Arabic Poetry in the Cairo Genizah: Historical Memory and Interfaith Relations 

The Arabic poetry in the Cairo Genizah (APCG) is a unique source for writing a premodern history of Jews and their intercultural and cross-cultural relations with others, revealing Jews’ lives, interactions, and coexistence as a minority (āhl al-ḏimmah) who lived under Islamic rule. In this context, the Cairo Genizah preserves many interesting poetic fragments that reflect various dimensions of Jewish history. Several fragments feature themes of the prophets of Israel, the First Temple’s destruction, the Promised Land and longing for Jerusalem, among other pieces. Among the fragments that hold and reflect an aspect of ancient Jewish history in a medieval context, I have chosen an exciting one (fragment T-S NS 314.34) that recalls a “distant” past history for the Jewish people and their prophets into the early medieval period. As all prophets mentioned in the fragment are connected with Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – accentuated by the use of the Arabic form of their names – it has an interfaith resonance in the premodern period. Our fragment not only includes names such as Abraham (Ibrāhīm), Ishaq (Isaac) and Ya’qoob (Jacob), Musa (Moses), and Yosef (Joseph), but also makes topographical references such as the River Nile, and Mount Sinai (Ṭūr Sinai), which retraces the early history of Bani Israel in Egypt. It recalls the Abrahamic tradition and his descendants of prophets as follows:  

Translation Arabic Hebrew 
And we are the nation of (Prophet) Israel, and the master whom ونحن بني اسرايل والسيد الدي ונחן בני אסראיל ואלסיד אלדי 
He, Almighty and excelled, sacrificed a sheep for him: فداه بكبش دو العلا والتكاملي: פדאה בכבש דו אל עלא ואל תכאמלי : 
And we are the nation whom the Lord elevated for the good وشعب نباه دو الملك نافعا ושעב נבאחדו? אלמלך נאפעא 
by destroying idols, not through idolatry. بتكسير اصنام لا بجاهلي: בתכסיר אצנאם לא בגאהלי: 
This is Abraham (Ibrāhīm) and Isaac, فهدا هو إبراهيم واسحاق  פהדא הו אבראהים ואסחאק  
His son (Son of Abraham), and his grandson Jacob, the pride of the ابنه وابن ابنه يعقوب فخر الـ אבנה ואבן אבנה יעקוב פכֿר אל 
Tribes: Allah’s Peace be upon them قبالي: عليهم سلام الله קבאלי: עליהם סלאם אללה 

This fragment seems to be a part of a long poem in the poetic meter known as al-Ṭawīl and belongs to the ‘poetry of enthusiasm’, in which the poet praises the history of the Jewish people. This fragment’s verses possibly are drawn from the Arabian Jewish poet As-Samaw’al bin ‘Ādiyā (d. 560 AD), as they are similar to another long poem of his, an ode which begins with the verse: ألا أيها الضيف الذي عاب سادتي “Ālā ʾayyuhā al-Ḍayf aldhī ʻāba Sādatī”, in which he specifically praises the prophets Abraham, Isaac and Josef, narrating their stories in a poetic context (see:   

The poetry above starts with glorifying the “master” for whom God (Almighty and Excelled) sacrificed a sheep-  who is Isaac in Judaism and Ismail in Islam. This means that the poet here historicises to the origin of Bani Israel, as being the sons of the master, whom God redeemed with a sheep. Thus, the nation of Israel did not worship idols rather they destroyed them, which, in turn, refers to the Father Prophet Abraham who was an idol wrecker.  

Furthermore, the poetry here represents tangible evidence of intercultural and interreligious dialogue, especially between Jews and Muslims. The poetic fragment retells us stories of Prophet Abraham and his descendants including prophets like Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph who are also Prophets in Islam, however in a different context (e.g. Qur’an 6:84). The poet continues in the second part of the fragment with praise of these prophets. 

Translation Arabic Hebrew 
Allah honoured them with what was never given to  والله شرفهم بما لم عليه ואללה שרפהם במא לם עליה 
a Messenger in early or later times (in all times) لمخبر في العاجل وال اجلي: למכבר פי אל עאגל ואל אגלי: 
except only for those who succeeded them, who love them and who sacrificed them الا لعقبهم الدي يحبهم وفداهم אלא לעקבהם אלדי יחבהם ופדאהם 
with virtues and generous bestowal (of God): You should listen to the idea بفضايل ونوايلي : انصت لفخر בפצֹאיל ונואילי:  אנצת לפכר 
that leaves the heart ardently in love and causes a burning يترك القلب مولها وينشب יתרך אלקלב מולהא וינשב 
Fire inside the chest: نارا في الضلوع الـ دواخلي: נארא פי אלצֹלוע אל דואכלי : 

Another part of the fragment presents an interesting context for the story of Joseph in Egypt. One can understand the discourse of the story through various poetic verses that mention Jacob, Mount Sinai (Ṭūr Sinai), Egypt, Yosef, and the Nile River. Although many damaged words and parts, one can understand the story in the fragment by connecting its disparate parts. For instance, it recounts how Joseph got into prison telling part of his story in Egypt until he gained power and saved Egypt from starvation for years.  

[…] for Yousuf (Joseph), put him in (Jail?) ليوسف زجهة؟) إلى […] ل ליוסיף זגֹה אלי […]ל 
[…] trapped by the […] of the cavalry: [..] مسدود ب […] ق التخايلي [..]מסדוד ב[…]ק אלתכאילי 
and the water of the Nile  flooded from the great might of its size وغرق ما النيل من عضم (عظم) جرمها וגֹרק מא אל ניל מן עצֹם גֹרמהא 

These verses here are followed by another traditional prophetic story mentioned in this fragment, which is the story of Prophet Moses, which has various narratives in all Abrahamic religions.  

[…] on its shore, the number of  […]ايا علي شاطيه عدد الـ […]איא עלי שאטיה עדד אל 
signs. Did not the Copt (Egyptian) torment مخايلي : الم يوخز الـ قبطي מכאילי :  אלם יוכז אל קבטי 
Moses, by taking him, … موسی بوزخه  فغاص كمو تودن؟ מוסי בוזכה פגֹאץ כמו תודן 
He   هو הוא 

It is clear here that the poetic context retells us in an inexplicit context (as many words are damaged too) a part of the story of Moses and his encounter with the Pharaoh. In this vein, using the word-al-Qibṭ (Copt) seems a reference to any Egyptian in Ancient Egypt before it became synonymous with Egyptian Christians after the Arab-Muslim conquest of Egypt between 19-21AH/ 640-42 AD. 

There are other interesting stories, memories and interfaith connections within this fragment and others that we are working on. All such poetic voices could be looked at as a “site of memory”- the well-known theory of the French scholar Pierre Nora (Nora, 1984-92)- or as what I would call “an agent of remembrance” of the past Jewish history in a medieval context. Conducting a historical analysis for APCG requires an examination of the poet’s biography (if it is known) and background as well as the reasons for writing or copying a poem. It is essential to examine to what extent the APCG succeeded in enriching the historical narrative through analysing the events mentioned in the poetic fragment, revealing their political, religious, social, cultural, and emotional dimensions as well as the degree of objectivity, bias, or emotionality that a poet or poem may hold or reflect. Our investigation further seeks to examine which themes relevant to the history of Jews are explicitly or implicitly addressed through Arabic and Judaeo-Arabic Genizah poetry. Continued work on the fragments that we have will reveal more and more exciting aspects that will be publicised in the next blog.  

@ CUL: T-S NS 314.34, Fragment 1r, FGP No. C406628, Taylor-Schechter Genizah Research Unit, Cambridge University Library. 

Ahmed M. Sheir 


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