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Understanding Arab Culture: Understanding Ourselves

Hosted By: Orange County Community Scholar Program (CSP)

Within a century of the death of Muhammad, in 632 CE, Muslim armies had conquered almost the whole of the world where Jews lived, from Spain eastward across North Africa and the Middle East as far as the eastern frontier of Iran and beyond. Almost all the Jews in the world were now ruled by Islam.

This new situation transformed Jewish existence. Fortunes changed in legal, demographic, social, religious, political, geographical, economic, linguistic and cultural terms. Along with legal near-equality came social and economic equality. Jews were not confined to ghettos, either literally or in terms of economic activity. The societies of Islam were, in effect, open societies. In religious terms, as well, Jews enjoyed virtually full freedom.

Jews adopted the language of the Muslim Arabs such that by the early 10th century, only 300 years after the conquests, Sa’adya Gaon was translating the Bible into Arabic. By the year 900 CE, the Jews had largely abandoned other languages and taken on Arabic. The change of language in its turn brought Jews into direct contact with broader cultural developments. The result from the 10th century on was a striking pairing of two cultures. The Jews of the Islamic world developed an entirely new culture, which differed from Jewish culture before Islam in terms of language, theology, philosophy and worldview. In order to truly understand Judaism as we know it today, one needs to understand Arab culture.

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