Few figures in Jewish history both confirm and confound stereotypes as does Shmuel ibn Naghrillah (993–ca. 1056), known as ha-Nagid, “the statesman.” Shmuel was a communal leader and talmudic scholar who married his son to the daughter of one of the great rabbis of his day; he was also a cosmopolitan courtier who wrote Arabic poetry. In addition to his impressive literary career, he was a successful military commander. And his position as an adviser to a Gentile ruler would invite a familiar anti-Semitic backlash that, after his death, would turn bloody. Tamar Marvin writes:
Shmuel’s family hailed from Merida, a Spanish city, claiming Davidic descent, but he was raised in Córdoba, the New York City of Muslim Spain. His teacher was a renowned scholar of the previous generation, and his father saw to it that he received an excellent general education. From extant polemical writings, it is evident that Shmuel was thoroughly knowledgeable in the language and law of the Quran and in contemporary currents of Muslim thought. These caught the attention of the great Muslim jurist and philosopher Ibn Hazm, who wrote a fierce counter-polemic against Shmuel’s work against the Quran. Shmuel thus began making a name for himself while still a young man in Córdoba.
When, in 1038, the king of Granada, Habbus, died, his sons vied for the throne. With Shmuel ha-Nagid’s assistance, his son Badis emerged the victor, helping Shmuel rise to even greater power. In his new capacity as advisor to Badis, Shmuel was tasked with heading the Granadan forces, which were in constant battle, especially with the nearby [principality] of Seville. This unusual experience as a Jew leading a Muslim army was captured in Shmuel’s many military poems.
Twenty-one when his father died, [Shmuel’s son] Rabbi Yehosef ha-Nagid was given his father’s position in Badis’s court and proved skillful in forging alliances against Seville. However, the glittering life of the Nagids came to a halt in 1064, when Yehosef was accused of poisoning the crown prince (Badis’s brother and competitor for the throne). This accusation mushroomed into another, which claimed that Yehosef had assassinated Badis, who had stopped making public appearances. (Yehosef had not.)
Though Shmuel did not live to see it, his son was murdered and the Jews of Granada subjected to violence in the wake of these accusations. Even the mighty, even in the “Golden” Age, were subject to the vagaries of power and prejudice.