MERCHANTS AND INTELLECTUALS, RABBIS AND POETS: Judeo-Arabic Culture in the Golden Age of Islam Raymond P. Scheindlin Judah al-Harizipoet, storyteller, and witwriting early in the thirteenth century somewhere in the Arabic-speaking Middle East, relates the following anecdote: Yesterday I spent the day with some friends. We saw a crowd gathered at the city gate and were told by a bystander that they had gathered to watch an astrologer tell fortunes. We pushed through the crowd and found at the center a garrulous old man taking astronomical measurements with an astrolabe and offering his services, advertising himself in elaborate and eloquent speeches. People were coming forward one by one to consult him about their troubles in their work and their private lives, and to learn their own fortunes and those of their children. Each received his answer and paid the astrologer's fee. I suggested to my friends that we test his powers by agreeing on a question among ourselves: When will the Jews be redeemed from their exile, and when will the Jewish kingdom be restored? When our turn came, we offered him a good fee if he could tell both the question and the answer. The astrologer performed certain rites with sand and lifted his astrolabe. He seemed ready to reply, but instead of launching into his customary eloquence, he sank into a profound and ominous silence. At last, he turned a furious face on us and exclaimed: "I swear by the Creator of the radiant light, the sun and the moon, and every constellation that rises and sets, that you are neither Muslims nor Christians, but members of a despised and lowly people! Could you be Jews?" "Rightly spoken," we replied. He launched into a harangue accusing us of asking about the end of time and history, of wishing for the downfall of the Islamic kingdom, and of rebelling against the state. The crowd became so enraged that they would have stoned us to death, but someone persuaded them to take us to a judge. The qadi was a sensible man who saw that we weren't revolutionaries but just young people out on the town enjoying ourselves. He kept us in prison overnight until the crowd dispersed, and in the morning sent us on our way. A narrow escape, thank God! This story may serve as an emblem of the style and tone of Jewish life in the Islamic world during the age of Islamic ascendancy. At the beginning of the story, the Jewish boys mix with the crowd in the street. They are unrecognizable as Jews by their speech, bearing, or clothing; they wear no special hat or badge. Even the astrologer, who is supposed to have knowledge of hidden things, says, "Could you be Jews?" indicating that he is not sure. The boys are conscious of being different from the crowd, but the difference they are conscious of is not primarily that they are Jews so much as the social difference. Within the crowd, assembled adventitiously and united only in its fascination with the astrologer, the youths are a preexisting, closed circle of friends. The people in the crowd believe in the astrologer unquestioningly and come forward with serious questions about their lives, but the youths are skeptical intellectuals whose impulse is to test him. Their skepticism has nothing to do with their being Jewish, for belief in astrology crossed religious lines in this period; their test is aimed not at astrology itself but at the astrologer's skill. At the story's beginning, it is not their religion that distinguishes the jaunty youths from the crowd but their class. The youths openly mark themselves as a group apart from the crowd by going in together on a question. They never actually enunciate the question, for their purpoBiale, David is the author of 'Cultures of the Jews Diversities of Diaspora A new History', published 2006 under ISBN 9780805212013 and ISBN 0805212019.