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Reviews of Jews of a Saharan Oasis: The Elimination of the Tamantit Community

“An oft-invoked myth, current in academic circles as elsewhere, is that of the pre-Zionist ‘Golden Era’ between Muslims and Jews. According to this revisionist paradigm, until the emergence of the colonial and settler proto-Israeli state in Palestine, Jews and Muslims lived in harmony, if not fraternal solidarity, throughout the Islamic world. Jews were a protected and respected minority, a ‘people of the Book’ as the Koran describes them, under beneficent Muslim tutelage. And they prospered. It was only the imposition of a Jewish state in the heart of the ummah, goes this baleful narrative, that politicized and antagonized relations between Muslim and Jewish communities in the Middle East and throughout the world. (By implication, the resolution of conflict between Muslims and Jews lies in the dissolution of the Jewish State of Israel.)

“John Hunwick’s concise but poignant study of a single Jewish community in the northwestern Sahara provides an African-based refutation to this myth. Thoroughly exploiting the extant (if scant) Arabic writings on the subject, Hunwick examines the rise and purge of a Jewish communal outpost of Tlemcen (now in Algeria), which lay in the Touat oasis more than a third of the way to Timbuktu (where Jews also participated in the trans-Saharan trade). This outpost (or ‘fortified settlement’) was called Tamantit and, at its peak in the fifteenth century, 4 percent of its overall population (no aggregate figure is given) was Jewish. That the Jews of Tamantit were not just a minority but also a community with means is attested to by the existence of a synagogue. Then arose a man whose name should be as notorious as Pharaoh of the Passover Exodus, or Haman from Purim: al-Maghili.

“Muhammad al-Maghili was a Tlemcen-born cleric who, sometime in the mid-1400s, took violent exception not only to the prosperity of the Jews, but also to their very presence in the midst of Touat. Hunwick implies that al-Maghili’s enmity stemmed from economic envy or rage. His public rationale for preaching the expulsion and ‘degradation’ (Hunwick’s word) of the Jews was, however, purely theological. It is the kind of invective theology that today we would expect from the likes of a bin Laden or Zarqawi:

“Rise up, kill and enslave the infidels—
Pigs, who care not for the name of Muhammad.
Rise up and kill the Jews; they are indeed
The bitterest enemies who reject Muhammad …
Rise up and kill the Jews and all of those
Who fight for them; thus will you please Muhammad.

“Examples of the objectionable behavior (‘foul abomination’) of Saharan Jews mentioned in contemporary fatwas included: riding horses; using expensive saddles; and wearing spurred boots and turbans. For these and other transgressions the Jews of Tamantit were routed, their synagogue demolished, and some of them killed at about the same time (coincidence?) as the Spanish Inquisition. Al-Maghili then went on to counsel, successfully, banishment of the Jews from the Songhay Empire. After all, according to al-Maghili’s venomous interpretations of Koranic rulings governing the status of the dhimmi (protected non-Muslim), the Jews of the Sahara had especially transgressed by building a house of worship in an Islamic land; and for that, writes Hunwick, this forebear of anti-Semitic fanaticism preached that ‘their men should be killed, their women and children enslaved, and their property seized’ (p. 14).

“John Hunwick, no less prolific for becoming emeritus professor (from Northwestern University), is of course one of the most preeminent scholars of Islam in Africa. (With the passing of Nehemia Levtzion — to whose memory Hunwick co-dedicates the book — this circle has grown even smaller.) That he has at last turned a decades-long interest in this tragic but obscure event in Jewish and African history into a book should be of satisfaction to not only him but to two otherwise unconnected academic constituencies: the budding field of Saharan studies; and historians of the Jewish people. The former share in the overall ignorance among Africanists (Ali Mazrui being the most notable exception) about the role of Jews in West African history writ large. The latter generally have paid attention almost exclusively to the Jews of Ethiopia, the Lemba of Zimbabwe (cf. Tudor Parfitt) and the Abayudaya of Uganda being rare add-ons to Africanist Judaica.

“For sure, the book is slim in length — much of the 67 pre-appendix text pages are themselves textual translations — but the shadow it spreads on this epoch and corner of the Sahara is long, indeed. Nearly 500 years after the Jews were routed from their Saharan homes, their descendants in the northern oases, notes Hunwick on page 1 of his book, still concluded their Passover seder by replacing ‘Jerusalem’ with ‘Tamantit’ in the traditional prayer ‘Next Year in _____ .’ Reading this fine gem during Passover 2006 reinforced this reader’s faith in the God of Memory, as incarnated in Hunwickian history.”
— William F.S. Miles, International Journal of African Historical Studies

“In the 1960s John Hunwick pioneered the use of Arabic sources for writing African history. Since then he has devoted his lifelong work to the study of Islamic Africa and to illuminating the importance of understanding the Muslim African heritage. In an earlier book, Shari’a in Songhay (Oxford,1985), Hunwick provided a critical contribution to our understanding of the application of Islamic law in precolonial West Africa through the fifteenth-century legal responses of an itinerant Muslim scholar named al-Maghili to the emperor Askia Al-Hajj Mohammad. However, by examining the history of Songhay exclusively through the Islamic legal lens, Hunwick overlooked some relevant aspects of the story: the examination of the Jewish community in Tamantit as the main impetus for al-Maghilia’s travels to West Africa, linked to his violent anti-Jewish activities in the oasis of Touat. As if coming full circle, Jews of a Saharan Oasis attempts to address Hunwick’s oversight by resurrecting Jewish voices silenced by al-Maghili’s vitriolic agenda.

“Jews of a Saharan Oasis begins with a powerful anecdote in which a French observer in the 1950s finds Jews living in a northern Saharan oasis proclaiming at Passover, ‘Next year in Tamantit’ (1), amending the traditional exaltation more typically expressed for the Jewish holy city of Jerusalem. With this introduction, Hunwick describes a flourishing fifteenth-century community located in the oasis of Touat of present-day Algeria and situated on a well-traveled caravan route that connected Timbuktu and the city of Tlemcen. Its locale offered not only prosperity, but also independence for the Jewish people living under Muslim rule. However, their economic success in trade and their perceived ‘flouting of the laws’ under Islam seem to have fueled the resentments of the Tlemcen-born al-Maghili, who creatively culled arguments from Islamic doctrine to justify the destruction of Tamantit’s synagogue.

“The text showcases a wide range of perspectives from various Muslim scholars on the subject and on the social position of the Jews of Tamantit. But never does the reader hear directly from this community or discover why, five hundred years later, they would still be professing at Passover the desire to return to their sacred Tamantit. Indeed, little is told of the history of the Jews themselves beyond the information provided by the title of the book. If this title could be ignored, Hunwick’s work could be considered a masterful culmination of earlier unfinished scholarship. Jews of a Saharan Oasis follows a clean trajectory that seeks to clarify and untangle older pursuits and references that the author has worked on for decades by providing new translations of Arabic sources that help to fill in historical gaps. The book is divided into six chapters that superbly detail and analyze the notion of dhimmis in Islam, al-Maghili’s opinions on the Jews, a selection of fatwa literature, and the dispersal of the Tamantit community after the destruction of their house of worship. Unlike Shari’a in Songhay, this recent publication is much more forthcoming in describing the role of Islamic law as it applied to governance in Africa.

“What is missing is the viewpoint of the Jews themselves. Despite the availability of Jewish sources, it is not until the book’s conclusion that Hunwick cites a ‘Jewish writer’ (66) who writes of the brutal acts committed against the Tlemcen Jews. This exclusion seems to counter the author’s goal of expanding his earlier research ‘so as to be able to produce and publish a whole book on the Jewish community of the Saharan oasis of Touat’ (vii). Instead, the emphasis is on as-Maghili, and the very people he is researching are hardly ever referenced. Nevertheless, this is not to deny Hunwick’s continued agility and acumen in translating and interpreting Arabic sources, thereby securing his preeminent position as a scholar of African history; his latest book represents another important contribution. Studies of Africa’s history should seek to widen the scope in order to reveal the diversity of its inhabitants and the complexity of their histories and religious identities. Hunwick’s own fastidious efforts in interpreting the multitude of Muslim scholars debating Islamic law and the rationalization behind the downfall of the Tamantit community is a shining example of how this axiom could be applied to the history of African Jews.”
African Studies Review