Ethnic Polemic in Medieval Spain: Arabiyya, Shu’ubiyya, and Ibraniyya

Summary: In the Abbasid-era (800s-900s) authors writing in Arabic joined a debate between those who identified as ethnically Arab and those who identified as Persian. This debate was reproduced in al-Andalus (1000s) between Arab and non-Arab Spanish Muslims. Jewish writers in al-Andalus then adapted this debate to the question of the relative superiority of Arabic and Hebrew as a literary language for the Jewish communities of Spain. After the Christian conquest of Spain, Arabic was replaced by Castilian at court. Nonetheless, Hebrew writers continued to battle the specter of Arabic’s literary legacy even as they faced the new, more immediate threat of Hebrew’s extinction by vernacularization and eventually by mass conversions of Spanish Jews to Christianity.

Arabiyya: Arab superiority in a Multiethnic Islam

The Arabic language boasts a rich poetic tradition that predates Islam by some centuries. The revelation of the Qur’an in Arabic was further proof (for the Muslim community) of the superiority of their language, and by extension, their culture. When the community of Islam began to grow beyond the borders of the Arabian peninsula where Arabic was a native language, large numbers of Persians, Assyrians, Berbers, and members of other ethnic and linguistic groups began to adopt Arabic as their literary language. Arabic became an imperial language used by authors from a variety of ethnic and linguistic groups. In this pluralist Islamic society, during the first centuries of the Abbasid Caliphate (beginning in 762 CE), there developed a debate over the relationship between language and ethnic identity that was critical of the doctrine of Arabiyya (also the word for the Arabic language), the idea that the superiority of the Arabic language flowed from the superiority of the Arabs themselves, a fact proven by their being chosen to receive the Qur’an.

Arabic comes from here

Medieval Arab grammarians, attempting to clarify the meaning of obscure passages of the Qur’an, often visited Bedouin tribes to do linguistic fieldwork. The dialects of the Bedouins were considered by the city dwellers to be purer and closer to the language of the Qur’an. This idea was in contradiction to the idea that the language of the tribe of Quraysh, of which the Prophet Muhammad was a member, was the superior dialect of Arabic at the time the Qur’an was received. In order to solve this dilemma, the grammarian Abu Zakariyya Yahya bin Ziyad al-Farra’ (d. 822 CE), a native of Kufa (in present-day Iraq), explained that the dialect of the tribe of Quraysh, of which the Prophet Muhammad was a member, was superior because the Qurayshis were in constant contact with different Bedouin tribes. This way, he reasoned, the Qurayshis were able to select the best features from each of the Bedouin dialects in forming their own poetic language:

We said: In the same way they [the Qurayshis] were accustomed to hear from the tribes of the Arabs their dialects; so they could choose from every dialect that which was the best in it. So their speech became elegant and nothing of the more vulgar forms of speech was mixed up with it.
(Kahle, “Arabic” 69)

Shu’ubiyya: The response of the non-Arabs to Arabiyya

During the Abbasid Caliphate, Muslims of Persian background, many of whom were accomplished grammarians and poets in Arabic, criticized the doctrine of Arabiyya, instead advocating for the superiority of non-Arabs. This was the shu’ubiyya (from Arabic sha’b, ‘people’ or ‘nation’), the ethnic polemic between Arabs and non-Arabs. Shu’ubi writers attacked Arabs for their rustic origins as desert nomads, while they prided themselves as representatives of a cosmoplitan urbane culture that predated Islam. Thus the poet Abu Sa’id al-Rustami wrote in the tenth century CE:

The Arabs boast of being master of the world and commanders of peoples.
Why do they not rather boast of being skillful sheep and camel herders?
If I am asked about my descent —says the same poet—I am of the tribe of Rustam
but my song is of Lu’ayy b. Ghalib.
I am the one who is publicly and secretly known
as a Persian whom Arabianism (al-ta`rib) drew to itself.
I know well when calling the parole
that my origin is clear and my wood hard.
(Goldziher, Muslim 150)

Although the language of Abbasid era Shu’ubiyya speaks to ethnic origin, what was actually at stake for the writers and their audiences was the question of class and of access to prestigious administrative positions at court and in the Abbasid adminstration. The elites of Abbasid society largely claimed Arab descent, while the great mass of middle-class functionaries more often identified as Persian. Ultimately, the Shu’ubiyya debate was not about Persians being cultured and Arabs being primitive nomads, it was about gaining access to good white-collar jobs (Norris, “Shu’ubiyyah” 31).

Sassanid-era (Persian) warrior

In al-Andalus (Muslim Spain) this debate was reproduced by writers who identified as descendants of the Arab elite that led the 711 invasion of Visigothic Hispania, or as descendants of the various other ethnic groups that lived in the Iberian Peninsula (Hispano-Romans, Visigoths, Franks, Slavs, Basques) and who converted to Islam and adopted Arabic as their literary language.

The author Abu Amir ibn García al-Bashkunsi (i.e. ‘el vascuense’, the Basque) was one such author who resuscitated the shu’ubiyya debate in tenth century al-Andalus. In his case, the ruling class of the kingdom of Denia considered itself to be of pure Arab lineage and discriminated against those it considered to be of non-Arab stock. Ibn García himself, as his name suggests, was born a Christian in Basque country, but was taken captive as a child and brought to al-Andalus where he converted to Islam and received a classical Arabic education. His shu’ubi treatise (ca. 1050) harshly criticizes the rulers of Denia for their ethnic arrogance and their rustic origins:

Your mother, O Arabs, was a slave to our mother. If you deny this you will be found unjust. There is no excess in remonstrating, for we never tended monkeys nor did we weave mantles, nor did we eat wild herbs; there is no cutting off your relationship with Hājar; you were our slaves, servants, enfranchised ones, and valets… (Monroe, Shu’ubiyya 24)

[The non-Arabs] are clear, grave, not camel herders or diggers tilling the soil; great kings, not burners of camel dung for fuel…. These non-Arabs were warriors, not guardians of palm branches or planters of palm shoots…

…their drink was wine, and their food roasted meat, not the mouthful of colocynth seeds in the deserts or the eggs of lizards taken from their nests. (Monroe, Shu’ubiyya 25-26)


Jewish Arabiyya and Ibraniyya in al-Andalus

During Ibn García’s lifetime a parallel discussion was taking place within the Jewish communities of al-Andalus over the relative merits of Arabic and Hebrew. The Jewish communities of al-Andalus (Muslim-ruled Spain) were highly Arabized, but many were also conversant in the Romance dialects of the Iberian Peninsula. In addition to their participation in the Arabic-language culture of the times, Andalusi Jews also left behind a tremendous legacy of Hebrew-language learning ranging from Rabbinical treatises to secular poetry.

Some Andalusi Jewish writers, such as the poet Moses ibn Ezra, espoused a kind of Jewish Arabiyya. Ibn Ezra held Arabic to be a flawless model for Hebrew to follow. In his treatise on Hebrew poetics, Ibn Ezra argues that Arabic poetics are the benchmark for Hebrew poets. He even goes as far as saying that Biblical Hebrew poetry at its best sounds like Arabic poetry. Ibn Ezra’s poetic ideal is a sort of amalgam of Arabic poetic sensibility and Hebrew language:

And the poetry of Moses was true and kingly,
Like an Arabic poem, in words of sweetness.
And one speaking in the language of the Jews,
Spoken in perfect symmetry,
And the power of the speech of Araby
With its turns of phrase and eloquence.
Delightful sayings, in the Arabic tongue or the Hebrew,
And wisdom to grasp on every side, from each direction. (Allony, “Reaction” 35)

Even after Christian monarchs conquered most of the Iberian Peninsula, Arabic continued to be a prestigious language of secular and Jewish learning, particularly in the fields of grammar, poetics, and philosophy. A select elite of Jewish intellectuals living in Christian Iberia continued to study Arabic and to produce learned treatises in Arabic long after it ceased to be the language of government. The city of Toledo was conquered by Alfonso VI in 1085 CE, yet nearly a century and a half later Toledan writer Jacob ben Eleazar (fl. ca. 1220) would complete a treatise on Hebrew grammar, Kitab al-Kamil, in Arabic.

A contemporary of Ben Eleazar named Judah al-Harizi, who was a translator of Arabic literature into Hebrew as well as an author in his own right, begins his book Tahkemoni with a lament for the sorry condition of Hebrew language learning in the Jewish communities of the Arab world (including Spain), and calls for a Hebrew renaissance by which Jewish authors might lay claim to the literary greatness exemplified in the Hebrew Bible:

They have enslaved the tongue of the Israelites to the tongue of Kedar [i.e., Arabic] and they said: ‘come let us sell her to the Ishmaelites.’ And they said to her: ‘Bow down, that we may go over.’ And they took her and cast her into the pit until she perished among them. And the tongue of Kedar blackened her, and like a lion, tore her. An evil beast devoured her. All of them spurned the Hebrew tongue and made love to the tongue of Hagar. They embraced the bosom of an alien. They desired the wife of a stranger. They kissed her bosom, for stolen waters were sweet to them. Their hearts were seduced when they saw how excellent was the poetry that Hagar, Sarai’s Egyptian handmaiden had borne. And Sarai was barren!  (al-Harizi, Tahkemoni 32)

Around the same time in Toledo, Jacob ben Eleazar (author of the Kitab al-Kamil) wrote a collection of stories (Sefer Meshalim, ‘Book of Tales’), and like al-Harizi includes in his introduction a refutation of Arabic’s superiority and assertion of Hebrew’s literary greatness. He explains that the reason he wrote his Book of Tales was to demonstrate Hebrew’s virtues and to silence the doubters:

Said Jacob ben Eleazar: The reason for this book of tales, and the composition therein of my words, is because the learned amongst the Arabs were troubling the Holy Tongue, who nonetheless boasted against it in their insolence, saying: ‘it should be fitting to write in our language every tale!’ They were challenging Our Language, saying: ‘we will prevail!’….

Whereupon I began to compose, saying:

You would mock me, saying: ‘is not the Holy Tongue crude?’

But no! She is a giant who silences all others, run to her and do not falter, whether elegy or invective, or saw or anecdote. (Ben Eleazar, Love 14-15)

In these pro-Hebrew texts (Ibraniyya is the Arabic word for Hebrew), authors drew on some of the resources of the shu’ubiyya, but the context of their argument was quite different. Abbasid and Andalusi shu’ubi writers wrote in the dominant, official language of state that was common to both Arabs and non-Arabs. By contrast, Jewish writers of the Ibraniyya wrote in Hebrew, which was read exclusively by their Jewish peers. Their debate was internal to the Jewish community. They were fighting to determine which language would emerge victorious as the prestige language of secular learning in the Jewish communities.

Prato Haggadah, Spain 14th c. (image housed at Jewish Theological Seminary)

In a sense this debate was a rhetorical exercise. Thanks to the efforts of the Ibn Tibbon family of translators, Hebrew boasted a large repertory of secular scientific and philosophical texts brought over from Arabic originals (mid-twelfth to the early fourteenth centuries). The Ibn Tibbons were Spanish Jews who migrated to Provence during the mid-twelfth century, when the Almohad invasion of al-Andalus made life difficult for certain Andalusi Jewish communities. They translated scores of important works of grammar, Aristotelian philosophy, and science into Hebrew for diffusion among the Jewish communities of Europe and the Mediterranean who lived in countries where Arabic was not widely known. Thus Hebrew became a language of secular learning as well as of Rabbinics in the region (Robinson, “Ibn Tibbon”).

Ibraniyya after Arabic: The Threat of the vernacular

What is curious is that by the late thirteenth century, authors living in Christian Spain such as Isaac ibn Sahula were still waging poetic war against Arabic, which by now was no longer a productive secular literary language in Christian Iberia (though colloquial Arabic continued to be spoken, especially in Valencia, well into the sixteenth century). Stil, Ibn Sahula continues the Ibraniyya debate in the introduction to his collection of tales and anecdotes, Meshal Haqadmoni (‘Tale of the Old Timer,’ ca. 1285).

I shall explicate the reason for [this book’s] publication,
Upon God’s holy mountain [i.e. the Hebrew language] rests its foundation,
to declare its pure and holy nature is its purpose
to preach of the compelling greatness of Hebrew speech,
To show the nations and their generals its beauty.
For I saw that many had dulled its golden rhetoric,
Preferring instead all kind of other books:
The wisdom of the Greeks and the tales of the Arabs (Ibn Sahula, Meshal 10)

Ibn Sahula’s desire to ‘show the nations’ harkens back to the origins of the Shu’ubiyya debate, which emphasizes national or ethnic difference rather than linguistic. In the Jewish context, there are no ‘nations or generals’ to witness the beauty of the Hebrew language in Ibn Sahula’s book: his audience is exclusively Jewish. As in the case of al-Harizi, the debate is internal, a struggle to ensure that when Jews wrote works of poetry, philosophy, or science, that they did so in Hebrew and not Arabic.

"Translate this" --Alfonso X (1252-1284)

But was Arabic still a viable candidate in 1285 in Christian Castile? Ross Brann was written that by this time writers such as Ibn Sahula were fighting against the ‘ghost of Arabic,’ and that their aim was nationalistic, not linguistic (Brann, Compunctious 123). It is also possible that they were thinking about Spanish while writing against Arabic. In the second half of the thirteenth century, Alfonso X ‘The Learned’ of Castile-León funded a massive initiative to translate Arabic works of philosophy and science into Castilian (not Latin), with the aim to raise the prestige of the Castilian language to a level appropriate to the court of a king who dreamt of becoming Holy Roman Emperor. Though Castilian never gained much traction as a literary language in Spain’s Jewish communities (Wacks, “Toward”), Spanish Jewish authors were fluent speakers of Castilian and the other Romance dialects of the Peninsula, and were familiar with the vernacular literature of their times. The later examples of Ibraniyya may well have been using the Arabic trope as a foil for Castilian as a potential rival for Hebrew.

Ultimately, the threat to Hebrew’s fate on the Peninsula was not to be the adoption of Castilian as a Jewish literary language, but the mass conversion of Jews into Christians who then ceased to write in Hebrew (with a few interesting exceptions). In the early fifteenth century, the poet Solomon de Piera derides these converso poets as “flies who buzz around the horns of a buffalo, or monkeys who slide their hands fruitlessly up and down flutes” (Targarona Borrás, “Carta” 180). Eventually literary Hebrew was dealt the death blow of the Expulsion, which would relegate the study of Hebrew to Christian universities such as Salamanca and Alcalá.



  • Allony, Nehemiah. “The Reaction of Moses Ibn Ezra to `arabiyya.” Bulletin of the Institute of Jewish Studies 3 (1975): 19-40.
  • Ben Eleazar, Jacob. The Love Stories of Jacob Ben Eleazar (1170-1233?). Ed. Yonah David. Tel Aviv: Ramot Publishing, 1992.
  • Brann, Ross. The Compunctious Poet: Cultural Ambiguity and Hebrew Poetry in Medieval Spain. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University, 1991.
  • Goldziher, Ignác. Muslim studies. Trans. C.K. Barber & S.M. Stern. Chicago: Aldine, 1968.
  • Ibn Sahula, Isaac ben Solomon. Meshal Haqadmoni: Fables from the Distant Past. Portland: Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2004.
  • Kahle, Paul. “The Arabic Readers of the Koran.” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 8.2 (1949): 65-71.
  • Monroe, James T. The Shu’ubiyya in al-Andalus: The Risala of Ibn García and Five Refutations. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1970.
  • Norris, H.T. “Shu’ubiyyah in Arabic Literature.” ’Abbasid Belles-Lettres. Ed. Julia Ashtiany et Ashtiany. Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1990. 31-47.
  • Robinson, James. “The Ibn Tibbon family: a dynasty of translators in medieval Provence.” Be’erot Yitzhak: Studies in Memory of Isadore Twersky. Ed. Jay Michael Harris. Cambridge: Harvard University Center for Jewish Studies, 2005. 193-224.
  • Roth, Norman. “Jewish Reactions to the ʿArabiyya and the Hebrew Renaissance in Spain.” Journal of Semitic Studies 28.1 (1983): 63-84.
  • Targarona Borrás, Judit. “Carta inédita de Selomoh de Piera al Rab Abraham ben Yishaq Ha-Levi.” Miscelánea de Estudios Árabes y Hebraicos 49 (2000): 165-189.
  • Wacks, David. “Toward a History of Hispano-Hebrew Literature of Christian Iberia in the Romance Context.” eHumanista 14 (2010): 178-209.

This post was written with support from the Abbasi Program in Islamic Studies at Stanford University, where I will deliver a talk on this subject (13 October 2011).