Qasmūna bat Ismā‛īl HaLevi HaNagid (1044 - 1114)

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Death: Died in Córdoba, Córdoba, Andalusia, Spain
Managed by: Jaim Harlow
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About Qasmūna bat Ismā‛īl HaLevi HaNagid

The great Jewish poets of Spain are part and parcel of our Jewish heritage; names like Dunash ibn Labrat, Solomon ibn Gabirol, Moses ibn Ezra, Samuel Hanagid and Yehuda Halevi immediately come to mind. However, it comes as no surprise that all of them were men.

What is surprising is that during this period, there were numerous Muslim women whose poetry has been preserved. Although Muslims refer to the Jews as ahl al-kitab or “people of the book,” Muslim women seem to have been more successful in creating lasting poetic works.

It is rather difficult to account for this discrepancy, for it seems odd to imagine that Muslim women in medieval Spain were far more educated than their Jewish counterparts. Arabic became the lingua franca following the Muslim conquest of the country in 711. When Jewish poets began to compose in Arabic and later in Hebrew, were the women entirely excluded? There are very few extant poems written by Jewish women dating to this period. Although only a fraction of all poems from that time have survived, this does not mean more were not written. The poems that are available are of a high quality, but the problem of quantity cannot be ignored.

Kasmunah (“little charming one” or “one with a beautiful face”) of Andalusia in southern Spain was the daughter of Isma’il ibn Bagdala “the Jew.” Her Arabic verses were included in a 15th-century anthology of women’s verses (compiled by an Egyptian). Little is known about her; there are debates as to whether she lived in the 11th or 12th century. Some of those favoring the earlier date contend that she was none other than the daughter of Samuel Hanagid, who was also known as ibn Nagrella (he indeed had a daughter). The assumption is that Bagdala and Nagrella are similar enough to have been confused.

At any rate, Kasmunah’s father taught her by means of intellectually creative collaboration. He composed two lines; she needed to respond in kind.

The style he chose is known as muwwashah, a rather difficult genre of poetry in which both he and his protégé excelled. Reading her verses reveals a tremendous originality and expertise in Arabic poetry, as well as the gentleness of this cultured woman.

Renee Levine Melammed - professor of Jewish history and dean at the Schechter Institute, as well as academic editor of the journal Nashim. She has published books and articles on Sephardi and Oriental Jewry and on Jewish women.

The scant information available on Qasmūna bat Ismāʿīl comes from two Arabic sources: Nuzhāt al-julasā' fī ash‛ār al-nisā' (86-87), an anthology of women's poetry compiled by the fifteenth-century Egyptian scholar al-Suyūṭī (d. 1505), and Nafḥ al-Ṭī b (2: 356), a literary-historical compilation by the North African historian al-Maqqarī (d. 1626). The two accounts, while slightly different, probably both draw from Kitāb al-Mughrib fī Ḥulā l-Maghrib, by the thirteenth-century Andalusian littérateur Ibn Sa‛īd al-Maghribī (al-Suyūṭī explicitly acknowledges it as his source). Standard editions of Kitāb al-Mughrib, however, do not include Qasmūna's biography. No information on her is available in Jewish sources.

Al-Suyūṭī identifies Qasmūna's father as Ismāʿīl ibn Baghdāla al-Yahūdī, adds a few sketchy biographical details, and records the verses she wrote. He actually opens this tiny anthology with a reference to Qasmūna's father, explaining that he recited a verse in a certain rhyme and meter, then challenged his daughter to improvise a second verse in the same rhyme and meter. These two collaborative verses are followed by another four verses by Qasmūna. She stands as one of the few medieval Jewish female poets who is known to us, and the only one to have composed poetry in Arabic. In her brief poetic legacy she complains about her loneliness and longs for a husband.

Qasmūna's singular character and uniqueness have been noted in modern scholarship. In the early 1980s, James Mansfield Nichols wrote a short piece intended to catalogue all the biographical information in the remarkably scant material about her. Nichols's portrayal of Qasmūna is informed entirely by the self-portrayal in her verse. In his view, the poetic qualities of Qasmūna's verse reveal a distinct voice, qualitatively different from that of contemporary Arabic female poets.

James A. Bellamy, who corrected several factual mistakes in Nichols's article, was the first to venture an identification of Qasmūna. Reading her nasab (patronymic), Bint Baghdāla, as a corruption of Bint Nagrīla, he suggests that she could have been the daughter of the celebrated Jewish courtier and poet Samuel ibn Naghrella. As Bellamy points out, we know from Ibn Naghrella's poems that he had three sons and a daughter, and took special care to instruct them in the art of poetry. Moreover, Ibn Naghrella is known to have written poetry in Arabic, although none of his Arabic compositions have been preserved. Bellamy sees only one possible flaw to this identification- a minor discrepancy in dates. Al-Suyūṭī reports that Qasmūna lived in the sixth century of the hijra (1106-1203), but if she were Ibn Naghrella's daughter, she would have been born before ca. 1035, the birth year of his son Jehoseph. Ibn Naghrella's daughter died young, during an epidemic of smallpox.

David J. Wasserstein, who follows Bellamy in identifying Qasmūna with Ibn Naghrella's daughter, observes that all the references to her are in Arabic sources. As he points out, Ibn Naghrella is portrayed differently in Jewish as against Arabic sources, and thus our view of Qasmūna, derived only from Arabic sources, may be one-sided. Wasserstein uses this as a vantage point from which to examine the family's cultural activities and the Jewish-Islamic cultural symbiosis in al-Andalus. If Qasmūna was in fact Ibn Naghrella's daughter, his immersion in Arabic culture may have been even stronger than previously thought.

Esperanza Alfonso

Bibliography

Al-Maqqarī, Aḥmad ibn Muḥammad. Analectes sur l'histoire et la littérature des arabes d'Espagne, ed. R. Dozy et al. (Amsterdam: Oriental Press, 1967).

Al-Suyūṭī, Jalāl al-Dīn. Nuzhāt al-Julasā' fī Ash‛ār al-Nisā', ed. Ṣalāḥ al-Dīn Munajjid (Beirut: 1958), pp. 86-87.

Bellamy, James A. "Qasmūna the Poetess: Who Was She?" Journal of the American Oriental Society 103 (1983): 423-424.

Gallego, María Ángeles. "Planteamientos me-todológicos en el estudio de las mujeres musulmanas en la Edad Media hispana: La poetisa Qasmuna Bat Isma'il." Miscelánea de Estudios Árabes y Hebraicos 48 (1999): 63–75 [Hebrew section].

Nichols, J. Mansfield. "The Arabic Verses of Qasmuna bint Isma‛il ibn Bagdalah," International Journal of Middle East Studies 13, no. 2 (1981): 155−158.

Wasserstein, David J. "Samuel ibn Naghrīla ha-Nagid and Islamic Historiography in al-Andalus," Al-Qanṭara 14, no. 1 (1993): 109-125.

Esperanza Alfonso. " Qasmūna bat Ismā‛īl." Encyclopedia of Jews in the Islamic World. Executive Editor Norman A. Stillman. Brill Online , 2012. Reference. Jim Harlow. 09 July 2012 <http://referenceworks.brillonline.com/entries/encyclopedia-of-jews-in-the-islamic-world/qasmuna-bat-ismail-COM_0018010>

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