an ornate antique illustration of two men sitting before a bearded teacher
"Alexander studying with Nichomachus and Aristotle,” from the Book of Alexander the Great by 13th-century Persian poet Nizami Ganjavi. Indian manuscript from the 17th c. From the collections of the National Library of Israel. (Photo/Ardon Bar-Hama)

The Jewish and Israeli story through Islamic art on exhibit in S.F.

Alexander the Great, who created one of the largest empires in the ancient world, has been a popular subject of books, novels, poems and plays.

But the king of Macedonia and Persia, three centuries before the birth of Christ, has also made more than a passing appearance in religious tracts around the world. In fact, “he was a rock star” in that realm, noted Raquel Ukeles, curator of the Islam and Middle East Collection at the National Library of Israel (NLI).

“He was a poet, philosopher, conqueror, lover and warrior, a larger-than-life figure seeking the secrets of life,” she said. “Subsequent generations [in the Muslim world] turned him into a pre-Islamic figure as a prophet … visiting Mecca.”

People in the Bay Area can see for themselves at “Islam and the Classical Heritage,” an exhibit organized by Ukeles and the NLI, at the Legion of Honor art museum in San Francisco through Jan. 27, 2019. For example, included in the showcase of manuscripts is a 16th-century Koran that shows the deep engagement of Muslim religious scholars with Alexander’s exploits.

While the Muslim community may take a particular interest in this Koran and the 14 other documents in the exhibit, so, too, should the Jewish community, Ukeles pointed out.

After all, she said, the person behind the NLI’s acquisition of these historically significant manuscripts was none other than a revered Jewish scholar, bibliophile and collector, Abraham Shalom Yahuda, who amassed thousands of precious texts before his death in 1951. These manuscripts, books and other documents, from the 9th through 19th centuries, attest to the depth, breadth and beauty of Islamic literature, Ukeles said.

The 126-year-old National Library of Israel is considered one of the world’s major repositories of Jewish, Islamic and Israeli literature and research materials, making it a hub for scholarly research. In 1967, it received a bequest of 1,400 documents from the Yahuda estate, a trove that included 1,186 manuscripts in Arabic script from all parts of the past and current Islamic world: Spain, North Africa, Central Asia and South Asia. Each manuscript in the current exhibit comes from the NLI’s Yahuda collection.

“Yahuda is my intellectual hero,” said Ukeles, referring to him as a “polymath,” a man who could converse easily in five languages on a far-reaching range of subjects.

Born in 1877 in Jerusalem to an affluent and educated family whose primarily Mizrahi and Sephardic roots could be traced back as far as the Middle Ages, Yahuda grew up in a home that spoke Arabic. He published his first monograph at age 15, and completed his education in Germany and France. Studying with some of the greatest Orientalists of the day, he received his doctorate in the early 1900s from the University of Strasbourg and began teaching Jewish and Arab studies at the University of Madrid in 1915.

Arabs and Jews built Spain together; so, too, can Jews and Arabs in Israel.

He was, as Ukeles noted, the university’s first professor of Jewish studies.

In addition to his prodigious intellect, Yahuda was a strong Zionist who attended the early Zionist congresses and knew many of the early figures in the movement. However, said Ukeles, unlike most mainstream Zionist thinkers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, he deviated in his call for full and active partnerships between Jews and Arabs in Israel.

Yahuda’s thinking, Ukeles said, was along the lines of: “Arabs and Jews built Spain together; so, too, can Jews and Arabs in Israel.”

This belief, she said, was “regarded as naive idealism” by many Zionists at that time. It also essentially cost him an academic post at Hebrew University, she said.

Though he subsequently taught at the New School for Social Research in New York, Yahuda continued to work closely with his Israeli compatriots and was hugely responsible for shepherding a massive collection of Islamic literature collected by one of his mentors, Ignaz Goldziher, to the NLI after Goldziher died in 1921. The Goldziher collection served as the catalyst for the NLI’s establishment of the Arab and Islam collection that Ukeles now oversees.

Ukeles said the exhibit at the Legion of Honor, which opened Aug. 25, includes “exquisite, jaw-dropping” documents that relate to Arabs’ contributions to math and science, notably on topics such as interplanetary motion, optics and rainbows.

The exhibit, Ukeles added, is part of the NLI’s efforts to take a more forward approach to letting the entire world know about its treasures and its work to showcase the contributions of all Israelis, Jewish or not.

Though the library is Israel’s oldest public institution, its “extraordinary collection” has generally been “under the radar” globally, Ukeles said, as has its ample programming, such as a writer’s residency program that brings together Jewish and Arab writers.

On Nov. 11 at 11 a.m., Ukeles is scheduled to lead a tour of Legion of Honor exhibit, which is getting major sponsorship support from Barbro and Bernard Osher. Reserve a spot by sending an email to aviva.zuller@nli.org.il. In addition, Ukeles is scheduled to speak at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 7; for more details on the talk, titled “Bridging Cultures: Abraham Shalom Yahuda and the Transformative Power of Jewish-Islamic Inquiry,” visit tinyurl.com/mm-ukeles.

“Islam and the Classical Heritage” through Jan. 27, 2019 at Legion of Honor museum, 100 34th Ave., S.F. Closed Mondays. $6-$15. legionofhonor.famsf.org

Robert Nagler Miller
Robert Nagler Miller

Robert Nagler Miller, a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Wesleyan University, received his master's degree from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. For more than 25 years, he worked as a writer and editor at a variety of nonprofits in the Los Angeles and Bay Areas. In 2016, he and his husband, Dr. Arnold Friedlander, relocated to Chicago. Robert loves schmoozing, noshing, kvetching, Scrabble, reading and NPR.