In this political drama set in the middle of the 10th century, a Jewish doctor in Spain is recruited by the ruling caliph to spy on his enemies.
Hasdai ibn Shaprut occupies an uncommon position in Córdoba’s political scene. He’s not only a successful physician, but also the sole Jewish member on Caliph ar-Rahman’s council of advisors. Under the caliph’s rule, the kingdom has flourished, and it’s generally regarded as the “most productive, most peaceful, most learned of any for 1000 years.” Although Jewish people are not afforded all of the liberties that the Muslims around them enjoy, they are allowed to worship as they please, as are Christians. Then the kingdom comes under attack from Berbers from the south, as well as from Christians from the northern kingdom of Léon, which is led by King Sancho I. As a man who’s considered to be “perhaps the most trustworthy man in the entire Caliphate,” Hasdai is recruited to become a spy and travel to Léon with Jewish merchants of his choice to gather information and send it back to Córdoba. However, when he finally arrives in Léon after a perilous journey, Sancho has been replaced by King Ordono, who proves to be an intractably bellicose and vulgar replacement. Author Malmed (Joseph’s Redemption, 2018, etc.), in a meticulously researched recreation of the historical period, dramatically traces the increasingly dangerous mission that Hasdai undertakes, which becomes even more treacherous when the caliphate arranges for him to be kidnapped.
Overall, readers will likely find Malmed’s work to be an intellectual marvel. Not only is his depiction of the time accurate in its details, but it skillfully tackles the theological divisions that roiled it, as well. At the heart of the drama is an exploration of heresy, and the extent to which a deviation from philosophical orthodoxy is an innovation, or a threat to what binds a society together. For example, the author furnishes a compelling profile of the Burgomils, a Christian people who were savagely persecuted by both French authorities and the Pope—not for rejecting Jesus Christ, but for reinterpreting him in terms that depicted him as more human than divine. Also, the author raises provocative theological questions about the textual relationship between the Old and New Testaments, as well as the political implications of the Muslim faith. His prose, however, is more academic than literary in style, and although it’s unfailingly lucid throughout, it’s also rather pedestrian. As a result, the book often reads like an uneasy marriage of a textbook and a novel. Also, it features too many peripatetic digressions, and its soap-operatic complexity can be exhausting to unravel. Nevertheless, Malmed manages to give readers an intriguing glimpse into a time of great relevance today—an era in which progress, peace, and religious tolerance were able to coexist. Even when its novelistic aspects falter, it remains a bold, edifying, and impressive historical tableau.
A historically impressive presentation, despite flat prose and a tendency to meander away from the main narrative.