Samuel Ha-Nagid
Politics: Life as a Courtier

In 1013, when Samuel was 20, strife within the Muslim government in Cordova led to the state's disintegration. Samuel fled together with countless other refugees to the neighboring state of Granada. There he would find his great political and military career.

Only the collapse of the state of Cordova could have afforded this Jew the chance of a unique ascent to power. The country split into several states ruled by Arab, Berber and Slav princes, who were at constant war with one another. A Jewish official belonged to none of the conflicting parties; he was a servant of the king and had every reason to serve him loyally. Moreover, during this period, Granada, the capital, was populated mostly by Jews. Familiar with the conditions of the city, the Nagid was able to collect taxes efficiently from his co-religionists and fill the chests of the state.

In the course of his activity at the court he developed other important talents which eventually made him the highest dignitary of the kingdom…. The death of [King Habbus of Granada] in the year 1038 led to another severe crisis in the life of the Nagid. A split occurred at the court with regard to the succession to the throne. The majority of the Berber leaders as well as three of the most respected Jews of Granada were in favor of the younger son of the deceased.

The Nagid supported the elder son, Badis, and his candidate prevailed. The younger son voluntarily renounced the throne, and although he later regretted this step, Badis knew how to render him harmless through medical treatment of a peculiar nature. The Berber courtiers had to yield reluctantly, and from then on the repute of the Nagid rose tremendously. He knew how to win the good graces of the wanton and unlovable Badis by saving his life soon after his accession to the throne.

Thus the Nagid knew how to make himself indispensable and succeeded in holding his ground despite the appalling intrigues against him at the royal palace. The memoirs of Abdallah, grandson and successor of King Badis, provide a vivid description of the dangerous plots surrounding a courtier in Granada in those days.

In the collection of aphorisms of the Nagid, Ben Mishle, there are many sayings about the relationship between an individual and his king composed in part to follow a traditional theme treated in the Bible (Proverbs) and in several Arabic collections. But the restraint and cynicism with which the theme is sometimes treated by the Nagid show the influence of personal experience.

Two of the Nagid's court poems from the collection Ben Mishle.:

The Monarch's Favors

A monarch will not favor you unless he hopes to be
At ease while you labor and exert yourself in his service.
You are caught in his tongs: With one hand he brings you into
The flames,--while protecting you from the fire which with both hands he sets against you.

He Promotes the Clowns

Fickleness in a king is like that of a drunkard
He is appeased when he should be angry; he is wroth when he ought to be forgiving.
Occasionally he exalts the wise, though more often
He humbles them and promotes the clowns.


excerpted From: Jefim Schirmann. "Samuel Hannagid, the Man, the Soldier, the Politician." Jewish Social Studies, volume 9, number 2 (April, 1951). p. 106. Reprinted with the permission of Indiana University Press (http://www.iupjournals.org).

Poem translations: Weinberger, Leon J., trans., ed. Jewish Prince in Moslem Spain: Selected Poems of Samuel Ibn Nagrela. Copyright 1973 The Universty of Alabama Press, pp. 61-62. Permission of Universty of Alabama Press. This title is out of print, however an electronic copy is available at most major libraries, through the Netlibrary service.

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