Neutral Ground in the Sky: Jewish-Muslim Encounters in the Astronomical Sciences of Islamic Spain

Michael Getty

April 27, 2010

I. Introduction There is little use in pretending that most twenty-first century students of al-Andalus – the medieval Islamic society of Spain and its successors – go in without looking for some window on the present. At some level, arguably, we all approach that co-existence of Muslim, Jewish, and Christian communities looking for some better way to live with our own differences. Most of the time, it seems that peace and harmony were about the last thing on anyone’s mind at the time. In nine centuries of documents from alAndalus and its post-Islamic remnants, we find cultural relationships that were either one-sided or manifestly adversarial. Religious dialogue, for instance, almost always took place within the genre of the polemic, for instance Ibn Hazm’s many writings on the superiority of Islam (Chejne 305). The literary culture of al-Andalus, while markedly less adversarial, was also very much a one-way street. Outside of original source material such as the Greek philosophers or folk genres such as muwashshaha and zajal (Chejne 246), non-Muslim influences are scarcely found in the thousands of still extant volumes that comprise the literature of al-Andalus written in Arabic. Among Muslims and Jews, however, a very different set of encounters unfolded within the natural sciences of the Islamic world, especially in the

study of astronomy. During the early decades of expansive Islamic rule in the eighth and ninth centuries, Islam and Judaism stood before a vast body of Persian, Hindu, and especially Greek knowledge that was, to a great extent, equally foreign to both cultures. From the beginning, however, astronomy was very different from fields such as architecture or especially philosophy. To a pious Jew or Muslim, celestial bodies and their movements are direct manifestations of a divine creative will. In principle, they are on a par with each tradition’s sacred texts, which to this day all capable males are religiously commanded to study. Moreover, the study of the heavens has long been crucial for maintaining both communities’ religious calendars: Jewish and Muslim observances are keyed towards precise times of the day, precise points in both the lunar and solar years, and an exact physical orientation towards Mecca or Jerusalem. As we will see, understanding the motions of the sun and the stars also played a role in attaching dates to events in the Hebrew scriptures, which formed the basis of accepted Islamic understandings of creation and history. The study of astronomy thus created a distinctive space within which Jewish and Muslim scholars interacted across the centuries of Islamic civilization in medieval Spain. These interactions are characterized by a degree of mutual embrace that is arguably more suggestive of convivencia, of productive co-existence of the two communities in al-Andalus, than those in areas (Glick 1). Later after the end of Umayyad Caliphate, Andalusi Jews continued the work of understanding the heavens in ways that were largely Getty 2

continuous with the science’s Islamic roots, even as the language of study shifted from Arabic to Hebrew and various Romance idioms. In addition to the vast project of translating Arabic-language scientific literature, Jewish astronomers continued to apply and refine Islamic innovations in instruments and calculation. Through it all, Jewish scholarly culture wrestled with the universal problem of its age, one sharpened by Islamic tradition: the tension between Abrahamic tradition and Aristotelian rationalism. II. The Islamic Sciences of the Skies The early Islamic world was known for its insatiable appetite for cultural knowledge from the societies within its expanding sphere of influence. Through vast projects centered in the court of the Abbasid dynasty, manuscript after manuscript was translated from the classical languages into Arabic.1 The Islamic scholars’ earliest preoccupation, starting in the late eighth century, seems to have been with the mathematics and astronomical observations of the Indian tradition (Goldstein, "Astronomy and the Jewish Community " 22), which brought the concept of base-ten number systems and astronomical tables into the Arabic-speaking world. The ninth century saw an Arabic translation of Ptolemy of Alexandria’s Megalé Syntaxis, or ‘Great Compilation,’ an astronomical treatise from the second century commonly known as the Almagest in the Western tradition, a title which itself is a clipping of the Arabic al-Kitabu-l-Majisti (Complete Dictionary
1 For an excellent overview of the complex convergence of Indian, Persian, and Greek sources into the scientific enterprises of the Islamic world, along with its distinctive development in Al-Andalus, see Goldstein (“Astronomy as a ‘Neutral Ground’” 159-163).

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of Scientific Biography; Ptolemy186). Through commentaries on the Almagest and adaptations of Indian astronomical observations to geographic points in the Mediterranean and western Asia, Islamic scholars opened up levels of astronomical understanding previously closed to the traditions they had absorbed (Glick 83-85; Goldstein, “Astronomy as a ‘Neutral Ground’” 159).2 These innovations opened up new degrees of precision in navigation, cartography, and the keeping of calendars. One product of this fused tradition was the universal astrolabe, an eleventh-century improvement on an earlier Greek device that allowed astronomers to plot their precise geographic longitude by measuring the positions of fixed stars. Previously, the astrolabe only worked in combination with astronomical tables that had to be adapted to each point of latitude on the globe. This innovation was credited to an Andalusi scholar, Abū Ishāq Ibrāhīm ibn Yahyā al-Naqqāsh, known more commonly as al-Zarqālī or Azarquiel, who applied the insights of the Ptolemaic system to create an astrolabe that could function without astronomical tables, giving observers their precise longitude from anywhere on the planet (Gerli and Armistead 124). III. Muslim-Jewish Encounters III.A. Early Eastern Astronomy
2 This area of scholarship is noted for a long, simmering tension between Ptolemaic and Aristotelian astronomy, which differ chiefly in how they account for idiosyncrasies of planetary motion. A matter of no small controversy, it seems, this disagreement stretched into the work of Ibn Rushd and Maimonides, who Glick (106) portrays as expressing a shared Andalusi bias towards Aristotelian method.

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The Islamic education system, depending as it did on private tutors who were also sought out by Arabic-speaking Jewish families, was bound to result in vigorous Muslim-Jewish interactions (Roth 34). Connections ran particularly deep in the field of astronomy, however. From its very beginnings, Islamic astronomy appropriated and built on the work of nonMuslim scholars, not simply in the original source materials but on a crucial and ongoing basis (Goldstein, "Astronomy and the Jewish Community" 22). The ninth-century Iraqi Arab scholar Al-Kindī seems to have recognized as much in his volume On First Philosophy: We ought not to be ashamed of appreciating the truth and of acquiring it wherever it comes from, even if it comes from races distant and nations different from us. For the seeker of truth nothing takes precedence over the truth, and there is no disparagement of the truth, nor belittling either of him who speaks it or of him who conveys it. The (status of) no one is diminished by the truth; rather does the truth ennoble all. (Goldstein, "Astronomy and the Jewish Community " 18) From the context , Al-Kindī seems to be addressing fellow Muslims and encouraging them to embrace non-Muslims as part of ahl lisāni-na: ‘the people of our language’ (Goldstein, "Astronomy and the Jewish Community" 18). At different points in the medieval Islamic scientific enterprise, one finds Jewish scholars identified and acknowledged by name, a move virtually unattested in other cultural arenas. Among the earliest named sources in Getty 5

Islamic astronomy was Māshā’allāh, a Jew from Basra active as a scholar in the Abbasid court in the late eighth and early ninth centuries of the Common Era. Goldstein points out that in contrast to other prominent cases of Jews active in Islamic circles, Māshā’allāh’s ethnic affiliation attracted no adverse interest from commentators or chroniclers of the time. A Jewish contemporary of Māshā’allāh’s, Sahl ibn Bishr al-Yahudi, is also a frequently cited source (Goldstein, "Astronomy and the Jewish Community" 26), mentioned among others in the eleventh-century Chronology of Ancient Nations by one of the greatest Eastern scientists of his day, Abū Rayhān Muhammad ibn Ahmad al-Bīrūnī (Goldstein, "Astronomy and the Jewish Community" 32). In a similar, almost contemporaneous chronicle, the Spanish scholar Sā’id al-Andalusi identifies several Jews as important scientific contributors, including Sahl ibn Bishr and Saadia Gaon, head of the most influential Jewish religious school in the East (Goldstein, "Astronomy in the Jewish Community" 32). Other professional encounters between Muslim and non-Muslim scholars meeting – presumably as equals or near-equals – are documented at various points in medieval Islamic history.3 The Jews of Al-Andalus plainly considered themselves part of the Islamic scientific tradition, even more so as important centers of learning

3 See Goldstein ("Astronomy and the Jewish Community" 25) and works cited there. Personal encounters between the great Jewish scholar Maimonides and his twelfth-century Muslim counterparts are also well known, from his correspondence with the son of Jābir ibn Aflah, a renowned astronomer (Glick 93) to a friendship with his elder contemporary Ibn Rūshd (Averroës), first in Almería and then in Fez; it was there the Maimon family offered refuge after Ibn Rushd was forced into exile by the Almohad court (Heschel 19).

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came under Christian rule in the eleventh century and onwards, putting Arabized Jews into critical roles as translators and interpreters. One contemporary source, the twelfth century scholar Abraham ibn Ezra, illustrates this self-identification in a vivid fashion by inserting a partly fictional Jewish character into his telling of the birth of science in the early Islamic world.4 Referring to Al-Safāh, the Abbasid caliph from 750 to 754, he wrote: He heard that in India there were many sciences and so he ordered that a wise man be sought, fluent in both Arabic and the language of India, who might translate one of the books of their wisdom for him. He thought that some mishap might befall the translator because profane sciences were still unknown in Islam. [He] fasted … in the hope that the angel of dreams might appear and permit the book to be translated for him into Arabic. Then in a dream he saw what he had hoped for. So he sent for a Jew who knew both languages and ordered him to translate this book, for he feared that if an Arab were to translate the book, he might die. When he saw how wonderful the book was … he yearned for more knowledge of the sciences of India. (Goldstein, "Astronomy as a 'Neutral Ground'" 161)

4 This narrative appears in Ibn Ezra’s introduction to his Hebrew translation of commentary by a tenth-century Andalusi scholar, Ibn al-Muthannā, on earlier astronomical tables of alKhwārizmi, the ninth-century scholar who chiefly introduced Indian scholarship into the Islamic world. Goldstein concludes that the Jewish translator in this story is entirely fictional.

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Another important area of encounter was in the effort, taking literal understandings of scripture as a starting point, to compute the precise dates of biblical events, in particular the act of creation and the flood story in Genesis (Goldstein, "Astronomy and the Jewish Community" 30). In his Chronology of Ancient Nations, al-Bīrūnī expressed admiration for the Jewish calendar even as he gave voice to very clear anti-Jewish bias (Goldstein, "Astronomy and the Jewish Community" 28). In one instance, al-Bīrūnī acknowledges calculations of tequfot, the vernal equinox and summer solistice, in rabbinic literature of the early Common Era; at the same time, he disparages the relatively obscure custom of fasting during those precise hours as “… nothing but one of the snares and nets which the Rabbis have laid for the people and by which they have managed to catch them and bring them under their sway” (Goldstein, "Astronomy and the Jewish Community" 29). III.B. Al-Andalus Sā’id al-Andalusi seems to have been on friendly terms with a number of Jewish scientists and writes about one of them in particular in a striking way: Among the young scholars of our day is Abu l-Fadl Hadsay ben Yusuf ben Hasday, an inhabitant of the city of Saragossa, who belongs to a noble family of Jews residing in al-Andalus who descend from the Prophet Moses, peace be to him. He developed an interest in the rational sciences and has acquired the knowledge of their branches Getty 8

after his own methods. He has an excellent command of the Arabic language and has mastered a considerable part of the arts of poetry and rhetoric. He is outstanding in the science of numbers, in geometry and astronomy … If he lives to an old age and maintains his zeal, he will become an eminent philosopher and will grasp the different branches of knowledge (Bango 129). The reference to Hasday’s descent from Moses is telling. It communicates that Sā’id al-Andalusi was acquainted with Hasday’s family well enough to know that they were Levites, descendents of the ancient Israelite tribe that, beginning with Moses, played a leading role in Jewish political and religious life.5 This scholar’s endearment to his Jewish colleagues is a taste of a Muslim-Jewish relationship in medieval astronomy that arguably ran much deeper in al-Andalus than anywhere else in the Islamic world. Despite a vigorous Jewish presence throughout the Mediterranean basin and Western Asia, it was in al-Andalus that the vast majority of Arabic-language astronomical scholarship was translated into Hebrew (Glick 104), nurtured throughout the transition from Islamic to Christian rule in Iberia, and shepherded through the vast translation projects that introduced the corpus to Latin and Castillian readers of the later Middle Ages (Glick 102-103).

5 The Levites were a priestly caste; their status has been largely symbolic but nonetheless revered since the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E. (Skolnik 733). Levite status can be inherited both maternally and paternally and is not always evident from a family’s name.

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The Jews of al-Andalus, mirroring their Muslim neighbors’ sense of their own distinctiveness and even superiority vis-à-vis the rest of the Islamic world, had a virtual monopoly on Jewish astronomical scholarship, which they were not shy about projecting onto religious questions.6 This can be seen in the move by Hasdai ibn Shaphrut, the late tenth-century leader of the Jewish community of Córdoba and vizier to the caliph Abd al-Rahman III, to break with centuries of tradition and rely on local astronomical observation, rather than edicts from the East, to mark points on the Jewish calendar (Menocal 90). The key factors in this distinctive relationship are common to the Andalusian context as a whole. One is the tense struggle for political, intellectual, and religious leadership in the Islamic world that characterized the years surrounding the Andalusian Caliphate of the tenth and eleventh centuries (Menocal p. 32). Long the numerical minority, the Muslim ruling class of al-Andalus faced constant, often violent internal power struggles both between and within their various religious and ethnic constituencies (Rothstein 9; Garcia-Arenal 803). This state of affairs was made no simpler by the presence of organized Christian communities within and outside Muslim borders. In such a fraught society, trusted Jewish scholars could

6 Scholarship inspired by the Islamic tradition outclassed but did not entirely eclipse earlier Jewish thought. Outside of the creation myth of Genesis, astronomical references are found throughout the later books of the Hebrew scriptures such as Amos, Jeremiah, Joshua, and Ecclesiastes. The tradition of oral commentary on scripture, which began in prehistory but was documented in numerous stages between the first and eighth centuries of the Common Era, records a number of mostly sketchy astronomical observations (Skolnik 621-622).

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arguably figure prominently in the political and intellectual life of Muslim states without adversely affecting other balances of power. Such motivation may, for instance, have been behind the decision of King al-Mu’tamid of Seville in the late eleventh century to hire a Jew, Isaac ben Barukh ibn Albalia, as his court astrologer (Goldstein, "Astronomy and the Jewish Community" 32).7 IV. Astronomy and Astrology In the earliest stages of astronomical study in the Islamic world, scholars made no operational distinction between the empirical study of celestial objects and a more speculative branch, astrology, which sought to discern connections between celestial configurations and earthly events. Both had been integral to the Hellenistic and Indo-Persian traditions – alongside the study of philosophy, logic, mathematics and other fields – introduced through the great translation projects of the eighth through tenth centuries (Chejne 312-313;Vauchez). In the fraught relationship between the Islamic world and its ‘foreign sciences,’ astrology was overwhelmingly frowned upon by philosophers and religious authorities alike (Saliba 70-71). For religious objectors, admitting mystical influence from the heavens was in conflict with notions of human free will and divine autonomy. Eleventh-century poet and theologian Ibn Hazm, for his part, simply dismisses astrology as having nothing to
7 Albalia was also a rabbi, author of a number of minor religious studies, and was appointed by al-Mut’tamid as the leader of the Jewish community (Skolnik 583).

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contribute to understanding of the divine and therefore useless (Saliba 69). For philosophers, especially the rationalists of the twelfth century and afterwards, astrology was simply incompatible with their basic premises. Ibn Rushd, in a clear break with pre-Islamic sources, wrote in the twelfth century that astrology “does not belong to physical science. It is only a prognostication of future events, and is of the same type as augury …” (Saliba 69). In the East in the eleventh century, Al-Bīrūnī wrote a commissioned text on astrology but disparaged it in other, independent work. At one point, he portrayed his work as dealing with astrology only to warn other thinkers away from it (Saliba 69). Individuals, however, especially nobles such as al-Mu’tamid, continued to seek out astrologers for what amounted to personal fortune-telling (Saliba 70). In al-Andalus in particular, a number of Latin texts on astrology unavailable elsewhere in the Islamic world were translated into Arabic and circulated in learned circles (Gerli and Armistead 123). In a point of stark contrast with the Islamic realm, however, astrological study retained a considerable degree of prestige in the Jewish world, even as it relied and built on the Islamic astronomical corpus (Skolnik 616). Saadia Gaon of Baghdad in the tenth century, in his time the most prominent Jewish leader in the known world, engaged in very thorough if sometimes skeptical discussion of astrological influences on human events (Goldstein, "Astronomy and the Jewish Community" 40). Of the Jewish luminaries of al-Andalus, all but a few participated actively in astrological Getty 12

writing, both as translators and original authors. Abraham ibn Da’ud in the twelfth century devoted part of his best-known work, Emunah Ramah (‘Sublime Faith’), to the prediction of events based on positions of the stars (Beer 618). His elder contemporary Abraham ibn Ezra embraced astrology so enthusiastically that his reputation spread outside Jewish circles (Skolnik 618). By the twelfth century, some Jewish scholars were openly attacking astrological thought, even as they conceded that the celestial realm might have some unfathomable influence on earthly events. In his famous Book of the Khazars, Yehudah Halevi wrote, "We cannot deny that the heavenly realm ... exercises influence on terrestrial matters ... [but] the particulars are unknown to us. The astrologer boasts of knowing them, but we repudiate [his claims], and assert that no mortal can fathom them” (Goldstein, "Astronomy and the Jewish Community" 57). In the centuries of chaos after the collapse of the Umayyad Caliphate in 1031, astrology was embraced by many prestigious rabbis (Goldstein, "Astronomy and the Jewish Community" 48), particularly as the deteriorating situation of Iberian Jews awakened long-dormant interest in messianic prophecies (Skolnik 619). From the murderous Berber dynasties to the escalating confrontations between Christian and Muslim states, many Jews were convinced that fulfillment of messianic prophesies was imminent (Heschel 104). Based mostly in post-Biblical tradition (Skolnik 110-112), these prophesies foresaw an era of extreme violence that would precede the Getty 13

arrival of the Messiah (Hebrew mashiach, ‘anointed one’), a Jewish savior who would bring peace and end the exile from the land of Israel. In the eleventh century, Solomon ibn Gabirol attempted to use astrological methods to predict the arrival of the Messiah, an effort repeated in the twelfth century by Abraham bar Hiyya (Heschel 104). Maimonides shared the widespread messianic hope and engaged in serious research on prophetic texts, but he characteristically resisted attempts to fix a precise time using astrological methods (Heschel 104). Indeed, Maimonides’ disdain for astrology reached a pitch matched only in the Islamic sources of his age. In a rabbinic responsum written to scholars in southern France in the eleventh century, Maimonides rejected knowledge that did not come from one of three sources: reasoned derivation from scientific principles, direct sensory perception, or established religious tradition. The responsum continued at length and with no small amount of stridency, saying of astrological predictions, “they are stupidity … they are nothing.” Maimonides went so far as to hold astrologers responsible for the divine anger that, in his view, led to the expulsion of the Jewish people from Israel: “… for our fathers sinned and are no more because they found many books dealing with these themes of the star gazers, these things being the root of idolatry” (Maimonides and Twersky 463-465.).8

8 Maimonides did, however, admit that the celestial realm could, in general but incomprehensible ways, act as a kind of mediator of divine energy and thereby influence earthly events (Maimonides and Twersky 469; Goldstein, “Astronomy and the Jewish Community” 48).

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V. Astronomy and the Maimonidean Controversy Maimonides famously adapted the Islamic school of Aristotelian rationalism to matters of Jewish law and doctrine. With his Mishneh Torah and Guide for the Perplexed, he clarified and in some cases revised centuries of rabbinic teachings, all in logical and accessible prose guided by the dialectic method he learned from the Arabic-speaking Andalusi scholars of his youth (Heschel 25). Wildly popular even among less educated laypeople, Maimonides’ work was controversial among more conservative Jewish authorities in Spain and the growing communities of southern France. Many considered it a direct threat to the tradition of Talmudic study, which Maimonides had in many cases summarily dismissed in pursuit of simplicity, clarity, and logic. For others, any rationalist inquiry into matters of faith and doctrine was an affront in its own right (Assis 84-85). Indeed, the thirteenth century saw a full-fledged intellectual war between rationalists inspired by Maimonides and like-minded thinkers on the one hand and, on the other, the traditionalists who often sought to ban their work and excommunicate any living authors (Assis 86). Somewhere in the middle of this dispute was Solomon ben Adret, a leader of the Jewish community of Barcelona from the mid-thirteenth century to his death in 1310 (Skolnik 421). Well acquainted with philosophy himself, he opposed blanket bans and condemnations but sought to limit philosophical study to older, educated men. Astronomy, on the other hand, and especially rationalist teachings on astronomy, fell within a range he felt Getty 15

suitable for all ages (Skolnik 422). He even ruled that use of the astrolabe was permitted on the Sabbath, a time during which the use of mechanical tools is traditionally forbidden, on the grounds that using the astrolabe was like reading a scientific text. (Glick 89). Even the eleventh-century French scholar known as Rashi, who in contrast to his Spanish counterparts stridently opposed secular education among Jews (Roth 32), was a student of astronomy and supported its teaching (Skolnik 624). V. Conclusion

Like their predecessors in the East, the Muslim and Jewish astronomers of al-Andalus engaged with each other with surprising intimacy. Their encounters, perhaps owing to the vastness of the scholars’ object of study, describe a realm in which members of both communities could engage with each other on very different terms than in areas such as philosophy, history, or certainly theology. While not equals in any sense present-day observers would recognize, the Jewish astronomers of the Islamic tradition were arguably co-participants in a meaningful way. Certainly the detailed accounts of personal relationships between Muslim and Jewish astronomers are difficult to find in other areas of scholarly enterprise. Moreover, these quasi-colleagues created a shared legacy that long outlived the Islamic polity out of which it emerged, long outlived even the Arabic language as a vehicle of scholarship on the Iberian peninsula. Even as it was adapted to the dire needs of Jewish communities after the Berber invasions of the eleventh and twelfth centuries, the study of the skies Getty 16

retained essential characteristics of its origin in more tolerant times. Maimonides, as traumatized as he was by his family’s suffering at the hands of Almohad rulers, harkened back to such times when he wrote of astronomy, speaking clearly of the Arabic-language tradition in which he was schooled:
Know, my masters, that the science of the stars that is genuine science is knowledge of the form of the spheres, their number, their measure, the course they follow, each one’s period of revolution, their declination to the north or to the south, their revolving to the east or to the west, and the orb of every star and its course. On all this and the like, the wise men of Greece, Persia, and India wrote compositions. This is an exceedingly glorious science …(Goldstein, "Astronomy and the Jewish Community" 48)

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Chejne, Anwar G. Muslim Spain, its History and Culture. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1974. Print. Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography; Ptolemy. 11 Vol. Detroit: Charles Scribner's Sons, 2008. Web. Gerli, E. M., and Samuel G. Armistead. Medieval Iberia : An Encyclopedia. New York: Routledge, 2003. Print. Glick, Thomas. Convivencia : Jews, Muslims, and Christians in Medieval Spain. Eds. Vivian Mann, Thomas Glick, and Jerrilyn Dodds. New York: G. Braziller in association with the Jewish Museum, 1992. Print. Goldstein, Bernard. "Astronomy and the Jewish Community in Early Islam." Aleph 1 (2001a): 17-57. Print. Goldstein, Bernard R. "Astronomy as a "Neutral Zone": Interreligious Cooperation in Medieval Spain." Medieval Encounters 15.2-4 (2009b): 159-74. Web. Heschel, Abraham Joshua. Maimonides : A Biography. New York: Farrer, Straus, Giroux, 1982. Print Maimonides, Moses, 1135-1204, and Isadore Twersky, ed. A Maimonides Reader,. New York,: Behrman House, 1972. Print. Menocal, Maria R. Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain. New York: Back Bay Books, 2002. Print. Getty 18

Roth, Norman. Daily Life of the Jews in the Middle Ages. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2005. Print. Saliba, George. A History of Arabic Astronomy : Planetary Theories during the Golden Age of Islam. no. 19 Vol. New York: New York University Press, 1994. Web. Skolnik, Fred, Michael Berenbaum and Thomson Gale (Firm). Encyclopaedia Judaica [Electronic Resource]. 2nd ed. Detroit, Mich.: Macmillan Reference USA in association with the Keter Publishing House, 2007. Web. Vauchez, Andre. Encyclopedia of the Middle Ages., 2001. OUP. Web.

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