Infidels with Benefits

Jews in the Medieval Islamic Empire

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This essay spotlights the "classical period” of Jewish life under Islam in the Middle Ages, from the seventh through the twelfth century. During this era, the Jews enjoyed substantial security, punctuated by infrequent aberrations of persecution, with far less violence than that experienced by their brethren living in Christendom. Against this background, the Jews of Islam realized a remarkable cultural florescence. Reprinted with permission from Medieval Jewish Civilization: An Encyclopedia (Routledge).

Jews Were Tolerated as “People of the Book”

Religiously, Jews were categorized by Islam as "infidels" (Arabic: kuffar). However, like Christians, they qualified as "people of the book," possessors of a prior revelation from God that was written down. People of the book acquired a tolerated status, that of “protected people" (ahlal-dhimma, or dhimmis), who were permitted to live among Muslims, undisturbed, and to observe their faith without interference.

jews in the islamic world

In return, they had to remit an annual tribute--a poll tax--and comply with other restrictions, some of which evolved over time during the first century or so of Islamic dominion. These limited the public exhibition of their religious rites and symbols (for instance, prohibition of construction of new houses of worship and repair to old ones; enticing Muslims to their religion). Other rules prescribed or proscribed special dress and other outward signs distinguishing the dhimmis from Muslims (Arabic honorific names, for instance, were disallowed, as were the carrying of weapons and riding animals of prestige, like horses). They were prohibited from serving in positions of authority in Islamic administration. And in general they had to confirm the superiority of Islam by assuming a low profile.

The Other “People of the Book” Were Good Company

The term most regularly used for this was saghar, meaning "humiliation," and, indeed, historically, the purpose of the laws was to keep Jews, Christians, Zoroastrians, and other dhimmis humble. Most of the restrictions appear in the so‑called Pact of Umar. There was no special code, however, for the Jews per se in Islam: the dhimma "system," part of the holy law of Islam (the shari’a), applied equally to all non­-Muslim"people of the book."

As such, the discrimination that existed was somewhat diffused among several infidel groups and hence not perceived as being pointedly anti-Jewish. This "pluralism," characteristic of Islamic society as a whole, helped protect the Jews and their counterparts in the infidel category from the baneful effects of singular "otherness" that underlay the Jewish position in Christendom.

Moreover, in actual practice during this era, the dhimma restrictions were commonly observed in the breach. Jews--and more so the far more numerous Christians--regularly evaded the sartorial con­straints, constructed new houses of worship, and, most conspicuously, abounded in the Muslim bureaucracy. Documents from daily life in the Cairo genizah testify to this evasion. So do frequent complaints in Muslim sources that dhimmis had overstepped the boundaries imposed upon them by the holy law--whence the restrictions would be enforced with sudden vigor, thus being perceived by the dhimmis as persecution…

It should be added that Jews shared with Muslims the desire for separation and distinctive religious identity. Egalitarian assimilation was neither a possibility nor a desired goal. But it seems that so long as both parties recognized the hierarchical gap between them (even if the lowly Jews were frequently capable of crossing barriers between them and their Muslim superiors), and so long as general economic and social conditions in the Muslim world maintained a certain level of prosperity and freedom from external threat, Jews and their neighbors got along tolerably well, and both the incidence and the fear of persecu­tion were minimal.

Spain: A Golden Age, Then Not

In Spain, an independent Jewish center emerged in the ninth century, around the same time that the Islamic province itself broke away from Baghdad's hegemony to become the thriving and intellectually vibrant Umayyad caliphate, with its capital in Cordoba. A Jewish yeshivah, many illustrious rabbis, and a courtier class (from among the rabbis themselves) with close ties to the government formed the backbone of a self-sufficient Jewish community no longer subordinate to the Babylonian geonim.

The Jewry of Muslim Spain flourished during this period, which 19th-century European Jewish scholars looked back upon as a golden age of political and cultural distinction (with short-term setbacks), until the Berber Almohad conquest and persecutions of the 1140s. In that decade, many thousands of Jews were killed or forced to convert to Islam; others fled to safer Islamic lands or to the steadily advancing Christian sector of Spain or to southern France.

North Africa: Rivaling the Ga'onim

North Africa, notably Fez in Morocco, and Qayrawan in what is modern Tunisia, developed creative centers of Jewish learning. Qayrawan, in particular, flourished. It was a bustling node in the Mediterranean trade, and the Jews among the mer­chant community there imparted to the community the material well-being to support institutions oflearning that, by the beginning of the 11th century, rivaled those of the ga'onim.

The Tunisian center ended its heyday in the middle of that century due to the destruction of Qayrawan by Berber tribesmen, sent on an expedition from Egypt by the Fatimids to punish the rebellious vassal province of the Zirids.

Egyptian Jewry was geographically closer to the pre-Islamic centers of Jewish leadership in Palestine and in Babylon than Spain or North Africa. For this and other reasons, the process of breaking away in Egypt was delayed until the latter part of the eleventh century.

Later Is Not Better, Anywhere 

This essay has highlighted the classical period of Jewish life under Islam. In the later Islamic Middle Ages, from the 12th and 13th centuries on, society at large experienced stress, and, proportionately, so did the Jews. External threats from Christian Europe (the Crusades, the Christian reconquest in Spain) and from central Asia (the Mongols), a loss of commercial precedence to non-Muslims in both the Mediterranean and the India trades, and the rise of military regimes like the Mamluks of Egypt (who also controlled Palestine and Syria), contributed to the decline.

Jews felt the effects. Their economic prosperity waned. Muslim authorities, jittery about possible collusion between their external enemies and dhimmis, increasingly enforced the restrictive laws of the Pact of Umar. The bent for philosophy in Islam, which the Jews had shared, receded…

The most difficult places for Jews in the late Middle Ages were two: Iran, where the establishment of Shi'ism as the "state religion" in the 16th century brought the harsher attitude toward non-Muslims of this form of Islam to bear heavily on Jews and other dhimmis, and North Africa, where, as the only dhimmis on the scene since the Almohad persecutions had subsided (Jews had returned to Judaism, but Christian converts had not returned to Christianity), they absorbed singularly the brunt of Muslim contempt.

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Mark R. Cohen

Mark R. Cohen is a Professor of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University.