivencia has brought unease among scholars and historians about medieval Spain is also ignored. Cohen assumes that Convivencia is already the ideal concept to explain the religious situation in Spain at the time. The article also does not address whether the concept of Convivencia is problematic. Similarly, Cohen ignores the polarization of the field that exists between persecution and tolerance. He does not give attention to the nuances of political and social power relations. These were the forces that affected the relationship between Jews, Christians, and Muslims and influenced their coexistence in Iberia. Cohen also takes the theological point of view rather than political. He explores the teachings of each religious group in comparison with the treatment of other religions. Therefore, Cohen could have focused on other points to further support his articles.
Cohen gives more evidence on the fate of Jews in Europe. He cites articles that support the claim that Jews in Europe were burned alive in the streets during the Black Plague. In this case, Cohen gives different articles to support his proposition, including primary sources written at that time. He also gives enough evidence for the development of the three religions and their comparison. Moreover, Cohen gives sources to support his analysis on the development of Christians and the Bible. He identifies the differences existing between the three Abrahamic religions and how these teachings affected their coexistence. In this case, Cohen quotes the religious texts that these religions use and their influence on the relationships. He also uses historical and anthropological sources to show the situation of the society in different regions and their relationships (Cohen 60-65). Thus, the part of the essay on conflicts and their causes is well researched and supported with enough evidence. However, there are some parts of the article where Cohen uses ambiguous statements with minimal evidence. For example, he claims that the thirteenth century marked a new era for Jews and Islam, which is not the case according to the little evidence that Cohen cites. They show that Jews continued to live in harmony with the Muslims until the 18th century.
Cohen states that the actual situation lies between the two theories that historians have come up with to describe the situation in medieval Europe. His evidence is aimed at showing that the Jews and Muslims lived in harmony for some time; nonetheless, widespread anti-Semitism contributed to friction between Jewish and Islamic religions. There is enough evidence in Cohen’s article to show that Jews were able to adapt to the Islamic culture. The sources provided by Cohen show that this allowed Jews to get along with Muslims without anti-Semitism in the Arab territory. The situation of Jews in an Arab country was hard to understand since it was controlled by religion, political, and economic characteristics. This explains the differences in the plight of Jews in Islamic territory to that in Northern Europe. The teachings of Muslims did not influence them to judge the Jews, regardless of their ridicule to Muhammad. Cohen also gives evidence to show that the Islamic scriptures are against religious rivalry. Cohen attempts to show that the plight of Muslims and Jews in Europe was quite different from that in Arabic countries during the medieval times. There existed religious conflicts in Europe, which were different from the harmony in Arabic countries. Cohen gives enough evidence to argue that the situation of religious conflicts cannot be generalized (Fernandez 23-31). With differences in economy, politics, and regions the outcomes vary. However, Cohen could have explained better why the conflicts in Europe did not affect the Islam-Jewish relationship in Arabic lands. He could show more precisely why the conflict between Arabs and Israelis today is so strong. There were also conflicts between Christians and Jews later in history, which Cohen did not explain.
Cohen recognizes that some of the scholars and historians differ from his point of view. He states that Spanish historians and Jewish writers have distanced themselves on Convivencia in Iberia, as well as the experience between Muslims and Jews. Cohen identifies two scholars, Lewis and Dario Fernandez-Morera, who come up with statements differing from his own argument. He shows that this argument has been reiterated by Rosa Menocal, who speaks exclusively of tolerance not conflicts. Cohen says that some scholars, of both Islamic and Jewish origin, have come up with two different theories to explain their relationship. The tolerance and religious symbiosis viewpoint comes from 19th century Jewish historians of European origin, who had political motives. The other viewpoint supporting the conflicts caused by anti-Semitism came earlier from Arabic and Jewish researchers (Nirenberg 33-35). Cohen identifies that each of these researchers had political motives. He provides stronger evidence than that by other scholars, which persuades the reader to accept his viewpoint. However, he treats the explanation of current religious conflicts by other scholars inadequately without giving enough evidence whether history can explain these conflicts.
A review of the articles by Cohen shows that the examples that he gives are representative of the actual situation in Europe of different time periods. For example, he states that there exists religious symbiosis in Arab lands due to two reasons. First, Islamic teachings do not support religious rivalry. Second, Muslims appreciate trade between them and the Jews in Arab lands. He also gives examples from the experiences of Jews. First, Muhammad himself was ridiculed by Jews, but still did not hold them guilty. He becomes the role model for other Muslims on how to treat others. He also gives examples on the triumph of Muslims in Arab lands, both economically and politically, and one that is fuelled by the trade between them and the Jews. He gives enough evidence to support his points with effective representative examples. The only assumption he makes is the statement that friction between Jews and Muslims that exists today can be traced to the 13th century. However, history shows that this did not happen until the 19th century. Mark Cohen writes a comparative study of the Jews under both the Islam and Christendom in medieval Europe (Novikoff 7-36).I think this is an essay of its kind – sophisticated, meticulous, and nuanced. Cohen gives a persuasive argument with definite examples which convince the reader to his point of view. A review of this article with comparison with the sources and examples used shows that his viewpoint is correct. He gives sufficient evidence to show that his arguments are strong.
In my own point of view, Cohen tends to choose Northern Europe deliberately to make the contrasts in his article. This is because the northern region has vivid differences from other regions, such as Southern Europe, which might have given a different analysis. In this region, Jews had an indigenous and enduring presence. Thus, his analysis is limited only to the northern region and cannot be used to describe Islamic, Christian, and Jewish relationships in later eras. Research shows that Cohen has written other articles stating that he has deliberately ignored some parts in the northern region of the article, such as the Polish-Jewish region. This is because the region was populated Jews, who enjoyed a status which could distort the analysis. However, the article is an overall efficient analysis of the selected region. Cohen could focus on other regions and write a general comparative analysis of religion in Medieval Europe.
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