In premodern times Jews living in Islamic lands from Morocco to Iraq spoke Arabic as their mother tongue. They also corresponded, conducted their economic ventures and communal affairs and composed religious, scientific and philosophical works in Judeo-Arabic, that is, Arabic written in Hebrew script. Indeed, nearly all of the Jews’ most significant literary and religious intellectual achievements from the post-Talmudic to the early modern age attained their classical formulation in Arabic during the period when the majority of Jews lived in the region comprised by the southern Mediterranean, the Levant and Yemen.
Jewish scholars were well aware of their deep engagement with Arabo-Islamic learning and its pivotal role in stimulating rethinking and reworking of Jewish culture. For example, Jewish religious and literary intellectuals testify repeatedly to the closeness of the languages of the Qur’ān and the Jewish scriptures. Beginning with the rabbinic leader Sacadia Gaon in turn of the 10th century Baghdad and extending across North Africa and into Islamic Spain, Hebrew philologists and grammarians privileged Arabic learning as an essential tool in the production of Jewish scholarship precisely because of its resemblance to Hebrew. The greatest Jewish scholar of the entire premodern period, the polymath Moses Maimonides, in the 12th century, asserted that Hebrew and Arabic are actually the same language: “and as for the Arabic and Hebrew languages, all who know both of them are agreed that they are one language without a doubt.” Penetration of Arabo-Islamic terms, ideas and structures of thought was so deep and rich that Jewish texts in the Arabic language sometimes refer to Jewish law as “sharīcah” and to the Hebrew Bible as “al-Qur’ān.”
The modern political conflict between Jewish and Arab nationalist movements in the land west of the Jordan River has made it all too common to think of Jews and Arabs as historically opposed and separate. Yet from a linguistic-cultural perspective, such thinking actually represents something of a historical aberration.